Investigating Empire: Cultivating Resistance

by Richard Shapiro

Dissident Voice

October 16, 2003


September 11, 2001, a day of horrendous violence that brought the United States in intimate relation with the terror and insecurity integral to everyday reality in far too many areas of the world. On that day, dynamics were set in motion that would reveal much about the character of this nation and the future of the globe. Shifting discourses and emboldened actions have emanated from the world’s only superpower.  What are the consequences of these words and deeds?  What direction is our government taking?  How are events being produced and interpreted by dominant forces in this nation?  How might we intervene in these narratives and practices to challenge the current script being written for history?  How might we think the events of our time in order to make a difference?  As the U.S. government, corporate media, and military experts invade our homes as a necessary accompaniment of the invasion on Iraq, let us refuse incorporation into this universe of propaganda.  As this nation does violence to untold lives through war, how do we name and resist the efforts to do violence to thought and feeling being waged in the name of truth, freedom, democracy, security, patriotism, nation, and morality?


What is the story being written in the language of the Defense Department, Presidential advisors, Academic think tanks, and White House Press Corps?  Firstly, we must notice the rigid dualisms that close the universe of discourse in the very act of utterance. We are told that we are either for war on terror or we are for terrorism.  We are told that we either support the war or we are against the troops. We are told that we either support the liberation of the Iraqi people through this war or we support Iraqi subordination to the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein.  We are told that we either support a world of security free from terror, courtesy of an apparent series of wars waged against this year’s axis of evil, or we stand against security. Official discourse pays homage to Orwellian doublespeak. Peace through war, liberation through occupation, destruction of Iraq for reconstruction of Iraq, democracy through invasion. This war is for the prosperity of Iraqis but U.S. corporations will be given the contracts to rebuild Iraq because U.S. taxpayers have paid for this war and should therefore benefit. The U.S. has sacrificed blood and money in this war and will therefore be the unilateral force of occupation in post war Iraq.


We are told that this war is in no way a war on Islam, while we incarcerate Muslims in this country without charges or rights and require that men of certain ages from countries that happen to be Islamic nations must register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. We were first told that this war was because terrorist groups like Al Qaeda were supported by Iraq.  We were then told that this war was to rid the world of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that no inspection team would ever find. Finally, we were told boldly, in clear violation of international law, that this war was for regime change. We were told that the Iraqi people would embrace us as liberators and that food for oil programs would bring Iraq to the prosperity and stability that WWII enemies Germany and Japan experienced through U.S. led reconstruction. We were told that U.S. control of oil and geopolitical interests in controlling the Middle East had nothing to do with this war.  We were told that Syria and Iran, the only two Middle Eastern oil producing countries without U.S. troops within their borders, are possible next targets in our war for freedom and against terrorism.


This war is producing numerous casualties. To understand these casualties as the necessary cost for freedom and security is to inhabit the stupefying structures built to annihilate thinking, manipulate emotion and incorporate support for these destructive acts that promise peace. Instead, this war is one that enhances enslavement and insecurity. The consequences of this war will haunt the people of this country and the world, fomenting the very terror it purports to extinguish.  This war furthers U.S. political and economic dominance globally, fostering the very conditions that produced the horrific acts of disempowered resistance on September 11, 2001.


The war on terror is already the justification for diminished civil liberties at home as evidenced in the Patriot Act. The new militarization of the U.S. economy destroys the short-lived hopes for a post Cold War demilitarization of this society that would have provided ample resources for health, housing, education, social services, clean energy, sustainable technology, and increased civic participation. The new adventurism of a monolithic super power insures military casualties that target U.S. youth, disproportionately poor, working class, and of color. To support our troops means conversion to a peace economy, support for international law, the United Nations and multilateral action. To support our troops means reinstating the draft so that going to war involves middle class families and youth, and may even involve the children of Senators and Presidents.  To support our troops means that they come home to a nation that has options other than military service to make a living or get funds for education.  To address systematic forms of mistreatment that target youth, the poor, working people and people of color would undermine race and class oppression in ways that would most assuredly support our troops. 


To develop what President Clinton called a trillion-dollar industry waiting to happen in non-fossil fuel energy technologies would support our troops by contributing to the demilitarization of both the United States and the Middle East. To develop global citizenship that links U.S. citizens to peoples from different nations and cultures for reasons other than killing and controlling them would both support our troops by facilitating their obsolescence and help create dialogue on peaceful coexistence and mutually beneficial forms of economic and political exchange.


