The next step is to reject all the tyranny's discourse

 

"The next step is to reject all the tyranny's discourse. Its
terms are crap. In the interminably repetitive speeches,
announcements, press conferences, and threats, the recurrent
terms are Democracy, Justice, Human Rights, Terrorism. Each word
in the context signifies the opposite of what it was once meant
to. Each has been trafficked; each has become a gang's code
word, stolen from humanity."

 

WHERE ARE WE?


By John Berger,

from the introduction to Between the Eyes, Essays on Photography and Politics,
by David Levi Strauss, to be published in April by Aperture,
excerpted in the March 2003 Harper's.

 

Everyone knows that pain is endemic to life, and wants to forget
this or relativize it. All the variants of the myth of a Fall
from the Golden Age, before pain existed, are an attempt to
relativize the pain suffered on earth. So too is the invention
of Hell, the adjacent kingdom of pain-as-punishment. Likewise
the discovery of Sacrifice. And later, much later, the principle
of Forgiveness. One could argue that philosophy began with the
question: why pain?

Yet, when all this has been said, the present pain of
living in the world is perhaps in some ways unprecedented.
Consumerist ideology, which has become the most powerful and
invasive on the planet, sets out to persuade us that pain is an
accident, something that we can insure against. This is the
logical basis for the ideology's pitilessness.

I write in the night, although it is daytime. A day in
early October 2002. For almost a week the sky above Paris has
been blue. Each day the sunset is a little earlier and each day
gloriously beautiful. Many fear that before long, U.S. military
forces will be launching the "preventive" war against Iraq, so
that the U.S. oil corporations can lay their hands on further
and supposedly safer oil supplies. Others hope that this can be
avoided. Between the announced decisions and the secret
calculations, everything is kept unclear, since lies prepare the
way for missiles. I write in a night of shame.

By shame I do not mean individual guilt. Shame, as I'm
coming to understand it, is a species feeling which, in the long
run, corrodes the capacity for hope and prevents us looking far
ahead. We look down at our feet, thinking only of the next small
step.

People everywhere, under very different conditions, are
asking themselves: Where are we? The question is historical not
geographical. What are we living through? Where are we being
taken? What have we lost? How to continue without a plausible
vision of the future? Why have we lost any view of what is
beyond a lifetime?

The well-heeled experts answer: Globalization. Postmodernism. Communications Revolution. Economic Liberalism. The terms are tautological and evasive. To the anguished question of Where are we? the experts murmur: Nowhere.

Might it not be better to see and declare that we are
living through the most tyrannical-because the most
pervasive-chaos that has ever existed? It's not easy to grasp
the nature of the tyranny, for its power structure (ranging from
the 200 largest multinational corporations to the Pentagon) is
interlocking yet diffuse, dictatorial yet anonymous, ubiquitous
yet placeless. It tyrannizes from offshore, not only in terms of
Fiscal Law but in terms of any political control beyond its own.
Its aim is to delocalize the entire world. Its ideological
strategy, beside which Bin Laden's is a fairy tale, is to
undermine the existent so that everything collapses into its
special version of the virtual, from the realm of which -and
this is the tyranny's credo-there will be a never-ending source
of profit. It sounds stupid. Tyrannies are stupid. This one is
destroying at every level the life of the planet on which it
operates.

Ideology apart, it's power is based on two threats. The
first is intervention from the sky by the most heavily armed
state in the world. One could call it Threat B-52. The second is
ruthless indebtment, bankruptcy, and hence, given the present
productive relations in the world, starvation. One could call it
Threat Zero.

The shame begins with the contestation (which we all
acknowledge somewhere but, out of powerlessness, dismiss) that
much of the present suffering could be alleviated or avoided if
certain realistic and relatively simple decisions were taken.
There is a very direct relation today between the minutes of
meetings and minutes of agony.

Does anyone deserve to be condemned to certain death simply
because they don't have access to treatment which would cost
less than $2 a day? This was a question posed by the
director-general of the World Health Organization last July. She
was talking about the AIDS epidemic, in Africa and elsewhere, in
which an estimated 68 million people will die within the next
eighteen years. I'm talking about the pain of living in the
present world.

