The Solution to the American Empire: Disunion Now, Disunion Forever!
by Caleb Stewart Rossiter (June 2005)
(Caleb Stewart Rossiter, an assistant professor in the School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC, was a visiting professor in the Department of Political Studies at the University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa in 2005. Prior to joining American University in 2003, he worked in and around Congress for nearly 20 years, first as deputy director of the Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus and then as director of the research and advocacy group Demilitarization for Democracy. He can be reached at email@example.com.)
In the Declaration of Independence, the colonial representatives agreed that "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind" required them to explain why they had pledged "our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor" to breaking the bonds that held them to mad King George and the British Empire. The Declaration inaugurated a new sort of union, a federated republic delineated in the Constitution 11 years later that was to be a grand experiment in self-government. The United States of America was the first nation to apply to an entire people (absent the alien others, of course: Africans, Indians, and women) the principles that had been developed for elected government by a landed or moneyed elite, as in ancient Greece, 16th century Venice, 17th century Poland, or 18th century England.
This article similarly seeks to explain why and how Americans today should pursue disunion, breaking the bonds that hold them to mad President George and the empire that the very success of the grand experiment allowed the republic to become. The power amassed by the American empire may be too much for any nation to bear altruistically. The absolution in 2004 by the electorate and the media of U.S. dominance of the Middle East -- from alliances with compliant dictators in Egypt and Saudi Arabia to the absurdist invasion of Iraq -- and of the use of torture to sustain this dominance show that such power is certainly too much for America to bear.
A majority of our nation (and nearly two-thirds of the subgroup that dominates the political economy, non-Jewish white males) showed in the election that it has grown comfortable with our leaders' determination to dominate the world militarily under the messianic guise of carrying an undefined "freedom" to it, and to exploit it economically under the messianic guise of promoting an undefined "development" of it. More troubling, perhaps, is that the minority itself was required to vote for a candidate and a party who also believe in empire, albeit a smarter and more enlightened one. The candidate was John Kerry, who supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the party wasan union, and twice the question was rejected. First, the Northern delegations at the constitutional convention, while vividly aware of and publicly opposed to slavery, had to accept it in the Southern states. All the North could extract from the South was an end to the importation of slaves, but not to the internal trade, in 20 years.
Some four score years later, anti-slavery activists had captured Northern opinion, and Southern states threatened to secede if they were not permitted to extend slavery to the Western territories. The Republican Party, ostensibly the new anti-slavery party, made clear through its presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, that the South could keep its slaves if it stayed in the union. The South rejected the Democrats, who were identified in a speech at their convention by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, one of their most liberal members, as the "party of more body armor" for our troops in Iraq, rather than as the party of withdrawal from Iraq.
In such a barren political setting it appears that the only effective way to constrain the American empire's devastating effect on other nations and peoples is to dissolve the Union, and keep the less potent pieces from recombining in joint foreign adventures. Disunion will admittedly be hard to sell to Americans, because it will require sacrifices not for oneself and one's countrymen, but for others, from other countries. Twice before a truly altruistic question was asked of the Americ the offer, and "Union now, Union forever" (and not "freedom for southern slaves") became the rallying cry of the North. Thus, degradation of blacks has twice been accepted by the most decent and astute of white Americans as the price of union.
One could argue that a similar, if less blatant, trading of black repression for continued union, as well as for personal and party power, was undertaken by the white establishments led by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. Under those presidents, the federal government began to assist Southern blacks in confronting segregation and barriers to voting imposed by the armed force of the states, but only when the civil rights movement stimulated embarrassing public displays of overt state brutality. Even then, federal protection was meager and infrequent, and not even reform-minded white Northerners revolted against the political parties who felt they had to tread so carefully on white Southern opinion.
It was only full-scale black riots in northern cities that forced President Johnson to conclude that union was more threatened by continued segregation than by enforcing blacks' constitutional rights. It is unlikely that white Americans, whether liberal or conservative, banal or thoughtful, will be any more concerned as a political entity for those suffering under our empire than they were for those suffering under our earlier versions of democracy. Only disunion can remove the power resting comfortably in their hands.
* * *
The claim that evil is being done by the American empire is so shocking to mainstream thinking that it requires specificity. Disunion is necessary, and disruption and violence are justified in the pursuit of disunion, because of what America is doing to others. Americans owe it to the people of the world to separate our power, because we cannot stop our country from running roughshod over them.
That America has become an international outlaw is illustrated by a recent, ironic reversal of roles from the 1980s, with a democratic South Africa in 2005 sanctioning a rogue America by barring visits by U.S. warships on their way to and from Iraq. However, the fact that President Bush is no more guilty of most of these crimes than any other president since World War II makes it clear that the problem is not personal, but rather systematic in the accretion of global power by the American empire and of domestic political power by its advocates. For example, Mr. Human Rights himself, Jimmy Carter, felt constrained to show his commitment to America's interests by arming and financing some of the nastiest dictatorships in Africa in return for their provision of military bases, intelligence facilities, and other elements of strategic cooperation. Millions have died in Somalia, Zaire, Liberia, and the Sudan in civil wars that still rage, 25 years later, as a result of these decisions.
Here, in tough but still far less purple prose than the original Declaration's listing of King George's "long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object," is a bill of indictment of President George for systematically disrupting the democracy and development he claims to be promoting abroad:
ˇ By secretly paying members of other governments who assist us in intelligence-gathering, and by promoting foreign sales by arms-makers who pay these foreign officials "consulting fees" to close arms deals, he has promoted corruption and treason, rather than transparency and modernization of government.
ˇ By conspiring with dictators to use their people's resources, pledged for dozens of years, to buy new generations of unnecessary weapons, he has bled countries' resources from economic growth, domestic infrastructure, and social services, condemning new generations of children to a life, and an early death, in poverty.
ˇ By arming and training these dictators' armed forces and police, he has entrenched resistance to demands for popular government, and fomented civil wars that devastate the fragile support systems of people living in poverty, leading to millions of non-combatant children and the elderly dying of disease and malnutrition.
ˇ By using the international financial and trading institutions to protect our corporations and workers, he has forced poor countries out of their logical points of advantage with us, binding them to their colonial role as suppliers of raw materials at declining terms of trade, and rendering their governments less able to provide employment, nutrition, health, education, and longevity, life itself, to their people.
ˇ He has committed massive war crimes, first in invading Iraq and then in occupying it, in killing tens of thousands of civilians to achieve an inessential policy goal, a personal fixation of the military corporations and neo-conservatives apologists who have taken control of our phenomenal arsenal and economic might.
ˇ He has made pre-emptive invasion a national policy, rendering international law moot for us, claiming exemption for our exceptional status. This policy violates U.S. law and the Constitution, since under the U.S.-ratified United Nations Charter it is illegal, and a state must formally withdraw from a treaty in order to violate it.
