Toward an American Revolution

Exposing the Constitution and other Illusions

Jerry Fresia

Chapter 7

The Need for Revolutionaries

The figure of a labourer - some furrows in a ploughed field - a bit of sand, sea and sky - are serious subjects, so difficult, but at the same time so beautiful, that it is indeed worthwhile to devote one's life to the task of expressing the poetry hidden in them.
- Vincent Van Gogh

The people, sir, are a great beast.
- Alexander Hamilton

Prior to his resignation, Richard Nixon had been warned by his legal counsel John Dean, that there was a cancer growing on the presidency. During the recent celebration of our Constitution's bicentennial, again the term cancer has again been used to characterize the health of our political institutions. Both Daniel Sheehan, chief counsel for the Christic Institute, and I.F. Stone have said, in reference to the Iran-Contra Affair (see Chapter 5), that a cancer lies deep within the bowels of our constitutional government. Sheehan argues that that cancer needs to be removed so that we can return to the principles set out in the Constitution and so that we can restore the health of the body-politic.1

My argument is fundamentally different: private property and production for profit, which is protected by the Constitution, is the source of the cancer. The problems which so trouble Sheehan and others emerge in part out of a Constitution which enables relatively few people to control of our worklives and our resources, which tends to insulate private power from public pressure, which compels us to act in narrowly self-interested ways, and which strips away the bonds of community and sets in its place the impersonal relations of the market. The Constitution, in this period of decline, invites the private control of public policy and given the corporate domination of public policy it should hardly surprise anyone that the largest corporate owners apply the most efficient and impersonal methods in their effort to protect their privilege and power.

One may counter that in spite of its defects, the Constitution remains the last best defense against all the repressive tendencies outlined in this study thus far. No one disagrees that the Bill of Rights protects some people from the federal government some of the time. However, the Constitution, given its protection of property rights and its deference to private power, cannot live up to its own standards. We cannot realistically expect, for example, the federal government to live up to the 14th Amendment and guarantee equal protection before the law for both corporate owners and people whose daily subordination contributes to greater opportunities for corporate expansion and enhanced revenues upon which the federal government itself depends. The shield against state repression which the Constitution provides individuals has never been large enough to protect the victims of capitalism in their attempt to organize an alternative political economy, particularly abroad where from a Constitutional viewpoint only resources, not people, exist. If we seek to expand the kind of protection which the Bill of Rights affords some people then we need to talk more about the oppression which our political economy requires and the repression the Constitution permits.

Furthermore, we need to understand that a defense of Constitutional protection without a clear and strong indictment of the way in which Constitutional provisions protect corporate interests abroad, particularly death squad activity, is also a defense of the very narrow definition of the self which capitalism is based upon. We should keep in mind that it is an obligation under international law, as articulated within the Nuremberg Protocols, to restrain one's government from engaging in criminal conduct. It is in this spirit that we must expose the contradiction within the Bill of Rights. I don't think we can be reminded too often of the simple truth, as stated by progressive activist Brian Wilson, that “the lives of people in the Third World are worth no less than our own.” We need, in other words, to talk about moving beyond the present Constitution and its definition of what deserves protection, and toward a new social order.

The point is this: we must accept our humanity, but to accept our humanity means that we must work to regain control our worklives, to build communities that are not structured by market considerations, to establish a harmonious relationship with nature, and to live our lives in a way that is in solidarity with the oppressed. To accept one's humanity, then, means that we must let the world know and feel who we are. And there is precious little space in the United States today for the many progressive thinkers and caring people to live a life that they can genuinely endorse upon reflection. Sheldon Wolin writes,

It is naive to expect the initiative for reform of the state to issue from the political process that serves the interests of political capitalism. This structure can only be reduced if citizens withdraw and direct their energies and civic commitment to finding new life forms. Toward these ends, our whole mode of thinking must be turned upside-down. Instead of imitating most other political theories and adopting the state as the primary structure and then adapting the activity of the citizen to the state, democratic thinking should renounce the state paradigm and, along with it, the liberal-legal corruption of the citizen. The old citizenship must be replaced by a fuller and wider notion of being whose politicalness will be expressed not in one or two modes of activity - voting or protesting - but in many.2
In short, to accept one's humanity means to openly reject many of the values and principles of the Constitution. And that is a revolutionary act. As has been suggested throughout, the struggle that surrounded the establishment of the Constitution is still on-going. We have yet to have our revolution.

