CHOICES IN Tuesday's election are startlingly clear. Citizens who believe that America's international conflicts should be solved with military violence should vote. Those of the opposite bent - that military violence is immoral, ineffective and an incalculable waste of public money - should not vote.
As a pacifist, and with increasing leanings to the philosophy of nonviolent anarchy, I'm in the second group. I wish, with ardency, that I could vote. I'm told it causes a warm patriotic tingle. But my conscience says no, cooperate as little as possible with an electoral process that guarantees a presidency and Congress constitutionally committed to violence.
How? Read Article I, Section 8 and Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution. Unambiguously, it is spelled out that the president "shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy" and the work of Congress is to raise money for the military. Presidents and members of Congress take an oath to "preserve, protect and defend" the Constitution.
Voting for politicians who are sworn to support the violence of war-making means agreeing with the idea that it is morally good to pay soldiers to kill people whose behavior or thinking is disliked by U.S. policymakers. Voting assures that the United States will remain the world's most martial nation and a military monstrosity. According to the Center for Defense Information, the U.S military budget at $305 billion is 22 times as large as the combined spending of the seven countries Pentagon officials label as potential attackers (Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria).
Except for astronomers, the $305 billion figure is too large to comprehend. Better to break it down. Congress gives the military $700 million a day - three times more than what the Peace Corps gets in a year. Still more comprehensible: $305 billion a year amounts to about $8,000 a second. The military receives 49 percent of the federal discretionary budget, or roughly $4 a day - every day - per person.
The numbers suggests that Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1967 judgment still holds: "The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today [is] my own government." And: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approach- ing spiritual death."
Arguing against voting is akin to saying that motherhood is evil and apple pie is poisonous. When telling my voting friends that I can't in conscience vote, and that people who do vote unwittingly endorse killing as a way of settling disputes, I'm chided, denounced or damned for being a misguided purist, an addled idealist and - now it gets rough - a despicable ingrate who dishonors brave men who died in combat to keep democracy alive. How dare I not vote.
I dare. But perhaps my friends are right. First, though, I'd like to see some evidence that voting has made the U.S. government less militaristic and more humane.
The record shows otherwise. Historian William Blum has devised the Quick Political Scholastic Aptitude Test (QPSAT). He listed the countries that duly elected U.S. officials have ordered bombed since the end of World War II: China, 1945-1946; Korea, 1950-1953; China, 1950-1953; Guatemala, 1954; Indonesia, 1958; Cuba, 1959-1960; Guatemala, 1960; Congo, 1964; Peru, 1965; Laos, 1964-1973; Vietnam, 1961-1973; Cambodia, 1967-1970; Guatemala, 1967-1969; Grenada, 1983; Libya, 1986; El Salvador, 1980s; Nicaragua, 1980s; Panama, 1989; Iraq 1991-2000; Sudan, 1998; Afghanistan, 1998; Yugoslavia, 1999.
The QPSAT multiple choice test: As a result of this half-century of interventionary death-dealing, how many democratic governments, respectful of civil liberties and human rights, have resulted? Choose one: (a) 0 (b) zero (c) none (d) not a one (c) a whole number between --1 and +1. As in every election cycle, patriotic calls have been heard across the land urging the citizenry to exercise the sacred right to vote. The bromides range from the old standards - voting is a civic duty, voting is a privilege - to pietistic guff: Every vote counts, no candidate is perfect, vote for the lesser of two evils.
Such thinking failed to move W. E. B. DuBois, the black sociologist and protest leader. Two weeks before the 1956 election in which the major candidates were Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai E. Stevenson, he wrote in The Nation: "I shall not go to the polls. I have not registered. I believe that democracy has so far disappeared in the United States that no 'two evils' exist. There is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say. ... How does Stevenson differ from Eisenhower? He uses better English. ... He has a sly sense of humor, where Eisenhower has none.
"Beyond this, Stevenson stands on the race question in the South not far from where his godfather Adlai stood 63 years ago, which reconciles him to the South. He has no clear policy on war or preparation for war; on water and flood control; on reduction of taxation; on the welfare state. ... I have no advice for others in this election. Are you voting Democratic? Well and good; all I ask is why? Are you voting for Eisenhower and his smooth team of bright ghost writers? Again, why? Will your helpless vote either way support or restore democracy to America?"
All lasting social reform - the kind helping to create the peaceable society - comes from below, not above. Voting means transferring personal individual power to the impersonal collective power of political parties. Not voting means denying credibility to the ethic of violence, whether perfumed by the scent of the Constitution or cushioned by a war-based economy.
Elections are charades for progress, marginal to the direct democracy of citizens getting involved personally and enduringly to create the conditions in which a just and peace-directed world can be created. Votes aren't needed to tutor at a literacy center, or mentor a student, ease a neighbor's pain or toil at any one of thousands of useful programs. Voting isn't needed to live simply or nonviolently.
Rather than being negative, not voting is positive. It means affirming one's own power - lasting moral power, not fleeting one-moment-every-four-years-voting-booth power.
Colman McCarthy, director of the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, teaches courses on nonviolence at six Washington area schools, including the University of Maryland, College Park and Oak Hill Youth Center in Laurel.
Copyright 2000 Baltimore Sun