Models of Engagement

Models of Engagement

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April 12, 2012

(The following is transcribed from a presentation I made at the Confronting War Without End conference held at Western Washington University on 16 November 2002 titled Models of Engagement for Change. Many of the ideas presented are discussed in depth in my book War of Ideas.)

By the title of this conference, I take it we are gathered here to discuss ways to limit state and political warfare to the appropriate scale and situations as might be required for our survival and well-being. Certainly within our militarist culture and empire constituency there is room for greater constraint. Even our Joint Chiefs of Staff have acknowledged as much. But if we are to create a healthy, nurturing societal context for problem-solving, we must curb political violence as unacceptable behavior–behavior generated by fear, expressed as hate, and acted out as revenge (what some call the disease of aggression)—that relentlessly attacks our domestic body politic.

In confronting war without end, it is useful to recognize war as a natural part of the human universe. Human societies have always deployed themselves in some form of warfare over land and resources. America is no exception. However, unlike the first nations, we are not a united society. We have vastly different values amongst our citizenry. In some cases, these differences are irreconcilable.

With the current Bush Administration, the Republican Party, and associated organizations opposed to the democratic values embedded in our Constitution—such as equal protection under the law—there is no room for negotiation. The threats posed to our society by their treasonous acts must be attacked and defended against with all the strength and resolve we can muster.

We can agree to disagree over policy, but political violence such as we witnessed in Florida 2000 cannot be tolerated. Exposure of these high crimes is not enough; accountability demands punishment.

When people like yourselves come together to consolidate grievances or objections to public policy through some form of dissent, protest or societal debate, you inevitably encounter unofficial opinions and actions opposed to your point of view. Depending on the nature of the issue contested and the actors involved, the conflict may take place entirely within the civil realm (the media, the public square, the courts, city hall, the legislature or Congress); or it may extend to private venues and involve such weapons as moral or economic sanction, blacklisting or social exclusion. Perhaps unlike Chiapas, Palestine, Northern Ireland, and Pine Ridge, you, your opponents and your allies can avoid coming to blows or taking up arms over your differences—maybe not.

Even if you do avoid personal experience of physical violence, this does not of course mean someone else isn’t being killed, starved or brutalized by your enemies. It simply means people somewhere else endure the economic and military warfare waged by your opponents, while you, your allies and potential supporters here at home remain targets of psychological warfare by state and market forces aimed at weakening your resolve and undermining your resources. How you respond to this low intensity warfare (that might include police surveillance or harassment, media marginilization, personal threats, intimidation or assault); how you frame the conflict; how you organize yourselves and prepare for community action; how you relate to established institutions of power and privilege, ipso facto defines your model of engagement.

Whether you’re confronting our National Security State, theocratic organizations like Christian Coalition, pro-corporate social movement entrepreneurs like Wise Use, or other forms of anti-democratic organization, you need to select an appropriate model of engagement and deploy it in a manner that takes advantage of your enemy’s weaknesses and your allies’ strengths. And, much like military warfare, this requires research, intelligence-gathering, education, organizing, and then action. Uninformed action, unprepared confrontation–based on simplistic slogans and righteous indignation alone–functions as moral theatrics that both frustrates and dissipates limited social support in the face of adversaries who treat you with contempt. As such, you may be a nuisance to tyrants like Bush and Cheney, but in terms of power, you are no threat.

Unofficial political violence against free and open inquiry, against civil rights, against the right to choose, against environmental sanity, against separation of church and state, indeed, against the U.S. Constitution, has continued unabated alongside State sanctioned violence against self-determination by other peoples since the founding of our country. Opponents of this very American brutality–from John Brown to Martin Luther King, from Chief Joseph to Judi Bari–have employed various models of engagement, at different times, with mixed success.

The military model used by Brown has obvious limitations against either domestic militias or the mightiest military in world history. The law enforcement model used by King’s colleagues like Thurgood Marshall has its limitations as well, evidenced by national, state and local police in undermining King, and more recently, by the U.S. Supreme Court’s interference in our electoral process. The pressure group model, so pervasive in our state and national capitols in the form of public-interest advocacy and lobbying organizations, seems almost a cruel joke in light of the callous disregard afforded them by legislators almost entirely dependent on enemies of the public’s interests for financing their elections and retirement. The diplomacy model preferred by Chief Joseph, to which he ultimately returned after the military model forced on him failed, might be useful between opponents of relatively equal strength or between adversaries bargaining in good faith, but entreaties to an opposition committed to your destruction merely serve to signal your willingness to compromise your principles and your eventual surrender.

Three of these four models of engagement for change—diplomacy, law enforcement and pressure group—constitute the most commonly used models by activists against racism, militarism, and fundamentalism, and command the vast majority of liberal energies and resources. The only problem is–in terms of circumscribing political violence so that well-meaning citizens can get around to solving our most pressing problems–these models don’t work. In fact, often times they make things worse.

