Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Seduction of Convention

Michael Parenti, in his book The Face of Imperialism (2011), attempts to persuade the reader to look without flinching at their own opinions, to consider whether they derive from sources outside themselves. The old saw, “the truth shall make you free” is echoed, suggesting that openness to new information can free one from the dominant paradigm with its boundaries of permissible opinion and deviance from reality.
We are all raised within the social conventions of our time and those conventions are shaped by forces largely determined by the distribution of power, influence and wealth. Once inculcated into the dominant view there is great resistance to change. Why does the church want to “teach” the young? Why is patriotism, meaning allegiance to the dominant paradigm, instilled in our schools and other institutions? What if our children were taught skills of critical thinking and allowed to use those skills to arrive at their own notions of religion, ethics and political/economic organization? If advocates for convention are confident that their view is correct surely they can trust that reason will bring children, as they mature, to the desired conclusions, right? And if conventional ideology is simply arbitrary, well then we’d want to do away with it, right? As it is, when an acculturated person encounters a view that challenges the dominant one, the near automatic reaction is denial, argument, attack. Once we adopt it we’re identified with the dominant value and so interpret questioning as a personal criticism against which we must defend.

Parenti provides ample information for the conventional to deny, and for the critical thinker to consider. The U.S. for example spends nearly 50% of world military expenditures. China is second with 7%. This is for two reasons: the rulers wish to dominate not cooperate with other nations, imposing their self-advantaged rules of the game which are aimed to maximize material gains for themselves. Citizens of other nations, given an equal say, are not going to accept impoverishment and misery so that the 1% can live in continuously expanding luxury. Like the victims of a protection racket, they must be offered a deal they cannot refuse. The second reason is that military spending creates a conduit directly into the U.S. treasury for those with the proper resume. Spending on education might do the same but that would incidentally empower the wrong people, and promote possibly the dangerous threat of critical thinking.

Since the end of World War II. the boogie man of Communist (gasp) Russia has been used to justify huge military programs. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union other enemies had to be conjured. The war on drugs was pretty thin stuff though still, for a population kept distracted by either poverty or consumption it was do-able. Better though is the Islamic threat to institute Sharia law across the west and otherwise attack our way of life. As Goebbels remarked, keep the population scared and you can get away with anything.

Many critics of U.S. policy claim that, as Parenti says, the intent is “…to promote the interests of transnational corporations and make the world safe for free-market capitalism and imperialism.” Now the President, Secretary of State, Defense etc; will claim as their intent the promotion of freedom, democracy, human rights, our ‘national security’ apple pie etc; How are we to determine which of these views is correct? Ah, let Parenti speak: the government consistently attacks the “left” and supports the ”right”. Defined – “The Left… encompasses those individuals, organizations and governments that advocate egalitarian, redistributive policies and human services benefiting the common people and infringing upon the privileged interests of the wealthy propertied classes. The Right is also involved in redistributive policies, but the distribution goes the other way, in an upward direction advancing the privileges of private capital and the wealthy few.” In support of this view Parenti lists right wing violent, fascist regimes that the U.S. has supported, even installed, often overthrowing democratically elected governments. He documents that after World War II. throughout Europe and Asia former collaborators were outrageously installed to suppress nationalists who had valiantly fought the Japanese or Nazi occupation forces. We can see today great hesitancy to condemn human rights violations in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt etc; but hysterical demonizing of Chavez in Venezuela. Georgia hosts the infamous School of the Americas (Assassins) at Fort Benning where relationships with Latin American military officers are nurtured under the preposterous claim of promoting democracy. Taking full advantage of the World Trade Center attack the Patriot Act mangled the Constitution and recently SB 1867, granted the military power to indefinitely detain any U.S. citizen. The rulers are perhaps getting a little nervous, hedging their bets, afraid perhaps that as they go for broke citizens are beginning to notice. In the third world select killing, torture and imprisonment are depended on to demoralize the opposition. If that doesn’t work just add more of the same. With Obama’s claiming the authority to assassinate U.S. citizens it seems everything is now in place to apply the same techniques here at home. And since they don’t hesitate abroad, why would they here? Well, they have already targeted certain troublesome figures such as George Jackson and other Black Panthers but there now seems a ratcheting up. As “globalization” policies expand third-worldization into the U.S. itself it becomes more and more difficult to shape public opinion with the usual slogans. Other methods may be needed. We cannot count on a spontaneous outbreak of sharing among the ruling elite.

