23November2017

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Category: Cogitations

A Lefty Progressive Goes To The Seaside

 

Walking past a packed beach on a sweltering summer's day, the lefty progressive is like a fish out of water.

And by the way, he's not staying: he's taking a constitutional after a morning spent reading about genocidal sanctions on Iraq and before an afternoon spent writing about genocidal killings in East Timor.

Among the knotted handkerchiefs, Hawaiian shirts and burrowing thongs, he appears surreally overdressed in his black Doc Martin shoes, black jeans (full-length in the heat) and regulation no-logo T-shirt.

His dark, subdued clothing carries subtle meaning: 'It's not about me.' After all, he describes himself to himself as 'a mere intellectual worker'. There's nothing particularly exalted about intellectual work; it's just one aspect of the project to build a better world. Other people are excellent at organising, campaigning, protesting - he just happens to write.

He's not in the business of drawing attention to himself because he is not the point. The point is that millions of people and animals are suffering, need help, and he is trying to help them. It's about them. On the other hand, the first time he had an article published, he read it about a hundred times.

One of his primary complaints about corporate society is precisely that it exaggerates the importance of the individual at the expense of the collective. We are all trained for self-promotion - 'me, me, me' - regardless of the cost to others. As Noam Chomsky has said of his personal experiences:

'I am not writing about myself, and these matters don't seem particularly pertinent to the topics I am addressing.' (Quoted Milan Rai, 'Chomsky's Politics', Verso, 1995, pp.6-7)

It's not about 'me', and it's not about high-profile 'intellectuals' (whatever special quality that term is supposed to imply).

Our progressive's self-effacing attire, of course, has its counterpart in the corporate world. The black shoes and grey or black business suit signal that the individual personality, with all its multi-faceted fire and fun, has been subordinated to the no-nonsense needs of the bottom line. The de facto corporate uniform reassures customers and colleagues: the job comes first.

For the lefty progressive walking past (not on) the beach, 'It's not about me', and it's not about the moment; it's about investing time and energy in the cause of a more just and compassionate future. Downtime is allowed, of course, but fun is a four-letter word. With Baghdad burning, Libya in ruins, the climate collapsing, it's hardly appropriate to be focused on fun. Relaxation to recharge, to redouble effort, sure - but fun?

Again, curiously, this has its counterpart in the ostensibly antithetical corporate worldview. The idea that an employee might prioritise his or her personal needs over the demands of maximised profit in minimum time would of course be viscerally annoying, if it were thinkable. Someone caught chatting with friends, snoozing, gazing out of a window rather than working will be warned once, twice... maybe.

For both the lefty progressive and the corporate employee the present moment is a means to an end, a resource to be mined, exploited, invested in the future. What matters is tomorrow: it will be better, more equitable and more profitable, respectively.

And so the progressive views the beach scene with a mixture of bewilderment and frustration: Do these people have no idea what's going on? Do they care? They seem content to wallow in the heat to no purpose, paddling pointlessly with rolled-up trouser legs; wasting hours, days, weeks that could be productively spent bettering the world. If even one per cent of these folk could be mobilised, activated to work for progressive change - then the world might indeed change. He drops a sidewise glance down his nose at a middle-aged child, a kidult, slurping on an ice cream cone. Elsewhere, grown men and women are literally building castles in the sand, digging holes for no reason, filling them in - achieving nothing, zilch, nada.

As he moves among, but far-distant from, the revellers, our progressive resembles silver-clad Klaatu in the 1951 film, 'The Day The Earth Stood Still', striding down the slope of his spaceship towards the primitive beings surrounding him with tanks and guns. They neither know nor care that he comes on a mission of peace. On some level, he feels the presence of his own intellectual version of Klaatu's giant robot, Gort, at his shoulder: Marx, Proudhon, Gramsci, or indeed Chomsky.

For all his probable atheism, he perceives a purposeful existence. He believes the meaning of a dignified life is found in making the world a better place. And he may well believe that the universe is slowly evolving towards greater intelligence, compassion and justice.

The exotic idea, apparently supported by the kidults around him, that the point of life is simply to enjoy the moment, seems pitiful, even alarming to him. If they were right, what would it mean for the entire basis and meaning of his existence? But anyway, how could anyone hope to argue that there is no meaning, no reason, in working for a better world? Would such a life not be unbearably boring? What would be the point of it? Would we not become lost in mindless hedonism? If you want a vision of the future: imagine an ice cream cone thrusting into a human face – forever.

This seems to offer an irresponsible, even horribly cruel version of life, where no one strives, no one cares, and everyone indulges as the world sinks into madness. He is the sworn enemy of this view.

On the other hand, as he strolls along, he finds himself casting a guilty look behind him at an attractive young woman sizzling in the sand. He knows that despite everything he's been thinking – despite everything Gort has told him, over decades – the world would look very different lying by her side, gazing at the sunlight reflecting from her hair and face.

 

Warm Toes Moments

Moment 1

It's a chilly winter's evening in a small town in the south of Sweden and I'm teaching English to a collection of elderly students for the Folk University. My students aren't studying for an exam, there's no danger of them stretching my far from pluperfect grammatical knowledge.

Unusually for one of my classes, there is really no concern at all with ends beyond vague hopes of oiling possible excursions to much-loved 'Lon-don'. These are people in their 50s, 60s and 70s: they're there to chat and make friends. Thursday after Thursday they turn up, my lesson plan falls away, the text books remain on the same page, and we have a fine old time.

Tonight, I sit back and watch them chatting and laughing, occasionally interjecting, correcting. I notice, suddenly, that my toes are warm: the class is so relaxing, so friendly. I feel a kind of benevolent bliss. But why? What is it?

It seems to me as I'm sitting there that the blissfulness lies precisely in the meaninglessness of the class: it doesn't matter, it is of no importance whatever beyond the enjoyment of the lesson itself. From one perspective, we are all simply wasting our time – I'm being paid to let them have fun. There's no stress, no pressure, nothing really to be achieved. There is almost no focus on results at all, just on the fun of the class in the moment.

At the time, I have no idea how this might fit into my fast-evolving and subtly ambitious philosophy of life. Two years earlier, I abandoned a business career, but not to sit around in meaningless English lessons. My motivation is to challenge a fanatical business system which I know, having experienced its blinkered logic first-hand, is sending the world racing over an environmental cliff. I have been reading intensely and am writing endless articles and stories.

So this curious warm toes moment is nice, interesting, perhaps a pointer to some hidden aspect of human happiness. But I don't take much note of it, or take it seriously, because environmentalists like me are fighting tooth and nail to 'save the planet', and I have a strong sense that we are running out of time. What does that have to do with warm toes and nattering Swedes?

For goodness sake, even Buddhists talk of arduous struggle, of the need to amass as many meritorious thoughts and actions as possible to create a compassionate impetus that will free us from self-cherishing karma on the path to enlightenment. There's no time to lose, they say – this precious human rebirth is rarely achieved, of tiny duration, and of such fragility that it can end at any moment, perhaps before the next breath.

How ironic: capitalists, greens, progressives and even (some) Buddhists agree that the present is just a resource, a means to an end: it is the end that matters. If that leaves you with cold toes - really, really cold toes - that's just how it is.

 

Moment 2

I'm in Sweden again, 25 years later; this time, mid-afternoon in a small village outside Stockholm. It's February and the snow is piled high outside. But it's warm inside and I'm sitting on a sofa watching my cousin's five-year-old playing with a vast array of Lego on the wooden lounge floor. The little boy's mother lost a two-year long battle with breast and then brain cancer one month ago, and everybody is grief-stricken. I've come for the funeral.

As I watch him now, playing contentedly - cocooned, shielded by the innocence of youth - it's as much as I can do to control my emotions. He believes his mum is visiting the International Space Station. He knows she's not here, but that's all he really understands of what he's been told.

