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Re: <nettime> christmas/chomsky/baghdad digest
Keith Hart on Tue, 30 Dec 2003 18:31:39 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> christmas/chomsky/baghdad digest


Thanks for the moving and eloquent confession of an American activist. I
don't doubt your honesty for a moment. But there is a blinkered aspect to
the way you represent yourself and others like you. It seems as if you are
trapped inside an insular American nationalism that your ancestors and many
more recent immigrants would find difficult to grasp. I agree that
civilization makes people soft (Ibn Khaldun) and a good thing too -- who
would freely choose a hard life? But that hasn't prevented cadres of
'civilized' people from playing a decisive role in transnational struggles
in the past, while for the most part protecting the comfort and safety they
normally enjoyed.

Take the movements to abolish slavery, colonialism and apartheid. It is
surely the case that Toussaint's former slaves did more than anyone to
bring about the end of slavery, by destroying an army of 60,000 British
soldiers, among other things (CLR James). The same could be said of
countless insurgencies against colonial regimes or of the youths on
Soweto's streets. But in each case, there were others, occupying more
privileged positions near the centres of power who completed the dialectic
that brought unequal systems down. These included Philadelphia Quakers and
their British or French counterparts, men like Thomas Clarkson, backed by
substantial middle and working class sentiment in their own countries;
supporters of Panafricanism in America and Europe who were personally far
removed from the imperial jackboot, men like WEB Dubois: campaigners
against apartheid at many levels around the world; and so on. Who would
care to measure the relative effect of the defeat of South African troops
in Angola or pressure brought on US foreign policy by the Congressional
Black American caucus?

American activists who feel, let us say, uncomfortable about their
country's current posture in the world bring immense cultural resources to
transnational political movements aiming to redress global injustices:
their money, their technology, their education, their strategic access to
imperial bureaucracy, even their liberal political traditions. The problem
is not that they are reluctant to give up what they already have. Who
wouldn't be? It is more that they don't know what the target is, what the
alliance is about or their own relationship to it. Which are the sides in
any political struggle worth making the smallest of sacrifices for? Vague
talk of Empire and multitudes may go down well on the Left Bank or in
Bologna, but it doesn't really do the job for most people. And straight
anti-Americanism and anti-semitism  lead backwards not forwards.

The crux of the matter is that, in order to fight something, it usually has
to be outside us and most of the social causes of inequality and injustice
in our world have been internalised by every member of this list, not just
the Americans. This is what I found most hopeful about your confession,
that you recognize the need to turn critically inwards before setting out
on some brave struggle to eliminate someone else's wrongs. It's not easy.
But the first step would be to refuse to be defined as American just
becaiuse you live in America or at least to acknowledge that even soft
Americans bring valuable means to common political ends. Actually I know of
some Americans who do compromise their personal safety in pursuit of their
beliefs. "The pitfalls of national consciousness" (Fanon) still plague our
faltering attempts to make a better world. That's where I would start.

"The peoples of the earth have entered in varying degree into a universal
community, and it has developed to the point where a violation of rights in
one part of the world is felt everywhere. The idea of a cosmopolitan right
is not fantastic and overstrained; it is a necessary complement to the
unwritten code of political and international right, transforming it into a
universal right of humanity." (Perpetual peace: a philosophical sketch,

If Kant's confident claim seems less plausible now, it is not because his
world was more integrated than ours, it is because he did not have two
centuries of national society to overcome.


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