- Moen, Darrell Gene.
- “Denying Freedom and Opposing Democracy: In the Age of Pax
Tsuda College IICS Bulletin. Institute of International and Cultural Studies. December 2002 (pp. 9-24).
The theme of this essay is the arrogance of power associated with empire, and the need to resist. Since 1945, the world has witnessed the devastating impact of the consolidation of power and control under Pax Americana, or the American World Empire. At the end of World War Two, the cities and economic infrastructures as well as global influence of all the imperial powers were devastated. Only one imperial power emerged from the war without even one bomb having been dropped on even one of its cities, and in fact having enjoyed a wartime boom in industrial expansion unparalleled in world history: the United States of America. If you are thinking of the Japanese bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, keep in mind Pearl Harbor was a U.S. military base located on an American colonial possession.
Even before the carefully calculated bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear bombs, U.S. leaders envisioned a global empire under the leadership of the United States, referring to the Pacific Ocean as the “American Lake” and the “world as ours for the taking,” After demonstrating to the world that the United States would not hesitate to drop nuclear bombs on civilian targets, U.S. leaders warned that another war between imperial powers would be the end of the world, and that the only sensible thing to do was to work together in an imperial alliance to maintain privileged access to the natural resources, land, cheap labor, and markets of the colonies (soon to be ex-colonies labeled the “Third World”). As George Kennan stated in a U.S. State Department study in 1948, “We have 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population. In this situation, we cannot fail but to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships that will allow us to maintain this position of disparity. We should cease to talk about the raising of the living standards, human rights, and democratization.”
Consequently, U.S. leadership and the alliance framework created a secure and stable basis for the development of global military, political, and economic relations that would primarily benefit the dominant classes in the imperial countries, and peripherally benefit the colonial (or later, Third World) elites created and supported by the imperial powers. The U.S. imperial alliance system has been integrated militarily by NATO in the western hemisphere and by AMPO (the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Act) in the eastern hemisphere; politically by the Trilateral Commission and the Group of Seven (which, in actuality, is the Group of One plus Six as the other imperial powers are subordinated to the dictates of United States); and economically by the World Bank/International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and the World Economic Forum. The United States government (along with other imperial powers), by opposing democracy and supporting state terrorism in Latin America, Africa, and Asia (collectively referred to as the “Third World” or more recently “the South”), has transparently represented the interests of transnational corporations and ruling elites, facilitating their goal of increasing personal fortunes and corporate profits.
Entering the 21a century, the 95% of humanity that has not benefited from the excesses of empire (including many in the heart of the empire) are recognizing the need to organize and resist against the continuation of this brutal imperial alliance system. They are making the transborder links through grassroots-based organizations and social movements necessary to focus peoples’ attention not only on what’s wrong with the world, but on what we can do about it.
In the first part of this essay, I recall the socio-cultural influences that motivated me to join the U.S. Air Force, and reflect on my personal experience in the Vietnam War to show how that experience helped shape my future involvement in grassroots-based actions against U.S. foreign policy. I think it will be instructive to then share with you how I learned to distinguish myth from reality to become politicized and committed to working for progressive social transformation based on universal principles such as human rights, social justice, and peace. We are all shaped by our own personal experiences and it is my hope that this essay will influence you to take the steps necessary to gain access to alternative and critical analysis, and share that information with others in the effort to create a better future for all. People make history; it doesn’t just happen. We cannot allow the ruling elites, corrupted by greed and power, to continue to make the inhumane and irrational decisions that are increasing human misery and environmental collapse on a global scale.
Growing up believing in my country
I remember reading a letter of support written in 1992 by a Japanese man in his 60s to then Nagasaki mayor Motoshima Hitoshi (after the mayor had been shot and hospitalized for talking in public about the emperor’s war responsibility) in which he stated:
“I grew up in a society colored entirely by militarism, where a boy was educated to believe that to sacrifice himself for his country and his emperor was to walk the noblest path of all. When I finished middle school, I volunteered for the Navy.”
Although I was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a Norwegian/American father and lived here until I was seven years old, I spent my formative years in the United States and was thus inculcated with American cultural values and social assumptions. What struck me about the passage above was the similarity to the feeling I experienced growing up in the United States. 1 also grew up in a society colored by militarism where a boy was educated to believe that to sacrifice himself for his country was to walk the noblest path of all. I recall my father telling me how lucky I was to be American, and that joining the military would not only “make a man out of me” it would allow me to fulfill my obligation to my country; I volunteered for the U.S. Air Force when I finished high school. In the case of the United States, the symbol of the emperor was replaced by the symbol of the American flag.
Our teachers taught us in school that the United States represented freedom and democracy, and fought for liberty and justice for freedom-loving people throughout the world. We were told that U.S. benevolence was appreciated worldwide, and that the United States of America was the envy of the world: everyone wanted to be like us. We were taught to “be proud to be American”! This ideology permeated all media from newspapers and magazines to comic books, cartoons, and children’s books, television, movies, and junior high school and high school textbooks. The deluge of war and spy movies, for example, depicting American heroism and patriotic sacrifice prepared the younger generations to anticipate participating in future conflicts, and dream of becoming national heroes.
