Understanding Political and Intellectual Realities

excerpted from the book

Citizens of the Empire

The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity

by Robert Jensen

City Lights Books, 2004, paper

During World War I .. about 1000 people [were] prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917, which was amended with even harsher provisions in 1918 by what came to be known as the Sedition Act. Hundreds went to prison. The war-related suppression of expression also was merely one component of a wave of repression-which included not only prison terms but also harassment, deportation, and both state and private violence-that smashed the American labor movement and crushed radical politics. At that point in U.S. history it is fair to say that freedom of speech literally did not exist. There was no guarantee of public use of public space (such as streets or parks) for expression, and criticism of the government was routinely punished. In one of the most famous, and outrageous, case of Nearing's time,) labor leader and Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs was forced to run his fifth and final campaign for president from a federal prison cell after he was sentenced to ten years under the Espionage Act. His crime was giving a speech which pointed out, among other things, that rich men start wars and poor men fight them.

The struggle to expand the scope of freedom of expression progressed through the century, although not without setbacks. Similar harshly repressive reactions surfaced again after World War II in the twentieth century's second major Red Scare. The Supreme Court upheld the criminalization of political discourse in what became known as the Communist conspiracy cases prosecuted under the Smith Act of 1940. The law made it a crime to discuss the "duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying the government' an odd statute in a country created by a revolution against the legal government of that day. It was not until 1957 that the Supreme Court reversed the trend in those cases, overturning convictions under the act. The 1960s and 1970s brought cases that continued to make more tangible the promise of the First Amendment, including landmark decisions that made it virtually impossible for public officials to use civil libel law to punish sedition and established that government could not punish incendiary speech unless it rose to the level of "incitement to imminent lawless action."

The freedom of speech we enjoy today was won by people who were despised and denigrated in their time. History has vindicated them, but in their own time they suffered greatly.

Perhaps we shouldn't call a nation a democracy when it refuses to allow the majority of adults to vote and the ultimate guardians of freedom (the Supreme Court justices) see nothing wrong with jailing a leading intellectual and presidential candidate for daring to question the judgment of his opponent.

The degree to which a society is democratic ... can be judged by how extensive and active are citizens' attempts to participate in the formation of public policy.

Walter Lippmann

The individual man does not have opinions on all public affairs. He does not know how to direct public affairs. He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen. I cannot imagine how he could know, and there is not the least reason for thinking, as mystical democrats have thought, that the compounding of individual ignorances in masses of people can produce a continuous directing force in public affairs.

Walter Lippmann

The public must be put in its place, so that it may exercise its own powers, but no less and perhaps even more, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd.

In the real world, it usually turns out that restraint is expected from the "special interests" (defined as organized labor, students, women, minority groups, farmers-in other words, the vast majority of the population) to make sure there are no restraints on the "national interest" (corporate shareholders, the managerial class, defense contractors, the generals).

... social change in the history of this country has been largely the result of popular movements putting pressure on elites to enact progressive policies ...

As the late socialist Alex Carey puts it, "The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy?" I would add to that the development of propaganda to protect state power, which is tightly interwoven with corporate power. Carey's point is that people with power have been engaged in pacifying the population through propaganda to make sure the expansion of formal democracy- through greater expression and organizing rights, and an expanded franchise -does not result in a real democratization of the society, especially the economy.

Edward Bernays, often described as the father of the public relations industry, explained-from a celebratory point of view-how propaganda is "the executive arm of the invisible government' " Who are those "invisible governors"? Those with "qualities of natural leadership" who "supply needed ideas" and hold "a key position in the social structure." The opening lines of his 1928 book Propaganda make clear how the system works:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds our molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.

Bernays acknowledged that some aspects of the propaganda process-"the manipulation of news, the inflation of personality, the general ballyhoo by which politicians and commercial products and social ideas are brought to the consciousness of the masses"- are often criticized and can be misused. "But such organization and focusing are necessary to orderly life."

From a more critical view, Carey described this same propaganda project as "a 75-year-long multi-billion dollar project in social engineering on a national scale?' Carey's study of the propaganda campaign suggests that starting in the 1930s American business leaders realized that they could not keep labor subjugated indefinitely through brute force. So, they turned to "a competition for public opinion via the mass media?' Carey's account of the operations of such groups as the National Association of Manufacturers shows how corporate leaders used advertising, public relations, media relations, and their influence on the educational system to deal with threats to their power.

