Prologue – Three Quotes
1. "The team heard how girls as young as ten are being offered for marriage in exchange for bags of flour in a desperate struggle for survival in parts of Herat and Farah provinces in western Afghanistan. ‘We saw children digging in the fields for roots to eat and use as firewood. Leaves from the trees were also being eaten,’ says John Watt, operations manager at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies." (www.ifrc.org February 8, 2002)
2. Ghaleh Shafer, Afghanistan: "10-year-old Mohebolah Seraj went out to collect wood for his family, and thought he had happened upon a food packet. He picked it up and lost three fingers in an explosion. Doctors say he will probably lose his whole hand…. his mother, Sardar Seraj…said that she cried and told the doctors not to cut off her son’s whole hand…
The hospital where her son is being cared for is a grim place, lacking power and basic sanitation. In one room lay Muhammad Ayoub, a 20-year-old who was in the house when the cluster bomb initially landed. He lost a leg and his eyesight, and his face was severely disfigured. He moaned in agony…. Hospital officials said that a 16-year-old had been decapitated." (Howard Zinn, The Others, The Nation, February 11, 2002)
3. "The outer chains have simply been put inside of man. The desires and thoughts that the suggestion-apparatus of society fills him with, chain him more thoroughly than outer chains. This is so because man can at least be aware of outer chains but be unaware of inner chains, carrying them with the illusion that he is free.
He can try to overthrow the outer chains, but how can he rid himself of chains of whose existence he is unaware?… The Church still by and large speaks only of inner liberation, and political parties, from liberals to communists, speak only about outer liberation. History has clearly shown that one ideology without the other leaves man dependent and crippled. The only realistic aim is +total+ liberation, a goal that may well be called +radical (or revolutionary) humanism+." (Erich Fromm, The Art of Being, Continuum Press, 1992, p.7)
Exchanging Self With Others
Fromm was right. What, after all, is the difference between an active dissident and a mainstream "journalist of attachment", or one of our many indifferent citizens? What is it that differentiates someone trying to change the world from someone accepting of the world and happy to go along with it?
Dissident writers rarely, if ever, discuss the question in the normal course of events. So how do we spend our time? It’s very simple, we spend our time presenting evidence of the extent to which mainstream politics, media and academia distort facts and ideas in a way that subordinates people and planet to profit.
So what is it we’re trying to achieve by doing this? Well let’s not kid ourselves, some of us have a mixture of motives – we might have an ill-defined idea that we are trying to do good, but we might also crave attention. Maybe we feel hatred for the rich and powerful and want to revenge ourselves on them intellectually and morally – we want to make the world a better, more compassionate place, but we’re going to rub their noses in it first!
For some of us it’s a kind of intellectual competition – they’ ve hit us over the head with abuse and deceptions for as long as we can remember, and we’re going to answer back and win, finally, this time. Some of us want power, some of us want to have a comfortable life, but without the guilt – there is money to be had in green circles, for example, if you’ re willing to toe the line. There are all kinds of reasons.
But in my opinion what really separates sincere dissidents from the indifferent or complicit is an ability to "exchange self with others". What do I mean by this? Dissidents are in possession of a moral abacus. It goes like this: ‘I’m one person; there is a whole world of people out there.
No matter how much I might value my life, I cannot possibly take seriously the idea that my one life is more important than millions of lives out there. I can’t, for example, take seriously the idea that I am justified in building a happy life on the suffering of untold numbers of people.
I can’t just work for an arms or tobacco company knowing that people are paying with their lives for my salary. And given that my society is in essence a giant train running over the bodies of people just like me, millions of them, to not attempt to do something about the progress of the train is to sit feasting in the dining car while people are crushed beneath the wheels.
Although everyone loves their life, I simply cannot subordinate the happiness and well-being of large numbers of people to my own happiness and well-being.’
In reality, of course, this "exchange of self with others" goes far beyond this – it’s not that we just determined our ‘moral responsibility’ on the basis of moral arithmetic: 1 happy person – 1 million unhappy people = morally indefensible.
People interested in doing this kind of calculation are affected by it because it produces a sad, warm, painful-sweet sensation in their chest: they imagine the young, utterly bereft Afghan mother and her beautiful child smashed beneath their dining car, ‘More port, anyone?’
They feel the bump as the poor and old of Venezuela – flushed away with their houses, hopes and dreams by a muddy sea of climate change – pass under the wheels: ‘Anything from the dessert trolley, madam?’ This is the real "exchange of self with others".