The dominant culture’s interpretation of history and social phenomena was accepted as unquestioned truth by the overwhelming majority of Americans, and any critical voices questioning this interpretation were effectively muted if not stifled altogether. This dominant ideology penetrated all aspects of American culture, including churches, clubs and sodalities, labor organizations, children’s organizations such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, as well as holiday celebrations. It was very difficult to discern let alone resist against this cultural hegemony that saturated the society.
When I was in my senior year at high school, all the senior boys were required to attend a presentation in the school auditorium by recruiters from the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. Most of us attended enthusiastically since this gave us a welcome break from our regular (and often boring) classes. We were shown a short film with exciting images of jets flying in formation and naval convoys at sea; scenes of young men in sharp-looking dress uniforms working as air traffic controllers, radar operators, and doctors; other scenes of young men at basic training camp driving tanks and manning artillery guns; and shots of young men talking or dancing with pretty young women at bars and discos in foreign countries. The recruiters had done their homework well and knew exactly what would grab our attention!
After the film, the recruiters, wearing impressive dress uniforms with ribbons and medals attached, took turns telling us about all the wonderful opportunities to be had by joining the armed forces. We were told that we would have educational opportunities (including paid university education), gain leadership and occupational skills, and be able to travel to many exotic places throughout the world where adventure and romance awaited us. However, they didn’t say one word about the Vietnam War although this presentation took place in March 1968, just one month after the so-called February Tet Offensive in which the extent of the strength of organized Vietnamese resistance to the U.S. invasion shocked U.S. military strategists, political analysts, and the American public at large.
My best friend and I were so impressed by the presentation that we both decided to join the Air Force. I took the placement test the next month and qualified for my choice of occupational fields. I chose to become an air traffic controller and was assured by the recruiter that I would go to air traffic controller’s school after completing basic training. As it turned out, I was sent to air route traffic controller / ground radio operator school due to the great demand for radio operators in the war in Vietnam and didn’t make it to the school of my choice. Although I was on the college-prep track at high school, because my parents were not encouraging me to go on to college and because I had no idea what I wanted to study even if I were to go to college, I decided that four years in the U.S. Air Force would be the best choice for me; I was in for a very rude awakening.
I had no interest in politics or current affairs when I was in high school, and kept myself busy working part-time, playing in a jazz band, and going out with my girlfriend in my car on weekends. So it wasn’t until I was in basic training that I first heard of a country called Vietnam and learned that the U.S. was involved in a war there. From the first day of basic training, the drill sergeants had us marching in formation singing a cadence that went like this:
Rainbow, Rainbow, have you heard?
LBJ has spread the word.
We’re all goin’ to Vietnam,
Kill ourselves some Viet Cong!
Kill! Kill! Slaughter! Slaughter!
What? We’re going to some country I never heard of to kill, slaughter, and maim? That certainly wasn’t the romantic adventure I had in mind when I joined up! Well, we attended classes during the first weeks of basic training that reinforced what we had learned growing up in America – that the United States represented freedom, liberty, and democracy to the rest of the world. We then learned the reasons for the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. We were told that the peace-loving people of South Vietnam had begged for assistance from the greatest democracy in the world. They needed our help in ridding themselves of the communist invaders from the north who were torturing and killing innocent men, women, and children. With U.S. military assistance, they would be able to reestablish democracy and again enjoy the freedoms associated with it. Being politically naive, I had no reason not to believe what I was being told.
Eighteen years old and off to war
My year in Vietnam (Feb. 1969 – Feb. 1970) became for me an experience of political awakening. I was 18-years-old when I arrived in Vietnam and 19-years-old when I left, but I matured several years during that one year period. Let me try to briefly describe several incidents which precipitated this awakening, and which contributed to my eventual anti-war position and general skepticism toward the U.S. government.
During my first week in Vietnam, we were told by a sergeant in an orientation lecture, “The only good ‘gook’ is a dead ‘gook’ and you can’t trust a ‘slant-eyed fish head’ no matter how cute or how young they are, and this holds true for all the ‘gooks’ who work on base.” I took offence to the use of the racist term “gook” and naively asked, “Aren’t we here to protect the South Vietnamese?” The sergeant, disgusted by my naivety, retorted, “You’re here to protect American soldiers, and don’t you forget it!”
I came across this attitude time and again during my one-year stay in Vietnam and came to realize the racist nature of the war. It was this racist ideology that encouraged many American soldiers to treat the Vietnamese as sub-humans. In fact, the racist hatred of all Asians was so strong that 1 kept the fact that my mother was Japanese a secret for fear that I would be attacked as just another “gook.” Only my Chicano friend and my Vietnamese friends knew that I was a “gook half-breed.” This was the racist term that was used to describe children born of Vietnamese women and American soldiers.
One incident that should help relate the extent of dehumanization of the “enemy” I remember vividly. This took place at Dong Tarn, the base camp of the U.S. 9Ul Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta where I was stationed during my first six months in Vietnam. I was there as a member of the U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Support Party, Forward Air Controller Team. I had been in Vietnam for about two months at that time, and as I was walking in a section of the camp I was unfamiliar with, I saw a group of six or seven U.S. infantrymen gathered in front of what looked like a cage, laughing. I went up to them to get a closer look at what they were laughing about and I saw a Vietnamese man dressed in a black shirt and black trousers with his wrists and ankles firmly tied with rope squatting in the cage, which was about six feet square.