There is much else in this book to challenge the denier, who likely didn’t get this far, and inform the critical thinker. The WTO, World Bank, trade agreements, foreign aid, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela and a focus on Cuba demonstrating the thesis by pointing out that the U.S. had no problem when gangsters and dictators were running the island but when a regime comes into being questioning corporate rule then it is suddenly demonized, now U.S. concerns for “freedom and democracy” are stirred. Parenti points out that reality is radical, that its denial in order to keep an elite in luxury is not sustainable, that either the people rise up, wake up, align with it or it, reality, will put a stop to the whole shebang. We, none of us, can ultimately survive in a polluted life system that the status quo is hell bent on creating.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Volunteer Billboards

Naomi Klein’s 1999 book, No Logo (full title, No Space, No Choice, No Jobs, No Logo), like her later important book, Shock Doctrine, considers the impact of the corporation on society. This one studies the phenomenon that transformed the corporation from an entity that sells merchandise to a brand - and that brand has a manufactured “meaning” for the consumer beyond the utility of the object. Klein examines the implications for we who live now in a branded world. Ironically, Klein herself became, if not a brand, very well known, No Logo selling 1.2 million copies.

The title sums it up: business has taken over our space, our choice, our jobs and sold us meager compensation, a logo. Not our logo, their logo. This book makes me realize why, when I see people wearing the Nike “swoosh”, I want to ask them how much Nike is paying them to advertise their company. These are what Klein calls, volunteer billboards. Depressed at the Republican successes in the mid-term elections I sought solace. Opening a book of Gore Vidal’s essays I found this line,

“To get people to constantly vote against their own interests is manipulation of the highest order.”

Nike has convinced people that it is “cool” to wear their logo, sometimes even on their bodies. Nike employees began to get the swoosh tattooed on their thighs and tattoo parlors around the time of the book reported that the Nike logo was the most popular image in their stocks. This too is manipulation of the highest order.

Klein, like her fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan, stands as an observer of culture. Reading this book you’ll never experience Starbucks in quite the same way. The 60s questioning of authority, as symbolized by Woodstock, even though that project was a commercial venture, has been co-opted by now, as seen in the 25th anniversary Woodstock concert where merchandising and promotion had much more of a presence, aimed at an audience of younger people for whom merchandising had become absolutely normal, for whom price was basically no object if the merchandise delivered promises of cool. Klein describes the anti-materialist hippies becoming yuppies but then the charms of consumerism began, for them, to wane or perhaps they simply ran out of storage space. This began a panic in the advertising and merchandizing world, solved by targeting the next generation.

Elements of the 60s did and do survive, shopping at thrift stores, living simply but these folks, supplemented by factions in the newer generation, were under the merchant’s radar.

The merchants began to study the full age-range of the new generation, often hiring consultants, searching for what they would deem cool. Nike was the avant garde of this movement, hiring Michael Jordan and other sports heroes to hawk their wares but also, and this was new, making superstars out of some, certainly Jordan, taking him way beyond his sports context. Jordan even made a movie, Space Jam, which was more a vehicle for his endorsement products than a traditional movie. Jordan was out to become a brand himself. This brought him into conflict with Nike who were not about to be upstaged. The tax-deductible fees paid Jordan and others of course came out of the immense sweatshop savings.

Here’s an important shift, according to Klein. Nike lead the pack in transforming from a company that manufactures shoes to a company that sells a brand, a self-enhancer, farming out the actual production to others –the infamous sweat shop. Graffiti artists tagged themselves on the urban environment but once corporations got the idea they tagged themselves across the whole culture, even on the graffiti artists. Shoe companies and fashion designers like Tommy Hilfiger took to studying inner city style and testing their products there, simply dumping a box of new shoes to see what reaction they got. They had noticed that their products, originally designed for affluent white youths were being taken up in the inner city. They discovered, and capitalized on the fact that

poor black youths were fetishizing white wealth and
white youth were fetishizing black style.

