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Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

That One Word: We

| 35 Comments

Many readers of this blog are U.S. citizens, and are appalled and horrified at many of the actions of the U.S. Government. Many of you who live outside of the United States have, perhaps, similar feelings about the actions of the government where you live. Many of you speak out against these things, here or elsewhere: the wars of aggression in the Middle East, drone killings of civilians, illegal spying at home and abroad, federal funding to militarize the police, torture as official policy, persecution of whistle-blowers, conspiracies to overturn governments such as Ukraine, and so on. I have often heard clear statements from many you, in discussing one or more of these issues, saying, “I hate that we’re doing that,” or, “We shouldn’t be a country that does that,” or, “We need to stop doing that.”

I am asking you now to consider that “we.” There are, in general, two reasons for someone who hates the actions of his or her government to say, “we did that,” instead of “they did that.” Some of you have never thought about it; you identify with the government which, after all, governs the nation in which you live. Others have thought about it, and feel that by using the word “we” you are accepting responsibility for these actions, and you see it as, perhaps, a spur, a reminder that you have a duty to try to stop these things.

I can respect that attitude, but I don’t agree.

The state is the executive committee of the ruling class. It is called the ruling class because it rules–it makes the decisions about where the resources of the nation should be directed. To be sure, there are elections; but these only give us the chance to pick which one of our enemies will carry out the decisions of the ruling class, or, as the song says, “choose the brand of razor blade you’d rather cut your throat with.”

Their interests are not ours. It is not in my interest for the police to be militarized, for my Afghan brothers and sisters to be shot, for my friends and neighbors to die in defense of profit, for anyone who tells the truth to risk prison or worse.

They are creating an atmosphere of terror by shooting unarmed innocents in our own streets; I’m not doing that, and neither are you. They, not we, are running this country to maximize their profit. They, not we, are propping up Israel in its war on Palestinians. They, not we, are using racism as a tool to set us against each other. They, not we, are driving more and more people into poverty. They, not we, are running the factories that are ruining our climate. And here’s one: they, not we, are spreading the lie that, because there are still certain democratic forms, it is we that are doing these things.

I do not say “they” as an excuse to shy away from responsibility; I say “they” because you can’t fight a war if you don’t know who the enemy is. And that is what they are: the enemy. The enemy of peace, the enemy of shared wealth, the enemy of progress, the enemy of simple human decency.

When there is a workers’ government, I will refer to it as “we.” Until then, when speaking of the actions of the American ruling class and its government, I am speaking of the actions of an enemy. I say “they.” You should too.

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

35 Comments

  1. Completely agree with the sentiment expressed in the OP.

    However “we” is often just a rhetorical device. You will have grave difficulty convincing anyone to change their position if you call them “they” or “you people” or otherwise exclude them from your own company. “We” attempts to coopt the listener or audience and allows them to change their opinions without changing their “sides” and thus feeling like a traitor or that they will become an outsider. It may be a little dishonest and manipulative but I think it’s often an attempt to avoid falling afoul of the primitive tribal feelings that govern so much of politics.

  2. Fuck yeah to this post. <3

  3. For me, the ‘we’ is less a spur to myself, and more, as Miramon suggests, a spur to use on others. What “they” do may be ignored by those who are comfortable. What “we” are tacitly culpable in makes even the comfortable more uneasy. This is actually something I’ve been wrestling with lately – to what extent it’s the duty of an activist to be that “we,” and identify in ways that are most motivating and powerful. I see what you mean about defining someone as the enemy, but a large, impersonal enemy can be dismissed as an insoluble problem that someone has no great personal stake in. But we, if we have met the enemy and he is us, have a responsibility that’s harder to ignore. I find the political reality and the ideological approach hard to separate in this case.

  4. Steve, I absolutely agree with your characterization of our government. I use “we” though, because I benefit directly from their wackadoodle policies. I benefit from cheap gas because politicians are afraid to raise the gas tax to actually, you know, PAY for things. Although I think the various wars our politicians have gotten us into are abhorrent, I benefit from the fact that no one except poor people are being made to pay for them. And I continue to benefit from slavery and the doctrine of discovery, So I guess I use “we” because I feel bad that I have the lifestyle I do on the backs of poor people, people of color, and vets, and somehow feel I need to at least show that I am part of the problem, while at the same time decrying what “we” are doing at every opportunity. This is a personal decision, obviously – I’m not trying to sway anyone.

