The Begging Bowl

Buddhist monks, in practicing their call to holiness, rely upon the alms of the lay faithful to provide them with food, clothes, and other needs. Often, these alms come in exchange for spiritual services the monks perform for the laity such as weddings and funerals. The posture a monk observes when receiving alms is holding the empty bowl in hand so that the almsgiver may place the alms in the bowl. However, when a monk turns the begging bowl upside down, rendering the possibility of giving alms impossible, the monk is withdrawing consent from the the spiritual practice of the community.

In Burma, the upside down bowl became a powerful symbolic action in response to the military junta's repression of the pro-democracy movement. In a devoutly Buddhist country, the withdrawal of the monk's begging bowl represents the denunciation of the systemic violence and oppression of the country's military leaders.

21 January 2013

Inaugurate Justice: End the War on Terror

Today is Inauguration Day and the nation welcomes Barack Obama to four more years as President of the United States. The seminal event, according to the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, is a celebration of the peaceful transfer of power with the 2013 inaugural theme billed as “Faith in America's Future.” With the exception of a few protesters here and there, President Obama will peacefully enter his second term as president to rebuild America.

It has been reported that President Obama will take his Oath of Office by swearing over the Lincoln Bible as well as a Bible owned by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The symbolic nature of the gesture undoubtedly leads many to hope that a second Obama term will follow in King's legacy of fighting for equality, freedom and social change.

Considering the past four years, it's questionable that the staunchly anti-war Dr. King – who once famously said that "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death" – would approve.

The continuation of the war on terror – drone strikes, policies of indefinite detention, prosecution of whistleblowers, targeted assassinations – is a troubling legacy for the Nobel Peace Prize winning president. And, looking at the trends from Obama's first term as the war on terror wages on, what will the future look like?
There have been four times as many drone strikes under Obama than under Bush – including increased numbers of civilian causalities which are points of contention in the Middle East and Central Asia. The codification of government “kill lists” into the legally questionable “disposition matrix” – under the leadership of the Obama administration – suggests a new, permanent reality of targeted assassinations becoming key in the war on terror. The legal architecture being constructed is eerily reminiscent of the Bush-era policies that led to torture, abuse, and extraordinary rendition that became common place within war on terror operations across the globe – all the while given cover by high-level administration officials within the federal government and military.

Repeated promises to close the prison at Guantánamo – where over half of the 166 remaining prisoners have been cleared for release by the Obama administration's Guantánamo Review Task Force – are left unfulfilled. Since the signing of a 2009 executive order on Obama's first day of office that promised to close the prison within one year, 66 men have been released from the prison. Only five men have been released in the past two years thanks to the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes $633 billion for military expenditures, contains provisions that ban the use of funds for closing the prison. In spite of threatening a veto due to the ban of prisoner transfers out of Guantánamo to other facilities, Obama again signed the NDAA into law on January 3, 2013.

In a signing statement issued by the White House, Obama said, “I continue to believe that operating the facility weakens our national security by wasting resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and strengthening our enemies.”

It costs approximately $133 million a year to run the prison – a cost of nearly $850,000 per prisoner per year. To house an inmate in federal prison costs about $33,000 a year but Congress has continued to oppose efforts to close Guantánamo and Obama has largely allowed Congress to direct the future of the prison.

The scope of indefinite detention was further expanded by the passage of the NDAA. First appearing the the 2012 NDAA and again in the 2013 NDAA are police-state provisions that allow for the military to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens — on U.S. soil — without charge or trial. While the practice of being held without charge, trial, or recourse to challenge one's imprisonment raises clear constitutional concerns for even amateur legal thinkers, the Obama administration continues to litigate against challenges to the NDAA provisions.

While Obama has signed into law new protections for federal whistleblowers who report on waste, fraud or abuse, when it comes to matters of national security the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act that all previous presidents combined.

And in Afghanistan, three times as many U.S. troops have been killed since Obama took over as commander-in-chief than under Bush – and in a quarter of the time. The president has promised massive troop withdrawals by 2014 to wind down the war – or at least U.S. military involvement in it, but options remain to leave as many as 20,000 troops in Afghanistan after the NATO mission ends in 2014. The White House has also suggested total withdrawal of troops. Time will tell if this promise proves to be true.

The Iraq troop withdrawal, overseen by Obama, drastically cut-back on U.S. personnel in Iraq but the State Department continues to operate, at $6 billion a year, the largest, most expensive embassy in the world in Baghdad. Is this the fate Afghanistan can expect? In a recent meeting between Obama and Hamid Karzai, it became clear that the U.S. will continue to have an influential presence in Afghanistan in providing military aid and hardware – including drones.

With the appointments of John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and John Brennan to key posts for foreign policy and national security decisions – all of whom were staunch supporters of the war in Iraq and then changed positions – is Obama signaling to expect more of the same in the war on terror? Brennan, in particular, was instrumentally involved in Bush-era torture policies, amping up the drone programs, and in compiling the kill lists.