Iraqi civilians and conscripts into the army of a dictator who ruled through fear, are also casualties of this war. Their lives are not part of a calculus of acceptable casualties to achieve desired ends.  We are asked, how many U.S. lives can be lost in “Operation Iraqi Freedom”?  Military analysts muse, at what point will the number of body bags returning to U.S. soil exceed acceptable limits?  U.S. casualties are counted and reported throughout each day. Iraqi deaths, we are told, are as few as possible, reflective of our human goodness and technological precision. The sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit message is that we should reserve our emotions for the deaths of those who share our nationality.


Let us indeed grieve every life lost and mourn this world for its injustice and brutality. I cannot, for one, care more for the lives of U.S. citizens than other human beings.  The boundaries of nation do not circumscribe my capacity to feel.  My affective reality is multinational and transcultural.  Patriotism cannot be defined as obedience to reckless expressions of Empire and the reduction of emotional cathexis to objects determined for me by unholy alliances of corporations, government, media, and military. My political loyalty is to peace, justice, freedom, democracy, sustainable livelihood.  My emotional and intellectual loyalty is to that which preserves and enhances life. To nurture and safeguard cultural and ecological diversity is a commitment at once political and spiritual.


The forces that threaten such loyalties and commitments are the very forces whose actions in this war have enhanced the insecurity of the United States and the world.  Are we more secure anywhere in the world today than we were before the bombing of Afghanistan and Iraq? To turn another generation of people from Arab and Islamic regions against the United States is a consequence of this war that portends future casualties. We are threatened by the arrogance of an Empire incapable of grasping the relation between its policies and practices of global domination and terrorist threats. When we count what this war has placed under attack that demands our vigilant resistance, we must include language, its intimate partner, thought, and its close companion, feeling, as dimensions of existence being colonized to allow this and future wars to be justified.


There is one resounding lesson from September 11th that this nation must learn for our own security as well as the security of the world.  This lesson is simple but will not be learned easily by the powers that be.  Narrow self-interest, histories of isolationism and forgetting, and habitual practices of domination vitiate against this learning in the halls of influence in the United States.  This lesson is that there is no such thing as national security outside a context of global security. And there is no global security without strengthening international institutions and international law.  There is no global security without building multilateral relations facilitative of diplomacy, dialogue, consensus building and compromise.  There is no global security without addressing global issues that require collaborative action and intelligent leadership.  It is in the interests of national security to participate in efforts that seek to further environmental action on issues like global warming.  It is in the interests of national security that human rights be expanded to include the right to livelihood, health care, education, cultural survival, and the conditions necessary to facilitate active participation in civic life.


As this nation undertakes action productive of rage, resentment, despair and fear on those named as its benefactors, it is imperative that we rededicate ourselves to peace and justice that sustains peace.  Such rededication gains sustenance where together we build worlds that nourish thinking, feeling, and acting resistant to those forces that seek to colonize our hearts and minds, separate us from each other, and homogenize our differences. We must refuse this colonization of our hearts and minds that is part of the systematic onslaught on the people of this country – an onslaught, one could argue, as central to the war on terrorism as bombs over Baghdad.


Without the manufacture of consent for this war and the new world order it represents, the current policies will face tremendous obstacles that will impede their implementation. It is incumbent upon those whose thoughts and feelings transgress the norms being prescribed for us to continue to think, feel, act, congregate, write, create, build, and be in ways that shift the conscience of this nation. Those of us who reside within the U.S.A., benefit and suffer from this Empire, must turn our privilege and pain into prolific resistance that builds world’s where peace and justice, diversity and solidarity, replace the stupidity, arrogance and violence enacted by our leaders in our name. We must cultivate spaces where myriad forms of emancipatory culture may breathe and grow. Against the reactive expressions of power that organize this war, we must reflect and act, again and again.  Against the sanitizing, anaesthetizing truths being spewed upon us, we must think critically and act compassionately, mindful of our incapacity to monopolize truth, and the undesirability of doing so.


As we struggle to birth a multipolar world, we must embody ways of being with difference and dissent that nurture such a world.  Such movement is for regime change in the United States through lawful, peaceful civil disobedience.  Such practice enacts democracy and seeks to actualize a promise of democracy still unfulfilled in this nation.  Such resistance must be poly vocal, with many names, dissonant in rhythm and cadence. Whatever it is called, it involves the apparently difficult idea that to liberate our world, freedom and democracy must not only be what we say, but also what we do.  Freedom and democracy must be our practice, continually and diligently practiced.


Richard Shapiro is the Director of the Social and Cultural Anthropology Program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco (http://www.ciis.edu/faculty/shapiro.html).


Other Articles by Richard Shapiro


* Reflections on the United States: Interrogating Dominance




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