A scene from the anti-war demonstration in front of the U.S. consulate in Vancouver, March 2003. ©MMIII Babak Seradjeh.
I had first called this piece "Punish, Forgive or Thank America?" That title was inspired by Arash Bateni's "Forgive, Ignore, or Punish America?!" Later, however, I drifted toward more general thoughts on activism and hence the new title.
Not more than 15 months ago, I was marching in the streets with many others to oppose a looming war to be waged on Iraq. I was even shown on TV screens in the news, expressing my support "for the cause of peace" and answering with a determined "no!" when asked "is this in support of Saddam?" It was of course not. "As an Iranian, I have suffered Saddam's war myself, and cannot perceive of acting in his support," I said. Over a year later, I'm not so sure any more. This new skepticism was partly addressed in a recent article by Yaser Kerachian. Motivated by the case of Iraq war, I will be concerned here with a more basic plan of action regarding such issues as international policies.
The United States of America bears the title of the only superpower of the world. She has the military might to invade a country (almost) unilaterally, or two for that matter, in about a year and set up new governments in them, although with understandable difficulties. She can exert a significant pressure, economic, diplomatic and otherwise to any country she deems trouble-making, based on her inhibiting power. All in all, she can considerably change the course of events in any part of the world. This magnificent power naturally gives rise to a variety of responses, on the two extremes of which sit "total rejection" and "complete acceptance." In the clash between these two the better part of our lives are shaped—but isn't there a more logical way, a more rational way in which to respond to the issues surrounding this, or any other form of "power?"
"Power" is at the core of most human interactions. Even more generally one could, as Nietzche did, put "power" at the center of a behavioural theory of life: a living being is constantly trying to overpower its surroundings, including its environment and other living beings. This is a grand-scale view of the living world; it treats life as a whole and assigns power to life as an essential factor. I am not after justifying such a power-centric point of view; however, I take it as the background of my discussion here. Taking this view as a starting point, and adopting a moral stance in which life is not evil, one is left with no other choice than accepting that "power" is not in its essence "evil" either. This is, in my view, a very important point. It means whatever approach one takes towards the issue of power, whether in politics or in everyday relationships, one must not dismiss it as morally bad. This is one of guidelines in this note.
On the stage of international politics, the U.S. is not the only player. International politics is a highly entangled web of power, with many minor and major players. On an absolute scale, the U.S. is the most powerful, but she is far from being the one who runs the show. As individuals, ordinary citizens of this power-ridden world each have a lowly role. But as a few instances in the past, from the Vietnam War to the most recent Iraq War, have shown, these voices when together can make themselves clearly heard and even make a visible, and important impact. So, as the role of this direct activism is enhanced it becomes increasingly important to (re)consider our own individual responses to power in such a grand scale. Putting together the fact that activism could play a role on this stage only when it is concerted and massive, and the scale of its impact in such cases, such contemplations gain even more significance.
From a power-based point of view, activism itself is yet another player in the game of power, another source of power. But, it has two essentially distinctive characters compared to other conventional players of the game: first, it has a temporary, highly changing existence and second, its tool in exercising power is merely displaying of its will. Most agents of power are more or less constant, and their sources of power range from, and commonly combine, military might to winning over a large following.
My central thesis is the following:
(a) Activism is by nature an alternative force in the game of politics. As a first and general rule, an activist must not take side with the conventional agents of power, i.e. governments.
But in doing so, an activist is faced with the constant challenge of having a position, as positions are normally for or against one or another player. How can an activist, who is an ordinary yet politics-aware citizen, not a professional politician, have an alternative position of any impact if it is not in support of at least one of the traditional agents of power? I call this the "alignment paradox."
(b) I believe, the alignment paradox could be resolved in only one way consistent with remaining an activist, in the sense outlined in (a): choose a rational basis for your stance.
All other ways of resolving this alignment paradox boil down at the end of the day to stopping being an activist, and becoming either just a passive occasionally voting citizen, or a full-time professional politician. I put an emphasis on rationality of the the activist's basis as opposed to, say, an emotional basis, in light of the on-going debate on the ethics of the Iraq war II. What follows is a sketchy draft of what I mean by this choice of words.
Emotions are valuable, but the era of romanticism is long over. The world is too complicated to be approached by a lump of raw emotions. Many a time, actions based on such emotions, though driven by a high standard of morality, result in taking an uncritical side with one of the agents of power, thus undermining the very spirit of activism.
Take the irresistibly charming punch line of most activists' rhetoric, "give peace a chance." This high ideal of "peace" and a collective better world for all, of course, remains an aspiration for many, including me. However, making "peace" when one's existence is threatened and under attack is nothing but making a sure deal for becoming extinct. The rational mind would see that "peace" is a luxury that comes after survival, and that most of humanity today is still struggling for survival. Taking action to oppose the Iraq war, for instance, based solely on the ideal of peace was/is irrational and the people who opposed/oppose the war this way (including me at some point), the so-called pacifists, acted/act irrationally.
For another example, take the more intellectual stance against "imperialism," "globalisation" and "(new) colonisation." This is a stance historically stemming from the left movement, in itself a product of the romantic era stretched beyond its historic bed. There are many emotions at play here: emotions that reject domination (another radical reappearance of the idea of power); emotions that prefer rural settings, small but diverse communities; and emotions that find foreign presence disturbing. These are all understandable emotions, and in fact, as I wrote above, I regard them as valuable. They could serve as ideals very well. Yet when taken as the basis of a stance, they are irrational. In the case of Iraq war, most people who argued against it along these lines seemed to be merely opposing the U.S. for the sake of opposing the U.S.
In both these examples, the opponents of the U.S.-led war became utterly uncritical of the other side of the fight, that is Saddam's regime. I do not recall a single demonstration organised by the activists, or any other party of people opposing the war, protesting Saddam's brutalities. This effectively reduced the whole activist movement to taking sides with Saddam in the on-going conflict and the looming war. In my opinion, this ultimate irrationality undermined the movement, its impact and its otherwise noble causes. The same seems to hold true in the U.S.-led and internationally better supported war against terrorism.
What I think should happen regularly is a constant critique by the activist movement of all the agents of power on the stage of international politics. If instead of opposing the U.S. so vehemently, there was a little bit of rational critique of especially the stance of the European powers in the U.N., I believe the situation in Iraq would have been far better than what it is now. Activists should stop being driven by (raw) emotions and demanding an immediate restoration of heavenly order on Earth and instead aspire to the valuable ideals set by these emotions: instead of hating the U.S. for being so powerful without a simple understanding of the dynamics of power, better try to use her power to move towards a better world. They should stop trying to prevent fixes of pending problems and instead act as a rational anti-thesis of all conventional agents of power: instead of opposing a war against a brutal and murderous dictator, better criticise the systematic sufferings brought upon the people, be it by Saddam, Islamic Republic or the U.S. Only via this course of action can we hope to get closer to a world less turbulent in the face of terrorism, better connected in the face of dominating global companies, less suffering-ridden in the face of eager egocentric powers, more considerate of all people's well-being in the face of dictators, and more peaceful in the face of wars.