Water Man Spouts

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Conscience vs Pragmatism

Note: This essay is from a post I made on the Democratic Underground forum. In the past 72 hours, a few DUers had expressed outrage at my position on impeaching President Bush and VP Cheney. This is my response to them:

{1} "Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of papers instead of children. …. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise. For we are sick at heart, our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children. We ask our fellow Christians to consider in their hearts a question that has tortured us, night and day since the war began. How many must die before our voices are heard, how many must be tortured, dislocated, starved, maddened? … When, at what point, will you say no to this war?" – Daniel Berrigan

The above quote is taken from page 319 of James Carroll’s "House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power." It is the statement that Daniel made on behalf of the nine people who entered the draft board offices in Catonsville, Maryland, on May 17, 1968, and removed files that they burned in a parking lot. For many older DUers, the Berrigan brothers represented a large part of the social conscience of that era.

Later, Daniel would be found on the "underground." In the wonderful book "The Eloquence of Protest: Voices of the 70’s" (edited by Harrison Salisbury; Houghton Mifflin; 1972), his Letter to the Weathermen can be found. Daniel was, by some standards, an extremist. By my standards, Phillip and Daniel were heroes, and I was privileged to get to know them, though not well, in the Reagan era, when the democratic left was protesting the violence in Central America.

The Reagan - Bush administration damaged our Constitutional democracy with a series of crimes we call the Iran-Contra scandal. The congress should have impeached Reagan and Bush, but the democrats in office took the pragmatic approach that our nation could not afford the upheaval that this could cause, and that there "might not be enough votes."

{2} "And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond with compassion my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak not of the soldiers of each side, not the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war … They must see Americans as strange liberators. …. Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours. ….

"We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world – a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

"Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter – but beautiful – struggle for a new world. This is the calling for the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history." – Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.; A Time to Break Silence (aka Beyond Vietnam); Riverside Church, NYC; April 4, 1967

Martin Luther King was another of the great voices of conscience in the 1960s. I believe that this was his greatest speech. When we look back, 40 years later, we know he was right. Yet at the time, the speech was unpopular with a couple of the groups within the democratic party. There were those who believed Martin had sinned against the party, by questioning its leader, President Johnson. And it marked a split within the liberal community that had backed Martin so long as he kept his focus on public water fountains and rest rooms.

This speech would help mark the beginning of a new splinter group in the democratic party, the neoconservatives, which had been little more than a cult until then. And, of course, when Reagan took office, the neoconservatives became part of the "republican revolution." Some, of course, are still found in the democratic party today. One example is Senator Joe Lieberman. He views himself as liberal on most social issues, but is one of the Bush administration’s most reliable friends when it comes to the violent US policies in the Middle East today.

In the past week, here on the Democratic Underground, I have been advocating that those who want to stop the war in Iraq, and prevent a war with Iran, should be active in the organic process that can bring about the impeachment of President Bush and VP Cheney. I am motivated by the values that have been so powerfully expressed by leaders of conscience, including the Berrigan brothers and King.

I have also been inspired by my having attended a Teach-In on Impeachment. Two of the speakers there – John Nichols and Elizabeth de la Vega – presented many important ideas, some of which I am attempting to provide to those members of DU who favor impeachment. One thing that is very clear from the Nixon era is that once the congress began to take steps to impeach President Nixon, he began to communicate a willingness to wind down his escalation – or "surge" – of the violence in southeast Asia.

There are people who take a different view than me. They are focused on what I think we could agree they believe are the pragmatic interests of the democratic party. They hold beliefs that mean as much to them as mine do to me. They point out their belief that even if the House moved to impeach Bush and/or Cheney, that there would not be the necessary 67 votes in the Senate. Just as they speculate in good faith that there would not be, I speculate in good faith that there would be, especially in the case of VP Cheney.

But I also must admit that my motivation is not based entirely by counting votes that might be cast at some future day in Washington DC. I am motivated by those numbers that Daniel Berrigan noted when he asked, "How many must die before our voices are heard, how many must be tortured, dislocated, starved, maddened? … When, at what point will you say no to this war?"


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