Disappearing World Forum Q&A Session with Arundhati Roy, held at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, 2013
One could write a never-ending book about all that is contained in and around this event so it will be difficult to write anything short here. I could say something romantic about ugliness and beauty, about the drama of our existence, of exploiter and the exploited, of greed and resistance to that greed. Or about the possibility that we humans are flawed in our very DNA and evolution and may never be capable of collective peace and goodwill to all. I could say history is never in the past. I could say ideology is profound, especially when it has almost unlimited power driving it into plastic labile minds. I could say capitalism is a fundamental threat to the survival of almost all living things – especially humans. I could say corporate neoliberal rule is designed to exacerbate the logic of capitalism which is ceaseless accumulation and the commodification of all things. Or I could focus on the institution and histories and ideologies and power relations that brought those specific questioners there at that particular time. Or I could focus on Arundhati and all she is representing and all the superlatives that would flow from there. All of the strength, intelligence, elegance, beauty, all of the eloquence, patience, and fortitude. Or I could point out her seeming prescience about our current state of affairs, which was actually a clear-eyed left analysis that has been on the right (correct) side of history for generations, along with common sense ideas like fairness, justice, right and wrong…and feelings, like passion and empathy. Well, the never-ending book won’t start now, so here ends this bit of thought and feeling, digitized, and published for those few who will come across it.
To be clear, I would have posted this under any administration. The u.s. has always been closer to despotism than democracy. These last many decades have put the ruling class firmly on the despotic end of the scale.
I think the question of whether the establishment media is racist is directly tied to whether “the country” is racist. If it was explored deeply enough, it would illuminate quite a few fundamental truths of this big confused country. There are so many aspects to these topics, that many books could be (and have been) written about them, so it will be difficult to limit this discussion to a few tweets. Maybe I’ll write on it for a bit, extract some tweets, and then give you a link to it.
Racism has been a significant element in american media from the beginning. From omission to gross caricatures, from mischaracterization to enforcing and re-enforcing stereotypes, to outright lies. When you include the entertainment industry, the racism goes off the charts. Donald Bogle is a great source for this. In news media, the list is just as long and damaging. There are endless historical examples of papers actively promoting slavery, and when they couldn’t promote slavery, they promoted racism. Yes, even in the north. When they couldn’t actively promote racism, they became more subtle, but the effects were often the same. For an indication of how far the media had come by 1967, I would cite the Kerner Report. By ’68 I would just cite reality. For a more contemporary view, just look at what the establishment media tried to do to Ferguson. It was so bad, so quickly, that the protesters stopped talking to CNN. Of course, they didn’t really ever want to talk to Fox, for obvious reasons, and the other major sources didn’t come out looking much better. And that was just the protest. The way the media reported on Mike Brown (and every other victim of police violence) was sickening and reprehensible, and yes, racist. Could I open up a paper or roll you a clip of that very kind of reporting this year? Of course.
You say most reporters aren’t racist, but somehow, when they’re reporting for the establishment media it often comes out racist. In Ferguson, Don Lemon would be a perfect example of how this happens. Another aspect of racism is that, more often than not, no reporting gets done when there is not a crisis or some event that could be presented as something a white audience could perceive as negative. When is black and brown life acknowledged at all when it’s not sports, entertainment, or a so-called riot? Omission of black and brown life in general may actually be the starkest comment on the racism of this country and its media. And why am I using these terms? Because black, brown, white, red, etc., are how this country has divided people, and it is how a racist system encourages and forces us to identify. Racism is the air we breathe.
Does all of this have to be “fed inorganically by media elites”? Of course not. I think Herman and Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent” explains perfectly how this happens as a function of propaganda. You could say racism is part of the propaganda and/or that racism in the media functions in the same way propaganda does. That would be another discussion, but certainly germane to this one.
“Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, proposes that the mass communication media of the U.S. “are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function, by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion”, by means of the propaganda model of communication. The title of the book, Manufacturing Consent, derives from the phrase “the manufacture of consent,” employed in the book Public Opinion (1922), by Walter Lippmann…”
As I generally agree with this analysis (the analysis is the book), I wholeheartedly disagree with your statement that, “Overall, in fact, I think media elites are a force for pluralism, which is why they are so resented and blamed by the right.”
I think the right (a designation I will comment on shortly) came up with “the liberal media” as a propaganda tool and many people who identify as right-wing believed it much more than than the cynical creators of the phrase. I think it worked better than they ever could have imagined. It is a smoke-screen – or maybe more accurately, smoke and mirrors. That is, it is the perfect tool of misdirection while performing your magic trick of moving everything to the right. You create an enemy while you actually benefit from that enemy. In other words, it keeps the discourse within certain bounds and forces people to the right – and forces people who identify as liberal into a defensive posture.