Taking Back the Concept of Revolution

Walk through the shopping malls which have in many ways taken the place of neighborhood communities and you will see what makes up the so-called “good life” in America. You will see the massive attempt to avoid the pain, complexity, and conflict of life that cannot be avoided. And you will see the equally massive attempt to control pleasure, attempts that become mindless stimulation once packaged. If you have brown hair and want to be blond, no problem. If you have blue eyes and want purple eyes, it's easy. If you have crooked teeth, tiny breasts, a bald head, droopy eyes, or a big nose, you need not suffer the shame and undeserved ridicule any longer. Dyes, pills, creams, pads, straps, powders, sprays, paste and an army of surgeons can do the trick. No one needs to be the wrong shape or the wrong size. This is America: You can buy your image. Just produce the cash and sign your name here. Happiness is comfort and comfort is at your fingertips. You can make hot days cool, cool days warm, and you can take care of all of your entertainment needs with one flip of the remote control switch. If you want those things which will make your life a little easier, get a credit card. Yes, indeed, a full shopping bag is a full life.

But turn this artificial existence over and you will see the reality of domination and control. Consider that richly colored shawl woven by the Quiche Indians of Guatemala, or the Texas Instrument calculator manufactured in the barrios of El Salvador, or the grapes you bought last week that were harvested by farmworkers in the valleys of California. Stop and think how these goods were produced, who owned the loom, the factory, the land? Who determined what time the workers began, what time they ate and under what conditions they worked? Who died of PCB and pesticide poisoning? Who got rich from this exchange and who was made poor? And let us ask ourselves, is the right which entitles us to own and become rich also the right to exploit those who must sell their lives in order to live? Is this right to transform nature into things the right also to separate ourselves from nature and from each other and from all that is spiritually alive? Whether at high school football games or at the Superbowl, whether at play in a back alley or in the Olympics, whether in private industry or in the Oval Office, our relations to one another are organized around competition and conquest. Our fantasy is to stand out from the rest, to shout in spastic frenzy, in some appropriate place of triumph, “We are Number 1.” The need to see ourselves as better than others or as less than what we are betrays a thinness of generosity and a self-awareness that mocks imagination.

What happens to our integrity as citizens when our government is compelled to lie, assassinate its political opposition abroad, condemn the World Court after it unanimously asserted that our war against Nicaragua is a violation of the Geneva Conventions? What happens to our bond to the international community when the United States sends weapons to over twenty countries which practice torture and covertly attempts to destabilize several dozen more? Are we not citizens separated from the teachings of the world community just as we are separated from ourselves and from each other and from the discomfort, anxiety, pain, conflict, and struggle that is an inescapable feature of simple life? Separated from the natural rhythms of pleasure and pain have we not constructed an artificial existence organized around the technical rhythms of the machine? Images of being awakened by the birds or the rooster or the sun seem relatively quaint and unreal. More genuine for us is the morning that begins with alarms, caffeine, traffic lights, and rush hours. Each day becomes an agenda dictated by the clock; each week a unit of production; each year a measure of accumulation. Even our language reflects the erosion of our humanity. We are increasingly machines that are “turned-off,” “cooled-out,” “charged-up,” “burned-out”, “turned-on,” and “programmed” or given “feedback,” “input,” or which send out and receive different kinds of “energy.”

What does this tell us about our sensitivity to unhealthy social relations? We live amidst massive inequality. We don't really care that most people have little power to alter the conditions of their lives. We refuse to acknowledge that the earth is dying and that we are killing it. We play games with the most horrible weapons imaginable and actually seem to take pride in our ability to end life as we know it. Our unthinking celebration of individual achievement and upward mobility works to damage the life-giving ties of kinship and the bonds of community. Whether with regard to women or workers or people of color, we, as a nation, accept the systematic subordination of human beings. We pretend not to understand the linkages between our comfortable standard of living and the dictatorships we impose and protect through an international military presence.

Signs that something is terribly wrong are everywhere but the struggle to see ourselves as a free people and as superior people forces us to look away, to deny our experience and to repress what our experience means. And so with righteous indignation public officials admonish the Supreme Court nominee who smoked marijuana while they keep information from the public that would expose U.S.-sponsored terror and the criminal history of the Secret Team. The U.S. orchestration of the heaviest aerial war ever seen in the Americas, directed against the civilian population of El Salvador, is ignored while the assassination of Marines in that same country is held aloft as a banner of our innocence.

But the struggle to see ourselves as free and innocent is one that is self-defeating. For to deny and repress what we see and hear and know is to live in a purely invented world, a world where reason must die and where stupidity must reign. As Nietzsche warned, restlessly, violently, headlong like a river that wants to reach the end, we move toward catastrophe.