Outside, the winter sun is disappearing with typical Swedish haste and there's a pink-blue glow in the sky, in the air and on the snow. I watch the little boy playing with his Lego and, from within the sadness, I feel delight at every wonderfully meaningless, unimportant plastic click, every stirring of plastic pieces on the floor, every sigh from his shirt as he moves, and from his mouth as he gently breathes, concentrating, whispering to himself. Despite the situation, the fathomless sadness, I'm feeling what can only be described as bliss: a mixture of peace, love, compassion and happiness.

 

Moment 3

My partner is sitting on a cushion in front of the cupboard in her lounge. It's one of those cupboards where you chuck everything you can't fit anywhere else but that you can't bear to throw away. No-one has dared to look inside, to sort it out, in years and decades. She is sorting through the pieces of bric-a-brac with great, unhurried care: a small foam dinosaur that refused to expand in water as it was supposed to, a small plastic roulette wheel, a pack of ancient playing cards.

She examines each object with love and respect, no matter how tatty and trivial. Everything is worthy of attention and put in the correct pile for keeping, throwing or giving away. But again, none of it matters – it's not about achieving anything; it's for the fun of seeing what's there. We are both just enjoying the moment, our dog is snoring on the floor - the world seems to stop turning for a while. My toes, needless to say, are once again warm. I feel the relaxation through the stress of the day, the happiness glowing.

 

Moment 4

I'm sitting on a sofa doing nothing. I'm feeling the rise and fall of my chest, and any emotions I find there: sadness, anxiety, happiness, excitement, anger, boredom, emptiness... whatever it might be. I'm not doing a very consistent job of watching because my attention keeps straying to thoughts of various kinds. I try to notice when I'm thinking and then return to feeling the breath and emotions. After a non-eventful 45 minutes of this, I feel a change - any emotional pain has been replaced by a kind of tickle in my chest. This grows into a pleasurable feeling: someone described it, perfectly, as like 'Having a twinkling smile inside'. Or it feels how you'd imagine a puff of pink laughing gas might feel. The feeling deepens and becomes a patch of delight in my chest. There is nothing mysterious or difficult about this – exactly as I've paid close attention to the outer world, I'm simply now paying attention to my inner world. This is what people call 'meditation'.

Together with the delight is a feeling of benevolence: kindly thoughts arise for the unlikeliest of candidates. If someone pops into my mind who I normally find deeply annoying, I feel warmth towards them, generosity. Buddhists call this 'metta', or 'lovingkindness'.

Unwittingly, this is what was also happening in the first three moments described above. In all cases, benevolent delight arose from sitting quietly, watching what was happening, with no thought of achieving anything. I was just experiencing the moment as it was, enjoying the very fact that it was not important: students chatting, a child playing, sorting through a cupboard. These were not crucial events. And yet, as we are drawn into their meaninglessness, purposelessness, nonsense and nothingness, our egos - with their deep, dark clouds of 'vitally important' memories, plans, complaints and goals - move aside, allowing a kind of inner sun to shine through.

On the face of it, this seems absurd: peace, delight, love, kindness and forgiveness are famously elusive, are they not? We ordinarily imagine we have to fight tooth and nail through political action, corporate profitability, or meditational head-banging to even get a glimpse. How can we experience these things by doing nothing? And yet this is the point Zen master Basho made:

'Sitting quietly, doing nothing,
Spring comes,
and the grass grows, by itself.'

Well-being arises without cause, from nothing. All the mystics, without exception, have made the same point: it is already there! Whenever we stop striving, stop living in the past and future, become non-serious, purposeless, present - we find it.

This offers a curious challenge to our lefty progressive striding determinedly away from the beach, does it not? Because in all his striving for future goals, he has become tense, frazzled, angry, frustrated, even despairing and depressed. He feels profoundly alienated from the world around him, though his whole purpose is to make the world a better place. He himself is not in a better place. He himself is not the change he would like to see.

How ironic: the relaxed individual who is able, simply, to be – to observe and enjoy the play of life for the pure enjoyment of doing so – becomes a fragment, now, of exactly the kind of compassionate, loving, blissful world the hard-working progressive is trying to create in the future.

Could it be, then, that the lefty striving so vigorously to 'make the world a better place' for others unwittingly feeds the disaster inflicted by capitalists striving so vigorously 'to make the world a better place' for themselves?

Could it be that our devastation of the planet, at its deepest roots, is symptomatic of our near-universal neglect of the only moment that actually is – this moment? Could it be that, when we disregard the world as it is, the world as it is starts to die?

 

David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org

 

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Category: Cogitations

So What Is Objective Journalism?

 

'Just The Facts, Ma'am'

So what is objective, impartial journalism?

The standard view was offered in 2001 by the BBC's then political editor, Andrew Marr:

'When I joined the BBC, my Organs of Opinion were formally removed.' (Marr, The Independent, January 13, 2001)

And by Nick Robinson describing his role as ITN political editor during the Iraq war:

'It was my job to report what those in power were doing or thinking... That is all someone in my sort of job can do.' (Robinson, '"Remember the last time you shouted like that?" I asked the spin doctor', The Times, July 16, 2004)

'Just the facts, Ma'am', as Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi wryly describes this take on journalism.

It is why, if you ask a BBC or ITN journalist to choose between describing the Iraq war as 'a mistake' or 'a crime', they will refuse to answer on the grounds that they are required to be 'objective' and 'impartial'.

But actually there are at least five good reasons for rejecting this argument as fundamentally bogus and toxic.

First, it turns out that most journalists are only nervous of expressing personal opinions when criticising the powerful. Andrew Marr can't call the Iraq war a 'crime', but he can say that the fall of Baghdad in April 2003 meant that Tony Blair 'stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result' (Marr, BBC 1, News At Ten, April 9, 2003). Nick Robinson can report that 'hundreds of [British] servicemen are risking their lives to bring peace and security to the streets of Iraq'. (ITN, September 8, 2003)

The 'Wham, bam, thank you, Ma'am' version of 'impartiality', perhaps.

Journalists are allowed to lose their 'objectivity' this way, but not that way - not the way that offends the powerful. Australian media analyst Sharon Beder offers a further example of the same double standards:

'Balance means ensuring that statements by those challenging the establishment are balanced with statements by those whom they are criticising, though not necessarily the other way round.' (Sharon Beder, 'Global Spin', Green Books, 1997, p.203)

The second problem with the no-opinion argument is that it is not possible to hide opinions by merely 'sticking to the facts'. The facts we highlight and ignore, the tone and language we use to stress or downplay those facts, inevitably reflect personal opinion.

The third problem is indicated by the title of historian Howard Zinn's autobiography: 'You Can't Be Neutral On A Moving Train'. Even if we believe it is possible to suppress our personal opinion in reporting facts, we will still be taking sides. Zinn explained:

'As I told my students at the start of my courses, "You can't be neutral on a moving train." The world is already moving in certain directions - many of them are horrifying. Children are going hungry, people are dying in wars. To be neutral in such a situation is to collaborate with what is going on.' ('The Zinn Reader', Seven Stories Press, Howard Zinn, 1997, p.17)

Matt Taibbi gives a striking example:

'Try as hard as you want, a point of view will come forward in your story. Open any newspaper from the Thirties or Forties, check the sports page; the guy who wrote up the box score, did he have a political point of view? He probably didn't think so. But viewed with 70 or 80 years of hindsight, covering a baseball game where blacks weren't allowed to play without mentioning the fact, that's apology and advocacy. Any journalist with half a brain knows that the biases of our time are always buried in our coverage...'

A fourth, closely-related problem is that not taking sides - for example against torture, or against big countries exploiting small countries, or against selling arms to tyrants, or against stopping rather than exacerbating climate change - is monstrous. A doctor treating a patient is biased in seeking to identify and solve a health problem. No one would argue that the doctor should stand neutrally between sickness and health. Is it not self-evident that we should all be biased against suffering?