ˇ He has made torture an official part of U.S. foreign policy, not just as a case of a few "rogues" at Abu Graihb prison, but by deciding not to protect captured combatants and suspects under the Geneva Conventions, which are also part of U.S. law by ratification and by customary international law.
The approval of the last of these policies, indirectly but effectively, in the 2004 election by the majority of voters who pulled the lever for the President, took America across a Rubicon, starting a battle from which neither side will, or should, retreat. When asked what they would do if captured American soldiers were abused until they broke and talked, as prisoners were and still are in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba by U.S. forces, by being hooded for days, denied food and water, kept naked in cold cells, deprived of sleep, and smacked around, and then "rendered" to known torturers like Egypt and Syria if even that level of abuse failed to move them past "name, rank, and serial number," these voters replied, in essence, "but they're not Americans, so it's all right." At that moment, America ceased to exist as an ideal, and became just another thug in the long line of empires from Caesar's to Tojo's.
* * *
The Essential Root of the U.S. Empire: Size
What is it about the United States that has led us to the evil of empire? Lenin's hypothesis that empire is simply the highest stage of capitalism is easily rejected. Yes, America's military dominance protects the far-flung economic interests of its ruling tier, but all sorts of socio-economic systems, including Leninism, can lead to empire, and most capitalists are happy to trade with, rather than waste money physically dominating, their markets. The "war for oil" refinement of this hypothesis is similarly flawed. There was nothing but rice in Vietnam, and nothing but coffee in El Salvador, yet the United States devastated both countries rather than let uncooperative regimes take power. Furthermore, natural resources can't be eaten, and so are sold, rather than hoarded, by the cash-hungry kleptocrats of the Middle East and Africa.
Cultural factors are always popular as explanations for imperialism, but while it is true, almost by definition, that some combination of personalities creates a national direction, the trail toward the core of causality is hopelessly twisted. In any event, motive is nothing without means. While it is fair to say that deluded exceptionalism, superficially proud (but truly embarrassed) anti-intellectualism, and the expansive belligerence that results from both are frequent, and culturally celebrated, parts of the American personality, one must have still have power in order to act on it. There have been empires driven primarily by economics, like the Dutch empire of the 17th century, and primarily by culture, like the Zulu empire of the 19th century, but the primary cause of today's American empire is simply size, finally unconstrained by competition.
From 1945 to 1990, the United States and the Soviet Union were like two hot gasses of like charges, trying to expand to cover the same area but constantly repelling each other at their meeting points. Suddenly, one gas went inert, and the other was allowed to expand unimpeded over the whole area. Only local spots of other repellent gasses, meaning nuclear-armed countries like France, China, North Korea, India, and Pakistan, or countries with conventional armed forces capable of delivering a sharp blow on the way down, such as Cuba, are safe from invasion. This explains the recently-discovered interest in arms control by the court sycophants and military mandarins of the American empire, who disparaged it during the Cold War as irrelevant. Now arms control provides both a frequent causus belli and a convenient causus imperialum.
Ironically, size was the very factor that James Madison, in his famed Federalist 10, hoped would lead to success for the United States. In this tenth of the op-ed pieces designed to bolster support in New York State for ratifying the federalist Constitution, Madison argued that a single large nation was far preferable to a number of small ones, because its various "factions," which today we would call "interest groups," are more likely to balance off each other in larger polities, where there are more of them. This balancing would, Madison argued, keep any one faction from seizing control of the government, and engaging it in radical, self-interested actions that a minority strongly opposed. He believed that such actions would lead to turmoil and alienation, weakening the state and its ability to provide what the Constitution called "a more perfect union" that served the common good.
Like the Founders as a whole, Madison was no dreamy idealist. Federalist 10 made no bones about its classically conservative view that while people, and particularly "the people," hoi poloi, may have an altruistic side, their primary loyalty is to self-interest. We can protest and note, by way of example, that there were millions in America marching against apartheid in South Africa, when they were not directly affected by its evil. Madison's response would be that many of the marchers did in fact have a self-interest in the cause, fearing the domestic and international repercussions on themselves of American support for apartheid, that the marches were transient and occupied a tiny fraction of the marchers' possible efforts, and that in any event many more millions did not march.
Madison would be bolstered in his jaded assessment by political history within apartheid South Africa. Among the millions of white, wealthy, well-schooled South Africans during hundred of years of race rule, there were only a handful like Bram Fischer. A corporate lawyer and the grandson of an Afrikaner prime minister, Fischer renounced his people and his privilege, and became a revolutionary on behalf of the non-white majority. Even as he represented Nelson Mandela in court he was secretly part of the sabotage campaign for which Mandela was jailed for 27 years. Soon after Mandela's conviction, Fischer was jailed himself for the rest of his life. Mandela often remarked wonderingly on Fischer's altruism, which he doubted he could have sustained himself. Fischer's beliefs and actions were unfathomable to his closest white friends and, as a nasty dispute over an honor at Stellenbosch University 30 years after his death showed, he continues to be ostracized in the Afrikaner community as a traitor even after his vindication by the transition to democracy.
Interestingly, even Fischer claimed that he was opposing apartheid not just because of his belief in justice for other people, but because of the evil it was doing to his Afrikaner people and the disaster it would eventually bring them. However, as a Communist Party leader, he was committed to the revolution in South Africa for the majority, and not for his minority. The prime minister who negotiated an end of apartheid with Mandela, F.W. De Klerk, would for Madison be far more typical of even the minority of Afrikaners who had the foresight to understand that simply boring ahead on their previous path would lead to economic chaos. While De Klerk presided over the transition to majority rule, his tough negotiating stance during the lengthy and violent four years it took for Mandela to move from prisoner to president showed that he was motivated by a desire to preserve as much power and property as possible for Afrikaners.
* * *
The Appeal of Union
Read dispassionately, Federalist 10 is a weak brick on which to build a nation, being largely based on historical examples and logical turns that could just as easily be argued to the contrary. However, it was not written to be read dispassionately, but rather as a love song to the driving force of the political life of Madison and his colleagues, Union. While they all identified themselves primarily as members of a particular colony, rather than as members of a general colonial entity, the founder discovered that to free their states from British rule they had to rely on other states. The lesson they learned was that Union could check foreign influence in other states that could eventually harm one's own.
Emotional identification with the state, in which the union was but a useful tool for preserving state identity, persevered more strongly in the slave states, where whites felt under cultural siege from the North. Even today, despite their attachment to flag and country, Southern whites are moved to tears or cheers when hearing strains of Old Virginia, Maryland my Maryland, Sweet Home Alabama, and the Yellow Rose of Texas. Being from New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, or Pennsylvania is more a factual matter of address for an American who happens to live there. As identification with State gained importance in the slave-holding South, so did identification with Union grow in the North. When young white men from Wisconsin and Vermont, nearly all of whom had never seen a Negro in their lives, rushed off to volunteer after the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861, they did so to preserve a thing called Union. For them, and for our country in the main today, Union became an end in itself, a religious identity with its own relics and rituals, and a tribal nation with its own peculiar chauvinism.