It is against this backdrop of illusion and ill-fated destiny that the perception of the life-giving aspects of resistance, struggle, and change is most striking. Consider the Nicaraguan revolution. The Sandinistas, following the overthrow the U.S.-backed Somoza regime in 1979 and the ending of forty years of dictatorship “embarked almost immediately on a program aimed at changing the basic social structure...” The data on the accomplishments of the revolution as well as the destructive effects of the U.S.-backed Contra attacks have been well documented elsewhere. I shall provide you with but a glimpse of the picture. In health care, the Sandinistas reduced the infant mortality rate from 121 per 1,000 births in 1979 to 75 per 1,000 births in 1984. They eliminated polio by 1982 and sharply increased the number of health facilities, such as hospitals, health centers, and health posts. In 1982 Nicaragua received the UNICEF/World Health Organization prize for the Third World country that had made the greatest improvement in health. By 1984, however, the Contras had killed sixty-nine health care providers and had destroyed fifty-nine rural health outposts, three health centers, and one hospital. The economic costs of the war in 1984 alone could have built 8,000 rural health outposts, 196 health centers, or twenty-five hospitals of 200-bed capacity.3

President Reagan, when initiating the U.S. embargo against Nicaragua in 1985, stated that the “policies and actions of...Nicaragua constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States...” To be sure, the accomplishments of the Nicaraguan revolution marked the inception of a new age in Central America for they provide new bearings for political and moral life. But what is really provocative about Nicaragua and what most stirs the imagination is the sense one gets from the place that it is a country and a people transformed. Nicaraguans seem to be in touch with a spirit which we repress, with a fascination for ideas and discovery which we deny, and with the excitement of self-transformation which we filter out. It is the sensuality that is youth and the pride that marks an honest life. It is, in a word, a simple lust.

We, of course, cannot put all of this on Nicaragua. The sensuality, pride, honesty, and lust of which I speak are particularly dramatic and striking to North Americans who experience them in sharp contrast to the deadening repression that defines their native culture and politics. Nicaraguans resisted and won; it is not surprising that their country stimulates and excites those who are needful of self-discovery. It happens in the United States as well. The interviews of activists in the 1950s and 1960s by Sara Evans remind us that it is possible here as well. Statements such as “...the work so far has been far more gratifying than anything I ever anticipated,” leaving the movement “would be like living death,” or “I go home at night completely exhausted but very happy” are statements which acknowledge that it is possible to be buried alive in the United States by the sterile rituals we call freedom and democracy and electoral politics.4 I picked cotton on a “harvest brigade” for a short time in Nicaragua and I found myself counting the days and mumbling from time to time, “This has to be hell on earth.” But the good news of the Nicaraguan revolution doesn't mean good times. Good news often means difficult times, hard work, and intense challenge. But when one person stands up for what he or she believes, and is joined by another, and another, then risks are taken and things begin to change: That's good news.

In Nicaragua, I was able to experience for a moment what it feels like to participate in and win a liberation struggle. I walked through the barrios of Managua and down dusty, impassable rural roads and saw barefoot children as they began work with the rising sun. I spoke with a woman in her 70s who shared with me what it meant to have finally learned to read. I noted with humility the graffiti that declares, “We will never be slaves again.” I listened to the personal testimonies of insurrection and of courage and of accomplishment. I sensed the expectancy of a peasant who explained, “Christ did not die for your sins, he died for his beliefs and we are inspired by his example.” I studied the expression of a dirty-faced child, who is fourteen but looks nine, and who responds when asked if he goes to school, “No, but someday I hope to.” I felt the massive patience of an old man who when asked by a hostile questioner if he had been brainwashed by the Sandinistas replied, “I don't know if my brain has yet been washed clean after fifty years of Somoza, but I hope that my childrens' brains will be washed clean and that you will help us in that struggle.”

All of this helped me begin to understand the meaning of U.S.-imposed dictatorship and of the dream called revolution. What I saw when I looked into the dark eyes of Nicaraguans were the eyes of people who once were made the wretched of the earth, who have now stood up. With stubbornness of will that was indestructible, the slaves have arisen. That spirit of an ongoing, magnificent struggle is thick in Nicaragua. It hangs in the air. You feel it everywhere. You see it in their eyes. You feel it in their patience. It grips your soul and takes hold of you.

Stated one brigadista upon her return, “I learned love and hope, which are hard to sustain now that I'm `home' in the U.S. I want to go back home - to Nicaragua.”

The barefoot revolutionaries of the world are teaching us that change is possible and that our beliefs are real. Perhaps the single greatest failure of our Constitution and the political-economic system erected upon it is that it accepts Hamilton's notion of people as beasts while it rejects the understanding, articulated by Van Gogh and others, that there is a hidden poetry within all people that is worthy of discovery. The failure of the Constitution is its rejection of human beauty, its rejection of life.

Let us pursue the thinking of Vincent Van Gogh a step further. I believe it has political relevance. Van Gogh said: “I want to do drawings that touch people, so that people will say of my work, `He feels deeply, he feels tenderly.' What am I in people's eyes? A non-entity or an eccentric and disagreeable man? Somebody who has no position in society? The lowest of the low? I want my work to show what's in the heart of such an eccentric, of such a nobody. This is my ambition.” As alive and imaginative political people, it could be our ambition as well. But then we would be revolutionaries.