What happened next came as a shock to me. One of the American soldiers had a can of lighter fluid and he squirted it, aiming at the prisoner. When he managed to get some lighter fluid on him, two of his buddies threw lit matches at the man who was desperately hopping about trying to avoid the matches. One match struck one of his legs and his trousers instantly burst into flames. He rolled on the dirt floor silently in obvious pain and managed to extinguish it. They continued tossing matches at the man and I yelled at the soldiers to stop, and one of them pointed his rifle at me menacingly and growled threateningly, “None of your business, ‘flyboy.1 If you want to wake up in one piece tomorrow, you’d better fucking leave now.”
Well, I took off running and ran all the way back to the Air Force barracks and breathlessly reported the incident that I had just witnessed to the commanding officer. He shook his head and told me to just stay away from the “tiger cages” where they kept prisoners of war from then on. Although very scared of what I might see, I went back to the cage later that afternoon, but the prisoner had been removed and the cage was empty. I never went back after that, but that scene and the expression of fear and pain on that man’s face reappeared in nightmares for quite some time.
After I had been in Vietnam for about six months, in July of 1969, the Headquarters -Brigade of the 9* Infantry Division was pulled out of Vietnam and returned to duty in the United States due to then President Nixon’s “Victimization” scheme by which American soldiers would be replaced by South Vietnamese soldiers. Although the thirty of us in the Air Force detachment stationed there were not able to go home, we were all happy to be able to leave Dong Tarn and be reassigned to the 3rd Brigade base camp at Tan An. This was because the Viet Cong attacked Dong Tam nightly with an average of 80 rounds of rockets and mortars. The casualties were heavy on some nights and we were unable to get much sleep at night, so morale was quite low. As it turns out, after we had been at Tan An for about two weeks, we heard that Dong Tam had been completely and easily overrun by the Viet Cong and that the South Vietnamese Army had abandoned it without putting up much of a fight. So much for Nixon’s “Vietnamization” program; another cruel joke by another incompetent American president!
Although the town of Tan An was off-limits to U.S. Army personnel, because I was in the Air Force, I was able to go into town on my days off. I still naively believed that the Viet Cong were a special breed of Vietnamese terrorists, so I always walked into town alone and unarmed, confident that no harm would befall me in broad daylight among friendly civilians. In retrospect, it was that very naivety that probably saved me from injury when in town because if I had been armed, there would have been much more likelihood that I would have been targeted.
Eventually, I was able to meet and talk with Vietnamese at a restaurant that 1 came to frequent. Since no other Americans went to eat at Vietnamese restaurants, as we were told that the Vietnamese might try to poison us, I was a novelty and some people would come to the restaurant just for the chance to look at me while others were interested in asking about America and taking about cultural differences in food, music, movies, festivals, or school. We never talked about the war, and it seemed to be understood by all of us that that was a taboo subject which might jeopardize our relationship.
There was only one time that the war entered the restaurant and our conversation. It was when a group of five Royal Thai Guard soldiers came into the restaurant with two South Vietnamese Army officers. Immediately, some of the customers hastily left the restaurant while the others who stayed became very subdued. The atmosphere in the restaurant became very tense. The soldiers bullied the waiter (who seemed very frightened of them), ordered some beer and food to take with them, and left abruptly without paying. After they left, the waiter, who could speak some English, told me that the Thai, Korean, and South Vietnamese officers are the soldiers most feared by the Vietnamese civilians. He said that because these soldiers didn’t want to be identified by the Americans as being “gooks” or Viet Cong, or some form of “enemy,” they tended to be the most vicious in their treatment of the civilian population; American racist support the South Vietnamese government which was seen as a brutal military dictatorship, at least in the eyes of some of my Vietnamese Mends. I began to wonder why- the United States, in the name of freedom and democracy, would ally itself with such a brutal military regime and would itself be involved in terrorizing and killing innocent Vietnamese civilians, including women and children, the very people we were supposedly there to protect. My doubts and questions were not answered until after I got out of the military and became involved in the antiwar movement during my first year as a university student in 1973, four years after 1 left Vietnam.
Overcoming ideological obfuscation
Our illegal and bloodthirsty intervention in Vietnam was by no means an aberration. Although my eyes had been opened to the lies of the U.S. government leaders in telling us soldiers that we were going to Vietnam to fight for freedom and democracy, it was not until I became involved in student politics at university that I became painfully aware that 1 had been lied to and deceived by everyone who had been in positions of authority over me and influenced me from childhood. My parents, teachers, boy scout master, church pastors, football and baseball coaches, as well as numerous others brought me up to be a proud citizen and respect the flag and for which it stands – liberty and justice for all.
