Let’s End Our Wars on the “Other”: U.S. Interests, Israeli Fears, and the Demonization of Iran
From the time of the Mexican-American War in 1846, and particularly since the Korean War in 1950, the United States has undertaken wars of choice on weak adversaries whenever it perceives they pose a challenge to its “vital national interests.” Such wars are launched in spite of the known certainty that they will kill and maim thousands of innocent civilians – or even millions, as in Vietnam. It is also known that they will inflict widespread destruction on the physical infrastructure of villages and cities, displacing countless people from their homes and livelihoods.
In its willingness to wreak such devastation in pursuit of its interests, the government knows it has little to fear from the resistance of an overmatched foe, or from the marginal moral opposition of its own preoccupied citizenry. It does worry, however, about the public’s response over time to the draining of the country’s treasure and the inevitable deaths and injuries to its fighting men and women. For that reason, the government strives in every war to justify its actions through an ostensible appeal to “reason.” Examples include the “domino theory” in the case of Vietnam; the “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq; and, in the case of al-Qaida, the claim that “if we don’t fight them ‘over there,’ we’ll have to fight them here.”
When such arguments fail to be persuasive, however, the government does not hesitate to build popular support by an emotional appeal to the natural suspicions most humans have of the “other.” It demonizes the leaders of countries who stand in its way, suggesting that they must be eradicated in order for good to triumph over evil.
In its recent history, the United States has demonized the leaders of such third-world or developing countries as North Korea, Cuba, North Vietnam, Nicaragua, Panama, Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Venezuela, Syria, and—currently, and most ominously—Iran. It has also demonized entire insurgent militias self-identified as freedom fighters, including the Viet Cong, the Taliban, Hamas, and Hezbollah.
Among the nations whose regimes it has demonized, the United States has gone to war with North Korea, North Vietnam, Panama, Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, and sponsored a guerrilla war in Nicaragua and an invasion of Cuba. Stated objectives have included the arrest of Communist expansion, preventive disarming of a hostile regime, the liberation of subject populations from an evil leader, national liberation, and the establishment of “freedom and democracy.” Naturally, our government has had nothing bad to say about the repressive regimes of Saudi Arabia or of Egypt before the revolution, since the leaders of these countries have been all too glad, for the sake of their own continuation in power, to serve American economic and strategic interests.
A Demonization Case in Point: Ahmadinejad’s Alleged Threat to Israel
The current demonization by Western leaders of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, offers a striking example of the distorting role such personal attacks can play in international relations. In the case of Ahmadinejad, it has increased the chance of war in the Middle East by inflating Israeli fears that Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons with which to eradicate the Jewish state from its Muslim neighborhood. While such fears are understandable, they are of course in all probability unwarranted, since Iranian leaders surely know that a nuclear strike on Israel would be tantamount to national suicide. For the Israelis, however, the very presumption that even Iranian actions are bounded by the demands of survival has been undercut by the demonization of Ahmadinejad. It has culminated in a now unbridled fear that has key figures in the Israeli government, including its prime minister, bristling for a preventive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Such an adventure is all the more likely because of Israel’s well-taken expectation that its close American ally, which itself chooses to demonize Ahmadinejad, will—at least in the end—provide any necessary backing.
The demonization of Ahmadinejad has its origins in a speech he delivered in 2005. As widely reported by the mass media at the time, he was said to have declared that, as president of Iran, he was committed to the principle that “Israel must be wiped off the map.” Ever since, this bellicose statement has been continually repeated by both Israeli and Western leaders as a literal representation of Ahmadinejad’s words, and has been used to paint him as a madman, a buffoon, and, most pointedly, a bigoted and potentially genocidal anti-Semite. It has also contributed to America’s own deep distrust of Iranian nuclear aims.
In reality, however, the attacks and distrust stemming from the 2005 speech are of doubtful validity, since the popular understanding of Ahmadinejad’s offending words has proved to be a canard. It is invalidated by a careful reading and accurate translation of the original Farsi, and would seem to call for a serious rethinking of the highly dangerous political inferences that have been drawn from it.