All of this, along with the recent interventions in Libya and, now, Mali, and the continued operations in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan suggests we are in a global state of permanent war. In contemplating a new American future – under the leadership of President Obama for four more years – what can we hope for from the so-called anti-war president at the helm of this endless war on terror?

If Dr. King were alive, surely his voice would be among those pleading to end the war on terror and dismantle its framework. Bringing to an end more than a decade of war and slowing an entrenched national security apparatus will, no doubt, take some time and bold leadership. Can we really expect President Obama to lead us to that future?

05 November 2012

A Vote for Revolution

Voting is a sacred, taboo, and perplexing subject in the American political experience. Shirking one's civic duty draws the ire of all citizens who proudly denounce your “right to complain.” Simultaneously, people hold their vote close to their hearts as a private matter while other proudly proclaim and pester you to support their candidate with yard signs, bumper stickers, and ringing doorbells and telephone calls.

So arises the question many – liberals, occupiers, and even ordinary folks – are wrestling with as the spectacle of democracy climaxes, as it does every four years, with the presidential election on November 6: for whom to vote? A wide range of pundits have weighed in on the lack of real choices offered between incumbent President Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney have accompanied anarchist critiques and discussions on the merits of not voting.

In fact, some of the critiques have come from unlikely placeslike the discussion that erupted over at The Atlantic thanks to Conor Friedersdorf's editorial Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama. The mainstream discussion on the ethics of voting starts from the assumption that, as a progressive or a liberal or someone committed to social change, Mitt Romney must not be elected to office. Therefore, when a fellow campaigner for social justice finds out that this person or that person will not vote for Barack Obama, the response is typically an indefatigable lecture on civil responsibility.

Bruce Levine criticizes thearroganceandlearned helplessnessof nonvoting democracy activists while advocating for more respect between voting and nonvoting activists in otherdemocracy battlefields.Recognizing the importance of a vibrant labor movement, housing associations, and food sovereignty, Levine pleads his case:

So, instead of voter and nonvoter democracy activists arrogance over their position, and instead of them flailing out at one another, let the ruling class tremble at unified voter and nonvoter democracy activists who, instead of overfocusing on electoral politics, join together on winnable battlefields.
It's hard to argue with that. In fact, he's pretty spot on in his analysis. Unfortunately, he is missing the point that many nonvoting democracy activistsand Christian anarchistsare trying to make: we want something different.

Underneath all the panderings about the efficacy of voting lies a sleeping beast of a question that the Left has not yet dared to fully articulate: is representational democracy really the best we can do? The fallacious thinking of liberal commentators like Chris Hayes would have us believe that it is, with the only alternative beingviolence, war, death, and bloodshed.Hayes' enshrining of the American process of democracyperhaps historically correct, maybeignores the oligarchic tendencies and hubris of American politics and lacks the kind of political imagination that created representational democracy as a possibility (as opposed to monarchy) in the first place.

The emergence of the Occupy movement last year is indicative of widespreadif not a fully articulatedmalcontent with the current political structures that govern the country. The Occupy movement's anarchist and socialist influences of participatory and direct democracy were breaths of fresh air in a stale political climate, but that energy, for now, has subsided.

But can we frame the 2012 elections as a referendum on representational democracy? Has it evolved in collusion with capitalist interests so much so that it cannot be a form of governance that reflects the will of the people rather than the interests of capital?

And, more importantly, does voter apathy confirm that critique? Recent polls indicate that elgible voters are more likely to stay home than voter for either Romney or Obama combined. That is almost 90 million voters who are disillusioned with the political system. But apathy and resistance are not the same thing. Nor does it mean that there are not actual consequences, short and long-term, from any given election.

So absent a truly revolutionary movement that could transform the American political structure towards more just and equitable forms of democracy, what are the ethics of voting for radical activists and organizers. Is there even a frame to ask the question of what will it take to transform representational democracy into something more truly democratic, equitable, and just?

The choice not to vote is a protest against a system that cannot be revolutionized without first relinquishing power from the hands of representatives. Representative politics perpetuates itself to consolidate power within the system, passing it from politician to politician to bureaucrat to bureaucrat. Having careerists within politics ensures that system will continue, because there is no incentive to work oneself out of a job. The challenge for a social movement that truly desires to change the way politics is done must come to terms with the fact that votingin and of itselfis not going to change representational forms of government. Some choose a total boycott of elections for that reason.

Does individual participation in electoral politics – or any kind of voting – preclude social movement action or revolutionary social change? Probably not, as Bill Moyers indicates in his study Eight Stages of a Social Movement.

But collectively, the cultural attitudes bent toward representational democracy as being inevitable has likely led to the mainstream apathy and lack of a real vibrant resistance movement in the U.S.

There may be some efficacy in boycotting elections to send signals across society that the governance system is not considered legitimate. There have been organized election boycott efforts in Mexico and South Africa but with limited effect. Of course, such action does not necessarily change the status quo of the power structure in place, but it can be a useful expression of solidarity that activists and organizers can utilize in long-term movement building. Low voter turnout can be used to erode the institutional pillars that prop up illegitimate power won through a fraudulent or semi-fraudulent system.