Finally, why does the journalistic responsibility to suppress personal opinion trump the responsibility to resist crimes of state for which we are accountable as democratic citizens? If the British government was massacring British citizens, would journalists refuse to speak out? Why does the professional media contract outweigh the social contract? Journalists might respond that 'opinion-free' journalism is vital for a healthy democracy. But without dissent challenging open criminality, democracy quickly decays into tyranny. This is the case, for example, if we remain 'impartial' as our governments bomb, invade and kill 100,000s of people in foreign countries. A journalist who refuses even to describe the Iraq war as a crime is riding a cultural train that normalises the unthinkable. In the real world, journalistic 'impartiality' on Iraq helped facilitate Britain and the United States' subsequent crimes in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

This is the ugly absurdity of the innocent-looking idea that journalists' 'organs of opinion' can and should be removed.

So if we reject this flawed and immoral version of objectivity behind which so many corporate journalists hide, what then is objective journalism? Are we arguing for open bias, for a prejudice free-for-all disconnected from any attempt at fairness? Not at all.

 

Equalising Self And Other

Objective, impartial journalism is rooted in the understanding that 'my' happiness and suffering do not matter more than 'your' happiness and suffering; and that it is irrational, cruel and unfair to pretend otherwise. Objective journalism rejects reporting and analysis that prioritises 'my' interests – 'my' bank account, financial security, company, nation, class - over 'your' interests.

Objective journalism does not take 'our' side at 'their' expense. It does not count 'our' dead and ignore 'their' dead. It does not refuse to stand in judgement on 'our' leaders while fiercely condemning 'their' leaders. It does not hold 'them' to higher moral standards than 'us'. It does not accept that 'our' nation is 'exceptional', that 'we' have a 'manifest destiny' to dominate 'them', that 'we' are in some way 'chosen'.

A central claim of Buddhist and other mystical traditions is that we really can 'equalise self and other' in this way. Many intellectuals, including leftists, dismiss all such analysis as irrelevant piffle. But at a time when the Vikings were ravaging Europe, the ninth century Buddhist sage Shantideva asked:

'Since I and other beings both,
In wanting happiness, are equal and alike,
What difference is there to distinguish us,
That I should strive to have my bliss alone?' (Shantideva, 'The Way of the Bodhisattva', Shambhala, 1997, p.123)

If this is an astonishingly reasonable thought, it is surpassed by an even more remarkable declaration:

'The intention, ocean of great good
That seeks to place all beings in the state of bliss,
And every action for the benefit of all:
Such is my delight and all my joy.' (p.49)

After four billion years of evolution ostensibly 'red in tooth and claw', Shantideva was here asserting that caring for others is a source of delight and bliss that far exceeds mere pleasure from personal gain.

The claim, of course, is greeted with scepticism by a society that promotes unrestrained greed for maximised profit. But if we set aside our groupthink and take another look, it is actually a matter of common experience. The Indian spiritual teacher, Osho, commented:

'Have you never had a feeling of contentment after having smiled at a stranger in the street? Didn't a breeze of peace follow it? There is no limit to the wave of tranquil joy you will feel when you lift a fallen man, when you support a fallen person, when you present a sick man with flowers – but not when you do it [out of duty] because he is your father or because she is your mother. No, the person may not be anyone in particular to you, but simply to give a gift is itself a great reward, a great pleasure.'

The existence of this reward has been confirmed by some very interesting and credible science (see here).

Objective journalism is thus rooted in two claims:

1) that human beings are able to view the happiness and suffering of others as being of equal importance to their own.

2) that, perhaps counter-intuitively for a society like ours, individuals and societies dramatically enhance their well-being when they 'equalise self and other' in this way.

In other words, this is not a sentimental pipe dream – human beings can be fair and just, and they do experience benefits from being so.

The value of objective journalism, and indeed objective living, in this sense is clear enough. We know from research (see here) and our own experience that people who think only of themselves are as miserable as they are biased.

In his collection of spontaneous talks, 'Ta Hui – The Great Zen Master', Osho gave a powerful example of objectivity, in the sense intended here, from his own childhood:

'It happened that in my village, between my house and a temple, there was a piece of land. For some technical reason, my father was able to win the case if he took it to court - only on technical reasons. The land was not ours, the land belonged to the temple. But the technical reason was this: the map of the temple did not show that the land was in their territory. It was some fault of the municipal committee's clerical staff; they had put the land onto my father's property.

'Naturally in court there was no question; the temple had no right to say that it was their land. Everybody knew it was their land, my father knew it was their land. But the land was precious, it was just on the main street, and every technical and legal support was on my father's side. He brought the case to the court.

'I told him, "Listen" - I must have been not more than eleven years old – "I will go to the court to support the temple. I don't have anything to do with the temple, I have never even gone inside the temple, whatever it is, but you know perfectly well that the land is not yours."

'He said, "What kind of son are you? You will witness against your own father?"

'I said, "It is not a question of father and son; in the court it is a question of what is true. And not only will your son be there; your father I have also convinced."

'He said, "What!"

'I had a very deep friendship with my grandfather, so we had consulted. I had told him, "You have to support me because I am only eleven years old. The court may not accept my witnessing because I am not an adult, so you have to support me. You know perfectly well that the land is not ours."

'He said, "I am with you."

'So I told my father, "Just listen, from both sides, from your father and from your son... you simply withdraw the case; otherwise you will be in such a trouble, you will lose the case. It is only technically that you are able to claim. But we are not going to support a technical mistake on the part of the municipal clerk."

'He said, "You don't understand a simple thing, that a family means... you have to support your family."

'I said, "No, I will support the family only if the family is right. I will support whoever is right."

'He talked to my grandfather who said, "I have already promised your son that I will be going with him."

'My father said, "That means I will have to withdraw the case and lose that valuable piece of land!"

'He said, "What can be done about it? Your son is going to create trouble for you, and seeing the situation, that he will not in any way be persuaded, I have agreed with him - just to make his position stronger so that you can withdraw; it is better to withdraw than to get defeated."

'My father said, "But this is a strange family! I am working for you all. I am working for you, I am working for my son - I am not working for myself. If we can have a beautiful shop on that land you will have a better, more comfortable old age; he will have a better education in a better university. And you are against me."

'My grandfather said, "I am not against anybody, but he has taken my promise, and I cannot go against my word - at least as far as he is concerned - because he is dangerous, he may put me in some trouble. So I cannot deceive him; I will say whatever he is saying. And he is saying the truth - and you know it."

'So my father had to withdraw the case – reluctantly... but he had to withdraw the case. I asked my grandfather to bring some sweets so we can distribute them in the neighborhood. My father has come to his senses, it has to be celebrated. He said, "That seems to be the right thing to do."

'When my father saw that I was distributing sweets, he asked, "What are you doing? - for what? What has happened?"

'I said, "You have come back to your senses. Truth is victorious." And I gave him a sweet also.

'He laughed. He said, "I can understand your standpoint, and my own father is with you, so I thought it is better that I should also be with you. It is better to withdraw without any problem. But I have learned a lesson." He said to me, "I cannot depend on my family. If there is any trouble they are not going to support me just because they belong to me as father, as son, as brother. They are going to support whatever is true."

'And since that time no other situation ever arose, because he never did anything in which we had to disagree. He remained truthful and sincere.

'Many times in his life he told me, "It was so good of you; otherwise I was going to take that land, and I would have committed a crime knowingly. You prevented me, and not only from that crime, you prevented me from then onwards. Whenever there was a similar situation, I always decided in favor of truth, whatever the loss. But now I can see: truth is the only treasure. You can lose your whole life, but don't lose your truth."' (Osho, 'Ta Hui – The Great Zen Master', 1987, free e-book)

Objective journalism insists that 'I will support the family only if the family is right. I will support whoever is right.' If the facts show that the Iraq war was an unprovoked war of aggression, then objective journalism will describe it as such.

Unfortunately, of course, most corporate journalism says:

'I will support my family, my party, my newspaper, my corporation, my advertisers, my arms industry, my military, my country, my class, whether or not they are right. I will support whatever benefits me. I will highlight facts and voices in a tone that benefits the powerful interests that reward me. I will ignore facts and voices that might harm my career.'

Osho's father perceived his son's challenge as an attack: 'you are against me'. But in fact Osho was not against his father, nor was he for the temple – he was for the truth.