As the United States expanded its power, first across the continent after the Civil War, then across the Pacific in the Spanish-American War, Latin America in the early 20th century, and Europe and Asia in World War II, and finally to all corners of the globe in the 45 years of competition with the Soviet Union and the 15 years of searching for competition afterwards, the loyalty to Union that had grown from loyalty to State was transformed into loyalty to the unspoken Empire. To question the imperial project, whether in seizing Colorado from the Indians, occupying Cam Rahn Bay against the Vietnamese, or taking Baghdad from the Iraqis, became akin to treason. To be part of the respectable debate, to take part in the governing of the country in any formal manner, required an acceptance of the imperial project that had sprung from the acts of union in 1776 and 1787.
Federalist Number 10 has become a national, and nationalistic, touchstone, praised by political philosophers both liberal and conservative for its world-weary caution about the human propensity for the delusion that self-interest can be recognized, let alone contained, by the self. Madison's Americans are not the noble souls mawkishly portrayed saving Vietnamese by Lyndon Johnson or Iraqis by George W. Bush. They are inherently rascals, looking out for themselves, and can only be deterred from running off with the store only by the size and complexity of the American polity.
Madison's prediction that size would work to Americans' benefit by balancing powerful interests has been largely confirmed by the economic success and political stability of the United States. Corporations and unions, petro-cowboys and Indians, groups for and against gun control or legal abortion, and any number of industrial, social, religious and regional interests pour fantastic sums into the political process, yet largely fight each other to a standstill as they contest in Congress, in the administrative bureaucracy, in the courts, and in the media each other's every advance. The self-interested factions make America a giant ocean liner, extremely slow to turn even when the controls are in the hands, as has too often been the case in recent years, of a truly demented captain and a devoted crew.
America's wealth, technological innovation, and power have increased inexorably under Madison's political system (and, to be fair, under Hamilton's economic system). Our problem today is not that Madison was wrong about size allowing the blunting of competing factions' influences, but that he was right. America succeeded, and then turned its burgeoning power toward an area that Madison forgot to address, because he could not imagine that his struggling colonial enclave would amass sufficient power and interest, foreign military policy. In this area, where there are no competing American economic interests, the imperial faction has indeed run off with the American store, right from the beginning, allowing the capture of the state's power by brazen advocates of world-wide military reach and economic empire.
Altruistic Americans who wished to respect the rights of other peoples and nations were hopelessly out-classed by the energy of not just Southern slavers, but of Northern speculators and settlers as they advanced through Indian territories, from the Alleghanies to the Rockies, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed, some of the most important causes of the revolt that created America related to Britain's growing opposition both to slavery and to the settlers' confiscation of territory from its Indian allies in the global struggle with France. The few opponents of the wars to seize the southwest from Mexico in the mid-19th century and to dominate the Pacific Islands from Hawaii to the Philippines in the late-19th century were similarly steamrolled by the economic interests of business and military leaders, backed by overwhelming public opinion. The domination of Latin America by military intervention and indirect rule in the early 20th century, the assumption of the neo-colonial duties of Britain, France, and Holland in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia after World War II, and the untrammeled expansion of power after the Cold War were all made possible by the lack of a self-interested faction opposed to what President Eisenhower bitterly denounced as the "military-industrial complex."
Empire is always profitable for somebody. In our case, those somebodies are the corporations who build weapons and supply the forces, and the military mandarins who are their partners, as well as the businesses who roam the world under U.S. protection, and the diplomatic mandarins who are theirs. Empire is also always popular with most of its citizens, despite their lack of a direct economic benefit from imperial activities. Rome, Britain, the Zulu, France, and Russia, and almost any other imperial expansion one can conjure up from the depths of history were able to enlist not just the treasure of their elites, who hoped to profit handsomely by it, but the blood of their masses, who could not hope for more than temporary plunder. As Democratic Party politicians have learned to their chagrin, being even slightly skeptical about dominating foreign lands makes an American politician look soft on national security and even slightly treasonous, and much harder to elect in any district not dominated by ethnic minorities, whose history makes them inherently anti-imperialistic.
A small part of the price for Madison's omission is paid by Americans, who receive the benefits of global economic domination but must sustain the armed forces who preserve it. The larger part is paid by the dominated countries, former colonies who were left economically and militarily dependent and socially distorted at independence from the European empires, and largely remain so today. Representing the interests of its citizens, albeit the wealthy somewhat more than the middle and lower economic classes, successive governments of the American republic have amassed power and influence that threatens the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of most of the people in the former colonial territories.
* * *
The primary justification for pursuing disunion, as opposed to trying to reform the fundamentally repressive relationship of the American empire to the former colonial world, is that the reformers simply cannot win in the foreseeable future. It is morally unacceptable to sit back and wait for the inevitable "two, three, many Vietnams" (or, to be current, Iraqs) that Che Guevara gleefully predicted would drain the empire of troops, domestic political will, and international alliances. Continuing death and repression requires that something be done as soon as possible to break the mental prison of unquestioning support for empire in America lives.
A very savvy Member of Congress once told me, when I was remonstrating with him for not leading yet another losing charge against aid to the Salvadoran government in the mid-1980s, that "we have to wait for some bodies to turn up." He was wise, jaded, and, in the context of reformist politics of the Congress, absolutely right: it took a singular slaughter in 1989 to make aid cuts, and so peace, possible. That strategy, though, will not work with the empire itself, rather than bits of its effects. Criticism, even discussion, of empire is systematically excluded from mainstream media and debate by a conspiracy of clearly felt, but rarely mentioned, political and financial pressures.
No less than the right, the media and the mainstream left, meaning the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, are constrained to operate within the pleasing assumption that the purposes of our foreign adventures are altruistic, even heroic. Once bound by this assumption, the left relinquishes the most potent moral tool it could use to undercut empire. Indeed, by this act the left cedes the ground of morality to the right, who can then make the brazen claim with a straight face, as the British empire did in India and Africa and indeed as apologists for empire always have, that our goal is freedom for others, and not freedom for ourselves to exploit them.