Most analyses and prognoses about what is happening are
understandably presented and studied within the framework of
their separate disciplines, economics, politics, media studies,
public health, ecology, national defense, criminology,
education, etc. In reality, each of these separate fields is
joined to another to make up the real terrain of what is being
lived. It happens that in their lives people suffer from wrongs
which are classified in separate categories, and suffer them
simultaneously and inseparably.

A current example: some Kurds who fled recently to
Cherbourg, and have been refused asylum and risk being
repatriated to Turkey, are poor, politically undesirable,
landless, exhausted, illegal, and the clients of nobody. And
they suffer each of these conditions at one and the same second!

To take in what is happening, an interdisciplinary vision
is necessary in order to connect the "fields" which are
institutionally kept separate. And any such vision is bound to
be (in the original sense of the word) political. The
precondition for thinking politically on a global scale is to
see the unity of the unnecessary suffering taking place. This is
the starting point.

I write in the night, but I see not only the tyranny. If
that were so, I would probably not have the courage to continue.
I see people sleeping, stirring, getting up to drink water,
whispering their projects or their fears, making love, praying,
cooking something while the rest of the family sleeps, in
Baghdad and Chicago. (Yes, I see too the forever invincible
Kurds, 4,000 of whom were gassed, with U.S. compliance, by
Saddam Hussein.) I see pastry cooks working in Teheran, and the
shepherds, thought of as bandits, sleeping beside their sheep in
Sardinia; I see a man in the Friedrichshain quarter of Berlin
sitting in his pajamas with a bottle of beer reading Heidegger
and he has the hands of a proletarian. I see a small boat of
illegal immigrants off the Spanish coast near Alicante; I see a
mother in Ghana, her name is Aya, which means Born on Friday,
swaying her baby to sleep; I see the ruins of Kabul and a man
going home; and I know that, despite the pain, the ingenuity of
the survivors is undiminished, an ingenuity which scavenges and
collects energy, and, in the ceaseless cunning of this
ingenuity, there is a spiritual value, something like the Holy
Ghost. I am convinced of this in the night, although I don't
know why.

The next step is to reject all the tyranny's discourse.
Its terms are crap. In the interminably repetitive speeches,
announcements, press conferences, and threats, the recurrent
terms are Democracy, Justice, Human Rights, Terrorism. Each
word in the context signifies the opposite of what it was once
meant to. Each has been trafficked; each has become a gang's code word, stolen from humanity. Democracy is a proposal (rarely realized) about decision-making; it has little to do with election campaigns. Its promise is that political decisions be made after, and in the light of, consultation with the governed. This is dependent upon the governed being adequately informed about the issues in question, and upon the decision-makers having the capacity and will to listen and take account of what they have heard. Democracy should not be confused with the "freedoms" of binary choices, the publication of opinion polls, or the crowding of people into statistics. These are its pretense.

Today the fundamental decisions, which effect the
unnecessary pain increasingly suffered across the planet, are
being made unilaterally without any open consultation or
participation.

For instance, how many U.S. citizens, if consulted, would have
said Yes to George W. Bush's withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol
over the carbon-dioxide greenhouse effect, which is already
provoking disastrous floods in many places and threatens, within
the next twenty-five years, far worse disasters?

It is a little more than a century ago that Dvorák composed his Symphony from the New World. He wrote it while directing the National Conservatory of Music in New York, and the writing of it inspired him to compose, eighteen months later, still in New York, his sublime Cello Concerto. In the symphony, the horizonsand rolling hills of his native Bohemia become the promises of the New World. Not grandiloquent but loud and continuing, for they correspond to the longings of thse without power, of those who are wrongly called simple, of those the U.S. Constitution addressed in 1787.

I know of no other work of art that expresses so directly
and yet so toughly (Dvorák was the son of a peasant, and his
father once dreamed of his becoming a butcher) the beliefs that
inspired generation after generation of migrants who became U.S.
citizens.

For Dvorák the force of those beliefs was inseparable
from a kind of tenderness, a respect for life such as can be
found intimately among the governed (as distinct from the
governors) everywhere. And it was in this spirit that the
symphony was publicly received when it was first performed at
Carnegie Hall on December 16, 1893.