In 2012, Media Lens compared media reaction to the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a US soldier, with a massacre of 108 people in Houla, Syria, for which Western media found Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad personally responsible. We asked what evidence would be required before journalists found Obama personally responsible for such a massacre. Obviously, the involvement of US forces would need to be confirmed beyond doubt. These forces would need to have been acting under orders. Presumably, Obama would need to have signed these orders, or been aware of them and agreed to them on some level. But Syrian forces were instantly declared responsible, with Assad held personally responsible, even before the killers had been identified.

We were inviting readers to consider if ostensibly free, independent journalists treat foreign governments, especially Official Enemies of state, the same way they treat their own government and its leading allies. We were not against Obama any more than we were for Assad – we were for the truth.

Ironically, our attempts to challenge biased reporting in this way are regularly denounced as examples of ugly bias - we are described as 'pro-Assad', 'pro-Gaddafi', 'pro-Putin' 'genocide deniers', 'apologists for tyranny', and so on, often by people waging a kind of propaganda war against anyone challenging power.

More recently, we commented on the muted coverage of an Islamic State massacre of 38 people in an Afghan hospital:

'If Islamic State's attack had been on a French hospital, shooting doctors and patients, it would have been one of 2017's defining traumas.'

Again, this comment was no more 'pro-Afghan' than it was 'anti-French' – it pointed to a deep and dangerous bias in the way corporate media respond to suffering in the world.

Why do we care so much about this bias? Because, as Osho's anecdote suggests, all is not as it seems. It turns out that there are hidden costs to mendacity, just as there are hidden benefits to truth.

After decades spent honing its talent for suppressing profit-hostile fact and opinion, the corporate media system has become incapable of reporting truth even in the face of imminent disaster. The cost, in this age of catastrophic climate change, is becoming very clear.

 

David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org

 

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Category: Cogitations

Empires Of Self

'All the harm with which this world is rife,
All fear and suffering that there is,
Clinging to the "I" has caused it!
What am I to do with this great demon?' (Shantideva, 8th century, 'The Way of the Bodhisattva,' Shambhala, 1997, p.129)

 

First we believe in 'I', then we believe in 'mine'.

But 'mine' does not mean that we merely perceive external phenomena as 'belonging' to us. It means that our identity, our sense of self, flows into these external forms. They are unconsciously perceived as extensions of 'me'.

If a child is smacked, the pain is of course experienced as an attack on 'me'. But if the child's favourite toy is taken away, that also is perceived as an attack, as an agonising removal of part of 'me'.

Our sense of self flows into 'my' parents, 'my' family, 'my' friends. The anxiety and rage that erupt when someone tries to 'take' away 'my' boyfriend or girlfriend – as though a limb were to be amputated - indicates that the attempt is again experienced as a profound attack on 'me'.

Our sense of self flows into 'my' town, 'my' country, 'my' ethnic group, which we may protect from criticism as though defending our personal reputations. Millions are persuaded to fight and die to protect something called 'The Fatherland' or 'the one true God'. These warriors for The Cause are not driven to murderous rage by a dry intellectual position; they are defending extensions of themselves.

Human beings can identify with almost anything. For a football fan to say: 'We played really well to beat Chelsea 2-1', is about as crazy as a fan saying: 'I played really well to beat Chelsea 2-1.' The hatred and bitter rivalry between supporters are described as 'tribal'. In fact, it's what happens when selves collide – sprawling empires of self that have psychologically merged with groups of completely separate football players who, in reality, are not 'me'.

Our sense of identity flows into our abilities, work and beliefs. I am not just someone who practices medicine; fundamentally, 'I'm a doctor, Jim!' Or 'I'm a scientist,' a physicist, a journalist. Are these mere labels used for convenience? Not at all. If somebody questions our skill in an activity occupied by self, we will throw our toys exactly as we did when someone confiscated our spud gun as a child. Try criticising the child-rearing strategies of someone who strongly identifies with the role of 'father' or 'mother'. Or try criticising the way an editor runs 'his' or 'her' newspaper. Thus Roger Alton, then Observer editor, who responded to one polite, rational emailer:

'Have you just been told to write in by those c*nts at medialens? Don't you have a mind of your own?'
(Email forwarded, June 1, 2006)

As this indicates, when a perceived threat to the extended self enters the mind, rationality and restraint don't hang around for long. The spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle explains:

'I feel and act as if I were defending my very self. Unconsciously, I feel and act as if I were fighting for survival and so my emotions will reflect this unconscious belief. They become turbulent. I am upset, angry, defensive, or aggressive. I need to win at all cost lest I become annihilated. That's the illusion.' (Eckhart Tolle, 'A New Earth,' Penguin, 2005, p.121)

When ego has occupied a person, a job, a belief, we may defend these as if fighting for our lives. We see this every day on social media, where people identified with different arguments rage on and on, over days and weeks, sometimes months and years, in what can often feel like a no-holds-barred fight to the death.

Even open-minded progressives can respond to professional criticism like rednecks to the burning of 'the flag'. A few years ago, the Independent journalist Robert Fisk commented (immodestly) on the dissatisfaction of US readers with the US press:

'It is a tribute to their intelligence that instead of searching for blog-o-bots or whatever, they are looking to the European "mainstream" newspapers like The Independent, the Guardian, The Financial Times...

'I'm not some cranky left wing or right wing nut. We are a newspaper, that's the point. That gives us an authority - most people are used to growing up with newspapers. The internet is a new thing, and it's also unreliable.' (Justin Podur, 'Fisk: War is the total failure of the human spirit,' December 5, 2005, my emphasis)

'We are a newspaper, that's the point.' It certainly is. Fisk is deeply identified with his profession and indeed his employer. The identification comes at a cost. Fisk again:

'I have to be honest: I don't use the Internet. I've never seen a blog in my life. I don't even use email. I don't waste my time with this. I am not interested. I couldn't care less. I think the Internet has become a hate machine for a lot of people and I want nothing to do with it.' (Fisk, quoted, Antonia Zerbisias, 'Author Doesn't Give a Flying Fisk About Fisking,' Toronto Star/Commondreams, November 29, 2005)

Numerous commentators who broadly share Fisk's political views – Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, John Pilger et al - have hailed the obvious democratising potential of the internet. Web-based social media have massively empowered the rise of progressive Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, the Podemos party in Spain and candidate for presidential nomination Bernie Sanders in the US. Fisk has himself appeared on excellent, internet-based media like Democracy Now! and The Real News Network. Fisk's view of the internet was clearly divorced from reality.

Identification drives the remarkable phenomenon described by psychologist Erich Fromm: 'man's capacity of not observing what he does not want to observe; hence, that he may be sincere in denying a knowledge which he would have, if he wanted only to have it'. (Fromm, 'Beyond The Chains Of Illusion,' Abacus, 1989, p.94)

Just as journalists identify with their newspapers, so readers identify with the work of particular journalists – which explains why hackles rise whenever much-loved commentators like Fisk are subject to criticism, as we at Media Lens know only too well.

And just as the millions of obedient citizens persuaded, or forced, to lay down their lives for 'The Motherland' are never really dying for 'freedom' and 'democracy' in a world where 62 individuals possess as much wealth as half the world's population, so these empires of self are not really fighting for our happiness. When our identity flows into external phenomena, we are building on dynamite. W.B. Yeats wrote:

'Man is in love and loves what vanishes. What more is there to say?'

Everything is in flux, nothing stays the same. Our empires of self are doomed to be insecure and fearful, and therefore aggressive. We inevitably find ourselves fretting to establish, defend and stabilise our extended selves in the face of constant challenges and perceived threats. The Tibetan Buddhist 'Path Of Heroes' indicates how bad it can get:

'In turmoil, despising others... polluted with anger, resentment and envy – here, there, and everywhere, whatever we say is tinged with fury. We do not get along even with our companions; thinking of their faults, we have only complaints. We see all as our adversaries and take no one as an ally.' (Zhechen Gyaltsab Padma Gyurmed Namgyal, 'Path of Heroes, Birth of Enlightenment,' Dharma Publishing, 1995, p.193)

 

Dissolving The Empire - Disidentification

Though quietly sitting on a sofa, your heart is aflame. Something has angered you deeply - perhaps an insult from a 'so-called' friend or a 'deeply annoying' family member - and thoughts are cascading through your mind. You are analysing the insult from every angle, rehearsing different responses that you could have said and might yet say – you formulate one powerful retaliation after another.