President Bush told Congress after the September 11 attacks that "they hate us because of our freedoms," then called the invasion of Iraq part of the war on terrorism, and more recently incanted the words "freedom" or "liberty" 46 times as the purpose of our foreign policy in his second inaugural address. Neither Democrats nor the mainstream media protested that Bush's terms were hopelessly undefined and his claims were preposterous and shamelessly self-serving. In fact, Democrats have lined up to be more Catholic than the Pope when it comes to the empire, as when film star Michael Douglas, liberal light and avowed proponent of stemming arms sales worldwide, took the field during the pre-game show in the 2005 Super Bowl and led a tribute to America's troops in their holy stand against terrorism and for freedom. No political commissar in Soviet history, with credible threats of violence and economic punishment for the recalcitrant, could have ordered up a more pleasing stew than this one, voluntarily delivered.
The Democratic Party supports America in its role of post-colonial policeman because its political survival is bound up in pro-imperial candidates, constituencies, and financial supporters. There is always a hope that population trends may make it safe for the Democrats to win as anti-imperialist party. By 2040 America will be majority-minority, and minority groups are the most amenable to a non-imperial foreign policy. However, there are non-democratic and pro-imperial structural elements of American government that could make the wait a lot longer.
One such element arises from the Great Compromise of 1787, which makes the Senate the playground of the small, disproportionately white states. Wyoming, for example, with half a million people, almost all white, has the same two votes in the Senate as California, with 50 million people, more than half of whom are black, Hispanic, or Asian. In 2000 the concentration of minorities in larger states (where individual voters have less power, as measured in Senators per person, than in the smaller states) resulted in the average white having 40 per cent more power in the Senate than the average black. This disparity will only get more pronounced with time, since minorities are growing faster in the large states than whites are in the small states, and will increasingly distort political decisions in favor of whites and their strong support for empire.
The distortion of American politics by the undemocratic requirement of equal power for states in the Senate was illustrated in the 2000 presidential election, when George Bush was elected despite losing the popular vote, because he won 31 generally less populous states to Gore's generally more populous 20. Bush therefore received 62 of the bonus Senate votes that are built into the electoral college, while Gore only received 40. Without that bonus, Gore would have won the electoral vote as well as the popular vote, and war with Iraq would have been unlikely.
Another barrier to the Democratic Party becoming anti-imperialist is that, despite most House seats being Gerrymandered by state legislatures into uncompetitive districts, a significant share of Democrats in largely white districts in the Midwest and the South depend on conservative Democrats and unaffiliated "swing" voters for victory. The Democrats' need for swing voters is also true for nearly all Senate races and for every presidential race. As a result, the "Dixiecrats" in Congress, who have provided Republicans with the margin of support for imperial wars, from Vietnam through El Salvador to Iraq, will for decades to come be a powerful force within the Democratic Party. Pressuring them into supporting the party's majority position against imperial adventures, as Republicans successfully discipline their few Northern dissidents to empire, would be political suicide, since they would jump to the Republicans.
Finally, the overall financial health of the Democratic party requires obeisance to empire. Thanks to the strenuous efforts of House Whip Tony Coelho in the 1980s and President Clinton in the 1990s, military contractors and international corporations have become among the biggest funders of the Democratic Party. Neither they, nor the more traditional union and pro-Israel funders, would take kindly to a party that questions, let alone tightens down, the spigot of arms contracts at home and abroad.
* * *
The Conundrum of the Left
The conundrum faced by the mainstream left is worth considering in some detail, because it provides the clearest rationale for disunion rather than reform. Confusion about the American empire, in which an awareness of its disastrous consequences is muted by a belief that more thoughtful management could alleviate them, has been characteristic of the Democratic Party since the United States replaced the European empires in function, rather than name, after World War II. Liberals clung to the belief that the Vietnam War was a mistake in both strategy and tactics, disputing the radicals who argued that it was no mistake, because decisions from supporting the French in their attempt to block Ho Chi Minh's nationalist revolt to the application of massive doses of violence on behalf of the various corrupt mandarins in Saigon were inevitable within the framework of empire.
In the 1960s political cartoonist Herblock nicely captured his own and other liberals' confusion about empire in a cartoon of handsome, wholesome American soldiers swinging sticks at Viet Cong fish swimming in the stream of Viet Nam while well-intentioned U.S. diplomats lectured South Vietnamese dictators about democracy. How to win, not whether there was any U.S. right to intervene, was at the core of liberal concerns. Even famously disaffected journalists David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, who had no illusions about the South Vietnamese governments' implacable corruption and exploitation of the rural poor, endorsed muddling along rather than withdrawing.
In 1985, when the Dixiecrats in the House broke ranks and helped the Republican minority to fund civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, they rightly complained that the logic of their Democratic opponents left them no other place to go. That is because, while recognizing the need for change after decades of repression and poverty, and witnessing continuing, horrific human rights abuses by the U.S.-backed forces, liberal Democrats still could not bring themselves to say that victory by left-leaning forces was acceptable.
Opponents of U.S. aid to the Somozist-led Nicaraguan "contras" and the brutal Salvadoran army found themselves bound with the Cold Warriors by the old bromide that "we agree on goals, but disagree on tactics." The opponents of aid claimed that they, too, were committed to establishing moderate, non-communist, free-enterprise governments, but that such as result was more likely to come by withholding support until the U.S. allies improved their respect for human rights. It was not a credible strategy, not in Vietnam, not in Nicaragua, not in El Salvador, and not anywhere. If the ally knows that its military defeat is unacceptable to the United States, then it also knows that virtually any behavior is acceptable. The Dixies also bolted from Democratic arguments, in both Vietnam and Central America, that enough aid should be provided to sustain U.S. allies and force a negotiated settlement, but not enough to build larger armies and seek a military victory. Armies cannot fight to gain a settlement; they must fight to win. Once Congress decides that an army is our ally, logic requires that support be geared to winning, not settling. In any event, the logic of an uncooperative government being unacceptable obviates the logic of negotiations. A negotiated settlement can never come if the supplier of one side insists that a role by the other side in government is unacceptable.
The conclusion of the war in El Salvador illustrates why only a true willingness on the part of the United States to accept defeat can change the behavior of its allies. In 1989 a U.S.-funded and trained unit murdered the leadership of the Jesuit university in a slaughter so appalling that even the Dixies could not stomach it. For some reason these government killings were seen as qualitatively different than the 70,000 that came before. Perhaps it was that these killings were so brazen, despite the repeated remonstrations over the other 70,000, that supporters of the Salvadoran Army were finally forced to understand its fundamentally evil nature. Congress soon started to shut down the Salvadoran Army's gravy train, and within a year the old guard fled to its Miami retirement homes, while the rebels signed a peace accord and joined the government.
How rare this result was, and how strongly Congress desires to avoid accepting an uncooperative government is, is reflected in the fact that it was actually not the awful murders, but rather the clumsy audacity of the inevitable cover-up, that put a disgusted House over the top. Representative Jack Murtha, a combat marine in Vietnam and one of the most conservative, pro-military Democrats, was brilliantly positioned by his liberal colleague, Joe Moakley, into leading an investigation into the murder of the Jesuits. Had the Salvadoran government offered up the guilty conspirators from the High Command, rather than supporting their cover-up, Murtha would not have supported linking a share of new military aid to progress in the case, the House would have continued to support the Army, and the war might still be raging today.