  5. Trotsky, on first meting Lenin as a young man:

    Vladimir Ilyich and I went for a long walk around London. From a bridge, Lenin pointed out Westminster and some other famous buildings. I don’t remember the exact words he used, but what he conveyed was: “This is their famous Westminster,” and “their” referred of course not to the English but to the ruling classes. This implication, which was not in the least emphasized, but coming as it did from the very innermost depths of the man, and expressed more by the tone of his voice than by anything else, was always present, whether Lenin was speaking of the treasures of culture, of new achievements, of the wealth of books in the British Museum, of the information of the larger European newspapers, or, years later, of German artillery or French aviation. They know this or they have that, they have made this or achieved that – but what enemies they are! To his eyes, the invisible shadow of the ruling classes always overlay the whole of human culture – a shadow that was as real to him as daylight. — My Life, 1930

  6. skzb

    Sandy: I remember that passage! I almost quoted it for this post, but it had gotten too long without it. I love that passage; it’s always stuck with me.

  7. Helps you look afresh.

  8. Thanks for a point I’d never considered.

  9. I completely agree with the general sentiment.

    And, yes, to start a revolution, you need to separate the revolters from the revoltees (I’m quite happy with and also sickened by that phrase…).

    But there’s also the dicey line between identifying the enemy and demonizing them. It is easy to commit atrocities against “those people” and hard to commit them against “We, the people”.

  10. The one word I’m noticing is “illegal”, as in “illegal spying at home and abroad”. Apparently you don’t feel every act of the government is illegitimate, so how are you deciding which acts are those of an enemy, and which are actually valid law? Or to make it more abstract, have you decided certain laws are valid because of their source, or because of their intent?

  11. skzb

    I judge actions according to their effect on the working class. “Legal” and “illegal” are useful for judging how far the enemy will go at a given stage of the class struggle.

  12. Those definitions of legal and illegal are so far removed from standard usage that I have to ask for clairification. Would you please expand on this point?

  13. skzb

    They weren’t intended to be definitions. Legal and illegal refer to whether an action is forbidden by the laws or statutes of a given branch of the state. I was saying why I care whether something is legal or illegal. I think I’m completely failing to understand your original question.

  14. Friday night I experienced one of those identity-defining moments of insight, all thanks to Rupert Murdoch.

    I have a part-time job as an usher at the Public Theater here in New York. Its just enough extra money to let me keep putting good food on the table for my family and it lets me see a lot of world class theater. I was working Hamilton, a new musical about Alexander of that name, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and the other creators of In the Heights. Because of the thoroughly justified buzz, we have had a lot of VIPs coming to see it. Friday night it was Rupert Murdoch and his wife.

    She seemed lovely and he looks a lot less like C. Montgomery Burns than does the image of him I keep in my mind. They were both quite polite and really seemed to love the play (I suspect Rupert was responding more to Hamilton’s fiscal policies than to the pro-immigrant theme of the play, but what do I know?)

    So, my big revelation is that I have no taste at all for revolution. I always thought I had at least a scrap of rebel in me, but with the enemy of all that is good and right in the world standing in front of me, my only response was to politely show him to his seat. I didn’t spit on him, didn’t throw a pie, didn’t seize him and demand the dismantling of the Kleptocracy and restoration of civil rights. I barely even choked on the words as I told them to enjoy the play. I doubt they even noticed I was upset.

    I’m not sure where that leaves me. I would still like to see a better world, would be happy to sacrifice myself to bring it about, but if starting the Revolution required disrupting a production of a really good play and inconveniencing actors and theater goers, I’m not down for it. Do you think we can schedule a Velvet Revolution for a day that doesn’t have a matinee?

