Concerned that a much-needed international perspective is missing
from the debate in this country over the course of American foreign
policy and US relations with the world, The Nation asked a number
of distinguished foreign writers and thinkers to share their reflections
with us. It is our hope that, as in the early 1980s, when a "letter" in
these pages from the late E.P. Thompson expressing rising European
concern about the Reagan Administration's nuclear weapons buildup was
instrumental in building common bonds beween antinuclear movements
across the Atlantic, this series will forge bonds between Americans
concerned about how Washington is exercising power today and the rest of
the world. We begin with a letter to an American friend written by the
South African writer Breyten Breytenbach, whose opposition to apartheid
resulted in his spending seven years in prison.
This is an extraordinarily difficult letter to write, and it may even be
a perilous exercise. Dangerous because your present Administration and
its specialized agencies by all accounts know no restraint in hitting
out at any perceived enemy of America, and nobody or nothing can protect
one from their vindictiveness. Not even American courts are any longer a
bulwark against arbitrary exactions. Take the people being kept in that
concentration camp in Guantánamo: They are literally
extraterritorial, by force made anonymous and stateless so that no law,
domestic or international, is habilitated to protect them. It may be an
extreme example brought about by abnormal circumstances--but the
criteria of human rights kick in, surely, precisely when the conditions
are extreme and the situation is abnormal. The predominant yardstick of
your government is not human rights but national interests. (Your
President keeps repeating the mantra.) In what way is this order of
priorities any different from those of the defunct Soviet Union or other
The war against terror is an all-purpose fig leaf for violating or
ignoring local laws and international agreements and treaties. So,
talking to America is like dealing with a very aggressive beast: One
must do so softly, not make any brusque moves or run off at the mouth if
you wish to survive. In dancing with the enemy one follows his steps
even if counting under one's breath. But do be careful not to dance too
close to containers intended for transporting war prisoners in
Afghanistan: One risks finding one's face blackened by a premature
Why is it difficult? Because the United States is a complex entity
despite the gung-ho slogans and simplistic posturing in moments of
national hysteria. Your political system is resilient and well tested;
it has always harbored counterforces; it allows quite effectively for
alternation: for a swing-back of the pendulum whenever policies have
strayed too far from middle-class interests--with the result that you
have a large middle ground of acceptable political practices. Why,
through the role of elected representatives, the people who vote even
have a rudimentary democratic control over public affairs! Except maybe
in Florida. Better still--your history has shown how powerful a moral
catharsis expressed through popular resistance to injustice can
sometimes be; I have in mind the grassroots opposition to the Vietnam
War. And all along there was no dearth of strong voices speaking firm
convictions and enunciating sure ethical standards.
Where are they now? What happened to the influential intellectuals and
the trustworthy journalists explaining the ineluctable consequences of
your present policies? Where are the clergy calling for humility and
some compassion for the rest of the world? Are there no ordinary folk
pointing out that the President and his cronies are naked, cynical,
morally reprehensible and very, very dangerous not only for the world
but also for American interests--and by now probably out of control? Are
these voices stifled? Has the public arena of freely debated expressions
of concern been sapped of all influence? Are people indifferent to the
havoc wreaked all over the world by America's diktat policies,
destroying the underpinnings of decent international coexistence? Or are
they perhaps secretly and shamefully gleeful, as closet supporters of
this Showdown at OK Corral approach? They (and you and I) are most
likely hunkered down, waiting for the storm of imbecility to pass. How
deadened we have become!
In reality the workings of your governing system are opaque and covert,
while hiding in the chattering spotlight of an ostensible transparency,
even though the ultimate objective is clear. Who really makes the policy
decisions? Sure, the respective functions are well identified: The
elected representatives bluster and raise money, the lobbyists buy and
sell favors, the media spin and purr patriotically, the intellectuals
wring their soft hands, the minorities duck and dive and hang out
flags... But who and what are the forces shaping America's role in the
The goal, I submit, is obvious: subjugating the world (which is
barbarian, dangerous, envious and ungrateful) to US power for the sake
of America's interests. That is, to the benefit of America's rich. It's
as simple as that. Oh, there was a moment of high camp when it was
suggested that the aim was to make the world safe for democracy! That
particular fig leaf went up in cigar smoke and now all the other excuses
are just so much bullshit, even the charlatan pretense of being a nation
under siege. This last one, I further submit, was a sustained Orson
Wellesian campaign to stampede the nation in order to better facilitate
what was in effect a right-wing coup carried out by cracker
fundamentalists, desk warriors proposing to "terminate" the states that
they don't like, warmed up Dr. Strangeloves and oil-greedy conservative
I do not want to equate your glorious nation with the deplorable image
of a President who, at best, appears to be a bar-room braggart smirking
and winking to his mates as he holds forth his hand-me-down platitudes
and insights and naïve solutions. Because I know you have many
faces and I realize how rich you are in diversity. Would I be writing
this way if I had in mind a black or Hispanic or Asian-American, members
of those vastly silent components of your society? It would be a tragic
mistake for us out here to imagine that Bush represents the hearts and
the minds of the majority of your countrymen. Many of your black and
other compatriots must be just as anguished as we are.