In addition to campaigns for specific policies, there have been two key underlying messages to this propaganda in the past half-century. First, not only is capitalism the natural economic system and the only one compatible with democracy, but unions and other vehicles for popular organizing somehow disrupt what would be an otherwise harmonious system in which benevolent owners and hardworking managers labor selflessly to provide for customers and workers. Second, the United States is unique among world governments, past and present, in its pursuit of democracy and freedom in the world. While other nations act out of self-interest, the United States goes forward with a benevolent mission.

The system that propagates these fictions is happy to concede that sometimes corporations do unpleasant things and sometimes the government makes mistakes-usually the result of the bad behavior of individuals. If the problems seem to go beyond individuals, we are assured that the miraculous workings of the market and democracy have corrected the problems and produced a "change of course" for the institutions involved. Unlike more totalitarian systems, this arrangement is flexible and better able to adapt to public pressure: absorbing and co-opting dissent when possible, coercing through relatively subtle methods when necessary, resorting to force and violence only when other methods have failed.

The effects of this relentless propaganda are clear. Many people accept the mythology, even when it is directly contradicted by their own experience.

In a society in which free speech is in some sense irrelevant, public political life is little more than a sideshow. And if public political life is a sideshow, what do we say about the state of our democracy?

legal scholar David Kairys in this summary of U.S. political life:

[D]espite all the rhetoric about free speech and our democratic political process, a very large proportion of us-perhaps most-feel silenced and disenfranchised. There is a widespread recognition across the political spectrum that the American people lack the effective means to be heard or to translate their wishes into reality through the political process. There is, and has been for some time, a crisis of democracy and freedom that has been ignored by public officials and the media.

... in a meaningful democratic system, citizens should not be limited only to selecting leaders (an incredibly thin conception of democracy) or to selecting policies from a set of limited choices presented to them by leaders (still a thin conception). In a democratic system with a rich sense of participation, citizens would play an active, meaningful role in determining which issues are most important at any moment and L forming policy options to address those issues.

We live in an era in which policy proposals are treated not as topics for discussion by the people but products to be sold to them. Forget democracy-as-participation. Even democracy-as-ratification is unrealistic. Today, we have democracy-as-stupefaction. The goal of politicians and their consultants seems to be to stupefy, to dull the faculties of people, just as product advertising leaves people stupefied. To borrow from the dictionary definition, politics seems to be designed to leave people in "a state of suspended or deadened sensibility?'

How else to describe a situation in which the Bush administration can appoint an advertising executive to be Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, charged with the task of "selling" U.S. policy to the Muslim world? Charlotte Beers's fitness for the job could be seen in her previous successes-Uncle Ben's rice ("Perfect every time"), Head and Shoulders shampoo ("Helps bring you closer"), and American Express ("Don't leave home without it"). Secretary of State Cohn Powell - Beers's boss until her resignation in March 2003-explained that the new focus of public diplomacy would be "really branding foreign policy, branding the department, marketing the department, marketing American values to the world and not just putting out pamphlets."

When asked why the Bush administration waited until after Labor Day to launch its campaign to convince the American public that military action against Iraq was necessary, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August?'

The Buddha is said to have spoken of enlightenment as /merging from the eggshell of ignorance. The events of 9/11 ... presented Americans with a stark choice. For too long we had lived with a willed ignorance about the consequences of U.S. economic, foreign, and military policy that to many felt like protection from the world- on the absurd assumption that what we don't know can't hurt us- but in reality was always eggshell-thin. r

This ignorance was perhaps most clearly expressed by the president of the United States. At an October 11, 2001, news conference, Bush told reporters he was amazed by what he called the "vitriolic hatred for America" in some Islamic countries. He explained:

I'm amazed that there is such misunderstanding of what our country is about, that people would hate us. I am, I am like most Americans, I just can't believe it. Because I know how good we are, and we've go to do a better job of making our case. We've got to do a better job of explaining to the people in the Middle East, for example, that we don't fight a war against Islam or Muslims. We don't hold any religion accountable. We're fighting evil. And these murderers have hijacked a great religion in order to justify their evil deeds. And we cannot let it stand.

We should give the American public the benefit of the doubt and assume that most were not quite as amazed as the president. But Bush was not the only American who was inside the eggshell on September 10, 2001. On September 11, we had the opportunity to emerge, newly engaged in honest attempts to understand the world and our place in it. But many Americans desperately tried to paste the old eggshell back together. On this front, Bush also took the lead. On September 27, 2001, Bush appeared at O'Hare Airport in Chicago and encouraged people to "get on board," but not with a serious plan for educating ourselves. His advice:

When they struck, they wanted to create an atmosphere of fear. And one of the great goals of this nation's war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry. It's to tell the traveling public: Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.

