Issue 194: September 2001


Conscientious Objection

by Brewster Kneen

Nearly 40 years ago we were engaged in the resistance to the American war against the people of Vietnam. Cathleen was a Canadian when we met in 1964. I was a U.S. citizen (I almost wrote "American") and at that time a full-time peace movement new-left activist travelling for the Fellowship of Reconciliation from campus to campus counselling conscientious objection to the U.S. war machine and helping to organize public demonstrations.

I had already been on active duty in the U.S. Navy for two years after graduation from university, but even before I graduated, my visit to Havana, Cuba (before the revolution), on a required summer "midshipman" training cruise had had a profound effect on me: witnessing the degradation of the Cuban people living literally across the street from appalling American tourist wealth made me realize that the real mission of the U.S. military was to protect American wealth and privilege from those from whom it had been stolen. (Forty-five years later we see biopiracy and patents performing the same function.)

At the same time, my religious convictions were taking the form of a radical Christian faith that placed far more emphasis on social justice and peace than on "salvation" and conformity with the dominant culture. The Jesus I came to recognize was the person who accepted abuse rather than administering it, who took violence upon himself rather than inflicting it upon others. By the time I had finished my two years of post-graduation active duty in the U.S.Navy (on "non-combatant" - i.e., no guns - ships), what I had seen in Korea and elsewhere reinforced my Cuban insights and I realized that I could no longer recognize the military as having any claim on my life.

The fact that American flag-waving nationalism has remained so entrenched in the face of the obvious absence of equity and justice in the land has something to do, I think, with the fundamentalism of the culture of the United States, the notion that "Americans" are the Chosen People of God with a divine mission and hence divine license to do as they see fit to further their global hegemony.

It was with that outlook that I began my theological studies and peace activism. Along the way the justice "portfolio" grew in importance as I came to understand, along with many others, that economic justice and equity are essential to peace.

Forty years later, with genetic engineering and the "invention" and patenting of life upon us, it seems to me that we need to revive conscientious objection as a legitimate, indeed essential, personal-social response. In the bellicose aftermath of the bombing, not of "America," but of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon (symbols to the rest of the world of what America really stands for) it is even more imperative to refuse and resist, to stand for peace and justice.

When George W. Bush proclaims with unbelieveable stony-faced arrogance that "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists," where does that leave all the decent people who have some idea of how much terror, death and destruction the U.S. has inflicted on others over the past 40 years?

On grounds of conscience, with a willingness to accept the consequence of convictions, it is the season to take the side of life, not of death and its administrators.

"Death . . . is an integral aspect of life. A plant dies back once it has gone to seed, that is, given its life over to the next generation. Death is 'overcome' precisely when it is taken up into life and accepted as the final act of being alive. This is a widely held religious perspective. The monoculture of industrial agriculture and, indeed, western culture and science as a whole, is built on a radically different attitude toward life and death, with its practice of administering death to 'others'- defined as 'weeds' or perhaps as 'defective' - so that an elite may survive."
-Farmageddon, p.10

from Cathleen:
I have grown up in a world defined from the outset by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a world in which the phrase "American Imperialism" has been a prime definition of political reality. America's bland certainty that America is the definition of democracy and freedom, while America feels quite free to engage in the most horrific violence against people who have been dehumanized by the labels 'gook', 'jap', 'terrorist' etc., has given me nightmares all of my life. At the same time, I know that 'America' does not define Americans, who I know as honest caring people struggling for justice for the poor and carrying a vision of communities in which everyone has all the necessities of life, including not only food and shelter but also art, music, and joy.

I think just about everyone in North America feels the pain and horror of the human suffering in New York and Washington. We are all grieving. But the US government is taking that grief and warping it into a self-righteous vengeance which should be dubbed 'Operation Infinite Hubris'. It takes courage to confront and counter this powerful and apparently unanimous attitude.

I deeply believe that only when we are honest about the causes of injustice, poverty and hunger will our efforts to build real community be successful.

The immediate effect of the events of September 11th has been an obsession with 'security'. Prime Minister Chrétien speaks of 'securing the perimeter'.

We do not want to live in a "gated" community!

If there is going to be a perimeter fence to 'protect' our borders, then let's be consistent and also recognize and respect the borders of all organisms and ecosystems. If we are going to monitor and limit the movements of persons, this must include corporate 'persons' - and capital itself. Or, to put it the other way round: if capital and corporations are to be granted the privileges of global citizenship, then real people must as well.

Speaking of Hubris:
Imagine the ancient Celtic hammer throw where a burly oatmeal-nourished Scotsman, kilt furling in the breeze, with two hands on the handle of a long-handled mall, begins to turn in a circle to swing the 'hammer' slowly off the ground. When the hammer is up circling around his head and he is good and ready, he lets go.

Now imagine Monsanto in the centre, swinging patent offices, government regulators, and the entire wheat industry.

Are we so accustomed now to corporate domination that we do not even notice, much less resist, Monsanto's unilateral setting of the agenda, whether in regard to wheat, patents, or farmers' rights?

It has recently come to light that Monsanto has received a patent in the U.S.A. on herbicide tank mixtures and premixes used to control glyphosate-resistant volunteers in all current and future Roundup Ready crops.

The patent covers herbicide mixtures applied "in any order or simultaneously" that use glyphosate together with any combination of five named active ingredients of non-glyphosate herbicides to control weeds on glyphosate-resistant crops. (Glyphosate is the generic name for Monsanto's Roundup.) The patent goes so far as to include glyphosate-resistant weeds and any crops that one day might be bred "naturally to be glyphosate resistant." In other words, as more and more crops and weeds develop resistance to Roundup, the broader will be the patent's coverage.

Monsanto spokeswoman Trish Jordan said the company has been working on a solution to Roundup Ready volunteers - as in canola - and the patent is simply to protect their research. Of course the problem for which Monsanto has obtained the patented 'solution' is a problem patented in the first place by Monsanto, i.e. create and patent a problem, then patent a solution to the patented problem.

As we have pointed out before, the very process of genetic engineering is violent: remove an organism from its environment (community) and force it by means of inserting a foreign piece of DNA (torture) to do something it would never have done on its own. But of course this has been developed within the paradigm of industrial agriculture which is itself violent: pick one crop plant that you want and kill every other organism around ("weeds" and "pests"). Now there are glyphosate-resistant weeds and Bt-resistant insects all over the place - not to mention the spread of Roundup-Ready canola to farms where it is unwelcome. The parallel with 'terrorism' is compelling, and the solution as well: go back to the beginning and accept diversity and, most important, get rid of the elitism that assumes that one group, race, country has the right to thrive while others sicken and starve. The only alternative is an escalating cycle of violence.

While Monsanto has applied for a parallel patent in Canada, it has not yet been granted.
- sources: WP, MC, 13/9/01, WP 20/9/01