John Pilger: Empire, Obama and America’s Last Taboo – Video and transcript
Speech given July 5, 2009
At Socialism 2009, San Francisco
Haymarket Books, International Socialist Review, Socialist Worker
“Building a New Left for a New Era”
Sponsored by Center for Economic Research and Social Change.
Transcribed by Rady Ananda (with subtitles, links and graphics added)
MC: So I’m going to turn it over to Mr. Pilger (applause).
John Pilger: Thank you. (applause) Great. Great. Thank you (laughs). It’s so good to be here. Thank you for the invitation to be here to speak and especially to my friend, Anthony Arnove. I’m delighted especially to be here on the Fourth of July, which is an appropriate day to talk about “Empire, Obama and America’s Last Taboo.” I’m sorry the title’s a bit wordy but I couldn’t get it down to something as it should be.
Now, two years ago, I spoke at Socialism in Chicago about an invisible government, which is a term used by Edward Bernays, one of the founders of modern propaganda. It was Bernays who, in the 1920s, invented public relations as a euphemism for propaganda. And it was Bernays, deploying the ideas of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, who campaigned on behalf of the tobacco industry for women to take up smoking as an act of feminist liberation, calling cigarettes “torches of freedom.” [Image at Torches of Freedom.]
At the same time, he was involved in the disinformation that was critical in overthrowing the Arbenz government in Guatemala. So you have the association of cigarettes and regime change.
The invisible government that Bernays had in mind brought together all media – PR, the press, broadcasting, advertising – and their power of branding and image-making, in other words, disinformation.
And I suppose I’d like to talk today about this invisible government’s most recent achievement: the rise of Barack Obama and the silencing of much of the Left.
~3:00 Americanism Then
But all of this has a history, of course, and I’d like to go back, take you back some 40 years to a sultry and a, for me, very memorable day in Vietnam. I was a young war correspondent who had just arrived in the village in the Central Highlands called Tweelong (sp). My assignment was to write about a unit of U.S. Marines who had been sent to the village to win hearts and minds.
“My orders,” said the Marine sergeant, “are to sell the American way of liberty as stated in the Pacification Handbook. This is designed to win the hearts and minds of folks as stated on page 86.”
Page 86 was headed in capital letters, “WHAM” – winning hearts and minds. The Marine unit was a combined action company “which,” explained the sergeant, meant, and I quote, “We attack these folks on Mondays and we win their hearts and minds on Tuesdays.”
He was joking, of course, but not quite. The sergeant who didn’t speak Vietnamese had arrived in the village, stood up in a jeep, and said thru a bullhorn, “Come on out, Everybody. We got rice and candies and toothbrushes to give you.”
This was greeted by silence.
“Now listen, either you gooks come on out or we’re gonna come right in there and get you.”
Now the people of Tweelong finally came out and they stood in line to receive packets of Uncle Ben’s miracle rice, Hershey bars, party balloons, and several thousand toothbrushes. Three portable, battery-operated, yellow, flush lavatories were held back for the arrival of the colonel. And when the colonel arrived that evening, the District Chief was summoned, and the yellow flush lavatories unveiled. The colonel cleared his throat and took out a hand-written speech.
“Mr. District Chief, and all you nice people,” said the colonel. “What these gifts represent is more than the sum of their parts. They carry the spirit of America.” (Audience laughs)
I’m, I promise you I’m quoting verbatim.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, there’s no place on Earth like America. It’s the land where miracles happen. It’s a guiding light for me and for you. In America, you see, we count ourselves as real lucky, as having the greatest democracy the world has ever known, and we want you nice people to share in our good fortune.”
Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, even John Winthrop’s “City Upon a Hill” got a mention. All that was missing was the Star Spangled Banner playing softly in the background. Of course, the villagers had no idea what the colonel was talking about. But when the Marines clapped, they clapped. And when the colonel waved, the children waved.
And when he departed, the colonel shook the sergeant’s hand and said, “We’ve got plenty of hearts and minds here. Carry on, Sergeant.”
In Vietnam, I witnessed many scenes like that. I’d grown up in faraway Australia on a cinematic diet of John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan. The American way of liberty they portrayed might well have been lifted from the WHAM Handbook.
I’d learned that the United States had won World War II on its own and now led the free world as the chosen society. It was only later when I read Walter Lippman’s book Public Opinion, a manual of the invisible government, that I began to understand the power of emotions attached to false ideas and bad histories on a grand scale.
~7:25 Americanism Now
Now historians call this exceptionalism: the notion that the United States has a divine right to bring what it calls liberty to the rest of humanity. Of course, this is a very old refrain. The French and British created and celebrated their own civilized missions while imposing colonial regimes that denied basic civil liberties.