Your whole effort is to respond, to hit back, to right the wrong. You believe, without any shadow of a doubt, that 'I am angry.' That is, you are fully identified with the anger – it is you. At no point does it occur to you that the pain of anger is a separate phenomenon from 'me'. It never occurs to you to stop focusing on the perceived cause of the pain – the insulting comment – and instead observe the pain. If you are the anger, if it is you, then how can you observe yourself? And why would you? But in fact you can observe the pain because it is separate, and that matters.

It is a remarkable fact that we can switch the focus of our awareness from our thoughts to the emotional pain in our chests. When we focus on thought, we channel the pain directly into thinking, a potent fuel supply that generates limitless further thoughts, which in turn generate more emotion in a positive feedback effect. A prime example of this is what we call a 'panic attack'.

Even a single fearful thought can spark an adrenalised ping in our guts with which we then identify: 'I'm going to have a panic attack', 'I'm freaking out.' This identification recycles the fuel of fearful emotion into our thinking, which then generates more fearful emotion in a rising spiral of fear. An alternative to being swept along by this thought-emotion spiral, is to stop focusing attention on the thoughts and instead focus on the fearful emotions.

When thoughts provoke an anxious reaction in our guts, we can focus our awareness on these adrenalised feelings, on their intensity, depth, fluctuation. We can focus on our heart beating rapidly, on the rise and fall of our lungs pulling in air. This attention on feeling breaks the thought-emotion feedback effect and the spiral of anxiety rising out of it. It is not that we are attempting to suppress the fear; on the contrary, we are trying to feel the fear as clearly as possible. The more attention we pay to the fearful sensations and the less attention we pay to the fearful thoughts fueling them, the more fear will subside. What this really means is that we are no longer identifying with the fear – we have created a gap: 'I' am here, the fear is there. This gap makes all the difference.

If I believe I am identical with fear, then I'm pretty much stuck with it. There's not much I can do beyond removing myself from the situation that seems to be causing the fear. But in reality, I am not the fear. Rather, I am the awareness that is able to perceive fear as a separate phenomenon contained within awareness. This dramatically blocks the ability of the 'panic' to control our minds and indeed to continue at all – when we disidentify and cut off the flow of thoughts, fear subsides and vanishes.

This is true for all painful emotions: we can identify with them and so hotwire their energy into thinking. Or we can view them as phenomena arising within, and witnessed by, awareness. Simply focusing attention on them, being aware of them - feeling them, without responding to them – disempowers them and may cause them to dissipate altogether. The additional surprise is that, in their place, we may find peace, joy, and a completely unexpected lovingkindness giving rise to curiously generous thoughts even towards people we ordinarily dislike.

This is not mere 'navel-gazing' as head-trapped intellectuals would have us believe. The ability to disidentify from external phenomena is a revolutionary step in the direction of individual and social sanity, and liberty.

As we have seen, identification can cause even highly intelligent, honest commentators to be almost comically biased, irrational and hostile. It is one of the most powerful factors defending professional journalism from honest criticism and reform. Journalists are so proud of their roles, of the organisations by which they are employed, that they light up with incandescent rage in response to even the mildest challenge. Enlightened beings aside, few of us are exempt. As a co-founder of Media Lens (in fact I'd like to stress here that the original idea was 'mine'!), I have long been aware of my own tragicomically heightened sensitivity to criticism of our project.

The point is not that any of us is completely free of these long-lived mental patterns, but that we are able to choose: to engage the attention 'clutch' channeling the pain of identification to our minds, generating further madness. Or to lift the 'clutch', disengage the mind from the emotional engine, and observe the emotion in our bodies.

This calms the mind and dissolves the emotion. It allows us to refrain from filling the world with yet more irrational, biased blather. It makes it more possible to hear and even welcome reasonable criticism. If we disengage our egos, criticism can actually, of course, be wonderfully helpful.

How much of the destructiveness of modern journalism, of the fossil fuel industry waging its crazy, suicidal campaign denying climate change, of the arms industries subordinating human welfare to profit, is rooted in this psychological mechanism? Deeply identified with their high-status jobs, their gold standard companies, their mighty industries, their elite class, corporate executives respond like angry infants to rational, well-intentioned critics warning of nothing less than impending catastrophe.

And this is the problem for everyone working for a saner world – the empires of self have an inbuilt defence mechanism against even, or perhaps especially, the most reasonable arguments. As many activists have found, tackling the titans of government and industry head-on risks amplifying the head-in-the-sand defensiveness of the inflamed egos we are challenging. It can actually make the target of criticism more blinkered, prompting them to retreat even further into impassioned unreason.

We spend our time well when we experiment with observing our thoughts and emotions, with disidentifying from them. Even the tiniest of gaps allows sanity to begin to dispel the 'nightmare of history'.

As Yeats observed, time will eventually steal away everything we love, including of course every last little part of our empire of self. The mind has no answer to the resultant suffering, other than to fret and rave, and chase its own tail. Directing awareness from thoughts to awareness of thoughts and feelings, allows us to find some peace no matter how chaotic and devastating the external conditions.

 

DE

Apologies for the recent interruption in Cogitations. I've been writing a science fiction novel on related themes, now more or less completed.

 

Further Reading and Watching

Nobody has explained the power of awareness better than Eckhart Tolle. His monthly talks and Q&As are a much-needed dose of sanity. I also recently came across this discussion on awareness in Tricycle magazine: 'The aim of attention.'

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The Cold, Hard Facts Of Life – A Reappraisal

 

The alarm clock rings. I set it myself but it feels like it's linked to some centralised system ordering the nation's workforce awake. I swing my feet out into an unwelcoming, cold room; put on my clothes, including grey socks, grey suit, black shoes, and the white shirt I ironed the night before. As usual, I leave the top button undone and attempt to hide my disobedience beneath a colourful, strangling tie. I have a sense that I'm able to breathe in the space between the open top button and the loose knot of the tie, that some small freedom resides there.

I crawl out onto an icy, pitch-black street to join a steadily growing stream of commuters flowing like rainwater down the gutters and into the London Tube. I'm aware of an internal resistance, like a hand pressing on my chest, against which I have to push. I travel one and a quarter hours, with a single change at Tottenham Court Road, journeying from the South to the West of London.

At White City, I walk past the BBC TV Centre and spend the day at a desk answering hundreds of calls placing orders for computer accessories that I input into a PC for rapid delivery. There are fifteen of us in the open-plan office. When a call goes unanswered for 10 seconds, a blue light flashes on the ceiling; after 15 seconds, a red light flashes. Thereafter, staff from the marketing and accounts departments are expected to rush in and hit the phones. Every call I take is logged: time, duration, revenue earned, returns subtracted.

I hate the job. In fact, I instantly disliked the job so intensely that I felt relief in knowing that I would only last a few days. In the event, I will work there for almost two years.

I'm doing the job because I've been persuaded that I can't do what I want in life (I certainly don't want to be there!). I believe that I have to do what I hate within a friendly but subtly intimidating, firmly controlling hierarchy. I've been told that my CV has to be fed on a strict diet of continuous, full-time work. I have to suffer it, swallow it, take it. I have to start at the bottom and work my way up. I have to pay the bills. These are the cold, hard facts of life. The only other option is to be stuck in mindless, low-paying work for the rest of my life.

But it turns out that when you set off down the path signposted, 'The Life I Hate,' you end up experiencing variations on the theme. 'The Life I Hate' doesn't typically turn into 'The Life I Love'. It turns into 'The Life I Hate' plus extra responsibility, workload and stress within the same authoritarian structure. And yes, more money and status.

