“By passing a resolution grounded in the just transition framework, the DNC can cynically present itself as speaking for all workers even as it embraces the companies responsible for the conditions that have harmed a broad swath of working people unattached to the fossil fuel industry. At the same time, it can ignore the urgency of transition for a whole range of workers who are in need of a just and accelerated response to climate change.”
Read my newest article now at Common Dreams.
When Georgia Representative and civil rights movement veteran John Lewis likened the extraordinary sit-in staged last week by House Democrats (a sit-in he lead) to the historic 1965 civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama – “We crossed one bridge,” Lewis stated, “but we have other bridges to cross” — he invited us all to see the Democrats’ sit-in as nonviolent direct action in the tradition of the civil rights movement and as an expression of the movement’s highest ideals.
Just as Selma protesters, for example, were champions of nonviolence against the violent and unjust system of racial segregation, the Democrats (Lewis suggested) were champions of nonviolence (i.e., gun control) against a violent system of gun ownership and accessibility, a system that the Republican leadership – through its refusal to allow a House vote on gun control legislation – both upholds and reproduces. And just as Selma protesters persisted in spite of the violent defiance of Selma’s power structure – “it took [Selma protesters] three times,” Lewis reminded us, “to make it from Selma all the way to Montgomery” – so, too, would Democrats persist in the face of House Republicans’ defiance.
The two proposals over which Lewis and his Democratic colleagues staged the sit-in, however, cannot be reconciled with either the Selma movement or with nonviolence. In fact, both proposals – a ban on gun sales to women and men on the FBI’s terrorist watch list, and the expansion of background checks on prospective gun buyers – are so steeped in violence that they effectively render the Democrats’ sit-in, a sit-in for violence.
Consider this: the first proposal rationalizes a system that, as the American Civil Liberties Union points out, is “error prone and unreliable because it uses vague and overbroad criteria and secret evidence to place individuals on blacklists without a meaningful process to correct government error and clear their names.” Indeed, the system is applied in an “arbitrary and discriminatory manner,” such that it functions by and large to target, criminalize, and harass (and thus do violence to) Arab and Muslim communities (ironically enough, Representative Lewis himself was watch-listed, an experience through which he found that the system “provides no effective means of redress for unfair or incorrect designations”).
Furthermore, because the first proposal is justified as a matter of “national security” (as California Senator Feinstein asserted during the course of the sit-in), its function, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues, is ultimately to “strengthen the country’s security state and to further justify the ‘war on terror.’” That war, according to a joint report issued by Physicians for Social Responsibility, Physicians for Global Survival, and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, has so far cost at least 1.3 million human lives (the cost to the lives of other sentient beings, we must presume, is equally astronomical).
Although seemingly benign in the context of gun control, background checks – the subject of the second proposal – also reinforce a security state framework and, like the first proposal, do nothing to “address the underlying causes of violence in America.” In fact, the proposal – and by extension, the House Democrats’ sit-in – presupposes that the legitimate ownership of guns is the absence of violence. And yet gun ownership is violence, just as the stockpiling of nuclear weapons is violence.
Nonviolent direct action that is not grounded in a transformative commitment to nonviolence, that “neither contests nor seeks alternatives to the dominant imperial mentality of the day” (to borrow the phrasing of Sean Chabot and Majid Sharifi in “The Violence of Nonviolence”), is action that can be easily deployed to champion policies that are, in fact, inherently violent.
Such is how we must view the House Democrats’ sit-in. Not only did the Democrats legitimize legislation that reinforces systemic violence; they also failed to offer anything remotely transformative (such as, for example, legislation that bans guns altogether and commits the United States to international gun control). And they certainly didn’t offer any critique that tied gun violence to “relatively invisible forms of structural, epistemic, and everyday violence” or to our culture of violence.
Imagine if Martin Luther King, Jr. had organized a sit-in on Vietnam in which he called not for the end of the war, “racism, militarism, and materialism” – and not for a “revolution of values” – but merely for the cessation or limited use of Agent Orange.
Given who John Lewis is and the fearlessness with which he confronted the violence of segregationists in Selma and elsewhere, I don’t offer this critique lightly. But as a state actor, he has – along with his colleagues – turned nonviolence on its head. On the floor of the House, the Democrats’ nonviolent sit-in was state violence dressed in nonviolent clothing, and in so being it left unquestioned and undisturbed the structural and spiritual underpinnings that not only shaped the Orlando massacre that triggered the Democrats’ sit-in, but that also continue to drive the everyday visible and invisible violence that continues to roil communities the world over.
Moderates…are often correct in perceiving the difficulty or impossibility of racial progress in the context of present social and economic policies. But they accept the context as fixed…They apparently see nothing strange in the fact that in the last twenty-five years we have spent nearly a trillion dollars fighting or preparing for wars, yet we throw up our hands before the need to overhaul our schools, clear the slums, and really abolish poverty. (Bayard Rustin)
A consensus has clearly emerged among moderate pundits and critics regarding Bernie Sanders’ bid for the White House: his campaign and platform, they argue, are wildly unrealistic and reveal just how delusional, if not nihilistic, progressives have become. The campaign and platform are unrealistic, they tell us, because if elected Sanders will face “a House of Representatives firmly under right-wing rule, making the prospects of important progressive legislation impossible” (as Jonathan Chait has argued).