In the first place, the reported hostile words are not Ahmadinejad’s. They are a statement by the late Ayatollah Khomeini that, though referenced by Ahmadinejad to affirm his own position on Zionism, represents a viewpoint already in place well before he took office. The words do not, therefore, represent an active policy objective put forward by the Ahmadinejad administration.
More important, however, is the matter of accurate translation. As initially reported by The New York Times, Ahmadinejad is quoted as saying: “Our dear Imam [referring to Ayatollah Khomeini] said that the occupying regime must be wiped off the map, and this was a very wise statement.”
The Times later backed away from that translation—and for good reason. There is in fact no idiomatic phrase in Farsi equivalent to the English “wipe off the map,” which conveys the sense of physical annihilation. According to Jonathan Steele, a columnist for the British paper The Guardian, later translations produced by university professors, by the BBC, by The New York Times itself, and even by pro-Israel news outlets, have all replaced the phrase “must be wiped off the map” with “must vanish from the pages of time.” Moreover, it should be stressed that the entity referenced by the words “must vanish from the pages of time” is not a geographical territory or its human population, but the Zionist regime running the country.
Arash Norouzi, co-founder of the Mossadegh Project, an Internet blog that traces Iran’s brief period of governance under the leadership of its democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, offers this word-by-word translation of Ahmadinejad’s controversial words: “Imam (Khomeini) ghoft (said) een (this) rezhim-e (regime) ishghalgar-e (occupying) qods (Jerusalem) bayad (must) az safheh-ye ruzgar (from pages of time) mahv shavad (vanish). The correct English translation of Ahmadinjad’s controversial referencing of the words of Ayatollah Khomeini would therefore appear to be: “The Imam said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the pages of time [and this was a very wise statement].” No hostile military action is even hinted at. A fair reading would seem to be this: Ahmadinejad is expressing his hope that the Zionist regime in Israel will fall of its own weight in the future, not that Iran wishes to physically destroy the country and/or eradicate its population. The statement is reminiscent of Marx’s contention that capitalism bears in its internal contradictions the seeds of its own destruction.
This interpretation is reinforced later in the speech by Ahmadinejad’s comparison of his hope for the demise of the Zionist regime with his hope years before for the fall of the Shah’s regime in Iran. The Guardian’s Jonathan Steele points out that, as a schoolboy opponent to the Shah in the 1970s, Ahmadinejad would surely not have favored Iran’s liquidation as a state. He simply wanted the Shah out. For Steele, this makes it clear that the Iranian president talked in his 2005 speech not about the end of Israel, but about a change of its regime.
The Shaping of Ahmadinejad’s Views on Israel
Ahmadinejad’s actual attitude and political positioning toward Israel appear to have been shaped in large part by his understanding of the history of the Arab people of Palestine, particularly their relationship with the Jewish state established there in 1948. Four issues in that history may well stand out for him in particular:
1. The Question of a Palestinian Identity
Do Palestinians have a legitimate claim on independent nationhood, based on a distinct “Palestinian” identity? Despite differences on this point among scholars of Middle Eastern history, and the doubts of many Israelis, it is a historical fact that Arabs have resided in Palestine continuously for thousands of years. That reality alone would seem to define Palestinian Arabs as a distinct national, though stateless, population. Moreover, some scholars have traced a growing Palestinian sense of self-identity. It appears to have originated in the late nineteenth century as part of an outbreak of nationalist feeling among the various peoples of the Ottoman Empire. It then further intensified following the demarcation of modern nation-state boundaries in the Middle East after World War I.
Some who challenge the notion of a Palestinian identity argue that a manifest Palestinian nationalism emerged only during the period between the two world wars, in direct response to Zionist immigration and settlement. However, others who accept a distinct Palestinian identity hold that, even if this argument is correct, it does not weaken current Palestinian claims to nationhood. They point out that history records many instances in which now-accepted nation-states had their beginnings in national identities based on “us against them” contrasts. They note also that, if Arabs didn’t call themselves Palestinians until the Zionist movement began, neither did Jews call themselves Israelis until the establishment of the state of Israel.