Using the military model against political actors who threaten their opponents only drives them underground or escalates firepower. Civil war is hardly the kind of change I imagine you have in mind. The law enforcement model is appropriate once things have gotten out of control, and people have already retreated from the public sphere out of fear for their safety. It does little to prevent or rein things in before that point. The pressure group model is effective at getting legislation passed, but has little to do with making public participation in the democratic process safe and accessible. You might say it has the opposite effect: resources and recognition go to professional activists and organizations; grassroots organizers are sometimes treated with disdain by paid proponents and opponents alike.

The deal-cutting and compromises promoted by the political elite not only foster apathy that robs the grassroots of resources; they set up authentic activists to be ostracized by media and the communities in which they live. As for the diplomacy model, what’s to negotiate with a gay-basher or holocaust denier?

One model I have observed and experienced to be effective against political violence is the public health model. An alumnus from this institution, Devin Burghart, who directs the Building Democracy Initiative at the Center for New Community in Chicago, uses this model in helping a network of churches and human rights groups throughout the Midwest to oppose organized hate which primarily targets immigrants and people of color. After suffering through the family farm crisis of the 1980s and the white supremacist militia horrors of the 1990s, these communities decided to protect themselves from these social diseases. Rather than wait for the police or the courts to dispense justice after their communities had erupted in turmoil or been destroyed by right-wing domestic terrorists, they made use of educational resources provided by independent pro-democracy organizations like Political Research Associates in Boston; they conducted their own research on hate groups operating in their region; they established intelligence outposts and a reporting network for sharing information; they analyzed the strategy and tactics of their opponents; they organized themselves with the tools they needed, and then they took action. The difference in effect between the public health model and the four previously noted models has been phenomenal.

In 1952–the year I was born–Nelson Mandela developed a curriculum to be taught in the black townships across South Africa in order to prepare the formally uneducated for a national campaign of non-cooperation by giving them a sense of history and their place in it. The three courses were: The World We Live In; How We Are Governed; and The Need for Change.

During the 1930s, in order to inoculate Americans against the onslaught of foreign and domestic fascist rhetoric, the National League of Women Voters developed study guides and conducted adult education classes focused on understanding the art and devices of propaganda. Americans today can hardly be expected to resist official gangsterism as ill-informed and distracted as they are. It may very well be a lost cause, but we won’t know unless we lay the foundation of change through popular education. Just look at what the National Council of Churches has accomplished in support of the environmental movement through the Earth Ministry program.

The public health model–designed for preventing epidemics and containing outbreaks of microbial disease–uses a three-step prophylactic process: 1. isolate the pathogen; 2. inoculate susceptible populations; and 3. educate the population at large. As applied to the realm of politics, the model relies heavily on the power of moral sanction. Not surprisingly, this necessitates the involvement of religious and other moral authorities who wield the credentials to invoke our core values, some of which we share in common with our adversaries.

Even if our greatest enemies reject these values, they are not politically immune to their exercise in our sacred institutions. And creating community safeguards in the current political climate requires it. However, protesting the evil or decrying the insanity of our present federal government is an insufficient strategy. Reactive tactics always are. What is required is research on the methods and devices historically used by our enemies, reaching out to populations vulnerable to their recruitment efforts, and education of our potential allies and supporters who’ve understandably become cynical or apathetic.

This means mass protests against the resurrection of the Gulf War, against the continuation of genocide against indigenous peoples, and against the misappropriation of our common wealth. More importantly, it means preparing ourselves for extended battle over the coming decades in taking control of our institutions from the local school board on up, demanding accountability, doing and respecting the results of research and analysis—even if it challenges our preconceived notions of reality. It means recognizing and accepting the responsibility to straighten out the mess caused by half a century of laziness, cowardice, and corruption in these United States.

Pursuing democratic ideals is a complex, difficult and risky business. Rendering ineffective agents who practice political violence requires both training and structured reflective engagement. The evolution of human consciousness in defining and redefining morality has encountered formidable obstacles in the modern spectacles of consumerism and militarism. Devoting adequate attention to the discussion and consideration of moral values thus requires the creation of time, space, structures and activities conducive to weaning and shielding people from these psychic intrusions.

Over time, social pathogens can be isolated. For now, we must position ourselves to subvert dominant forces while integrating what resistance there is in order to prepare for claiming power. We must establish and exercise intelligence and security capabilities in advance of anticipated non-cooperation campaigns and other forms of resistance. Otherwise, we risk losing a marvelously inspired and dedicated generation of intellectual and organizing leadership such as we witnessed in November 1999 in the streets of Seattle.

With American reactionaries like Rumsfeld and Cheney eager to start a nuclear war over control of the world’s oil supplies, this is a risk we cannot afford. Only when nodes of resistance in the US recognize and coalesce around the careful application of the devices of ideological warfare will new leadership find expression capable of mobilizing the social support necessary to catalyze a mass movement of liberation.

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