Human beings have a propensity to criticize others rather than themselves. The administrators at the university where I teach, American University, pontificate about academic freedom, the rule of law, and transparency as goals for developing nations, while refusing to divulge the contents of contracts they have approved to support the illegal occupation of Iraq. The National Democratic Institute uses tax dollars to promote democracy in underdeveloped countries, while its board members include Members of Congress who promote arms sales from their districts to dictators. Human beings also have a propensity to go along with a repressive system, as long as it does not repress them too much. In apartheid South Africa and segregationist America, almost all white and even most non-white citizens just went on with their lives as best they could, perhaps acknowledging the horrors, but lacking the imagination to see, and act on, the possibility of fundamental change.
Even activists suffer from this myopia. British human rights activists were ablaze to end slavery in the 19th century, while ignoring the continuing evil of their empire, which had started the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the first place and continued to use hut taxes, control of local commerce, and raw military power to force Africans and Indians into economic servitude that was close to slavery in many respects. Predictably, the British empire twisted the anti-slavery campaigns into support for conquest of East Africa, to end the slave trade to Arabia. The ethnocentric sympathy of Victorian Britons for the plight of women in other societies was manipulated into justification for imperial domination of Zululand to stop the killing of women who married men who hadn't completed their military service, of India to stop the killing of women at their husbands' funerals, and of Kenya to stop female circumcision and ritual kidnappings of brides. Their desire to bring save Africans by bringing them the benefits of modernity and Christianity spawned the missionary outposts and imperial civil service that helped destroy the existing African states.
Today's American human rights activists similarly ask their government to protect the human rights of particular people and groups abroad, while their empire denies the rights of entire societies. Their ethnocentric sympathy for the plight of women in other societies has also been manipulated into justification for imperial domination of the Islamic world so that women can come out from behind the burkha without being killed by enforcers of religious dogma. Peace activists have promoted bans on various "inhumane" weapons, from nuclear and chemical bombs to defoliants, napalm, and landmines, while U.S. forces-fomented civil wars and invasions destroy countries using "humane" weapons. Even the slogan, "US out of Iraq," is about a symptom of empire, and not its root cause, calling for a withdrawal from one overtly-dominated country when the empire's deeper evil is covert domination of countries through control of the global political economy.
Working in and around Congress from 1980 to 2000, first inside, for the Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus, and then outside, for the human rights lobby Demilitarization for Democracy, my reformist cup ranneth over, since I had the privilege of having for mentors and allies some of the most accomplished advocates of human rights, peace, democracy, and development. The verity paucity of our accomplishments in comparison to these goals makes the case for disunion. Consider these giants, who labored mightily and brought forth gnats, victories that were significant in that they served to soften the blows of empire, and insignificant in that they were unable to alter its basic direction.
ˇ Congressional staff whose accomplishments before arriving on the Hill made them national icons (at least for that part of the nation aware of the Vietnam anti-war movement), the late Bob Browne and Ed King.
An economist with intimate knowledge of Southeast Asia, Bob was among the founders of the teach-in movement, and as one of its senior African-Americans successfully led the pursuit of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement as allies. Having served as President Carter's ambassador to the African Development Bank, Bob was ideally positioned as staff director of the House subcommittee charged with overseeing the international financial institutions. While he promoted internal reforms in their operation, during his tenure the World Bank and International Monetary Fund made what they later acknowledged was a mess of Africa by forcing their usual medicine of austerity and openness to powerful foreign competition on top of an superstructure of international weakness and domestic corruption.
The highest-ranking Army officer to refuse to go to Vietnam, Ed had postings earlier in his career that allowed him to witness the damage done to Latin America by U.S. support for dictators' armed forces. When he worked for the Democratic Policy Committee in the 1980s he helped slowly squeeze off support for the civil wars in Central America, but by the time he retired at the end of the 1990s, the cycle was starting again with U.S. forces and funding fanning the flames of the civil war in Colombia. Ed helped reform the Army from domination by the white elite from West Point, whom he condemned for exploiting the war in Vietnam to justify budgets and promotions rather than confronting the White House on the war's fraudulent purpose and half-baked strategy. Years later, though, he had to watch a black Army officer from the college track, Colin Powell, rise to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and direct the search for new enemies to justify the Pentagon budget after the Soviet threat, which had supposedly justified most of the budget previously, had disappeared.
ˇ Congressional staff whose back-room operations should made them national icons, Edie Wilkie of the bipartisan, peace-oriented Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus, the late Dick Conlon of the nerve center of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, the House Democratic Study Group, and Tim Rieser, clerk of the Senate Foreign Operations Subcommittee.
Leaders of the anti-war, reform wave on the Hill in the 1960s, for more than 20 years Edie and Dick plotted and prodded, and held the dwindling supply of liberals together as they limited some of the excesses of the Reagan military buildup and the civil wars his "neoconservative" ideologues fomented. Tim was among the most creative and perseverant staff of the next generation. He came to Washington during the Reagan years as a foreign policy advisors to Senator Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the subcommittee that approves the uses of U.S. foreign aid. The effectiveness of such staffers was actually weakened during the Clinton years. Liberals felt they had to protect the embattled Democratic president, even though he was carrying on much in Reagan's vein, trying to build new nuclear weapons, promoting the arms trade, supporting the World Bank and IMF's "Washington consensus" of lower trade barriers and government spending (by underdeveloped countries, of course - Washington itself violated the consensus spectacularly), and refusing to confront the Pentagon on weapons from fighter planes to landmines and the neoconservatives on foreign intervention.
ˇ A bevy of skilled, insightful, and indefatigable public interest lobbyists who translated grass-roots discontent about the immorality of American power and alliances into useful heat to be focused on Congress, the executive branch, and the media.
These star reformers included: Aryeh Neier and Jemera Rone of the true American embassy system, the global truth-teller Human Rights Watch; Dominique de Menil and Sissy Farenthold of the Houston-based human rights foundation, the Rothko Chapel; Oscar Arias, the once and future president of Costa Rica who promoted the "No Arms to Dictators" Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers; members of the arms control "Monday Lobby"and the Arms Transfer Working Group, including the Quaker lobby's Joe Volk, arms trade scholars Natalie Goldring of the British-American Security Information Council and Lora Lumpe of the Federation of American Scientists, and arms control dean John Isaacs of the Council for a Livable World; retired Army General Robert Gard and former Marine Lieutenant Bobby Muller, whose Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation led the campaign to ban landmines and reduce other explosive remnants of war; and international development advocates such as John Cavanagh and Sarah Anderson of the Institute for Policy Studies and Doug and Steve Hellinger of the Development Group for Alternative Policies and the "50 Years is Enough" campaign against the World Bank and IMF.