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which at the time had the reputation as a “hotbed of radicalism,” I at first attended the antiwar rallies and teach-ins out of curiosity. However, as I read the literature handed out to participants at those rallies and listened to the various speakers, I slowly became aware of the hidden history of the Vietnam War and the outright lies government leaders told the American people concerning the history of the war in Vietnam and the justification for military intervention there. At one of the teach-ins I attended, I watched a documentary movie that was made in 1974 called “Hearts and Minds.” That film showed clearly how the United States was determined to destroy any possibility for an international acceptance of an independent, non-aligned, democratic Vietnam even before the end of World War Two. The flyers 1 received at these events often had recommended reading lists and I became motivated to read more about the history of U.S. military interventionism. The more I read, the more I became convinced that I needed to get involved. I joined an organization called the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and participated in rallies and protest demonstrations against the war, sometimes speaking about my own experiences in the Vietnam War.
During my years at university until I became a Ph.D. candidate in 1985, I took part in a variety of student movements including protesting against U.S. support for military dictatorships throughout the world and increasing U.S. arms exports; opposing CIA recruitment on campus and military research at the university; speaking out against the Strategic Defense Initiative or Star Wars; and protesting against racism and sexism, nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, and apartheid in South Africa. This type of involvement was an educational experience unavailable in the classrooms, fostering a sense of solidarity with other participants of varied backgrounds and interests.
I recall one conversation I had with a woman from the Dominican Republic that profoundly affected my way of thinking. We were at an organizing meeting on campus for an upcoming demonstration against U.S. arms exports to brutal military regimes in Central America and the Caribbean, and during a break I asked her about life in the Dominican Republic. What shocked me was when she said, “You know, for my people in the Dominican Republic, life was better for us when we were slaves.” I couldn’t believe she had said that! Life was better under slavery? And she went on to explain: “Well, when we were slaves, our masters kept us fed, clothed us, and provided us with a roof over our heads. If we became ill or injured, our masters would have our wounds tended to and would provide us with medicine. It was important for the master to keep his slaves healthy so that they could work hard for him. Now that we are no longer slaves, there is no concern if we have no food or medicine. Many of us sleep under the stars. Our children die from hunger and illness. If we can find work, we are lucky to get paid enough for one meal after working all day.”
It was that conversation that motivated me to study more about the notion of “Third World development.” And again, the more I gained access to critiques of the notion of Third World development, the more I became aware of the extent to which most people in the advanced capitalist countries such as the United States and Japan are misinformed by an over-reliance on mainstream media and mainstream education as sources of information about social phenomena.
Function of Media and Schools
Meaningful democracy must be based on an organizational structure that permits isolated individuals to enter the domain of decision-making by pooling their limited resources, educating themselves and others, and formulating alternative ideas and programs that they can place on the political agenda and work to realize. However, to what extent are ordinary people able to become informed, a prerequisite to democratic participation, considering the ideological constraints imposed by a very sophisticated cultural hegemony?
The mainstream media, for example, represent the same interests that control the state and private economy, and it is therefore not very surprising to discover that they generally act to confine public discussion and understanding of social issues to the needs of the powerful and privileged. The media are, in the first place, major corporations. Their primary market is business advertisers, and like other corporations, they must meet the needs of the community of investors. In the unlikely event that they might seek to pursue an independent path, they would quickly be called to account, and could not continue to survive. As for individual news reporters, they were taught in schools of journalism at university that there are certain questions that are asked and certain questions that are taboo; certain perspectives are allowed whereas certain perspectives are excluded. I’ll give just one example of the importance of self-censorship on the part of news reporters in order for them to keep their jobs.
On December 11, 1981, U.S.-trained members of the Atlactl Battalion of the El Salvadoran army attacked a small village in El Salvador named El Mazote. Over 900 unarmed civilian men, women, and children were massacred. The army’s rationale was that this was to be an example for people in other villages to not give support to rebel insurgents, talk with human rights activists, join peasant organizations demanding land reform, or become involved in any kind of pro-democracy movement. A few weeks later, rumors of the massacre reached the capital of El Salvador, San Salvador, and Ray Bonner, a foreign correspondent stationed there for the New York Times decided to see for himself if the rumors were true. He managed to get to El Mazote and saw for himself the corpses of babies and children who had been killed, and thrown by the military into mass graves. What he saw enraged him, so he decided to write about it. He wrote not only about the massacre, but also about how the United States trained assassins at its army base at Fort Benning, Georgia called the School of Americas. He wrote about how the United States supports a government that practices “state terrorism” in which the people are terrorized to the degree that they are scared to death of getting involved in movements calling for peace, human rights, land reform, trade unions, or democracy.
When the article appeared in the New York Times, angry Americans called their elected representatives, wrote letters to politicians and newspapers, and demanded an end to U.S. support for the military regime in El Salvador. Ronald Reagan was president at the time and was very embarrassed because he had just made a speech in Congress calling for an increase in military aid to El Salvador, claiming improvements in the human rights situation in that country.
The U.S. military castigated the El Salvadoran military leaders for allowing such a massacre to come to public attention. According to the U.S. military, in order to “pacify” a village like El Mazote, the preferred counter-insurgency warfare tactic is for a small unit of soldiers properly trained in counter-insurgency warfare tactics to enter the village late at night, slit the throats of three or four sleeping villagers at random, and silently drag their bodies out to the village square or a nearby road. Then, they would cut down some saplings for spikes (like a pencil sharpened at both ends), decapitate the victims and stick their heads on one end of the spikes, then bury the other end in the dirt. Thus, when the villagers would wake up in the morning, they would go out to see the heads of three or four villagers stuck on spikes in the ground. This would scare them to death and they would not become involved in a pro-democracy movement or give support to armed insurgents.
