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Sins of Omission

June 11, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, David Swanson, Politics

Three Things Young People Should Know to Save the World

by David Swanson

Of course, old people should know these things too, and some small percentage does know them, but energy seems better invested in trying to teach them to young people who have less to unlearn in the process…

1. Obedience is extremely dangerous. 

This seems like it must be either wrong or misleadingly incomplete.  And that would be true if we were talking about children.  If a two-year-old is about to run in front of a car, please do yell “stop!” and hope for as much obedience as possible. But I’m talking to young people, not children.

When you grow up, your obedience should always be conditional.  If a master chef appears to be instructing you to prepare a revoltingly bad dinner but wants you to obey his or her instructions on faith, you might very well choose to do so, considering the risk to be tolerable.  If, however, the chef tells you to chop off your little finger, and you do it, that will be a sure sign that you’ve got an obedience problem.

This is not a trivial or comical danger.  The majority of volunteers in experiments are willing to inflict severe pain or death on other human beings when a scientist tells them to do so for the good of science.  Watch this video of such an experiment.

Had the actor in this experiment who pretended to be a scientist told the participants to cut off their little fingers, I bet they wouldn’t have done it.  But they were willing to do far worse to someone else.  The good old Golden Rule is a counter to this deficiency, but so is resistance to blind obedience.  Most suffering in the world is not created by independent individuals, but by large numbers of people obeying when they should be resisting.

Here’s a story in the news right now about a man deeply upset that he sat at a desk and obeyed orders and killed over 1,600 people.  This was not an experiment, but tragically real.  (Watch this video.)

We should think about how not to put ourselves in positions in which we are expected to blindly obey.  It is possible to find jobs that don’t include that unhealthy expectation.  And we should prepare ourselves to refuse immoral instructions whenever we receive them.  As we’ll see below, we all do receive them all the time.

2. People in power manipulate us into acceptance

Several years ago a lot of people were protesting the U.S. war in Iraq.  The president and most of Congress and most of the big media outlets were busy giving out the impression that such protests were ignored or even counter-productive.  But former president George W. Bush’s memoirs recall the Republican Senate Majority Leader secretly telling him the pressure was becoming too great and they’d need to end the war.  Bush signed an agreement with the government of Iraq to leave in three years.

In 1961 the USSR was withdrawing from a moratorium on nuclear testing.  A protest at the White House urged President Kennedy not to follow suit.  Posters read “Kennedy, Don’t Mimic the Russians!”  One protester recalled their action for decades as having been pointless and futile, until he found an oral history interview with Adrian Fisher, deputy director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.  Fisher said that Kennedy had delayed resuming testing because of the protest.

A delay in a policy we oppose is not as good as a permanent ban, but if those protesters had known they were being listened to they would have come back day after day and brought their friends and possibly achieved that permanent ban.  That they imagined they weren’t being listened to appears ridiculous if you read enough history.  People are always listened to, but those in power go to great lengths to give the impression of not paying any serious attention.

Lawrence Wittner interviewed Robert “Bud” McFarlane, President Ronald Reagan’s former national security advisor, asking him whether the White House had paid much attention to protests demanding a “freeze” in nuclear weapons building.  “Other administration officials had claimed that they had barely noticed the nuclear freeze movement,” Wittner said.  “But when I asked McFarlane about it, he lit up and began outlining a massive administration campaign to counter and discredit the freeze — one that he had directed . . . .  A month later, I interviewed Edwin Meese, a top White House staffer and U.S. attorney general during the Reagan administration.  When I asked him about the administration’s response to the freeze campaign, he followed the usual line by saying that there was little official notice taken of it.  In response, I recounted what McFarlane had revealed.  A sheepish grin now spread across this former government official’s face, and I knew that I had caught him.  ‘If Bud says that,’ he remarked tactfully, ‘it must be true.'”

It’s funny: even when protesting government lies or government secrecy, people tend to fall for the lie that the government is ignoring you.  Yet, in 2011, when a relatively tiny movement began to take to the streets under the banner of “Occupy,” the government rolled out a massive effort of infiltration, eavesdropping, harassment, brutality, and propaganda — while, of course, claiming to have noticed nothing and done nothing about something so unworthy of notice.

