The first part of this article will attempt to demonstrate the need for a healthy sense of skepticism toward mainstream journalism and how it deals with life and death issues such as Iraq. The second part will offer some cautions on pitfalls and distractions for social activists.
YOU CAN’T BE NEUTRAL ON A MOVING TRAIN
The historian Howard Zinn says that “in modern warfare, soldiers fire, they drop bombs, and they have no notion, really, of what is happening to the human beings that they’re firing on. Everything is done at a distance. This enables terrible atrocities to take place.” As a young soldier dropping bombs on French towns occupied by German forces near the end of World War II, he “did it like most soldiers do, unthinkingly, mechanically, thinking we’re on the right side, they’re on the wrong side, and therefore we can do whatever we want, and it’s okay.
“And only afterward, only really after the war when I was reading about Hiroshima from John Hersey and reading the stories of the survivors of Hiroshima and what they went through, only then did I begin to think about the human effects of bombing. Only then did I begin to think about what it meant to human beings on the ground when bombs were dropped on them, because as a bombardier, I was flying at 30,000 feet, six miles high, couldn’t hear screams, couldn’t see blood. And this is modern warfare.” (1)
(1) Reference: Howard Zinn: “To Be Neutral, To Be Passive In A Situation Is To Collaborate With Whatever Is Going On”
As one can see from the above reference, Howard Zinn is not saying that one should be neutral, that war is war and in war bad things happen. In fact, quite the opposite, as Zinn is the author of a book that in 2005 was made into a film narrated by his friend and neighbor Matt Damon, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train”. He is not afraid of telling his young history students and readers that he takes a stand on issues, though he encourages them not to take his word for things but to develop their own eyes and ears for the truth, that no-one is born with information, that we must constantly go after it. Sometimes that truth is more complex than either seeing a black and white, good and evil narrative or one that glosses over the details and concludes that in war everyone does bad things.
MAINSTREAM MEDIA: ASPLEEP ON THE JOB OR WILLFUL SELF-CENSORSHIP?
Zinn knows that people are not going to make much progress if they depend on the mainstream, corporate media for the information that will help them discover the truth, the very same media which uncritically brought the Iraq invasion into our living rooms (less than being uncritical, they even served as cheerleaders for the invasion in many cases). A media which only now, after thousands have died and when it has become safe to do so, tells its readers the things that Zinn and other activists were saying three years ago, when being critical was not yet acceptable. Like the justification for invading Iraq made by Colin Powell at the U.N. on Iraq’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction having been based on lies and distortions. Things which may yet lead to the prosecution or even impeachment of key officials in the Bush administration. (2)
Did you know, by the way, that behind Powell was Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, but it had been covered with a cloth beforehand as it was obviously in bad taste to be seen making a call for war with a reminder of what war does to people’s lives and limbs in the background? (3)
(2) Reference: Pro-war Propaganda Machine/Media Becomes Branch of War Effort
(3) Reference: The Lessons of Guernica
The kinds of questions that Zinn asks are the questions that many ask, but those voices are not being picked up in the media. Why, for example, “if one person kills another person, that is murder. But if the government kills 100,000 persons, that is patriotism. And they’ll say we’re disturbing the peace. What really bothers them is that we’re disturbing the war.”
