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Archive for the ‘Chomsky’ Category

UPDATE: During the evening, Seattle PD decided to disperse the crowd using pepper spray and flashbangs, which of course led to an escalation that allowed them to make some arrests.

As is my custom, I took Worker’s Day as a personal day this year. I spent my time working on home improvements and listening to socialist lectures. As far as I can tell (via twitter), it has been fairly peaceful so far with the marches in Seattle.

This year for your virtual teach-in, Noam Chomsky talks at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 9th 1995. The topic was “The war on unions and workers’ rights.”. The talk was given in solidarity with the (ultimately unsuccessful) United Auto Workers strike against Caterpillar Inc.

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September 17 (#S17) is the anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which eventually spread into many other cities, including Seattle. The main stream press have never given much in depth coverage to what this movement is trying to achieve -it is generally seen as either a new iteration of the black-clad “anarchists” of the N30 days, or just aimless hippies who are opposed to corporate power (which is the new way of saying “The Man”). The non-mainstream press (like The Stranger) has given them some interesting coverage, but always through a definitely anti-Republican lens (Occupy actually opposes the entire current political system, including both major parties). If you want good coverage of the movement, go and look at Democracy Now!

This lack of coverage is pretty much a propagandist’s choice. It is trivial to discover what the Occupy movements are working towards, because they are quite open about it (just visit their web page): Transparency and accountability for those in power, real participatory democracy (the ‘99%’ part of the argument), and an end to corporate personhood and corruption in politics. They emphasize solidarity and social justice, in a way that is truly socialist in spirit (in the US, the term socialism has lost any real philosophical meaning, instead being used as an insult to mean anti-American). In an important sense, Occupy’s biggest contribution was introducing to a generation what it means to have true ideological debate rather than just a tactical political discussion (which is the only this you hear across the parties in the US).

To celebrate #S17, you can have yourself a mini teach-in, right at your computer. On February 16, 1970 at the Poetry Center in New York City, Noam Chomsky delivered a lecture “Government in the future” which is now considered a classic in the philosophy of anarchism. (Get the lecture as an MP3 here). In it, Chomsky lays out his vision for how governments (particularly governments for complex industrialized societies) should look in the future – social libertarian organizations which follow anarchist principles. In the talk, he follows the history of classical libertarian thought, from von Humboldt in the late 1700s all the way through the friction between Bakunin and Marx at the turn of the 20th century. He then lays out the incompatibilities between capitalism and social libertarianism/anarchism and why capitalism cannot by its nature successfully form the basis of a government in a complex industrialized society. This lecture is worth a listen if you have ever wondered what anarchism is actually about, or why capitalism seems to be falling apart after such a long run.

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In December 1988, Noam Chomsky delivered the Massey Lectures for the CBC, where he talked about propaganda and systems of indoctrination. During the Q&A session, he discussed the role of professional sport and pop culture in indoctrination:

So for most of the population the media system is I think a different one. It’s not just the case that it tries to entertain them, it tries to entertain them through means which will intensify attitudes that support the interest of elites. For example . . . let me give some cases. Take the emphasis on professional sports. It sounds harmless but it really isn’t. Professional sports are a way of building up jingoist fanaticism. You’re supposed to cheer for your home team. Just to mention something from personal experience – I remember, very well, when I was I guess, a high school student – a sudden revelation when I asked myself why am I cheering for my high school football team. I don’t know anybody on it, if I met anybody on it we’d probably hate each other. You know, why do I care if they win or if some guy a couple blocks away wins. And then you can say the same thing about the baseball team or whatever else it is.This idea of cheering for your home team -which you mentioned before – that’s a way of building into people irrational submissiveness to power. And it’s a very dangerous thing. And I think it’s one of the reasons it gets such a huge play.

Or . . . let’s move to something else. The indoctrination that’s done by T.V. and so on is not trying to pile up evidence and give arguments and so on. It’s trying to inculcate attitudes. I mentioned a couple of cases but there are a lot more. Let’s take, say, the bombing of Libya. Why did the American public support the [April 1986] bombing of Libya? Well, the reason is that there had been a very effective, and careful, and intense inculcation of racist attitudes about Arabs. Anti-Arab racism is the one form of racism in the United States that’s considered legitimate. I mean, plenty of people are racist, but you don’t like to admit it. On the other hand, with regard to anti-Arab racism you admit it openly. You read a journal like, say, The New Republic, and the kinds of things that they say about Arabs . . . if anyone said them about Jews you’d think you were reading Der Stürmer. I’m not joking. And nobody notices it because anti-Arab racism is so profound. There are novels that have a form of anti-Arab racism that’s hair-raising. The same is true of television shows and so on and so forth. An image has been created – the media are part of this, not all – of the Arab terrorist lurking out there ready to kill us. And against that background you could bomb Libya and people would cheer. Recall how effective that was, remember what was happening in 1986, there are a lot of measures of how effective this is. Remember that in 1986 when this happened the tourism industry in Europe was virtually wiped out because Americans were afraid to go to Europe, where incidentally, objectively, they would be about a hundred times as safe as in any American city. That’s no joke. But they were afraid to go to Europe because they got these Arab terrorists out there trying to kill us.

