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War, Social Justice, Media and Democracy


Prepared text of speech at the Brazilian Social Forum November 8, 2003 Belo Horizonte, Brazil

I am very glad to be here to participate in the Brazilian Social Forum.

For me and the grassroots activists who I work with every day in the United States, many events have caused us to feel discouraged during the last few years. But I have often remembered words that I heard in early 2001 at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. Speaking there, Eduardo Galeano mentioned a statement that he saw written on a wall on a street in a South American city. The statement said: “Let’s save pessimism for better times.”

To people on this planet who are striving to overcome the destructive priorities of neoliberalism, the transition that has occurred in Brazil this year offers hope. We see in the present day that the struggles of millions of people, for years and decades, can bring uplifting changes that once seemed very unlikely or even impossible.

But in the United States – and for the people elsewhere in the world who have been in the main line of fire of U.S. policies – the times have gotten worse in recent years.

I live in California, a state where a bad actor can become governor. And I live in a country where the presidents are bad actors.

In Washington, the job description for presidents is to act like humanitarians while functioning as world-class exploiters and thugs.

Ten months ago, I visited Baghdad while accompanying Denis Halliday, the former United Nations assistant secretary general who had been director of the UN’s “oil for food” program in Iraq. I felt in January that I was at the scene of a crime against humanity – a crime that had not yet occurred, but that was being proudly proclaimed on the agenda of the leaders of the U.S. and British governments.

Before the launching of cruise missiles and two-thousand pound bombs against Baghdad and other heavily populated urban areas, before the “cluster munitions” that would be scattered across cities and towns in Iraq, before the depleted uranium shells that would be fired with the subsidies of U.S. taxpayers – before the all-out unleashing of the Pentagon’s lucrative firepower – there were the weapons of mass deception.

In the cross-hairs of these weapons of mass deception were any people who could perhaps be persuaded to be gullible. The propaganda armaments were endless phony claims about seeking diplomatic solutions. The propaganda armaments were speeches at the United Nations where President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell fervently presented false claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda. But most of all, the arsenals of propaganda – enabling the war on Iraq to proceed – were the news media.

And in many ways, the most powerful technique of deception continues to be silence about truth.

In the United States, very few prominent journalists are willing to mention that President Bush has the blood of many Iraqi children on his hands after launching an aggressive war in violation of the U.N. Charter and the Nuremberg principles established more than half a century ago.

Anti-democratic news media are hostile to history. And so, the same propaganda machinery says little about the suffering that results from the class war constantly waged by the wealthy – and avoids telling much about the human consequences of militarism.

The writer Mark Twain once said that “None but the dead are permitted to speak truth.” And often that seems literally to be the case.

In the United States, certain vital statements by Twain – who’s often considered to be the nation’s greatest writer – are excluded from corporatized media culture.

* A hundred years ago, he wrote: “Who are the oppressors? The few: the king, the capitalist and a handful of other overseers and superintendents. Who are the oppressed? The many: the nations of the earth; the valuable personages; the workers; they that make the bread that the soft-handed and idle eat.”

* He wrote: “Why is it right that there is not a fairer division of the spoil all around? Because laws and constitutions have ordered otherwise. Then it follows that laws and constitutions should change around and say there shall be a more nearly equal division.”

* And he wrote: “I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”

In current times, for the government that is pleased to proclaim itself “the world’s only superpower,” the media bias that prepares the path for war must avoid certain inconvenient realities of history. One of those realities, for the U.S. media, has been the profound verdict rendered 58 years ago at trials in the German city of Nuremberg.

Despite such deafening media silences this year, the fact remains that judgments at Nuremberg and precepts of international law forbid launching an aggressive war – an apt description of what the U.S. government inflicted on Iraqi people in the spring of 2003.

“We must make clear to the Germans that the wrong for which their fallen leaders are on trial is not that they lost the war, but that they started it,” said Supreme Court Justice Robert L. Jackson, a U.S. representative to Nuremberg at the International Conference on Military Trials at the close of World War II. He added that “no grievances or policies will justify resort to aggressive war. It is utterly renounced and condemned as an instrument of policy.”

