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imperialism & war

Michael Parenti Lecture Disappointing

With all due respect to Professor Parenti, the peace movement deserves more than an uncritical rant that is short on specifics.
I went with several friends to last Saturday's lecture by Michael Parenti. I really liked the first 20 minutes in which he eloquently explained the dangers of laissez faire capitalism and how power and greed can corrupt a healthy democracy. Unfortunately, these gains were wiped out when Professor Parenti launched into an incomprehensible apology for the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein.

Parenti argued that there were only five times when the U.N. weapons inspectors found the government to be in non-compliance (and those five were trivial if not manufactured by spiteful weapons inspectors intent on finding something wrong). His source for this argument? A statement from the Iraqi government's state department! Parenti was so obsessed with portraying Saddam Hussein as the innocent victim of American imperialism that he failed to see the situation critically.

If there's one thing everyone in the peace movement should agree upon (regardless of how you feel about U.S. foreign policy) it's that Saddam Hussein is a fascistic monster who knows only how to exploit his own people in order to keep himself in power. It is a fallacy of the left to assume that in order to level a critique against the U.S. projection of power and control of oil one must defend a rogue like Saddam, portraying him as some sort of Enlightened figure thumbing his nose as Uncle Sam. This fallacy leads to a moral bankruptcy within the peace movement. In my opinion, there is no contradiction in critiquing both U.S. foreign policy and Iraqi totalitarianism. We must do this if we are to remain consistent.

Another of Parenti's arguments seemed strange to me. At one point, he related an anecdote in which he saw his first paycheck and noted all the taxes that came out of it. "I felt my pay should be twice that," he remembered wondering when he saw his pay stub. I didn't get the point. The government provides services. To pay for those services it collects taxes progressively from its citizens. No taxes, no services. Yet, Parenti argued that we need more not less government services.

The last thing I'd like to mention is that the overall tone of Parenti's lecture was extremely negative and pandering. He had a bunch of "yes men" in the audience and he knew it (even going so far as to eliciting "Yes!" and "No!" responses from us). Such preaching to the choir felt like one big gripe session where we all sit there listing the problems of the Republic. But at no time did Parenti present a plan of action or call us to take specific steps to alleviate the problems he was pointing out. Too often he said "they are doing this" and "they are doing that." This is sloppy thinking. Who are they? Big business? The Shrub and Cheney? The Illuminati? Such populism plays well in front of a sympathetic audience (because each person can silently replace "they" with his or her favorite villain) but it leaves much to be desired for those of us who want to know specifics.

Ok, there's all the negative stuff for everyone to see. The six of us that went together all felt pretty much the same. I don't say all of this because I disagree with Parenti's politics. I just think he owed everyone something a little deeper than the sermon he preached before the choir on Saturday.

more on Parenti 17.Sep.2002 12:07

gabi

The last time Parenti was in town he minimized the atrocities committed by Serbs in former Yugoslavia (actually he did that again in a one-liner this time) and told a Bosnian who challenged him from the audience that he knew more about Bosnia than she did.
There is a lot about Parenti I like. But I agree that he did not say anything majorly new and exciting and that he tends to be simplisitic in order to be entertaining. Things are more complex than that and the black and white minimizations rarely work. I think we probably would do well to be a bit more careful with uncritically glorifying "gurus" just because they have a good stage presence.

Parenti's a jerk 17.Sep.2002 12:13

Michael Parenti

I didn't go on Saturday, because I've heard this guy a few times, and never been too impressed. Yes--mostly good politics, but his attitude just bugs me. Last time he was here, his whole talk was done in this sarcastic tone. That can be a great way to make a point or two, or maybe even three--but to do it the WHOLE TIME? Yikes!

It also bugs me how many people show up to hear some guy (usually a guy, and usually white) who's supposedly an expert on stuff just because he got something published, but when it's time to march in the streets, or come hear a speaker from another country who never had shit published, but is actually out there organizing, interest is much lower. Maybe I'm just tired of white liberals who read lots and go to lots of lectures but otherwise don't do shit.

However, I do think having radical speakers, and reaching out to educate people is critical, and I was pretty pleased last time when Parenti's visit was coordinated with a march.

