Building a Culture of Dissent
I was reading John Perkins‘ book Confession of an Economic Hit Man this weekend. An early chapter describes a puppet show he attended in Indonesia, during its US assisted transition from USSR satellite to capitalist “democracy” and the ensuing “economic miracle”. Perkins was there to write a wildly optimist economic report to encourage the country to accept loans for (alleged) development projects.A Javanese Wayang Kulit (shadow puppet) performance by a famous Indonesian dalang (puppet master) Ki Manteb Sudharsono. The photo is from this Wikipedia article.
Here is Perkins’ description of the puppet show he saw:
It was a remarkable performance, combining traditional legends with current events. I would later learn that the dalang [puppet master] is a shaman who does his work in trance. He had over a hundred puppets and he spoke for each in a different voice. It was a night I will never forget, and one that has influenced the rest of my life.
After completing a classic selection from the ancient texts of the Ramayana, the dalang produced a puppet of Richard Nixon, complete with the distinctive long nose and sagging jowls. The U.S. president was dressed like Uncle Sam, in a stars-and-stripes top hat and tails. He was accompanied by another puppet, which wore a three-piece pin-striped suit. The second puppet carried in one hand a bucket decorated with dollar signs. He used his free hand to wave an American flag over Nixon’s head in the manner of a slave fanning a master.
A map of the Middle and Far East appeared behind the two, the various countries hanging from hooks in their respective positions. Nixon immediately approached the map, lifted Vietnam off its hook, and thrust it to his mouth. He shouted something that was translated as, “Bitter! Rubbish. We don’t need any more of this!” Then he tossed it into the bucket and proceeded to do the same with other countries.
I was surprised, however, to see that his next selections did not include the domino nations of Southeast Asia. Rather, they were all Middle Eastern countries — Palestine, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. After that, he turned to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Each time, the Nixon doll screamed out some epithet before dropping the country into his bucket, and in every instance, his vituperative words were anti-Islamic: “Muslim dogs,” “Mohammed’s monsters,” and “Islamic devils.”
The crowd became very excited, the tension mounting with each new addition to the bucket. They seemed torn between fits of laughter, shock, and rage. At times, I sensed they took offense at the puppeteer’s language. I also felt intimidated; I stood out in this crowd, taller than the rest, and I worried that they might direct their anger at me. Then Nixon said something that made my scalp tingle when Rasy [Perkins’ guide] translated it. “Give this one to the World Bank. See what it can do to make us some money off Indonesia.”
He lifted Indonesia from the map and moved to drop it into the bucket, but just at that moment another puppet leaped out of the shadows. This puppet represented an Indonesian man, dressed in batik shirt and khaki slacks, and he wore a sign with his name clearly printed on it. “A popular Bandung politician,” Rasy explained. This puppet literally flew between Nixon and Bucket Man and held up his hand. “Stop!” he shouted. “Indonesia is sovereign.” The crowd burst into applause.
Then Bucket Man lifted his flag and thrust it like a spear into the Indonesian, who staggered and died a most dramatic death. The audience members booed, hooted, screamed, and shook their fists. Nixon and Bucket Man stood there, looking out at us. They bowed and left the stage.
A creative piece of political satire, one highly informed about the U.S. imperial role in world affairs – both present and future. Later, in conversation with other Indonesians who had watched the show, for me the killer line emerged:
“Indonesians are very conscious of politics” the man in the chair beside me said. “Don’t Americans go to shows like that?“
Now this is the thing! Those currents of thought are by and large not present in U.S. culture (and in the U.K. where I live too of course). American citizens are “innocent” or “naive” perhaps. But as Perkins lamented later in a Journal entry:
Is anyone in the U.S. innocent? Although those at the very pinnacle of the economic pyramid gain the most, millions of us depend – either directly or indirectly – on the exploitation of the LDCs [lesser developed countries] for our livelihoods. The resources and cheap labor that feed nearly all our businesses come from places like Indonesia, and very little ever makes its way back. The loans of foreign aid ensure that today’s children and their grandchildren will be held hostage. They will have to allow our corporations to ravage their natural resources and will have to forego education, health, and other social services merely to pay us back. The fact that our own companies already received most this money to build the power plants, airports, and industrial parks does not factor into this formula. Does the excuse that most Americans are unaware of this constitute innocence? Uninformed and intentionally misinformed, yes – but innocent?
