The Eerie Silence of American Lawyers, Clergy, and Academics in Response to Empire

At the height of the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War movements back in the late 1960s, the political activism of three professional groups contributed significantly to the success of the two movements – lawyers, clergy, and academics.  Liberal attorneys challenged the constitutionality and legality of racial segregation as well as the Vietnam War.  Mainline Protestant ministers, Catholic priests, and Jewish rabbis raised questions about whether racism and war were compatible with God’s will.  Academics not only questioned the morality of the War and racial injustice, but also the political, economic, social, and psychological consequences of such aberrant behavior.

Forty years later the United States has become the largest, wealthiest, most powerful, most materialistic, most environmentally irresponsible, most racist, most militaristic, most violent empire in history – an empire whose foreign policy is based on full spectrum dominance, military overstretch, might-makes-right, and the proposition that the rest of the world wants to be just like us.  And what has been the response of these three professions to this egregious behavior?  Stony silence.  They appear to be asleep, just like the German people described by Albert Camus in the French Resistance newspaper Combat in 1944.  “Their sleep is filled with nightmares and anxiety, but they are sleeping.  We have awaited their awakening for so long, yet they continue to remain stolid, stubborn, and silent as to the crimes committed in their names, as if the entire world and its own destiny had become alien to them.”

For the most part, American lawyers and law schools have virtually ignored the Islamophobic war on terrorism, the rendition of terrorist suspects, prisoner abuse and torture, the suppression of civil liberties, and citizen surveillance carried out by the U.S. Government.  Furthermore, they don’t seem to have noticed that the White House can now order the assassination of anyone, anywhere, anytime who shows up on the White House kill list – no questions asked, no trial, no due process.  A far cry from the days of Thurgood Marshall, William Kunstler, Robert Kennedy, and Barbara Jordan.

High-profile religious leaders such as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Yale Chaplain William Sloane Coffin, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and Rev. Andrew Young were at the forefront of the movements to end racial injustice and the war in Vietnam.  Today’s sheeplike churches are so docile, so timid, so complacent, so accommodating, and so self-serving that they appear to be more interested in celebrating the hedonism, idolatry, blasphemy, and violence of the American Empire rather than condemning it.  The state has become the real God of most Americans which protects our cherished “American way of life.”

And the political ferment which rocked college and university campuses in the late 1960s has been replaced by the silent hum of a smooth running machine tightly controlled by Corporate America and the Empire itself, both of which wield far more influence on campus than one could have ever imagined might be possible.  Today’s college campuses are all about keeping their clients happy, political correctness, outside funding, not rocking the boat, and trying to position graduates so they can find a job in an increasingly uncertain job market.  Political and economic market conditions define the agenda for the academy.  One sometimes wonders if the objective is not to prepare students for the world of technofascism – affluenza, technomania, cybermania, megalomania, robotism, globalization, and imperialism.  What ever happened to the Howard Zinns, Carl Sagans, and Kenneth Bouldings of the world?

So long as the nation’s best legal, theological, and academic minds are either in a state of denial or complete indifference over the fact that the United States has become an empire capable of inflicting great harm on its citizens as well as the rest of the world, then we are truly in a perilous position.  It gives further credence to the argument that not only has our nation lost its moral authority, but it is unsustainable, ungovernable, and unfixable.

With such an important part of our country’s intellectual firepower sitting silently on the sidelines, we are actually in a far worse position than might first appear.  We are morally, spiritually, and intellectually bankrupt.

How all of this will play out in terms of the Empire’s endgame remains to be seen.  But there is no reason to believe it will be a very pretty picture!

Thomas H. Naylor

November 14, 2012

Founder of the Second Vermont Republic and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University; co-author of Affluenza, Downsizing the USA, and The Search for Meaning.