They were persuaded that, as with Jazz, blues and Rock n’ roll, black culture goes mainstream. One of the convincers was the rap group Run-DMC writing a song called Adidas. Their manager approached the company suggesting they should be paid. When executives saw a concert full of fans throw their Adidas up in the air for the song, they were sold. So what originates on the street, manipulated or not, is scooped up, tweaked, sold back and now the originators are walking advertisements for Nike, Reebok and Levis. How cool is that? And further, companies hired students to promote their products, Budweiser at frat parties for example.

Marketeers, in their search for space lacking the aesthetic enhancement of advertising, noticed and were frustrated by their exclusion from schools. Their entre turned out to be budget shortfalls. They could sponsor sports teams, getting that swoosh on jerseys, gym bags, sweats, provide mandatory ad-rich and tame current affairs programs and exclusive product infiltration, especially of soft drinks and fast food.

A student in Evans, Georgia was suspended for wearing a Pepsi
T-shirt on Coke Day when everyone else was wearing Coke t-shirts.

The best of all worlds – teaching students and building brand awareness. Channel One charges twice the going rate for commercial television advertising since they guarantee a captive audience with no mute button and no skipping off to the kitchen during ads. Computers used by students track net-surfing, harvesting the elusive “cool”. School contracts with corporations usually include gag clauses that forbid negative statements directed toward the company. Thus Amnesty International might be barred from speaking on campus about corporate misdeeds abroad. Research funded by drug companies can be suppressed if unflattering, even dangerous results are revealed. Part of the branding phenomenon is the expansion-on-steroids of the idea of franchising, taking a brand, say Wal-mart or Starbucks and saturating a market, running the local guys out of business then sitting back and enjoying the profits – while of course expanding into the next town. The trump card of the chain operation is the discounts a volume buyer can demand – locals can’t possibly compete and they’re soon gone. Before long, to get in the game at all, you have to be BIG.

So Klein’s sociological analysis of trends in the western world and beyond are broken down into the four sections of her title, Space, Choice, Jobs and a section, No Logo, which sketches resistance to the dehumanization of those developments, notably the unexpectedly large demonstrations against globalization in Seattle the same year of publication . She optimistically sees the resistance growing and, though we know not where it’s going, the Occupy Wall Street movement surely confirms her prediction. Her more recent, more important book, Shock Doctrine, confirms that this is a writer we can go to for insight into what’s going on in the money-chasing, consequential world of commerce.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Onward Christian(?) Soldiers

Michael Parenti’s, God and His Demons, review part 2:
Do secular and religious conservatives walk hand in hand to advance their privileged positions in the social order? Of course they do. And often enough they get caught, a little too often to dismiss as just a few bad apples, kind of like the catholic priests and pedophilia.

Pope John XXIII’s relatively progressive reign provided an opening for those in Latin America concerned for the extremes of wealth and poverty prevalent there, giving rise to the Liberation Theology movement, soon squashed once John’s successor, right winger Pope John Paul II, took over in the late 70s. Ordering priests to focus on “spiritual” affairs and stay out of politics he commenced to push right wing politics, stacking the church hierarchy with conservative clergy and taking hysterical positions on abortion and birth control. When Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered in El Salvador by right wing death squads the Vatican refrained from denouncing the perpetrators, calling the death “tragic”, having only days before respectfully received high-ranking members of the Arena party, the legal arm of the El Salvadoran death squads, complaining about Romero’s public statements on behalf of the poor.