Remember Which Side They Were On

Two hundred years after the writing of the Constitution, the terms “the power-structure” and “political activist” are in wide usage. They refer to camps of politically engaged citizens that are often opposed philosophically. If the “Founding Fathers” were alive today, which side would they be on? To help us answer that question, let us look at someone who might typify each group.

Lee Iacocca, head of the Chrysler Corporation, is someone who is a member of the power structure. He is, presumably, good at running a corporation, at making it efficient, at getting it to produce many things which can be sold for a profit. His skills are highly valued in this society. In fact, in l986, he received $20.6 million in salary, bonuses, stock grants, and stock options. And he has stated that such extraordinary privilege is justified, even useful as a motivational incentive in a free society: “That's the American way. If the kids don't aspire to make money like I did what the hell good is this country? You gotta give them a role model, right?”5 Many “experts” believed that Iacocca would make a good presidential candidate and encouraged him to run for the office in 1988.

Benjamin Linder was someone who might have been considered a political activist. We came to know Ben not for his accomplishments, but from the unusual circumstances of his death. He was a North American engineer who did not want to be like most engineers and work for the military-industrial complex. Instead he was a volunteer worker in Nicaragua who helped bring electricity to remote rural villages there. He lived at a subsistence level. His salary was paid by contributions from other U.S. citizens like himself who were disturbed by U.S. policy toward the people of Central America. Although his engineering skills may have been valued in the United States, his political attitude was not and neither, therefore, was his work, at least within the context of establishment values. “Why do the Contras kill those who bring light to the city and drinking water for the children?” he asked. “These are Ronald Reagan's freedom fighters.” Ben was targeted and then murdered by the Contras, who in the bicentennial year of the Constitution, were trained, supplied, and directed by the government of the United States.

It is important to understand that the Framers were the political ancestors, not of people like Ben Linder, but of people like Lee Iacocca. The Framers struggled with and defeated the Ben Linders of 1787. The Framers, contrary to popular myth, came from a very narrow and elite strata of society which feared and distrusted common people. It is not coincidental that Lee Iacocca is thought of as a presidential candidate while Ben Linder is tracked down and murdered by agents of the government of the United States. The life of Iacocca gives expression to the vision of empire and privilege expressed by most of the Framers. Linder's life gave expression to a kind of love and generosity which threatens and subverts the way of life the Framers established. The tension between the visions expressed by the life work of Iacocca and of Linder frames the conflicts of our age and is a tension that is made necessary by the Constitution.

David Viscott has written that because our energy is limited, “it's wasteful to use it in any way except in the pursuit of the truth,” otherwise “we end up trying to justify what's simply not true.” And when we work to support a lie, especially if we are unaware of doing it, “it becomes increasingly difficult to tell what's real” and that “to give up the lie seems like losing a part of ourselves.”6 Are we capable of confronting the reality of who we are, of not avoiding the pain of that confrontation, and of speaking the truth of that pain in order to get free from the myths and half-truths which make us prisoners of a distorted reality?

Confronting the Beast

Not long ago I saw a sign on the wall of a natural food store that said, “Stop Reagan's War.” At first I felt good about it. Perhaps because any political sign in a depoliticized society, particularly in a grocery store, was welcomed. Yet the more I thought about it the more I began to realize that that sign represented where we are as a movement. It seemed to capture the essence of our political awareness. It seemed to be suggesting that the latest military intervention was the fault of a particular president, or administration, or party. But as Donald Pfost notes, the United States has “forcibly intervened in the sovereign affairs of the nations of Latin America on at least 120 different occasions...[in order to] establish and protect a system of economic dependency beneficial to U.S. economic interests, particularly corporate interests.”7 Might it not be useful to think in terms not of individual presidents or administrations but in terms of what “our” political-economic system requires?

Consider an indictment of U.S. foreign policy that goes beyond thinking in terms of individual presidents. Edward Herman, for example, in reference to “the sponsorship of terrorist armies to invade Guatemala in 1954 (successful), Cuba in 1961 (unsuccessful), and Nicaragua 1981-1988 (unsuccessful)” were responses by the United States to “cases of revolutions from below, with governments coming into power that addressed the basic needs of a formerly depressed and repressed majority.” Newly unleashed ideas of democracy and opportunity, says Herman, “have been consistently horrifying and intolerable to the U.S. elite. That elite is happy only with elite rule and amenable clients...What if the masses in other countries of the empire were to get the idea that they were not necessarily born to serve their masters?”8

Herman and others are suggesting that we can better explain the 120 military interventions in Latin America as well as the scores of interventions in other parts of the world when we understand that the U.S. political-economic system is not a democratic system, that its power and wealth depends upon rule by a few and the subordination of the many, and that the people who run it are horrified by genuine democratic movements which aim to give majorities political and economic power. Therefore, it is not Reagan or Carter or Kennedy or Eisenhower, necessarily, that is responsible for a given intervention. Rather it is a system - the ideas, values, beliefs, and practices within it, that require such intervention for its preservation. Presidents simply help manage the system and try to maintain its political and economic stability.

