Respectable Murderers: An Open Letter to Dan Ellsberg by David Swanson

Obama has been able to get away with much that we would never have allowed McCain to achieve.

Dear Dan,

You and I are getting ready to tape a debate on the question of whether to vote for Obama (in "swing states"). It will air on Lila Garrett's "Connect the Dots" show on KPFK next Monday. I'm looking forward to it, if for no other reason, because I think our public discourse lacks much serious debate between people who respect each other's intentions.

I have nothing but respect for you and believe you mean nothing but the best in advocating votes for Obama. You honestly believe I was catastrophically wrong to vote for Jill Stein in Virginia, as I've done, and I honestly believe you are horrendously misguided to be expending your valuable energy trying to get others to vote for Obama. And yet we'll be friends through this and regardless of whether one or both of us ever change our minds.

An hour debate will also be a refreshing change from the usual sound byte simplification of the media, and yet not necessarily sufficient. So, let me tell you a couple of stories.

I wandered over to the Obama campaign office here in Charlottesville, Va., on Wednesday when former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was scheduled to visit. She showed up, in fact, and told everyone how terrific Obama is.

I asked Albright whether she still believed that killing a half a million young Iraqi children was "worth it." She said that she very much regretted having made that remark. But did she regret having enacted the sanctions that killed those children? I asked if she opposed the current "crippling sanctions" on Iran, and she said that she did not.

Here's video:

I'm not so much troubled by Albright's sanctioning of mass murder, as by the agreement with her on the part of the many people gathered to applaud her comments. Not a single person present expressed the slightest concern over Albright's having taken part in the murder of so many young lives and many more older ones. Not a single person expressed an interest in learning about a history they were perhaps ignorant of. Not a single person offered an argument for what the positive "it" was that could have made such slaughter "worth it." Not a single person offered a claim that George Bush Sr. or Bob Dole would have killed even more children.

I don't mean to give the impression that Albright's audience was comatose. On the contrary, numerous individuals began grabbing me, shouting at me, pushing me, grabbing my camera, twisting my arm, and spitting out the most vicious hatred. In theory they would all, no doubt, agree that in a system of self-governance people should be able to question their elected officials, former elected officials, and at-large mass-murdering former elected officials. But in this case, this official was playing for the Good Team. The proper role, they believed, therefore, was that of cheerleaders, the highest value deferential respect.

Do they believe the wholesale slaughter of human beings, whether by sanctions or bombs, is sometimes justified by some mysterious "national interest"? Do they believe I was a raving lunatic and that Albright would never have hurt a fly? Do they just believe it's most appropriate not to ask, because that would involve disrespect toward someone on the Good Team? No matter which way you slice it, you come back to a room full of well-dressed polite supporters of mass-murder. That's far more worrying to me than the individual sociopath speaking to them.

Now, present in that room were TV cameras and newspaper reporters. The purpose of the event was to generate positive news about the reasons to vote for Obama and the stature of the people supporting Obama's reelection. Clearly, from that point of view, the staffers in the office did the absolute right thing in chasing me out of the building and making sure that not another inconvenient question was posed. As I'm sure you realize, voting for Obama in a swing state as a single secretive individual can hardly be called rational. A single vote makes no difference. To be the rational strategic voter you envision, each person must also strive to recruit others.

On the other hand, you say that you agree with me that independent policy-driven activism is more valuable than elections. You agree that we don't have legitimate elections offering a wide range of choices, that we need a movement to demand changes we cannot vote for, changes to strip out the money, open up the debates and the media, undo the gerrymandering, do away with the electoral college, provide automatic registration, and on and on and on. You probably agree that women did not vote themselves the right to vote, that the labor movement grew when it struggled and sacrificed by striking and has shrunk while funding the Democratic Party asking nothing in return, that major changes for peace and justice and civilization have been driven primarily by independent movements and often movements that have mobilized third and fourth party campaigns before winning over the Big Two. You may agree with Howard Zinn that it's not so much who's sitting in the White House as who's doing the sitting in. You might even agree with Emma Goldman that if elections alone changed anything, they'd be banned. In any event, during certain non-election years, I see you doing as much useful activism for this country and the world as anyone I know.

