and David Edwards
sociologically interesting, though scary", said the actor Anthony Sher in a
recent interview, "that you can be inside an evil system and be somehow
unaware of it." South African by birth, Sher was talking about the former
system of apartheid. But what if the same could be said of our
"liberal-democratic" western society?
last year's 78-day NATO bombing campaign of the Former Republic of Yugoslavia
(FRY), Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, wrote, "Future historians
will spend long hours and write fat books working out this phenomenon. Why have
the Serbs not risen in outrage at the unspeakable horrors committed in their
historians, in fact, have already examined Freedland's "unspeakable
horrors" and found them to be pure fantasy, the product of the overheated
imagination of NATO warmongers and credulous journalists. It is now clear that
in the twelve months prior to the bombing, between 1,000 and 2,000 people were
killed on both sides of the conflict, with deaths running at an average of one
per day in the weeks running up to the attack – appalling, but hardly
genocidal. In its examination of 30 mass gravesites the FBI unearthed a total of
some 200 bodies. In Ljubenic, a mass grave alleged to contain some 350 bodies
was found to contain just seven. In town after town, alleged mass graves were
found to be empty or contained only one or two bodies.
head of a Spanish forensic team attached to the International Criminal tribunal,
Emilio Perez Pujol, denounced the way his time had become part of "a
semantic pirouette by the war propaganda machines, because we did not find one
– not one - mass grave."
timing of the famed flood of refugees has also been of interest to future
historians. Prior to the bombing, and for two days following its onset, the
United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported no data on refugees.
On March 27, three days into the bombing, UNHCR reported that 4,000 had fled
Kosovo to Albania and Macedonia. By April 5, the New York Times reported
"more than 350,000 have left Kosovo since March 24".
after this had all become clear, Lord Robertson, Secretary General of NATO, did
his best to exploit public (media-assisted) ignorance of these matters in an ITV
interview in June 2000: "We were faced with a situation where there was
this killing going on, this cleansing going on; the kind of ethnic cleansing we
thought had disappeared after the Second World War. You were seeing people there
coming in trains, the cattle trains, with refugees once again. Were we supposed
to stand back? Were we supposed to stand back and watch people being murdered,
butchered, tortured, raped, expelled from their country, simply to do
prevent what, in fact, was low-level killing and a tide of refugees that did not
exist (until after the bombing had begun), NATO sent bombs crashing through 33
medical clinics and hospitals, 344 schools, a mosque in Djakovica, a Basilica in
Nis, a church in Prokuplje, trains, tractors, power stations, and the rest. It
polluted the land with depleted uranium shells and unexploded cluster bomblets
which continue to kill children and adults. Also, in June of this year, Amnesty
International reported how "NATO forces...committed serious violations of
the laws of war leading in a number of cases to the unlawful killings of
civilians." Amnesty focused in particular on the April 23, 1999 bombing of
the headquarters of Serbian state radio and television, which left 16 civilians
dead, describing it as "a deliberate attack on a civilian object"
which therefore "constitutes a war crime." The report noted that the
requirement that NATO aircraft fly above 15,000 feet to provide maximum
protection for aircraft and pilots "made full adherence to international
humanitarian law virtually impossible".
real question, not just for future historians, but for all thinking people, is
how so many respected journalists, like Jonathan Freedland, could yet again be
so readily taken in by the deceptions of power? Spokespeople for state power
have always insisted that they are acting for the good of all humanity, and
respected commentators have always accepted their words at face value as
although they were born, if not yesterday, then since the previous set of lies
had been exposed as utterly fraudulent. This happens with such consistency that
there is clearly something more than random chance at work. Noam Chomsky
explains how the selection process can best be understood: "In any society,
the respectable intellectuals, those who will be recognised as serious
intellectuals, will overwhelmingly tend to be those who are subordinated to
power. Those who are not subordinated to power are not recognised as
intellectuals, or are marginalised as dissidents, maybe ‘ideological'… The
tendency is just as obvious as the fact that corporate media serve corporate
notion of a Western-led "moral crusade" becomes even more
extraordinary when we consider that millions of people have died, and many
millions more have been condemned to lives of misery and torture, as a result of
Western interventions in Iran, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Guatemala, Chile,
Brazil, Nicaragua, Iraq and elsewhere. The leading academic scholar on human
rights in Latin America, Lars Schoultz, found, for example, that US aid
"has tended to flow disproportionately to Latin American governments which
torture their citizens... to the hemisphere's relatively egregious violators of
fundamental human rights".
rationale is not hard to divine: exploitative conditions - "good investment
climates" benefiting local elites and Western corporations (the real power)
- require violence to pacify the discontent of impoverished majorities. Britain
and the US actively supported Suharto's bloody coup in Indonesia in 1965-66 at
the cost of one million lives. Some 90% of the bullets used in Indonesia's
subsequent invasion of East Timor in 1975 were US-supplied. Around 200,000
people died in a slaughter for which Suharto "was given the green
light" by the US, according to former CIA operations officer in Jakarta,
Philip Liechty: "We sent the Indonesian generals everything that you need
to fight a major war against somebody who doesn't have any guns. We sent them
rifles, ammunition, mortars, grenades, food, helicopters. You name it; they got
it. And they got it direct," Liechty adds.
need is more than sufficient to ensure that these facts are either unknown or
dismissed out of hand. Corporations are naturally not keen to discuss the role
of terror and murder in imposing 'development' on the Third World; nor are their
allies in government; and nor is the ‘free press' - itself made up of
corporations, owned by parent corporations, and dependent on corporate
advertisers. It is not that the above facts are not true, they +can't+ be true,
and so they are ignored, or dismissed as delusions. The familiar notion of the
essential benignity of Western power, by contrast, +must+ be true - it is a
'necessary illusion' - and so it +is+ true: we are proud supporters of
'democracy', 'fair play' and 'respect for law and order' in a world that somehow
comes to be filled with violent thugs supported by Western states and businesses
which coincidentally profit immensely from their violence. The first casualty of
the war for profit is the capacity to make elementary rational connections.