However, the power of the American message was and remains different. Whereas the Europeans were proud imperialists, Americans are trained to deny their imperialism. As Mexico was conquered and the Marines sent to Nicaragua, American textbooks referred to an age of innocence. American motives were always well-meaning, moral, exceptional.
As the colonel said, “There was no ideology, they said.” And that’s still the case.
Americanism is an ideology that is unique, because its main feature is its denial that it is an ideology. It’s both conservative and it’s liberal. And it’s Right and it’s Left. And Barack Obama is its embodiment.
Since Obama was elected, leading liberals have talked about America returning to its true status as, and I quote:
“A nation of moral ideals.”
Those are the words of Paul Krugman, the liberal columnist of the New York Times. In the San Francisco Chronicle, columnist Mark Morford wrote, and I quote:
“Spiritually advanced people regard the new president as a lightworker who can help usher in a new way of being on the planet.”
Tell that to an Afghan child whose family has been blown away by a bomber’s bombs, or a Pakistani child whose house has been visited by one of Obama’s drones, or a Palestinian child surveying the carnage in Gaza caused by American smart weapons, which, disclosed Seymour Hersh, were resupplied to Israel for use in the slaughter, and I quote:
“… only after the Obama team let it be known it would not object.”
The man who stayed silent on Gaza is the man who now condemns Iran. In a sense, Obama is the myth that is America’s last taboo. His most consistent theme was never ‘change.’ It was power.
“The United States,” he said, and I quote, “leads the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good. We must lead by building a 21st Century military to ensure the security of our people and advance the security of all people.”
And there is this remarkable statement, and I quote:
“At moments of great peril in the past century, our leaders ensured that America, by deed and by example, led and lifted the world, that we stood and fought for the freedoms sought by billions of people beyond our borders.”
Words like these remind me of the colonel in the village in Vietnam, as he spun much the same nonsense. Since 1945, by deed and by example, to use Obama’s words, America has overthrown 50 governments, including democracies, and crushed some 30 liberation movements, and bombed countless men, women and children to death.
I’m grateful to Bill Blum for his cataloging of that.
~11:30 Obama and Empire
And yet here is the 45th president of the United States, having stacked his government with warmongers and corporate fraudsters and polluters from the Bush and Clinton eras, promising not only more of the same, but a whole new war in Pakistan, justified by the clichés of Hillary Clinton – clichés like, “high value targets.”
Within three days of his inauguration, Obama was ordering the death of people in faraway countries: Pakistan and Afghanistan.
And, yet, the peace movement, it seems, is prepared to look the other way and believe that the cool Obama will restore, as Krugman wrote, “the nation of moral ideals.”
Not long ago, I visited the American Museum of History in the celebrated Smithsonian Institute in Washington. One of the most popular exhibitions was called, “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.” It was holiday time and lines of happy people, including many children shuffled through a Santa’s Grotto of war and conquest. (laughter)
When messages about their nation’s great mission were lit up, these included tributes to the, and I quote, “exceptional Americans who saved a million lives” in Vietnam, where they were “determined to stop communist expansion.” In Iraq, other brave Americans, “employed air strikes of unprecedented precision.”
What was shocking was not so much the revisionism of two of the epic crimes of modern times, but the sheer scale of omission.
Like all U.S. presidents, Bush and Obama have very much in common. The wars of both presidents, and the wars of Clinton and Reagan, Carter and Ford, Nixon and Kennedy, are justified by the enduring myth of exceptional America – a myth the late Harold Pinter described as, and I quote:
“A brilliant, witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.”
~13:50 Obama is a corporate marketing creation
The clever young man who recently made it to the White House is a very fine hypnotist, partly because it is indeed extraordinary to see an African American at the pinnacle of power in the land of slavery.
However, this is the 21st Century, and race, together with gender and even class, can be very seductive tools of propaganda. For what is so often overlooked and what matters, I believe, above all, is the class one serves.
George Bush’s inner circle from the State Department to the Supreme Court was, perhaps, the most multiracial in presidential history. It was PC par excellence. Think Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell. It was also the most reactionary.
Obama’s very presence in the White House appears to reaffirm the moral nation. He’s a marketing dream. But like Calvin Klein or Benetton, he is a brand that promises something special, something exciting, almost risqué, as if he might be radical, as if he might enact change. He makes people feel good. He’s a post-modern man with no political baggage. And all that’s fake.
In his book, Dreams from My Father, Obama refers to the job he took after he graduated from Columbia in 1983. He describes his employer as, and I quote, “a consulting house to multinational corporations.” For some reason, he doesn’t say who his employer was or what he did there. The employer was Business International Corporation, which has a long history of providing cover for the CIA with covert action, and infiltrating unions on the Left. I know this because it was especially active in my own country, Australia. Obama doesn’t say what he did at Business International and there may be absolutely nothing sinister, but it seems worthy of inquiry, and debate, as a clue to, perhaps, who the man is.