The great dissidents, I am certain, have a powerful ability, and willingness, to imaginatively exchange their comfortable position with the despairing position of others – they are able to feel it, to be hurt by it, to take the suffering seriously. And they are moved by it to thought, investigation and action, and more action, and it doesn’t stop.
I believe that all meaningful dissident action begins in this kind of exchange. Meaningless dissident action begins in hatred – of wealthy journalists paid to lie, of cynical authority, of violent police, of the smug rich. Anyone who has ever experienced the "exchange of self with others", even briefly, knows that nothing annihilates it like a wave of anger: when the neck, head and eyeballs are blazing with congested hate, we don’t care about anyone – except the one we hate, who we want to punish and destroy.
Noam Chomsky – in my view, far and away the greatest Western dissident ever to have lived – does nothing +but+ communicate and promote the "exchange of self with others" – this is what makes his work so spectacularly powerful.
Chomsky was, for example, lambasted far and wide for comparing the atrocities of 9-11 with Clinton’s August 1998 cruise missile attack on the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. Thus Walter Shapiro writes:
"Chomsky is a master of false equivalence. High on his roster of American war crimes is the 1998 destruction of a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant in an abortive cruise missile attack against al-Qaeda. Chomsky claims that tens of thousands of Sudanese died because of the resulting lack of life-saving drugs. He dismisses with a flurry of rhetorical excess the American explanation that the misplaced attack was due to faulty intelligence."
(Walter Shapiro, ‘Armchair anti-American warrior aims, shoots duds – Unless you are a student of linguistics or an ardent anti-war militant, it has been easy to ignore Noam Chomsky’, USA Today, May 7, 2002)
This is not "high on his roster". Instead Chomsky describes it as "one little footnote in the record of state terror, quickly forgotten." (Chomsky, 9-11, Seven Stories Press, 2001, p.45)
Note also that Chomsky "claims" nothing at all – he +cites+ authoritative sources: "Tens of thousands of people – many of them children – have suffered and died from malaria, tuberculosis, and other treatable diseases", Jonathan Belke of the Boston Globe writes. The German Ambassador to Sudan reports:
"It is difficult to assess how many people in this poor African country died as a consequence of the destruction… but several tens of thousands seems a reasonable guess." (Ibid, p.48)
As Shapiro makes clear, the attack is considered trivial in the West and has been long forgotten. And yet half the pharmaceutical production capacity of Sudan was destroyed by those missiles. For many people, the last sentence has little affective power – it just doesn’t mean that much. Chomsky, though, invites us to exchange self with other.
"What would the reaction have been if the bin Laden network had blown up half the pharmaceutical supplies in the US and the facilities for replenishing them? We can imagine, though the comparison is unfair: the consequences are vastly more severe in Sudan. That aside, if the US or Israel or England were to be the target of such an atrocity, what would the reaction be? In this case we say, ‘Oh, well,, too bad, minor mistake, let’s go on to the next topic, let the victims rot.’" (Chomsky, 9-11, Seven Stories Press, 2001, p.45)
To take one more example, on September 16, the press reported that the US government had demanded that Pakistan stop the truck convoys of food on which much of the already starving Afghan population depended.
In late September, the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation warned that more than 7 million people were facing a crisis that could lead to widespread starvation if military action were initiated, with a ikely "humanitarian catastrophe" unless aid were immediately resumed and the threat of military action terminated.
Dominic Nutt of Christian Aid warned: "It’s as if a mass grave has been dug behind millions of people. We can drag them back from it or push them in. We could be looking at millions of deaths." (Stephen Morris and Felicity Lawrence, ‘Afghanistan Facing Humanitarian Disaster,’ the Guardian, September 19, 2001)
‘What did all of this mean?’ Chomsky asks:
"That means that unknown numbers of starving Afghans will die. Are these Taliban? No, they’re victims of the Taliban. Many of them are internal refugees kept from leaving. But here’s a statement saying, OK, let’s proceed to kill unknown numbers, maybe millions, of starving Afghans who are victims of the Taliban. What was the reaction?
"I spent almost the entire day afterwards on radio and television around the world. I kept bringing it up. Nobody in the Europe or US could think of one word of reaction." (Chomsky, 9-11, op., cit, p.55)
Then Chomsky "exchanges self with others":
"Suppose some power was strong enough to say, Let’s do something that will cause a huge number of Americans to die of starvation. Would you think it’s a serious problem? And again, it’s not a fair analogy. In the case of Afghanistan, left to rot after it had been ruined by the Soviet invasion and exploited for Washington’s war, much of the country is in ruins and its people are desperate, already one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world." (Ibid, p.55)
But many people do not experience this exchange. If somebody raises the issue it bounces harmlessly of their chests like ping-pong balls off a tank. Their armour is six inches thick and it is made up of this idea: ‘I’ve got +one+ life and it is my life, and my happiness is all that matters to +one+ me.’
