American Julian Ninio is the author of The Empire of Ignorance, Hypocrisy and Obedience, and is in Australia for the Sydney Writers Festival. This piece first appeared in The Age, and is republished with the author’s permission.
The American people didn’t know its troops abused prisoners in Iraqi jails. Ignorance. Officials who knew pretend they didn’t know. Hypocrisy. To excuse the perpetrators, parents of soldiers say their kids were forced to follow orders. Obedience.
Torture is the problem-du-jour. Two weeks ago, the problem-du-jour was the deceptive case for war. The American people believed the administration�s lies. Ignorance. The President says he relied on the flawed intelligence he was fed. Hypocrisy. Instead of rebelling, Colin Powell stuck with his team. Obedience.
America’s problems are structural. Even if Kerry replaces Bush in January 2005, America will still have one child in six living in poverty; America will still have two million people in jail; America will still have military installations in 50 countries. It’s time we looked at the structure behind America’s problems.
By studying America�s self-image, we can collect symptoms of the �disease� that ails American society. Is America truly the beacon of justice? Not when it tortures prisoners. Is America truly the cradle of democracy? Not when its president is elected by a minority, not when government for corporations displaces �by the people for the people�.
Is America the land of the free? Not when powerful corporations can silence dissidents like Michael Moore. Is America the land of plenty? Not when one household in thirteen lives in a trailer.
Does the US have the best way of life? In a BBC poll, 96 per cent of Americans say that foreigners want to live in America. In the same poll, one Australian in 100 says she would prefer to live in America. It�s not hard to guess why: Australians like paid vacations, Medicare, the fair go, even if it doesn�t always work perfectly.
By studying America’s self-image, we can collect symptoms of the ‘disease’ that ails American society. By America�s own standard, the standard of its self-image, the US is a sick society. Behind torture and all the other symptoms, you can find the same driving principles. �America is the best.� �Might means right.� �Corporations have a right to maximise profit.� �Government should serve the economy.� �People must look after themselves.� �Status comes from wealth.� �Winning justifies anything.�
Behind it all, you can find a powerful blend of ignorance, hypocrisy, and obedience. It�s a kind of disease, something I call the �IHO Syndrome�: I for ignorance, H for hypocrisy, O for Obedience. Under its influence, lies become truth, wrong becomes right. Peace becomes war, justice becomes torture.
Of course, every American is not always ignorant, hypocritical and obedient. Of course, the US does not have a monopoly on ignorance, hypocrisy and obedience. But when we interpret American society through these lenses, current events make a lot more sense. And that suggests ways to fix that society.
We must produce awareness to replace ignorance. Dissenters must spear hypocrisy with truth. Instead of obeying, American people must resist.
On paper, that sounds simple. But in America as around the world, many people feel powerless to change things.
In Australia, suppose you try to solve just one problem: the logging of old-growth forests. You will butt against government. You will butt against corporations. The press will help your fight, but only up to a point. And you will feel that modern society�s values work against you.
Take two friends and try to discuss how people can solve a problem you care about – Australia�s presence in Iraq, refugee detention centres, anything. You will soon find yourself entangled in the same web: government priorities, corporate power, media focus, modern values. Some call that the �system�. We feel discouraged because we see that to fix one problem, we would have to fix the entire system.
Most people would love to fix the system. This means that citizens must have the power to decide policies. Two-thirds of Americans think Congress should pass stricter gun control laws, such as keeping track of who buys guns. Survey after survey confirms this, but the surveys also show that Americans expect Congress not to pass these laws. Government does not obey people.
People cannot shape policies, much less institutions, unless they reach a critical mass. To reach a critical mass, we need to take a stand, and we need to awaken our neighbours, our parents, our friends.
It works. That�s the way change happens every time, from Alabama blacks� right to ride in the front of the bus to Torres Strait islanders� right to own their land. And it�s enjoyable. Most people I know prefer to work with others for a distant goal than to sit isolated in their living rooms. Apathy is an illusion. We are isolated, so we assume that no one else has any interest in changing the world, and we join the official game – work harder, buy more. When we break the isolation, when we talk to strangers, we realise that most people share the same interests.
Many people are waking up. Michael Moore�s popularity is a sign of dissent. Many will try to change society if they see a way.
There’s no secret. To change the ‘system’, we need to take a stand and wake up people around us: parents, friends, workmates. At some point it becomes acceptable to disagree – it becomes the norm to disagree. It doesn�t work overnight, but it�s the only sure way to produce change.