ˇ A small yet remarkable collection of tough, smart legislators, who fought the administration and often their own parties in the never-ending game of chicken that is the battle for the 218 House and 51 Senate votes it takes to win.
These Members of Congress, who were violating every rule of political survival by following their consciences to invest time and political capital in pushing legislation that few of their constituents knew or cared about, included Representatives Patrick Kennedy (in support of democracy in Indonesia), Joe Kennedy (to force transparency of military budgets into the Washington consensus), Jim Leach, George Miller, and Dave Bonior (squeezing off aid to end wars in Central America), Matt McHugh and the late Mickey Leland (linking foreign aid to democratic reforms), and Cynthia McKinney and Dana Rohrbacher (the odd couple, attacking arms sales to dictators from the ideological perspectives of the extreme left and right), and Senators Mark Hatfield (for 30 years leading every significant arms control and peace initiative, from ending the Vietnam War to banning the nuclear testing), John Kerry (Hatfield's successor as sponsor of the Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers), and Patrick Leahy (who is best known for promoting a ban on landmines, but who led dozens of similarly quixotic and somewhat effective efforts).
What unified these public servants, and me, as we fought for the contradictory half-loafs that inevitably emerge from congressional bargaining (like trading aid to the contras for a ban on chemical weapons, or cutting off a portion, but not all, of aid to a murderous Salvadoran Army) was that we believed in the value of reform. We were bittersweet about our victories, aware that we were only temporarily disrupting the flow of empire, but proud of them. We saw value in our defeats, arguing that things would be even worse had we not made the fight. We thought, we had to think, that the American people would force even more significant reforms if they could just be shown clearly enough and often enough that imperial behavior was hurting not just foreign citizens but their own interests. Stepping back from the fray, it seems to me that we were wrong. It is hard to imagine a better, more dedicated core of reformers, yet the underlying direction of American foreign policy remains unchanged despite their efforts.
Human rights, democracy, arms control, transparency, and properly-oriented development aid cannot be the demands of the left, because empire has shown that it can easily subsume and corrupt these demands. Reform within empire is still empire. It is empire that is the problem, so it is empire that must be attacked. The progressive left must challenge the mainstream left to confront its confusion and build its argument against empire.
* * *
The Right's Effective Appeal to Thinking with the Blood
Among the reasons why the mainstream left has been bound to the imperial project is that the mainstream right has cemented public debate firmly in acceptance of empire as the norm. To achieve this, supporters of empire have consistently, and effectively, devoted their intellect to propaganda rather than analysis. The script-writers in the White House, Pentagon, and State Department and the politicians and commentators, funded directly or indirectly by military contractors and global corporations, who discharge imperial propaganda have adopted the tactic that the Nazi Party refined in its rise to power: serve up fear and pathos, so that people will "think with the blood," rather than with the mind. The obvious effectiveness of this method over the past 60 years is another argument for relying on disunion, rather than reform, to ease America's burden on the world. There is no reason to think that the grip of the appeal to the blood, happily and profitably broadcast through the quasi-statal media giants, will be loosened in the coming decades.
As Woody Allen's lawyer said of his client's divorce proceedings, the fraud perpetrated by the Bush administration in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq was remarkable only because it was publicized, not because it was atypical. Bullying government analysts and the media into entertaining absurd conjectures about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and links to the September 11 attacks was just another day at the office for the imperial advertising industry that has been operating since World War II. Indeed, it is the well-established and primary purpose of the industry to create a fearful and dutiful public from alarmist interpretations of phony "intelligence" findings. In her book on President Reagan's battle with the nuclear freeze movement, Way Out There in the Blue, Frances Fitzgerald reported that when imperial advocate Richard Perle was confronted on his outlandish claims to Congress about fictitious Soviet anti-satellite weapons, his response was: "Democracies will not sacrifice to defend their security in the absence of a sense of danger." The comments of Perle, who was then assistant secretary of defense, reveal the essence of the imperial advertising industry's approach, which is to define all military projects as vital to people's "security" and then create a sense of danger for them if the projects are not undertaken.
Perle is an appropriate person to cite, since he bridges the generational divide between the fear-mongers of the 1950s and those of today. He was brought into security studies by Albert Wohlstetter, the Pentagon consultant on nuclear war-fighting who was parodized by Peter Sellers in the film "Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." Wohlstetter provided intellectual support to Paul Nitze and his Committee on the Present Danger, which starting in 1951 broadcast claims of Soviet advances in weaponry, such as the supposed bomber and missile gaps, that were repeatedly proven false, yet stayed, by their very repetition, prominent in the public mind. Among Wohlstetter's graduate students was Paul Wolfowitz, who helped design the Iraqi fraud as deputy secretary of defense.
Perle and Wolfowitz supported the U.S. invasion and occupation of Vietnam while studying, and then while working in Washington staff positions, and they were worried that losing the war would curb Americans' appetite for deploying power internationally. While nonsensically optimistic claims of progress in Vietnam by the government and allied groups under Johnson and Nixon was much of the reason for the demise in public enthusiasm, the apologists decided to go back to that well, and continue manufacturing helpful intelligence. The problem was that the CIA, burned by its errors of analysis in Vietnam, was wary of providing new false fuel for the fire of empire.
The story of the "Team B" exercise is complex, and well-told by Anne Cahn in her 1998 book, Killing Détente, but at its core it was an attack on the CIA's judgment that Soviet military power was mediocre and that Soviet military intentions were parochial. President Ford permitted a review of this assessment by Wolfowitz and other Wohlstetter's heirs, many of whom helped revive the alarmist Committee on the Present Danger in the Carter years and have maintained a drumbeat for military spending and imperial action ever since. Of course, one of the subgroups of the review team found that the Soviet Union, far from being weak and cautious, was engaged in a massive buildup and challenge to U.S. security. The Committee on the Present Danger sent many of its members into the Reagan administration, where they largely had their way with both budget and policy.
Under President Reagan, the Pentagon spent as much as could be absorbed on expanding American power at sea, on land, in the air, and even in space, and the State Department and CIA funded a series of civil wars in Central America, Asia, and Africa. The administration cited the Soviet military threat to Europe and the supposedly Soviet-fomented wars of liberation and revolt, from South Africa to El Salvador. The claims were often hysterical and frequently fraudulent, like claims by Nicaraguan defector Roger Miranda, displayed prominently by major newspapers just days before a vote on aid to the contras, that Nicaragua was expanding its army to take over all of Central America, but they had the intended effect of heating public blood and expanding the empire. The fire was fed by tax-funded offices for "public diplomacy" in the White House and State Department, and by close coordination between these offices and semi-private entities, such as Freedom House and PRODEMCA.
