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9/11 Lessons: Combating Ignorance, Avoiding Arrogance

[New York City, February 15, 2003. Photo by Ezio Petersen.] [New York City, February 15, 2003. Photo by Ezio Petersen.]

Ten years ago, we were right, but it didn’t matter.

Ten years ago, within hours after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, it was clear that the architects of US foreign policy were going to use the events to justify war in Central Asia and the Middle East. And within hours, those of us critical of those policies began to articulate principled and practical arguments against the mad rush to war.

We were right then, but it did not matter. Neither the general public nor policymakers were interested in principled or practical arguments. The public wanted revenge, and the policymakers seized an opportunity to attempt to expand US power.

We were right, but the wars came.

The destructive capacity of the US military meant quick “victory” that just as quickly proved illusory. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on, each year it became clearer that the position staked out by the early opponents of the wars was correct. That mad rush to war had not only been illegal and immoral, but it was a failure on whatever pragmatic criteria one might use. The US military has killed some of the people who were targeting the United States and destroyed some of their infrastructure and organization, but we are neither stronger nor safer as a result. The ability to dominate militarily proved to be both inadequate and transitory, as critics predicted.

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, it is tempting to want to linger on the part about “being right,” but it is more important to focus on why “it did not matter” because we are still right, and it still doesn’t matter. Understanding this is necessary to shape a realistic political program for the next decade—as bad as the past ten years have been, the next ten are likely to be worse, and we need to speak bluntly about these political, economic, and social realities in the United States.

What We Did, and Did Nott, Accomplish

When I say “we were right,” I count in the “we” those people who can be described as “anti-empire,” rather than just “anti-war.” This is how I described that position in an interview:  

The broad outlines of US foreign policy since World War II have remained unchanged: A desire to deepen and extend US power around the world, especially in the most strategically crucial regions such as the energy-rich Middle East; always with an eye on derailing the attempts of any Third World society to pursue a course of independent development outside the US sphere; and containing the possibility of challenges to US hegemony from other powerful states. The Bush administration policy is a departure from recent policy in terms of strategy and tactics, and perhaps also in the intensity of ideological fanaticism....None of this is unprecedented; all of it is dangerous and disturbing.

The folks at the core of the resistance to the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq mostly shared that critique, seeing both the continuities and the distinctive threat of the moment. Others spoke out and organized but offered no framework for understanding the invasions, including: liberal Democrats who prefer less brutal methods of empire-maintenance or simply reject wars started by Republican presidents; isolationists, including some Republicans, who think that reducing military adventures will preserve US affluence; and folks who identify themselves as pacifist and reject any war.

Although the anti-empire analysis has continued to be the most compelling explanation of US policy and its effects, anti-empire movements remain small. The movements that have seen some growth in recent years—the Tea Party and right-wing libertarianism—include some anti-war elements but repudiate a left critique, of empire or anything else.

So, we are right, and we are a failed movement. As someone who has participated in these organizing and education efforts, I have been part of the failure. I know that I could have done more, taken more risks, pressed harder—but I don’t know if that would have made a significant difference. I do not know whether there was a winning strategy leftists could have employed, or whether historical forces doomed our efforts from the start. Whatever the case, we failed, and it is sensible to try to learn from that failure.

To say we failed is not to ignore the limited accomplishments in different times and places. I remember the organizing meeting we held in Austin the day after 9/11 that drew nearly two hundred people and led to a new antiwar group by the end of the week; the fact that we mounted a resistance to the invasions almost immediately after 9/11 speaks to our clarity and resolve. The worldwide demonstrations that involved at least ten million people on February 15, 2003, were the result of incredible organizing efforts. We can be proud of this and still understand that we failed. That failure need not undermine our will to keep organizing and educating, but it should be on our minds as we plan future projects.

I do not need a guarantee of success to continue. I am not afraid of failing, but I would like to make sure I’m not failing in the same old ways. To avoid that, we have to think about why it did not matter that we were right. We have to understand the culture’s ignorance.

It is always tempting to label political opponents ignorant and bemoan their stupidity: if only they could know what we know and understand as we understand, then certainly they would adopt our politics. I try not to fall into that trap, realizing that in a complex world reasonable people can disagree. But if we are to confront the challenges ahead we have to recognize that the contemporary United States is both a technologically advanced society with an educational system that is first-rate on some criteria, yet is also a profoundly ignorant society.

