A Word worth a Thousand Pictures

Posted December 28, 2016
By Jon Thompson

Many people understand that humanity and the planetary ecosystem are at grave risk from nuclear weapons and climate change. But many more are only dimly aware or worse, ignore or deny these risks. This undermines “the bulwark of democracy: enlightened public opinion.”[1] The result is lack of necessary actions to reduce the risk levels because of inadequate public pressure on political leaders to act.[2] A significant source of ignorance and cause of inaction is the propaganda-driven power of certain words to stifle or divert free and informed public discussion by evoking narrow images, for example: China, democracy, dissident, economy, efficiency, freedom, growth, Iran, market, Putin, security, terrorism.

Such one-word slogans have ordinary meanings of course, but in Western government and mass-media discourse these are often narrowed or altered to specific conceptions and inculcated through repetition. Mere utterance of loaded words then often has the power to obviate critical examination or dissent on important issues. This is because it instantly calls to mind an inculcated image or coherent set of images so frightening or so captivating to information consumers that they quickly lose interest in facts or analytical interpretation of events. Focus on such representations is often diversionary and this too contributes to misinformation.[3]

In order to raise levels of public awareness and concern regarding these two existential dangers, their main causes must be understood, along with the catastrophically destructive processes they can unleash.  Both aspects require more effective, frequent, and accurate dissemination of political assessments and scientific findings in forms the general public can absorb and discuss.

The two dangers are commonly considered in isolation but despite their obvious differences, they are related through the systems of political economy long prevalent over most of the globe. In recent decades both capitalism and socialism (including the USSR form of communism) have been supplanted by a chimerical hybrid, the now globally triumphant neoliberal capitalism.[4] As Elias Canetti observed a half century ago, “capitalism and socialism are at one, twin rivals in the same faith. For both of them production is the apple of their eye and their main concern.”[5] Neoliberalism continues the quest for ever-growing production but with production now joined by accelerating wealth concentration and its by-product extreme inequality.

Unsustainable exploitation of the planet’s resources is encouraged and promoted in pursuit of economic and political ends. The result is global ecosystem degradation at an accelerating pace, while environmental regulatory frameworks are often weakened. Accelerating global warming with attendant climate change is a consequence. Another is that with increasing production and the use of more diverse materials, the Earth’s air, land, and water become ever more polluted by substances hazardous to a wide range of life forms. Two of the most important examples are the radioactive and chemically toxic wastes from nuclear power reactors and nuclear weapons production, and the plastic particles of various sizes and compositions that increasingly foul the world’s oceans thus adding to stresses on marine life caused by warming, acidification and other effects of climate change.

Neoliberal policies have also helped ensure global financial hegemony of the United States through maintaining the dominant status of its currency. This substantially assists the US to fund its enormous military budget, the largest by far among all states. [6] It has the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, largest number of military bases, widest geographical distribution of bases, and greatest diversity and number of nuclear weapons delivery platforms. It would be suicidal for any nation, even Russia or China to attack the US.

Despite these facts, in recent years the US armed forces and forces of its client states have been increasing the number of manoeuvres and installations in the immediate geographical neighbourhoods of Russia and China. Both these states reasonably consider these actions to be provocative and dangerous. Western media rarely provide critical reporting on such actions and public opinion remains largely unenlightened about the risks. Of no less concern, the US continues to maintain a policy allowing it to initiate nuclear war unilaterally (first-strike policy).[7] In these circumstances the probability of an accidental nuclear holocaust cannot be considered negligible, regardless of the current intentions of any state.

Can anything effective be done to reduce the risks? If there is a potentially viable approach, has anything similar been attempted before? If so, was anything significant accomplished? Did an enlightened and engaged public have substantial political influence? Before answering such questions, the nature and purposes of three loaded words are outlined. These are especially relevant to nuclear weapons, the more immediate of the two existential dangers. (Others, more directly relevant to climate change will be outlined in a future post.)

Terrorism

Although a growing problem across much of the globe and increasingly distressing, terrorism is not yet an existential danger. It is an age-old means to various ends. Our time may be distinguished by the frequency, global extent, diversity of methods, and range of purposes. Government and media emphasis on particular characterizations of it divert attention from existential dangers, as well as from other serious issues. In recent decades attention has been focused on terrorism perpetrated by certain types of Islamic fundamentalists and a so-called Global War on Terror was proclaimed by the US in 2001, following the terrorist attacks of September 11 in that year.

Such focus diverts attention from terrorism perpetrated by some militarily powerful states against the people of other states, or selected groups in their own populations. It also diverts attention from financial and training support for terrorism in several parts of the world, notably by the US or through its client states or groups.

