A Letter to My European Friends

(On April 27, the New York Times Magazine published an open letter from Timothy Garton Ash to his ‘American friends’, calling for Americans to be more open to resolving the Israel/Palestine situation, while claiming that Europe should be more willing to support, and even join the fighting in, US imperial adventures. In this way, “The West could be One.” Coincidentally, at the same time, I was penning a letter to European Friends, who, I suppose, don’t hang out much with Timothy Garton Ash–S.S.).

To my European Friends:

First of all, my most sincere condolescenses to you regarding the death of Jose Couso. I know that you, and tens of millions of others throughout Europe, watched in horror as a US tank pointed its turret at the Palestine Hotel, and blasted a shell directly at the international press corps, delivering wounds to the Spanish Camera man Couso that proved to be fatal. You and I know how this happened. Having failed to tame public opinion in Europe (and around the world), the US army decided, out of sheer frustration, to take aim at those in proximity who could be held responsible (As the Chinese can attest after their embassy was bombed during the Kosovo episode, the US makes ‘mistakes’ during these engagements that just happen to wound those they don’t much like). I doubt you’ll be surprised that few in US even heard about this incident, let alone heard an accurate description of it, minus US evasions and disinformation.

The gap between Europe and the US has never seemed wider. For many of us here on the progressive side of the spectrum, Western Europe has always seemed like a pleasant place. Its government’s have national health insurance and generous benefits for the unemployed, religion plays little role in public life, rates of violence are low, downtowns of cities remain lively. On reflection I know this view is oversimplified, ignoring the racism (including both overt Le Pen stuff, and the ‘liberal’ ‘we can fix the developing world through our enlightened NGOs’ mentality) and inequality in Europe. But there’s still a qualitative difference between Europe and the US. Over the last few months, it’s come to seem like a rock of sanity that we’ve been loosened from, and, like travelers in a hot air balloon with no ballast, we seem to be rapidly drifting away from. ‘Please!’ we’ve been screaming at the man who’s hijacked the balloon, ‘the people down there know what they’re doing and the air up here is getting awfully thin’. He ignores us, whether he could steer us back to ground or not.

I take it in Europe you also look with horror as the US drifts away, although you are not completely surprised. You look westward and see a land of addled, fundamentalist cowboys who couldn’t locate France, Spain and Germany on a map, and so it can’t seem altogether out of the blue that the US has decided to go it alone, and deploy its mega-army against real or perceived enemies in those lands where the people supposedly hate Israel and America. Even so, the most dramatic examples of US recklessness-the destruction of the Iraqi cultural heritage, the murder of members of the international press corps-have taken reasonably cynical US watchers by surprise. ‘What’, you are probably thinking, ‘could they possibly do next? Aren’t there any Americans who know better?’

I believe your view is oversimplified, and there’s both good news and bad news in getting a clearer picture, as well as, most importantly, getting a clearer sense of what needs to be done. The good news-there are many Americans who know better. I think roughly 30% (possibly a good deal more, if you count those expelled from the US public sphere, like felons and ‘illegal’ immigrants) ‘know what time it is’, as the saying goes. They know that Bush is trying to raid the federal government for handouts for his wealthy friends, further enhance control over immigrants, minorities, and dissenters of all stripes, that the wars he insists on are some combination of a ‘weapon of mass distraction,’ an effort to conquer the world by force, and an effort to plunder abroad. Obviously, there’s plenty of disagreements about exactly which factors are most important or the precise dynamics of the Bush juggernaut, but the point is a decent fraction of the country recognizes it as something awful and dangerous.

Reading European sources, I get the sense that there is a perception that the left is in hibernation in the US. Brian Eno said he wished US progressives would stop concentrating on yoga and start speaking up. Le Monde Diplomatique pointed out that many of the progressives of the sixties (Todd Gitlin, Ellen Willis, Marc Cooper) have provided lukewarm-at-best support for anti-war positions. Another cliché is that all anyone cares about is asserting the righteousness of their oppressed identity. The good news I want you to know is that these positions are highly deceptive. In the fifteen years or so that I’ve been active on the US left, I’ve never felt better about us. Far from being self-absorbed and resigned to inaction, all the many currents of progressive thought have been fruitfully cross-pollinating over the last decade or so. Its not surprising to hear someone obsessed with having an organic diet also talk about the conditions in the fields where workers grow her food, or express her outrage at the collusion between the local food-co-op board and business/government initiatives to harass the homeless. Nor is it surprising when a young man who considers himself some sort of revolutionary anarchist reflects critically on the way sexism or homophobia shape his practice. In ways difficult to capture for outsiders, many of those strains of thought that seem somewhat wacky and uniquely American have made us stronger, and now seem to be converging on a radical critique. And we are further strengthened by the voices of wisdom from older generations of radicals, who, for the most part, have not abandoned the cause for self-promotion as agonized liberals. I’m guessing that the core of this activist left is no more than 3 or 4% of the US population, but its ability to speak to and mobilize that 30% who hate Bush seems to be improving all the time.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that there’s about 15% or 20% of Americans who are actively elated at what Bush is doing. The pro-Bush faction wants more wars to teach the world (especially the Europeans, or the French, or whoever you are) a lesson, and they are licking their lips at the prospect of a crackdown on dissent at home. I believe they pose a real menace, because Bush represents the end of a shift in the center of gravity of the Republican party away from more ‘responsible’ multinational capitalists to ‘out there’ Texas oilmen and fundamentalist Christians. These people believe the use of ‘pre-emptive’ force, at home and abroad, can halt or reverse their declining social position. You remember this dynamic from the politics of Europe in the 1920s and 30s. It was called fascism then.

