When Consumers Become Citizens – Teenage Rebellion And The Second Superpower

The word that keeps tumbling out of the mouths of journalists – often, we suspect, to their horror – is the adjective ‘unprecedented’. The 2 million strong peace march in London was ‘unprecedented’. The round of applause at the UN Security Council in response to the February 14 speech by the French Foreign Minister was ‘unprecedented’. The level of US isolation globally is ‘unprecedented’. The rebellion in parliament against the government is ‘unprecedented’ – as is the Franco-Russian determination to veto the United States, as is the warning of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that war without UN backing would be illegal under international law, as is cabinet minister Clare Short’s description of Tony Blair’s policy as “extraordinarily reckless”, as is Blair’s failure to sack her, and so on.

These are remarkable times – less like riding a roller coaster and more like riding an accelerating, ascending rocket of rebellion, sanity and hope. In the space of a few short months, humanity has roused itself from the recurring nightmare of history – of bulldozer violence forever powered by oleaginous lies – and has flung open the curtains to let in the light.

“Alas, our sorrows fall in endless streams!”, cried the 8th century sage, Shantideva. But the world has perhaps at last begun to recognise the wisdom of Shantideva’s observation in response to his own lament:

“All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others.
All the misery the world contains
Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.”

Humanity, quite simply, has shown what it is capable of. American dissident, Phyllis Bennis, writes of how the US superpower has been joined on the world stage by a second superpower – global public opinion. This new superpower is not afraid of anyone.

There is a sense that the tiny group of men manipulating the levers that direct the gargantuan machinery and weaponry of state are discovering that they can choose to ignore the public if they like, but they will surely be destroyed politically in the process.

At the end of the day we are more than them; they derive their power from us. This is the golden rule of all Machiavellian ‘realism’, it is the fundamental lesson of realpolitik – you have to fool the people, you cannot let them see what you are really about. In their sheer, blinding hubris, Blair, Bush, Powell and Perle have simply forgotten this lesson.

It is nevertheless quite possible that the US/UK elite will launch its attack on Iraq, but however easily it demolishes Iraq’s conscript army, it cannot demolish the tidal wave of public awareness, commitment and protest that has swept the globe. All around the world, millions of people who seemed never to have been concerned with international politics before – ordinary people living ordinary lives – are watching distant politicians like hawks. This is marvellous!

We find we have to keep reminding ourselves that during the last UK general election media coverage of foreign policy issues constituted 2% of all election reporting – the media, like all the political parties, decided that foreign policy had nothing whatever to do with the public, which couldn’t care less anyway, they presumed. We have to keep reminding ourselves that this is the public that has been brought up on this kind of ITN news report:

“And the main headline this lunchtime: Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles have appeared as a couple, in public, for the first time.” (ITN 1 O’Clock News, January 29, 1999)

And on this kind of radio broadcast:

“Men spend more in supermarkets than women says a new survey. Women prefer cooking in the nude.” (Virgin Radio, December 2, 1999)

And on talk shows where the subject for debate is:

“Shopping or sex: which is better?”

Writing in the Guardian, Rod Liddle, former editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, dismissed the idea that TV had become idiotic as arrogant nonsense:

“When we allege that TV has ‘dumbed down’, what exactly do we mean? Certainly not that it is dumber than it used to be – because clearly it isn’t. More like it’s dumber than we are, or dumber than we like to think we are. Meaning the rest of the population, those people who settled down, uncomplainingly, to watch acres of the stuff every evening are – comfortingly – our intellectual inferiors. We are complaining about what other people want; not about television itself.” (Rod Liddle, ‘News to me’, the Guardian, 19.11.01)

The issue is not that TV reporting is merely dumbed down, it has had almost all meaning processed out of it. There is often no attempt to explore the key issues behind key problems. Politicians, for example, can claim that the threat of force is required to persuade Saddam to disarm only because the public is largely unaware of what was achieved by Unscom inspectors between 1991-98. Politicians can claim that Saddam might pass on his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to terrorists only because people don’t know how quickly any hidden WMD would have become useless sludge. Politicians can claim that an attack on Iraq is about liberating its people, rather than its oil, because the public is unaware of what the US/UK did to Iraq’s neighbour, Iran, and why, from 1953 onwards (even though government records are now freely available, and very clear).