But, right now, that kind of widespread dissentand analysishas yet to coalesce in the US and those who do advocate boycotting of elections lack serious support.

Beyond election boycotting to make a statement about the lack of choices within the current political system lurks another troubling peculiarity. Investigative reporting has really called into question the legitimacy of the American election system itself. Two recent investigationsone from muckraker Greg Palast and the other from Victoria Collier for Harper's Magazineare an evidenced-based analysis of a privatized and manipulated voting system.

The facts Palast and Collier unearth are stunning yet the notion of systemic voter fraud is something most Americans believe to be a problem in emerging democracies in places like the global South. Shouldn't we be concerned that Tagg Romney, Mitt's son, can buy voting machinesthrough the controversial Bain Capitalin Ohio, Texas, Oklahoma, Washington and Colorado? Can we reform our way out of this one?

Yet, particularly at local levels, there are policy initiatives on the ballot. Some are mundane: budgets, tax increases, zoning ordinances. Others are more politically-charged: same-sex marriage and voter identification laws. These referendum act as a mandate for the public officials charged with enacting their proposals and upholding their laws. Voting in this way, while not perfect, can be a more direct form of participation in governance in one's community.

The perspective above calls to mind the way my friend Carolyn Griffeth, from the St. Louis Catholic Worker, talks about an ethic of solidarity when it comes to voting.

Why wouldn't you do all that you can to end injustice and oppression?she asks passionately and without judgment. Eschewing notions of purity and ideological commitment, Griffeth takes a practical approach to voting, recognizing that certain representatives may be easier to work with than others. It's a short-term strategy, no doubt, but no less valid. And for Griffeth, it doesn't negate her anarchist or Christian values.

Similarly, Cornel West has signed on to Roots Action's campaign for strategic voting to “Defeat Romney, without illusions about Obama.” In a recent interview, Cornel elaborated on strategic voting in a corrupt political system:

Im strategic. We have to tell that truth about a system thats corruptboth parties are poisoned by big money and tied to big banks and corporations. Speaking on that is a matter of intellectual integrity. American politics are not a matter of voting your moral conscienceif I voted my moral conscience it would probably be for Jill Stein. But it's strategic in terms of the actual possibilities and real options available for poor and working people.

The mainstreaming of a discourse on whether one should vote or not is a positive thing. It means perspectives and analyses are growing deeper and more radicalgetting at the root of a problem.

Within some sects of radical Christianity, withdrawal or refusal to participate in state structures is a constitutive element of an expression of faith. To be “in the world but not of it” is justification many Amish use for their non-participation in much of the electioneering. Furthermore, Christian anarchist groups like the Catholic Worker and others have often eschewed voting in favor of direct action because of the state's militaristic and capitalist underpinnings that are never up for a referendum. Recent essays on Jesus Radicals (here and here) make these points. But, for the most part, those decisions are an act of conscience more-so than revolutionary defiance or a tactic in a social movement.

Lastly, it may be worth considering, for Christians, representational democracy as a form of idolatry. The refusal to give consent or participate in choosing someone to make decisions for us – rather than with us or out of a mandate derived through some form of consensus – is a question demanding theological and scriptural study. The campaign culture, media glitz, and exorbitant sums spent to elect a representative to government – at almost all levels – borders on insanity at best and idolatry at worst. Here, the myths perpetuated and believed about Obama, Romney, or the 2016 candidates as savior should be a deeply troubling experience for Christian soteriology.

As autonomous human beings – created in the image and likeness of God and saved by grace – do we fully honor all that we were created to be when we cast a vote for false prophets? Or are we voluntarily giving up our political imagination and moral conscience in exchange for someone else to legislate so we can enjoy the luxury of complaining about the politicians on the evening news?

Outside the context of an organized campaign that has proactively chosen voting as a tactic to achieve its immediate strategic goals, it seems to me that the decision to vote is not a very weighty moral issue. So long as radical activists and organizers don't give up on direct action, if voting suits your fancy, so be it. If not, in the long view, no big deal.

Social changelet alone revolutionary social changeis a complex phenomenon that each of us participates in in an incomplete, imperfect manner. Recognizing the very really challenges facing communities and ecosystems around the globe, it is clear that historical forms of governance and decision-making have proved inept in confronting the realities of poverty, violence, and climate change. But they are still there. Governments continue to legislate, corporations continue to produce, and, on a mass scale, we continue to cooperate. For better or for worse, it is our complicity that keeps such systems of power in place. Our task? Building movements powerful enough that can change the day-to-day realities of injustice and inequalitypossibly by engaging in these imperfect systems in a variety of way, which could including votingbut not at the sacrifice of the long-term revolutionary visions of the new world that we already know we are capable of articulating and building.

(Author's note: For the record, I live in Minnesota where there are proposed amendments to legislate strict vote id laws and to define marriage between one man and one woman. I will vote no on those policy issues while refraining from electoral politics as a matter of my own conscience to be consistent with my critique of representational government).