The American people are routinely led to believe, by the leadership of both the Democratic and Republican parties, that U.S. foreign policy is motivated to protect human rights and democratic values. Indeed, some argue that, even though Saddam Hussein did not have Weapons of Mass Destruction, our war, which has resulted in about 1 million Iraqi deaths, is justifiable because our intentions were good, namely that we hoped to free the people of Iraq. Leaving aside such a callous logic that fails to hold one accountable for the foreseeable consequences of one’s actions, the fact that our government routinely aids oppressive governments around the world illuminates the inconsistency between our government’s official proclamations and its actions. (See: What Americans have to learn from the ‘Arab Spring’ from Toward Freedom).
Our nation may promote democracy and human rights when it is convenient. But truly principled or moral behavior requires consistent and coherent action motivated by concern for the interests of all people. Just because one happens to do good from time to time doesn’t make one good. As French existentialist philosopher John-Paul Sartre wrote, “[man] [sic] is therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life.” We are defined by the totality of our actions; so to with nations. And the totality will bare witness to our true character, our virtues and our vices. The fact of the matter is that there is a great deal of evidence before us indicating that not only is our government only coincidentally interested in human rights and democracy, and, more directly, it is often responsible for funding governments that prevent rather than facilitate democratic change and reform.
The time has come for American citizens to reign in and take responsibility for their government. Americans ought to be particularly concerned about what goes on in nations’ we financially support. As a college teacher, when I bring up foreign policy issues hitherto discussed in the classroom, many students respond that these matters are best left up to the people and governments of the given nation. I think this speaks to a general non-interventionist mindset of many Americans which is significantly out of step with the actual policies of their government. And perhaps it is worthwhile to move toward non-interventionist policies. But the fact is that today our government spends a great deal of our money—taxpayer money—on bolstering various regimes around the globe. So long as we are members of a democracy who finance our government’s global endeavors, we have a responsibility to hold our government accountable for its actions; we are accountable for what it does to others.
The false moral intentions of our government have been laid bare. The question remaining is what will American citizens do about it? American apathy about U.S. foreign policy, particularly our acceptance of the increasingly obvious, logically contradictory assertion that our military and financial might is used to bolster democracy and human rights has significant moral implications. I feel confident in estimating that the vast majority of Americans do not wish to directly or indirectly harm the people of Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and/or Saudi Arabia. Yet our unthinking acceptance of often repeated but nevertheless absurd claims that all that our government does in foreign policy is for the good of democracy and human rights, nevertheless, results in a complicity in the harm of many innocent persons. Our ignorance and our inaction are fostering misery around the globe.
Too often we believe that “evil” and “oppression” are the vocation of wicked mad-men, who are followed by bright trails of blood. More often than not, this is not the case. Exploitation, violence and other forms of oppression are, as philosopher Iris Marion Young explained it, often the products of everyday practices: purchasing chocolate that isn’t fair-trade certified and, thus, likely tainted by child labor; or reflexively endorsing our unquestioningly accepting culture’s constant celebration of violent masculinity and militarism. But our ignorance does not absolve us of moral responsibility to know what is done in our name and with our tax dollars. For instance, our government may repeat again and again that predator drone strikes rarely kill civilians. But, as evidence grows indicating otherwise, people die despite our belief that they do not. To the extent that we are not engaging in some form of nonviolent, moral resistance to our government’s frequent immoral behavior, we are complicit no matter how oblivious we are to the sins of our indolence.
Socrates believed that evil was a product of ignorance. After watching the trial of Nazi war-criminal Eichmann, philosopher Hannah Arendt noted his ordinariness and what she called the “banality of evil.” She went on to conclude that evil is often the product of unthinking conformity and obedience to particular cultural or ideological norms. For those who utter the morally destitute phrase, “ignorance is bliss,” recall that Eichmann’s ignorant replication of Nazi norms of dehumanization did not absolve him of the moral guilt he rightly deserved. If ignorance is bliss, then bliss is very often evil. The “pleasures” such an evil state of ignorance has to offer cannot outweigh the cruel, willful insensitivity that it manufactures. If we are to live morally decent lives, if we are to be “good” persons by any basic definition of the idea, then we must begin to cultivate and employ the virtues of care, empathy, and responsibility, those wellsprings of love and interconnection with others. We must renounce the popularly promulgated life of evil ignorance and selfish glee, where our only concern is our own localized interests, concentrating on our closest family members and friends without consideration for the wellbeing of the families our government’s policies routinely destroy. Those interested in living a good life must come to see that no one who uncaringly benefits and selfishly perpetuates the oppression of others lives well.