The following quote gives a sense of Parenti’s eloquent and incisive writing, “Holy Hypocrites, both lay and clerical, crow a devotion to traditional morality while pursuing material and emotional plunder more rapaciously than any of us ordinary infidels and libertines.” Examples abound. The three main republican presidential contenders for 2008, Newt Gitrich, John McCain and Rudy Guiliani had between them five divorces all involving infidelity. Numerous anti-gay crusaders turned out to be gay themselves, notably J. Edgar Hoover of FBI fame, Roy Cohn, McCarthy-ite crusading investigator and Cardinal Francis Spellman, often known to party together with choice male escorts. Earl “Butch” Kimmerling, an Indiana anti-gay republican activist was sentenced to 40 years in prison for raping an 8 year old who he had intervened to prevent a gay couple from adopting. One investigator catalogued over 100 cases of sexual criminality and misconduct committed by republican officials or supporters in recent years including at least 44 involving children. Democrats are of course not immune but they are far fewer and tend not to be known as anti-sex crusaders. The Republican Party apparently offers a more hospitable climate for hypocrisy. The Catholic Church pedophiles, and Vatican cover-ups, are well known but it’s worth mentioning the recent revelations involving 30,000 children sexually and physically abused over 60 years in Ireland by priests and nuns. These sad stories are of course not limited to catholics. Protestants in the U.S., especially the southern U.S., have their sordid tales as well. Can you say, Jimmy Swaggert? He’s not alone.

Parenti compiles a list of Devout Swindlers: Tom Delay, who led Washington prayer breakfasts, was indicted for criminal conspiracy and money laundering. Jack Abramoff, close to Delay and President Bush, pleaded guilty to bilking Indian tribes of $20 million, promising help in opening or preventing competitive casinos. Involved also were Rev. Louis Sheldon, James Dobson and Ralph Reed, all who, in addition to the usual right wing hypocrisy, were nationally known opponents of the evils of gambling. Charles Keating, founder of moralistic censorial groups netted $200 million in the savings and loan scandal, serving only four years. The Hunt brothers, devout Jesus freaks, ran into legal problems in their attempt to corner the silver market. There are plenty more fun stats like this in Parenti’s book but he offers only a primer due to space limitations.

Moving on to Church and State, the right often insists that the Constitution established the U.S. as a Christian nation, so claimed in the Texas Republican Party platform and by John McCain in his run for president. In fact, to quote some of the founding fathers: James Madison – “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind.” George Washington urged that all should be free to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience. Ben Franklin doubted the divinity of Jesus. Jefferson was proud a law he saw passed in Virginia “brought freedom for the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammaden, the Hindu and the infidel and every denomination.” This was freedom of and freedom from religion. The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli negotiated by President Washington and ratified by the senate has the clause, “The government of the U.S. is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” However, in Maryland, North & South Carolina and Texas an atheist cannot hold public office. In Arkansas an atheist “is incompetent to testify as a witness in any court.” And cruelest of all perhaps, atheists cannot join the Boy Scouts of America.

Bush set up bible study groups in the White House, regularly entertaining fundamentalist ministers. A chilling quote you may recall, “I’m driven with a mission from God”… “God told me to strike at Al Qaeda… then instructed me to strike Saddam.” Bush diverted funds from federal agencies to religious charities which blatantly discriminated against “non-believers” and used federal monies to promote religious belief. The U.S. Air Force Academy increased its staff of chaplains to 18, fundamentalist of course, once again using public funds to advance a religion, Christian you’ll be surprised to hear, and predictably anti-Jewish, Muslim… even catholic. The entire class was marched to a hall and forced to watch Mel Gibson’s, The Passion of the Christ, standing at attention. This practice spread to the other military academies and was only partially and half-heartedly rolled back when publicized. Another chilling incursion is the FEMA program that trains clergy and other religious representatives to become secret police enforcers, teaching their congregations to “obey the government.” With backup provided, including swat teams. This all in preparation for implementation of martial law and “round ups” of subversives in the event of some unspecified emergency.