Still, Jack, certain things need to be said and repeated. I realize it
is difficult for you to know what's happening in the world, since your
entertainment media have by now totally blurred the distinctions between
information and propaganda, and banal psychological and commercial
manipulation must be the least effective way of disseminating
understanding. You need to know that your country has made the world a
much more dangerous place for the rest of us. International treaties to
limit the destruction of our shared natural environment, to stop the
manufacture of maiming personnel mines, to outlaw torture, to bring war
criminals to international justice, to do something about the murderous
and growing gulf between rich and poor, to guarantee natural food for
the humble of the earth, to allow for local economic solutions to
specific conditions of injustice, for that matter to permit local
products to have access to American markets, to mobilize the world
against hunger, have all been gutted by the USA.Your government is
blackmailing every single miserable and corrupt mother's son in power in
the world to do things your way. It has forced itself on the rest of us
in its support and abetment of corrupt and tyrannical regimes. It has
lost all ethical credibility in its one-sided and unequivocal support of
the Israeli government campaign that must ultimately lead to the
ethnocide of the Palestinians. And in this it has
promoted--sponsored?--the bringing about of a deleterious international
climate, since state terrorism can now be carried out with arrogance,
disdain and impunity. As far as the Arab nations are concerned, America,
giving unquestioned legitimacy to despotic regimes, refusing any
recognition of home-grown alternative democratic forces, favored the
emergence of a bearded opposition who in time must become radicalized
and fanaticized to the point where they can be exterminated as vermin.
And the oilfields will be safe.
I'm too harsh. I'm cutting corners. I'm pontificating. But my friend, if
you were to look around the world you would see that America is largely
perceived as a rogue state.
Can there be a turn-back? Have things gone too far, beyond a point of
possible return? Can it be that some of the core and founding
assumptions (it is said) of your culture are ultimately dangerous to the
survival of the world? I'm referring to your propensity for patriotism
(to me it's an attitude, not a value), to the fervent belief in a
capitalist free-market system with the concomitant conviction that
progress is infinite, that one can eternally remake and invent the self,
that it is more important to be self-made than to collectively husband
the planet's diminishing resources, that the instant gratification of
the desire for goods is the substance of the right to happiness, that
the world and life and all its manifestations can be apprehended and
described in terms of good and evil, finally that you can flare for a
while in samsara, the world of illusions (and desperately make it last
with artificial means and California hocus-pocus before taking all your
prostheses to heaven).
If this is so, what then? With whom? You see, the most detestable effect
is that so many of us have to drink this poison, to look at you as a
threat, to live with the knowledge of cultural and economic and military
danger in our veins, and to be obliged to either submit or resist.
I don't want to pass the buck. Don't imagine it is necessarily any
better elsewhere. We, in this elsewhere, have to look for our own
solutions. Europe is pusillanimous, carefully though hypocritically
hostile and closed to foreigners, particularly those from the South; the
EU is by now little more than a convenience for its citizens and
politically and culturally much less than the contents of any of its
And Africa? As a part-time South African (the other parts are French and
Spanish and Senegalese and New Yorker), I've always wondered whether
Thabo Mbeki would be America's thin globalizing wedge (at the time of
Clinton and Gore it certainly seemed so) or whether he was ultimately
going to be the leader who can strategically lead Africa against
America. But the question is hypothetical. Thabo Mbeki is no alternative
to the world economic system squeezing the poor for the sustainable
enrichment of the rich; as in countries like Indonesia and your own (see
the role of the oil companies), he too has opted for crony capitalism.
Africa's leading establishments are rotten to the core. Mbeki is no
different. His elocution is more suave and his prancing more Western,
What do we do, then? As we move into the chronicle of a war foretold
(against Iraq), it is going to be difficult to stay cool. Certainly, we
must continue fighting globalization as it exists now, reject the
article of faith that postulates a limitless and lawless progress and
expansion of greed, subvert the acceptance of might is right, spike the
murderous folly of One God. And do so cautiously and patiently, counting
our steps. It is going to be a long dance.
Let us find and respect one another.
Bush's counterterrorism efforts neglect women.
Every year Greensboro, North Carolina, holds a Fourth of July parade in
which local organizations form the units. This year members of the
Greensboro Peace Coalition decided--"after some hesitation," admits
chairman Ed Whitfield--to join the line of march. They bought an ad in
the local paper, printed leaflets and developed their own variation on
this year's theme of "American Heroes": large posters of Americans,
including Mark Twain, Albert Einstein and the Rev. Martin Luther King
Jr., who have spoken out against the folly of war.