So, getting to that rightward turn brings us to your obama point. The election of obama was extraordinary by every measure. I believe obama was elected in a time of crisis, and that crisis occurred after america had been collectively traumatized by bush the second and his goons. While a record number of voters turned out the first time for obama, only about half of the people eligible to vote do so at any given time – and actually fewer most of the time. Not only are many people of color disenfranchised, but the majority of all people who could vote in this country choose not to. This leads to another discussion, so I will try not to digress too much. That being said, I don’t discount that obama is perceived as black and was elected twice. He is white. Well, he is just as much white as he is black – but we call him black because, as I said above, racism is the air we breathe. It goes back to the “blood quantum” and “one drop” rule, methods of determining the “race” of an individual, which of course had legal and social consequences.
To digress a bit more, I have personal experience of obama’s hometown and school. His school is a training ground not only for the professional class, but for the elite. What it means to be black in Hawaii is quite different than the mainland. He learned what he could in Chicago, but, well, I won’t continue. Suffice it to say, he is not now, nor has he ever been, connected to the black working class. He went from elite K-12 to elite universities, and then to elite office. Everything I just stated shows personally and in his policies – or lack thereof…
Aside from the positive symbolism (which I don’t discount), he has, on balance, been an extremely right-wing president. He has extended and doubled-down on many bush era policies, He is drilling everywhere and building new nuclear weapons to the tune of tens of billions of dollars, he oversees a drone program and has expanded (with the help of hillary) war to many countries. Obamacare is actually romneycare (a “health” program developed by right-wing think tanks) and it’s true effectiveness has yet to be proven (no cap on rates, tens of millions still uninsured, often unaffordable even with subsidies, many cases of insufficient coverage). Race to the top was an unmitigated disaster and he supports onerous testing, common core, and charter schools, which is de facto privatization. He has deported and imprisoned more undocumented refugees than any other president, and he has prosecuted more journalists and whistle-blowers than any other president. Ever. As you know, it has had a chilling effect on journalism overall. I won’t even get into how black people have fared under his watch, but I will say, they haven’t recovered the wealth that was stolen from them in the manufactured crisis – but the banks that stole it are fatter than ever. Coincidentally, they lost a lot of voting rights too, but I can’t blame him personally for that because it was a supreme court ruling. Really though, the cherry on top, the thing that trumps, if you will, everything, and reveals his true allegiances (the ones that will make him a very rich man), is that he is a passionate supporter and promoter of the TPP. The TPP has been described as NAFTA on steroids. I don’t think that goes far enough, because that corporate crafted series of international laws will actually chip away at nation state’s ability to stay sovereign entities. In very clear ways, it empowers corporations to rule the world and to use the coffers of states and taxpayer money to enrich themselves.
How is any of that “incremental change in a centrist republic?” This is a neoliberal corporate oligarchy – the development of which is the “change that is provoking this reactionary anger.” Any anti-racist activism is also a response to this (and to historical racism, that is part and parcel of the present racism). Totally aside from their overt racism, the GOP began alienating their base long ago by going fully corporate to the full exclusion of all working people. As soon as it was clear they had completely turned their back on the majority of the american population, they began looking for even more extreme constituencies than, say, the evangelicals and other fundamentalists they first went to when their political future was in question. Ironically, they abandoned their old base by forwarding a bi-partisan turn toward neoliberal policies like NCLB, cutting benefits, escalation of the drug war, the creation of the prison industrial complex, and NAFTA – which did more to undermine their base (and the big D Democrats base for that matter) than anything before or since. I’m not even including the trillions spent on war and weapons that is also rubber-stamped by both parties. Of course, reagan and his thugs set much of this into motion before most of those horrors were perpetrated. The irony is that the base they alienated was ripe for tea party recruitment. The koch brothers and fox sponsored a lot of that organization, but the raw fear and rage was already there because of the GOP’s original betrayal. Of course, it’s hard to call it a betrayal because the GOP never cared much for the worker. The point is, the rise of DT is a direct consequence of that original and continuing betrayal. As I stated, this is largely the result of a bi-partisan embrace of the neoliberal project, which is an expression of the logic of capitalism: ceaseless accumulation and the commodification of all things. That project is right wing and by it’s very nature racist because it exacerbates capitalism and all of the tactics used by capitalists to plunder and accumulate more capital. Divide and conquer through creating and exploiting difference, prey on the poor and the weak (and now what’s left of the middle class). That is the logic that is motivating every branch of government (and many governments all over the world), to say nothing of the corporations who pay for them.
As I tried to emphasize, I think we have been dragged to the right through a bi-partisan neoliberal consensus that continues unabated today. Has there been some resistance? Not much, but I hope that resistance grows and makes connections world-wide, because neoliberalism is a world-wide project. India and UK are two of many examples. The neoliberal assault on the UK is profound and totally unreported by most media. There is also a strong argument to be made that the imposition of neoliberalism in the so-called middle east and all over Africa contributed to the unrest that sparked the arab spring.
To wrap this up, I don’t believe every american is racist. I don’t believe every person in the media is racist. I don’t believe every member of the elite is racist, but, we are surrounded by racism and it pervades all of our institutions. It is systemic. Do I think there has been progress from slavery to now? Of course. Do I think the relatively small gains made through civil rights movements have been undermined and contained from the beginning and significantly rolled back in the decades since – despite the election of obama? Hell yes. I tried to present some supporting arguments here, though, there are many, many, more.
In thoughtful discussion,
21st Century Poet