September 20, 2011
Radical Compassion: A Passing

If I didn’t read The Guardian I probably would have missed it. But I do, so I didn’t, and I therefore wish to note the passing of an interesting and provocative voice, Carl Oglesby, who died a couple days ago.

In addition to writing a classic of conspiracy literature, The Yankee and Cowboy War (1976), Oglesby was an early (1965) leader of the Students for a Democratic Society, SDS, but as he tells it the group gradually moved to the left of him, and he was eventually expelled when a more radical leadership took over. He was interested in looking for ways to bridge the gap between the SDS view and the Pentagon view, an approach that is either deep or naive depending on your philosophy. He did not view the men in government whose decisions brought on the war on Vietnam as essentially evil; rather he saw them as exponents of a system that has evolved to create necessities, with the corollary that we must change the system rather than the individuals running it.

On Nov. 27, 1965, Oglesby gave a wonderful speech, relatively short and to the point.

We are here again to protest a growing war. Since it is a very bad war, we acquire the habit of thinking it must be caused by very bad men. But we only conceal reality, I think, to denounce on such grounds the menacing coalition of industrial and military power, or the brutality of the blitzkrieg we are waging against Vietnam, or the ominous signs around us that heresy may soon no longer be permitted. We must simply observe, and quite plainly say, that this coalition, this blitzkrieg, and this demand for acquiescence are creatures, all of them, of a Government that since 1932 has considered itself to he fundamentally liberal.

The original commitment in Vietnam was made by President Truman, a mainstream liberal. It was seconded by President Eisenhower, a moderate liberal. It was intensified by the late President Kennedy, a flaming liberal. Think of the men who now engineer that war — those who study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons, and tally the dead: Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, Lodge, Goldberg, the President himself. They are not moral monsters. They are all honorable men. They are all liberals.

But so, I’m sure, are many of us who are here today in protest. To understand the war, then, it seems necessary to take a closer look at this American liberalism. Maybe we are in for some surprises. Maybe we have here two quite different liberalisms: one authentically humanist; the other not so human at all.


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His libertarian tendencies are already clear, as is his nuanced view of human character, which unfortunately is rarely popular in times of civil strife. In the speech he took a historical view that ended with an indictment even more salient today than when it was spoken. As colonialism drew to a close, he reports,

Liberalism faced a crisis. In the face of the collapse of the European empires, how could it continue to hold together, our twin need for richness and righteousness? How can we continue to sack the ports of Asia and still dream of Jesus?

The challenge was met with a most ingenious solution: the ideology of anti-Communism. This was the bind: we cannot call revolution bad, because we started that way ourselves, and because it is all too easy to see why the dispossessed should rebel. So we will call revolution Communism. And we will reserve for ourselves the right to say what Communism means. We take note of revolution’s enormities, wrenching them where necessary from their historical context and often exaggerating them, and say: Behold, Communism is a bloodbath. We take note of those reactionaries who stole the revolution, and say: Behold, Communism is a betrayal of the people. We take note of the revolution’s need to consolidate itself, and say: Behold, Communism is a tyranny.

It has been all these things, and it will be these things again, and we will never be at a loss for those tales of atrocity that comfort us so in our self-righteousness. Nuns will be raped and bureaucrats will be disembowelled. Indeed, revolution is a fury. For it is a letting loose of outrages pent up sometimes over centuries. But the more brutal and longer-lasting the suppression of this energy, all the more ferocious will be its explosive release.

Far from helping Americans deal with this truth, the anti‑Communist ideology merely tries to disguise it so that things may stay the way they are. Thus, it depicts our presence in other lands not as a coercion, but a protection. It allows us even to say that the napalm in Vietnam is only another aspect of our humanitarian love — like those exorcisms in the Middle Ages that so often killed the patient. So we say to the Vietnamese peasant, the Cuban intellectual, the Peruvian worker: “You are better dead than Red. If it hurts or if you don’t understand why — sorry about that.”

This is the action of corporate liberalism. It performs for the corporate state a function quite like what the Church once performed for the feudal state. It seeks to justify its burdens and protect it from change. As the Church exaggerated this office in the Inquisition, so with liberalism in the McCarthy time — which, if it was a reactionary phenomenon, was still made possible by our anti-communist corporate liberalism.

And what has happened since the fall of Communism, so called? A frontal attack on the social safety net, a vast increase in the mobility of global capital in search of the cheapest labor, and a worldwide recession caused by the concentration of wealth at the very top. This isn’t rocket science, we’ve fixed this problem in the past. But we have to outgrow our fear of conflict and fight for our side, because the other side does regardless. Class warfare? Fine, we’ll win.

Oglesby was nothing if not pragmatic. Whether his reality testing was accurate or not, he believed in trying to convince people of the truth of his argument, an approach that is morally sound but unfortunately rarely effective. In The Yankee and Cowboy War, beloved by Robert Anton Wilson, Oglesby pointed out that conspiracies such as those he believed surrounded JFK’s assassination and Nixon’s resignation are everywhere. With an echo of Acton’s famous dictum about power corrupting, he reported that

…a multitude of conspiracies contend in the night… Conspiracy is the normal continuation of normal politics by normal means… and where there is no limit to power, there is no limit to conspiracy.

A smart and committed man who spoke his mind despite the opprobrium it brought him, first from one side and then the other. A fascinating life, and one I hope a good biographer will detail for us.

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Posted by Chuck Dupree at September 20, 2011 02:05 AM
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