Now, that was not from New York Times editorials, that was from a whole array of television and novels and soap operas and a mass of symbolism and so on and so forth and that’s effective. The anticommunist hysteria is developed that way too. The communists are out there ready to kill us – who are the communists? – I don’t know, they’re out there ready to kill us. This is introduced by the kinds of symbolism that T.V. is good at, and cheap novels are good at and so on and that’s important. These are critical means of indoctrination.

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when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.

George Orwell Homage to Catalonia

The scene at 6th & Union, November 30, 1999. Courtesy of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

These days, one cannot think of the World Trade Organization (WTO) without thinking of protests and riot police. There was a time when the WTO was seen as another boring, opaque ministerial body which discussed treaties largely irrelevant to the population. The last day anyone though that way was November 30, 1999. At this particular meeting of the WTO, held at the Washington Convention Center in Seattle, more than ten thousand people organized themselves into massive protests which were opposed by the Seattle Police Department and Washington National Guard with rubber bullets, batons and tear gas, and continued until the end of the meetings on December 3rd. The intersection of 6th Avenue and Union Street, (where the Seattle Sheraton is located, which housed many of the WTO delegation) saw the most violence. The city’s handling of the events eventually killed the career of them mayor Paul Schell (who, among other things, instituted a state of emergency in the city and revoked lawful protest permits). Schell felt the displeasure of voters in 2001 when he was unseated by the more leftward leaning Greg Nickels. Then police chief Norm Stamper resigned his post, expressing regret for escalating the violence by his use of chemical agents such as tear gas.

The opposition to the WTO meetings largely centered around two issues – how the WTO acts to undermine democracy (meaning people’s control over their own lives and governments, not institutional democracy), and how the WTO agreements (such as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which had seen its own share of heavy protesting in 1998) work to widen the divide between rich and poor.

More at the WTO History Project

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Howard Zinn is an interesting historian, partly because he is so mundane. His field of specialty is the history of class struggle – hardly anything to write home about. What makes him interesting, is that he writes about class struggle in the US, where the very idea that there are separate classes, never mind a struggle between them, is complete taboo.  Nonetheless, his 1980 book A People’s History of the United States has sold more than a million copies (not bad for an academic history book), and even the New York Times, which is about as mainstream as they come, poured praises over the book. I have read it, and it is a very interesting, well written book.

The most interesting thing about Zinn is the fact that in many ways he is a European historian trapped in an American body. He does two things that European historians do so often, they take it for granted: He believes it is impossible and undesirable to be objective as a historian and he writes mostly about power and class struggle. But he also does two other things which are extremely rare of any historian: He turns his work into activism, and he translates often complex concepts into plain language. He is a people’s historian in two senses of the word: He researches and writes about the lives of ordinary people, and he goes out of his way to make his work accessible to ordinary people also.

Today, while taking my now weekly traditional walk about the International District, I took a recent lecture by Zinn to listen to. The topic of this talk is what he calls “Three Holy Wars” meaning three wars which are sacred in the US national myth – the war of independence, the American civil war, and the Second World war. First he notes that the wars are “holy” because one is not permitted to speak critically of them – they are considered as having been completely just and fought for high moral principles. He develops a few interesting points on examining these three wars:

1. American historians are not capable of separating a just cause for a war from a just war. For instance he asks, was independence from Britain a just case for the American colonists? Yes, probably. But Canada too was a British colony, and is now independent, and they did not have to fight a was to achieve that. Similarly, many countries achieved emancipation without fighting wars to do it.

2. The human costs of these wars are not examined, and the benefits are not examined correctly – only the high moral outcomes are discussed. The second world war killed 50 million people, and maimed or injured an unknown number. However, the personal consequences to those individuals and their families is never discussed. It is assumed that it was worth the cost because of the high moral outcome (in this case, ending fascism). Of course, the second world war did not end fascism or militarism, much as the civil war did not end slavery – it simply transformed it into wage slavery and other forms of class-based oppression. The wars are still considered great and just by virtue of their declared moral outcomes.