As for the rest of the US, the fact that the left is frozen out of both the political system and the mass media makes it extremely difficult to sway them with intelligent arguments. And you can’t underestimate the wretched state of both the political sphere and the mass media as obstacles to change. Dominated by contributors and consultants, buoyed by a sea of fraudulent and disenfranchising practices, the political sphere (at least at the national level) seems almost completely insulated from voices of dissent. Right around the time the IDF was destroying Jenin, there was a debate in the House of Representatives about a resolution on Mideast policy-should it, as one side argued, only focus on praising Sharon, or, as the others wanted, should it also condemn Arafat? During the war with Iraq, practically the only dissenting voices heard in the mainstream US public sphere were some generals, terrified of the political blowback if the US military was actually humiliated.

It is probably doing the US media too much of an honor to complain only of their inane jingoism and efforts to hose down firestorms created by US ineptitude and venality. The central purpose of the mass media these days is to keep viewers glued to their TV sets or confronting a barrage of pop-up ads; information content is strictly secondary. Video-game imagery of war were obviously popular; and why annoy viewers by raising any uncomfortable questions about the US? Now that Saddam’s regime is no more, the media have reverted to their old brew of celebrity gossip, true-crime pornography, sexual titillation, and financial advice. Were a Russian teen-lesbian pop duo kidnapped and held in a dungeon until several million dollars were deposited in one of the ten best-performing mutual funds, the media would explode in a burst of ecstasy, immediately after negotiating webcam rights with the dungeon master(we exaggerate-clearly the media also feels a responsibility to defend American power and status quo inequalities, and it pulls this off well, at least well enough for their domestic audience). In this climate, it isn’t easy to talk to that 50% or so of Americans who are somewhere in the middle about the direction of the US.

So I’m not entirely optimistic about the presidential elections here coming up next year. I can see three possibilities that would mostly make the situation worse. First, Bush might carry out another pre-emptive attack and ride into a second term on a burst of patriotic fervor. Secondly, the Bush team, recognizing that their chances are faltering, would use their institutional advantage to rig another election. Given the limited outcry over the first election they stole, why should they believe they can’t get away with it again? Third, the Democratic candidate might adopt the foreign policy of the hawks out of fear, convenience, or in the case of Lieberman, principled idiocy. The other prospect, that a Democrat suggesting the need for the country to shift direction attains the presidency, seems the least likely, barring a failed ‘pre-emptive strike’ or (slightly more likely) the possibility that the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan will have unraveled sufficiently to warrant concern.

Nevertheless, the US juggernaut does have a crucial Achilles heel, and this is why I’m writing to you. European fascism involved an inward economic turn, and a focus on rapidly building the industrial base of the nation. The US has no such option. Its middle class is accustomed to high living standards that can only be maintained by the inflated status of the dollar, which is only secured by the massive amounts of foreign investments in the US. As the New York Times commented this morning “The United States requires about $1.5 billion a day in new capital from overseas just to keep the dollar from falling
because of a huge imbalance between American imports and exports of goods and services.” So here is what we need: a divestment campaign from the US, comparable to the global divestment campaign against the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Every university, bank, government, corporation around the world needs to know it is untenable to keep money in the US until the policy of pre-emptive strikes is abandoned. Here is another thing we need-solidarity with US activists. Attacks on peaceful demonstrations have been mounting, and it seems likely that the tank cannon aimed at the Palestine Hotel will soon be facing us. International outcry and support can limit the impact of such repression.

I read where Michael Hardt, one of the big intellectuals of the global justice movement, said that the antiwar protest were an unfortunate, if necessary, distraction from the really important movement taking on the IMF, World Bank, WTO, etc. Not true. Our movement against the US war mobilized many times more people worldwide than any of the earlier global justice mobilizations. What’s more, it is the power of the US military that undergirds the whole system. Forced to retreat, the lack of US force would lead to a collapse in the potency of all the major global financial institutions. You know well (although I suspect you must educate some of your continent) that the just alternative is not a European/UN hegemony which would sustain the current system. In any case, European capitalists are in no position to pick up the ball and rescue the global system if the US falters. So please, lets work hard, and together, on both sides of the Atlantic, to stop the US juggernaut. You work on boycotts, disinvestments, solidarity, and we will work to break down the walls that separate us from the silent middle right here. We have a world to win, or a world to lose.

STEVEN SHERMAN is a resident of Chapel Hill North Carolina who teaches at UNC-Greensboro. He can be reached at: Threehegemons@aol.com