Watching the French Open, I recalled the famous question years back about tennis, my substitution of “jihad” a timely update designed to insinuate a subversive thought into the mindset of the superpatriot in the White House, whose Memorial Day address, following upon The Speech of the Century, hit a new high (low?) in patriotic propaganda (that not even W., with or without an aircraft carrier for backdrop, would have uttered) in which he lamented that not enough Americans had gone to war (he should talk?) and therefore failed to appreciate the beauties of heroism and sacrifice, a condition probably due to the all-volunteer army: how much better if all served—implictly, a universal, peacetime draft for the future wars he allegedly has ruled out. Obama is a menace—to truth, peace, domestic rectification of poverty, suffering, clarity of social priorities. Hence, my call to jihad, not the Islamist-fundamentalist-violent form but, as my ancient Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate provides, as one definition, “a crusade for a principle or belief.” My kind of jihad would be secular, nonviolent, geared to basic political-economic-ideological change, antimilitaristic, and a global posture of nonintervention and renunciation of hegemony, whether through military, economic, or other means.
There. Jihad wouldn’t be so bad, simply the Left as I had known it personally, say, 1945-60, before the slow degradation of societal decency and humane political consciousness set in, thus, today, somewhat unrecognizable as a platform for action. Certainly, insofar as the Democratic Party is concerned, and has been for some time, perhaps—with few notable exceptions—going back as far as 1945, the ending of the New Deal and postwar anti-Communist hysteria. This has been a one-party nation for some time, especially in foreign policy, so that today’s lame excuse by Obama (and the millions still supporting him) that Republican intransigence prevents pushing ahead with genuine democratization of the social order is obviously the bunk—phony, not least because (a) no alternative has been put forth, and (b) Obama, staying with the present, but Bill Clinton, the pride of deregulation, and he are interchangeable in their love for banking, extreme wealth, and fostering business-military integration on both the economic and foreign-policy fronts, has bent over backward to facilitate wealth concentration and the formation of a still tighter ruling class. In a word, patriotism—the universal chorus—has found its soul mate in mature, expansive monopoly capitalism, each needing the other to enforce complicity and aquiescence for the whole shebang of aggressive efforts to stay on top of the world structure of power and international system of economy, while, in the massive transfer of wealth upward in America, keeping powerless and poor large numbers of its citizens (the attack on the social safety net by both elements of the one-party state) as the ideal condition to ensure docility and gratitude from below.
My sort of jihad must start with an awareness that things are rotten, not in the state of Denmark, but in the U.S. of A., rotten from the standpoint of the loss of moral consciousness (how else explain the bland acceptance of assassination as a cornerstone of American foreign policy?), and the further, related, loss of economic bearing, as witness the widest differential in wealth and power in American history, itself partly attributable to the financialization of the economy’s yielding enormous riches to criminal activity of those involved at the pinnacle, from bankers and hedge fund operators to asset managers and the regulators who countenance, nay bless, the accumulation process. But add to financialization, now the recent structural grafting on the capitalist base, a militarization which, perhaps deliberately, drains away social resources which might otherwise be turned to the benefit of the whole nation. In this light, the last thing wanted is a capitalism responsive to human needs, a formation theoretically possible when it has been democratically organized (so that socialism need not be the summum bonum of economic-social organization, although still my preference) but anathema to ruling groups whose capitalism must be hierarchically arranged, class-stratified in all but name (the fiction of a gigantic “middle class” being most useful to the stimulation and maintenance of false consciousness), and definitely war-oriented in disposition—in sum, pretty much where we are at present.
If my emphasis on awareness appears to eviscerate the idea of jihad, I could of course suggest the kinds of demonstrations, with requisite intensity, we as a nation were privileged to have in our past, from the 1877 railroad strikes to the Sit-Down Strikes of the late-1930s to the magnificent Civil Rights Protest much of which prior to the 1960s remains to be uncovered, through Mississippi Freedom Summer and community organizers (for Obama, a resume item) to the hundreds of antiwar actions in communities large and small nationwide. Awareness must not be an excuse for inaction, but a catalyst for disciplined involvement wherever the military and corporate America rear their ugly heads. Submissiveness is only a cut above slavery, or the concentration camp. Obama’s frigidity toward human tragedy (Ben Rhodes probably has to put words in his mouth when he makes the rounds of those tormented by violence and natural disaster) is exactly the right measure for eruption into more surveillance, more prosecution of leaks, more denigration of civil liberties—McCarthyism with a jauntiness coming before the rostrum.
Jihad is an intriguing notion, because it is throwing back in the face of the Opportunists, the War-Mongers, the, to recur to the despised of World War Two, Profiteers, still with us, except in name, the very term used to scare us, accustom us to wariness about criticism (Espionage Act used against whistle-blowers), sending a pall of dark smoke over the landscape of moral conscience, so that hit lists, Terror Tuesdays, collateral damage, enhanced interrogation, indefinite detention—all of which are far worse to a democratic society than what is being conjured up for public consumption to legitimize a permanent-war culture of politics—have come to define, to use Obama’s favorite slogan, for him, to opposite effect, who we are as a people. A not very flattering portrait.
Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University.