  15. skzb

    larswyrdson: For what it’s worth, you and I are similar. One reason I am not in in the Party is that I do not have the killer instinct of a true revolutionist. It does nothing to change my opinion about what is right and what is wrong and what is scientific and what is un; but, aside from those moments when any decent human being needs to make a stand, some of us are not cut out for that sort of political work; hence I do what I can do with blog posts, and leave active politics for those to whom it is a calling. I know this isn’t exactly what you’re talking about, but it is related.

  16. skzb: “I think I’m completely failing to understand your original question.”

    The fact you referenced “illegal” spying suggests you think the US has valid laws against spying, but generally one doesn’t think of an enemy’s actions in terms of legal or illegal, just right or wrong. The juxtaposition of such extreme alienation with the appearance of accepting the legitimacy of the government piqued my curiosity.

    The follow up question was because I fail to see how you might use “legal” and “illegal” as a measure of anything.

  17. skzb

    The US has laws against spying on it’s own citizens.

  18. A very literal answer. It seems that you do still think of yourself as part of the government and not as alienated as your rhetoric says. Curiosity prompted me to ask about that; that’s all.

  19. skzb

    I am not part of the government; I have never been elected nor appointed to any public office or position within any governmental branch; if you mean something else by “part of the government” I don’t know what it is.

    I am a US citizen. Hence, I am in theory subject to and protected by the laws of the United States. When the United States government chooses to ignore these laws, I am able to draw conclusions from this fact.

    “Alienated” from the government? I don’t even know what that means, much less claim that it describes me.

    I am still trying to figure out your question, or point, or whatever it is.

  20. I just recently ran into the work of Samuel Bowles on Guard Labor, which seems relevant to this discussion:
    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/02/15/one-nation-under-guard/?_r=0

  21. skzb

    Relevant indeed. Thanks, Alexx.

  22. “I am still trying to figure out your question, or point, or whatever it is.”

    My initial observation was simply that it’s interesting to see someone with your opinion of the government use a phrase like “illegal spying”. I said that because I’ve read a lot of anti-government writings from various eras and lands, and generally when people get to the point they’re advocating violent overthrow of the entire system (as opposed to wanting to violently insert their chosen people into existing government positions) they often to refer to acts of the “enemy” government as bad, evil, immoral etc. rather than in terms of their legality because they don’t recognize the legitimacy of the government. Since you seem to be rather thoroughly attacking the legitimacy of the US government, I thought it was interesting you used “illegal” to modify spying. That was the origin of the first comment.

    But then you said: “‘Legal’ and ‘illegal’ are useful for judging how far the enemy will go at a given stage of the class struggle,” which is unintelligible to me. I absolutely cannot understand what you mean by this. It’s as though you said your car can’t go up a hill because it’s blue, which term you use to describe how much power the engine produces in a given situation. And that makes me wonder about your entire approach to the concept of legality.

    When I asked, “Or to make it more abstract, have you decided certain laws are valid because of their source, or because of their intent?”, you wrote “I judge actions according to their effect on the working class”. Are you saying that the sole criterion for whether or not a legislative action is legally binding on society, i.e. is a law, is whether or not you like how it affects the working class? If you’re not, would you be willing to elaborate on that response?

  23. skzb

    “But then you said: “‘Legal’ and ‘illegal’ are useful for judging how far the enemy will go at a given stage of the class struggle,” which is unintelligible to me. I absolutely cannot understand what you mean by this.”

    When everything is smooth, the class struggle is quiescent, the economy is booming, then, in general, governments operate within their own laws. They prefer it that way. It is cheaper, it is smoother, and risk of discovery, though not a danger to the ruling class as such, can certainly mean the end of a career to whatever government functionary ordered the illegal action. As the class struggle deepens, as the crisis worsens, the ruling class feels more and more compelled to use any means available to maintain its privileged position. When this gets to the point of, not only committing blatantly illegal acts, but then attempting to justify them rather than sacrificing whatever functionary is handy (compare Iran Contra to Obama’s drone killings), that gives us important information about how threatened they feel. Hence, it is useful to note when the government is openly committing illegal acts. I don’t think I can make it any clearer than that.

