When Conscience Speaks

by Raymond Lotta

Revolutionary Worker #1169, October 6, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org

On Thursday, September 19, a striking Statement of Conscience was published as a full-page ad in The New York Times --announcing a new wave of opposition to the U.S. government's "war without limit" and its draconian measures of domestic repression. In bold, graphic strokes and with a defiant tone, the ad begins: "President Bush has declared: `you're either with us or against us.' Here is our answer: Not In Our Name."

What is the historical significance of this Statement of Conscience? It is the first comprehensive indictment of the Bush administration's post-9/11 policies of war and repression, and the first call to act against these policies, to come from major public figures and voices of conscience...standing as one.

The Statement of Conscience is a statement of findings--this war and repression loosed on the world is unjust, illegitimate, and immoral; a statement of responsibility--we must first of all oppose the injustice done in our name, we cannot remain silent and fail to act; and a statement of intent --we will resist the machinery of war and repression and rally others to do everything possible to stop it. It aims to be a moral and political compass for millions in society.

The power of this Statement lies not only in the text but in the stature and diversity of signers. Represented are leading intellectuals, writers, artists, filmmakers, actors, musicians, academics, and clergy. The Guardian of London describes this as the "widest ranging group of opponents of government policy since September 11" and cites the musicians Laurie Anderson and Mos Def, the actors Ossie Davis and Ed Asner, the writers Alice Walker, Russell Banks, Barbara Kingsolver and Grace Paley, the playwrights Eve Ensler and Tony Kushner, along with Martin Luther King III, Gloria Steinem, Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, and Rabbi Michael Lerner. Film directors Robert Altman and Oliver Stone, and Aaron McGruder, the young creator of the comic strip Boondocks, are signers. Importantly, the Statement brings together voices of the '60s generation with those of the new generation...from Hollywood, from academia, and from the music scene.

"Tell Them What It Means To Us"

The Statement's appearance could not be more timely. The U.S. is steamrollering towards a brutal war against Iraq. Other crimes are in the offing. This is indeed a time to act, a time to take resistance to a whole new level, as will be happening on October 6. The Statement of Conscience will help inspire, guide, and embolden this new movement. And it will provoke broader questioning in society--as it is commented on and debated in the media, as individuals speak for and against it, as it becomes a reference point and a rallying point.

Within days of publication in The New York Times , over 80,000 people visited the Statement website, and more than 15,000 people have now signed the Statement. Donations are pouring in, and organizers are barely able to keep up with correspondence.

One letter captures something about the power of the Statement: "As I read the ad to my 17- year-old daughter at breakfast this morning tears began to stream from my eyes. I was surprised by my response. Your eloquent, timely, and poignantly stated comments expressed the sentiments that I have struggled to articulate during the past year. Your ad has provided me with a profound sense of validation and has given me the courage and the vocabulary to express my views. I have enclosed a check for $1,000, and I will continue to follow and support your activities."

Stories abound. An e-mail from Georgia: "We want to publish the Statement in a local newspaper, please tell us who in the ad is from Georgia, we want to highlight that." From Wisconsin: "I walked into a store and saw someone getting a copy of the Statement framed." And here in New York I was talking with some young activists and mentioned that I was in town meeting with several signatories. A woman said, "Please let people know how much the Statement means to us; we take it to students and professors to tell them what we think and what we think they should be doing. Tell them what it means to us."

You can see the Statement's potential to puncture the myth of consensus and to break through the atmosphere of intimidation that the government creates and counts on to exact quiescence.

The Statement of Conscience has already stirred great interest and support internationally. It has been published in England; an Arabic translation has appeared in several newspapers in the Middle East; and a Spanish translation has been published in the influential Mexican paper La Jornada .

Historical Precedents

The Statement of Conscience evokes earlier such declarations of resistance.

In 1960 in France, at the height of the Algerian war of national liberation against the French rulers, Jean Paul Sartre and other leading French writers, philosophers, filmmakers, and scientists issued what became known as the "Manifesto of the 121." It set forth a clear stand of opposition to an unjust colonial war and advocated support for young people refusing service in the French military. The Manifesto sent shockwaves through French society; it sparked public debate and galvanized opposition to the war.

In 1967 in the U.S., with the War in Vietnam escalating, several intellectuals issued "A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority." The Call declared that the war was immoral and illegal and that individuals had an obligation to resist it. It stood with young people resisting the military draft and aimed to build a community of support for them within all reaches of society. Many progressive intellectuals came to identify and associate themselves with this Call and many in the emerging campus movement (myself included) were influenced by it.

Today, as was the situation in these other periods, people are confronted with a choice: to go along with one's government, or to oppose its policies and to make common cause with the people of the world. The Statement of Conscience, like these other declarations, is an act of courage that calls on others to act with courage .

When Conscience Speaks

What does it mean when public figures of integrity, moral authority, and creative accomplishment step out to speak unsettling truths and to summon actions that confront a profound injustice? What does it mean when they do so not merely as individuals but as a group? And when they do so at risk of professional ostracism, public rebuke, and even repression? It means that a certain conscience of this country is expressing itself...that an example is being set...that an urging to think critically and to act resolutely is being made to all of us.

Such conviction and determination frightens and de-legitimizes the powers that be. The terms of what is right and wrong, and what one must do, are brought into sharper focus in society. The space for questioning, for dissent, for resistance widens.

In reflecting on the significance of the Statement of Conscience, I am reminded of the writings of Edward Said, one of the early signers of the Statement. He is an eminent scholar who has written extensively on the social responsibility of the intellectual. In one essay he declares: "No one can speak up all the time on all the issues. But, I believe, there is a special duty to address the constituted and authorized powers of one's own society, which are accountable to its citizenry, particularly when those powers are exercised in a manifestly disproportionate and immoral war, or in a deliberate program of repression, and collective cruelty."

The oppressed and exploited, here and throughout the world, take heart when the poets and artists, the intellectuals and leaders of social justice movements take such a principled and forthright stand. They see that they are not alone, and that there is a conscience in the "belly of the beast." It is possible to move mountains.

The challenge for all of us now is to heed the message. The juggernaut must be stopped!

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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