To provide context for fundamentalism as sketched above Parenti goes back to the Rome of AD 395. Once Christians came into power they were not satisfied to be the dominant religion, they must be the only religion and that intolerance was put into uncompromising force. We call it the dark ages. Creco-Roman rational inquiry was dead. Feeding Christians to the lions seemed quaint in comparison to what the new rulers had in mind, and carried out. Well, being fed to lions wasn’t a lot of fun, admittedly, but the big difference was in numbers of victims. Until the Enlightenment, and beyond, these folks ran things and we would be well advised to consider whether we want to return to those dark days. John Adams, founding father with unquestionable pedigree, was grateful that religious fanatics could not whip, burn nor mutilate people in the U.S. But he believed they would if they could. We need to make sure they can’t.

An obvious difference today between fundamentalists in the U.S. and Islam is that while in the U.S. they have a definite foothold their dream of dominating, as of old, remains a dream. In many places in Islam the dream is reality. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, Afghanistan (under Taliban) are firmly controlled by fundamentalists. Islamic theocrats are a major force in many other countries. What transpires in some of those nations ought to be a warning against complacency here. A student was put to death for printing an internet article questioning why men were allowed to have multiple spouses but women were not. We’ve all heard horror stories of what happened in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Women were put under the dominion of men and forbidden to engage in basic human behavior. Music was banned, secular writing and worse. In Iraq, previous to the illegal U.S. invasion a fairly secular society, extremist religion has arisen, complicating daily life, especially for women, some being killed for exposing too much skin. In Saudi Arabia a woman lawyer was raped and sentenced to 90 lashes for being in the company of a man who was not a close relative. The rapist went unpunished. I guess she must have been asking for it. Hand amputations, lashing, death, often for activities legal here (so long as the fundamentalists fall short of their goals). A married woman was raped by her brother-in-law and punished for adultery. This fate awaits also those involuntarily forced into prostitution. There have been bombings of girls’ schools, terrorizing students into illiteracy. It should be emphasized that the majority of Muslims, like the majority of Christians, Jews, Infidels, simply want a modestly abundant simple life with friends and family but when the fanatics get power, forget it. The difficulty preventing them coming to power is as nothing to getting out from under when they succeed. Like Jim Crow days in the old south, a minority of fanatics maintain, by terroristic threats, an extremely reactionary social rigidity. What percentage of white citizens supported Jim Crow as opposed to just going along? I was in Georgia in 1962, in the army, witnessing segregated theatres and water fountains, a shocking sight for a Northern Michigan boy. By 1976, when I moved back here, I saw blacks and whites working and dining together in restaurants, suggesting to me that Jim Crow was shallow. Were it not for the threat of racist violence, segregation would have ended sooner, perhaps never been instituted. It is the shock troops who enforce “sharia” as it were and it is the shock troops who must never gain respectability, whether they are Muslim, Jewish, Christian… or infidel.

When the U.S. suppresses movements, as in Central America in the 70s and 80s, that attempt to address gross inequities, opulence on one hand, malnutrition on the other, little is left the survivors but retreat to superstition which result is the intended one. Quiescence and apathy are no threat to the oligarch. Yet, deprived of hope and discouraged from rational criticality citizens become ripe for the demagogue, and his shock troopers.

One more sacred cow comes under Parenti’s scrutiny, the revered Dali Lama. Actually a mixed bag, his “holiness” has taken conservative as well as progressive stances. Few of his supporters seem aware of the cruel feudalism of the former Tibet, feudal in the full sense of the word: indentured serfs-for-life, rampant corruption among the “lords”, clergy, whatever, slavery, yes, slavery… and an army to police proper obedience and to hunt down those who attempted to escape. The Chinese invasion also netted mixed results. Serfdom was ended, land reform instituted, slavery ended. All unlike the popular notion that a peaceful Shangri La was destroyed by godless hoards. The usual occupational elements not surprisingly accompanied the invaders: bureaucratic domination and insensitivity, corruption etc; One peasant opinioned that, “Life under the Chinese is not easy but it’s better than life under the feudal lords that preceded them.”

After many pages of less than cheerful reading Parenti attempts to end on a positive note. He cites statistics that show 20% of younger adults in the U.S. have no religious affiliation and that specifically secular organizations are growing, including “faith” elements who recognize the need for separation of church and state. The best-selling books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and the popularity of their speaking tours are signs of increasing tolerance. Lord knows, we need it.