During his brief period in the Senate, Obama voted to continue the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He voted for the Patriot Act. He refused to support a bill for single payer healthcare. He supported the death penalty. As a presidential candidate, he received more corporate backing than John McCain. He promised to close Guantanamo as a priority, but instead he’s excused torture, reinstated military commissions, kept the Bush gulag intact, and opposed habeas corpus.
Daniel Ellsberg, the great whistleblower, was right, I believe, when he said that under Bush a military coup had taken place in the United States, giving the Pentagon unprecedented powers. These powers have been reinforced by the presence of Robert Gates, a Bush family crony and George W. Bush’s powerful Secretary of Defense, and by all the Bush Pentagon officials and generals who have kept their jobs under Obama.
In the middle of a recession with millions of Americans losing their jobs and homes, Obama has increased the military budget. In Colombia, he is planning to spend $46 million on a new military base that will support a regime backed by death squads and further the tragic history of Washington’s intervention in that region.
In a pseudo-event in Prague, Obama promised a world without nuclear weapons to a global audience mostly unaware that America is building new tactical nuclear weapons designed to blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional war. Like George Bush, he used the absurdity of Europe threatened by Iran to justify building a missile system aimed at Russia and China.
In another pseudo-event, at the Annapolis Naval Academy – decked with flags and uniforms – Obama lied that America had gone to Iraq to bring freedom to that country. He announced that the troops were coming home. This was another deception. The head of the army, General George Casey says, with some authority, that America will be in Iraq for up to a decade. Other generals say 15 years.
Chris Hedges, a very fine author of Empire of Illusion, puts it very well:
“President Obama,” he wrote, “does one thing and Brand Obama gets you to believe another. This is the essence of successful advertising. You buy or do what the advertiser wants because of how they make you feel.”
And so you are kept in a perpetual state of childishness. He calls this junk politics.
~19:14 The Left Is Crippled, Co-opted
But I think the real tragedy is that Obama the Brand appears to have crippled or absorbed much of the anti-war movement, the peace movement. Out of 256 Democrats in Congress, 30 – just 30 – are willing to stand up against Obama’s and Nancy Pelosi’s war party. On June the 16th, they voted for $106 billion for more war.
The Out of Iraq Caucus is out of action. Its members can’t even come up with a form of words of why they are silent. On March the 21st, the demonstration at the Pentagon by the once mighty United for Peace and Justice drew only a few thousand. The outgoing president of the UPJ, Lesley Kagen, says her people aren’t turning up because, and I quote,
“It’s enough for many of them that Obama has a plan to end the war and that things are moving in the right direction.”
And where is the mighty MoveOn these days? Where is its campaign against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and what exactly was said when MoveOn’s executive director, Jason Ruben, met Barack Obama at the White House in February?
Yes, a lot of good people mobilized for Obama. But what did they demand of him?
Working to elect a Democratic Presidential candidate may seem like activism, but it isn’t. Activism doesn’t give up. Activism doesn’t fall silent. Activism doesn’t rely on the opiate of hope.
Woody Allen once said, “I felt a lot better when I gave up hope.” (laughter)
I like that.
Real activism has little time for identity politics, which, like exceptionalism, can be fake. These are distractions that confuse and sucker good people. And not only in the United States, I can assure you.
I write for the Italian socialist newspaper, Il Manefesto, or rather, I used to write for it. In February I sent the editor an article which raised questions about Obama as a progressive force. The article was rejected. “Why?” I asked.
“For the moment,” wrote the editor, “we prefer to maintain a more positive approach to the novelty presented by Obama. We will take on specific issues, but we would not like to say that he will make no difference.”
In other words, an American President drafted to promote the most rapacious system in history is ordained and depoliticized by important sections of the Left.
It’s a remarkable situation – remarkable because those on the so-called Radical Left have never been more aware, more conscious, of the iniquities of power. The Green Movement, for example, has raised the consciousness of millions, so that almost every child knows something about global warming. And yet, there seems to be a resistance within the Green Movement to the notion of power as a military force, a military project.
And, perhaps similar observations can also be made about sections of the feminist movement and the gay movement and, certainly, the union movement.
One of my favorite quotations is from Milan Kundera:
“The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
We should never forget that the primary goal of great power is to distract and limit our natural desire for social justice and equity and real democracy.
~ 23:38 Latin America, Africa and Israel
Long ago, Edward Bernays’ invisible government of propaganda elevated Big Business from its unpopular status as a kind of mafia to that of a patriotic driving force. The American Way of Life began as an advertising slogan. The modern image of Santa Claus was an invention of Coca Cola.
