Picture: Noam Chomsky moments before delivering a keynote address at the Deutsche Welle's Global Media Forum in Bonn, Germany on 17 June 2013, courtesy Fazila Farouk.
United States (US) President, Barack Obama’s trip to South Africa is a contentious issue that has animated media reporting and provided the necessary ammunition to fire up a debate that pits left against right.
On the one hand, we have the South African Communist Party, Cosatu and some of its affiliates, as well as student and Muslim organisations demanding answers from the US president for a foreign policy agenda that keeps the world trapped in a state of paranoid fear, while on the other, we have people applauding the American president, even wanting to bestow academic honours on him for excellence in his field of qualification: law.
Upholding the law or adhering to principles of the American Constitution is not something one can easily associate with Barack Obama today. The NSA spying scandal exposed by Edward Snowden
is just the latest in a growing list of state transgressions that this American president has presided over.
Nothing could be worse than Obama’s “kill list”. He is the first president in modern history with a list of so-called terror suspects, any one of whom can be killed on his command. There is no due process followed when people on this list are selected for termination. There is no requirement to produce evidence against those accused of wrongdoing. This is how 16-year-old Abdulrahman Awlaki (an American citizen), was killed by drone strike in Yemen
. There is as yet not a shred of evidence linking the teenager, a child, to any act of terror.
For any other president in any other country, the world would be united in denouncing this as murder. But here in South Africa, a better understanding of who the American president is and what he represents is sacrificed on the altar of media sensationalism.
We are regaled with stories about the cost of Obama’s African adventure, staggered by the substantial size of his entourage, intrigued by details of bullet proof windows being installed at the hotels he will stay in, and gobsmacked by the news that American fighter planes will criss-cross South African skies while he is in town. It’s a lot of random information, which more than anything else, exposes this trip for the pageant of imperial power that it really is.
Meanwhile world-famous American linguist, Professor Noam Chomsky, pointed out at an international conference in Bonn, Germany last week that there are many important issues about American power and influence that do not make it onto the front pages of newspapers.
Chomsky was addressing the Deutsche Welle’s annual Global Media Forum. The forum, a 3-day conference, was titled, “The Future of Growth: Economic Values and the Media”
. It examined major issues related to “sustainable economic development” -- a topic the GDP growth obsessed mainstream media tends to shy away from.
I attended the conference thanks to the generosity of Germany’s Federal Foreign Office and was privileged to be part of an audience that received the wisdom of two iconic headline speakers, Noam Chomsky and Indian activist, Vandana Shiva.
Shiva closed the conference with stirring words about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s dangerously misguided agricultural development programme, which is forcing genetically modified seeds onto unsuspecting farmers in poor countries. This is going to lead to lots of problems for farmers here in Africa not unlike those faced by Indian farmers, who, as a consequence, have been committing suicide by the hundreds of thousands.
But the speech delivered by Chomsky is extremely relevant for South Africa this week, as we anticipate the arrival of America’s first black president. It was titled, “Roadmap to a Just World: People Re-animating Democracy”. It’s possible to listen to a podcast
on the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum’s website.
Not one to mince his words, the world-famous linguist, opened his speech with the following remark:
“I’d like to comment on topics that I think should regularly be on the front pages but are not; and in many crucial cases, are scarcely mentioned at all, or are presented in ways that seem to me deceptive because they are framed almost reflexively in terms of doctrines of the powerful.”
In this regard, he chose to focus his comments on the US because it is the most important country in the world due to its power and influence. Chomsky went on to talk about “tendencies in American society and what they portend for the world.”
A recurring theme in many of the sessions at this international conference was the rising power of Eastern countries, such as India and China. Indeed, the ascent of the BRICS group of countries, in general, seemed to trigger waves of anxiety amongst Western speakers and delegates alike.
But Chomsky’s remarks about the power of the US were sobering. He argued that while America’s power is diminishing, “it is still incomparable…and it is dangerous.” The threat America poses to the world stems from “Obama’s remarkable global terror campaign,” Chomsky continued. He described it as the “most extreme campaign of international terrorism” to which there is a “pathetic” reaction in the West.
In vintage Chomsky style, he then went on to describe in precise terms what America’s democracy has evolved to become.
Many people around the world would describe America as a capitalist democracy, but Chomsky chose to deconstruct this towering edifice that many people associate with real freedoms and choice, to demonstrate how far from reality that really is.
According to Chomsky, America is a not a capitalist democracy, but a “really existing capitalist democracy (RECD)”. Any resemblance to the word “wrecked” is accidental, he joked about the acronym.
The “soaring rhetoric of the Obama variety”, such as, “government of, for and by the people”, is far from the reality of RECD, Chomsky argued.
Seventy percent of America’s population has no influence on policy. It is just a tenth of the top one percent who actually determine what policy should be. “The proper term for that is not democracy, it’s plutocracy,” the linguist said.
So, for example, “For the public in America, the major issue is jobs…For the very wealthy and the banks, the major issue is the deficit.” Policy in America “is almost the opposite to pubic opinion, which is a typical property of RECD,” he concluded.
Listening to Chomsky it was evident that America has exported this brand of democracy to many parts of the world. A clear example of this is the South African public versus the South African state on the e-tolling campaign in Gauteng.
As for the not uncommon critique that America has become a one-party state comprised of a business party with two factions called Democrats and Republicans, Chomsky said that this was no longer true.
In his view America is still a one-party or business party state, but with just one faction. He referred to this one faction as, “moderate Republicans who are now called democrats. Even (former Republican president) Richard Nixon would be left of the political spectrum today…Eisenhower would be out of space,” he continued to the audience’s delight.
After labelling the Democrats “moderate Republicans”, Chomsky continued with a robust critique of America’s liberal democracy.
The founders of American liberal democracy determined that power must be kept in the hands of the wealthy and the standard doctrine of RECD is that those who own the country must govern it. It’s about a handful of men controlling the world, he argued.
Another important feature of RECD is that the public must be kept in the dark about what is happening to them. “The herd must remain bewildered.”
Quoting Samuel P. Huntington
he said, “Power remains strong when it remains in the dark, exposed to the sunlight, it begins to evaporate.”
“Bradley Manning is facing a life in prison for failing to comprehend this scientific principle and now Edward Snowden, as well,” Chomsky said.
Chomsky’s grasp of power and influence and how it is used to control people is unquestionable. He went on to discuss emerging solutions for key challenges facing the world. In addition to addressing the nuclear power question, he paid special attention to the need for protecting the environment and the commons.
He paid tribute to the work of indigenous populations in Latin America who are engaged in daily struggles to protect the environment and commons from vested interests. Latin America, Chomsky argued, has freed itself from Western hegemony.
How far away from that ideal is South Africa? Is our public armed with the information and knowledge we need to steer our country towards an independent destiny away from the influence of the world’s most powerful nation?
At the end of Chomsky’s speech, he was asked just one question, “What would you like the media to do?”
“I’d like the press to tell the truth about important things,” was his brief response.