Presumably you place some value on spreading awareness of what sanctions did to Iraq. Presumably you see what value there could be in halting the sanctions on Iran. But what would you have done in that Obama campaign office in this swing state on Wednesday? You are a remarkable person, but still only one person. Would you have ruined the entire publicity stunt by pressing Albright further on her record of genocide? Or would you have thrown her a softball about what sort of evil lawyer Mitt Romney might be expected to nominate to the Supreme Court? Let's accept that both would have been good questions. But you could not have asked both. There was not time, and asking the first would have negated the purpose of the second -- not to mention getting you thrown out of the event.

Even you cannot follow your advice, and you are Daniel Ellsberg. Imagine how hard following your advice is for other people. Most people, to one degree or another, identify with candidates and parties. They talk about "us" winning when their candidate wins. To various degrees they avoid becoming aware of their team's flaws. To various degrees, they censor their opposition to their party or politician, before, during, and after elections. What is your time calculation? Do you prioritize campaigning for a month, six months, a year? How much time out of each four-year period do you sacrifice from independent activism of the sort that has always changed the world? And how much time out of every two-year term of those legislators who Constitutionally are supposed to be running the country?

I'm convinced that you personally do an excellent job of avoiding lesser-evil team cheerleading in between elections. But, most people do not. Our RootsAction petition on "strategic voting" got a response several times lower than any other action we've ever sent to our list. Some people do hold their noses and vote, but they have no idea how tightly they should be holding their noses, and they do not act appropriately post-election. All the activists running around knocking on doors and making phone calls for candidates will not do so for peace or justice in December. They'd look at you like you were crazy if you suggested it. Their work is done. Their energy is drained. Their role as spectators is established. And the promise is contained in any activism that they, or even you, muster: We will attempt to inconvenience you, but we will never ever vote against you.

In between elections, as we move from having voted for the less evil party toward the inevitable contest four years hence between two parties that are both more evil than the time before, our activism is neutered by a system of unions, PACs, and nonprofit clicktivist and media complexes that seek their funding, power, and sense of importance from one half of the government. It has become routine for grassroots or astroturf activist leaders to head into the veal pen and ask the elected officials of the Good Party or of the "Progressive" wing of the good party what they should ask their members to demand. This is an inversion of representative government. You'll recall groups that favored single-payer healthcare forbidding their members from mentioning it, asking instead for a "public option" because so-called public servants had instructed the public to ask for that. The point is not that legislators should never compromise, but that we should leave it to the legislators, because when we pre-compromise, we end up with even less in the end.

When Obama was in Charlottesville, hundreds of people waited in line for hours for the chance to cheer anything he said. Some of us went to talk to the people waiting in line. We wanted to get a sense of how they felt about all the policies that had produced such outrage under Bush and been expanded under Obama. Under Obama, as you may know, wealth is concentrating faster, the environment is deteriorating faster, the military has spread further and cost more, the warrantless spying has spread and been firmly established as without criminal penalty, rendition and torture have become policy choices rather than crimes, imprisonment without charge or trial has been "legalized" (although Obama is still fighting for that power in court), an assassination program has been created and openly advertised, wars have been launched without the courtesy of lying to Congress, the CIA has been given major war powers, "special" forces are in 70 nations on any given day and raiding a dozen homes to kill on any given night, drones have raised to new heights the percentage of war victims who are civilians and the percentage of the people in certain nations who hate our government, secrecy has mushroomed, and retribution against whistleblowers has exploded. You are aware of all of this. We couldn't find a single person in that crowd who had ever heard of any of it. Major news stories that would have put people into the streets in outrage if the president were a Republican did not exist to this crowd.

Sure, you know the facts. But are you devoting every ounce of energy to spreading the word and building resistance? Of course not. You're investing your time in campaigning for Obama votes (in swing states). You may understand that there's been no step back from Bush's policies, that Obama has advanced them further. Yes, Romney could advance them even further even faster than Obama would in the next four years -- even in the face of the public opposition that would likely materialize for a President Romney. But we need a reversal of course, not a slightly slower death, not even a significantly slower death. The environment is collapsing. Weaponry and hostility are spreading. We're dealing with a need for survival, not a desire for utopia. What we need for survival is a credible independent movement.

