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Numb and Number

War Politics

by NORMAN SOLOMON

Playwright Lillian Hellman said: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”

The statement was in a letter to the House Un-American Activities Committee. The year was 1952. We tell ourselves that the McCarthy era was vastly different than our own — but what about the political fashions of 2010?

This year’s fashions cut mean figures on Washington’s runways. Conformities lie, and people die.

While the escalating disaster of war in Afghanistan keeps setting deadly blazes, the few anti-war voices on Capitol Hill usually sound like people whispering “Fire!”

In 2010, this is what the warfare state looks like: a largely numbed state, mainlining anesthetics that induce routine torpor. In that context, the conformity of mild dissent is apt to be mistaken for outspoken moral acuity.

On the back of an envelope, or anywhere else, check this math:

$1,000,000 x 100,000 = $100,000,000,000

In round flat numbers, that’s the cost of deploying 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan for one year — $100 billion. The initial “cost” includes none of the human consequences.

In a numbed process, filtered through media and political buzz phrases, we talk about one number, then another. Numb and number.

For domestic acceptance, a far-off war depends on the pumped-up anesthetics of verbal abstractions and hollow numbers, permeating news media and political discourse. Wooden words and figures, bolted together; every number a lie when wrenched into claiming to tell a human truth.

The number we get, the farther from warfare’s human consequences. While more lives are being shattered elsewhere, conscience hems and haws to fit this year’s fashions.

When Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “Beyond Vietnam” speech on April 4, 1967, he told listeners that he had moved during the course of two years, finally, “to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart.”

At the podium of Riverside Church in New York City, he said: “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.”

Dr. King noted that the human spirit has “great difficulty” moving against “all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world.”

In his own way, King was saying what Hellman had said 15 years earlier — when she declared herself unwilling to “cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”

This year, with the escalating occupation of Afghanistan widely believed to be on automatic policy pilot, conscience is fashionably cloaked with acquiescence. Many in Congress who say they don’t support the war keep voting to fund it — and keep their voices muffled. The brandished wrath of the House Speaker or the White House chief of staff is most effective as a preemptive club.

A dozen years after Hellman defied HUAC, a senator defied the fearful conformity of 1964. Seeing the escalation of the Vietnam War on the near horizon, Wayne Morse spoke truth to — and about — power. The contrast with today’s liberal baseline on Capitol Hill is painfully evident if you watch footage of Senator Morse for two minutes.

NORMAN SOLOMON is the author of Made Love, Got War.