Whatever the differing interpretations of historians, it is undeniable that by the early twentieth century Arabic-language newspapers in the Palestinian Territories were both expressing strong opposition to Zionism and trumpeting a burgeoning Palestinian national identity. One such paper, in fact, became the first to actually address its readers as “Palestinians.” And, perhaps bearing most heavily on the identity question is the reality that, even before 1948, each of the two peoples in Palestine knew definitively who they were and who the others were.
2. The Fairness of a Jewish Homeland in a Muslim Neighborhood
In 1948, first the British, and eventually the UN itself, conferred legitimacy on the establishment of a Jewish state in what was then primarily an Arab Palestine.
Ahmadinejad’s views on this historical fact are his most controversial, but crucial to his own political posture toward the state of Israel. As he sees it, a homeland for the world’s Jews following the Holocaust should have been found in Europe or in some other territory governed by the allies who had liberated the Jews in World War II. His reasoning is that, since the Holocaust took place in Europe, it was a European problem that required a European solution—not a solution invidious to the totally uninvolved Arabs of Palestine.
On a related matter, Ahmadinejad is widely condemned for his ambivalent statements about the reality of the Holocaust; in them, he expresses doubts about the reported extent and systemization of the Nazi slaughter of European Jews. His views are of course contradicted by overwhelming historical evidence, but it may be fair to argue that in themselves they should not be considered—as they routinely are by his adversaries—a slander on the world’s Jews. They can perhaps be more accurately viewed as the fantasies of a Muslim leader grasping at straws to call into question the world’s accepted justification for the forced intrusion of a Jewish state in the Muslim Middle East.
3. Israeli Treatment of Palestinians Following Creation of the Jewish State
Israeli actions toward indigenous Palestinians following international recognition of the state of Israel in 1948 remains a source of resentment for Muslims throughout the Middle East. During the ensuing Arab-Israeli War, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians either fled their homes in panic or were driven from them as a direct result of Israeli attacks. The historical record also suggests that Israel sought to achieve a permanent Palestinian exile by systematically destroying and making uninhabitable most Arab villages in Palestine. Moreover, in the years since, Israel has continually rejected a UN General Assembly resolution, first passed in December, 1948, that affirms the right of Palestinians to return to their homes and property. It has also refused to compensate Arab Palestinians for their loss of property.
4. Israel’s Zionist Government
In the eyes of many Arabs inside and outside of Palestine, Israel’s Zionist government is undoubtedly seen as unjust to its Arab minority. Arabs widely believe that the Israeli government gives racist preference to its Jewish population, and reduces Arabs within its borders to second-class citizenship.
Despite his own grievances based on these issues, Ahmadinejad has nevertheless conceded the political reality of a Jewish presence in the land of Palestine. In a 2006 interview with Time magazine, he is quoted as saying: “Our suggestion is that the five-million Palestinian refugees come back to their homes, and then the entire people on those lands hold a referendum and choose their own system of government. This is a democratic and popular way.” In other words, Ahmadinejad seems to suggest that the right solution for the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a new pan-Palestine state that comprises Jews and Arabs now living in the state of Israel, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and Palestinian exiles returned to their former family homes in Israel.
To say the least, Ahmadinejad’s vision is, of course, unlikely to be realized. Not only is it politically infeasible, but both the Jewish state and the Palestinians have themselves long been committed to a “two-state solution” that preserves the independence of both national groups.
Ahmadinejad Is All Too Human, Not the Demon He Is Portrayed To Be
Ahmadinejad’s proposed multi-ethnic Palestinian state is certainly dead on arrival. That fact, however, does not suggest he will wage war on Israel in an attempt to make real a Middle East in which the Zionist regime has vanished from the pages of time. Ahmadinejad shows no impulse to invite the certain consequence of such an act: namely, that his own country would be “wiped off the map” in precisely the literal sense in which his own words about Israel have been falsely interpreted. In fact, given the drumbeat of hostility toward Iran over its own suspected but unproven nuclear weapons program, it is far more likely that Israel and/or the United States will launch a preventive military attack on Iran than that Iran will attack Israel even with nuclear parity.