Moreover, as we argued in Chapters 4 and 5, genuine democratic movements in this country are also defined by elites as crises. We need to begin to explore the idea that the threads of injustice and corruption and repression within U.S. client states run throughout our institutions here. We need to emphasize that many of the people within the United States and within U.S. client states face a common power structure and experience similar forms of oppression. We have a common interest and we need to work together. Therefore, when we speak of the torture and mass murder that takes place within U.S. client states let us also speak of the situation of dependent populations here. For example, the percentage of blacks in our overall prison population has doubled since 1962 to 46 percent. Blacks in this country go to prison more often than blacks in South Africa. The Public Health Service estimates that every year prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals, dusts, noise, heat, cold, and radiation kills nearly 200,000 workers. The leading cause of death of teenagers is suicide. Twenty-five percent of all children will be sexually molested before they are eighteen. Two out of three poor adults are women. Twenty-five million adults can't read poison labels. An additional 35 million are functionally illiterate, all of which means that the United States ranks 49th among the 158 United Nation members in literacy. With regard to infant mortality, the United States ranks 18th. Nine thousand Americans are killed yearly by commercial reactor emissions.9 The National Academy of Sciences reports that “The average consumer is exposed to pesticide nearly every food, including meat, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, sugar, coffee, oils, dried goods and most processed foods.”10 Information such as this leads us to conclude that in some respects we are all dependent upon the decisions made by corporate elites. It leads us to the understanding that Santiago and the South Bronx are all part of the same corporate empire. And so while unions are being busted and social programs are being slashed, the right women have to their bodies is being challenged, affirmative action is being denied, “voting rights” are being circumvented, and while we are all being monitored, F-16 fighters and M-1 tanks are being built, and a 600 ship navy is being assembled so that intervention, penetration, forcible entry, assault, and rape can be as easily carried out in Libya, Grenada, and Nicaragua as it can in Detroit, Oakland, and East L.A. The the low intensity warfare that is being waged abroad to protect the system of production for private profit is being waged at home as well.

Acquiring a More Real Identity

I can think of no greater task for activists today than to study the reasons why so many common people, surely a majority, objected to the ratification of the Constitution. We must understand the design and structure of our national institutions before we can begin to understand what our government is up to at home and around the world.

The Constitution was designed to ensure that the majority of citizens (without property) would not have a real voice in political affairs and it is no coincidence that that is the case today. And the Constitution was designed to ensure that real political power in this country would always be held by the handful of very large property owners and it is no coincidence that that is the case today. Simply stated, the Constitution was designed to protect the privilege and power of large property owners and shatter the logic of the majority in Nicaragua, South Africa, Guatemala, Chile, Newark, Detroit, most of the South, most of California where soon the majority will be of Third World origins, and so many other places. The merchants, bankers, and plantation slaveowners of 1787 have become a global corporate clan of 1987. And I am asking you how many more plucked eyes and wrenched throats must we pay for in the villages of the poor before we figure out that Congress does the dirty work of corporations and that respectfully petitioning those men and women can only be the work of imperial citizens who are slowly dying.

The interpretation presented on these pages, for many, will be one that is hard to accept. Criticism of the ideas, beliefs, and values with which we identify generally are. But it may be helpful to ponder the validity of a Soviet citizen's remark that the essential difference between the Soviets and Americans is that while Soviet citizens often disbelieve their propaganda, we seem to fully accept ours. Take the war in Southeast Asia. It was just a little over ten years ago that the armed forces of the United States ended its killing of over four million people. Yet government officials within the Reagan administration tell us it was one of “our” finest hours.11 Or take Lincoln, probably our greatest president. His contribution was preserving the union. But as we know, he was going to preserve it with or without slavery. Now, do you believe that the preservation of any country is worth more than the freedom of four million slaves? The Emancipation Proclamation was signed primarily out of military necessity. Stated Lincoln near the end of the Emancipation Proclamation: “I further declare and make known that such persons, of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” As Vincent Harding concludes, “The heart of the matter was this: while the concrete historical realities of the time testified to the costly, daring, courageous activities of hundreds of thousands of black people breaking loose from slavery and setting themselves free, the myth [that Lincoln freed the slaves] gave the credit for this freedom to a white Republican president. In those same times when black men and women saw visions of a new society of equals, and heard voices pressing them against the American Union of white supremacy, Abraham Lincoln was unable to see beyond the limits of his own race, class, and time, and dreamed of a Haitian island and of Central American colonies to rid the country of the constantly accusing, constantly challenging black presence.”12 For whom is he the “great emancipator?”

