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.

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