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Summer reading for activists



THESE ARE extraordinary times. Flag-wrapped coffins of 18-year-old soldiers killed in a failed, illegal and vengeful invasion are paraded along a Wiltshire high street. Victory in Afghanistan is at hand, says the satirical Gordon Brown.

 

On the BBC’s Newsnight, the heroic Afghan MP Malalai Joya tries, in her limited English, to tell the British public that her people are being blown to bits in their name: 140 villagers, mostly children, in her own Farah Province. No parade for them. No names and faces for them. The suppression of the suffering of Britain’s and America’s colonial victims is an article of media faith, a tradition so ingrained that it requires no instructions.

The difference today is that a majority of the British people are not fooled. The cheerleading newsreaders can say "Britain’s resolve is being put to the test" as if the Luftwaffe is back on the horizon, but their own polls (BBC/ITN) show that popular disgust with the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq is strongest in the very communities where adolescents are recruited to fight them. The problem with the British public, says a retired army major on Channel 4 News, is that they need "to be trained and educated."

Indeed they do, wrote Bertolt Brecht in "The Solution," explaining that the people:

Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

In their modern classic Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward S, Herman and Noam Chomsky describe how war propaganda in free societies is "filtered" by media organizations, not as conscious "crude intervention, but by the selection of right-thinking personnel and by the editors’ and working journalists’ internalization of [elite] priorities and definitions of newsworthiness."

In the wake of the U.S. invasion of Vietnam, in which at least 3 million people were killed and their once-bountiful land ruined and poisoned, planners of future bloodfests invented the "Vietnam syndrome," which they identified perversely as a "crisis of democracy." The "crisis" was that the "general population threatened to participate in the political system, challenging established privilege and power." Afghanistan and Iraq now have their syndromes.

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WITH THIS in mind, I respectfully urge readers to put aside the holiday reading lists in the newspaper review pages, with their clubbable hauteur, and read, or read again, books as fine as Manufacturing Consent, which help make sense of extraordinary times.

As Herman and Chomsky decode principally the American media, an ideal companion is Newspeak in the 21st Century, by David Edwards and David Cromwell (published next month by Pluto). The founders and editors of the outstanding Web siteMedialens present a fluent dissection of Britain’s liberal media, employing the kind of rigor that shames those who proclaim their impartiality and independence from vested power.

Read also A Century of Spin by David Miller and William Dinan, who describe the rise of an "invisible government" invented by Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays. "Propaganda," said Bernays, "got to be a bad word because of the Germans, so what I did was to try and find some other words." The other words were "public relations," which now consumes much of journalism.

The latest achievement of PR is the "Obama phenomenon." In Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (published in the U.S. by Paradigm), Paul Street peels away the mask in perhaps the only book that tells the truth about the 44th president of the United States.

Not enough laughs? Pack Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, still unmatched in its demolition of the idiocies and lies of the killers who promote wars. Try this:

"Anyone," says Dr. "Doc" Daneeka, "who wants to get out of combat isn’t really crazy, so I can’t ground him."
Yossarian: "OK, let me get this straight. In order to be grounded, I’ve got to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I’m not crazy anymore, and I have to keep flying."
Dr. "Doc" Daneeka: "You got it…"

Kurt Vonnegut’s equally black and brave and hilarious Slaughterhouse Five is my other favorite war book.

"How’s the patient? [the colonel] asked.
"Dead to the world."
"But not actually dead."
"No."
"How nice–to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive."

Faber recently published Harold Pinter’s Various Voices: 60 Years of Prose, Poetry, Politics (1948-2008). It is a gem from Pinter on everything from Shakespeare, night cricket and Arthur Miller’s socks to murderous great power:

It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless…while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.

If you have not already read it, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers is a rare treat: a view of humanity so precisely, beautifully, honorably, yet almost incidentally expressed. In the "bantering inconsequence" (F. Scott Fitzgerald) of effete modern fiction, no one touches McCullers or, for that matter, Pete Dexter, whoseParis Trout is the great unsung book of the American South, or Richard Ford, whoseRock Springs is a masterly collection, among his others, on the mysteries between men and women. And don’t forget Albert Camus’s The Outsider, about a man who will not pretend: a parable for today. Happy holidays.

First published in the New Statesman.

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