Manipulated Ignorance: Knowing Incorrectly

Some of that ignorance is the result of the conscious efforts to divert and deceive people. The sophisticated techniques to shape public attitudes developed by the public relations and advertising industries are used effectively by corporations and politicians, with the independent news media—consciously or unconsciously—often serving an important transmission function. Much of this is designed to make sure people don’t know things, to create or deepen ignorance.

An example of the consequences of that in relation to imperial wars: A Knight Rider/Princeton Research poll conducted January 3-6, 2003, showed that forty-four percent of the respondents thought that “most” or “some” of the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqis; only seventeen percent knew the correct answer, “none.” Also in that poll, sixty-five percent said they thought Iraq and Al Qaeda were allies, and ninety-one percent believed that Saddam Hussein was concealing nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. Forty-one percent said Iraq already had nuclear weapons, a claim that not even Bush officials made. That poll wasn’t idiosyncratic. A  Pew Research Center/Council on Foreign Relations survey conducted on February 12-13, 2003, found that fifty-seven percent of Americans believed that weapons inspectors had proof that Iraq was trying to hide weapons of mass destruction (which inspectors never said) and that fifty-seven percent also believed Saddam Hussein had a direct role in helping the 9/11 hijackers.

This ignorance matters. The Program on International Policy at the University of Maryland, based on polls conducted from June through September 2003, found that forty-eight percent of the public believed that evidence of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda had been found; twenty-two percent believed that weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) had been found; and twenty-five percent believed that world public opinion had favored a US war with Iraq. Overall, sixty percent had at least one of those misperceptions, which were highly correlated with support for war. Of people who held none of those beliefs, only twenty-three percent supported war. With each misperception, support for the war increased: 

  • one misperception: fifty-three percent support for war
  • two misperceptions: seventy-eight percent support for war
  • three misperceptions: eighty-six percent support for war

It’s difficult enough in a political conversation to argue for a radical interpretation of basic facts. But in a society where basic facts can be so slickly and easily repackaged by power—where black is white, and up is down—then there is no possibility of meaningful debate in the mainstream political culture.

Willed Ignorance: Not Knowing

As distressing as this manipulated ignorance can be, it is the willed ignorance of so much of the population that is most troubling. This ignorance is not primarily about asserting claims that are inaccurate or distorted, but is about not knowing, about not caring enough to make a claim. This is the result not of a lack of access to accurate data or an inability to analyze the available information. Instead, this ignorance is willed, the product of people making a choice to "not-know" so they do not have to face the moral and political implications of knowing.

There is no survey data to chart the scope of, and reasons for, this ignorance. But in two decades of political work, I have watched countless people use this strategy. There seem to be two routine ways to ensure this not-knowing. One is to avoid exposure to any in-depth information and analysis, even though one has the resources and time to find and evaluate the material—keep your head down and do not look at what is happening. We can call this a deliberate diversion from a disturbing world.

The other strategy, employed by those who are too curious simply to ignore the world around them, is to bemoan the lack of trustworthy news sources, express confusion over the mutually exclusive accounts of the world that circulate, or note the maddening level of complexity in a globalized world. Whatever the reason, there are so many impediments that to actually know anything is impossible. We can call this a "feigned frustration" with a complex world.

Affluence increases not only the likelihood of political inaction but also of willed ignorance. That is, people who are materially comfortable in a society are not only less likely to take the serious risks that radical politics requires but more likely to avoid knowing things that will force them to ask why they are not acting.

Implications of Ignorance

My experience tells me there are conservatives and liberals in each of these ignorance camps, manipulated and willed. Perhaps conservatives, who tend to be more committed to an ideology that denies uncomfortable facts about US crimes, are more easily conned into believing claims for which there is little or no evidence. Maybe liberals, who tend to be more accepting of a critical view, are most likely to pursue the willed-ignorance strategy of avoidance. But what matters most is not the route to, but rather the consequences of, ignorance. Whether one actively cheerleads for the US imperial project around the world or passively accepts it, the result is the same: Policymakers can pursue the project without constraint from citizens.

So, we were right, but in this political culture it does not matter. The anti-empire movement has not been defeated by a superior argument that does a better job of explaining the world, nor has it been suppressed through the large-scale violence and coercion that has destroyed movements in other times and places (though in the contemporary United States such violence is used selectively and always is available should things get out of hand). Instead, this critique has been rendered irrelevant by power interests that work to create ignorance, and a citizenry that hides in ignorance.