When a country – particularly “a democracy” – goes to war, the passive consent of the governed lubricates the machinery of slaughter. Silence is a key form of cooperation, but the war-making system does not insist on quietude or agreement. Mere passivity or self-restraint will suffice to keep the missiles flying, the bombs exploding and the faraway people dying.

We now face an emboldened regime in Washington which sees military actions as reliable solutions.

To devote billions more dollars to weaponry while so many people are hungry and dying from preventable diseases is a sin and a crime.

No part of the world is spared the impacts. The excellent news agency Inter Press Service reported in late September that “levels of U.S. military aid to Latin America have more than tripled over the last five years.” The news agency added: “At a time when the region’s economies are stagnating or even shrinking, throwing millions more people into poverty, total U.S. military aid to Latin America now almost equals the amount of money Washington is devoting to social or economic development there.”

The backing for the U.S. war on Iraq and the occupation of that country cannot be understood apart from the economic imperial designs known as “neoliberalism” and “globalization” – the eagerness to create optimum conditions for investment and maximally profitable trade arrangements.

Today – despite all that has been revealed and all the splits that have developed among U.S. elites about the occupation of Iraq – the media supporters of it include the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. We should consider what the esteemed journalist Friedman had to say in his 1999 book titled “The Lexus and the Olive Tree.” He wrote: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the U.S. Air Force F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”

That declaration was written in a spirit of enthusiastic approval. The visions of hegemony – with their geopolitical, economic, cultural and media components – are driven by the specter of a kind of “united corporate states of the world” … a world in which the preeminent sovereignty belongs to the likes of American Express and Citicorp and McDonalds and Burger King and Monsanto. And Disney and CNN.

Seriously distorted reporting tells us that the leaders in Washington are eager to achieve peace. But this is true only in the context of subjugation.

The U.S. government wants peace – on its own terms.

The man with a boot on another person’s neck may speak loudly of desiring peace. So does the Israeli government as it maintains a brutal and flagrantly illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, now in its 37th year.

As the Prussian general Karl von Clausewitz remarked two centuries ago: “A conqueror is always a lover of peace.”

Last weekend, the shooting down of a helicopter in Iraq resulted in the deaths of 16 members of the U.S. armed forces.

On Monday [November 3] the organization that I’m part of, the Institute for Public Accuracy based in the United States, released a statement from a California resident, Fernando Suarez del Solar, whose son Jesus Alberto Suarez del Solar Navarro died in Iraq on March 27, a week after the start of the war. The bereaved father said: “These attacks are the tragic result of the illegal occupation of Iraq by the U.S. military. Our young people are exposed to death every day. They are wounded in faraway lands for the whims and lies of President Bush…. The military does all kinds of things to recruit Hispanics, African Americans and poor Anglos. How many children of congressmen or CEOs are in Iraq?”

But the U.S. news media cannot accept very much of such candor. The debates about policies are tactical, not fundamental. Certain perspectives – prevalent in elite circles and promoted by most government officials – are heard again and again. Other outlooks, questioning not only the strategic wisdom but also the moral basis of government policies, are heard only once in a while.

In the mass media, the power to include and exclude is the power to shape and manipulate public opinion. As dominant media corporations grow larger in size and fewer in number, the major means of mass communication are engaged in a “corporatization of consciousness.”

And in times of war, there is often a parallel militarization of consciousness. In a country with democratic forms of government, this is what makes possible the manipulated consent of the governed for war based on lies.

Now, the occupation of Iraq is imposing new economic models of privatization for the benefit of U.S. corporate interests. This is neoliberalism at gunpoint.

Iraq has an estimated 112 billion barrels of oil under the sand. The news media of the United States like to pretend that the oil there has little or nothing to do with the war and the occupation. But can anyone seriously believe that the U.S. government would have 130,000 troops in Iraq today if that country did not have a single drop of oil reserves?

Thirty-six years ago, the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. identified the U.S. government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” That statement was accurate in 1967. And it is accurate in 2003.

So, too, we are still living with the truth that Dr. King expressed as he said: “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered.”

The struggle over media and the flow of information – whether in the United States or Brazil or anywhere else – is inseparable from the battle for democracy. It is impossible for democratic participation to breathe freely while the heavy weight of capital sits on the windpipe of open expression and wide-ranging debate.

