A Book Review of Ted Rall’s The Anti-American Manifesto


Ted Rall, the nationally syndicated columnist and cartoonist, recently came out with a new book, The Anti-American Manifesto. It was well written; I always enjoy Ted’s witty, no-nonsense prose (for me there is nothing worse than reading something boring that doesn’t captivate me). Ted is also not a liberal leftist—which is another way of saying he is not an Obamabot and that his idea of social and political activity is not limited to partisan politics (i.e. he doesn’t have giant foam #1 hand that says, “Go Dems!”). And his cartoons rock! In the beginning of his book he points out, with good reason, that he uses “we” separately from the US government and ends with a comment about innocence and guilt: “We who do nothing are complicit. We who choose to act are not.” (12p.) Ultimately we are responsible for what our government does in our name and with our tax dollars, especially when we sit by and do nothing.

In the book Ted often writes to “You,” the reader. So I thought it would be fitting to write this review to him.

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Dear Ted,

Sup? Welcome back to the belly of the beast (for those who don’t know, Ted is back from doing some reporting in Afghanistan). Shave that beard off yet?

Without further ado, I gotta say, I really feel let down with this book.You wrote the book very well and 99% of it struck a chord with me, but that 1% where I cringed was over some important shit. I hope you take this constructively, or at least don’t put me on a black list for when the insurrection comes.

There are two things I want to focus my critique on: vision and strategy. I feel this is the most important thing the left can and should be offering and I, regrettably, must say I don't think you succeeded. This is hard for me to say because I really like you. Your writing style is influential to me. (I'm not blowing smoke up your ass. I mean that.)

 

What would a hundred thousand angry New Yorkers armed with bricks (or guns) be able to accomplish? Quite a lot. (45p.)

 

You really come off as way too open to violence as if our options are only limited to mindless and spontaneous uprisings or timid reforms that leave the institutional structures in place. But I will get to that in a moment. (On a side note: you got to wonder what would happen to those 100,000 people if the tens of millions of other citizens didn’t support them.)

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a pacifist. I totally realize that the Christian fundies, the right-wing militias, and the State are not peace-loving Quakers who can be reasoned with and as the world slips further into hell some sort of conflict could possibly emerge—a conflict where it’s either us radical leftists or them. But we are not there yet. We are still in a time and place where we can and should be doing more to build popular movements that can liberate people’s consciousnesses and win reforms necessary to lay the foundation for a transformed society without it being soaked in blood. I get you are doubtful in this regards but even “Che” Guevara wrote in Guerilla Warfare that,

 

Where a government has come into power through some form of popular vote, fraudulent or not, and maintains at least an appearance of constitutional legality, the guerrilla outbreak cannot be promoted, since the possibilities of peaceful struggle have not yet been exhausted.

 

There is no national movement. We have not even begun to exhaust “the possibilities of peaceful struggle” and you are already talking about overthrowing the government by force. All this talk about throwing bricks and Molotov cocktails is extremely premature and reckless, in my honest opinion. I totally get your point about how liberal leftism and groups like The Yes Men “gives hope that the system can be reformed without violent change,” (171p.) but there is some truth to it; it can. We are much better off than we were a hundred years ago and it would be wrong to claim that non-violent acts of civil disobedience and direct action didn’t play a part. The gains we have made and which was not the result of a violent revolution doesn’t signify “impotence.” (230p.)

You also wrote that,

 

The 1999 Battle of Seattle, for instance, slowed the momentum of corporate globalization by throwing the World Trade Organization into chaos for years. And all it took was a few broken windows! (237p.)

 

First, I wouldn’t say the protests in Seattle and at latter WTO meetings had anything to do with their being stalled. While the protestors didn't cause the collapse of discussions, their pressure aided dissent, and forced the meetings to be held in more remote locations (i.e. Doha, Cancun) and under more authoritarian conditions that exposed the corrupt and undemocratic process. It has been the (nonviolent) resistance by the governments of the developing world to the one-sided neoliberal policies of the developed world that has played a much bigger role in undermining the WTO meetings. Much more so than the protesters and demonstrators; not even the suicide of Lee Kyang Hae in 2003 at the Cancun meeting did much of anything to "slow" down the agenda of the developed countries. And the third world leaders are not grounded in a working class struggle. Their opposition stems from the realization that the developed countries are trying to impose a bad deal on them. Which is why I found it odd that of all the events that took place the only thing you can link it to it was the throwing of a few bricks. That gives black bloc tactics way too much credit—much more than it deserves. It seems you are “insensibly” doing what Sherlock Holmes told his compadre, Dr. Watson, (in A Scandal in Bohemia) what one does when making “a capital mistake”: “one begins to twist facts to suit theories.”