Terrorism as narrowly construed by governments and the media had already become a major focus in the early 1990s. The USSR was disintegrating and thus no longer the security risk it had been considered to be since the late 1940s. This meant that fear of the USSR had lost efficacy as a means of political “control” of the US domestic population and justification for the cost of the vast American military-industrial complex, Noam Chomsky explained. As a result, a “desperate search for some new enemy” arose and “international terrorism” and “Islamic fundamentalism” then emerged as prime candidates.[8] Subsequent US actions have been a major contributing factor in the growth of terrorist activity in many parts of the world. It must be noted, however, that focus on terrorism is only one aspect of the military Keynesianism that continues to fuel much of the economies of many states, such as Russia, China, UK, France, Germany, and Israel, as well as the US.

“The US is a leading terrorist state,” Chomsky recently explained, adding that its citizens, allies, client states, and admirers are quite accepting of this aspect of its international role: “In Western political culture, it is taken to be entirely natural and appropriate that the Leader of the Free World should be a terrorist rogue state and should openly proclaim its eminence in such crimes.”[9]

As is often said but seldom heeded, the growth of terrorism can rarely be reversed by bombing, drone strikes, or armed invasions. Experiences of this century show that military action commonly exacerbates an essentially criminal problem, except in cases of helping a legitimate government defend itself and its people from armed attacks. Effective police action can resolve specific instances but such an approach cannot easily justify large increases in military spending.

The fundamental problem arises in significant measure from the effects of neoliberal economic globalization and Western military adventurism, as Alain Badiou explained in a recent discussion on the nature of terrorism and its growth. He criticized the simplistic, self-serving representations of terrorism by affluent states and their media, noting that that such “defeat of thought” is reciprocally “always precisely the victory of irrational and criminal behaviours.” He noted most of the terrorists on whom attention is currently focused have emerged from the approximately one-half of the world’s population that possesses little or nothing, and daily experience their lives being trivialized and their culture denigrated.[10]

The resulting despair and resentment can in many instances give rise to nihilism, glorification of extreme violence, murderous or suicidal disregard for life, and finding a sense of community in armed, criminal gangs. Badiou recalled that these are traits characteristic of fascist groups in European countries from the mid-1920s to mid-1940s. Such gangs often have successful economic existences, the self-styled Islamic State being a current example. Religious extremism may serve as an additional bond for these groups but this is not peculiar to Islam, contrary to the view of many Western leaders and opinion-makers. Noting that “Catholicism played this role for Spanish fascism during the Civil War, Islam is playing it today in the Middle East,” Badiou suggested fascization precedes religious extremism in many individual instances. As mentioned below, he proposed a solution to the general problem of terrorism, one that recalls earlier successful approaches to other major problems.

Security

This slogan has connotations and uses similar to terrorism, and it too is efficacious. They are sometimes deployed together to amplify the effect. Official representations of either one or both have important domestic political and economic utility, in addition to keeping military expenditures high. They both help to induce broad public acquiescence in legislation that restricts democratic freedoms of citizens in many countries, constitutional rights notwithstanding. Additional domestic uses of security are to evoke and instil a social- and commercial-image universality that helps induce employee acquiescence regarding erosion of privacy rights, as well as citizen susceptibility to marketing promotion of various commercial products.

Acceleration of these trends occurred after the September 2001 attacks that were used to justify wars against Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, allegedly to protect the security of the Free World. A limited police action would have sufficed for the first, while the second was a major war of aggression by the US and many of its client states against a state that presented no security risk at the time. As a result of these still ongoing wars, terrorism in the region and abroad has greatly increased.

Putin

During the past few years Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and the Russian state have increasingly been vilified and demonized by American President Barack H. Obama, senior members of his regime, Hillary R. Clinton the recent presidential candidate for his Party, and most of the Western media. Such representations of selected states or their leaders (the nascent USSR, and after 1945 the USSR, Cuba, Chile, Nicaragua, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, to mention several) have long been a recurrent feature of US politics. The arbitrariness of these representations is apparent from the 2016 election process in which the winner and President-elect Donald J. Trump chose to demonize Iran and China instead of Russia.

Such diversionary demonizations “are firmly in the tradition of Cold War threat escalation,” Andrew Cockburn observed, and they have often been deployed as a dependable means of increasing public support for otherwise unpopular policies or actions, or diverting attention from domestic problems, or use as a presidential election strategy as, for example, in 1960 and in 2016.[11] Threat escalation through demonization remains internationally destabilizing because it is well known that for the states listed above and others, US demonization preceded attempts at regime change by direct armed intervention, through armed proxies, or through provocateurs. The resulting devastations were, or still are plain for all to see.