When a labor union today says "Reform NAFTA and push for the Employee Free Choice Act, or else," the "or else" is empty and everyone knows it. When Bill McKibben says "The tar sands pipeline is your test," nobody believes that when Obama fails the test McKibben will oppose his reelection. Compare this battered-spouse relationship with that of Latinos who posed a credible threat to desert Obama and thereby won some modest immigration rights.

You know that we had a significant (pitiably weak but significant) peace movement in 2005 and 2006. Why? Because opponents of war and opponents of Republican presidents' wars were teamed up together. That fell apart as Democrats took power in Congress in 2007 and as 2008 turned out to be the year of one of those endlessly recurring "most important elections of our lifetime." The movement was temporarily shut down, never to be restored. We went from Mitch McConnell secretly warning Bush to get out of Iraq to Obama getting credit for withdrawing from Afghanistan even as the troops there were double the number deployed when Obama entered the White House.

How in the world can anyone have spent the last many years in the peace movement and not noticed this partisan-based electoral-based collapse? I'm sure you've seen and were likely surveyed during the study done by the University of Michigan's Michael Heaney and Indiana University's Fabio Rojas. They documented this collapse and its partisan basis.

Would I object to people voting for a less-evil but still evil candidate if they could continue organizing for justice? Of course not. I do not fail to understand the power of your argument. I'm sure you'll do me the courtesy of not simply repeating it. A more evil candidate is more evil than a less evil candidate. A greater warmonger and bigger destroyer of the environment is worse than a lesser warmonger and lesser destroyer of the environment. I think the case for Obama's superiority to Romney is vastly overblown. I think, in fact, that Obama has been able to get away with much that we would never have allowed McCain to achieve. We stood up against Bush's attack on Social Security. But China is to Nixon as humanitarian goods are to Obama. Let's grant, however, that Obama is better than Romney. Let's grant it because it is not the central argument and may very well be right. That is, if you compare their platforms as presented, guesstimate how much of each is outright lies, and factor in the likely public resistance to each, Obama may come out ahead. My argument is not that he doesn't. My argument is not that he doesn't do so meaningfully. My argument is not that this isn't a question of life and death. And my position involves complete awareness that I will not be the first to die, someone else will.

Here, in contrast, is my actual argument: It is vastly more important that we have an independent movement based on policy changes rather than personality changes. In theory we could have that with lesser-evil-swing-state voting. In reality, we cannot. We cannot build a national movement in the 38 states from which all candidates and journalists have fled, and on the condition that we avoid building it large enough to have any impact whatsoever (which would ruin the whole strategy by transforming a non-swing state into a swing state). We cannot keep a movement from shutting down for each election cycle as long as most people see their jobs as followers of politicians rather than as the true sovereigns of this land.

I don't care about my purity. If I wanted to be pure I would avoid thinking about these matters at all. I wouldn't subject myself to a room full of well-dressed polite backers of mass-murder at all if I wanted to be pure. And I would hold my nose and work with them shoulder-to-shoulder if I thought that would lead to the greater good. I would have voted for Captain Peace Prize if I believed it would save the most lives. I do not. I believe that building an activist movement that depends on rejecting support for a party of mass murderers will save the most lives, and will do so in the relative near term -- or we will all perish.

As you know, I've spent months trying to avoid this discussion because I believe that our so-called elections drain energy away from activism. They also serve to divide us. We all want peace and justice. But we drop everything to debate or, more often, quarrel with each other over electoral matters -- something the powers in Washington must have great laughs over. But the election is this week, and this debate must be had. I enter it with a great deal of respect for that small group of people on the other side of it who understand the need for a real mass movement and believe a mass movement is compatible with lesser-evilism. I'm simply not persuaded.

This article originally appeared on warisacrime.org on October 31, 2012.

Main Obama Respectable Murderers: An Open Letter to Dan Ellsberg by David Swanson