Sorry, just kinda felt like whining a little, I guess.

Maybe you expected too much? 17.Sep.2002 12:49

Stevethe Green

I attended the Michael Parenti lecture Saturday night and came away from it with a different view.

#1) What you characterized as apoligizing for Saddam Hussein, I saw as attempt to point out that weapons inspections were never really the point to begin with.
I think the Bush administrations reaction to Iraq's concession to have unconditional inspections yesterday is evidence of the fact that the fear of Saddam's development of weapons of mass destruction was and is a smokescreen.
In other words, even though Iraq is willing to comply with the inspections, the Bush administration wants to take him out anyway!

#2) The American mainstream press has done more than an adequate job at insuring that the American public knows what a monster Saddam Hussein is. I never once heard Parenti speak in a positive way about Saddam Hussein.
His lecture was about the corporatization of our democracy, not identifying who the evil dictators of the world are to the point of naueum.

#3) With all due respect, I also think you misunderstood Parenti's reference to his "shock" when he received his first paycheck. To me, he was speaking to the fact that while the power elite thumb their collective noses at our calls for social justice, they are quick to take our tax dollars to fund their imperialistic ventures for profit and control.

#4)I will agree with you about the overall tone of the lecture being a little dissapointing, but that was more to do with what appeared to be a lack of energy on Parenti's part. There was also some "pandering" for supportive reactions from the crowd.

But the truth is this.
The people who attended that lecture were not right wingers or supporters of the status quo. They were progressives who identified with Parenti's theme and overall message.
Did you really expect catcalls and hissing from the crowd?
The lecture lasted approx 75 minutes, of which about 5 minutes contained the "pandering" that you referred to.
Parenti laughed and explained that audience participation was important.

#5) Lastly, you mentioned that Parenti kept referring to "they" and "them" which left you wondering who he was talking about.
I have to tell you, I was never confused.
He made it clear who "they" were throughout the lecture.
He was referring to the "power elite" that seek to dominate the world for power, profit, and control at the expense of humanity.

My favorite part of the lecture was when he pointed out that capitalism always works best where democracy is weakest.
He used the example of Nigeria vs. Denmark.
Where Democracy is stong somewhere like Denmark, the operating costs for these multi-nationals increases which of course decreases the profits they are able to pilfer off the backs of the working class.
It is where Democracy is weak that the "so-called" free market economies produce the most profit.
Parenti pointed out that we had a "free market" economy at the turn of the century. Then he outlined the consequences that went with that free market economy for the masses.

Women had no right to vote, labor was rendered helpless, environmental laws and regulations were non-existant, workers rights and safety were few and far between.

Bottom line, I didn't go to hear Parenti give me more rhetoric about how terrible Saddam Hussein is. I already know that and so did everybody (almost everybody!) in the audience.
I did go to hear Parenti because I was interested in an alternative perspective to why and how our country got itself in it's current situation.
In that regard, Parenti delivered big time!!!!!!

Good speakers... 17.Sep.2002 13:06

Snaggs

Fully, So much of our "actions" are just mental-masterbation. Especialy with people like Parenti or Chomsky(or ad name here) who have such reactionary veiw-points. Basicly, They sit back and talk about atrocitys after the fact, Lacking any analisis of what to do about it. No call to battle, just cruddy academic sing-song. This is why we gotta suport stuff like the anit-imperialism speak(Ramona africa & Craig Rosenbagh) and protest: They do not seperate talking the talk from walking the walk. People who wanna tell you how f*cked up everything is so they can sell you their new book or movie or CD are part of the problem of disempowerment. This makes the struggle into a product to sell back to us. Revolution is NOTHING without ACTION! Go spend the money you whould have spent on capitalist crap on the homeless; The real world analyses you get from street kids is worth way more.

C-Ya on the 27th

Say what? 17.Sep.2002 13:36

StevetheGreen

Snagg-

So let me get this straight.