Well, what happened to the reporter? Ray Bonner was recalled to New York City where he was asked to resign by his superiors at the New York Times. 1 assume that a couple of senior editors at the New York Times were also reprimanded in some way for allowing Bonner’s article to slip through the editorial process and be published intact.
The main function of corporate media is to keep the public misinformed, uninformed, or diverted, and they do their job well. An elite bias (corporate and government) is built into the very structure of media corporations, thus certain opinions and interpretations are expressed and angles considered while others are systematically excluded, as the example of Ray Bonner above illustrates. Of course, there is a spectrum of acceptability that gives an illusion of divergence and objectivity, but nothing beyond that delimited area of contestation is permitted. It is in this way that we, as consumers of corporate media interpretations of social phenomena, are deluded into thinking that we are hearing all sides of the argument when in fact we are only being exposed to perspectives that provide further support for the maintenance of the status quo.
As for the diversionary function of media, just think of all the television and radio programs or magazine and newspaper articles that deal with topics such as sports, lifestyle, fashion, entertainment, or health. And all these news topics encourage the reader/listener/viewer to consume more material goods. Spend more money on diet aids, clothes, cars, furniture, jewelry, travel, sports events, entertainment, and, the list is endless. And again, they do their job well.
This makes me think of a friend of mine in the States who buys the newspaper just to read the sports pages. Instead of thinking about the reasons behind corporate restructuring and why he lost his union job and now has to work in a lower wage, non-union factory, he blissfully enters the world of sports. He knows the standings of the various teams, the statistics concerning each player’s accomplishments, and can offer very sophisticated analyses of games played and statistical probabilities of each team making it into the playoffs. What a waste of a good mind on such trivial pursuits when more pressing social issues that directly affect his and his family’s well being need to be discussed! Indeed, the media fulfill their function well by diverting peoples’ attention from politically sensitive issues such as the connection between corporate restructuring at home and corporations relocating factories to countries offering the cheapest labor, and the huge military budget and the need to sell weapons worldwide to keep repressive governments in power so that the transnational corporations from the imperial countries can enjoy the increased profits associated with repression of freedom.
Meanwhile, the education of Americans does not enlighten them much about the sources of U.S. foreign policy. The same holds true in Japan. Most university courses on foreign policy are taught from the standpoint of government policy, looking at strategic problems and alternatives from a government point of view; there is little education on the strategies citizens might use to oppose official policy. Courses on foreign policy generally do not emphasize corporate economic interests. The most widely used textbooks ignore the fact that foreign policy decision-makers are heavily recruited from large corporations, investment houses, and law firms. As filmmaker and journalist John Pilger notes in his most recent book (The New Rulers of the World. Verso: London 2002): “In politics departments, the task of liberal realists is to ensure that western imperialism is interpreted as crisis management, rather than the cause of crisis and its escalation. By never recognizing western state terrorism, their complicity is assured. To state this simple truth is deemed unscholarly; better to say nothing.”
The overwhelming majority of courses offered in all academic disciplines in universities help to produce graduates who have learned that the fastest and surest road to success is to maintain the present structures of power and privilege intact, and not become involved in any attempt to question the legitimacy of that power or attempt to effect basic structural changes that may threaten the stability of the status quo. It follows that as the level of education increases, the level of understanding of social phenomena such as poverty and violence will decline.
Politically sensitive topics can barely be discussed within the ideological institutions managed by the educated classes such as the media, schools, universities, or journals of opinion. Therefore, the commitment of the state to serving private power in the domestic and international arena, and the commitment of the ideological institutions to limiting popular understanding of social issues, are firmly rooted in the institutional structure of the society and are highly resistant to change.
Ideological Nature of Social Sciences
There are so many things that I learned in schools, growing up in America, that I had to unlearn after I finally managed to become skeptical and started asking questions. George Orwell, a well-known British playwright once wrote: “Who controls the past controls the future. And who controls the present controls the past.” In other words, those who are in positions of power and influence in our society are in a position to write our histories. And if they can do that, they can decide our futures.
In the late 1960s, a paradigmatic shift occurred in the social sciences in the United States. The previous paradigm asserted that social science research and writing was objective and value free. It claimed that the social scientist did not take sides, showed all sides of the argument, and gave a balanced, rational analysis of social phenomena. However, a new generation of university graduate students argued that the opposite was true. They exposed all social science research and writing as being value laden and subjective, claiming that everyone interprets social phenomena differently. They asserted that certain questions are asked while others are not; certain people are chosen as key informants while others are not; and that a person’s personal background and experience as well as that person’s sex, class, race, religious beliefs, and political biases are reflected in the way the research is conducted and eventually written.
Although a university education was only available to White males from privileged class backgrounds in the past in the United States, during the postwar economic boom, students entering university included women, racial and ethnic minorities, foreign students and immigrants, and those from working class backgrounds. And they showed how their histories and their interpretations of social phenomena had been neatly excluded from the history texts and other social science literature that had been written by rich, White, homophobic, Protestant, males. Although there was much initial resistance to this insistence on the recognition of the political and ideological bias of social science writing, it was impossible to ignore and too difficult to refute. Today, most social scientists worldwide would agree: social science writing and research is subjective and value laden.
