Claiming Power, Creating the Future

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

By Robert C. Koehler

“Since the people are sovereign under our Constitution . . .”

Ralph Nader writes in a recent essay that we should demand acknowledgement of this fact from our presidential candidates and ask what they will do to restore this sovereignty to the American people, in their various manifestations as voters, taxpayers, workers and consumers.

“Regardless of their affiliation with either of the two dominant parties,” he writes, “politicians are so used to people being spectators rather than participants in the run-up to Election Day that they have not thought much about participatory or initiatory democracy.”

“Spectator,” “participant” . . . these are trigger words for me. I deeply fear the reckless ascendance of that first word in our cultural and political structures, as world events are increasingly reduced to reality TV mélanges of celebrity and violence. Meanwhile, the second word shrivels. This is America the superpower, its management the province of a shadowy consensus of corporate militarists.

“It’s hard to run for President as an opponent of the permanent U.S. security state,” writes Jeffrey Sachs. “Being a card-carrying member of the U.S. security establishment is the mainstream media’s definition of a ‘serious’ candidate.”

Go Hillary!

“. . . she and her advisors are good loyalists of the military-industrial-intelligence complex,” Sachs notes. Her recent speech on ISIS to the Council on Foreign Relations “included an impressive number of tactical elements: who should do the bombing and who should be the foot soldiers. Yet all of this tactical precision is nothing more than business as usual. Would Clinton ever have the courage and vision to push back against the U.S. security establishment, as did JFK, and thereby restore global diplomacy and reverse the upward spiral of war and terror?”

I’m suddenly reminded of John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and my confrontation with his spokesperson, whom I’d called after a Kerry fundraiser had hung up on me because I persisted in pressing him on where the candidate stood regarding the occupation of Iraq.

What’s our mission in Iraq, I asked Kerry’s spokesperson. “To create a stable democracy in Iraq,” he said without hesitation. As I wrote at the time: “There’s no quagmire, no covert agenda to control oil reserves and gain a strategic foothold, only Noble Purpose and Kerry’s promise to be as profligate a spender of the lives of America’s youth as Bush.

“And then our interview got worse. . . . How do you deal with terrorists? You crush ’em, he said, continually shutting down the conversation when I brought up the wimp concept of ‘root causes.’ There lay only danger and weakness, apparently. The least suggestion that injustice may be a cause of global insecurity ‘is giving terrorists a cover.’ . . .

“‘The U.S. is there to help build a democracy and a peaceful future for Iraq,’ he said. “‘The folks who are fighting against the U.S. do not have the same goals.’”

Given that this little exchange took place more than 11 years ago and that “democracy and a peaceful future” still elude Iraq and much of the rest of the Middle East — indeed, given that the situation across a huge swath of the world has hemorrhaged almost unimaginably since then, and terrorism has grown exponentially, all thanks to our efforts, while the military-industrial politicians of America still call for more of the same, more bombs, more drone strikes, more killing of insurgents — some force has to emerge that can seriously challenge the war consensus. The world’s most vulnerable people depend on it.

The concept of participatory democracy — participatory public life — needs to be reimagined from the bottom up. Of course, everyone hungers for participation. The crucial question is, what emotions drive our participation?

A few days ago, Huffington Post ran an article called “A Running List of Shameful Islamophobic Acts since the Paris Attacks,” tallying examples of the wrong kind of public participation. Perhaps the emotions behind the bulk of these acts — fear morphing into a dehumanizing hatred — was epitomized by one particular item, which occurred last week at a mosque in Pflugerville, Texas, a suburb of Austin:

“A member arrived at the center for morning prayer and found torn pages of the Quran outside, smeared with feces. Police are investigating the incident as a hate crime.”

This is public participation in the collective fear. This is the language of scapegoating. This is war.

And it’s what we hear about endlessly, in the news and in our entertainment venues, as though social interaction is more about self-protection than connection; as though safety is more a matter of dominance and fortification than justice and healing; as though violence has no consequences; as though listening and understanding are not our first line of defense.

“Since the people are sovereign under our Constitution . . .”

Please write and tell me about how personal acts of compassion and connection have resolved conflicts and created understanding. I’ll devote future columns to such stories. Tell me how sovereign people are changing the world — not through hate but through the courage of love.