Guilt-Driven Political Activism Cannot Win
If one is an American, there are two very different ways to respond to the knowledge that one’s government is carrying out war crimes and other policies (like supporting Israel) that are destroying the lives of innocent people around the world. One way is to feel guilty. The other way has nothing to do with guilt.
Guilt is the natural response if one believes, quite wrongly, the lie that our ruling class tells us–-that they represent the same values and have the same interests as ordinary Americans. Why guilt? Well, the ruling class is certainly guilty, so think what it means if there is no difference between them and ordinary people whom they control and rule. Think what it means if one believes that ordinary people–-one’s relatives and neighbors and co-workers-- are no better than the ruling class because they “support the evil system” by living in it, working for it, paying taxes to it, and even benefitting from it by wearing clothing that they pay practically nothing for because it’s made by foreign workers exploited in sweat shops owned by American companies, and by driving big cars that use more energy than people use in the third world, and so forth. Consider what happens when one makes no distinction between one’s ruling class and one’s neighbors and co-workers and relatives.
What happens is that one hears an inner voice that will not shut up, an accusatory voice, a veritable demon, saying to oneself, “You are guilty too! You no less than your neighbors and relatives support the evil system and benefit from it. You no less than they wear clothing from those oppressive sweat shops, you no less than they pay taxes to the same government, and like them you work (directly or indirectly) for the same big corporations or government. You’re no different than all the other guilty people. Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!"
In this frame of mind, there is only one way, short of death, to make the demon stop. Become an activist in the cause of fighting on the side of oppressed peoples in the third world. But that isn’t really enough to stop the accusatory demon. No! One must banish any hint in one’s activism that one might be less than 100% on the side of the oppressed. One must strike a pose, for the demon, as a champion of the oppressed, a pose so pure and unequivocal that the demon will never spot anything that even looks like it might be construed as opposition to the oppressed. One must never express any criticism, no matter how justified or useful to the cause, of anything that oppressed people do, especially if it is done in the name of resisting oppression, because the demon would seize on that in a heartbeat!
One thing that really shows that demon one’s dedication to the oppressed is to seek out the worst people, the ones who actually support oppression, and yell and scream at them. Often! It also helps to express disgust at all the ordinary Americans who don’t seem to have demons telling them they are guilty. Denounce them as “part of the problem” and call them “the oppressor.” That proves one is not like them, not guilty, better than they are. Not guilty.
Does such activism actually win? Does it reach out to ordinary Americans and build a mass movement against the rulers of the United States, a movement that can actually defeat them and stop the oppression? No. Of course not. How can one build such a movement if one thinks all Americans are guilty and disgusting people, or if one focuses one’s energy on screaming at the people who are least likely to support such a movement? But building a popular mass movement against oppression isn’t really the purpose of guilt-driven activism. The purpose is to make that demon shut up.
Tell the Demon, “I Am Not Guilty!”
Ordinary Americans are NOT guilty. They may believe the lies they are told. They may pay taxes to avoid going to jail. They may purchase clothing at the stores that sell clothing from sweatshops, since there’s hardly any other clothing for sale in the United States. They may work for whoever will hire them in order to support their family. They may buy a car from one of the car dealerships that sells cars because they work 20 miles from home and there is no commuter train. But they don’t fabricate lies to convince people to fight unjust wars. They don’t spread lies to fuel racism. (They may believe such lies, but that’s a very different thing.) They don’t figure out how to make other people fearful and insecure so they will work for low wages in unsafe conditions. And their lives would be a whole lot BETTER if the ruling class were not doing these things. Ordinary Americans may not be under as sharp an attack as people in Palestine, but they are under attack from the same ruling class. The wonderfully insightful slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all” refers to ordinary Americans too! Sure, it’s worse to be shot by an American soldier than to be an American soldier. And people who are being shot by American soldiers have every right to shoot back. But it’s no great “privilege,” if you are an ordinary American like Cindy Sheehan, to have one’s son killed because one’s ruling class used lies to persuade him to sign up for the military thinking he was serving his fellow Americans when in fact he was serving only his criminal ruling class.
Any ordinary American who thinks he or she is guilty just for living and surviving in our undemocratic society should tell their demon, “No, I am angry but not guilty!” They should tell their demon, “I have met the enemy, and he is NOT us, he is THEM, the American ruling class.” The demon is a liar, a hired thug of the ruling class. The demon spreads the same lie about the so-called unity of all Americans, rich and poor, that our rulers try to push by waving the flag and talking patriotism. Cast that demon out!
And then, look at the world with an entirely fresh perspective.
Instead of having to prove how different one is from one’s neighbors and relatives and co-workers, it is now possible to see that, while their knowledge of the crimes committed in their name may be far less than one’s own, and while they may believe lies about other races or ethnic groups, they nonetheless have very positive, indeed anti-capitalist, basic values. They believe in equality and fairness, not inequality and exploitation. They believe in wars for self-defense, but not for domination of others. They believe in democracy, not fake democracy. They believe people should help each other, not be pitted against each other. And they act on these beliefs by trying to shape their relations with other people–family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers-- by these positive values. They do this in the little corner of the world over which they have any real control. They do this in the face of enormous pressure and attacks from the ruling class, which wants to impose very opposite relations of inequality, top-down control, and dog-eat-dog competition (war being the extreme version of such competition.) In my personal experience, in fact, ordinary Americans believe the United States is not a real democracy and that it would be a good thing if there were a revolution to make it truly democratic. They just doubt this will ever happen because they believe a lot of negative things about their fellow citizens, just as do the people with that demon in their head.
Armed with this fresh view of ordinary Americans as a positive force, a force that already struggles in little ways against the ruling class and, with help and encouragement, could be nurtured into a revolutionary force against the ruling class, political activists can stop feeling alienated from their fellow Americans, because such alienation is no longer necessary to avoid feeling guilty. Instead, they can start to engage in a respectful conversation with their neighbors, relatives and co-workers aimed at helping them see clearly how their basic values are attacked by the ruling class. They can help ordinary Americans succeed in their struggles against the ruling class, struggles in which ordinary Americans are already engaged in small ways that are only visible to activists who have cast aside their demons.
Activists with this realistic view can see that they are not guilty people who have no right to utter anything critical of what an oppressed person does, but rather they are part of the great majority of people on the planet who stand to benefit by overthrowing the power of the elite ruling classes of the world, and who therefore have every right to engage with all other oppressed people in frank, respectful and, yes, critical, discussion about how to win. This is a wholly different kind of activism. It is activism fueled by anger and by a knowledge that most Americans share our basic values about what is right and what is wrong. Unlike guilt-driven activism, this very different approach can really win.