Or consider Andrew Jackson, the “Father of Democracy.” We know that the Father of Democracy enslaved human beings and was the first U.S. president to use troops to break a strike. In addition, much like George Washington, his early fame came about because of his aggressiveness with regard to killing Native Americans and his cunning in stealing their land. Also, Jackson as a military leader had developed an effective way of dealing with the high rate of desertion. He suggested “ whipping for the first two attempts, and the third time, execution.” As Howard Zinn points out, “If you look through high school textbooks and elementary school textbooks in American history you will find Jackson the frontiersman, soldier, democrat, man of the people - not Jackson, the slaveholder, land speculator, executioner of dissident soldiers, and exterminator of Indians.” For whom is he the Father of Democracy?13

The question is one of moving beyond a political economy that rests upon the assumption that massive inequality is natural and functional. Early in the 19th century when China resisted Great Britain's “free trade” policy of having opium shipped from India to China, John Quincy Adams argued that China's resistance was “an enormous outrage upon the rights of human nature, and upon the first principles of the rights of nations.”14 The same arrogance disguised as natural law underscores much of U.S. foreign policy today. I think it is important that we let go of these sorts of myths so that we can be free from the lie, from the need to distort reality, and from the need to identify with a set of assumptions and values simply because we inherited them. It would do us well, I believe, to identify with the slaves, not the slavemasters. For we work in the tradition of and are inspired not by Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, but by Denmark Vessey, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman, slaves who by virtue of their resistance and their solidarity with the oppressed expressed what it meant to be human.

We Are In Danger

The American Constitution of 1787 was explicitly designed to prevent the emergence of an internally sovereign and accountable political power structure. James Madison quite properly referred to it as “our feudal constitution.”
- Walter Dean Burnham15
We the people have control over neither political nor economic power. We are a dependent population. Let us have no illusions about the government of the United States. Following World War II, when the military, economic, and political strength of this country knew no historical parallel, the government quite explicitly, and one could say feverishly, struggled to maintain its relationships of disparity with most of the rest of the world. Efforts by indigenous people to move in the direction of modest reform and democratization were, without sentimentality, crushed.16 Now the American Empire is in decline. The government of the United States, particularly in light of liberation movements both at home and abroad, has revealed a kind of desperation. The suggestion, for example, that the embattled and impoverished little nation of Nicaragua (whose population is equal to that of greater Boston) poses a security threat to the United States compares to Hitler's suggestion that Czechoslovakia was “a dagger pointed at the heart of Germany” and that the “aggressiveness” of the Poles threatened the Third Reich. Domestically there have been a variety of recent attempts to strengthen the ability of the U.S. government to repress dissent. Gregory Shank has identified the following expressions of what he calls the “criminalization of dissent”:
  • Reagan's 1980 blueprint for conservative government recommended the abolition of restrictions on domestic intelligence work and the renewal of congressional panels on internal security. The blueprint also urged that national security requirements and the quelling of internal disorder take precedence over individual liberties.
  • The term “street crime” has been developed as the code word for domestic law and order. In 1981 for example, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Warren Burger, referred to “street crime” as “day-by-day terrorism.” Law violators were called domestic terrorists. “Burger explicitly called for a law and order campaign to combat the internal and external problems which were reducing the United States to `the status of an impotent society.' What was needed was a War on Crime that raised it to the status of the War on terrorism.”
  • Along with the massive cuts in social programs which has the effect of pushing many within the activist communities of the 1960s and 1970s (blacks, students, women, Hispanics and working people generally) to the margin of society, the Reagan administration has proposed limiting constitutional protection of individuals from the federal government. These proposals included the weakening of “rules excluding use of illegally seized evidence, the right to counsel of individual defendants, the right to trial by jury, and the precept of `innocent until proven guilty' ” and the advocacy of preventive detention.
  • Efforts are underway to widen the definition of criminal conduct to include “potential disrupters of the economic, political, and ideological rule of global capital.” Attempts have been made to “vastly enlarge the countersubversive and counterterrorist roles of intelligence agencies.”
  • There are campaigns to “build more prisons, lengthen and maximize the severity of prison sentences, destroy social service alternatives to imprisonment, enlarge and better equip police forces, and vigorously reintroduce the death penalty.”
  • Senate Bill 1762 signed into law October 12, 1984 permits “preventive detention” for federal defendants considered “dangerous” and legalized unwarranted search and seizure of people and vehicles by customs officials suspecting violations of currency transaction laws.
  • H.R. 6311 redefined terrorism as a “violent act” (including violence against property and persons) which “appears to be intended<193>to influence the policy of the government by intimidation or coercion.” Shank notes that by this definition demonstrators that push down a chain fence in order to hold a sit-in at a nuclear power plant could be prosecuted as terrorists. And rewards up to $500,000 could be paid to informers.
  • Senate Bill 2626 (introduced but not yet passed as of this writing) could “imprison Americans for up to ten years for supporting or acting `in concert with' international `terrorist' groups or nations designated by the Secretary of State.” Moreover the defendant would not be able to challenge the Secretary's designation of the group as “terrorist” in court.17
Not unlike other periods of protest in U.S. history, citizens working in solidarity with the peoples of Central America have come under attack by the federal government. C. J. Grossman notes that “U.S. citizens have been denied the right to hear ideas, express differences, travel freely anywhere in the world, be safe in their homes, and remain free of harassment.” One legal vehicle the federal government has used to repress dissent has been the McCarran-Walter Act (passed in 1952) which allows the government to prevent “aliens” who are “communists, anarchists, gays, affiliates of communists or those who `advocate international or governmental doctrines of world communism' ” from living in the United States. More recently we find that El Salvador's notorious security forces or “death squads” have been terrorizing civilians in the United States. Most troubling is the fact that the FBI has shared intelligence about Salvadoran activists in the United States with the death squads. Investigators of the death squad attacks in the Los Angeles area note that the evidence “raises the disturbing question of whether the death squads are using FBI intelligence to terrorize residents of the United States.”18 The point is this: when we understand the attitude of the Framers toward common people, when we understand that the power of elites can be legitimized by our ignorance of what is really going on, and when we know that the rest of the world knows what our secret government and their secret teams are doing and that the secrets are kept only from us, then we may conclude that the real enemy of the corporate power structure is the American people because the day is coming you and I will say, “Enough.”