Dvorák was asked what he thought about the future of American music, and he recommended that U.S. composers listen to the music of the Indians and blacks. The Symphony from the New World expressed a hopefulness without frontiers which, paradoxically, is welcoming because centered on an idea of home. A utopian paradox.

Today the power of the same country that inspired such hopes has
fallen into the hands of a coterie of fanatical (wanting to
limit everything except the power of capital), ignorant
(recognizing only the reality of their own firepower,
hypocritical (two measures for all ethical judgments, one for us
and another for them), and ruthless B-52 plotters. How did this
happen? The question is rhetorical, for there is no single
answer, and it is idle, for no answer will dent their power yet.
But to ask it in this way in the night reveals the enormity of
what has happened.

The political mechanism of the new tyranny, although it
needs highly sophisticated technology in order to function, is
starkly simple. Usurp the words "democracy," "freedom," etc.
Impose-whatever the disasters-the new profit-making and
impoverishing economic chaos everywhere. Insure that all
frontiers are one-way: open to the tyranny, closed to others.
And eliminate every opposition by calling it terrorist.

No, I have not forgotten the couple who threw themselves
from one of the twin towers instead of being burned to death
separately.

There is a toylike object which costs as little as $3 to
manufacture and which is also incontestably terrorist. It is
called the antipersonnel mine.

Once launched, it is impossible to know who these mines
will mutilate or kill, or when they will do so. There are over
100 million lying on, or hidden in, the earth at this moment.
The majority of victims have been and will be civilians.

The antipersonnel mine is meant to mutilate rather than to
kill. Its aim is to make cripples, and it is made with shrapnel,
which, it is planned, will prolong the victim's medical
treatment and render it more difficult. Most survivors have to
undergo eight or nine surgical operations. Every month, as of
now, 2,000 civilians somewhere are maimed or killed by these
mines.

The description "antipersonnel" is linguistically murderous.
Personnel are anonymous, nameless, without gender or age.
"Personnel" is the opposite of "people." As a term it ignores
blood, limbs, pain, amputations, intimacy, and love. It
abstracts totally. This is how the two words when joined to an
explosive become terrorist.

The new tyranny, like other recent ones, depends, to a large
degree, on a systematic abuse of language. Together we have to
reclaim our hijacked words and reject the tyranny's nefarious
euphemisms; if we do not, we will be left with only the word
"shame."

Not a simple task, for most of its official discourse is
pictorial, associative, evasive, full of innuendos. Few things
are said in black and white. Both military and economic
strategists now realize that the media play a crucial role, not
so much in defeating the current enemy as in foreclosing and
preventing mutiny, protests, or desertion. Any tyranny's
manipulation of the media is an index of its fears. The present
one lives in fear of the world's desperation. A fear so deep
that the adjective "desperate," except when it means dangerous,
is never used.

Without money each daily human need becomes a pain.

Those who have filched power-and they are not all in
office, so they reckon on a continuity of that power beyond
presidential elections-pretend to be saving the world and
offering its population the chance to become their clients. The
world consumer is sacred. What they don't add is that consumers
only matter because they generate profit, which is the only
thing that is really sacred. This sleight of hand leads us to
the crux.

The claim to be saving the world masks the plotter's
assumption that a large part of the world, including most of the
continent of Africa and a considerable part of South America, is
irredeemable. In fact, every corner that cannot be part of their
center is irredeemable. And such a conclusion follows inevitably
from the dogma that the only salvation is money and the only
global future is the one their priorities insist upon,
priorities which, with false names given to them, are in reality
nothing more or less than their benefits.

Those who have different visions or hopes for the world, along
with those who cannot buy and who survive from day to day, are
backward relics from another age or, when they resist, either
peacefully or with arms, terrorists. They are feared as
harbingers of death, carriers of disease or insurrection.

When they have been "downsized," the tyranny, in its naiveté,
assumes the world will be unified. It needs its fantasy of a
happy ending. A fantasy which in reality will be its undoing.

Every form of contestation against this tyranny is
comprehensible. Dialogue with it is impossible. For us to live
and die properly, things have to be named properly. Let us
reclaim our words.

October 2002

THE WILDNESS WITHIN US