3. No-one asks which class gained and which class lost from these wars. The civil war was fought mostly by the poor. In the North, you could buy your way out of the draft for $300, and in the South, only 1 in 6 of those fighting owned any land or slaves. Similarly, the conditions for the non-cpmissioned troops during the revolutionary war were so poor that on several occasions the troops mutinied against Washington. However, the standard histories do ont cover these aspects – war is seen as an endevour where all all equal in their sacrifice; where in fact the sacrifice and benefit are felt in the same way as they are felt in the society at large.

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John Dewey has been quoted as saying of American democracy in the early 1900’s:

“As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.”

The first part of the quote (politics is the shadow of big business) is interesting because it implies that politics and government have no function of their own; they simply react to keep up with what big business is doing. By implication, politicians are nothing more than those who ensure that the shadow keeps the society below in the dark.

I was reminded of this quote today because I read on the BBC newsfeed that the South African government had denied a visa to the Dalai Lama who wanted to attend the 2010 Peace  Conference. The official reason given  (by a presidential spokesman) for the denial is:

“The attention of the whole world is on our preparations for the 2010 world cup, the presence of the Dalai Lama will shift that focus away from us  – it will bring other issues to the focus, we really don’t want that to happen.”

because, as the South African government well understands, hosting the world cup in Africa for the first time is far more important than the gross human rights violations ocurring in Tibet. Officially, his presence would not be in the best interests of South Africa (and of course, only the Department of Home Affairs can be the judge of what is in the best interests of South Africans at large). The official reason didn’t fly for very long: Most local papers, from the Sowetan to the Mail and Guardian and even the state controlled SABC News immediately picked up the story as ‘ANC bows to pressure from China’. All three of South Africa’s Nobel peace laureates – Desmond Tutu, F.W. de Klerk and  Nelson Mandela, canceled their intentions to attend the event, and the Nobel Committee pulled their endorsement of it. Where they got it wrong, I believe, is how the process ocurred. The de Klerk Foundation released a statement:

“South Africa is a sovereign constitutional democracy and should not allow other countries to dictate to it regarding who it should, and should not admit to its territory.”

But I suspect that there was no communication between Beijing and Pretoria. There was probably no communication between Pretoria and downtown Johannesburg for that matter. Politics, following Dewey’s prediction, simply foresaw the problems for big business should the Dalai Lama appear (South Africa is China’s largest business partner in Africa), and to prevent these, to act in “South Africa’s best interests” as they frame it, they simply denied the visa. So no external pressure needs to have been brought to bear, as long as politics is playing its proper role.

What is more interesting is the second part of Dewey’s statement – attenuation of the shadow (politics) will not change the substance (big business). Although it is heartening to see that South African journalists and moral figures (and I am guessing most of the population) expressing their outrage at an obvious injustice, I do not expect it to have any effect whatsoever. Even if the ANC were to be unseated during the upcoming election, I would completely expect whatever new government to continue in exactly the same vein, much like the ANC government continued to tend the interests of the same big businesses that the Apartheid NP government had tended.

Perhaps I am reading too much into the big business conspiracy. Perhaps the government really are afraid that the Dalai Lama will steal their media limelight. Except for the fact that there is in recent history a case where the roles were completely reversed, and the big business prediction held true: In 2002, Tokyo Sexwale applied for a visa to the USA, in order to appear at the opening of trading at the New York Stock Exchange on the day that Gold Fields (the second largest producer in the country with a net profit of $480 million US in 2008) would begin to be traded on that market. Because Sexwale had been convicted previously for smuggling weapons for the ANC resistance, he was, in accordance with INS rules, denied the visa. Of course, this time the visa denial was opposed to the interests of big business so the machinery of the state was fully deployed in his support. The official ANC press release for that day (9 May 2002), and recall that at this stage Sexwale was not a member of government but only a member of the party, reads:

“It is unacceptable that members of the African National Congress who spent years in apartheid prisons for legitimate actions against an unjust system should be victimised in this manner.”

Then foreign minister, Nkosana Dlamini-Zuma, rightly told reporters

“We reject this with the contempt it deserves.”

The same courtesies apparently do not apply to the citizens of Tibet who engaged in legitimate actions against an unjust system. Also, it is too bad the the only person fit to determine what is an act of contempt is the South African foreign minister (even if two acts are essentially the same). In the end, a personal intervention by Condoleeza Rice allowed  Sexwale to enter the US and appear waving the Gold Fields flag. I doubt that the Dalai Lama will have a similar reprieve.


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Taken from Post Modern Haircut – more adventures of  Noam and Predicate in the archives there.

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