What is to be Said?

Every day the emails swarm, like earnest flies around some goo on the sidewalk. You get more of them when there is more human misery, more filth or gore. They are useless in various ways. Sometimes they moralize about the obvious. Often they tell you what you already know. They at once proclaim that the press does not report the story, and get the story from the press. Many emailers both get their items from, say, The Guardian, and pretend that The Guardian doesn’t exist, or that you don’t read it. But if you get these sorts of emails, you do read it. If you don’t read it, you don’t get these sorts of emails.

Even then, you may well learn what the emailers insist, ad nauseam, you will never learn. “Watch as Palestinians struggle without basic necessities”, says CNN.

Sometimes the emails do contain information you can’t get elsewhere, but don’t want from anywhere. You receive them because you have been identified, correctly, as someone concerned about the horrors unfolding in some particular part of the world. If the idea is to arouse further concern, one wonders why: your greater concern probably won’t mean that you help the sufferers, or even that you try to help them. Most likely you will simply send more emails, which is why the concerned types often get the same story from four or five sources.

Sometimes the emails call for ‘action’. Petitions are signed. There are ‘boycotts’, which really are a sort of *in*action: for a while, a few concerned boycotters half-heartedly try to do the work of billions. Here, in full, is what one very decent person sent out a few months ago: “To express solidarity with the Palestinian people and their democratically elected government, all citizens of the world should join in a global non-violent boycott of US and European products until the governments of these countries change all such policies which condone, help and support the occupation of the Palestinian people and their effective genocide by the Israeli Apartheid regime.” If there were enough people to mount these boycotts, the problems they address would not exist in the first place. But boycott efforts do bear fruit in the form of many more emails, for and against the boycott.

The emails (and I’ve sent them myself) are symptomatic of a big, bad, debilitating problem. They exhibit profound faith in a doctrine contradicted by all recent history. Apparently, most kind-hearted people with keyboards feel that humanity, or the people, or the nation, or some skillful vanguard, is driven by a powerful conscience which, once aroused, will like a lion descend on injustice and rip it to shreds. How quickly this is to happen isn’t clear, but the emailers at once proclaim the dire urgency of ‘the situation’ and signal that really, there is no urgency at all. We know and they know and the whole world knows that outraged consciences are not going to change anything much anytime soon. People are dying right now, we are told – yet not one person on the planet can expect these messages to drive back the killers or suppress the terrible ambitions of their handlers. If the emails produce any effect, it will be far, far down the road, when today’s urgency has become last year’s memory.

Some emailers simply pretend otherwise. For others, the answer is: “one has to do something.” No one doesn’t, when this is all one does. For yet others, their messages are simply a bearing of witness to evil, which essentially means watching people suffer and die. Why this should be some moral obligation or personal accomplishment is a mystery.

If these emails are action, what we need is better talk. It is emphatically not time to organize – organize whom? how many? with what money? to what end? to do what? have a march? How exactly will ‘organizing’ stop the next army crashing through the next far-off slum, much less the armies already on the move? No one can really believe that because marches and lugubrious meetings have failed in the past, they will succeed in the future. Indeed the very same critics who insist on the impotence of individuals in the face of a thoroughly debased electoral process, the emasculation of the trade unions and the repression of genuine dissent – these same critics act as if none of this made any difference, and we could, politically, do pretty much as we’d like.

Lenin asked, and answered, the question of what is to be done. Today the question is adolescent and the answers are lame. “We must build a movement” now belongs to the same category as “we must make the revolution” or “we must radicalize the underclass” or “make love not war”. Leftists need to take their own pessimism about American politics seriously. If anything is ever to be done, some illusions need to go.
First among them is the supposed power of goodness. Many morally good movements have indeed succeeded. The usual suspects are the struggles of black Americans (Martin Luther King or Malcom X, take your pick), feminism, trade unions, the anti-apartheid movements and, implausibly, Gandhi’s pacifist yet blood-soaked liberation of India. Others might add the Cuban, Algerian, Chinese, or Russian revolutions, and the Vietnamese expulsion of their enemies. But none of these movements succeeded *because* they were morally good. The bulk of those who fought these fights – as opposed to the well-wishers on the sidelines – were acting out of self-interest. The rank and file often fought for themselves or their families. The political types fought for some group to which they belonged, and with which they identified. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Malcom X had fine words but little else for the Vietnamese. Ho Chi Minh had fine words and little else for American or South African blacks. No one expected, or should have expected, otherwise.

Today, these heroes might have sent some emails, and those emails might have been appreciated. People like getting messages of support. Maybe these messages even help a little – but not much. Usually a movement succeeds because it has enlisted huge numbers of self-interested followers, usually against a numerically inferior opposition. Departures from this pattern say nothing for the power of The Good. The Vietnamese had important Soviet support; this had to little to do with love of justice and much to do with countering American ambitions. The civil rights movement had the armed backing of the US federal government, and the anti-apartheid movement had (much-exaggerated) international backing. In both cases morality was not the driver of this support; it was rather a recognition that, without racial equality, there would be an ongoing bloodbath that would serve no one’s political or economic interests. In both cases, many local whites eventually came to the same conclusion.