If we spend our time and energy seeking an alternative viewpoint IE: buying books, attending lectures, ect. ect. in an attempt to educate ourselves in our journey for truth, We are only contributing to the capitalist world?
LOL

Contrary to your simplistic rant about how money could be better spent, we do not have to choose between contributing directly to social issues or educating ourselves to alternative perspectives and ways of thinking.
I've got good news for you snagg!
We can do both. (and I do)

It can be argued that changing the way people think is as important (if not more important) than direct action.
Part of changing the way people think involves educating ourselves to alternative perspectives.
We are all teachers and as teachers we must constantly update our personal knowledge to understand the dynamics of what constitutes "truth".

Your characterization that people like Chomsky and Parenti only tell us how "fucked up things are" in order to make a buck, are in my opinion off-base and very cynical.

Parenti "walked the walk" when he marched with protestors the last time he was in Portland.

Peace!

some good things to say, room for criticism 17.Sep.2002 14:46

raven

Parenti has some good things to say, and makes some insightful comments. It is not Parenti as a person that is a problem, but the structure of public talks and the ruts it facilitates.

In general, talking personalities on stage, with a passive crowd listening, do not empower people and cater to the habitual consumer mind which needs to be shaken into action.

Seeing this tendency and characteristic, it is necessary to educate ourselves in different ways that activate people and translate accumulated information into creative action.

There is so much information in peoples heads. Collecting information can become a habitual escape from the raw reality of life. For the white middle class it generally is. Most everyone in that room already has enough understanding of the world situation and what is needed is undaunted action.

We need more warriors, not more heads full of mostly unused information. It was disappointing that Parenti did not challenge the minds there to greater action.

Parenti did not offer solutions 17.Sep.2002 18:20

Ohna Mopar mohanprao@yahoo.com

I agree with the last part of James Stills "Michael Parenti Lecture Dissapointing" because I felt the same way after listening to him complain about capitalism for the hour. I wanted to hear something towards a positive sugestion to follow in order to improve things.

Specifically, after the lecture I asked him "What do you suggest that I can do as an individual to help make the world a better place?" His answer was to just do the things he does, like go to protests and write congresspersons. I asked him if he thinks it has done any good. He responded with something like 'just think what it would be like if no one said anything against the corporations.'

That's true, but I see that we need a better message. Large capitalist businesses don't gather and conspire just to complain about their victims. They make real plans on how to get more money, and it works.

Most everyone in the room drove in using gasoline, including myself. Parenti came in by plane using a lot of jet fuel. We all just continue this "system" that we complain about.

I am convinced that I need to get off this system that supports what we (progressive left) are slamming. Not all at once (I'll keep my cars for now), but I am making plans and will follow them. Sharif Abdullah's commonway.org is a start. Let me know if you have any suggestions...

What meeting were you at? 17.Sep.2002 18:51

RevereReviews

The comments here are questionable if you listen to the audio file posted in the counter viewpoint.
Regarding the taxes taken out of the payroll, the complaint was that the money goes to support corporate welfare and the boss, Parenti specifically states this.... check about 18 minutes in the following link.

 http://www.philosopherseed.org/realaudio/parenti2.ram

Hi 17.Sep.2002 21:29

Concerned

I thought Parenti seemed to be suffering from a cold and was a little sick. He seemed awfully tired and thirsty. I think he was possibly on cold medication in order to do this talk. I could be wrong but he did ask for a kleenex and did seem to rely on it somewhat.

He also mentioned that when he was younger he was beaten up and thrown in jail at a protest.

I didn't know a lot of the info he was giving us and I prefered to hear him speak of it than read it.

I am glad that Parenti didn't tell you that you needed to go smash shit up to get peace. It would have shown what an idiot he was, cause you might have posted it. We do live in the time of TIPS and Patriotic Acts and other such garbage. Obviously by asking the question, the only course that is left to you to create peace would be the ones he mentioned. He certainly didn't tell you to ORGANIZE A MARCH.

I don't believe that a lecture at Portland State was meant to be the begining of a three hundred plus organization. Of course Parenti didn't give you outlines on local activist works or present you with problem solving. If you went there for that think about making an alliance group or joining one all ready created.

What Parenti did was give us a super quick outline of financial politics with humor, aplomb, suprising depth, and some insight. When you think the lecure was close to the length of the hour long news you realize what a fine job he did do.

If he was sick maybe you should send him a thank-you note instead of feeling disappointed with him!

