Want to Change the World?

If, as Shakespeare once noted, even the devil can quote scripture, then it should come as no surprise that Osama bin Laden can cite Noam Chomsky. In his Sept. 6, 2007, video message, that’s exactly what he did.

In addition to naming Chomsky, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy, bin Laden also delivered a fairly simplistic version of the standard left-populist worldview. “The capitalist system,” bin Laden said, “seeks to turn the entire world into a fiefdom of the major corporations under the label of ‘globalization.’” American democracy is a sham because “Those with real power and influence are those with the most capital.” And “the life of all mankind [sic] is in danger because of the global warming resulting … from the emissions … of the major corporations.”

All pretty familiar stuff to any reader of this magazine. And we should take note of it. It is a humbling experience to hear your own ideas mouthed by a man who has, without remorse, ordered a fiery death for thousands of men, women, and children who had nothing whatsoever to do with his alleged causes. How good can those ideas be, we might wonder, if they can be twisted to such evil purposes?

This humbling has been a recurring experience in my lifetime. I came along in time to hear the last rantings of the segregationists who disenfranchised nearly half the citizens of my native state in the name of democracy. In college I learned about Tom Watson, the Georgia populist who spent the first half of his political career forging an alliance of poor whites and poor blacks in the post-Reconstruction South. When that noblest of dreams was crushed by the power of the old plantation elite, Watson withdrew from politics for a while and returned to become one of the most viciously racist politicians of the early 20th century. But, to double the ambiguity, even as a racist, Watson opposed U.S. entry into World War I and called for the United States to recognize the new Bolshevik government in Russia.

In fall 1977, I joined Sojourners, which was then an inner-city radical Christian commune. A year later, in Guyana, more than 900 members of Peoples Temple, a radical Christian commune that had begun in inner-city San Francisco, were poisoned to death on the orders of their leader, Jim Jones. Last year, the Peoples Temple was detailed in a documentary film, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, broadcast on PBS as part of the American Experience series. In the course of the film, the viewer sees how the highest human aspirations, and even the deepest truths of the gospel, became instruments of raw power in Jones’ hands.

IN MY FIRST job after leaving the Sojourners magazine staff, I worked with veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. They were mostly men who had devoted the first half of their lives to the U.S. Communist Party, which they thought embodied their humanistic ideals of political and economic equality. Then in 1956 came the double whammy of the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Khrushchev’s speech detailing the crimes of Stalin. After decades of sacrifice for their cause, my friends were finally forced to admit that in the Soviet Union, Marxism had become little more than an alibi for butchery.

Now every time I rant about globalization—which has, in fact, reversed the process of economic development in Africa and Latin America while lowering wages in the United States—I’ll have to hear echoes of bin Laden.

It could be enough to make one a cynic. And if one’s faith is in the power of ideas, it should. Like a hacksaw or a bolt-cutter, an ideology can be a handy tool to have around. A person with a systematic view of how the world works is unlikely to waste time chasing the latest fads. But any ideology—mine, bin Laden’s, or Dick Cheney’s—is just a tool. It is not an end purpose. Ultimately, ideology and analysis mean nothing if they are not grounded in respect for each and every human life.

After watching bin Laden’s cool and calm video performance, one is left to wonder: Under that surface is he a Jim Jones, demented by the lust for power? Or a coldly calculating Stalin? Who knows? And who cares? The lesson is the same. Ideology is only skin deep, and without love, it is worse than nothing.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort.

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