However, as Howard Zinn puts it: “Those in positions of power today, who claim to believe in ‘free markets,’ do not believe in a free marketplace of ideas, any more than they believe in a free marketplace of goods and services. In both material goods and in ideas, they want the market dominated by those who have always held power and wealth.” They worry that if new ideas enter the marketplace, people may begin to rethink the social arrangements that continue to enable the rich to become richer at the expense of the poor. Just as very few books that offer a radical and critical interpretation to and analysis of pressing social issues are published, very few teachers who have radical and critical ideas to share with students are hired, let alone given tenure. Universities, in order to maintain a semblance of freedom of inquiry and expression, will place a token Marxist professor in one department and a token feminist in another, but they will most likely be made to feel like unwanted visitors in hostile territory. Of the dozens of professors I took courses from at university, there were only three who courageously offered perspectives and ideas that challenged the dominant and academically/politically acceptable views.
I remember reading about the heroic adventures of Christopher Columbus in his journeys of discovery in history class at junior high school. He was portrayed in our history textbook as a forward-looking thinker, excellent navigator, devout Christian, and romantic adventurer. We were not told that one of his first journal entries after sighting the first group of indigenous peoples he encountered stated, “They are very friendly and generous with gifts. They are well-built, with good bodies and handsome features. They would make fine servants and slaves, and we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” His first “Christian” thoughts were to turn the friendly natives into slaves!
We were not taught how Columbus went on a great slave raid in 1495, when he returned to “his” islands with 1,200 soldiers in 17 ships, and rounded up 1,500 men, women, and children, sending 500 of the “best specimens” for sale in Spain where the 300 who survived the sea voyage died within a year, of heartbreak, after having been forcibly separated from their loved ones and homeland. We were not told of his sadistic and brutal policies such as cutting off the hands of any 14-years-old and older natives found without a copper token indicating that he or she had supplied the monthly quota of gold to the Spaniards, that took hours for them to die, or raping women and children as a form of entertainment, or cutting slices off the bodies of natives just to test the sharpness of their blades.
Within five years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the estimated 200,000 native Arawaks on the island of Hispaniola (today’s Dominican Republic and Haiti) were dead. Many of the Arawaks, wanting to die in dignity with their loved ones chose to commit mass suicide by cassava poisoning. After having a final village festival with singing, dancing, and storytelling, mothers would give their children a cup of cassava poison before drinking their own. By the year 1515, there were perhaps 50,000 Arawaks left on the island; by 1550, there were 500. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendents left on the island. These details were omitted from the Columbus myth I learned in school.
Although Columbus found very little gold on the island, he and his followers ended up turning the best land into sugar cane plantations, worked by slaves brought over from Africa. If you visit Haiti or the Dominican Republic today, you’ll find that the majority of the population are descendents of the Black slaves, still living in poverty and misery, and that the best agricultural land is still being used to grow sugar cane on huge plantations for companies from the imperial countries such as Cargill of the United States or Mitsui Bussan of Japan.
Of course Columbus is not an exception; he is just the most well known example of the glory associated with colonial expansion. The Columbus story is important for what it tells us about our colonial history and the continuation of colonial policies of genocide and theft in the name of “progress and development.” For most Americans, to celebrate Columbus was to be patriotic. It meant the glorification of expansion and conquest – which Columbus represented and which America represented. Columbus represented the beginning of the history, five hundred years ago, of the European invasion of the native settlements in the Americas: a beginning of conquest, slavery, and death. What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Caribbean, Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.
I recall receiving the impression from my history lessons in school that the Americas were very sparsely populated by savages in need of the helping hand of Christian charity and western civilization. We were not told that the native population, widely dispersed over the Americas, numbered 15 or 20 million, and that they had developed hundreds of different tribal cultures and perhaps 2,000 different languages over a period of 25,000 years. So Columbus and his successors were not coming into an empty wilderness, but into a world which in some places was as densely populated as Europe, with people living in terraced apartment complexes, where the culture was complex, where human relations were much more egalitarian than in Europe, and where the relations between men, women, children, and nature were more equitably worked out than perhaps any place in the world. They were people with their own laws, their poetry, their complex history kept in memory and passed on in an oral vocabulary more complex than that of European languages, accompanied by song, dance, and ceremonial drama. They employed a complex and sustainable agricultural system that respected and thus protected the biodiversity of the natural surroundings that they felt were a part of their spiritual beings.
And of course, in our school lessons, we were not taught the astonishing fact that what happened to native peoples during the first colonial encounters in the name of progress and civilization is happening their cultural identities are being systematically destroyed, and any resistance is being met with state policies that amount to genocide.
In closing this section on the myth of Columbus and the first colonial encounter, allow me to offer an extract from a speech on this topic given by Howard Zinn, the well-known American historian:
The celebrations of Columbus have been declared to be celebrations not just of his voyages of discovery but of “progress” and “civilization” – by which is meant advances in technology, knowledge, science, health, education, and standards of living. But there is a question to be asked: “Progress yes, but at what human cost? Is progress simply to be measured in the statistics of industrial and technological change, without regard to the consequences of that “progress” for human beings?