Moreover, Ahmadinejad has said time and again that he is willing to engage in diplomatic negotiations of all outstanding issues between his country and the U.S., including the nuclear question. What he will not accept, he says, is dictates from an adversary that refuses to reason over the foundations and possible solutions for conflicting positions, but merely makes demands based on superior military power. In speeches and interviews seen on American television, Ahmadinejad constantly asserts, with apparent reference to the usual basis for settling disputes over competing national interests, that he himself, and his country, are not pursuing right through might. Nor, he says, will he tolerate such bullying when his own country is the victim. Instead, he proposes—at least in his public discourse—a paradigm of international relations in which reason, not power, is the arbiter of conflict and all nations are left alone to create their own future. Ahmadinejad also frequently invokes “love” as the necessary medium for reaching out to the “other.” One might wonder: Isn’t there at least a chance he’s speaking from the heart?
Yet, far from considering such a possibility, and without a pittance of concern for the truth or embarrassment at its conscious misrepresentations, Israeli and Western leaders continue to demonize Ahmadinejad personally. Rather than reaching out to this “other” in either reason or love, they blindly attack him with the same repeated libel: that he not only hopes for the demise of the Zionist government, but intends to “wipe Israel off the map,” perhaps with the help of a second genocide.
No doubt, many leaders of non-democratic countries are in fact tyrannical and ruthless. It should not be forgotten, however, that all of them are also human beings. On the one hand, they are motivated by the primal instinct to cling to power by whatever means their circumstances demand. On the other hand, they also seek to use their position to make a mark on history: to improve the lot of their people and to strengthen their own nation’s strategic position in the world. Surely, such motivations apply equally to American politicians, who also combine a desire to meet the interests of constituents with an instinct for personal power.
The demonization of Ahmadinejad by Western leaders rests on several factors: among them, fear-driven suspicions; the willingness to uncritically believe the worst; the lock-step tribal alliance between the United States and Israel; and the belief that only domination over other nations can secure national safety and economic success. In spurning diplomatic openness, the West is once again forgoing an opportunity to break through the dividing wall that history time and again builds on foundations of “fear of the other.” Regrettably, it is only on the other side of that wall that peace and all of its rewards can be found.
Do Destructive Wars of Choice Advance America’s “Interests”?
Certainly, the long, doleful history of humankind suggests that its tendency to view life as a continual struggle of “us against them” must be built into our very DNA. But is that struggle characteristic of the kind of world most people want? Wouldn’t we prefer one that is free from the shackles of fear, duplicity, hypocrisy, and bad conscience, all of which constrain us to the spiritless enterprise of controlling and dominating others? Don’t we want a world instead that opens the way to the compassionate sharing of the essentials of life and the fruits of human creativity? With respect to America’s role on the world stage, can’t we see that these ends depend on a foreign policy that balances our own material interests with a caring regard for the national pride, rights, and human needs of every other country?
We have every incentive now to pursue those ends. Given the present state of global economic development, even a modest sharing of wealth by affluent nations with the Third World could make it possible to feed, clothe, house, and educate most impoverished humans on the globe. Yet, America, the most powerful and still the richest nation, fails abjectly to set an example. Instead of acting from the sense of a common humanity to reach out a helping hand, it continues to wage wars of choice that bring misery to innumerable innocent civilians, kill and maim many of our own young men and women, and morally cripple others among them who must suffer the debasements and dehumanization of killing, torturing, and wrecking the lives of others.