In many ways we are like the proverbial frog which is capable of jumping out of boiling water if suddenly dropped into it, but which boils to death if the temperature of the water is slowly and steadily increased. We need to act resolutely and in new directions: We have to let go of our own self-conception (that is nurtured by our everyday involvement in political and economic life) which tells us that we are not capable of really governing ourselves, that each of us is just some human aparatus put here to serve others, to work for others, to be used, whose own ideas are of no value, and who ultimately is incapable of participating meaningfully in a system of self-government. To act resolutely and to move in new directions means that we have to declare that our ideas and our wisdom are as good as that of the rich and powerful. It means that we have to declare that we know what our needs are and that we cannot and will not be involved in relationships any longer in which we are held in contempt. The self that secretly hates going to work because the job is mindless or resents being lied to by government officials or poisoned by our air and water and food or is offended by what the government does in our name with our money is the self that needs to be rewarded and allowed to step forward and speak in a critical voice. It is the self of self-respect. It is the self of liberation. It is the self which constitutional values have put down for 200 years and it is the self that must emerge before political analysis and political organizing can begin.

But constitutional values run through us in ways that are unclear and in ways that we shall discover and struggle with for the rest of our lives. And so we have a need to believe that resolute and radical action is premature, certainly unnecessary, and perhaps even wrong. Moreover, for each of us to declare that we are not the contemptible being embedded in the mind of the Framers is to confront in a thousand different ways the shared values and institutional practices of the broader social order. To move in a direction which frees us from the lie that common people are contemptible is necessarily conflictual and painful. And so there is a great deal of pressure on us to avoid pain, to scramble back to our old identities, and to doubt ourselves. The concept of peace, so central to so many movements, helps us to do this. It is a political concept which projects an abstract vision of a better world at the same time that it gives space to our fears, the fear of leaving our confinement and of discovering that perhaps the Framers were right. The concept of peace permits us to hold back and to accept the Framers' values in the name of respect for other people.

Let us keep in mind the following: to say that we are for peace in the abstract means that we might unthinkingly align ourselves with elites who will scream “bloody murder” the moment the repressive peace is disrupted by people getting off their knees. If we are to identify with the 17,000 auto-workers laid off this year, poor kids who had their milk money cut from the federal budget, black teenagers who face 50 percent unemployment, battered women, Vets dying of agent orange poisoning, or gays confronting the AIDS epidemic, we would not be asking for peace. We would be asking for change, radical change. The peace which harbors situations of oppression - “drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness, crimes of violence, and all those thousands of instances of despair which will never be entered in the hospital records or the police blotter because they have been safely contained by society's instruments of control” is a peace which must be disturbed. As Howard Zinn has stated, to the extent that a government remains unjust, “it should have trouble governing.” Our elitist government should have trouble governing not because we simply become rebellious but because we see the system for what it is, refuse to collaborate, and declare through acts of confrontation, which lead to rigorous organizing and long-term planning, that we believe in ourselves and our vision, and are capable of taking charge of our lives.19

Beginning It Now

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.
- Geothe
The purpose of this book is to make the point that saving this country does not mean going back to the values of the Framers. Rather it means expressing our values. It means letting the world know and feel who we are. Developing confidence in ourselves is not easy. We live in a country where we are taught that only a few people are gifted or talented or are special in some important way. We are taught to think in a way which permits, for example, the richest 1 percent of the population to hold greater wealth than the bottom 90 percent of the population.20 So the doubts about what we can accomplish are reinforced, perhaps, by acute structures of inequality. One of the greatest creative forces that ever lived was Ludwig Van Beethoven. On one occasion, in a very angry moment, Beethoven refusing to play his music for a prince, wrote the following message: “Dear Prince, what you are, you are through chance and birth. What I am, I am through myself. There have been and there will be thousands of princes. But there is only one Beethoven.” And yet on his deathbed, Beethoven turned to a friend and asked, “I did have a certain talent, didn't I?” For Beethoven and for us, the doubt is false. The belief is real.

