Kick the Habit: Politics Is Not the Answer

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