Today, we are presented with an extraordinary opportunity. Thanks to the crash of Wall Street and the revelation from many ordinary people that the “Free Market” has nothing to do with freedom, the opportunity within our grasp is to recognize that something is stirring in America that is unfamiliar, perhaps, to many of us on the Left, but is related to a great popular movement that’s growing all over the world.
Look down at Latin America. Less than twenty years ago, there was the usual despair, the usual divisions of poverty, and freedom, the usual thugs in uniform, uniforms running unspeakable regimes. Today, for the first time perhaps in 500 years, there’s a people’s movement based on the revival of indigenous cultures and language – a genuine populism.
The recent amazing achievements in Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, El Salvador, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay represent a struggle for community and political rights that is truly historic – with implications for all of us.
The successes in Latin America are expressed perversely in the recent overthrow of the government of Honduras, because the smaller the country, the greater is the threat of a good example that the disease of emancipation will spread.
Indeed, right across the world, social movements and grassroots organization have emerged to fight “Free Market” dogma. They’ve educated governments in the South that food for export is a problem rather than a solution to global poverty. They’ve politicized ordinary people to stand up for their rights as in the Philippines and South Africa.
Look at the remarkable boycott disinvestments and sanctions campaign – BDS for short – aimed at Israel that’s sweeping the world. Israeli ships are being turned away from South Africa and Western Australia. A French company is being forced to abandon plans to build a railway connecting Jerusalem with illegal Israeli settlements. (applause) Israeli sporting bodies find themselves isolated. Universities in the United Kingdom have begun to sever ties with Israel.
This is how apartheid South Africa was defeated. And this is how the great wind of the 1960s began to blow. And this is how every gain has been won: the end of slavery, universal suffrage, workers’ rights, civil rights, environmental protection … The list goes on and on.
~27:05 United States: A Wind Is Blowing
And that brings us back here to the United States, as I believe something isstirring in this country. Are we aware that in the last eight months, millions of angry emails sent by ordinary Americans have flooded Washington. And I mean millions. People are outright outraged that their lives are attacked.
They bear no resemblance to the passive mass presented by the media. Look at the polls. More than two-thirds of Americans say the government should care for those who cannot care for themselves. Sixty-four percent would pay higher taxes to guarantee healthcare for everyone. Sixty percent are favorable towards unions. Seventy percent want nuclear disarmament. Seventy-two percent want the US completely out of Iraq and so on and so on.
But where is much of the Left? Where is the social justice movement? Where is the peace movement? Where is the civil rights movement? Ordinary Americans for too long have been misrepresented by stereotypes that are contemptuous.
James Madison referred to his compatriots in the public as “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders” and this contempt is probably as strong today among the elite as it was back then. That’s why the progressive attitudes of the public are seldom reported in the media – because they’re not ignorant; they’re subversive. They’re informed and they’re even anti-American.
I once asked a friend, the great American war correspondent and humanitarian,Martha Gellhorn, to explain the term ‘anti-American’ to me.
“I’ll tell you what anti-American is,” she said in her forceful way. “It’s what governments and their vested interests call those who honor America by objecting to war and the theft of resources, and believing in all of humanity.
“There are millions of these ‘anti-Americans’ in the United States. They are ordinary people. They are ordinary people who belong to no elite and who judge their government in moral terms, though they would call it ‘common decency.’ They are not vain. They are the people with a wakeful conscience, the best of America’s citizens. Sure, they disappear from view now and then but they are like seeds beneath the snow. I would say they are truly exceptional.”
Truly exceptional. I like that.
My own guess is that a populism is growing once again in America, evoking a powerful force beneath the surface which has a proud history. From such authentic grassroots Americanism came women’s suffrage, the eight-hour day, graduated income tax, public ownership of railways and communications, the breaking of the power of corporate lobbyists, and much more. In other words, real democracy.
The American populists were far from perfect, but they often spoke for ordinary people and they were betrayed by leaders who urged them to compromise and merge with the Democratic Party. That was long ago, but how familiar it sounds.
My guess is that something is coming again. The signs are there. Naom Chomsky is right when he says that mere sparks can ignite a popular movement that may seem dormant. No one predicted 1968. No one predicted the fall of apartheid, or the Berlin Wall, or the Civil Rights movement, or the great Latino rising of a few years ago.
I suggest that we take Woody Allen’s advice and give up on hope and listen, instead, to voices from below. What Obama and the bankers and the generals and the IMF and the CIA and CNN and BBC fear is ordinary people coming together and acting together. It’s a fear as old as democracy, a fear that suddenly people convert their anger to action as they’ve done so often throughout history.
“[In] a time of universal deceit,” wrote George Orwell, “telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
This speech is a much-expanded version of Mourn on the Fourth of July which appeared in The New Statesman.
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