Addressing Major Global Issues

In the past there have been efforts to address global issues that had significant successes lasting decades or longer, before being ignored, forgotten, circumvented, or subverted in various places or times. Examples are: the two-centuries-long movements for equal civil rights and social respect for women in many states, the nineteenth century international campaigns to abolish the slave trade, the American Civil Rights Movement of the first several decades following World War II (that later also had beneficial effects globally), and various environmental movements that succeeded in protecting parts of the globe from over-exploitation.

In each case the successes involved a combination of dedicated and public-spirited leaders, well-formed and extensive popular support, and relatively modest organizational funding. These factors may have been necessary conditions, but not sufficient because such large-scale efforts sometimes fail to achieve positive results (for example, the many large demonstrations in major cities internationally in 2003 against the planned war of aggression against Iraq). Recollection of the factors leading to successes in the past may offer guidance for the present and future. In the example outlined below, additional factors were critical: an acute crisis, skilled diplomacy, and confidence gained from initial success.

The existential threat of nuclear war has been with us since 1949 when the USSR developed nuclear weapons. This followed the 1945 US deployment of such weapons to obliterate two Japanese cities, in “the first major operation of the cold diplomatic war with Russia.”[12] For certain periods (early 1960s to early 1980s and during much of the 1990s) the risk level was appreciably lower than at present.

The sustained international effort – in the midst of the Cold War – to reduce and ideally eliminate the risk of nuclear weapons is now of particular interest. It commenced on a small scale, in London in 1955 with a public statement by Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein and nine other internationally distinguished scientists and intellectuals. Subsequently called the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, the statement explained the existential danger in clear and direct terms, not only from the enormous and immediate damage caused by the explosions, but also the severe long-term hazards from fallout of radioactive particles spread over the planet by air and water.

From early on the group had financial and moral support from prominent Canadian-American industrialist Cyrus Eaton. Among other things, Eaton hosted the first international conference on the dangers of nuclear weapons in 1957 at his boyhood home near Pugwash. The inaugural event of what became known as the Pugwash Conferences included a larger and internationally more diverse group of scientists and intellectuals. They provided the leadership core of the movement, with Joseph Rotblat serving as organizational chair.

The Pugwash movement became a major international presence with engagement of many intellectuals and a great many ordinary citizens in many countries, and with the involvement of senior US and USSR nuclear weapons scientists in discussions on safety and mutual security. Although the Conferences typically operated discreetly and through international diplomacy, the information they disseminated widely on the risks was effective in galvanizing substantial public concern in many parts of the world. Ultimately, the leaders of the US and USSR and their senior military and political advisors became engaged and this led to the first treaties committing nuclear-armed states to specific risk-reduction steps.

The first significant reduction of risk was achieved in 1963 with a treaty signed by the USSR and US. Additional treaties between these two leading nuclear powers were signed in 1972 and 1991. Several other agreements between the US and USSR were reached, although not always fully implemented, and several smaller nuclear powers agreed to certain restrictions. In 1968 the UN General Assembly approved a nuclear arms non-proliferation treaty. The influences of the Pugwash Conferences and Rotblat in particular on these positive developments were recognized through awarding of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize.

Among the additional factors in achieving these results was the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis in which a nuclear war between the US and USSR was very narrowly averted. The acute crisis was resolved, and both the crisis and the resolution process brought a sharp note of realism to the leaders of both states and their advisors. Resolution required serious dialogue and compromises that opened channels of communication that then led to the first treaty: the 1963 atmospheric test ban. Its objective was chosen in part because of great international public concern over the hazards from fallout generated by the huge nuclear-fusion bomb test explosions, and in part because this objective did not preclude underground testing and further bomb development. Even this limited outcome required negotiation between representatives of the USSR and US who had skills honed in many years of diplomacy and politics. And importantly, the 1963 success developed mutual confidence that led to other treaties.[13]

However, for various reasons the risk levels are again very high. Thus a new risk-reduction process is required, perhaps adapted from the one outlined above but with involvement of more states, as well as greater cultural and gender diversity among leading figures.

Badiou closed his discussion of terrorism by proposing a global approach to reducing the problem. His proposal shared features with the processes in the examples noted above. He suggested constructive change is feasible when “irrigated by a new thinking” necessary in order to put “something else on the table,” namely, “a politics of emancipation.” He proposed “alliances, egalitarian trajectories and encounters” in which “intellectuals and different segments of youth” become “organically linked.” Stressing urgency, he said “what matters is that youths of every provenance, and intellectuals, make a gesture, carve out a path,” and thereby help lead their societies to more stable forms of existence and co-existence.[14]

It should be recalled that Badiou has long been an incisive critic of self-serving intellectuals and his use of the term ”intellectual” refers to those who understand the public responsibility outlined by Chomsky a half century ago. Such intellectuals were indispensable to the progress made in the instances mentioned above, for example: Mary Wollstonecraft, Germaine Greer; William Wilberforce, Germaine de Staël; W.E.B. Du Bois, John Hope Franklin; Vladimir I. Vernadsky, Rachel Carson; and Russell, Einstein, and Rotblat.