I recall that in my junior high school classes in American history when we came to the period after the Civil War, roughly the years between that war and World War I, it was looked on as the period of the great Industrial Revolution, when the United States became an economic giant. I remember how thrilled and proud we were made to feel to learn of the dramatic growth of the steel and oil industries, of the building of the great fortunes, of the crisscrossing of the country by the railroads.
We were not told of the human cost of this great industrial progress: how the textile industry was built up by the labor of young girls who went into the mills at age 12 and died on average at age 25; how the railroads were constructed by Irish and Chinese immigrants who were literally worked to death, in the heat of summer and cold of winter; how working people, immigrants and native-born, had to go out on strike and be beaten, jailed, and killed by local and state police as well as by National Guardsmen before they could win the eight-hour day; how the children of the working class in the slums of the city had to drink polluted water, scrounge for food in the garbage dumps, turn to prostitution, and how they died early deaths of malnutrition and disease. All this in the name of “progress.”
Yes, there are benefits from industrialization such as science, technology, and medicine. But so far, in these 500 years of Western civilization, of Western domination of the rest of the world [keep in mind, Japan managed to join this exclusive colonial club as the only non-White nation at end of the 19th century], most of those benefits have gone to a small part of the human race. For billions of people in the Third World [as well as the poor in the imperial nations], they still face malnutrition, homelessness, disease, racism, working conditions similar to slavery, and the early deaths of their children.
The uncontrolled drive for profit during the past 500 years of “progress” has led to enormous human suffering, exploitation, slavery, cruelty in the workplace, dangerous work conditions, child labor, the genocide of entire peoples, the destruction of land and forests, the poisoning of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. It is the present threats to the environment on a global scale that have caused reconsideration, among scientists and other scholars, of the value of “progress” as it has been so far defined.
Justification for Colonialism
How did the dominant classes in the colonial nations justify the need for colonial expansion to their own citizens? The ideological justification came with the notion of the “White Man’s Burden” related to the concept of the hierarchy of races. Basically, it was argued that because the White race was the only race that was 100% human and that all other races were sub-human, it was the moral responsibility of the White race to go to all corners of the world to “civilize the savages.” It was arrogantly assumed that Western culture, language, religion, music, customs, in a word, everything, was superior. Thus, the need for a “civilizing mission.”
Many people living in the colonial countries really believed that colonialism was a good, Christian act of benevolence; after all, we are expending time, money, and effort in helping those poor heathens in Africa, Asia, and the Americas to become civilized, to become more like us. Although the colonial elites created and supported by the colonial powers enjoyed wealth, power, and privilege, the majority of the native peoples living in the colonies did not benefit as they saw their land taken away to grow luxury crops for export; as they experienced the dehumanization associated with the denigration of their languages, religious beliefs, customs, and lifestyles; as they were increasingly forced to work as slaves or in slave-like conditions; and as they experienced the increase in misery, poverty, and the early deaths of their children.
In the postwar period of Pax Americana, “Third World development” was the rhetorical term that displaced the overtly racist and thus discredited concept of the “White Man’s Burden.” Although there has been a change in terminology, the justification as well as the results remains the same: “We” must help “them” develop, become more like us. However, when we ask the question, “Development for whom,” the answer remains the same as at the height of colonialism: the major beneficiaries are the political, economic, and military elite in the imperial centers and the political, economic, and military elite in the periphery (i.e. ex-colonies or Third World). If we ask people living in the imperial nations, “Do you think ‘Third World development’ is a good thing?” They will most likely answer, “Yes, we need to help those poor people in Africa, Asia, and the Americas to develop their standards of living, to become more like us.” If you go to a Third World country and ask, not the elites (whose views are faithfully reported in the media), but the majority of the people who are poor, the same question, they will answer, “No, Third World development’ is killing us. It is using up our land, taking away our natural resources, destroying our cultures, devastating our environment, forcing us to live in shanty towns and scrounge for food in the garbage dumps, and increasing the numbers of child prostitutes and people living in misery with no hope for the future.”
Uses of Rhetoric
George Bush, accepting the presidential nomination in 1988, said: “This has been called the American Century because in it we were the dominant force for good in the world…. Now we are on the verge of a new century, and what country’s name will it bear? I say it will be another American Century.”
What arrogance! That the 21M Century, when we should be getting away from the murderous jingoism of this century, should already be anticipated as an American century, or as any one nation’s century. More recently, during the press conference in Tokyo after signing the Clinton-Hashimoto Accords in April 1997, then President Clinton said: “The U.S.- Japan military alliance is the most important military alliance in human history. We must work together in the coming century for world peace and freedom for all.” Rhetoric! And even more recently, after the Bush-Koizumi summit meetings in Washington D.C. in 2001, President George W. Bush expressed “appreciation for Prime Minister Koizumi’s understanding of the necessity of working together for peace through joint efforts in the development of the missile defense system.” More rhetoric! We must learn how to wade through the rhetoric. We must find sources of information that offer alternative perspectives. We must gain access to analysts who offer critical interpretations of social issues that affect us all.
