-------- Original Message -------- Subject: ZNet Commentary / Zinn and Chomsky / Election and Overcoming Orthodoxies / Dec 16 Date: Fri, 15 Dec 2000 19:46:46 -0800 TENNIS ON THE TITANIC By Howard Zinn As the prize of the presidency lurched wildly back and forth in the last days of the year, with the entire nation hypnotized by the spectacle, I had a vision. I saw the Titanic churning through the waters of the North Atlantic toward an iceberg looming in the distance, while passengers and crew were totally concentrated on a tennis game taking place on deck. It is not just a phenomenon of this particular election. In our election-obsessed culture, everything else going on in the world - war, hunger, official brutality, sickness, the violence of everyday life for huge numbers of people - is swept out of the way, while the media insist we watch every twist and turn of what candidates say and do. Thus, the superficial crowds out the meaningful, and this is very useful for those who do not want citizens to look beneath the surface of the system. In the shadows, and hidden by the dueling of the candidates (if you can call it a duel when the opponents thrust and lunge with plastic swords) are real issues of race and class, war and peace, which the public is not supposed to think about, as the media experts pontificate endlessly about who is winning, and throw numbers in our faces like handfuls of sand. For instance, as the Gore-Bush contest rose to a frenzy, the media kept referring -- to the Hayes-Tilden election of 1876. The education that the public received about this was typical of what passes for history in our schools, our newspapers, our television sets. That is, they learned how the Founding Fathers, in writing the Constitution, gave the state legislators the power to choose Electors, who would then choose the President. We were told how rival sets of electors were chosen in three states, and how Samuel Tilden, the Democrat, had 250,000 more popular votes than the Republican , Rutherford Hayes, and needed only one more electoral vote to win the Presidency. But when a special commission, with a bare Republican majority, was set up by Congress to decide the dispute, it gave all three states to Hayes and thus made him President. This was very interesting and informative about the mechanics of presidential elections and the peculiar circumstances of that one . But it told us nothing about how that "Compromise of 1877", worked out between Republicans and Democrats in private meetings, doomed blacks in the South to semi-slavery. It told us nothing about how the armies that once fought the Confederacy would be withdrawn from the South and sent West to drive Indians from their ancestral lands. It told us nothing about how Democrats and Republicans, while fencing with one another in election campaigns, would now join in subjecting working people all over the country to ruthless corporate power, how the United States army would be used to smash the great railroad strikes of 1877. These were the facts of race and class and Western expansion concealed behind the disputed election of 1877. The pretense in disputed elections is that the great conflict is between the two major parties. The reality is that there is an unannounced war between those parties and large numbers of Americans who are represented by neither party. The ferocity of the contest for the presidency in the current election conceals the agreement between both parties on fundamentals. Their heated disagreement is about who will preside over maintaining the status quo. Whoever wins, there may be skirmishes between the major parties, but no monumental battles, despite the inflated rhetoric of the campaign. The evidence for this statement lies in eight years of the Clinton-Gore administration, whose major legislative accomplishments were part of the Republican agenda. Both Gore and Bush have been in agreement on the continued corporate control of the economy. Neither has had a plan for free national health care, for extensive low-cost housing, for dramatic changes in environmental controls, for a minimum income for all Americans, for a truly progressive income tax to diminish the huge gap between rich and poor. Both have supported the death penalty and the growth of prisons. Both believe in a large military establishment, in land mines and nuclear weapons and the cruel use of sanctions against the people of Cuba and Iraq. Both supported the wars against Panama, Iraq, and Yugoslavia. Perhaps when the furore dies down over who really won the election , when the tennis match is over and we get over the disappointment that our guy (is he really our guy?) didn't win, we will finally break the hypnotic spell of the game and look around. We may then think about whether the ship is going down and if there are enough lifeboats, and what should we do about all that. This is not the Titanic. With us, there is still time to change. -------- Overcoming Orthodoxies Part Two of interview excerpts By Noam Chomsky David Barsamian: I want to come back to the idea of what individuals can do in overcoming orthodoxies. Steve Biko, the South African activist who was murdered by the apartheid regime while he was in custody, once said, The most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. He^s quite accurate. Most oppression succeeds because its legitimacy is internalized. That^s true of the most extreme cases. Take, say, slavery. It wasn^t easy to revolt if you were a slave, by any means. But if you look over the history of slavery, it was in some sense just recognized as just the way things are. Well do the best we can under this regime. Another example, also contemporary (its estimated that there are some 26 million slaves in the world), is women^s rights. There the oppression is extensively internalized and accepted as legitimate and proper. Its still true today, but its been true throughout history. That^s true in case after case. Take working people. At one time in