    The “validity” of a law isn’t that clear cut. There is a dialectical relationship between the laws of a given State, and the nature of that State. First and foremost, the laws reflect that society–compare the amount of space devoted to dueling in the Code Napoleon, for example, with the space devoted to property laws in the contemporary world. Or, even more clearly, look at the changes in English Common Law as a monarchical society turned itself into a bourgeois society. Above all, the law reflects the needs of the ruling class. But secondarily, the class struggle itself is refracted through laws, usually as the result of mass action–look at civil rights legislation, rights to bargain collectively, child labor laws, social security, anti-trust laws, &c &c. This refraction is often a limiting factor in the actions of the ruling class.

    But the question of whether the law is “binding on society” has to do with the relative strength of the contending classes. Ordinarily, the laws are very much “binding” because the state has overwhelming force with which to enforce them. At certain times, under certain conditions, however, how binding or non-binding law is becomes a matter of dispute, to be settled only by force. The American colonies believed the law holding them to the British Empire was non-binding, and had the force to make it stick–producing, of course, a new set of laws. The antebellum South believed the law holding them to the Union was non-binding, and this proved not to be the case. In all periods of great social upheaval, the question of how binding or non-binding laws are is settled anew by the contending classes.

    Does that answer your question?

  24. “Does that answer your question?”

    It does explain what you meant but introduces a great deal that I think is worth discussion. However, I’m going to whine for a second and say the best news I’ve had all week came this afternoon when I learned my kitten’s condition is not necessarily fatal, and if I can nurse him through the next week or two he may survive, and I’m already too distracted to successfully explain my objections so I hope you’ll forgive me if I bow out now.

  25. skzb

    Of course. Best of luck with your kitten.

  26. “Does that answer your question?”

    Overmuch, thanks. You’re use of “legal’ and “illegal” is what was confusing, since they have a very specific meaning in the context of any law related discussion, but I get what you meant now, though I disagree with your use of those words.

    I was originally going to address some of what you wrote about the contending classes etc., but rather than do so, I’ve decided I’m more curious about your sources of information on legal history and the development of legal systems, if you don’t mind my asking. What titles, authors, publishers or sources do you think provide the best information on those topics?

    “Of course. Best of luck with your kitten.”

    Thanks, but the odds were always against us.

  27. skzb

    I’m sorry; that always hurts.

    There is a very good section on the relation of law to society in Anti-During. The other stuff, the Code Napoleon and, the changes in English Common Law, I just found searching the internet when I was doing research for Iorich.

  28. “There is a very good section on the relation of law to society in Anti-During.”

    Do you mean part XI: “Morality and Law”? I quit after “Freedom & Necessity”, which is where he said, “Once again, Herr Dühring is ignorant of the fact that under English common law, i.e., the unwritten law of custom which has been in force since time immemorial…” (That translation is from the version at marxists.org). That he claimed to be a scientific intellectual qualified to help reshape world government and yet made such an ignorant comment about the nature of the common law system was enough to make me stop reading at that point.

    “The other stuff, the Code Napoleon and, the changes in English Common Law, I just found searching the internet when I was doing research for Iorich.”

    Would I be correct in guessing your comment about the English law is mainly based on sources that were from anti-capitalist economic perspectives discussing acts of Parliament? That’s only part of the picture. In parallel with statutory laws, case law was developing that was in favor of the working class. Case law is often overlooked by people reading up on historical developments; it’s more subtle, slower moving, and not as dramatic as legislative acts, but it’s just as important as statutory law in our shared system.

    Your comment that the laws reflect society is true up to a point. That is, it’s not always a clear relation. I’m most familiar with the bits of the Napoleonic Code that filtered into Texas law, which mainly related to property & inheritance, so I have no comment on that. Instead, consider the state of same sex marriage in Texas, which is developing in true common law fashion.

