Monday, September 12, 2011

Combating Ignorance

From Truthout: On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, it is tempting to want to linger on the part about ''being right,'' but it's more important to focus on why ''it didn't matter'' because we are still right, and it still doesn't matter. And It is going to get worse.

Others spoke out and organized, but offered no framework for understanding the invasions - liberal Democrats who prefer less brutal methods of empire maintenance or simply reject wars started by Republican presidents; isolationists, including some Republicans, who think that reducing military adventures will preserve US affluence; and folks who identify as pacifist and reject any war.

So, we are right, and we are a failed movement. As someone who has participated in these organizing and education efforts, I have been part of the failure. I know that I could have done more, taken more risks, pressed harder - but I don't know if that would have made a significant difference. I don't know whether there was a winning strategy leftists could have employed, or whether historical forces doomed our efforts from the start. Whatever the case, we failed, and it's sensible to try to learn from that failure.
Manipulated Ignorance: Knowing Incorrectly
Some of that ignorance is the result of the conscious efforts to divert and deceive people. The sophisticated techniques to shape public attitudes developed by the public relations and advertising industries are used effectively by corporations and politicians, with the independent news media - consciously or unconsciously - often serving an important transmission function. Much of this is designed to make sure people don't know things, to create or deepen ignorance.
This ignorance matters.
With each misperception, support for the war increases, and in a society where basic facts can be so slickly and easily repackaged by power - where black is white and up is down - then there is no possibility of meaningful debate in the mainstream political culture.
Willed Ignorance: Not Knowing

As distressing as this manipulated ignorance can be, it is the willed ignorance of so much of the population that is most troubling. This ignorance is willed, the product of people making a choice to not know so they don't have to face the moral and political implications of knowing.

There seem to be two routine ways to ensure this not knowing.

One is to avoid exposure to any in-depth information and analysis, even though one has the resources and time to find and evaluate the material - keep your head down and don't look at what's happening. We can call this a deliberate diversion from a disturbing world.

The other strategy, employed by those who are too curious simply to ignore the world around them, is to bemoan the lack of trustworthy news sources, or express confusion over the mutually exclusive accounts of the world that circulate, or note the maddening level of complexity in a globalized world - whatever the reason, there are so many impediments that to actually know anything is impossible. We can call this a feigned frustration with a complex world.
Implications of Ignorance
My experience tells me there are conservatives and liberals in each of these ignorance camps, manipulated and willed.

So, we were right, but in this political culture it doesn't matter. The anti-empire movement hasn't been defeated by a superior argument that does a better job of explaining the world, nor has it been suppressed through the large-scale violence and coercion that has destroyed movements in other times and places (though in the contemporary United States such violence is used selectively and is always available should things get out of hand). Instead, this critique has been rendered irrelevant by power interests that work to create ignorance, and a citizenry that hides in ignorance.

To be clear: I am not arguing that the problem is that ''people are stupid.'' Yes, people often are stupid. I am often stupid. I say and do stupid things on a regular basis, and so does everyone else - that's part of being human. But also part of being human in a democratic political system is accepting the benefits and burdens of participation, and participation requires that we strive to not be stupid about politics. Democracy works only if we care enough to know about the world.
Avoiding Arrogance
I also recognize that I could be wrong on basic aspects of that analysis, and that even if I'm right, I should constantly be looping back to question my assumptions, collect new data, listen to counterarguments, and recalibrate strategy based on this process. Life is a balance of asserting what we believe with confidence and remembering how wrong we can be. With that caution, I return to where I started:

The Living World
In addition to the crimes committed by the powerful against the powerless, we face even greater threats in the human assault on the living world.

We face multiple, cascading ecological crises - groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of ''dead zones'' in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species and reduction of biodiversity. And don't forget global warming/climate change/climate disruption/global weirding.
High-energy/high-technology societies pose a serious threat to the ability of the ecosphere to sustain human life as we know it. Grasping that reality is a challenge, and coping with the implications is an even greater challenge. We likely have a chance to stave off the most catastrophic consequences if we act dramatically and quickly. If we continue to drag our feet, it's ''game over.''
Whether people's ignorance about this is manipulated or willed - whether we deny climate change and pretend no change is necessary, or accept it but refuse to support those changes - the result is the same: game over. To date, the movements advocating these necessary changes have not been defeated by a superior argument nor suppressed through the large-scale violence and coercion. Instead, these movements have been marginalized by power interests that work to create ignorance, and a citizenry that hides in ignorance.

What can save us? My honest answer is, ''probably nothing.'' But that answer doesn't keep me from working in projects to promote social justice and ecological sustainability. I pursue that work without a guarantee of success, without illusions about my own ability to devise a winning strategy, without certainty that I know it all. But I'm pretty sure I'm right in my basic framework.

I'm also pretty sure that I can't argue people into accepting that framework, no matter how compelling a case I can present. The key to attracting more people to radical political positions is not to adopt the manipulative tactics of the powerful or to pretend we aren't facing such overwhelming challenges. Instead, I believe we have to think about how to create spaces for people to experience the solidarity that bolsters our courage to explore new ideas and to take risks to challenge power.
In Austin, Texas, people with varied interests in social justice and ecological sustainability have joined forces to create one such space in a community center with offices, meeting space, and gardens. The core organizers of ''5604 Manor'' ( share a radical politics, but a radical badge isn't required for entry. The work going on there is focused not only on immediate political objectives, but also on creating resilient communities that can face the challenges ahead. The project may fail, but even in failure we will advance radical politics in this one place.

Our task is to create as many of those places as we can. In those places, we are right and it will matter.
An edited version of this talk will be presented at the Third Coast Activist Resource Center 9/11 anniversary event at 5604 Manor in Austin, Texas, September 11, 2011.
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