Those in power don’t restrict themselves to directing you toward inaction.  They also work on moving you toward doing lots of things that seem effective but aren’t.  The way to keep the nation safe, they say, is to go shopping!  Or lobby for this watered-down pathetic piece of legislation!  Or devote all your activist energy to election campaigning, and then go home and collapse in exhaustion as soon as the election is over — exactly when you should be gearing up to demand actions out of whoever won the election.  These activities that have little impact are depicted as serious and effective, while activities that historically have had tremendous real impact (organizing, educating, demonstrating, protesting, lobbying, heckling, shaming, nonviolently resisting, producing art and entertainment, creating alternative structures) are depicted as disreputable and ineffective and lacking in seriousness.

Of course, being active is much more fun than not.  Of course, the influence you have is always possible even if undetected (you might inspire a child who goes on to do great things years later, or slightly win over an opponent who takes a few more years to see the light).  Of course, we have a moral duty to do everything we can regardless of the ease of success.  But I’m convinced we’d see a lot more activism if people knew how much they are listened to.  So tell them! And let’s remember to keep telling ourselves.

3. Doing nothing is obeying a deadly order

Imagine writing a story about a village that faces possible destruction, and for the most part the people don’t do anything to prevent it.

That’s not how stories are written.

That’s the world we live in and fail to recognize.

We are being instructed to sit at a desk and zap the earth to death, and we’re compliantly zapping away.  Only the zapping doesn’t look like zapping, it looks like living.  We work and eat and sleep and play and garden and buy junk at the store and watch movies and go to baseball games and read books and make love, and we don’t imagine we can possibly be destroying a planet.  What are we, the Death Star?

But a sin of omission is morally and effectively equivalent to a sin of commission.  We need to be saving the earth and we’re not doing so.  We’re allowing global warming and other major environmental destruction to roll ahead.  We’re allowing militarization and warmaking to advance.  We’re watching the concentration of wealth.  We see the division of society into castes.  We know we’re building prisons and drones and highways and pipelines while closing schools and condemning our grandparents to poverty.  We are aware that we’re funding multi-billionaires with our hard work while fueling mass suffering, bitterness, rage, frustration, and violence.

We see these worsening cycles and we sit still.

Don’t sit still.

Sitting still is mass-murder.

Don’t obey anyone who tells you to sit still.

Don’t search for a leader.

Don’t sell your conscience to a group or a slogan or a political party.

Don’t listen to me unless something I say makes sense.

David Swanson is the author of War Is a Lie and Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union. He blogs at davidswanson.org and warisacrime.org, works as Campaign Coordinator for the online activist organization rootsaction.org, and hosts Talk Nation Radio. Among his many publishing venues, Swanson is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

2 Comments to “Sins of Omission”


  1. An even more powerful example of the unnoticed effect of public demonstration on the course of history were the October 15 and November 15, 1969 Moratorium marches on Washington DC, during the latter of which President Nixon made a point of letting the nation know that he was ignoring public dissent to watch a football game on TV.

    In spite of his well-choreographed indifference, Nixon’s memoirs made it clear that the demonstrations of public outrage forced him to abandon his “secret plan” to end the war by dropping nuclear bombs on Vietnam.

    Mobilized and determined public opinion averted the world’s second nuclear war.

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  2. Another profound example of how one person’s act of conscientious resistance can change history is the little-known story of Daniel Ellsberg’s epiphany at a War Resisters League conference at Haverford College in August 1969, where he listened to draft-resister and fellow Harvard graduate Randy Kehler speak about his choice to sacrifice personal freedom for the sake of non-cooperation with war, on the verge of a two-year sentence in federal penitentiary.

    Daniel Ellsberg, still working at the Rand Corporation, went into a men’s room, slumped down on the floor and cried for a full hour, knowing that he could no longer resist the call of his own conscience.

    From those tears came his determination to copy and release the top-secret Pentagon Papers which, more than any other factor, turned public opinion against the Vietnam War.

    Decades later, Ellsberg recalled, “Randy Kehler never thought his going to prison would end the war. If I hadn’t met Randy Kehler it wouldn’t have occurred to me to copy [the Pentagon Papers]. His actions spoke to me as no mere words would have done. He put the right question in my mind at the right time.”

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