The widespread establishment sympathies of the media mean that while there is a willingness to gently challenge power, there is a deep reluctance to publicly embarrass power. Politicians subtly indicate when journalists are straying out of bounds by suggesting that a certain line of argument is ‘silly’, ‘nonsense’, or ‘a conspiracy theory’. Thus, all discussion of oil as a motive for war on Iraq is met with a sigh and, ‘I’m sorry but this is just ridiculous’. The clear warning is that journalists who pursue this line of thinking are being unprofessional and risk losing credibility. Because the leading political parties have the same interest in avoiding the same issues, they all reinforce this same smearing of journalistic integrity in the same way.

Teenage Citizens – We Just Walked Out

The frustration of the public in the face of political stonewalling and the determined media refusal to ask even the most obvious questions challenging obvious lies is reaching boiling point. Most recently (ITV, March 11), it was heartbreaking to see grieving mothers and girlfriends, who had lost sons and partners to terrorism in the World Trade Centre and Bali, attempting to reach the prime minister. The sight of this meeting between total emotional and intellectual sincerity on the one hand, and unblinking, professional realpolitik, on the other, froze the blood and was almost too painful to bear.

By contrast, what a fantastic inspiration it was to see thousands of teenagers taking to the streets to protest the war in London and other cities around Britain. About 500 teenagers gathered in Whitehall, and 200 – some as young as 13 – protested outside the Houses of Parliament. There were other big demonstrations in Birmingham, Sheffield, Liverpool and Milton Keynes. In Birmingham, fully 350 pupils from Queensbridge School walked out to take part in a march in the city centre with students.

Sam Beste, the organiser of a walk out from Fortismere School in North London, told BBC News Online:

“We just walked out of the school at break-time. There are now about 60 of us from our school. More would have come, but the teachers locked the gates after we left. We are against the war and this is the next step in our campaign to raise our voices against the war.” (Angela Harrison, ‘Pupils walk out over war’, BBC News Online, March 5, 2003)

Fortismere’s deputy head teacher Martin Henson said he was horrified by the pupils’ actions.

“It is irresponsible and dangerous to do this. The organisers are sixth-formers but many of the children who have gone with them are younger. They should be in school. They have whipped up a frenzy over this and will be in a lot of trouble when they get back. Whoever organised this across the schools was fantastically irresponsible.”

History teaches that nothing could be more fantastically +responsible+ than for individuals to assume personal responsibility for the suffering and well-being of others. Mr. Henson’s students would be justified in teaching him the lesson outlined by American philosopher Henry David Thoreau in his classic essay, On Civil Disobedience:

“The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines with their bodies… they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones… Yet such as these are esteemed good citizens… A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it. A wise man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be clay.”

One 15 year old from William Ellis School in Highgate said:

“From everything I heard war is unnecessary to do what they want to do – there are other ways of achieving their aims.”

These are awesome words coming from such a young person. That teenagers care enough to consider the facts and to come to a reasoned, considered judgement is a genuinely auspicious sign for the future. This, after all, is the same generation that has been endlessly bombarded with mass consumer advertising, boy/girl band pop, ‘shoot ’em up’ films and video games. It has been trained to care about nothing beyond shopping, buying, consuming, dating, looking good and ‘cool’, and achieving high-paid work to pay for the high status cars, houses and holidays that are supposed to constitute the ‘good life’.

The determination to corrupt the minds of children has been remorseless and fanatical. Thus, according to a senior vice president of Grey Advertising:

“It isn’t enough to just advertise on television… You’ve got to reach kids throughout their day – in school, as they’re shopping at the mall… or at the movies. You’ve got to become part of the fabric of their lives.”

(Quoted, Sharon Beder, Global Spin, Green Books, 1997, p.163)

Kids ‘R’ Us president, Mike Searles, said:

“If you own this child at an early age… you can own this child for years to come.” (ibid)

The deeper, political impact of consumer brainwashing is clear, as Michael Jacobson and Laurie Ann Mazur note in their book, Marketing Madness:

“Consumers are taught personal incompetence and dependence on mass-market producers”. They are taught that being a citizen “means no more than being a consumer.” (Westview Press, 1995, p.13)

It is a cause of genuine hope that the most sophisticated and relentless brainwashing propaganda campaign in all human history has manifestly failed – the world has declared with one voice that being a citizen is about far more than being a consumer. The school walk-outs, like the 2 million strong march, are an awesome testament to the resilience and compassion of the human spirit.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to the heads of BBC news and ITN expressing your views:

Richard Sambrook, BBC director of news.

Email: [email protected]

Jonathan Munro, head of ITN newsgathering.

Email: [email protected]

Write to the editors of The Guardian and The Observer:

Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor

Email: [email protected]

Roger Alton, Observer editor

Email: [email protected]

Simon Kelner, Independent editor

Email: [email protected]

Leonard Doyle, Independent foreign editor

Email: [email protected]