To be clear: I am not arguing that the problem is that “people are stupid.” Yes, people often are stupid. I am often stupid. I say and do stupid things on a regular basis, and so does everyone else—that is part of being human. But also part of being human in a democratic political system is accepting the benefits and burdens of participation, and participation requires that we strive to not be stupid about politics. Democracy works only if we care enough to know about the world. Given the destructive power of the US military and the corrosive nature of the high-energy/consumption lifestyle of the US public, there’s a lot riding on the success of democracy in the United States. There is no guarantee that a fuller and richer public dialogue based on a good-faith search for knowledge will produce solutions to the deeply entrenched problems of social injustice and ecological unsustainability. Nor does identifying solutions guarantee that a nation will adopt such policies. But without that democratic conversation, we are doomed.

Avoiding Arrogance

In addition to talking bluntly about ignorance, we must be careful to avoid the arrogance that comes so easily to us humans. Let me personalize this. For the first half of my life, I accepted the liberal version of US mythology: we are the greatest nation, but prone to making mistakes because of our extraordinary power. In the second half of my life, I started reading and talking to people who helped me overcome the combination of manipulated and willed ignorance that had defined my intellectual and political life. I read work critiquing patriarchy, white supremacy, US dominance, capitalism, and the human assault on the ecosphere. Over several years I constructed a worldview that is radical on all these fronts. I do not claim to have a unified field theory of politics, but I am confident that the analysis I have worked out rests on solid ground.

I also recognize that I could be wrong on basic aspects of that analysis, and that even if I am right I should constantly be looping back to question my assumptions, collect new data, listen to counter-arguments, and recalibrate strategy based on this process. Life is a balance of asserting what we believe with confidence and remembering how wrong we can be. With that caution, I return to where I started.

We were right. The events of the past decade have demonstrated that our instincts on 9/11—guided by a radical critique of the systems and structures of power—led us to see the folly of these wars. I remember sitting in my office at the University of Texas on 9/11, listening to the commentary on television and realizing that the events of that day were going to be used to justify large-scale violence in the service of power. I was scared, not of dying in another terrorist attack on the United States, but of what US policymakers were ready and willing to do.

Today I am even more scared, but not just by the imperial project that continues no matter how obvious its failure. In addition to the crimes committed by the powerful against the powerless, we face even greater threats in the human assault on the living world. In past years I spoke about environmental problems, but I abandoned that phrase because we do not have discrete environmental problems. We face multiple, cascading ecological crises—groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species and reduction of biodiversity loss. And do not forget global warming, climate change, climate disruption, and global weirding.

High-energy, high-technology societies pose a serious threat to the ability of the ecosphere to sustain human life as we know it. Grasping that reality is a challenge, and coping with the implications, is an even greater challenge. We likely have a chance to stave off the most catastrophic consequences if we act dramatically and quickly. If we continue to drag our feet, it is “game over.”

Whether people’s ignorance about this is manipulated or willed—whether we deny climate change and pretend no change is necessary or accept it but refuse to support those changes—the result is the same: game over. To date, the movements advocating these necessary changes have not been defeated by a superior argument nor suppressed through the large-scale violence and coercion. Instead, these movements have been marginalized by power interests that work to create ignorance, and a citizenry that hides in ignorance.

What can save us? My honest answer is, “Probably nothing.” But that answer doesn’t keep me from working in projects to promote social justice and ecological sustainability. I pursue that work without a guarantee of success, without illusions about my own ability to devise a winning strategy, without certainty that I know it all. But I am pretty sure I am right in my basic framework.

I am also pretty sure that I ca not argue people into accepting that framework, no matter how compelling a case I can present. The key to attracting more people to radical political positions is not to adopt the manipulative tactics of the powerful or to pretend we are not facing such overwhelming challenges. Instead, I believe we have to think about how to create spaces for people to experience the solidarity that bolsters our courage to explore new ideas and to take risks to challenge power.

In Austin, Texas, people with varied interests in social justice and ecological sustainability have joined forces to create one such space in a community center with offices, meeting space, and gardens. The core organizers of “5604 Manor” share a radical politics, but a radical badge isn’t required for entry. The work going on there is focused not only on immediate political objectives but also on creating resilient communities that can face the challenges ahead. The project may fail, but even in failure we will advance radical politics in this one place.

Our task is to create as many of those places as we can. In those places, we are right and it will matter.

[An edited version of this talk will be presented at the Third Coast Activist Resource Center 9/11 anniversary event at 5604 Manor, in Austin, Texas, September 11, 2011.]

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