What possible “interests” can justify such wars? Is it to secure or expand access to cheap oil that continues to fuel global warming? Is it to pre-empt attacks from nations that would have to destroy themselves in order to punish us? Is it to further expand the sway of U.S. corporations, whose top executives already siphon off a wildly disproportionate part of the American income? Is it to preclude additional attacks by terrorists, who are only further motivated by our implacable hostility? Is it to bring democracy and freedom to oppressed nations by killing thousands of their people, displacing them from their homes, and destroying the infrastructure on which they base their lives?
Surely, it is foolish to think that war—or, for that matter, military intimidation or economic domination—can reliably secure America’s safety. Given that all human populations share an irrepressible instinct to throw out the invaders; and given, too, that in our own time the natural resentment of foreign domination has spawned international terrorist organizations with possible access to weapons of mass destruction; it seems clear that continued efforts by the United States to control others in its own self-interest are likely to end in greatly diminished, not greater, security.
Of course, our government, in seeking to dominate other nations to advance U.S. “interests,” first attempts to do so without a resort to war. It may seek compliance with its goals through the “carrot” of critically needed foreign aid, or by wielding the “stick” of military or economic intimidation. History shows, however, that neither carrots nor sticks are always successful in overcoming the resistance of weaker nations that are intent on protecting their rights of self-determination. In such cases, America does not hesitate to bring them to heel by force of arms. Compassion for the “other” is simply not a part of the equation.
The Dehumanizing Disregard of Civilian Deaths
Our nation does of course overwhelmingly mourn and accord respect to the “brave Americans” who are killed or injured in our wars of choice. Yet, neither our government nor most Americans seem to feel any concern for the suffering our high-tech assaults inflict on other societies, whose victims are people just like ourselves. How often do we encounter authoritative reports of civilian death tolls? Or see or hear mention of the topic in letters to the editor or call-ins to our ubiquitous radio talk shows? It’s as if the human “others” killed and reduced to misery by the American drive to advance its “interests” are a complete non-factor.
Even when civilian deaths in U.S. wars are given the respect of an official estimated count, they beg the question of how they can be morally justified. Regrettably, America’s “Us-First” brand of foreign policy, seemingly imbued in the national DNA, is accepted as a given and very rarely challenged by anyone in—or running for—national political office. Thus, in the current race for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney tells us in a campaign ad that, as president, his foreign policy will serve no other purpose than to strengthen the United States. The nature of that “strengthening” is not defined, but from the arrogant tone of the candidate in the ad, we can reasonably infer its meaning: namely, that, under a Romney presidency (as under Obama), the United States will stop at nothing to secure its perceived national interests. This is clearly a predatory posture, a declaration that, for the United States in the world, “might makes right.” Such a policy hardly seems consistent with a nominally democratic system of government whose founding document asserts that “all men are created equal” and whose written constitution includes a bill of rights that stresses the value of personal freedom. Yet, elsewhere, Rick Santorum declares that, unlike his apparently pusillanimous rivals for the nomination, he will say openly that he will bomb suspected nuclear facilities in Iran.
In a debate among the Republican presidential candidates, Newt Gingrich called the Palestinians an “invented people.” That comment is surely pleasing to the hawkish Israel lobby in America, since it by implication elevates the land claims of Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.
“I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs, and were historically part of the Arab community,” Gingrich remarked. “And they had a chance to go many places.” In response, the New York Times noted in an editorial that denying that Palestinians are a people or nation is an argument sometimes used by the Far Right in Israel, but that it is not the mainstream view. And David Harris, chief executive of the National Jewish Democratic Council, commented that what Gingrich said “is far to the right of [even] the democratically elected Likud leadership of the State of Israel, not to mention established U.S. policy for decades.” In another statement, Gingrich also accused Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, of denying Israel’s right to exist and seeking to destroy Israel—a claim hardly consistent with the known support of the Palestinian leader for a two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Just how far any foreign policy—not just America’s—can diverge from a concern for human beings who stand in the way of its “interests” is made clear in a recent report by Inter Press Service of a new posture assumed by the Israeli government. It states that Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, threatened in November, 2011 to cut Israeli electricity, water, and infrastructure ties that serve the 1.6 million Palestinian residents of Gaza. The report includes this response from Jaber Wishah, deputy director for branches affairs at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights: “This is the true meaning of collective punishment…. Children, women, elderly, patients, students, all are subject to this threat…. Israel has been steadily cutting electricity and destroying infrastructure over the years, but this is the first time they have explicitly threatened to fully cut everything.”
