Remarks of Cynthia McKinney, Member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1997–2003, 2005–2007), Green Party Candidate for US Presidency (2008), made at the Opening Plenary Session of the 13th Rhodes Forum on October 9, 2015
Weeks before President Kennedy was executed in broad, open daylight before our very eyes, he spoke of what he characterized as the most important topic on earth: peace. Addressing the American University 1963 Commencement, he asked, “What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek?” Answering his own question, he added: “Not a Pax Americana, enforced on the world by American weapons of war; not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I’m talking about genuine peace: the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living; the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and build a better life for their children; not merely peace for Americans, but peace for all men and women; not merely peace in our time, peace in all time.” On that auspicious August day, Kennedy said that “total war makes no sense” and that “we have no more urgent task” than to pursue peace which, for him, was the “necessary, rational end of rational men.” President Kennedy asked those of us who want to pursue peace to begin our journey first by looking inward. And that is exactly what I have done and how I came to participate in this Conference on this very morning.
As many of you may know, I served in elected office in my home state of Georgia and then I went to Congress. When I was first elected, almost my entire district of poor sons and daughters of Georgia’s slave autocracy, went to Washington, D.C. with me. We traveled up there in the cheapest, almost-completely-broken-down buses that we could afford. And one of the buses did break down! But, we made it. People who had never even seen their Congressperson before, stood in the gallery with me and raised their hands as I raised my hand and spoke my oath of office. Such was the hope that buoyed my reality of becoming Georgia’s first African American woman Member of Congress. I represented the second poorest district in my state, where attitudes and behaviors were still mired in the 1800s, not the Twentieth Century. I was determined to make a difference in their lives and I did. I got health care for neglected people dying from exposure to chemicals in their neighborhoods; I got people moved out of neighborhoods that would flood and destroy all of their possessions every time it rained because they lived on what were formerly rice plantations worked by African slaves whose descendants were still on that land; I renovated a 103-year old woman’s home that didn’t have running water in it in 1993. In fact, lots of my constituents didn’t have running water in their homes—even as they paid rent every month. The poverty that I encountered was staggering. No American would believe it if they didn’t see it for themselves; and so, I invited a national reporter to come to my district and witness for herself the overwhelming poverty that existed in the world’s greatest, freest, democracy. She departed Georgia in tears.
Racism and discrimination were rife; even I was told to get out of town before it got dark if I didn’t want any trouble while I was on the campaign trail. Several of my supporters were threatened at their jobs for supporting me and shots were fired over the homes of two of my supporters. Had one of them sat up in her bed, as she tells the story, she would have been killed right there on the spot.
The United States domestic situation was a ticking time bomb waiting to be set off.
Because of my fierce advocacy, and, quite frankly, outrage, the press began to call me names; I called myself unruly. Because in the face of injustice, unruly is what my father taught me to be.
While in Congress, I was a part of every hot button issue that came across my desk. That included justice for Aboriginals in Australia and the U’wa in Colombia trying to protect their lands from U.S. mining companies, stolen U.S. Presidential elections, September 11th, Palestine, and Black people in the U.S. trying to get back home after Hurricane Katrina. I heard John Kennedy when he enunciated that commencement address. I heard every word of it—and I, too, believed that peace was possible, starting with peace between Blacks and Whites inside the U.S. I still believe that today.
I am here with you today as a former Member of Congress because I tried to align my values with my behavior, my talk with my walk, my proof and my pudding. I became more than just an irritant; I became dangerous. I began to live dangerously with political stalkers and other signals that I was too close to the cutting edge. I got cut from Congress—not once, but twice! I had racked up an interesting and powerful array of opponents. But, the fact is that with each engagement, those who opposed my straightforward talk about my values of peace and justice and truth had to reveal themselves in ways that perhaps only I could see. I became quite clear that most of the Congressional leadership had ties with people who were more comfortable lurking in the shadows. And so I began to call more names. I was engaged in the political equivalent of hand-to-hand combat fighting for my political right to represent my constituents every day while very few people nationally even knew my name.
I became immersed in U.S. foreign as well as domestic policy. My academic background included study of International Relations in undergrad and grad school. I entered the Congress having read John Stockwell’s pioneering book, In Search of Enemies, and so intellectually, I understood that I had entered “occupied territory.” That is, political space that was occupied by people who did not share my values, and in many respects, actively opposed my vision and definition of what a “better” U.S. policy could look like. I specialized professionally in the covert activities of U.S. intelligence agencies operating both inside the U.S. (illegally) and abroad. I studied U.S. government documents; I became a student of U.S. wars waged at home as well as abroad. Like President Kennedy, I concluded that permanent war was the preserve of irrational leadership.
“War Need Not Be Inevitable”
In that August 1963 speech, Kennedy said, “war need not be inevitable. No government or social system is so evil that it’s people must be considered lacking in virtue.” But today, demonization is the name of the game as a prelude to attack. Attacks from the U.S. can come in many different ways, at many different levels. They call it Full Spectrum Dominance. Today, U.S. Presidential candidates thump their chests for war—proudly.