the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century, a hundred a fifty years ago, working for wage labor was considered not very different from chattel slavery. That was not an unusual position. That was the slogan of the Republican Party, the banner under which Northern workers went to fight in the Civil War. Were against chattel slavery and wage slavery. Free people do not rent themselves to others. Maybe you^re forced to do it temporarily, but that^s only on the way to becoming a free person, a free man, to put it in the rhetoric of the day. You become a free man when you^re not compelled to take orders from others. That^s an Enlightenment ideal. Incidentally, this was not coming from European radicalism. There were workers in Lowell, Mass., a couple of miles from where we are. You could even read editorials in the New York Times saying this around that time. It took a long time to drive into people's heads the idea that it is legitimate to rent yourself. Now thats unfortunately pretty much accepted. So that^s internalizing oppression. Anyone who thinks its legitimate to be a wage laborer is internalizing oppression in a way which would have seemed intolerable to people in the mills, lets say, a hundred and fifty years ago. So that^s again internalizing oppression, and its an achievement. Take the demonstrations that are going on right now in Washington, which are good ones, about canceling the debt. That^s right. They should cancel the debt. But its also worth recognizing that --- a lot of people know this --- the form of the protests and the objections on the part of the poor countries are internalizing a form of oppression that they should not be accepting. They are saying that the debt exists. You cant cancel it unless it exists. Does it exist? Well, it doesn^t exist as an economic fact. It exists as an ideological construction. OK, that^s internalizing oppression. You can go on and on. Just as Biko says, its a tremendous achievement of the oppressors to instill their assumptions as the perspective from which you look at the world. Sometimes its done extremely consciously, like the public relations industry. Sometimes it^s just kind of routine, the way you live. To liberate yourselves from those preconceptions and perspectives is to take a long step towards overcoming oppression. DB: Discuss the role of intellectuals in this equation. There^s a lot of talk today about public intellectuals. Does that term mean anything to you? That^s an old idea. Public intellectuals are the ones who are supposed to present the values and principles and understanding. They^re the ones who took pride in driving the U.S. into war during World War I. They were public intellectuals. Notice who they were. Walter Lippmann was a public intellectual. On the other hand, Eugene Debs wasn^t a public intellectual. In fact, he was in jail. A very vindictive Woodrow Wilson refused to grant him amnesty when everyone else was getting Christmas amnesty. Why was Eugene Debs not a public intellectual? The reason is, he was an intellectual who happened to be on the side of poor people and working people. He was the leading figure in the U.S. labor movement. He was a presidential candidate, despite the fact that he was running outside the main political system he got plenty of votes. He was telling the truth about the First World War, which is why he was thrown into jail. Take a look back at what he was saying, its quite accurate. So he was thrown into jail and wasnt a public intellectual. On the other hand, Walter Lippmann, who was part of the propaganda agency, the Creel Commission, and later was explaining in his progressive essays on democracy how the bewildered herd have to be spectators, not participants, and so on, he is a public intellectual, in fact, one of the leading public intellectuals of the U.S. in the twentieth century. That^s rather general. Public intellectuals are the ones who are acceptable within some mainstream spectrum as presenting ideas, as standing up for values. Sometimes what they do is not bad, maybe even very good. But again, take humanitarian intervention, take a look. The people who do not accept the principles, the assumptions, they rarely qualify as public intellectuals, no matter how famous they are. Take, say, Bertrand Russell, who by any standard is one of the leading intellectual figures of the twentieth century. He was one of the very few leading intellectual figures who opposed World War I. He was vilified, and in fact ended up in jail, like his counterparts in Germany. From the 1950s, particularly in the U.S., he was bitterly denounced and attacked as a crazy old man who was anti-American. Why? The reason was that he was standing up for the principles that other intellectuals also accepted, but he was doing something about it. For example, he and Einstein, to take another leading intellectual, essentially agreed on things like nuclear weapons. They thought it might well destroy the species. They signed similar statements, I think even joint statements. But then they reacted differently. Einstein went back to his office in the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton and worked on unified field theories. Russell, on the other hand, went out in the streets. He was part of the demonstrations against nuclear weapons. He became quite active in opposing the Vietnam War early, at a time when there was virtually no public opposition. He also tried to do something about that. He also tried to do something about that, demonstrations, organized a tribunal. So he was bitterly denounced. On the other hand, Einstein was a saintly figure. They essentially had the same positions, but Einstein didn^t rattle too many cages. Thats pretty common. Russell was viciously attacked in the New York Times and by Dean Rusk and others in the sixties. He wasn^t counted as a public intellectual, just a crazy old man. There^s a good book on this published by South End Press called Bertrand Russell^s America. DB: You make yourself available for various groups all over the country, from the East Timor Action Network to an upcoming talk you^re going to give for the Boston Mobilization for Survival. You made that choice pretty early on. Why don^t other intellectuals get engaged politically? Individuals have their own reasons. Presumably the reason most dont is because they think they^re doing the right thing. That is, I^m sure that overwhelmingly people who are supportive of atrocious acts of power and privilege do believe and convince themselves that that^s the right thing to do, which is extremely easy. In fact, a standard technique of belief formation is to do something in your own interest and then to construct a framework in which it follows that that^s the right thing to do. We all know this from our own experience. Nobody^s saintly enough that they haven^t done that illegitimately any number of times from when you stole a toy from your younger brother when you were seven years old until the present. We always manage to construct our own framework that says, Yes, that was the right thing to do and its going to be good. Sometimes the conclusions are accurate. Its not always self-deception. But its very easy to fall into self-deception when its advantageous for yourself to do so. Its not surprising. DB? And when you have the culture and the media celebrating. It is advantageous. If you convince yourself, or just maybe cynically decide to play the game by the official rules, you benefit, a lot. On the other hand, if you don^t play the game by those rules and you, say, follow Bertrand Russell^s path, you^re a target. In some states you may get killed. If its a U.S. client state, you get killed. We^ve just passed the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. He was a conservative archbishop who tried to be a voice for the voiceless. So he was assassinated by U.S.-run forces. The anniversary just passed, incidentally. David Peterson, who is an invaluable resource, did a database analysis that was kind of interesting. Virtually nothing in the mainstream national press. Practically the only place where the assassination was reported was Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times had reports. Los Angeles happens to have the biggest Salvadoran community in the country, and Archbishop Romero is kind of a saint, so they had a couple of articles. But basically silence. A few months earlier, last November was the tenth anniversary of the murder of six leading Latin American Jesuit intellectuals by the U.S.-run forces, armed and trained by the U.S., in El Salvador. This was part of a large-scale massacre, but they happened to be murdered with particular brutality. If say, Vaclev Havel and half a dozen other Czech intellectuals had had their brains blown out by Russian-run forces ten years ago, the anniversary would have been noted, and somebody would know their names. In this case, David Peterson did a media analysis, and there was essentially nothing. Literally their names were not mentioned in the U.S. press. In addition to the six Jesuit intellectuals, their housekeeper and her fifteen-year-old daughter were murdered. And hundreds of other people were killed whose names you never heard of. It is intriguing, instructive, that no one knows the names of the assassinated Salvadoran intellectuals. If you ask well-educated public intellectuals or your well-educated friends, Can you name any of the Salvadoran intellectuals who were murdered by U.S.-run forces, its very rare that anyone will know a name. These were distinguished people, one was the rector of the leading university. Some people know. The people who were involved in Central American solidarity know. But they^re not well known. Nothing like what we know about East European dissidents. They^re well known. Everybody knows their names and reads their books and praises them. They in fact suffered repression. But in the post-Stalin period nothing remotely like the treatment that^s regularly meted out to dissidents in the Western domains. Its a very enlightening reaction. Actually, the story gets worse. Right after they were murdered, Vaclav Havel came to Washington and gave a rousing address to a joint session of Congress where he praised the defenders of freedom, his words, who were in fact responsible for just murdering six of his counterparts. That led to a euphoric reaction, rapture in the U.S. Editorials in the Washington Post about, Why cant we have magnificent intellectuals like that who come and praise us as defenders of freedom. Anthony Lewis wrote about how we live in a romantic age. That^s quite interesting. Then we passed the tenth anniversary and of course its forgotten. The twentieth anniversary of Archbishop Romero, forgotten. What happens if you^re a dissident intellectual in our domains? In the rich societies, the U.S. and England, you don^t get murdered. If you^re a black leader, you might get murdered, but for relatively privileged people youre secure from violent repression. On the other hand, there are other reactions that plenty of people don^t like. In fact, about the only way to continue to do it is not to care. For example, if you have contempt for the mainstream intellectual community and you really don^t care, then you^re safe. On the other hand, if you want to be accepted by them, if you want to be praised and have your books reviewed and told how brilliant you are and move on and get great jobs, its not advisable to be a dissident. Its not impossible, and in fact the system has enough looseness in it so that it can be done, but it is not easy. Both of us can name plenty of people who were simply cut out of the system because their work was too honest. That blocks access. It s not like having your brains blown out or being thrown in jail, but its not nice. The Barsamian/Chomsky entire interview will appear in an upcoming South End Press volume later this coming year.
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