Under President Clinton in the 1990s, the apologists for empire continued their fulminations against Saddam, China, Colombian rebels and anyone else who was handy in a largely benign period when, as Colin Powell jokingly told Congress as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: "I need some enemies." They found a home in the Dixiecratic foreign policy of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, which accorded respectability to the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq and its call for "regime change." Then they struck gold with the September 11 attacks, which they successfully exploited, turning a single counter-attack on the Afghan sanctuary into a full-scale and permanent war against "terrorism" and anyone they claimed was "supporting terrorism" or even might some day do so. To this they added President Bush's campaign for "democracy," and when that word failed to ignite public support, the simpler and even more ill-defined "freedom."
Today, President Bush and a coterie of advocacy groups, clustered around the third incarnation of the Committee on the Present Danger, have continued this tradition of appealing to the blood by portraying a freedom-bearing America, exceptionally and inherently good and so not beholden to international standards, now called upon to rescue the world from "Islamo-fascism" and terrorism. The acceptance of this imperial image and project by the American public makes it unlikely that any future president can be constrained from manufacturing consent, just as Bush did for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Senator Richard Russell, chairman of the Armed Services Committee and an arch-segregationist and imperialist whose name was soon to adorn a nuclear submarine, said in the 1960s in a rare moment of caution: "If we can go anywhere and do anything we will always be going somewhere and doing something." Since presidents appear to be able to convince the public to go somewhere and do something, it is only by breaking up the power to do so that the empire can be stopped.
* * *
Activists can, and should, continue their traditional, creative methods of opposing the excesses of empire at the local level, pushing their campus, their union, and their municipality not to cooperate with or profit from its most blatant acts. Student protests against university collaboration in the machinery of war hampered the prosecution, and decreased the popularity, of the war in Vietnam. The power inherent in pension funds was seen when universities, unions, and cities, including New York, wreaked havoc with South Africa's investment climate under apartheid, and helped convince the South African business establishment to make a democratic deal. However, while these and other creative tactics can bring opprobrium and a price to imperial acts, they cannot produce a lasting result of weakening the framework of the American empire. Only by disunion, by breaking up the United States into 50, or perhaps 10, new nations, can the continuing damage of empire be stopped. Even if disunion is never achieved, agitation for it would, like an impending hanging, concentrate the minds of Americans on the evil of empire in a way that debate within the framework of today's union has not.
Union was an act of states, ratified in each state by the people. Disunion can only be the same. State by state, opponents of empire should prepare and promote local calls for disunion, and then state legislation and a referendum withdrawing from the Union. California, or perhaps just its central third, New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont would be good candidates for the first campaigns. The legality of such a dramatic action under the Constitution is secondary, and perhaps unknowable, as President Jackson showed in challenging Chief Justice Marshall to enforce his ruling against seizures of Indian lands and as President Lincoln showed in suppressing Southern secession. Disunion is a political rather than a legal question, to be decided by the will of the states and the mood of the people.
How can we expect Americans, or any people, to vote to break apart an empire that is working for them, but inflicting violence and poverty on the world? It would be unnatural for many Americans to rally to a cause that does not affect them materially, particularly when their culture conspires to convince them that the empire is in truth an act of charity and grace. The task is daunting, but anti-imperialist Americans would not have to go it alone. Just as those creating union needed outside assistance at the conclusive battle of Yorktown from the French army led by Rochambeau and the French fleet led by DeGrasse, so today those promoting disunion should look abroad for help. This time help won't come from governments, few of which can last long in open opposition to America, but from the non-governmental advocacy groups that have sprouted as the state in underdeveloped countries has become less able to challenge the empire's economic might. The anti-globalization movement and to a lesser extent the campaign against landmines show how allying with the victims of empire in dominated countries can bring a message of protest to the attention of international and American public opinion.
There are certainly examples, from which one can extract strategy and tactics, of morally-based social movements changing government policy. Fervent opposition to slavery dominated British politics throughout the 19th century. As noted previously, to be sure, the anti-slavery movement did not challenge empire or its slave-like conditions, and it was manipulated into imperial control of East Africa. However, it did succeed in its overall purpose of the global stigmatization of slavery. It grew in a matter of decades from a few strident evangelicals haranguing their flocks on Sundays to a moral whirlwind to which all British politicians had to pretend obeisance. Through constant agitation and demands on Parliament it overcame the profits of the slave traders, which were distributed throughout the financial class, and the conventional wisdom of scientists and sociologists about the proven genetic inferiority of Africans.
In the United States, the anti-slavery movement also came to national prominence in the first half of the 19th century. The tapping by religious activists of four-score years of Northern disgust with perpetual plantation servitude for blacks, as opposed to the temporary servitude to which many white Americans came ashore, did not, of course, make the North ready to fight for blacks' freedom. As noted above, when war came, it was fought for the Union, the sacred Union, the very thing proposed here to be disbanded as outdated and dangerous. However, the anti-slavery movement did break the recalcitrant Whigs and create a cooperative new party, the Republicans, whose policies made it impossible for Congress to wriggle out of the way of conflict with yet another murky compromise.
An even more remarkable American social movement, logistically, was the temperance crusade of the early 20th century. Piggy-backing on the drive for women's voting rights, in just a few years it overwhelmed lobbying by business interests and achieved a constitutional amendment barring the sale of alcohol. Its tactics included dramatic marches and rallies, and pressuring religious leaders to lend their names, if not always their pulpits, to the cause.
These movements' victories were, of course, not inevitable, and their strategies and tactics are not the work of genius. Countless other moral crusades, with equally fervent supporters and equally creative methods, came and went without much impact at the same time as each of these. The lesson here is not that intellectual and legislative agitation are sufficient, but that they are necessary. To improve their chances, it would appear that disruption must be added to the mixture. Dock strikes against slave-made goods in England and armed citizen action against the return of fugitive slaves from Northern states served notice to government that failure to take a new position could spiral into an unavoidable challenge to authority. What motivated the panjudrums of the American empire, such as Ford Foundation head McGeorge Bundy, to beg President Nixon in 1970 to suspend military actions like the invasion of Cambodia was not some concern for Indochinese peasants, but a fear that the universal campus revolt would shake the authority of government for a generation to come.
America has a long history of creative disruption, with the United States itself moving from a concept to a possibility with the illegal destruction of goods at the Boston Tea Party and the illegal stocking of weapons at Lexington and Concord. America only realized its promise of equality when the civil rights movement disrupted business, law, and order in the South, spurring a violent reaction that brought the need to break the horror of the segregated police state to the national consciousness. Disruption helps force the average person, who usually can avoid thinking about, let alone challenging, the established order, to consider the arguments of the disaffected.