So here we are. Watched over. Infiltrated at meetings. Monitored at work. Spied on when we come back from Nicaragua or Cuba. Legislated at instead of self-governed. Indoctrinated in not so subtle ways. Poisoned and experimented on. Assessed and ordered about by rich white men who are corrupt and really not very much alive. And at each turn, on just about each day, we are exploited, lied to, ripped-off, pressed to work harder, extorted, and generally held in contempt. And when we resist, when we organize, or when we stand up and say no, we are repressed, fined, assaulted and battered, followed, censored, photographed, wire-tapped, lie-detected, drug-tested, ridiculed, insulted, stigmatized, harassed, left unemployed or underpaid, and increasingly made to speak English.

But you know, things are going to change. 21 We are going to stand up because we know who we are. We are the enlightened souls of history who disturb, upset, and open ways for a better understanding. The Doubt is false. We are restlessness, hunger, and lust. We are a great furnace of resolve. The doubt is false.

We state the bare facts and let them sing. We are the perfection of sensuality and we dream of celebrating the fierce joy of victory and that dream is real. We are luxuriant play; we are sin; we are god; we are transcendent humanity. And we shall turn the page of history. The doubt is false.

We ride on some undiscovered spirit. We are unarmed warriors, we reverberate with shattering force. We are the stars and nothing can stop us. The doubt is false.

We have the capacity to ennoble. We are voices strong and steady. We are defiant, rebellious. The doubt is false.

We have been told all our lives that we can't change anything, that you can't fight city hall. At every meeting there is someone who always makes a case why we should not be radical - it will alienate someone, we are not ready, we need to educate a little more, read a little more, get more numbers. Well, you can always make the case not to be radical. But don't. It's a lie. The doubt is false.

We are activists. We are liberators. We are revolutionaries. We are here on earth in this hour of danger and we must move beyond the vision of the Framers to express our own. And that belief is real.


Chapter 7

1. I.F. Stone, “Covert Loophole,” The Nation, September 5, 1987.

2. Sheldon S. Wolin, “What Revolutionary Action Means Today,” Democracy, Fall 1982, 27.

3. Donald R. Pfost, “Reagan's Nicaraguan Policy: A Case Study of Political Deviance and Crime,” Crime and Social Justice, Nos. 27-28, 67, 70.

4. Sara Evans, Personal Politics (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), 134, 206.

5. The Progressive, June 1987, 7.

6. David Viscott, The Language of Feelings (New York: Pocket Books, 1976), 39.

7. Pfost, 82.

8. Edward S. Herman, “U.S. Sponsorship of International Terrorism: An Overview,” Crime and Social Justice, Nos. 2728, 10.

9. For further information regarding the safety of nuclear power, see: Helen Caldicott, Nuclear Madness (Autumn Press, Inc., 1978).

10. “Your Salad Could Be Killing You,” In These Times, Oct. 1420, 1987, 89.

11. Edward S. Herman, “U.S. Sponsorship of International Terrorism: An Overview,” Crime and Social Justice, Nos. 27-28, 21.

12. See Vincent Harding, There Is A River (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), 323-236.

13. Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (New York: Harper & Row, Inc., 1980), 128, 129.

14. Noam Chomsky, On Power and Ideology (Boston: South End Press, 1987), 13.

15. Walter Dean Burnham, The Current Crisis in American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 260.

16. See Chomsky, Lecture 2.

17. Gregory Shank, “Counterterrorism and Foreign Policy,” Crime and Social Justice, Nos. 27-28, 36-41.

18. CJ Grossman, The McCarran-Walter Act: War Against Margaret Randall and the First Amendment,” Crime and Social Justice, Nos. 27-28, 220, 225; Vince Bielski, Cindy Forster, and Dennis Bernstein, “The Death Squads Hit Home,” The Progressive, October 1987, 18.

19. Howard Zinn, Disobedience and Democracy (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), 20, 26.

20. From a New York Times report quoted by Ravi Batra, The Great Depression of 1990 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987).

21. The following section was inspired by the concepts and poetry of Dennis Brutus and David Viscott, a therapist, who may from time to time be heard to say, “The doubt is false. The belief is real.”

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