Though members had been participating in vigils since last October, when
the bombing of Afghanistan began, many expressed qualms about marching
into the thick of their hometown's annual patriotic celebration. But
fifty activists showed up on the Fourth and got the surprise of their
political lives. Along the mile-and-a-half parade route through downtown
Greensboro, they were greeted mostly with applause, and, at the end of
their march, they were honored by parade organizers for "Best
Interpretation of the Theme."
Says Whitfield, "There is a real lesson in this. If you scratch the
surface of the poll numbers about Bush and Ashcroft's overwhelming
support, you get down to a lot of people with a lot of questions. Some
of them are afraid that they are alone in what they are thinking. What
it takes to get them excited and to get them involved is for them to see
someone standing up so that they will know they are not alone."
The post-September 11 experiences of the Greensboro Peace Coalition,
Berea College's Patriots for Peace, the Arkansas Coalition for Peace and
Justice, and dozens of other grassroots groups serve as a reminder that
while dissenters have not always spoken in a single voice, they have had
in common not just their unease with the bipartisan Washington consensus
but the often inspiring experience that there are many Americans who
share their discomfort. Take Jennifer Ellis of Peace Action Maine, who
recalls how overwhelmed Down East activists felt after September 11.
"But then we started to get calls from people saying, 'I don't know what
your organization is, but it has the word "peace" in the title. What can
I do?'" Some callers were already holding vigils, and her group started
sending out weekly e-mails listing them. "We linked people up with local
efforts to fight discrimination against Muslims, and we told people how
to write members of Congress about civil liberties issues," she says.
"Before long, all these people, in all these towns across Maine, were
As with anti-World War I activists who looked to Wisconsin Senator Bob
La Follette, critics of McCarthyism who celebrated Maine's Margaret
Chase Smith's statement of conscience or foes of the Vietnam War who
were inspired by the anti-Gulf of Tonkin resolution votes of Oregon's
Wayne Morse and Alaska's Ernest Gruening, post-September 11 dissenters
found solace in the fact that at least a few members of Congress shared
their qualms. Three days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and
the Pentagon, Representative Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, cast
the only vote against the resolution authorizing the use of force to
respond. Lee's vote earned her death threats and pundit predictions that
she was finished politically, but she won her March Democratic primary
race with 85 percent of the vote. And the "Barbara Lee Speaks for Me"
movement that started in her Oakland-based district has spread; in July
several thousand people packed a Santa Cruz, California, movie theater
to celebrate "Barbara Lee Day." Said Santa Cruz Mayor Christopher Krohn:
"She's become a national moral leader in awakening the movement for
justice, peace and a thorough re-examination of US foreign policy."
Responded Lee: "It must not be unpatriotic to question a course of
action. It must not be unpatriotic to raise doubts. I suggest to you it
is just the opposite."
Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who cast the only Senate
vote against the USA Patriot Act's assault on civil liberties, still
marvels at the standing ovations he receives when his vote is mentioned.
"I thought this would be a difficult vote," says Feingold, who recently
earned the best home-state approval ratings of his career. "What I
didn't realize was that a lot of people are concerned about free speech
and repression of liberties, even in a time of war. I didn't realize
until I cast my vote that there was so much concern about whether it was
appropriate, whether it was allowed, to dissent after September 11. I
think that for a lot of people, my vote told them it was still
appropriate to dissent."
Some members who have challenged the Bush Administration have suffered
politically--notably Georgia Representative Cynthia McKinney, who lost
an August Democratic primary. But most are secure in their seats, and
one is even being boomed as a potential Democratic presidential
contender. Representative Dennis Kucinich's February speech condemning
the bombing of Afghan civilians and the repression of American civil
liberties drew an overwhelmingly positive response that Kucinich, an
Ohio Democrat, says is evidence of broad uncertainty about militarism
abroad and economic and constitutional costs at home.
Democratic Representative Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin led several House
members in writing a letter in December questioning White House policies
that emphasize bullets and badgering as opposed to diplomacy and
development; and John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the
House Judiciary Committee, has kept the heat on the Justice Department
regarding civil liberties--often with the support of Judiciary Committee
chair James Sensenbrenner, a conservative Republican. Still, says
Kucinich, "our constituents are perhaps more prepared than Congress for
the debate that should be going on."