And as for vision,

 

[S]trategy of planning what comes next before getting rid of what’s old is a wasted effort. Revolutionaries never get to lead the revolutionary government. Once one has unleashed long-repressed political and social forces, the situation spins wildly out of control. No one, not even the radicals who worked to make a revolution, can control events. And that’s okay. The point of an uprising is not merely to switch out one existing political reality with another, but to alter the political landscape so radically that entirely new ideas, new ways of thinking about and promulgating those ideas, and new leaders rise to the fore. (55p.)

 

It’s not enough to know the world sucks and we should do something about it (or write well about it). How can we possibly convince others to risk their lives if we can’t offer them something to show it will be worth it? What kind of political and economic system can we point to that is an alternative to the ones we are currently chained to? Having a vision doesn’t mean we need a vanguard to steer us, and I don’t want to wait for “new leaders to rise to the fore.” I don’t want leaders, period. Like Subcomandante Marcos, “I shit on all the revolutionary vanguards of this planet.” With that said, there is nothing wrong with developing an in-depth and textured vision of the future we want to build—it implies a level of consciousness that I happen to think is badly needed. We don’t need to wait for the post-revolutionary period to have ideas on what to do differently. I know humans are a stubborn species but we do have the mental faculties to work this out. Besides, I don’t know of one historical example where people rejected vision and strategy and won a thing.

Our government is as John Dewey said, the shadow cast by big business. Institutionally speaking, we know why that is. Elections are expensive extravaganzas that take in a shit ton of private donations to fund elaborate PR stunts. That is, they’re bought and paid for by the rich. They are examples of what is wrong with market systems. In a market you vote with your dollar and the more dollars you have the votes you get and the greater chance to influence the outcomes. Abolishing private campaign donations is just a pebble on the mountain of changes we would need to make in a political system we want to replace the existing one. Another important change is making democracy more engaging and participatory. Stephen Shalom—a political science professor at William Patterson University—has offered some interesting ideas on nested councils in a system he calls “Participatory Polity.”

Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel have done their parts in offering ideas on an alternative economic system to not only capitalism but to central planning as well: Participatory Economics. In fact, the folks over at Z Communications have done a lot lately on getting tons of minds to throw their two cents in on “Reimagining Society” and hosting workshops at various events (i.e. USSF) to discuss the importance of vision and strategy.

This is what we need. Fresh ideas that take serious the structural issues of modern governments and economies and that offer solutions to them. And of course we need action. Lots and lots of action—but I am hesitant to get behind violence, especially at this point. So it was disturbing to read this:

 

There is the risk that what comes next could be worse. The terror that followed the French Revolution. Stalin’s purges followed the Russian Revolution. Mass famine and the Cultural Revolution followed Mao’s Chinese Revolution. We must take that chance. To do nothing is to concede defeat without a fight. (219p.)

 

Ted, the economic, political and ecological crises we face are certainly shameful crimes that warrant our immediate attention. These problems should have been resolved yesterday. We certainly agree on that point. The prospects for a successful (preferably non-violent) revolutionary movement is much better if it is not blind and has an idea of where it is going, how it plans to get there, and what it plans to do once it arrives. I am mortified at the idea of a mob of armed and angry people with little to no clue on what they will do when the embers burn out. And I happen to think that taking the “chance” that it will iron itself out neatly is absurdly naïve. If we have no idea what we’re struggling or fighting for—whether it comes from the left, the right or outer space—other than ambiguous and emotive notions of freedom and liberty then we are über-fucked, Ted (maybe you think you could endure or tolerate a French guillotine, the Cultural Revolution, or Lenin’s Cheka, or Stalin's dizzying success but this fella cannot); we need a movement that is conscious of what it’s doing and where it’s going, and whose members are actively participating in fair and democratic ways that are working at realizing their goals; not blindly playing follow the leader. That is “What Is to Be Done," or undone. Whether we have reason to be optimistic or not is moot because building that movement is the task ahead. It's not going to materialize out of thin air and it's not going to come out of a barrel of a gun and it's not going to emerge from the ashes of a burned down government office or Starbucks. This take up arms, overthrow the government and don’t worry about vision because it’s a “wasted effort” line that The Anti-American Manifesto seems to be built on just isn’t going to cut it. It’s like that old Japanese proverb:

 

Vision without action is a daydream. Action with without vision is a nightmare.

 

Sincerely and with solidarity,
Michael

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