There's another problem - the further you journey down the path of 'The Life I Hate', the further the path journeys into you. You become the path. If you force yourself to do what you hate, you have to become insensitive to your feelings. You have to become as cold, hard and tough as the life you're leading. So you become adept at tuning out on early morning commutes across London to sit in grim business meetings, and hopeless at knowing what it is you would really love to do; hopeless at detecting and following that feeling, at enjoying your life.

Because tuning out is so vital, corporate executives tolerate enough truth to satisfy their consciences, but not enough to challenge their way of life. If you read the Guardian and watch the BBC, you can continue working for the Government, Big Pharma, Big Oil. If you read Noam Chomsky, say - if you really read him and take the issues seriously - you can't. Well you can, but you will be tugging your heart in opposite directions. At one point, while working as a marketing manager, I decided to stop reading radical politics and philosophy – I literally threw my books away. The internal conflict was too painful, making me feel much worse about the work. But I continued leafing through the Guardian and watching the BBC, no problem.

 

Finding The Horses

Somerset Maugham described the lives of 'most people':

'They are like tram-cars travelling for ever on the self-same rails. They go backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, inevitably, till they can go no longer and then are sold as scrap-iron.' (W. Somerset Maugham, The Lotus Eater, Collected Short Stories, Volume Four, Pan, 1976, p.180)

Joseph Campbell played a big part in sending me off the rails:

'My answer is, "Follow your bliss." There's something inside you that knows when you're in the centre, that knows when you're on the beam or off the beam. And if you get off the beam to earn money, you've lost your life. And if you stay in the centre and don't get any money, you still have your bliss.' (Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, 'The Power of Myth', Doubleday, 1988, p.229)

If 'bliss' sounds a bit soppy, Campbell clarified:

'The way to find about your happiness is to keep your mind on those moments when you feel most happy, when you really are happy - not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy. This requires a little bit of self-analysis. What is it that makes you happy?' (p.155)

But what about money, the mortgage, eating? What about the cold, hard facts of life? Campbell's advice: forget it, just do the thing you love – don't give it a second thought. Things tend to work out when you do what you love, because you're a lot better at it than you are at money-motivated tasks.

Alas, many people, particularly those of us who hauled ourselves up the school, college and career ladder, are not attuned to our bliss. It's a melancholy sight when people stuck in work they hate, reply with a hopeless shrug: 'But I don't know what my bliss is.'

Consider British spiritual teacher Russel Williams - now an extraordinary, vibrant 95-year-old - who qualified as an electrician during the Second World War, and who had the option to start up an electrical business:

'That was the plan... And I realised that if I followed this path – starting up this business – it wouldn't make me happy.' (Russel Williams, 'Not I, Not Other Than I,' O-Books, e-edition, Steve Taylor ed., 2015, pp.136-7)

Contemplating several possibilities, all of them felt like, 'The Life I Hate':

'The only thing left was to walk away – literally – and hope that something would show me where I was supposed to be going. So I left, with just a few shillings in my pocket. It was the summer of 1945. I started walking, and carried on, walking and walking. I lost track of time. It could have been weeks or months.' (pp.137-8)

Crossing a moor one day, Williams met a showman with a broken-down bus. They struck up a conversation and the man asked him:

'Do you know anything about horses?' (p.138)

Williams ended up grooming, feeding and watering horses for a circus. But this became much more than just a job:

'I grew to love the animals. I felt a strong connection with them. It was impossible not to, living with them 24 hours a day.' (pp.140-1)

He was determined to understand the horses fully, wholly, through careful observation:

'So I set my mind to watching and observing every detail, every moment of the day, for days on end.

'After about three months, as I became more concentrated on the horses, I noticed that I wasn't thinking anymore. My mind had gone quiet. I realised that knowing and thinking are two different things, and that you could know without thinking... I had a strong feeling that I was finally going in the right direction, that this was my path...' (p.141)

Williams later realised that the task he had set himself was actually a form of mindfulness meditation:

'In effect, I was meditating about 20 hours a day, 7 days a week for three years, completely absorbed in caring for the horses. It was a life of continual service, with no thought for myself.' (pp.141-2)

At the end of this time, Williams describes a profound shift in awareness, in fact an enlightenment experience, that has never left him. He has been president of the Buddhist Society of Manchester since 1974, but does not consider himself a Buddhist.

My own experience of walking away from 'The Life I Hate' was easier on the shoe-leather. I walked the short distance from the office to my flat one summer lunchtime and never went back. I had decided to follow Campbell's advice, with no idea of what work I could do that might replace corporate work, and no idea how I would feed myself when my few savings ran out. But I had decided I would no longer do what I hated for money and would instead do what I loved, for nothing.

In my case, that meant writing political essays, philosophical essays, stories, observations, jokes – hundreds of pages of them. By the next spring, I was supporting myself by teaching English to foreign students three hours a day. Compared to my full-time office life, it was like floating on a cloud. Best of all, I only had to work half-time, and could spend the rest of the day just reading and writing.

The important thing, I think, is not so much to follow but to locate your bliss. In truth, once you've found it, there is nowhere to go - it's inside you. Simply slowing down, working part-time, helps us get away from the more maddening, exhausting aspects of work that swamp any attempt at introspection. This allows us to become more mindful, which actually means more mindempty, less bogged down in thought.

As Williams found in observing his horses, when we pay close attention to something other than thought, thoughts subside. When that happens, we make an astonishing discovery: inside us, lies a source of great peace, kindness and joy that is ordinarily obscured by clouds of thinking. This is what Buddhists call our 'Buddha nature'. It is that simple. And that difficult, because the whole world is ceaselessly insisting, with great certainty, that our bliss is out there: in him, her, this far-flung country, that exotic job, this salary, that mewling infant... We have always looked out there; it has never occurred to us to look inside.

We are distracted from, unaware of, the happiness that is forever blazing away inside. Certainly it is a mighty force, but then the world is a planet-sized distraction preventing us from noticing.

 

The Great Escape

I thought I had to tramp the Tube, hack my way through endless business meetings, to somehow end up in a better place. And yet I found a better place by simply walking away. So what about the cold, hard facts: earnings, pension, financial security?

If following your bliss is your highest value, financial security cannot be a key concern. You can't do what you love because you love it and because you've identified a little 'niche market'. Yes, one might conceivably live a more difficult life in some ways and even die earlier as a result. But then, in my corporate career, I was not fully alive, either. The time I spent in those offices was a threadbare, hair-shirted, hovel of an existence. I sacrificed hundreds of weeks, years of my life, to financial security, the CV. In the 25 years since I hung up my business uniform, I have avoided numberless miserable, stressful and, above all, achingly boring moments.

By contrast to these real savings, the thousands of pounds my early 'retirement' cost me are insignificant causes of dubious benefit. I've never really noticed the absence of that money; I've never needed it. But I needed the freedom to do what I want. And what a treasure that is: to be free to do what you want on any given day. To do what you really love to do when you want to do it. And to not do it, if you don't want to.

The world does not end when we follow our bliss, quite the reverse. The destruction of the environment is driven by wage slaves who can never have enough because they're trying to find the life they love by travelling deeper into the life they hate. When more self-betrayal makes us feel even emptier, we keep stuffing that emptiness, turning the world into a version of the wasteland we feel inside. When we sacrifice our bliss, our present moment, for some supposedly Higher Cause, our heart dies, the rainforests die, the climate dies, people die. The conformist grey of our suit, the unaliveness we feel as we trudge to work, spreads, suffocates and kills.

The great escape begins with slowing down, leaping barbed-wire thoughts, tunnelling attention into the body, and finding a centre of comfort, of bliss, there. As Williams says with wonderful simplicity:

'The main thing is to be aware of being comfortable within. If you can do that, you can observe things which come in and produce a little discomfort, and examine why they produce the discomfort. You can quietly observe them and then return to the comfort.' (p.218)

 

David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org

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The Failure Of The Left

 

In Arthur Koestler's novel Darkness At Noon, N.S. Rubashov, founding father of 'the revolution', stands convicted of treason against tyrannical leader 'No. 1'. But Rubashov knows that his real guilt lies elsewhere:

'Why had not the Public Prosecutor asked him: "Defendant Rubashov, what about the infinite?" He would not have been able to answer - and there lay the real source of his guilt... Could there be a greater?'

