Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Protest Grind and My Sordid Family Secret

For a very long time, a committed group of activists have
held weekly protests at the headquarters of Alliant Tech-
systems, a large Minnesota-based defense firm. You can
read a recent article about them here and look at their
website here. I take a keen interest in their impres-
sions and activities, but not because I admire or agree
with them. They seem to be well-intentioned and pass-
ionate people, and I’m sure they have kind souls and
big hearts, but they strike me as ineffectual at best and,
at worst, deluded. Their vigils and civil disobedience, to
say nothing of their overripe rhetoric, seems to me to be
little more than that same stale protest-as-therapy thing
that leftists perennially waste their energy on. They come
out, chant some silly slogans, and go home feeling better
that they’ve registered their disapproval at the violent,
sick world they can’t substantially change. It’s an outlet
for them, and a harmless one, but the war machine will
keep right on rolling no matter how much they may dis-
like it.

Yet I don’t feel that what they’re doing is wrong. I don’t
resent them or imagine them to be traitors or, as two
right-wing blogs put it, "losers" or "moonbats". They want
this country and this society to be better than it is and I
respect them for that. It is often far more patriotic to pro-
test than it is to accept or let slide. I might not agree with
them and I might not get along with them if I met them,
but I certainly wouldn’t want to silence them or cast
callous aspersions on them.

You see, I have a somewhat more personal investment in
this whole issue. My father was, until his recent retirement,
a high-ranking manager with Alliant Techsystems. What
this means is that my entire upper-middle class upbringing
and virtually all the comforts I now enjoy have been bought
with bullets and bombs. As much as I hate to admit it, I
owe the defense industry a lot. My expensive education,
the top-notch health care I received throughout my child-
hood, and my current lack of financial worries–these are
all mine, thanks to unrestrained Reagan-era Pentagon
spending. It is one thing to hate the vicious American
military-industrial behemoth, it is quite another to realize
that it has underwritten your whole charmed life.

As a result of this, I’m more than a little skeptical of a bunch
of people who have spent almost a decade calling my dad a
warmonger. My father is a very gentle man, a funny man
and a man who taught me to be kind, generous, and accep-
ting. He’s the sort of guy who would rather shoo a mouse
outside than let the cat eat it. It’s sort of hard to square
this with his job, which involved overseeing the develop-
ment of devices that could only be used to kill people. I
don’t like to hear that he might have blood on his hands. I
don’t want that to be true. I love my father very much.

The world is not as simple as protest songs make it. Hu-
manity isn’t going to wake up any time soon. It’s taken
centuries to build up the cold, destructive system we’re
caught up in and no amount of righteousness is going to
undo it now. Many self-styled activists, I feel, are mo-
tivated too much by an erroneous guilt-and-redemption
script. They think that if they can somehow just convince
their opponents to feel as guilty and ashamed as they do,
the whole house of cards will come tumbling down. Wicked
people will learn how wicked they are and the energy from
that transformation will renew the world. The hand-
wringing liberal guilt of the enlightened cadre will bring
about a fresh new society if only enough people come to
share it.

This is not the case. Responsibility is scattered far and
wide nowadays. Imagine the unthinkable: this rag-tag
band of a few dozen peaceniks actually manage to con-
vince Alliant Techsystems to divest from the implement-
of-death business and become a coffee-maker company.
Raytheon would quickly pick up the slack, I assure you.
And if the "Alliant Action" team redoubles its efforts from
there and takes another ten years to turn Raytheon into
a Peruvian-sweater wholesaler, there will still be a deep,
deep bench of similarly sinister defense contractors wait-
ing in the wings. So maybe they’ll turn their attention to
the "demand" side of the equation for awhile, camping
out in front of the Pentagon and holding candlelight
parties by the White House. Maybe here they’ll feel
like they’re making progress for a few years, but then
something will happen to get the electorate scared
again and all their earnest efforts will be wiped away by
one executive order. It’s a rigged game, a long, frantic
road to nowhere.

So what’s a concerned citizen to do? I have no fucking
idea. That’s the depressing thing. The freedom that we’re
brought up to believe is the purest in the world has become
a handful of bad choices and an array of deceptive fantasies.
There may be no way out of this mess we’ve made.