PICKING AND CHOOSING WHAT IS CONVENIENT
It is convenient for those in power–whether government leaders or a compliant media that chooses not to look too deeply lest it uncover less flattering truths–to pick and choose when it comes to looking at history. The historian Richard Minear makes this clear in a recent interview in which he talks about his book, “Victors’ Justice: The Tokyo War Crimes Trial,” which was very critical of the trials. He notes that he “wrote it for American readers from an anti-Vietnam perspective. What the United States was doing in Indochina in the 1960s was not morally acceptable. I wrote the book because I thought the narrow-minded and self-centered thinking the United States showed in the Tokyo trial subsequently led to America’s mistake of intervening in Vietnam. It is a book of U.S. criticism directed at American readers. But when it was translated into Japanese, Japanese conservatives who refuse to accept the Tokyo trial said, ‘Aha, Minear says we were right!’ The same thing happened with ‘Taiheiyo Senso’ (The Pacific War) by historian Saburo Ienaga, who affirmed the role of the Tokyo trial, for example. It was translated into English, and American conservatives said, ‘Aha, we were right! Japan is wrong.’ ” (4)
(4) Reference: Japan needs to face up to its war responsibility
And so we have the bizarre situation where American conservatives could applaud the left-wing Ienaga for justifying their stance that Hiroshima was a good thing (he actually opposed both U.S. and Japanese militarists), which allowed them to justify later U.S. interventions in Vietnam and other places on the basis of some high-minded principles. Likewise, Japanese rightists could point to Minear’s critique of U.S. hypocrisy in the tribunal as exoneration for their brutal reign over Asia. This is what happens when the truth is presented selectively. Going back to Iraq, the newspapers of 2003, in lining up behind Powell and Bush, or at least in sidestepping any debate over the claims made justifying war helped to keep moral issues below the radar and thus initially support for the war was high. In fact, here is a direct quote from Dan Rather: “George Bush is the President. He makes the decisions. He wants me to line up, just tell me where.” (5)
(5) Reference: The Lynching of Dan Rather
In such an environment, devoid of any historical context or critical reportage, those who had read their history and knew that the weapons of mass destruction employed by Saddam against Iraqi Kurds and the Iranians were used with the tacit approval of the United States must have looked strident if, appearing in a 5-second sound-byte, they questioned the motives for the coming war. TV audiences might be forgiven for concluding that the anti-war activist was just a “knee-jerk” anti-American, given that the U.S. media had largely ignored the fact that Saddam Hussein was not a “bad guy” in the eyes of the U.S. government, a media which only now chooses to mention the atrocities, and the lies used to justify the invasion. (6)
(6) Reference: Shaking Hands with Saddam Hussein: The U.S. Tilts toward Iraq, 1980-1984
U.S. Had Key Role in Iraq Buildup
ALTERNATIVE MEDIA: WHAT YOU WILL (AND WON’T) FIND IN TOKYOPROGRESSIVE
While the media hides behind a pretense of objectivity, not even CBS would feel they have to give equal time to both the makers of Napalm and Agent Orange (Dow, Monsanto) and their victims, both intended (“enemy” civilians) and unintended (soldiers handling the stuff who have later come down with chemical-related illnesses). Rather, they would just as soon not look into the issues very deeply at all. Monsanto, by the way, is also one of the leading biotechnology companies (including genetically modified organisms), with a very checkered past, but most of that never gets mentioned as the media assumes it to be irrelevant or the public too incapable of understanding it. And yet certainly it is of interest and importance to know that Monsanto has not only helped to kill millions in Vietnam, supplied chemical products that enabled Hitler’s holocaust, has been in the forefront of globalization in its production of patented “terminator” seeds which must constantly be repurchased, leading many farmers to serious debt and even suicide, and much more. (7) Such stories are often carried on this site because they are rarely carried in the mainstream media.
(7) Reference: Monsanto
The Suicide Economy Of Corporate Globalisation
Sure, there are other viewpoints on whether Monsanto is truly an evil company. Even Albert Einstein believed that the atomic bomb was a worthwhile thing initially (though he later renounced this view), so one might be interested to read Monsanto’s justifications for its production of Agent Orange, if you could find it. Also, the pros and cons of genetic modification are still being debated, and we do not claim to know for certain if GMOs are harmful, since scientists themselves are split. But the marketing goes on at full speed, often making the claim that GMOs offer a kind of second “green revolution” for the hungry multitudes in the developing world, even as at least 25,000 farmers have killed themselves so far. It is THESE stories that we feel deserve more exposure.