What about uncertainty, what about the Unknown? How could Rubashov be sure that the tyranny his party had imposed on the people would truly deliver them to some socialist utopia?

'What had he said to them? "I bow my knees before the country, before the masses, before the whole people..." And what then? What happened to these masses, to this people? For forty years it had been driven through the desert, with threats and promises, with imaginary terrors and imaginary rewards. But where was the Promised Land?

'Did there really exist any such goal for this wandering mankind? That was a question to which he would have liked an answer before it was too late. Moses had not been allowed to enter the land of promise either. But he had been allowed to see it, from the top of the mountain, spread at his feet. Thus, it was easy to die, with the visible certainty of one's goal before one's eyes. He, Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov, had not been taken to the top of a mountain; and wherever his eye looked, he saw nothing but desert and the darkness of night.'

Leftists and environmentalists have also not been allowed to enter the land of promise, or to see it from the mountain top.

Instead, we see the looming tsunami of climate catastrophe blotting out the sun, obscuring hopes of a decent future. We witness the astonishing spectacle of global society failing to respond to a threat so severe that scientists warn that even a few more decades of business-as-usual could result in human extinction. We absorb the crushing defeat since 1988 - the year the United Nations set up its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - of our inability to overcome corporate resistance to mounting, now mountainous, evidence of approaching disaster.

After decades of intense effort, which many of us felt sure would culminate in a steadily saner society prioritising people over profit, we also can see 'nothing but desert and the darkness of night'.

 

The Elusive Turning Point

The 1980s explosion of public interest in green issues had writers like Edward Goldsmith and Fritjof Capra heralding 'The Great U-Turn','The Turning Point' that would transform society into a rational, sustainable, 'solar' economy.

How naïve and deterministic these predictions seem now with the green movement long overwhelmed by a corporate backlash that has supersize people driving supersize cars through an eruption of global consumption, with 'green concern' reduced to a niche marketing strategy targeting privileged elites.

Three decades later, the whole world flies the whole world for any reason it can conceive: a weekend shopping trip to New York, a day trip to Rome, a school trip to LA, a 'holiday of a lifetime' this year and every year. The world's famous sights are now rammed in tourist gridlock.

In other words, the noisy, optimistic greens of the 1980s and 1990s should be suffering a mass nervous breakdown about now. So, also, should the left, which woke late to the crisis of climate change. In an interview, the Canadian Dimensions website asked Noam Chomsky:

'In a lot of your writing ecological concerns seem to have come to the fore only fairly recently or at least didn't figure as prominently in your earlier writings on foreign policy.'

Chomsky replied:

'Well, the severity of the problem wasn't really recognized until the 1970s and then increasingly in the 1980s.'

True enough, but in books like Deterring Democracy (1992), Year 501 (1993), and World Orders, Old And New (1994), Chomsky devoted just one or two paragraphs to climate change at a time when green commentators were trying to amplify the urgent alarm raised in the US Congress by NASA climate scientist James Hansen in 1988. Chomsky's book Powers and Prospects (1996) contains no mention of the issue at all. By contrast, Chomsky concentrated heavily on issues like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - hardly insignificant, but trivial by comparison.

Unlike Chomsky, who in 2013 published Nuclear War And Environmental Catastrophe with Laray Polk (Seven Stories Press), many high-profile writers on the left continue to have little or nothing to say about climate change. Why?

Leftists are typically rooted in the 17th century Western Enlightenment conviction that humanity should use reason, notably the scientific method, to radically transform both society and the natural world to the benefit of mankind. Leftists have been reluctant to perceive a fundamental problem with high-tech industrial 'progress' per se, focusing instead on the need to share the fruits more equably.

Greens argue that the 'conquest of nature' (both human and environmental) delivers pyrrhic victories because human reason is simply not equal to the task. The complexity and unknown (and perhaps unknowable) nature of the human and natural systems involved means that in 'improving' one aspect of life, we very often create entirely unforeseen and perhaps unmanageable chaos elsewhere.

The left just did not want to hear the bad news that there might be a deep problem with the scientific-industrial project, with the whole idea that the world can be endlessly 'improved'. While corporate elites put themselves first and leftists prioritised humanity, greens argued that we should respect the needs of the ecosystem as a whole.

Despite the failure to address climate change, there are few signs of soul-searching in left-green circles. For example, anyone wondering what happened to Jonathan Porritt – an inspirational spokesman for green revolution in the 1980s – need look no further than his recent comment on Twitter:

'Big bash yesterday celebrating 3 years of @Unilever's USLP [Unilever Sustainable Living Plan]. CEO Paul Polman in great form: much achieved but so much to do.'

Has much been achieved in the 25 years since James Hansen and other scientists raised the alarm? In 2009, Hansen estimated the percentage of required action implemented to address the climate crisis at precisely '0%'. (Email, Hansen to Media Lens, June 18, 2009) Since then, carbon emissions, consumption and temperatures have continued to soar.

And this is hardly the only failure we've faced in recent times. Consider the 'convergence' of 'mainstream' politics – Blair's 1997 corporate coup d'état that removed any semblance of 'mainstream' left opposition in the UK, so that we are free only to choose from a selection of representatives of corporate rather than popular power.

Or consider the entrenchment of Orwellian 'Perpetual War' – the state-corporate determination to bomb someone, somewhere, every couple of years for reasons that have everything to do with realpolitik and nothing to do with reason or righteousness, or 'the responsibility to protect'. Despite self-evident crimes resulting in mass death on a scale that almost defies imagination, the left has failed to resist the warmongering tide in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Sierra Leone, Yemen, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq (again).

As recently as August 2013, even after the deceptions of Iraq and Libya, both corporate and non-corporate dissidents were lending credence to US propaganda blaming Syrian president Assad for chemical weapons attacks in Damascus. Leading weapons expert, Professor Ted Postol of MIT commented on these claims:

'To me, the fact that people are not focused on how the [Obama] administration lied is very disturbing and shows how far the community of journalists and the community of so-called security experts has strayed from their responsibility... I am concerned about the collapse of traditional journalism and the future of the country.'

Given the above, the left-green movement might be expected to share Rubashov's crisis of conscience and confidence – many have deceived themselves that they know, with absolute certainty, how to make the world a better place. But do they? Are they right?

The confidence, in fact arrogance, of many 'progressives' has been so overweening that they have simply dismissed thousands of years of insight into these problems from non-Western sources whose understanding of human psychology and, by implication, social change far exceeds almost anything found in the West (an issue to which I'll return in a later Cogitation).

 

Is Anyone At The Wheel?

The failure to respond to climate catastrophe has to raise urgent questions for anyone trying to address human and animal suffering. Even to compare this failure with political and media enthusiasm for 'action' in response to the absurd, credibly dismissed, and in fact completely non-existent threat from Iraq's WMD in 2002-2003 is astonishing.

We assume our society is able to act rationally, but is it in fact only able to respond to threats (real or imagined) that serve vested interests? Has our political system evolved to respond in ways that increase short-term profit, but not to threats that could be averted by harming profit? Perhaps no actual agency exists with sufficient power to counter this deadly bias. Perhaps no-one rational, in fact, is at the wheel.

One also cannot help wondering about the hidden ideological obstacles to the idea that human beings could face extinction in the next 50 or 100 years.

What we call 'progress' is strongly imbued with a sense of 'manifest destiny'. The rapid empowerment of science and technology naturally gives the impression that they are leading somewhere better, not worse. As environmental writer Paul Kingsnorth comments:

'A society that takes progress as its religion does not look kindly on despair. If you are expected to believe everything will keep getting better, it can be difficult to admit to believing otherwise.'