A Reevaluation of Values
Clearly, international politics needs a makeover. In particular, America itself, as the world’s greatest military power and biggest influence by far on world culture, must learn to walk a mile in the other guy’s moccasins. We plainly do not do that now.
Take our attitude toward North Korea, for instance, a failed state and one of the world’s poorest nations. Do we offer it tangible help? No. Do we see its nuclear weapons program for what it undoubtedly is, a desperate effort of a scorned country to gain political respect in the world? No. Instead, we demonize North Korea as a perpetrator of evil, and, in one silly TV talk show after another, ridicule as fatuous its now-deceased “Dear Leader,” his inexperienced successor son, and the people themselves, who, for want of a meaningful life of their own, regard their leaders with idolatrous admiration.
One might well ask in rebuttal: Which of the leaders of our own “exceptional” land has ever put him- or herself in the shoes of Kim Jong Il, and considered what he or she would do about that country’s poverty and catastrophic food shortages? Or how he or she would respond in the face of the tens of thousands of American soldiers stationed in the Korean peninsula, straddling North Korea in the demilitarized zone? Might not an American leader also view such an alien power as a menace, and, out of sheer defensive reflex, build both an oversized army and a daunting, though largely symbolic, nuclear program? Isn’t it possible that by lending a helping hand to North Korea, rather than belittling its culture and threatening its survival, we would not only lessen its motivation to further buildups of military might, but also increase the odds, at far lower cost, that its nuclear weapons will never fall into the hands of terrorists?
What I am suggesting here is a “revaluation of all values” (to use Nietzsche’s phrase) in America’s foreign policy. It undoubtedly requires a whole new way of looking at and doing things. But it also points the way to a more humane approach to international relations that I think could in time be accepted as entirely normal by both our political leaders and ordinary people.
Human beings are not limited to an instinctual fear of others and the notion that their own security and welfare depend on controlling them. To a greater or lesser degree, they also have a spiritual capacity that is frequently revealed in extraordinary expressions of unity. A notable example is the self-initiated “Christmas truce” between German and British soldiers along the Western Front in World War I.
In all of its manifestations, the power of the spirit is characterized by an openness to, and empathy with, the “other.” In his presidential campaign of 2008, Barack Obama raised eyebrows and evoked derision by his stated willingness to talk at any time to any world leader with whom the U.S. had differences. He undoubtedly imagined that a reasoned exchange of ideas is possible even with those who hold very different positions, based on the goodwill and openness inherent in a common humanity. Unfortunately, Obama’s openness was premature. He soon learned that his human outreach would be limited by the “interests” of the governing system he aspired to lead. In any discussions he might hold, he was told, his conformity to this restriction would be ensured by much preliminary schooling and the presence of a retinue of advisors.
What We Can Do To Change Things
It must be conceded, of course, that, in the conduct of its foreign relations, the United States is not entirely selfish. It does, for example, offer a modicum of no-strings-attached foreign aid to developing countries, and is rightfully recognized for its generous assistance to victims of natural disasters. At present, however, the scope of such human outreach remains insignificant when compared to arms sales and other military aid to allies, and the use of bullying tactics or coercive military power to bring recalcitrant non-allied weaker nations into line.
One might well ask, therefore: Considering the death, destruction, resentment, and hatred wrought by America’s discretionary war-making, isn’t it finally time that this powerful and still prosperous nation, perhaps the most “religious” on earth, bound by law to ethical principles, and with immense power to do good, redirect its foreign policy substantially to the eradication of suffering and want so evident in much of the world?