Reasonable people, it is said, can disagree, and while it is true that there are often different interpretations of reality, as well as the invocation of Realpolitik justifications, such as that employed by former Secretary of State Kissinger in explaining why the U.S. bankrolled a coup on September 11, 1973 in Chile that included the murder of thousands of Chilean and other civilians (8), there cannot be two realities in my view. Even if one were to assume that the makers of these chemical weapons or the CIA in hatching the coup to protect U.S. economic interests were not inherently evil, they have clearly chosen to look the other way as their efforts produced horrendous deaths and injuries, both physical and spiritual, that have spanned generations.
(8) Reference Sept. 11, 1973: A CIA-backed Military Coup Overthrows Salvador Allende, the Democratically Elected President of Chile
WHAT YOU WON’T FIND TOO OFTEN IN TOKYOPROGRESSIVE
Given my reluctance to be equivocal with regard to the merits of Agent Orange and CIA coups, one might be surprised to learn that I think it is crucial for social critics, particularly those of us who are engaged in so-called “alternative” media, to avoid jumping to conclusions too easily. Some of the reasons are obvious: if we are forever declaring matters to be unfair, then we had better be prepared to show why we see them as unfair. Sometimes it is a matter of being unwilling to take the time to lay out our arguments, whether because we do not choose to examine our own assumptions or because we, in some ways, take an elitist view of those who do not accept our conclusions.
We see this often enough in people who conclude that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, as was the case with some of my own relatives who supported Stalin with even more fervor because of the lives that were ruined by the disease of McCarthyism. A modern version has people from groups like ANSWER/IAC (two related sectarian organizations opposing the war in Iraq) actually defending Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. An especially perverse form of this elitism is when supposed radicals (9) will launch attacks on fellow activists. The TokyoProgressive web site has been targeted with abusive, macho-type comments from supposed radicals who accuse people like Zinn and Noam Chomsky of being in the pay of the CIA for allegedly being too soft on Israeli policies, for example. It almost sounds like some COINTELPRO (10) disinformation campaign, but I am afraid there are a fair number of conspiracy theorists out there, and no-TokyoProgressive is not interested in giving them space. You can read one such article here: (11)
(9) Reference: By radical, I am using the original meaning of someone who believes in going to the root of problems and demanding that those problems be confronted: “The state and its police were not neutral referees in a society of contending interests,” Zinn wrote in his 1994 autobiography, ‘You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.’ “From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country — not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root.”- Historians in the News
Tim Goodman, in the San Francisco Chronicle (Oct. 13, 2004)
(10) Reference: COINTELPRO
(11) Reference: Noam Chomsky: Controlled Asset Of The New World Order
ACTIVISM IN JAPAN: RACE AND RACIALISM
Sometimes we prefer to give space to people doing good works but not necessarily offer them unqualified support because we have problems with their particular approach. When I was involved in the anti-fingerprinting movement of the 1980s, I found it was easy to attract a certain number of supporters who did not have particularly strong commitments to human rights. This was an issue that actually involved the historical treatment of Koreans and other former colonials under both the Imperial Japanese government and the U.S. occupation, which enlisted Japan in its communist containment policies. Yet some of the people who offered us a hand had personal issues with “Japanese racism,” meaning they were suddenly aware of what it is like to be treated as an outsider, both negative and preferential (sometimes western residents of Japan get preferential treatment, which also makes this writer uncomfortable). Yet many of those quick to condemn Japan often voiced a superior attitude such as “such discrimination would never be tolerated in the U.S”. Yeah, sure. The reason why I feel confident in speaking out against racism anywhere is because it is so prevalent in my own country. Relying, as some activists do, on U.S. State Department criticisms of other countries, be they Burma, China or even Japan, is not our cup of “ocha” since the reason for our activism is the serious disconnect between the tatemae of US freedom and democracy and the deficiencies that actually exist.