I think a big factor in our being “unaware” that is that a culture of dissidence is not present – Americans do not “go to shows like that” – and perhaps those that might are to be derided and feared as “un-American“? A self identifying Shaman like Bill Hicks, an American dalang if you will, can languish in relative obscurity for years, playing backwater US towns, then go to the UK and become a star more or less overnight.
Not that the culture in my country is really any better at engendering an aware citizenry. I was always struck in conversations at University with international students – particularly those on the receiving end of our nations’ “help” – how they often had a much more nuanced and far better informed view of international affairs than UK students (and myself, until comparatively recently) – who were comparatively in the dark about the malign role of their own governments on the world stage. Why is this? Why are citizens of the imperial nations, with in principle unprecedented access to information, generally “unaware of this”?
I think people are “uninformed and intentionally misinformed” in part through deliberate efforts to enlarge cultural space for puerile entertainments and diminish cultural space for spectacles of dissent – such as the Indonesian puppet show Perkins described. Turn on your television sets and this fact should be obvious enough – where is that type of critical engagement with Empire’s role, or with the state of modern mass-media itself, given serous unconstrained scope? TV stations and newspapers subsist through selling audiences to advertisers – that is their business model – and so one expects the content they put out reflects this fact. You do not overstep the boundaries of “acceptable” mainstream discourse. You do not “bite the hand that feeds”.
How does one change this, engender a culture of dissent more widely? It’s a hard question. One can expect that efforts at ideological control will be strongest at the epicentres of empire. The U.S. is a relatively free society, so as Noam Chomsky pointed out in the earlier link on “Americanism” “if you can’t control people by force, you have to control their minds“.
I often feel that if the majority of American people were truly aware of what was perpetrated throughout the world under their flag, the U.S. government would be overthrown tomorrow. In fact this almost happened during the Vietnam war – the establishment became increasingly paranoid at the level of public opposition, what with troops to quell a potential popular uprising being stationed half way across the world. Hence communication channels must be tightly controlled, to keep the domestic population “uninformed and intentionally misinformed” – to ensure the continuing viability of the imperial project. Harold Pinter described this “highly successful act of hypnosis” in his powerful 2005 Nobel Prize For Literature Lecture (please do read the whole thing!):
The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile. The horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be forgiven.
Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy? The answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn’t know it.
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, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.
This scenario – a virtual elite stranglehold on access to information and communication – is a difficult position to escape from, as George Orwell captured beautifully in 1984:
“Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”
Nevertheless we must escape it, and the only hope of escape in my view lies in an emergent, dissident consciousness somehow “bootstrapping” itself to the point of critical-mass impact. And there are encouraging, if tentative, signs that Empire’s sophisticated system of thought control is beginning to unravel. Increasingly people are discarding the mainstream media’s channels of communication and seeking to independently educate themselves about “our” political and economic systems – ones that are now so obviously failing it is no longer possible to pretend otherwise, to carry on ignoring their internal contradictions. People are asserting for themselves, in defiance of all the cacophony of media opposition, that 2 + 2 = 4 and from their freedom to do so all else will follow.
I hope we can continue working to expand the domain of culture independent of current mass-media – one which imposes from without its homogenous culture of docile acceptance – and build our own diverse culture, emergent from within each and all, one of active resistance characterised by the free association of “creatively maladjusted” citizens of empire. And all this will be made easier by a greater prevalence of shared experiences of dissent producing a shared understanding of what is to be rejected. In a system with relatively high freedom of expression, if we ever reach the point where most American “go to shows like that” then Empire is already undone.