Finally, as Karl Polanyi reminded readers in 1944, alternative models of political economy are available both in historical societies and present indigenous ones. They incorporate sustainability, social and cultural stability, and respect for the environment, qualities that could and should be adopted globally.[15]


[1] William A. Fowler, review of Fear, War and the Bomb by P.M.S. Blackett (cited below) in Caltech Alumni Bulletin, March 1949, 18-19

[2] A statement published January 26, 2016 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists says “world leaders continue to fail to focus their efforts and the world's attention on reducing the extreme danger posed by nuclear weapons and climate change. When we call these dangers existential, that is exactly what we mean: They threaten the very existence of civilization and therefore should be the first order of business for leaders who care about their constituents and their countries.” http://thebulletin.org/press-release/doomsday-clock-hands-remain-unchanged-despite-iran-deal-and-paris-talks9122  On climate change, the International Energy Agency said in a November 2016 statement, “The Paris Agreement, which entered into force on 4 November, is a major step forward in the fight against global warming. But meeting more ambitious climate goals will be extremely challenging and require a step change in the pace of decarbonization and efficiency. … While this [Paris agreement] is a significant achievement, it is far from enough to avoid the worst impact of climate change as it would only limit the rise in average global temperatures to 2.7°C by 2100. The path to 2°C is tough, but it can be achieved if policies to accelerate further low carbon technologies and energy efficiency are put in place across all sectors.” http://www.iea.org/newsroom/news/2016/november/world-energy-outlook-2016.html

[3] The range of inculcation techniques and motivations for them is wide, and in some instances durable over decades. The examples discussed at the following links are illustrative: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/15/opinion/environmental-word-games.html ; http://wallstreetonparade.com/2016/10/wikileaks-bombshell-emails-show-citigroup-had-major-role-in-shaping-and-staffing-obamas-first-term/ ; and http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/washington-post-blacklist-story-is-shameful-disgusting-w452543

[4] Neoliberal political economies combine the following features in varying proportions, depending on the particular state or union of states, each of which facilitates wealth concentration: military Keynesianism; socialization of large high-risk business losses incurred by private corporations; privatization and deregulation of public resources, services, and utilities; weakening of democracy; surrendering of substantial aspects of national sovereignty to multinational corporations; and maintenance of low inflation rates and corresponding low interest rates on a long-term basis – the former protecting the value of  accumulated wealth of members of the upper classes, while the latter serves as an inducement to members of the lower and middle classes to increase personal indebtedness.

[5] Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power (New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984 [1962]), 466

[6] In a review essay published when the magnitude of the 2008 financial crisis was becoming clear, “The World Finance Crisis & the American Mission,” New York Review of Books, 56, 12, July 16, 2009, Robert Skidelsky noted that for decades “the US government has been able to live beyond its means,” including “the right to acquire real resources through the printing of money” and “the ability to deploy large military forces overseas without having to tax its own citizens to do so.” (Posted at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2009/07/16/the-world-finance-crisis-the-american-mission/  James K. Galbraith explained this special status of the US dollar was achieved because of “The radical monetary policies of the early 1980s [very high interest rates for a few years] engendered a new international financial system … so the United States could run unchecked, whatever trade deficit the demand for dollar balances in the world system prescribed.” Such policies helped establish the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency and consolidate American “imperial finance,” The Predator State (New York: Free Press, 2008), 202. [Note: monetarism is a form of neoliberalism and like many American economists, Galbraith employed the term “conservative” for neoliberal policies.]

[7] A discussion of US first-strike policy is posted at http://thebulletin.org/why-obama-should-declare-no-first-use-policy-nuclear-weapons9789

[8] Noam Chomsky, World Orders Old and New (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 1,3, 69-70

[9] Noam Chomsky, Who Rules the World? (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2016), 198-199

[10] Alain Badiou, Our Wound is Not So Recent (Malden MA: 2016), 9, 32, 52-56

[11] Andrew Cockburn, “The New Red Scare,” Harper’s Magazine, December 2016, 25-31

[12] P.M.S. Blackett, Fear, War and the Bomb (New York: Whittlesey House, 1949), 139

[13] In Weapons and Hope (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), Freeman J. Dyson discussed the importance of diplomacy and of public engagement in and around nuclear arms treaty negotiations and ratifications, 9, 68, 75, 219, 288 and elsewhere.

[14] Badiou, Our Wound is Not So Recent, 71-75

[15] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001 -1944]), Chapter 4