And so when people try to set Japan up as a special case where racism and discrimination are concerned, they do not get my sympathy, especially since the particular species of racism in my own country is often much more harsh. But people who want you to believe there are no grounds for activism are perhaps allowing themselves to see what they want to see. Still, I would hope for better research, as well as outreach, on the part of activists. Especially if they want to enlist the support of potential allies within Japanese society, people who are perhaps not yet politicized but who are still sensitive to issues of justice and fairness.
The recent report by UN Rapporteur Doudou Diene (12) is a case in point as regards research. Though he has compiled a great deal of information which points to the need for laws and policies protecting against discrimination, he relies on some questionable sources for some of his information, such as the violence and intimidation prone Buraku Liberation league, and only a few critics not allied with the xenophobic right have ventured forth to criticize him for unwittingly doing his case more harm than good. One such critic is Bill Wetherall. One of the points he makes is the lack of any input from other buraku groups which advocate for a less racialist, more class-based view (the same debate can be found in India by some Dalit-untouchable activists), missing a significant portion of the activist community’s input. which results is a less-than-accurate conclusion on the status of buraku discrimination.
Being here almost 30 years, I have learned to differentiate between “people” and the “system” and find this society to be much less racist than it was (in the sense of mental and physical violence being visited on minorities over time), though obviously much still exists. Then again, maybe that is because of people like Wetherall, who has been very precise in his analysis of the status of minorities here, and Debito Arudou, who has been promoting and facilitating the Diene visit and has a huge website devoted to all sorts of related issues. Certainly I find that people’s consciousness has changed since 1979-very much so, though the media, seeking to sell papers, has sometimes fanned the flames of ignornance by printing false reports issued by the police on rising crime rates, along with outrageous statements by rightist politicians who, like cockroaches, never seem to stop coming out of the woodwork. (12a)
Yet, as noted above, sometimes the attempt to find a racist under every pillow seems destined to backfire since little attempt is made to enlist the understanding and support of non activists who do not buy into traditional Japanese uniqueness myths but who sometimes tell me they feel they too are being labeled too easily as racists just for having been born into a society that has yet to throw off those myths. That is one area where sites like Debito Arudou’s could be improved. Perhaps it is because he gives the impression of being on a personal crusade; perhaps it is because we cannot see the actual progress that has been made (see Wetherall’s site below, which rveals how things have, in fact changed over the years). There is also the tendency to paint with too broad a brush or, as mentioned above, to be too uncritical of some activist groups, such as the BLL. In any case, I have heard these criticisms from activists as well as non-activists, and so I think it is worth addressing.
While there is much there we support, we find too little discussion of some of the above issues, and we think many potential Japanese supporters are being lost as a result. We should also note that unlike Wetherall, whose critique of the Diene report we largely agree with, we do not think litigation, as advocated by Debito Arudou, is a particulary unsuitable medium for addressing discrimination, whether practiced by the State or by individuals. In fact, the notion that litigation is something negative has largely been created by corporate America when it suits them to hit at what they feel are trivial suits, such as the woman who was burned by hot coffee having sued McDonalds over it. But, in fact, many of the lawsuits that have been filed over civil rights issues are anything but trivial. And, in the UK, the very same people who decry frivolus lawsuits, McDonalds in this case, used the legal system to sue a pair of activists for libel when they said, among many other things, their burgers are unhealthy. (12b)
(12) Reference: UNCHR’s misguided “Mission to Japan” The global politics of “racialization”
(search for BLL)
The burakumin debate (older but more in-depth)
More (pro and con): The Diene Report on Discrimination and Racism in Japan
By Oda Makoto, Pak Kyongnam, Tanaka Hiroshi, William Wetherall & Honda Katsuichi
Debito Arudou’s site
(12a) William Wetherall on “Foreign Crime”
(12b) Fast Food Nation: An Appetite for Litigation
McDonald’s Sends A Message With U.K. Libel Suit
The McLibel Trial