United States, after all, is massively rich and powerful. Central and South
America are weak and afflicted with terrible poverty. The United States is an
ardent supporter of democracy and freedom. Central and South America are
eternally plagued by authoritarian governments and outright dictators. US
corporations profit massively from the vulnerability of Central and South
American human and natural resources. A secondary school child could work it
out, and yet such connections are totally alien, indeed unknown, to our
another example of our silent 'democracy'. Climate change. According to the
London-based Global Commons Institute, there will be more than two million
deaths from climate change-related disasters worldwide in the next ten years.
Damage to property will amount to hundreds of billions of dollars. But where are
the in-depth media debates exposing the chasm between the magnitude of the
climate threat and the pitiful political response to it? No wonder that Ross
Gelbspan, the Pultizer Prize-winning journalist, once wrote that ‘news stories
about the warming of the planet generally evoke an eerie silence'.
are exceptions. A recent Sunday Times article reports that the legendary
Northwest Passage has at last been opened by climate change. Peter Conradi notes
"The benefits are considerable: up to 2,500 miles will be cut from journeys
from one coast of America to the other, and as much as double that from Europe
to Asia." A marvellous boost to global trade, in other words. "Not all
experts share the euphoria", however, as there remains a depressing, if
slight, risk that local temperatures might actually fall slightly over the next
few years, threatening the passage.
academic community is, by and large, complicit in this mixture of silence and
absurdity. When one of the authors, an oceanographer, attends meetings on the
politics of climate change, he is commonly asked by management whether he is
attending "as an individual or as a representative of the organisation".
But what does such a question actually mean? Where and how can the line be drawn
between the professional self and the personal self? The disjunction is
profoundly unhealthy, echoing R.D Laing's concept of 'the divided self' – a
division that is characteristic of the truly insane mind.
renowned German psychologist Erich Fromm analysed the psychology of obedience in
modern corporate society. The "organization man", Fromm wrote,
"is not aware that he obeys; he believes that he only conforms with what is
rational and practical". In academia, to be "rational and
practical" means to conform to a system that rewards obedience to power:
elite interests - transnational corporations and international investors - which
benefit from 'free trade' and deregulated capital flows. Meanwhile, their
political allies in government trip over themselves to cut public services to
boost 'international competitiveness'.
academics are not 'supposed' to step outside our specialised field of knowledge
to criticise the private interests which pollute precious ecosystems, destroy
communities, abuse human rights and threaten the global climate system. They are
'supposed' to restrict our public utterances to safe topics that do not reflect
badly on their institutions or upset funding sources. Such 'neutrality' ensures
that today's headlong rush to environmental devastation and social injustice
proceeds apace. In truth 'neutrality' is impossible: to do nothing is to vote
Chomsky was challenged to explain what qualified him as a commentator on US
domestic and foreign policy, he replied simply, "I'm a human being".
How many times have scientists told us informally, "Get me down the pub
over a pint and I'll tell you what I really think about climate change and oil
companies"? What kind of professional 'objectivity' is that? It is the kind
that acquiesces in research and teaching moulded to fit a corporate-shaped
economy; that does not challenge our political paymasters about the deaths of
5000 young Iraqi children every month as a direct result of Western-imposed
economic sanctions; and that allows one in six British children to live in
poverty with barely a murmur in the press or academia.
can we reconcile these facts with the widespread belief in the essential
goodness of our ‘liberal-democratic' society? We cannot. "Our boasted
civilisation", said the writer Jack London, "is based upon blood,
soaked in blood, and neither you nor I nor any of us can escape the scarlet
stains." Far from living in a benign, democratic society, we are living
under a system that promotes power and profit above concern for justice and
life. By now the deluding power of institutionalised greed for profit and
personal compromise are at a level where society can work remorselessly to
ensure its own destruction by undermining even trivial moves to control
greenhouse gas emissions. Witness the response of big business - the National
Association of Manufacturers and US Chamber, for example - to the Kyoto Protocol
on climate change: obstructionism all the way.
what about us? How much do we really care? How much does it really matter to us
so long as we get on with playing safe, with getting paid and climbing the
promotional ladder? If some kind of stand needs to be made, then it is surely
someone else who will have to make it. And if some kind of price needs to be
paid, then it is surely someone else who will have to pay it.
historian and activist Howard Zinn has noted, we are kidding ourselves if we
think we have no choice, or that no choice needs to be made: "In a
situation where one's job is within someone else's power to grant or to
withhold, still… there is the possibility of choice. The choice is between
teaching and acting according to our most deeply felt values, whether or not it
meets approval from those with power over us – or being dishonest with
ourselves, censoring ourselves, in order to be safe."
David Cromwell is an oceanographer and author of the forthcoming "Private Planet" (Jon Carpenter Publishing). David Edwards is the author of "Free to be Human" (1995) and "The Compassionate Revolution" (1998 - both Green Books).