For those who hate brutality and respect the powers of empathy, compassion, and love, the answer is, Of course, it’s time to make that change. It is essential to recognize, however, that the federal government, no matter how well-intentioned the men and women elected to run it, cannot reverse its course on its own. Government operates as part of a system closely wedded to the profit ambitions of corporations that underwrite the ambitions of those who seek to lead it. It is therefore programmed, in effect, to produce a a foreign policy that allows it to dominate weaker nations in order to advance perceived national economic, strategic, and security interests.
Since the government runs, so to speak, on an automatic pilot of self-interest, only the demands of a critical mass of the American people can redirect it to a more humane path. Such s shift to “people power,” however, represents an immense challenge. Before ordinary citizens can be prepared to effectively demand change, they themselves must be freed from manipulation by the very corporate interests that work in synch with the government to pursue the ends that lead to war.
Today, despite a precipitous decline in living standards resulting largely from corporate selfishness and misbehavior, most Americans continue to buy into our culture’s emphasis on consumption, me-first values, and a fantasy life-style promoted by the corporate-sponsored mass media. As long as they remain under the spell of consumerism, narcissism, and escapism, they can hardly be expected to get in touch with their spiritual side and go on the march for economic fairness at home and moral justice in the world.
How, then, do we free ourselves from corporate manipulation? Obviously, we have to first learn from our own life experiences how false its blandishments are as underpinnings of a true human life. Then, we need to start building a life for ourselves that moves toward authenticity. Some first steps might be these:
As consumers, let us join in the spirit of the documentary-film hero Reverend Billy and his “Church of Stop Shopping,” and meet such material needs as we may have by buying from local shops and developing a sense of community with our neighbors. Culturally, let us resist the flood-tide of hedonistic commercials and meretricious programming on television, and the propaganda and horse-race politics of the news media. These drive us to a conformity of opinion in which we live by the same values, adopt the same views, idolize the same heroes, and hate the same foes as our neighbors. We need instead to read books and think for ourselves. It is the necessary basis for the desire and capacity to walk a mile in the other guy’s moccasins.
Having freed ourselves from psychological manipulation by corporate interests—many of which are intertwined with those of the very war machine we would disempower—we can work politically to change the policies of government.
Let us organize or join campaigns for needed reforms: for public financing of federal elections; for regulations that steer Wall Street away from selfish get-rich schemes and toward the lending of investment monies actually needed to shape a creative economy; for government investments in the public interest that can help upgrade our physical and information infrastructure, provide seed money for strategic technological advances, create employment, and enhance educational opportunity at every level; and for shrinking the American military empire around the world to the minimum level required to defend the physical safety of our own country, not some perceived national interests in far-away places. Let us also promote peaceful conflict resolution around the world, and support and vote for political candidates who renounce war.
With such a start, I believe Americans can in time elect a government whose foreign policy will support a generous American outreach to the world. We may be surprised to find that, just as with our earlier mission of ping-pong ambassadors to China, the first gestures of true humanity to our presumptive adversaries will be swiftly reciprocated, making easier, in turn, another gesture from ourselves. Such small overtures, extended anywhere, may in time, by a gradual buildup, lead to a full flowering of the spirit—of open, empathetic, and compassionate human engagement.
And one last point: Throughout history, people have failed to hear or follow the higher calling of their own nature; they have been driven instead to conform to the behavior and values of their neighbors and, by instinctual fear, to pursue domination of the “other.” In hopes of remedying these deficiencies, they have developed complex religious mythologies, rituals, and dogmas that exalt the religious community and point the way to ethical values by which to accept, or tolerate, human differences.
History shows, however, that, despite these complex systems of ethical guidance, we humans continue to perceive those who are outside our own community as “other.” Only the simple human heart itself can achieve true reconciliation, and that only by reaching out to the other in love.
In a time of human divisions that need not be, citizens and governments of all nations with the power to do good in the world must finally yield to the “higher angels” of their nature. Those angels are as real as our biological fears, and can lift us to the joy of a shared humanity.