Disruption without explanation, though, can be counter-productive. Consider the dozens of political bombings directed against infrastructure and symbolic targets by the "Con-Edison bomber" Sam Melville in the 1960s and the Weather Underground in the 1970s. The media ignored the reams of turgid rationalizations produced by the perpetrators, and presented the American public with an image of common criminals, who were duly imprisoned or, in the case of Melville, who was probably targeted for assassination in the Attica prison revolt, first imprisoned and then killed. Spates of violent protest tend to produce instinctive public rejection, whereas creative, long-running dramas of disruption allow the public time to get comfortable with the issues and arguments.
The ultimate act of violent protest against U.S. imperialism came on September 11, 2001. The attacks that day, moreover, were a continuation of bombings over the previous 10 years by opponents of U.S. support for dictators in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other parts of the Islamic world. This wave of violence by Islamist warriors led to intense discussion in the media, the public, congress and the executive branch, but only about how to attack and weaken the warriors. One can search in vain through the memoirs of those in government for any analysis of why we were the target of such fury. Such a discussion would have led to a realization that our role in the Middle East had led to our own predicament. We would have had to say: "Is it our concern, or our business, who rules Egypt, Saudi, Algeria, and Kuwait?" We might have seen that our domination of the region makes us the British in India, the French in Haiti, the Russians in Afghanistan: the object of attack because we are dominating the wrong place at the wrong time for selfish reasons.
Due to intense government scrutiny, domestic terror by anti-imperialists could never approach the drama of the toppling of the World Trade towers or the numerical targets of the Weathermen. The Woodstock Nation no longer has the numbers of potential bombers nor, more importantly, the natural instinct it once had to harbor them. So, violence as a primary strategy, while justified, seems counter-productive at present. That is not to say that peaceful, disruptive campaigns for disunion will not provoke violence. Calling for disunion will be, as was challenging segregation in the South, like tugging on Superman's cape. Jesus said, and the record of pacifists like King and Gandhi shows, that mass protest comes to bring not peace, but a sword. After a period of agitation and education, it is probable that a campaign for disunion will bring violence, both by its proponents and the resisting Union. Illegality, designed to strain the system, will be met first by a show of state force, which is violence still restrained, yet primed to be unleashed. Then any small impetus can unleash violence. Resisting injustice is a bloody business, and proponents of disunion should not pretend that it will not be.
It would appear obvious that, at first, votes on disunion would lose, and so reinforce, rather than reject, Union. However, the mere act of holding referenda at the state level may build momentum. Even if there were some successes, and states split away, unless there were a significant change in consciousness about international affairs to go with the change of identity, the new nations would be polities with politics like today's nation. They would, being American nations, be dominated by money and Madison's powerful factions, and so would have the propensity to collaborate with other new American nations to promote the formation of compacts for the same sort of military and economic domination of other nations that is the problem today. That is why the essential elements of disunion are intellectual and moral. A solid core of Americans must come to understand and hate empire and the type of nationalism that permits invasion and torture.
The intellectual battle to discredit the union is in some ways already underway. The brazenness of Bush's policy of invasion and torture, the mindlessness of his incantations about freedom, and the absurdity of the neoconservatives' 30-year, corporate-backed strategy of promoting fear through fraud have done more recruiting than all the Zinns and Chomskys ever could. Further alienation will only come with clear analysis of the illogical final lines of defense of advocates of empire, which are, as well expressed in Niall Ferguson's recent apology, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, that empire can be benevolent if it brings specific improvements to the oppressed in health or economics, and that empire can be moral if the empire that may follow it is less benevolent. Today, help with HIV/AIDS and the coming power of China, respectively, are the thin reeds to which imperialists will clutch. We must respond that there is nothing to stop nations helping fight epidemics without being imperialist, and that positing a possible future system of repression is no excuse for carrying out a current one. If another empire arises to dominate, torture, invade, and rule, then activists will go after it then. That is the lesson of the historical drive for dignity: take care of one devil at a time.
* * *
Conclusion: The Wages of Treason
There are some personal ironies in the unpopular, apparently lunatic position to which I have been unwillingly led by this analysis, which like all analyses, no matter how carefully unwound, is a product of head my heart. My father was a proud historian of the intellectual birth and early history of the United States, and a celebrator of the Union. He would be politically aghast, although personally supportive, at what is essentially a declaration of treason, just as he was
during my earlier period of treason, when I told the draft board that I could not serve while the invasion of Vietnam continued. In that period, I refused to stand to salute the flag at public meetings when I was on a school board. Between the Vietnam war and the Iraqi war, I left treason behind, and worked as a hopeful reformer, working for and once running for Congress, proud to serve under the American flag with the other wonderful reformers I described above. Now, the flag has again become to me a symbol of arrogance and ignorance, as it is waved at every public event and over every invasion and misalliance. Treason, as the malleable French foreign minister Talleyrand said, is a question of dates. It is also a question of motivation. George Washington and Robert E. Lee, both traitors to their oaths, are worshipped in American culture for the supposed purity of their motives. Both risked all, and switched sides only reluctantly, when they could see no other way of achieving a sacred goal.
I feel a kinship to Washington and the rest of my father's founding heroes. They were beginning a worthy experiment to promote self-government and economic freedom for themselves, and I am advocating the end of it, to promote the same for others. It was a great achievement for the Founders, to have created a world power from a trembling coalition, but we have become what we hated, for the very reasons that we hated the British empire. Untrammeled power backed by an unbreakable ideology of superiority and benevolence cannot be a force for good, no matter how many times you say the word freedom in an inaugural address.
The future is impossible to predict, except to say that unpredictable events would follow disunion. There are terrible risks in a political change of this magnitude. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were aware of this, too. They came to union as unwillingly as I come to disunion: "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." They were correct that it is far wiser, and more natural, to try to fix than to destroy and create anew, but also correct that at a certain point, the evil done by the current system requires the leap of faith to try a new one.
That point has been reached, with the ratification of invasion and torture in the re-election of President Bush. The moral choice is now clear. The Vietnam generation's mission has been to seek justice. Justice at home meant providing a fair opportunity for advancement for not just the wealthy majority, but the low-income minority, consisting of the white working class and the descendants of slaves and displaced Indian nations. Justice abroad meant supporting militarily-dominated Vietnamese, Salvadorans, and Angolans, and economically-enslaved Africans and Latin Americans, and the many others feeling the pain of America's empire. The generational mission has always been anti-imperialist, but it can now only be achieved by being anti-American, meaning being opposed to the idea of a nation called America. Disunion is necessary to realize the promise of the Union, whose purposes in 1787 were defined as being to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." For each clause, add the phrase "for others," and you will see that Disunion is "more perfect" than Union.
* * *