By David Edwards
December 2001 will see London hosting the first conference exploring the extent to which radical writing tends to incorporate, and be corrupted by, mainstream prejudices, emphases and ethical presumptions.
The first subject under discussion will be the way that radical, like mainstream, writers are expected to 'hang' their articles on a 'hook': articles have to begin by mentioning some upcoming event, conference, or 'news'. In the mainstream, the emphasis on news helps ensure that "history without memory confines Americans to a sort of eternal present," as Time magazine once noted. When writer David Cromwell asked David Seymour, political editor of the Daily Mirror, if he was aware of the British and US history of installing and supporting Third World dictators like Pinochet, the Shah of Iran and Suharto to protect Western profits from local people, he replied: "Of course I am aware of it, but it is history and newspapers are not history books. We deal in contemporary events so these historical events would only get a mention if they were relevant to something happening now."
When I asked Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, why his paper failed to include systemic analyses of the corporate influences that corrupt media reporting, he responded: "My feeling is it's not news."
With the past banished by the obsession with 'now', 'now' is stripped of meaning - the required goal all along. State-corporate power focuses vast resources on managing the production of 'now'; once that news has been broken, control rapidly falls away. Vested interests are therefore keen to ensure that reporters stay focused on the endlessly breaking wave of 'now', with all else - including subsequent revelations about earlier news - consigned to oblivion. It is news when Nato announces that the Serbs have massacred dozens of people at Racak; it is not news when an independent team of Finnish forensic experts subsequently finds "no evidence of a massacre by Serb security forces" at Racak. It is news when US warplanes bomb the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, but not when investigative journalist Jens Holsoe, and FAIR, subsequently reveal how "nearly everyone involved in NATO air operations or signals command knows that the embassy bombing was deliberate". It is news when the UK's William Stewart Commission finds "no evidence" of adverse health effects from mobile phones, but not when the University of Essen subsequently reports that mobile phone users are three times more likely to be afflicted by eye cancer.
The emphasis on now, on the 'hook', similarly excludes deeper ethical and philosophical ideas with the power to expose the fallacies of unrestrained hedonism. It is hardly that adverts, for example, have nothing to say about philosophical issues, rather that what they say is implied: unrestrained consumerism (particularly sexual consumerism) combined with high status production, are the twin pillars of self-esteem and happiness. If "historical events" are non-facts, how much more so is philosophical speculation about the unstated beliefs of corporate society? The hook means current, and the current is all about facts and hidden value judgements.
An important feature of obsessive reporting of 'news' is that it is extremely shallow, and therefore boring, and therefore disempowering. If I understand how events fit together - in particular how they are linked to a conception of human nature, a deeper ethical framework - then I may well find them of great meaning and significance for me as a human being. If I make the link between the US installation of Pinochet, corporate greed, the profit motive, and the destructiveness of all unrestrained greed, then while I might not be able to subject Pinochet to civil arrest, or force editors to cover the truth of Western involvement, I might feel motivated to struggle against greed in all its forms. The mainstream, of course, has a very real interest in not stimulating thought and feeling on such issues.
Radicals do an extraordinary job of keeping pace with the state and corporate management of 'now', very often with painfully limited resources. But by exclusively pursuing this same news focus, there is a danger that we bombard people with facts and news which interest them as activists, but which leave them cold and demotivated as human beings.
We talk endlessly about who said and did what and when, about what is happening now, but we have precious little to say about why we are doing this in the first place. What actually is so terrible about just conforming, just thinking of ourselves, just letting the world go to hell? Why do we never refer to our personal experience of conformity and disillusionment? I worked in business for six years. I was appalled by the clear absence of any moral basis to the work I was doing, but the personal costs extended even beyond participating in moral nihilism. Profit-maximisation requires that our thoughts and feelings at work, like people and planet generally, be subordinated to the bottom line. Because authentic compassion and kindness are the opponents of ruthless greed, they are essentially disallowed in business (kindness as a management tool for boosting performance is fine) - 'power-sincerity' is the order of the day. To show genuine concern for something other than profit at work is to reveal that your mind is 'not on the job', that you are 'emotional'. At British Telecom I set up a Green Initiatives Group, and thereby wrecked my career prospects - it was a 'worthy' idea, but hardly the stuff of man-missile management. The problem was that everyone could see that I wasn't being cynical; I really meant it!
The Vietnamese peace campaigner, Thich Nhat Hanh, has dedicated his life to a set of simple ethical principles: "Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering... Do not accumulate wealth while millions are hungry... Live simply... Do not kill... Do not let others kill... Find whatever means possible to protect life and prevent war."
But alongside the facts of killing and mindless accumulation, Nhat Than talks about issues to do with human experience, personal motivation and solidarity. He argues that activists also benefit massively from reducing their selfishness, from increasing their compassion and concern for others, from increasing their generosity. But how can such subtle, subjective, personal ideas be discussed in magazines apparently obsessed with 'hard' facts and newsy 'hooks'?