The entire global regime is the result of neo-liberal political policies, urged on by the U.S. government and echoed by the other imperial states that make up the Group of Seven. Most important, not tar below the surface is the role of the U.S. military as the global enforcer of neo-liberalism (i.e. global capitalism), with U.S. corporations and investors in the driver’s seat. Keep in mind that globalization is a euphemism for imperialism. In the words of well-known neo-liberal economist Thomas Friedman, in a rare moment of candor: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.”
We need to develop an understanding of neo-liberal globalization that is joined at the hip to U.S. militarism – and all the dreadful implications that suggests (military interventions, arms sales to and support for military regimes, a new arms race with the militarization of space – the “last frontier”). If we can see how the imperial nations are engaged in “armed theft” on a global scale to benefit the rich and powerful at the expense of the 95% of humanity who are not rich and powerful, then we might understand why, for example, the United States needs to provide counter insurgency warfare training at 150 military schools to military officers from 124 countries throughout the world (through the IMET program – International Military Education and Training). These U.S.-trained military elites go on to kill and imprison labor union leaders, human rights activists, farmers calling for land reform, parents demanding basic necessities for their children such as medicine, food, clothes, shelter, or schools, and students and workers involved in pro-democracy movements. This, of course, helps make it possible to continue to plunder the wealth of world. If we become aware of the fact that the governments of the imperial nations, representing the interests of transnational corporations, are brutally opposed to democracy in the ex-colonies, then we might understand why the United States sells military weapons to more than 150 different countries around the world, 80% of which have unelected governments.
This core relationship between the U.S. military, global militarization, and the global neo-liberal project, one of the central political issues of our times, is virtually unreported by the corporate media giants and not discussed in university classrooms. The very notion of neo-colonialism or imperialism has been dismissed as a historical artifact or a rhetorical ploy of the feeble-minded. In view of the corporate media’s interdependence with the global neo-liberal regime, any other outcome would be remarkable. Again, we need to become informed citizens through alternative sources of information: imperialism is not a historical artifact!
We must keep in mind that the concept of colonial and neo-colonial expansion and economic progress are profoundly tied to the notion of the inferiority of the conquered people, by their status as sub-humans. As the commanding U.S. Army general in the Philippines in 1900 put it: “There is no use mincing words. We exterminated the American Indians and I guess most of us are proud of it. And we must have no scruples about exterminating this other race, this race of slant-eyed savages, standing in the way of progress and enlightenment.”
The dehumanization of the “enemy” has been a necessary accompaniment to wars of conquest. It is easier to explain atrocities if they are committed against people of an inferior race or inferior culture. Slavery and racial segregation in the United States, and European imperialism in Asia and Africa as well as more recent Japanese imperialism in Asia, were justified in this way: racism and ethnocentrism. I recall talking with a U.S. Army combat soldier upon his return from the Gulf War in 1991 and I asked him, “When we were in Vietnam, we called the Vietnamese ‘gooks.’ What did you call the Iraqis?” He replied, “We called them ‘sand niggers.’ It didn’t matter if they were Iraqis or Saudis or Egyptians or whatever; all those Arab camel jockeys were ‘sand niggers’ to us.”
What can we do?
Since the 1960s throughout the world, people have been uniting at the grassroots in an enormous number of diverse social movements in attempts to effect basic structural changes. Participants have created new cultural values and social relations, and are offering alternative interpretations of social reality that challenge the dominant culture’s social assumptions.
With capitalist stagnation and the concomitant legitimation crises being faced by the advanced capitalist countries during the past three decades, social protest movements have proliferated globally. Most of these movements are grassroots-initiated and are challenging the status quo in various ways with varying success. Although many of these movements have been co-opted and others have simply disintegrated, some, such as the feminist and environmental movements, are continuing to challenge the hegemonic discourse. These movements, especially feminism and ecology, have greatly influenced social consciousness and to a lesser degree, public policy.
People in the imperial nations are finally waking up to what their governments and corporations have been doing in the rest of the world in the name of “progress” and “development.” Demonstrations and mass protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, NATO and AMPO, and other institutions and instruments of imperialism are now so well organized that they cannot be ignored, even by the corporate media. People are organized in antiwar movements before the wars begin, such as before the Gulf War, the U.S war in Afghanistan, and the planned U.S. war in Iraq. People can be reached by committed efforts. They can act in many ways to influence the media at least marginally, and to modify decisions reached within the political system from which they are largely excluded. We need to aspire to self-realization and to rebel against powerlessness. We have to educate ourselves and help to educate others. Discussing social issues with friends, relatives, and colleagues will help raise consciousness. We must become involved. Choose something that interests you and find a group that is working on that particular issue, whether it’s working for fair trade, opposing domestic violence and patriarchy, or calling for an end to the continued presence of U.S. military bases in Japan. There are literally thousands of grassroots-based groups in Japan working on a huge variety of very socially relevant issues; choose one.
Peace includes not only the absence of war, violence, and hostilities at the national and international level, but also the enjoyment of economic and social justice, equality, and the whole range of human rights and fundamental freedoms within society and at the personal level of family, work, and community. As educated individuals, we must accept our responsibility to fight for demilitarization and the termination of military alliances. True democracy is possible if we build coalitions at home and abroad with people who share our interest in creating a decent and socially equitable society, in promoting peace, and protecting the planet from the ravages associated with uncontrolled greed for power and wealth.