ACTIVISM IN JAPAN:FOCUSING ON THE POLICE AS AGENTS OF REPRESSION
Another issue that deserves some discussion is how activism tends to get sidetracked into battling the police and other agents of repression. As an alternative news site, we often debate where to put our energy since as the mainstream media is under-reporting the news, as well as the existence of dissent, often progressive news sites tend to become sidetracked reporting on the inevitable battles between the police and the protestors. Indeed, such news needs to get out, since clearly the police do more than just the often reported good works of keeping neighborhoods safe. And yet, without enough reporting of the context and background in which repression takes place, we lose potential allies in ordinary citizens who, by and large, oppose militarism but who have been made to fear left-wing protestors through a combination of media neglect as well as very real sectarian problems that keep people divided into factions either loyal to one political party or another, or going out of their way to declare their independence. And so the ordinary citizen is made to feel she or he has no place in any protest. (A friend who had never participated in a demonstration in Japan because of the very serious and somewhat intimidating style, was happy to participate in US anti-war demonstrations in New York because of their overall positive atmosphere and inclusiveness, which allowed people sectarian and non-sectarian alike, old and young, gay and straight, democrat, liberal, anarchist, communist or philatilist, to march together.)
Yet here in Japan, and even in other places, it is often the case that police, for no apparent reason, will obstruct or even arrest small groups of non-violent anti-war activists, a role common to police in most societies both “totalitarian” and “democratic”. When an activist is arrested in Japan, usually for one or two periods of 3 weeks each, an abhorrent and distressingly quite common procedure used in everything from extracting false confessions from murder suspects to simple intimidation of dissidents, our attention turns to attacking the actions of the police. But since the media is not there, no one is listening except those who are already reading sites such as indymedia.org. Looking at japan.indymedia.org (disclaimer: I am an indymedia volunteer), we see that this is a common focus of activists, just as it is around the world. Again, we are unwittingly drawn away from issues such as the war in Iraq itself or the increasing disparity between the haves and have nots in Japan as the police themselves become our pre-occupation. A recent example: (13)
(13) Reference: [URGENT] あこぎで好きほうだいの暴政をはねかえし、３名の仲間を取り戻そう！支援・カンパのお願い Unwarranted arrest of 3 in Mayday Demo: Demand their immediate release
While Japan IndyMedia picked up on this story, TokyoProgressive was reluctant to go beyond this and publish an appeal for their release, probably to the dismay of some of our friends, In fact, we wanted to, but we were unable to verify enough of the details to make sure that the demonstrators were not giving the police an excuse. We were probably being too careful, but one of the things that concerns us is, as we wrote above, that not enough effort is being spent to reach out to non activists to help them see the connections between intimidating protestors through arrests and Japan supporting the US invasion of Iraq, the move to end Japan’s peace constitution, mandatory patriotic education, the diversion of economic resources away from job creation and health care and the increasingly difficult situation of huge numbers of under- and unemployed young people. The Indymedia story focused only on the immediate emeregency situation and did not do enough to get people who are not yet activists from making the connections.
We hope more people will attempt to reach out to those who are seemingly uninterested in political issues or simply afraid to raise their voices because of the way protest is portrayed in the media. This needs to be done in addition to appeals for the arrest of arrested fellow activists. To do less is probably to fall prey to what the police want in the first place: to discourage a broadening of the movement. In other words, in some sense, the people in power are happy to marginalize us, and when we take the police themselves on, we indeed do look like a fringe element.
In fact, using the police as agents of repression is nothing new and deserves to be tackled in a much more organized way. Not in the sense of urging people to take to the barricades, since it would be a revolution that few would sign on too. Instead, the role of the police–not necessary the corner patrol officer–as agents of repression, in all the many forms this takes place in Japan and other countries needs much more publicity. (14) A few examples from Japan and the U.S.:
(14) Reference: Reference: Looking into Japanese Police Corruption
The Truth About False Confessions
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