    We have already passed a statute outlawing same sex marriage; that’s on the books. But our case law heads off in another direction. I know of four precedents recognizing same sex marriage in Texas: one based on a birth certificate, one on a divorce, and two recent cases in Travis county – home of both Austin and the capitol – one of which permitted two women to marry, another which recognized a lifelong commitment of two women as a marriage for the purposes of settling an estate. But every time there’s a move towards equality in case law, even if it’s eventually reversed, the legislature tries to counter with another statute. Their most recent move is a bill (HB 623) currently before the House’s State Affairs committee which wants to make it illegal not only to recognize a same sex marriage (“A state or local governmental employee officially may not recognize, grant, or enforce a same-sex marriage license. “), but is trying to overthrow the entire judicial system (“The State is not subject to suit in law or equity … for complying with the provisions of this section, regardless of a contrary federal court ruling”). And given the fact the only people currently voting are the far-right whack jobs, that’s who they’re pandering to, and this bill has a decent chance of making it at least to a vote, if not law. After all, look at what Indiana did today with their Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

    Yes, I have a point *smile* Trying to deduce the nature of society via its laws is only part of the picture, and not necessarily the most useful. Focusing on only the big, dramatic changes and not also at the smaller incremental alterations that happen everyday gives a distorted picture of that society. And saying laws are binding because of the state’s strength is also not an absolute. Here in Texas, eventually, the two marriage perspectives *will* come into conflict, and despite the state’s possession of overwhelming force, it’s not a foregone conclusion that the pandering, bigoted homophobes will win, not that I’m biased or anything.

    “But the question of whether the law is ‘binding on society’ has to do with the relative strength of the contending classes.”

    I disagree with this on many levels, but because I don’t accept your basic premise that you can divide society into purely economic class divisions, I don’t think there’s any point to going into this.

  29. skzb

    “Would I be correct in guessing your comment about the English law is mainly based on sources that were from anti-capitalist economic perspectives discussing acts of Parliament?”

    No. If you google “code Napoleon” and “English common law” and start following links, you’ll get the stuff I got.

  30. Well. I almost feel I should apologize for criticizing Anti-Duhring.

    Just to quit this on a friendly note, if you’re not familiar with the history of the Icelandic Commonwealth (mid 10th-13th century), you might find it interesting to read about. They had the equlivalent of legislative and judicial branches, but no executive. The laws they had on the book, once they finally got them on the book, weren’t quite identical to those they implemented. Their society was very equalitarian for the time, and even though their resources didn’t really allow them to produce enough goods for export , I’ve seen articles by libertarians praising it for its capitalistic bent (these were not historians). It’s a fascinating variation of the development of a western government.

  31. skzb

    Hmm. That *does* sound interesting. I must look into it, in my copious free time. 🙂

  32. I have always assumed that Medieval Iceland was the closest you would ever get to the Jeffersonian ideal. Iceland is also a favorite hobby horse for legal scholars, particularly since so much of their law is procedural rather than substantive.

  33. One of my favorite stories in the world is Njal’s Saga. I am endlessly fascinated by their society as shown in the sagas, and their legalistic approach to feuding is without a doubt one of the most interesting subjects I’ve ever studied. William Ian Miller’s writing on the topic (Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland) is one of the most informative and entertaining books I have, just to plug a great textbook.

  34. Njall’s Saga has one of my favorite lines ever in it. During the feud, after the attacking faction has killed this woman’s husband, the survivors ask her permission to bury their dead on her property, rather than haul the bodies back across half of Iceland. Her answer is something like “Gladly will I make room for some of you, but more gladly would I have made room for all of you.” Ten years, and it still sticks with me… and the way arguing lawsuits is treated as just as heroic or epic as any battle with swords and axes.

  35. That was Gunnar’s mother. Remember when the scout came back from checking out the farmhouse a little too closely?

    Leader: Is Gunnar at home?
    Scout: Well, his halberd is. (Dies)

    One of the most succinct intelligence reports ever.

    Because that period of Icelandic history is so well documented, it is an excellent example of what a society would be like without a central authority. Anarchists, libertarians and any other political stance that calls for a weak to non-existent executive should study it to get an idea of where their ideas would lead in a best case scenario (worst case would be like a drug cartel taking over). I love reading about it but I would *not* want to live there.

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