Scratch the surface of the steel plate and you find other layers: ‘It’s a big world and it’s full of suffering people. History is a bottomless pit of suffering and death – why on earth would I sacrifice my own benefit by trying to add a teaspoonful of sweetness to this infinite ocean of bitterness? Do you seriously think I’m going to exchange the pleasure of this dining car, with its warmth and comfort, its fine wines, its delicious experiences and partners, for something so futile?’
But we say, ‘What about the women and children under the wheels, what about that hideous bumping sound?’ Our friends say, ‘I don’t hear any bumping!’
Do you see why Fromm was right to talk about outer and inner liberation? Why it is futile just to present evidence of lies, just to hammer with our facts, truth and proof against these ironclad chests?
Outer liberation – politics, protest, action – seeks to liberate us from the delusion that there is no bumping sound. It seeks to free us from the belief that nothing is wrong, that there is nothing for us to think about. It attempts to free us from the kind of social conditions that make caring and thinking impossible.
But we also have to think about inner liberation because you may have felt a heart-twinge when I mentioned the women and children under the wheels above, but I bet you also felt something when I mentioned about the one life, the futility of helping others, about how nice it is to have a pleasurable, comfortable life. I certainly did.
We have to talk about these things because the selfish argument is fantastically powerful, it has proven its staying power throughout history – we cannot just assemble facts proving state-corporate crime, horror, injustice, and expect people to say, ‘Well there’s a thing – I’m morally responsible, and I didn’t even know it!’
And we have to talk about inner liberation (not just facts, media analysis, numbers of dead, reputable sources) because doing so brings us to the most important truth of all.
Dissidents do not "exchange self with others" because it is hell on earth, because it involves an agonising, desolating, immiserating sacrifice of pleasure, comfort, enjoyment and love.
I’m sorry but it’s not true. Some dissidents say they find dissident work a source of tremendous angst because they feel they’re not doing enough – they say they feel the suffering of it as much as anything, they emphasise the suffering. I don’t believe them; in fact I think this is nonsense.
Dissidents make the "exchange of self with others" because it is the only way to live a happy, human and sane life. It doesn’t make for a life without problems, but the benefits are overwhelming. There is a hidden truth to dissent that our society can’t see (because it’s too dazzled by the delusions of greed and ambition) and dissidents can’t see (because they’re too angry).
It is this: sipping port in the dining car thundering over innocent men, women and children is not a good place to be. They think it is, of course, but they’re wrong.
If you think only of yourself you are eaten alive by the afflictions of self – greed, anger, jealousy, arrogance, pride, competitiveness, bitterness, despair and, above all, meaninglessness.
People who are able and willing to "exchange self with others" don’t feel that life is meaningless. If you are focused on the very real despair and suffering of other selves, the question ‘What’s the point of my life?’ becomes just another academic, philosophical question that can be a promising or forbidding mystery, depending on personal preference.
A fireman literally saving a person’s life from a fire, an aid worker literally saving the life of that Afghan mother’s child with food, does not find the question ‘What’s the point of my life?’ of the remotest significance.
Similarly people focused on the huge problems and suffering of others find their own problems and suffering really rather insignificant, both numerically and qualitatively. Just as rich people feel their status and power are trivial compared to the +really+ rich, dissidents feel their problems and suffering are trivial compared to the +really+ wretched.
There are many other benefits to the "exchange of self with others" – to have an ability to understand and empathise with the position and suffering of others has enormous implications for our ability to get along with other people. To care more for other people, to have a greater capacity for kindness, is to generate kindness and love in people in return that has a vast impact on our own happiness.
There is no sacrifice in "exchanging self with others", in fact it’s the only authentic source of happiness – but we live in a society that can’t even discuss the possibility, because society is tied up with exactly the opposite view (but not all societies have been).
So we need inner liberation, not just outer liberation. We should put aside our facts for a moment, and our stubborn adherence to logical, rational issues of the head, and apply our logic and reason to the issues of the heart. Because there +is+ a ‘heart’, in this sense; it’s not just sentimental claptrap.
It’s the heart that is either armoured by greed and hate against our precious facts, or it’s opened up to them by an understanding of the possibilities and benefits of this mysterious "exchange of self with others". If we were to stop talking about our foreign policy for a moment, our analysis of global economics, we might be able to talk about what helps or hinders people caring about these issues at all.
David Edwards is co-editor of Media Lens. Sign up for free Media Alerts at www.medialens.org