Can you even imagine a President of the United States speaking as President Kennedy spoke on that American University campus? Probably not. And the reason is that when that bullet blew our President’s brains out, U.S. elected leadership for peace was eliminated. The man was killed and so was his policy. But his message still resonates today against the backdrop of a war-ravaged world. How much more blood on our collective hands can we stomach? It is clear that we in the United States need now, more than ever, peace leadership. That is, leadership that is unafraid to articulate a vision of peace and to live that as a mission. It should also be clear that the peaceniks of the world need to embrace this objective with us, because we in the U.S. don’t seem to be able to lead and manage this necessary transformation alone. No, war is not inevitable, but peace is not attainable until we receive the kind of help for peace leadership that the warmongers receive for their war leadership. Think about it: If I were to announce tomorrow that I agree with the War on Terror and the dissolution of whole states, I would find outstretched hands filled with wads of cash to help me on my way and I’d get good press to boot. But the bloodied leadership for peace bears the scars of battle while the press draw attention to your bruises.
“The rational end of rational men” (and women)
By now, it should be clear that the progenitors of the Clash of Civilizations and the Global War on Terror in the U.S. are not the kind of rational men or women around which political theories are built. Because, if as President Kennedy stated, peace is the rational end of rational men and women, and we’ve been told by successive U.S. Administrations to prepare for a generation of war, then clearly a different kind of rationality is at work. They have their vision of the future and they are on a mission—and their mission is war. War, not for war’s sake, but war to achieve their political agenda because war is the only way they can implement their vision and fulfill their mission.
Let me be clear about this: this “Clash of Civilizations” crowd will not stop because of naive appeals to their sense of responsibility. They are in a different orbit. I’ve even witnessed that some people think they can strike bargains with these people in order to save themselves. Leave me alone to live my life in comfort and go ahead and kill my neighbor. All such thinking accomplishes is the elimination of their own potential allies—eventually increasing their own vulnerability with each day of collaboration or silence. We can cite current real world examples of leaders whose days are numbered precisely because they remained silent or chose to collaborate in the destruction of their brothers and sisters, rather than to oppose these senseless, endless wars.
So what do we do?
After years of being inside the ring, getting bloodied and bruised, I formulated my own vision of the values that are important to me. I start with truth, because so much of our present world has been built on an edifice of lies that we must start all over again and rebuild with truth. With truth, it is possible for us to revision a just reality for we cannot build justice on a foundation of lies. With justice at hand, peace can be, also. And a just peace moves us up in our humanity to the ultimate which, in my opinion, is dignity—both Human and Earth. These are the values that I walk with every day of my life.
Secondly, I had the great opportunity to work side by side by one of the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Stephane Hessel, who told us to “Indignez Vous!” That we should be indignant and outraged about what is happening in the world.
I think drastic corrective action is urgently needed. Quite frankly, the world is in a shambles—by design. But it is now time for us collaboratively to interpose our vision and our directed action onto the warmongers’ plan. We need to give them more resistance than they are getting from us now.
I have also begun to formulate a vision of what transformation in the United States would look like so that the people can dare to dream again about the kind of United States they are willing to work for and build. Some have suggested that egalitarianism should be a part of the vision. I don’t disagree. Others, including the Pope are suggesting that we move beyond capitalism and start building a post-capitalist vision. We should definitely add to that post-racist, too, as hatred and division work to our disadvantage and to the advantage of those who advocate never-ending war.
In addition to egalitarianism, post-capitalism, and anti-racism, one suggestion that came to me was that we should support a sharing economy; I don’t disagree with that. In Venezuela, people have begun to take these matters, of building the future that they want, into their own hands and are recreating the Kilombo—the cities of old begun by trafficked Africans who fought for their freedom and staved off a fate of becoming a slave. These “liberated zones” are popping up all over Venezuela right now, today. Some also call them Socialist Cities.
The ALBA states of Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and others in the region affirm the centrality of human and Earth dignity in their Constitutions and in their policies. Africans refer to it as African Socialism or Ujamaa; some call it Ubuntu. And the Kilombos are run on the basis of this. Where love and connection are the basis of human interactions; vengeance is replaced by restorative action. Therefore, I take the opportunity granted to me by the Rhodes Forum to renew my commitment to live by my values and to always, always try to be a part of the solution and not the problem. To act on my mission of enhancing the impact of effective peace leadership as a way to ensure my vision of a United States whose values and behavior shine like a beacon around the world: A United States that joins in the Commonwealth of mankind.
Finally, writer Alice Walker, wrote that “Anything We Love Can Be Saved.” In this time of homicide, genocide, ecocide, and sociocide—President Kennedy’s message of peace is what we urgently need to hear from a U.S. President in the near future. I will dare to, and encourage others to Imagine the U.S. as leader in the Dialogue, and not in the Clash, of Civilizations.
Thank you for inviting me to speak this morning.