A look at some of the world’s more conspicuous failures provides a better gauge of the power of moral concern. One sometimes hears that the world just didn’t care about the pogroms against Jews in Russia and the Ukraine, the Armenian massacres, the horrors of Biafra, Ethiopia, Rwanda. This is nonsense: there was a huge outpouring of concern about these events, as there was about many forms of poverty and exploitation the world over, as there was when America was poised to attack Iraq. Lack of power, not lack of concern, was the problem. Then, of course, there are the painful failures we live with this very day, in Lebanon, in Palestine, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in the Congo. We give our emails and articles and speeches no credit for any improvement in these areas, because there is none. Hand-wringing is not new; that’s why we ought to know it doesn’t work.

This is no somber reflection on ‘human nature’. Concern is not enough, that’s all, and for three reasons.

First, we take sides. Once you are for the USA, you will not be overwhelmed by concern for dead Afghan kiddies. People don’t actually proclaim the one-sidedness of their compassion, but why should they need to? Isn’t it an obvious fact of life? If there are people who cried as many tears for both wounded Vietnamese and wounded American GIs, for both innocent Jews and innocent Germans, for both Palestinian and Israeli children, there are very few, and fewer still whose tears helped any substantial proportion of these victims.

Second, our concern, however admirable, is almost never sufficiently focused. There are so many things to be concerned about. One person is particularly touched the condition of the Palestinians, another by cancerous children, another by famine in the Sudan, another by sweatshops, another by animal extinctions, another by landmines, another by the destruction of native cultures, another by sweatshops. Often the same person flits from one concern to another.

Third, and decisively, We lack any real power to change what we are concerned about. Our votes count for nothing; nonviolent protest is ignored; violent protest, these days, is inconceivable. This could all change, but not soon. For now, many people – and who can prove them wrong? – judge there is nothing they can do about the world’s ills, and look to their own business.
These are the reasons not to preach. Now it would be silly to argue against concern for others, or to claim that moral argument has absolutely no place in politics. Sometimes it is useful for deflating propaganda. Often it is useful for creating propaganda, once a cause has powerful support. But it almost never creates such support, and the left has gone astray by inflating its very modest political importance.
It is time we stop bringing one another news and views we’ve already heard, time we stopped wallowing in others’ crimes, time we stopped invoking wimpy principles of law and morals as if these invocations really mattered, time we stopped crying on one another’s soggy shoulders. Preaching does spawn longer and more varied email lists, but it is time we realized that this electronic chatter will never help the people we claim to want to help. It is not, for example, that no one will care about the plight of the Palestinians. On the contrary, hundreds of thousands of people around the world have cared, do and will care, very much. But that’s just why we should realize that mere caring, and the actions it produced, are resoundingly ineffectual. The Palestinians are worse off than ever, and Israel couldn’t care less about our caring.

The short of it is that you cannot build an effective movement on altruism, which means that, for many of the causes that most concern us, you cannot build an effective movement at all. There is an alternative, unromantic and unsatisfying, but much more promising, and therefore morally obligatory. It is to appeal to the interests of those with power. Depending on your point of view, this could mean the rich and corporate, or the mainstream majority, or either, or both.

These appeals need to be practical. Sermonizing results at best in empty gestures. Nor is it any good basing such appeals on what some pet theory proclaims as the deeper interests of humanity. If people were responsive to leftists revealing deeper, unrecognized human interests, the world’s problems would have been solved a long time ago. Instead, effective appeals address the ignoble, short-term, possibly ‘unreal’ interests of those with power. These interests are mainly to have wealth and/or a good job, security and the comforts of life – yes, that includes gas for SUVs.

If effective appeals deviated from leftist orthodoxy, that would hardly speak against them. But they don’t. Appealing to unsavory groups or interests doesn’t endorse those interests or say anything about the legitimacy of policies or power structures. It is no renunciation of the desire to change those structures, even by the most radical means.
It is simply recognition of contemporary political realities. If that isn’t impeccably orthodox, so much the worse for orthodoxy.

For anyone who actually gives a damn whether people starve or are beaten or burned to death, the whiny moralizing of the left is no longer a mere annoyance. It is also immoral. Lacking any remotely reasonable prospect of success, it is an exercise in self-gratification. The forms of this gratification may vary: for some it is simply a relief from great distress about the ways of the world, an outlet for painful frustration. For others it is an exercise in snobbery. For others it is a trip to fantasyland, glowing with visions of revolutionary triumph. Whatever its form, leftist moralizing places the moralizer’s own satisfaction over the needs of those in desperate straits. That’s not good; it’s selfish. It is unpleasant to admit powerlessness and to act within the political framework of an abhorrent system. But it’s the only game in town.
To pretend otherwise is hypocrisy – not the worst sin, perhaps, but one the left most loves to condemn. It is to act as if one really cares about others while pursuing a strategy that clearly will help only oneself.