Especially when billions of advertising dollars – all in the business of promising a better life - have a vested interested in denial. It surely seems inconceivable to many in awe of the high-tech revolution that an iPad could emerge shortly before we are erased from the face of the earth. It is a story that makes no sense. Even committed atheists may have a subtle faith in the idea that the human journey cannot be merely absurd – that we could not develop, flourish and suddenly vanish. Surely science and technology will save the day – surely the great adventure of 'progress' will not collapse from glittering 'peak' to catastrophe. Science has long given us a sense that we have 'conquered' and 'escaped' nature. It is humbling, humiliating, to even imagine that we might yet be annihilated by nature.

Science fiction writers and film-makers have saturated society with the idea that our manifestly unsustainable way of life is part of an almost pre-ordained journey to an ever more high-tech lifestyle. A glamorous future among the stars, however fraught with alien menace, seems to have been mapped out for us. Although humankind has remained stubbornly stuck at the Moon for 40 years, there seems little doubt about what the future will bring. But will it? Is it possible that this idea of human development is fundamentally misguided? Should we be more focused on moving in rather than out? (Our society is by now so divorced from spiritual awareness that the question may appear meaningless.) What if the reality of our situation on this planet makes a complete nonsense of the science fictional vision of 'progress'?

Similarly, is it really possible for the many believers in a theistic God to accept the possibility of near-term human extinction? Can they conceive that we were created by a divine being only to be wiped out by a giant fart of industrial gas? What kind of deity would play such games? Theists precisely reject the idea of a random, meaningless universe. But what could be more nihilistic than industrial 'progress' culminating in self-extinction? What does it mean for the promise of 'the second coming', for the teaching of the prophets down the ages, and so on?

 

Drawing Water From The Corporate Well

Writing in the Guardian, George Monbiot asks a good, related question:

'We appear to possess an almost limitless ability to sit back and watch as political life is seized by plutocrats; as the biosphere is trashed... How did we acquire this superhuman passivity?'

Instead of organising to change the world, Monbiot perceives a superficial society lost in a 'national conversation – in public and in private – that revolves around the three Rs: renovation, recipes and resorts?'

This certainly describes the typical fare served up by the newspaper that pays Monbiot to embed his left-green concerns alongside its soul-bleaching, advertiser-friendly pap. Monbiot's Rousseauvian conclusion:

'Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chainstores.'

And indeed, flip a page in any number of chainstores and you will find Monbiot's earnest, kindly face smiling out at you.

In truth, corporate dissidents like Monbiot have played a crucial role in persuading intelligent, caring, potentially progressive readers to continue drawing water from the corporate well. Journalist Owen Jones, also of the Guardian, tells Media Lens (to paraphrase): 'You are irrelevant, reaching no-one. I am reaching a mass audience.'

But reaching a mass audience with what?

The filtered content of corporate news and commentary, saturated with corporate advertising of every stripe, makes a mockery of these rare glimpses of dissent.

Imagine the impact of reading an article on climate change by a Monbiot or a Jones and then turning the page to an American Airlines advert for reduced-fare flights to New York. Or imagine turning to the front cover of a colour supplement that reads:

'Time is running out... Ski resorts are melting... Paradise islands are vanishing... So what are you waiting for? 30 places you need to visit while you still can - A 64-page Travel Special.'

This concussive car crash of reality and illusion - of calls for action to address a grave crisis alongside calls to quit worrying and embrace the consumerism that has precisely created the crisis – delivers a transcendent message that the crisis isn't that serious, things aren't that bad.

The collision delivers the crippling lesson that the truth of looming catastrophe is only one of several versions of reality on offer – we can choose. We can even pick 'n' mix. We can enjoy a moral workout while commuting to our corporate office, feel enraged about the climate, Iraq, dolphins. Then we can turn to the business section, or think about buying a new car, or choose the next trip abroad. Later, we can watch a David Attenborough documentary about the wonders of the natural world without giving much of a damn about the fact that these wonders are being obliterated.

Corporate dissidents are a rational, compassionate, reassuring presence persuading us that compartmentalised moral concern is part of a healthy, balanced corporate media diet and lifestyle. As discussed, like Owen Jones, Monbiot's earnest portrait in the Guardian peers out from a crowd of corporate adverts, entertainments, perspectives. We look at his concerned face in this context and see a guy like us, living as we live and work. Are we better-informed, more impassioned, more radical than he is? Surely not. So if he lives this way – if he is willing to be employed by the very corporate system against which he is ostensibly rebelling, the system that is killing us - why shouldn't we?

There is no question that corporate media teach 'mainstream' propaganda values. The Guardian, for example, taught us to see Blair as a great moral force; it taught us to see the 'Iraq threat' as something more than a cynical fraud. More recently, it has been teaching us to swallow the West's claimed 'responsibility to protect' in Libya and Syria, and even (without so much as blinking an eye) in Iraq, a country in desperate need of protection from the West.

But crucially, the Guardian and other media also teach us dissent, even as they teach us to crave the luxury products and lifestyles they sell. And so their most devastating lesson of all is that this cognitive dissonance can be embraced, accepted, left unresolved, year after year. We are trained to live with absurdity, to embrace it as 'normal'. We have been numbed to the insanity of the way we live and think. And in the face of approaching apocalypse, we are numb, and dumb, and unmoved.

In the early 1990s, Phil Lesly, author of a handbook on public relations and communications, revealed a key secret of corporate control:

'People generally do not favour action on a non-alarming situation when arguments seem to be balanced on both sides and there is a clear doubt... There is no need for a clear-cut "victory"... Nurturing public doubts by demonstrating that this is not a clear-cut situation in support of the opponents usually is all that is necessary.' (Lesly, 'Coping with Opposition Groups,' Public Relations Review 18, 1992, p.331)

Corporate media reports and commentary 'nurturing public doubts' overwhelm occasional dissenting pieces. Adverts also loudly sell a corporate version of invincible 'Normality' (with no balancing perspectives allowed or even imagined). All insist we are facing 'a non-alarming situation'.

Corporate dissidents deliver their strongest, most impassioned arguments. Corporate media gratefully receive these arguments, position them among their low-cost flight and sofa deals, and in effect say to readers:

'See, even this has a place here, fits here, is compatible here.'

So while corporate dissidents have indeed reached a mass audience through the 'quality' press, they have drawn that mass audience into a corporate killing zone.

Isn't it obvious that everything hosted by corporate media is diminished and degraded? As the American philosopher Thoreau observed:

'I have learned that trade curses everything it handles; and though you trade in messages from heaven, the whole curse of trade attaches to the business.' (Thoreau, Walden)

Left-green groups have achieved so little, in part because they have embraced corporate dissent and corporate dissent truly is cursed by the trade handling its messages from heaven. Consequently, these movements have been cursed, crushed, neutralised, neutered, made nonsensical by cooperating with a media system that is the sworn enemy of everything they are trying to achieve - deep change to the status quo.

The unwritten quid pro quo of media inclusion is such that these groups have refused even to comment on the structural bias of a corporate media system reporting on a world dominated by corporations. Why? Because, as they tell us, 'We have to work with the media'. Attentive readers will catch occasional swipes at 'the media', at the tabloids, at everyone's favourite punch bag, the BBC. But the de facto ban on discussing the oxymoron that is a corporate 'free press' strongly supports the illusion that no such contradiction exists. If even the boldest, most honest dissidents are not alerting readers to the problem, then those readers are being hung out on a hundred propaganda lines to dry.

The fatalistic impression given is that no-one and nothing can really escape the grip of corporate 'normality', of corporate control. Cooperation helps sell this 'normality' as Higher Truth – we all prioritise comfort, luxury, earning more, consuming more, travelling more.

It doesn't take much imagination to understand that every system of unaccountable power benefits from employing a handful of individuals admired for their honesty about everything except that which threatens their unaccountable employer.

We might well dismiss all of the above as speculative and inconclusive, but for the fact that the argument is given immense, urgent weight by the catastrophic failure of the left on climate change.

And yet, to reiterate, even now corporate dissidents are not engaging in this kind of soul-searching – they cannot because corporate journalists may not discuss the problem of a corporate 'free press' in the corporate press.

 

DE

 

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