Along with the focus on news and facts, the second subject to be discussed at the conference will be the way mainstream media and academia are subject to a cult of specialisation. This cult plays a vital role in obscuring the patterns and links that make up the big picture. Rousseau summed up the underlying problem a couple of hundred years ago: "We have physicists, geometricians, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians, and painters in plenty, but we no longer have a citizen among us."
If people can be persuaded to define the scope of their moral responsibility by the title on their business card, the world can be made safe for profit against the forces of justice and compassion. Classic examples include the shoulder-shrugging from scientists and politicians that has accompanied the BSE crisis in Britain, which may claim as many as 250,000 lives in this country alone (and is now spreading to the rest of the world); the selling of arms to Third World tyrants; evidence of health effects from mobile phones; and of course the killing of a million civilians in Iraq through sanctions. James Rubin, as assistant to the US Secretary of Defence, employed the specialisation argument when dismissing Hans von Sponeck's reasons for resigning as United Nations humanitarian coordinator. Rubin insisted that von Sponeck had acted "beyond the range of his competence or his authority" in pointing to the hideous suffering caused by the oil-for-food program he had administered. "His job is to work on behalf of the Iraqi people and not the regime", Rubin said, shamelessly.
Radicals, perhaps impressed by the aura of expertise, seem happy to portray themselves as specialists analysing small parts of a rarely discussed bigger picture. The bigger political picture is mentioned, but again the bigger picture of who we are as people - not merely as political radicals, environmental radicals, feminists, civil rights campaigners, and so on - is rarely discussed. Specialists seem to feel threatened by the prospect of discussing issues as whole, non-specialist human beings, almost as if doing so might erode their credibility. Perhaps this is in part because our society promotes the idea that we need to be specially qualified to talk about anything of importance. The odd result is that nobody feels qualified to talk about issues for which it is not possible to be specially qualified!
We talk about abstract political issues like freedom, democracy and justice, but not about our experience as people in a decaying world. Our individual feelings seem all but disallowed. Political facts and ideas have been crucial in helping me resist the propaganda system, but so too has been the struggle to trust myself against a flood of propaganda. I grew up assuming I was neurotic to feel aversion for corporate employment. When direct experience confirmed my worst fears, I assumed there was something wrong with me - maybe I was just lazy, or spoilt. Learning to take my boredom and dissatisfaction seriously, to see them as justified reactions to the immoral and soulless character of the corporate enterprise, was a terribly slow and painful process.
These subtle feelings, along with all deeper ethical issues, are apparently uninteresting to many radicals, who seem to see all such talk as woolly and embarrassing. The extent of our moral exploration is often limited to assuming that caring for others is 'obviously' our moral responsibility. But is it not possible that the borderline cases - the people who want to do good but are afraid and confused, or just plain bombarded by corporate propaganda - might benefit from an exploration of the motivation and benefits of compassionate dissent? Might this not move people in a way that the fact that the Kyoto protocol is proposing a 5.2% cut in greenhouse gases, when a 70% cut is required, does not?
The third subject under discussion at the conference will be the institutionalised cynicism and harshness that are found in the mainstream. John Pilger described it well:
"Ambitious young journalists are often persuaded that a certain cynicism about ordinary people ordains them as journalists, while obedience to higher authority and deference to 'experts' is the correct career path."
Given that journalists are willing to work as employees of a system that systematically subordinates people and planet to short-term profit (by now, to an almost surreally irresponsible degree), it makes sense that their worldview should be deeply cynical.
It is an extraordinary irony that, in responding to this cynicism, radicals often respond with a cynicism and harshness of their own (even with each other). It is taken for granted that anger is empowering, even though it is the great psychological opponent force of the compassionate motivation at the heart of dissent. Although a soulless, robot-like indifference to the fate of others is wrecking our planet, radical writing is often short on human feeling and human warmth. When historian Howard Zinn, a bombardier in the Second World War, wrote of how he was struck dumb and brought to the brink of tears as he attempted to speak to survivors of the Hiroshima bombing, his honesty, compassion and humility inspired me quite as much as any factual proof of the need to 'do something'. His openness is not weakness or woolly emotionalism; it is an antidote to the unfeeling, unthinking stupidity of our fact-obsessed, specialised-to-death world.
Do we really believe that anger and abuse are more powerful than respect for others, compassion, and kindness? Isn't that exactly what the mainstream system believes, ultimately? I am not motivated to work for the suffering people of Iraq, or the victims of climate change in Venezuela, by anger. I am motivated by a desire to do what I can to relieve their suffering, and my suffering, to protect them and all of us from a system that views people as an expendable irrelevance, as a natural resource to be exploited. Discussion of these issues would surely benefit movements often torn apart by a very mainstream faith in the motivating power of anger, with the 'lefter-than-thou' forever dismissing those who do not share their views.
These are all issues for discussion at the upcoming conference, which does not exist and does not need to exist, because we do not need to limit ourselves to a 'news' agenda imported from a shallow, cynical, and utterly dehumanised, mainstream culture.
Edwards, March 2001