The irony of it all is that it is only once leftists give up on their obsession with concern that they can make progress on those same concerns, on what induced them to become leftists in the first place.
The ignorance and stupidity of America’s leaders and their supporters present great opportunities. Many think American policies, though they do run counter to the interests of ‘ordinary Americans’, serve the interests of big business, or the ruling class. This is false. Most American foreign policies run counter to the interest of big business as well.

Big business, on the whole, has no interest in supporting Israel, or invading Iraq, or confronting Iran, or tying aid to ‘abstinence’ birth control.* Major oil companies, who value stability, have no interest in risky, expensive, outrage-provoking schemes to siphon off oil from Central Asia. Even in Venezuela or Bolivia, American businessmen don’t think lame coup attempts are an intelligent response to oil nationalizations. No corporate type wants high-ranking dweebs admonishing Russia or China about human rights, or provoking these nations with attempts to encircle them. All of these policies, because of the chaos and hostility they create, are worse for America’s security, its energy supplies. and therefore its economy. American foreign policy is, often as not, an appeal to special voting blocks like anti-Castro Cubans or born-again Christians, not the implementation of corporate agendas.

The idiocies of US policy are an opportunity, not for effective action, but for its prerequisite, effective talk. In half the world, the US undercuts its security and economic prospects by supporting Israel, thereby alienating oil producers and key allies. Iran was once in the US camp; support for Israel is part of the reason it is now on the other side. In the first Gulf War, most of the world, including Syria, sided with the US and even fought alongside it. Now only a coalition of poodles skitters at America’s heels. In Turkey, in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia, in every country important to US objectives, anti-American sentiment explodes; this endangers America’s grip on its energy suppliers. On the other side of the ocean, America’s boycott of Cuba has done much to alienate first Venezuela, then Bolivia; Brazil and Mexico may not be far behind. This policy benefits no one and pleases only bitter first-generation Cuban refugees in Florida.

None of this does middle America or the big corporations any good. It’s not hard to promote change on the only viable basis for promoting it, the self-interest of those who can make the changes. But most leftists, instead of addressing the obvious needs of virtually all Americans, apparently think they can infect a whole population with passionate altruism and high ideals. People are going hungry! Children are dying! International law is defied! There are violations of the Geneva Convention! Democracy is not being spread! Corporations are profitable! US policymakers are hypocrites!

When unions organize, when Toyota wants to sell a car, they don’t say: “this will be great for someone else.” Until the left stops thinking that’s a smart way to sell change, the question of what is to be done can’t even arise. Civil rights, the anti-Vietnam War movement, feminism, environmentalism – the only progressive postwar movements that can claim some success – were successful precisely because they got past leftist idealism and made powerful appeals to the interests of those involved.(**)

Real compassion requires placing results over political puritanism. No one heeds connoisseurs of purity and agony. Nobody is interested in what we do or don’t ‘support’ – the emptiest term in the whole vapid lexicon of leftism. You can ‘support’ violent revolution all you like, just as you can ‘support’ socialism in the United States or fair wages around the world or a secular state in Israel/Palestine. “Supporting’ these things – or even more comically, ‘demanding’ them – has absolutely no tendency to bring them within a parsec of reality. At such a distance from high ideals, it is idle to fuss about whether they’ve been abandoned. Again, and until then: we are powerless. This could change dramatically tomorrow, but there is no sign of it changing, and if the signs come they will overshadow our ‘radicalism’ completely.
For now, we are – to harp on it – powerless. It is only by accepting this that we can set about persuading those who do have power to do less harm. If we succeed, and our chances are good, the American left will have more power than it has had for many years.


(*) Inevitably Halliburton will come to mind. Halliburton, despite years of government patronage, hasn’t made it to the top 100 of the Fortune 500. Its 2005 revenues are a bit over 20 billion and its ‘profit’ is a loss of 979 million; it lost similar amounts in the previous three years. Exxon Mobil had revenues of $270 billion and profits of $25 billion. ChevronTexaco had revenues of almost 148 billion and profits of over 13 billion. ConocoPhillips had revenues of over 121 billion and profits of 8 billion. None of these truly big companies made anything noticeable out of Iraq or Afghanistan, much less Israel.

(**) Even churchmen are often less other-wordly than lefists in recognizing the importance of appeals to self-interest. The leader of Greece’s Orthodox church, condemning Israel’s attack on Lebanon, provides an example:

“[Israel is] sacrificing innocent civilians by the hundreds, and creating refugees by the thousands,” he added, telling the Israeli authorities, “Do not provoke our consciences. Do not feed the world condemnation against you. It is not in your interest…Fear God’s wrath.”


MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. His latest book is The Case Against Israel. He can be reached at: mneumann@trentu.ca.




Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at mneumann@live.com