Let’s be real: any proposal that seriously addresses the concerns and champions the needs of working people will not get through this right-wing dominated House of Representatives. In fact, nothing left of center, or even a little right of center, will get through the current House. That truth, however, should force a conversation not on whether or not Bernie Sanders’ campaign and platform are realistic, but instead on what it will take – what kind of mobilization or political revolution is necessary –to remake Congress into one more amenable to policies that really address the people’s needs.
Preferring to “accept the context as fixed”(Bayard Rustin’s critique of moderates remains remarkably relevant), moderate pundits and critics have chosen a different path, which is to focus our ire on Sanders and his supporters by forwarding an argument that basically comes down to this: Bernie’s policies are unrealistic because they are not Republican. After all, following the logic of Sanders’ naysayers, his policies would have to be Republican in order to pass in the current House – and even that’s not guaranteed. One need only look at the fate of Obamacare (a Republican brain-child) to understand how precarious would be the success of a Republican policy ushered in by a Democrat (remind me again: to how many repeal votes has that legislation been subjected?).
Whether pragmatic, piecemeal or revolutionary, legislation addressing the needs of ordinary folk will not fare well in this Congress. Since this is the case, we might as well go for broke. In this way, we can at least change the terms of the debates on work, wealth, and war.
Speaking of war: moderates also slam Sanders’ campaign as unrealistic because his policies are “half-baked plans” (as Matt Yglesias recently characterized them) that are “too expensive” to fund.
But in making their case not one pundit has put on the table the nearly $2 trillion dollars spent thus far on the War on Terror or the $18 trillion dollars that this war has added to the U.S. debt. In fact, even as they correctly perceive that, “in the context of present social and economic policies” – and most certainly within the current political climate – Sanders’ policies will face stiff and uncompromising resistance, pundits “apparently see nothing strange in the fact” that in the last fifteen years we have spent such an astronomical amount “fighting or preparing for wars.” No one is talking about war at all, except to remind us about past votes on the Iraq War or the threat of ISIS.
Indeed, moderates who have decried the possible tax burden that Sanders’ platform might impose on ordinary people have had nothing to say about the billions budgeted for this fiscal year alone to fight a war with an enemy that we keep mindlessly reproducing. Instead, they have thrown up their hands before Sanders’ argument that we need to provide tuition-free college education, invest in our infrastructure, make healthcare truly accessible to all and thus free from the grip of insurance companies, and “really abolish poverty.”
The exasperation some critics have expressed regarding the costs of Sanders’ domestic agenda, coupled with their silence on war spending, suggests that what they consider unrealistic is not our war economy itself – even though it has robbed the American people of real opportunities for economic growth and stability; driven (rather than curtailed) hostilities and instability worldwide; deepened poverty here and abroad; destroyed human, plant and animal life, as well as poisoned natural resources; and, created — from Des Moines to Damascus — bitterness, resentment and hate. None of that is “unrealistic.” Instead, what’s a “no-win” is a campaign and political platform that seek to eradicate economic inequality and the drivers of that inequality, some of whom profit, absolutely and obscenely, from endless war.
In other words, what they don’t say is that the war is precisely what makes Sanders’ platform costly. We can’t keep bombing people or launching drone missiles and, at the same time, educate our people for free. The latter, in fact, is economically irrational given the [fixed] context.
I think it’s time to redefine what we call unrealistic.
But I will concede this: Sanders is not without fault. After all, his platform says nothing about the continued costs of our war and how those costs stymie creative approaches to redistribution. Thus, Sanders’ campaign and platform are unrealistic to the degree that they fail to set their sights on the costs of our war economy and war culture. Sanders needs to show (for example) that the Pentagon’s push to expand the U.S. presence everywhere through the creation of “hubs” or Special Operations staging areas will take money out of our pockets, enrich war corporations and CEOs, and succeed in fomenting (and thus increasing the costs of) the very terrorism it presumably intends to defeat. And he’ll have to talk about these war effects in ways that address as well as allay people’s real sense of vulnerability to terrorism.
In other words, Sanders needs to show that as President he will take “full command of foreign affairs” (Jonathan Chait) and redirect us from permanent war to peace and economic prosperity, and through a framework that galvanizes all of us to unseat every single representative who thrives on both our fear and our hunger.
Of course, putting on the table that $1.8 trillion (and counting) is not solely Sanders’ burden to bear since the failure to speak of the economic, social, and political costs of war make all the candidates – whether they support endless war or not – purveyors of fiction. Pragmatism and conservatism are lies we tell ourselves when we continue to sink billions of dollars every year into death and destruction at the expense of everyone’s well-being and peace. We have to be moved to see such waste, and the fantasies by which they are rationalized, as “strange” indeed, as something that calls for us not only to adopt a different set of domestic and foreign policies altogether, but to actually engage politics in a revolutionary fashion – and most certainly in ways that take us beyond the dangerously narrow focus on the race to the White House.
We all need to get real.
My book is out! Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books 2015)