So, a president who claims not to understand what is obvious to virtually everyone outside the United States -that no matter what the twisted theology and ideology of A1-Qaeda, lots of people in the Arab and Muslim world object to U.S. foreign policy for perfectly rational reasons-suggests the appropriate responses are to: Explain to people in the Middle East why they don't understand American benevolence, and explain to people in the United States that they should go to Disney World, a fantasy park where one can ignore reality.

The United States is a society in which people not only can get by without knowing much about the wider world but are systematically encouraged not to think independently or critically and instead to accept the mythology of the United States as a benevolent, misunderstood giant as it lumbers around the world trying to do good.

I live in a country that drops ciuster bombs in civilian areas. I have never lived anywhere that was the target of a cluster bomb, but I suspect that when a cluster bomb detonates above a person and its couple of hundred individual bomblets are dispersed to do their flesh-shredding work, the world looks pretty black and white... I suspect that when one sees a child pick up an unexploded bomblet from a cluster bomb, which then explodes and rips off the child's head, the world looks pretty black and white. Should the world look any less black and white when one lives in the country that drops those bombs? When the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff explains, in response to a question of why such a weapon is used, that "We only use cluster munitions when they are the most effective weapon for the intended target," how long can we allow ourselves to paint pictures with the many shades of gray?

... the fundamental failure of U.S. universities after 9/11 was the unwillingness to take seriously their role as centers of knowledge and their refusal to create space for debate and discussion. If American campuses were healthy intellectual communities, after 9/11 they would have been hotbeds of discussion.

People often ask me, what would you have done if you had been president of your university? The answer is simple: After 9/11 I would have reserved the largest hall on campus for a weekly series of programs on terrorism and American foreign policy, drawing on the expertise of the campus from as many perspectives as possible. I would have committed resources from my office to publicize the forums as widely as possible. I would have made it clear that the university saw the enhancement of public discussion as central to its mission. I would have explained that although the university as an institution would take no specific position on policy choices, it would facilitate the broadest and deepest discussion possible. I would have asked my staff to work with the local television and radio stations, especially cable-access TV and community radio, to broadcast these forums. And I would have encouraged faculty members to take up these issues in the classroom when relevant.

In short, I would have taken seriously the notion that the university is a place where citizens could expect to find information, analysis, and engagement. I would have realized that at such a pivotal moment in the nation's history, the university had a unique role to play. But the University of Texas did none of that, nor did most universities in the United States. At some universities, small groups of faculty who were concerned about the direction the country was heading did their best to create such space. But on most campuses, a tiny minority of faculty was involved in such efforts, and an even smaller minority of administrators aided them. Many of the events on campuses were student-organized, efforts that were important and admirable. But it's a shame that, in most cases, university officials and faculty members chose to duck and cover.

Why would the largest university in the country, with such tremendous human and material resources, be so politically flat at such a crucial time? No doubt part of the explanation for the timid performance of the University of Texas, and institutions of higher education more generally, is specific to that moment. The United States had never experienced an attack on its civilian population of that magnitude, and it's easy to understand why many people lost their voices in the highly emotional, hyper-patriotic fervor that followed. But college campuses have not been centers of critical inquiry in some time (and even when they were, such as in the 1960s, much of the most vibrant intellectual and political activity was student-led). While not pretending there was ever in the United States a golden age in which universities were completely free spaces, no doubt part of the explanation for this consistent failure is intensifying economic pressures, as public universities are forced to find more and more funding from private sources and an ethic of public service continues to wither. Faculty feel this pressure, which subtly encourages professors to act not as members of a community of scholars with obligations to the public but as independent agents with the goal of maximizing grant funding and personal status. The market model dominates not only the organization of the institution but the mission as well, as students increasingly look at a university education not as an opportunity for intellectual enrichment but a ticket to upward mobility and career advancement.

... the real rule in the contemporary United States: One may talk politics or religion, as long as it doesn't upset anyone. In my limited travels abroad and extensive discussions with people from other countries, this appears to be peculiar to Americans (and especially to white middle-class Americans).

At the heart of this play-nice/avoid-conflict/make-sure-no-one-feels-uncomfortable style is an implicit abandonment both of intellectual standards and political life. If we can't engage each other, and take the chance that tempers might flare, then we will be less likely to subject each other's arguments to critical scrutiny.

Citizens of the Empire

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