Kick the Habit: Politics Is Not the Answer

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What began as amusement with the "Beat Bush" people who
man the streets around Astor Place, urging pedestrians to help defeat
W in the coming election, had turned to irritation. I no longer
stopped to remind them that John Kerry — the man they believed would
make everything better — had supported the USA PATRIOT Act and the
invasion of Iraq, or that the two candidates were members of the
same secret society. Instead, I would just walk past them, silently
bemoaning the fact that so much well-intentioned energy was being
thrown so fervently into such a futile pursuit.

Then I met Nicole. "Do you want to help get rid of Bush?"
She called out to me as I was walking to my yoga class. "No,"
I sighed, "I don't," and continued walking. "I respect
that," she smiled, "have a nice day!" I wasn't quite
prepared for that. I stopped and turned back. "You know,"
I said, "if I thought it would make any difference, I would."
I told her that I saw Kerry and Bush as near-identical agents of
state aggrandizement, and that either one would only perpetuate
the interventionist foreign policy that had led to the war and our
occupation of Iraq. I readied myself for the practiced defense of
John Kerry, seeker-of-global-approval-for-unjust-foreign-wars. But
it didn't come. Instead, she stood there listening.

We talked for a while about the war and the political process.
She asked me if I knew anyone in Iraq. I said I didn't. "I've
got a lot of my peers over there," she told me. That's when
it hit me: I wasn't talking to a political hack. She was young and
black, and of course a lot of her peers were over there. She wasn't
standing out on the street all day because she wanted to get John
Kerry elected. She wasn't even really interested in beating Bush.
All she wanted was for her friends to come home safely.

Nicole asked me who I thought would be better than Kerry. I said
I thought the Libertarian candidate would be better — he had at
least promised to bring the troops home immediately. But I then
qualified that by saying that a) he couldn't possibly get elected;
and b) our problems ran a lot deeper than a matter of who was sitting
in the White House. We had become a nation of empire-building, and
in the game we called the political process, scaling back that empire
wasn't going to win. We would have to think of something else.

And she got it. She nodded. She didn't say anything about "throwing
away my vote." She was genuinely listening. She wanted to end
this thing as much as I did, and she was open to hearing suggestions
about how to achieve that. And I knew that my responses were inadequate.
I didn't know what else to tell her. I walked away feeling like
I owed her a better explanation of my position: After all, if I
was going to tell someone whose friends' lives hung in the balance
that voting was pointless, I'd better be able to tell her what she
could do instead.

The question gnawed at me for days. I thought back to a conversation
I had had at a dinner party one night with an exuberant, wide-eyed
young man who, like me, was very much against the war in Iraq. The
only difference between us (aside from the fact that he undoubtedly
watched more "West Wing" than I did) was that he blamed
the war on a few individuals — George W. Bush and his administration
— while I saw it as just another chapter in the continuing saga
of an increasingly interventionist US foreign policy.

At one point, I made the observation that it was the nature of
the state to seek power, and that what we were witnessing was the
result of our failure to restrain government. He practically blanched.
"Don't you think government can be used to do a lot of good?"
He rattled off a list of social programs and regulation of business
that surely required a strong government, and asked me if I didn't
support those. (I didn't, but that was beside the point.) He explained
to me that what we needed was to get people into office who would
wield the weapon of a strong government wisely — who would
impose the draconian regulations and finance the expansive social
programs that he thought were a good idea, but not wage the imperialistic
invasions he didn't like so much.

I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake him. "You
think you can do a deal with the devil," I said instead. "You
think you can use the power of the state to get what you
want, but that it's never going to turn around and use its power
against you, or in a way you don't approve of!" Whether he
heard me or not, I learned something important that night. For some
time now, I had been concerned for the sanity of some of my liberal
anti-war friends, who would go on and on about the evils of the
Bush administration — as if our imperialistic escapades had begun
in the last four years. Now I was starting to understand.

Like addicts who tell themselves that the addictive substance is
not to blame for the problems in their lives, those who are hooked
on the state are reluctant to identify it as the source of the social
ills they deplore. As long as it's just George W. Bush and Dick
Cheney and John Ashcroft who are evil — a "bad batch"
— then you don't have to kick the habit entirely. Just make sure
you get a good batch next time — elect "good" politicians
— and you'll never have to question the political system to which
you have become attached. You can blame the "bad politicians"
for any outcomes you don't approve of, and go on using government
force to spend other people's money and regulate other people's
lives.

And that's what it all comes down to: Force. Many of my friends
who abhor the US invasion of Iraq have no problem using government
force to achieve their own goals. And they don't seem to see the
connection between the two. Not only do they not question the morality
of using force to get what they want, they don't even recognize
the practical implication of doing so: That the more power you give
the state to do your bidding, the more power it has to act against
you.

So what would I tell Nicole now, if I ran into her again — or anyone
else who genuinely wants to bring US troops home from Iraq? First
of all, I would say that if your goal is to end war, you aren't
going to accomplish it by voting. You certainly aren't going to
accomplish it by voting for John Kerry, who has only promised to
boost the number of active-duty soldiers, increase the US presence
in Afghanistan, to step up US involvement in the war on drugs in
that part of the world and to put the National Guard in charge of
Homeland Security. But more importantly, if we want to end war,
then we need to stop pouring our support and energy into the entity
that thrives and expands by perpetuating war.

We are not likely anytime soon to diminish the state's motives
to wage war. What we can do is limit its ability to do so. The only
way to do that is to withdraw our support — and for many of us,
that's not going to be easy. As with any harmful addiction, we keep
doing it because we're getting something out of it. Giving it up
means giving up something we like, and are attached to — and many
of us are very much attached to the goodies we get from the state,
or to the benefits that we have come to believe can only be provided
by government.

But
the more we ask from the state, the more power we grant it over
our lives. And when we rely on force to get what we want, we can
be certain that that force will one day be used against us, or in
ways we find deplorable. If we truly want to end war, then we need
to end our addiction to force, and that means ending our addictive
relationship with the state.

July
29, 2004

Bretigne
Shaffer [send her mail]
is a writer and filmmaker based in New York. See her website.

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