Bill Keys, a school board member in Madison, Wisconsin, shares that
view. Keys's October 2001 refusal to require the recitation of the
Pledge of Allegiance in city schools earned three days of broadcast
rebukes from radio personality Rush Limbaugh, physical threats and a
movement to recall him from office. The recall drive fizzled before
winter and, this spring, Keys was elected president of the board. "The
strange thing is that once I became identified as this awful radical,
people started coming up to me and saying, 'Don't you let them shut you
up,'" recalls Keys. "If the last year taught us anything, it's this:
Yes, of course, if you step out of the mainstream you will get called
names and threatened. But you will also discover that a lot of Americans
still recognize that dissenters are the real defenders of freedom."
Sparks fly in the debate over the war on terror.
"... Come my friends,
'tis not too late to seek
a newer world, ..."
Questions about Enron's links to the White House and Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force are reassuring. They mean that the nation, after the September 11 attacks, is now confident enough to focus on some of the more traditional threats to our democracy, like the corporate takeover of our political system.
Following the release of the White House energy plan last year, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) demanded the Energy Task Force's records, including any interactions with major Bush campaign donors like Enron's Ken Lay. The Vice President's office refused to release the documents, claiming that Congress was exceeding its oversight authority. One of the oil and gas men whose privacy the White House wants to protect is Cheney himself, who in 1999, as CEO of Halliburton, was a member of the Petroleum Council, an advisory group to the Energy Department. The council issued a report calling for the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and of roadless areas of the West to fossil fuel exploitation, proposals incorporated into the White House plan.
The GAO was preparing to sue for the first time in its eighty-year history when the terrorists struck. It then put its suit on hold so it could focus on "homeland security" and let the White House do the same. With the collapse of Enron and the beginning of Congressional hearings on the largest bankruptcy in US history, that holding pattern appears to be ending.
Still, even as environmental groups backed away from criticizing the President after September 11, the White House continued to push its "free market" environmental agenda. This past October, Interior Secretary Gale Norton had to explain why she'd altered scientific data, in a letter to the Senate, to make it appear that oil operations in the Arctic would not harm hundreds of thousands of migratory caribou, when in fact her own Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had provided her with data suggesting it would. "We did make a mistake. We will take steps to clarify and correct that," she told reporters in explaining one of the many discrepancies in her letter.
Norton has also concluded that drilling in the Arctic won't violate an international treaty that protects polar bears. The FWS, which has twice issued reports stating that drilling poses a threat to the bears, was directed to "correct these inconsistencies" with Norton's position. Polar bears can live with oil drilling, the FWS now tells us. They'll just look more like panda bears.
Ten years after President Bush Sr. pledged "no net loss of wetlands," George W. has signed off on an Army Corps of Engineers proposal that will make it easier for developers and mining companies to dredge and fill America's vital wetlands through a "general permitting" process that is rarely if ever challenged. Again, Norton failed to forward comments from her FWS to the corps, even though the FWS had written that the proposed policy change would result in "tremendous destruction of aquatic and terrestrial habitat."
Among the beneficiaries of the new engineer corps rules will be mining companies involved in "mountaintop removal" in Appalachia. J. Steven Griles, Norton's deputy, was a longtime mining lobbyist, and Norton herself lobbied for the lead industry.
Over at the EPA Christie Whitman won greenie points when she ordered GE to begin dredging PCBs out of the Hudson River. At the same time, the EPA has begun moving top career people (from the office of wetlands, enforcement, etc.) around the agency in a strange reorganization no one quite understands. "Are they purposely designing this to hamstring EPA for the next twenty years?" wonders a career employee who also complains that enforcement actions (as opposed to industry-friendly out-of-court settlements) are down significantly in the past year.
Under White House and lobbyist pressure, the EPA is also getting ready to relax clean air standards (that, as governor of New Jersey, Whitman supported) requiring old coal-fired power plants to shut down or significantly reduce gaseous emissions that contribute to acid rain and other forms of pollution.
Even Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's recent Detroit auto show announcement that the government will work with the auto industry to develop pollution-free hydrogen-fuel-cell cars got mixed reactions. That's because he used the announcement to abandon a program aimed at improving existing auto fuel-efficiency standards. As usual, most of these environmental policy decisions are rife with corporate conflicts of interest, but conflicts that in recent months have gotten even less media attention than they normally would.
In her public appearances Whitman now emphasizes the need to protect America's water supply from terrorists (if not arsenic). Norton has been pushing the argument that drilling in ANWR can provide as much oil as we import from Iraq in eighty years (or the oily equivalent of sixteen years of Cheney's diet), and President Bush insists that Arctic drilling will make us "more secure at home." If nothing else, America's new "war on terrorism" is helping the Bush White House in its old war on the environment.
"Former Yankee virtues, common sense, scepticism if not suspicion of authority, a belief in the mastery of the future, have been driven underground.
Read Senator Joe Lieberman's letter to ACTA.
Read comments from other new members of Tattletales for an Open Society.
Read Eric Scigliano's Naming-and un-naming-Names.
Civil liberties get short shrift in this perilous time of antiterrorism measures.