There are many ways to combat systems of oppression and to affect meaningful social change. Not all of us possess the same aptitudes, forums, or resources. And this isn’t a problem. Sometimes resistance is sharing ideas with others, sparking inconvenient conversation. Other times it’s speaking up in a class; making art; writing a blog or letter to the editor. Sometimes its being a whistleblower, or perhaps publishing information from a whistleblower. Sometimes it’s a bumper-sticker, a “War is not the answer” sign in your home window, or a chat with a young person about options other than military service. For others, it’s running for office, local governance, feeding the homeless, or marching in a protest. Other times is complaining about or simply expressing your disapproval of celebrations of violence at a local city festival or school event. Opportunities for resistance are exhaustive. Some perhaps more meaningful or affective than others; but really, we very likely need them all. We cannot reduce social change to any one activity. Arguably, it is an emergent property resulting from countless acts of creative, compassionate and sustained resistance to inequality in countless socio-cultural arenas of human activity. But before we get lost in the end goal of social change, I think we should strive for the modest but virtuous goal of simply doing our best to live good, morally respectable lives.
Those looking for a place to begin or perhaps to revitalize their commitment to meaningful ethical action should take note: Peace and social justice activists are now collaborating on an event titled, “Stop the Machine – Create a New World,” slated to begin October 6, 2011, at Freedom Plaza, Washington DC. Organizers say that the action is a concert, a protest, a rally, and an encampment. Participants are urged to make the following pledge:
“I pledge that if any U.S. troops, contractors, or mercenaries remain in Afghanistan on Thursday, October 6, 2011, as that occupation goes into its 11th year, I will commit to being in Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., with others on that day or the days immediately following, for as long as I can, with the intention of making it our Tahrir Square, Cairo, our Madison, Wisconsin, where we will NONVIOLENTLY resist the corporate machine by occupying Freedom Plaza until our resources are invested in human needs and environmental protection instead of war and exploitation. We can do this together. We will be the beginning” (www.October2011.org).
There are signs that this event is one of the most unique, important, and inspiring peace and justice events to have been organized place since 500,000 marches against the Iraq war in January 2007.
Undoubtedly, pessimism and fatalism has taken hold of many good hearts and minds. But the belief that the status-quo is a permanent state of affairs that cannot be altered is absurd. If social change were not possible then we would live in a nation which has benefited from so many radical social changes. The enemy of social change is fatalistic complacency. As the Egyptian revolutionary, Asmaa Mahfouz put it earlier this year, “Hope disappears only when you say there’s none.” Indeed, the future is unwritten. As the radical children’s rights activist, John Holt, wrote in his work, Escape from Childhood (1974):
As for the future, most of those who talk and write about it do so as if it already existed and as if we were being inexorably carried toward it, like passengers on a train moving toward a place they had not seen and could only wonder about. This is of course not true. The future does not exist. It has not been made. It is made only as we make it. The question we should be asking ourselves is what sort of future do we want?
Power’s presentation of the future as a fully-mapped out terrain which we must be resigned to is a purposeful denial of the crucial role of played by both individuals and movements in affecting significant social change.
Jeff Nall teaches philosophy and gender studies at two separate Florida institutions. He is a PhD candidate in Comparative Studies: Feminism, Gender, and Sexuality, at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in Boca Raton, and holds both a Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies from FAU and a Master of Liberal Studies from Rollins College.
 The Opinion Business Research, “New analysis ‘confirms’ 1 million+ Iraq casualties,” January 28, 2008, at
 Democracy Now. 5 February 2011. “Uprising in Egypt: A Two-Hour Special on the Revolt Against the U.S.-Backed Mubarak Regime.” http://www.democracynow.org/2011/2/5/uprising_in_egypt_a_two_hour