Silencing Dissent & the End of Empire August, 2020

By Sally Campbell

As a Canadian who lived in the US during Vietnam War, and participated in the massive anti-war movement that brought an end to the War, I have long been stymied about what happened to the once-so-vibrant and powerful Peace Movement. How did the US move so far to the right that the military became an institution no one could criticize or challenge? How did the military budget become so bloated, growing each year, and yet still be passed without examination or critique? When did flag-waving become a compulsory sign of good citizenship? Why were our American relatives afraid to go to a Michael Moore movie in fear of what their neighbours might say? What made borders guards suddenly hostile to my husband, who came to Canada in the 60’s as a war-resister?

It seemed to begin with the election of Ronald Reagan, the downward slide toward a less civil, less generous society. The era his tenure ushered in brought to the forefront the views of the so-called “silent majority”, a clever way to appeal to conservative mindsets, for whom more government became the problem, code for taxation and social responsibility. Problems associated with poverty and racism – lack of affordable education, no health insurance, homelessness, violence – were blamed on the individuals experiencing those difficulties rather than corporate and individual greed, and deepening inequity. Society was underfunded. The Peace Movement was silenced in favour of “support our troops”. Environmentalism was a safer place to put activist energy, and it was kept quite separate from the sacred cow of the US military, the largest single institutional polluter worldwide.

9/11 presented an opportunity for the US to reflect and recalibrate. That never happened. A climate of fear became the perfect recipe for a vastly increased military. Homeland Security was created and given a blank cheque, and Americans were now being spied upon by their own. Entertainment, cheap alcohol, fast food and sports were the diversions, along with a jingoistic patriotism that demanded unquestioning support for far-flung wars. Iraq, Afghanistan – countries studies say most Americans cannot identify on a map – have been torn to shreds, and yet US occupation of those besieged countries continues. ISIS was an output of the War on Iraq, funded by Saudis who share the American/UK/ Israeli intention to destabilize the Middle East. Syria was next, Iran is on “the list”. The US’ deep alliance with belligerent Israel continues to wreak havoc in the Middle East. In the meantime, the nest at home was badly neglected, and an outdated electoral system brought to power a dark symbol of what happens with unrestrained free market capitalism, winner takes all, “f*#k the poor” thinking.

Then along came Covid-19, the pandemic that may well signal the end of Empire for the US. Can this become the marker of a transition to a healthier environment, both physically and socially, for the formerly most powerful nation in the world? Those of us outside the US have our own responsibilities and wrongs to address, yet the US remains the world’s most heavily militarized nation with unrivalled destructive capacity, so we need to keep our eye on it.

The aptly-titled article, The Unraveling of America by Wade Davis, in Rolling Stone, offers historic perspective on empires, and sets out exceptionally well how and why the “American Century” is fast coming to an end. He cites never-ending war and American obsession with individualism as two prime factors leading to the demise of the American Empire. Constant war-making sapped resources needed for home, and individualism led to “complete abandonment of the public good” according to Davis. An anthropologist by training, Davis sees Trump as “less the cause of America’s decline than a product of its descent”. He advocates for social democracy by using comparative examples from Scandinavian countries and Canada. Without directly making the link between the climate crisis and militarism, it’s evident that he sees militarism as a major cause of underfunding and neglect in domestic areas. His focus in this article is on the damage wrought to American social capital; his work as an explorer and environmental advocate attest to his concern for the physical environment. He does not address every way in which American resources could be better expended as the US empire “unravels”; hopefully a “Green New Peace Deal” would be right up his alley.

The horrors of war are easily hidden when media are “embedded” within the military, when lies and secrecy surround bases and their poisoning of the environment, when denial is an integral part of a culture that values blind, unquestioning patriotism over global citizenship. Covid-19 is shaking up our world right now. It reminds us how globally interconnected we are. It presents opportunity to reimagine ways to live together peaceably and shake off the old idea of Empire. Onward!