It is necessary but it is not enough to ensure freedom of speech. All people must also have the freedom to be heard. Otherwise, “free speech” can be – and often is – the freedom to speak to the walls.

The major news outlets are like walls with cracks. Every day the confining structures of big media loom large.

Yet we have countless opportunities to find, utilize and widen the cracks in the corporate media’s barriers to democratic communication. Meanwhile, we need to grow non-corporate media institutions capable of effectively promoting social change.

Steadily worsening concentrations of ownership and the hefty clout of advertising combine to severely limit the range of information and debate in news media. Ongoing pressures – economic, ideological and governmental – constrain the work of mainline journalists, whose efforts routinely suffer from skewed priorities and self-censorship.

Self-censorship is a huge problem in our societies with freedom of the press. As George Orwell observed: “Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks his whip, but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns his somersault when there is no whip.”

The profit-driven ideology of the “free market” is in sync with the agendas of top management and advertisers. The tilt against truly independent media and wide-ranging discourse is extreme when corporations are the owners who hire the managers who hire the journalists and producers.

While no individual or single organization can take on more than a fraction of the necessary endeavors, the overall work to create a democratic media environment must run a wide gamut. Popular movements now face the imperative of struggling for democratic media.

Sustained efforts to challenge the corporate media and support independent media outlets can reinforce each other with continuous synergy – to establish, sustain and expand progressive movements’ media organizations; to spread deft criticism of rancid mass media; to push for better reporting and much wider debate in mainstream media; to fight for structural reform of government agencies so that the airwaves can be reclaimed by the public; to lambast, debunk and satirize the insidious junk that so often passes for journalism and cultural uplift.

In the long run, no campaign for basic media reform can succeed apart from broader social-justice movements – and vice versa. The degradation of journalism and mass entertainment is entwined with pervasive corporate power that severely damages virtually every facet of political and social life.

Media criticism becomes profoundly useful in combination with media activism. Too often we’ve held onto theories about what is and is not possible. But analysis and action become much more powerful when they constantly inform each other – when assessments shift due to on-the-ground experiences that benefit not only from the results of trial and error but also from insightful up-to-date analysis.

We’ve discovered that it’s not nearly enough to put out a powerful expose or release a cogent analysis in a few print outlets or on some web pages or on a few radio stations – or to briefly surface in a large national media venue. Such achievements, while important, are insufficient. They need to draw strength from each other – while simultaneously finding ways to reach broader audiences, including via mass media, where there are cracks in the corporate walls.

Some journalism students are taught the noble theory that journalists should “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” But under corporate control, news media outlets are routinely engaged in comforting the already comfortable and afflicting the already afflicted.

On an ongoing basis, major news outlets participate in class warfare, from the top down. And they often condemn those who engage in class warfare from the bottom up.

In many countries, the routine is for the mass media – the daily newspapers, the biggest magazines, the radio and TV networks, the cable stations – to side with those who “have” against those who “have not.”

In the United States, every daily newspaper has a Business section. Not one has a Labor section. Apparently the dominant media assumption is that wealth creates all labor, instead of the other way around.

Popular movements urgently need to boost the resources and improve the coordination of their media work. It should be possible to attain the creative advantages of sharp analysis, institutional growth, coordinated planning and agile cooperation while encouraging a decentralized, democratic, grassroots approach to social action.

Right now the cracks in the media walls are much too thin and much too scarce. The long haul of our struggle involves bringing down the institutional barriers that, in effect, “soundproof” much of the media world and suppress the voices of those without privilege.

Any campaign for media democratization will encounter massive opposition from those who own the big newspapers and large magazines and the radio and television networks. And they’re determined to also dominate the Internet as much as possible.

The corporate media are committed not only to their exorbitant profits but also to propagandizing the society to accept an economic order based on fundamental injustice.

We can have corporate domination of media or we can have genuine democracy – but we cannot have both.

Under the ownership of enormous corporations, heavily influenced by the main sources of advertising revenue, often functioning in tandem with state power – the major media outlets cast a massive shadow over our lives, wherever we live.

Every day, when the voices of the rich and powerful dominate what is loudly broadcast and widely publish, the media managers are doing what they’re paid to do.

But it is possible to create democratic media. Possible – and absolutely necessary.

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Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy.

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