Followup 17.Sep.2002 21:44

James Still james.still@finatus.com

Steve the Green raises some good points. I'm happy to hear another more charitable interpretation to balance against my own impressions. Maybe I mistook his offbeat delivery for something it wasn't, I don't know.

I do have a comment regarding Steve's point (3) in which "the power elite ... are quick to take our tax dollars to fund their imperialistic ventures for profit and control." (Similarly, Revere says that Parenti's complaint "was that the money goes to support corporate welfare and the boss.") It seems to me that this is too simplistic of an answer. Surely Parenti realizes that Denmark (his model state) diverts public monies in the form of corporate welfare to a much higher extent than the U.S.? The train system there is heavily subsidized while Amtrak is floundering in our free market economy. And Nigeria (his model capitalist state) spends practically none of its GDP to help the private sector. This is what you expect in a totally free market. Firms rise and fall with absolutely no government subsidies; yet, who among us wants a totally free market? We choose to subsidize certain industries because they serve a public good or are otherwise important to the overall economy. I agree that there is way too much corporate welfare and I think we should rollback half the pork that Congress doles out to special interests. But one man's pork is another man's necessity. I'd love it if a corporation like Amtrak were subsized to the extent that Europe subsidizes its trains. It's not consistent to argue as Parenti does that on the one hand we must avoid a totally free market and on the other we shouldn't subsidize certain industries. Does he want to get rid of the home mortgage deduction that benefits the lower- and middle-class? Does he approve of subsidizing family farmers but not the steel industry? What are his criteria for choosing? Or are all corporations automatically bad? He needs to nuance this point more I think.

Another thing I wondered about as I heard him speak was his bizarre dichotomy between "them" (big corporations) and "us" (worker bees). He seemed to paint a picture in which the great unwashed masses are being robbed of their surplus labor while the corporate bosses smoke cigars and laugh all the way to the bank. That picture may have been true back when Marx and Engels wrote but it hasn't been true since at least the 1950s. Most corporations in the U.S. are small businesses with fewer than a dozen employees or so. More and more people are working for themselves or act as consultants. That's why the unions have declined in power. It's difficult to organize workers who move around, are self-employed, and own stocks in their own 401(k). Working people no longer feel a loyalty to a business and we all change jobs a lot more. To effect real change we need to stop thinking in terms of big business versus the picket line. We need to get at those majority of people who do not think in terms of class warfare and yet consider themselves socially progressive. (Can you say "baby boomer"?) We must make them feel guilty for their over-consumptive lifestyle, ticket them for driving SUVs, ask them if they know what's in that hamburger and how it was produced, and so on. Changes within the system are possible when the majority of Americans are educated enough to start demanding it from their politicians.

Ok, I've rambled enough. I can't address every comment but I really appreciate reading what everyone else thought about the lecture. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me as well.

Talk is cheap... 18.Sep.2002 08:53

Snaggs

Look you got it wrong. I never said 'educating' yourself was bad. I did't even say that I don't like Parinti(I do). My point is that people that simply show you the horrors of the world with no call to revolution are adding to the problem. To just go here genocide, endless war, military death squads, with no call to action is the real cynical mindset. Analisis after analisis, on and on, it's like yea, ok, NOW WHAT? We all KNOW, now we need to work on what we DO. So from where I sit if you lack Direct Action in your view-point you are just stroking your big wordy brain. Plus twenty dollar books, ten dollar talks, so many of us are out their paying in sweat and blood that MORE expensive products or entertainment are NOT what we need. Oh and if you want to find the TRUTH don't look at spendy campas lectures, look out on the frontlines, look out into the streets, look for the hands-on real-deal living. Again, not an attack on anyone, just wanna see more day-to-day revolt, not more meetings, talks, or lectures.

Fight Back!!!

My beef with 'Snagg's' comments and others 18.Sep.2002 12:09

another Parenti fan

Your comments come off as very short-sighted. They seem to suggest that analyses from a Parenti or a Chomsky are somehow an unnecessary exclusively middle class indulgence rather than something that in itself can be a powerful tool to motivate people to work for change. The working class, poor people of color, and other oppressed groups need to hear about what's happening to them from a larger perspective. Otherwise you end up with what too often dominates social change movement today and that is the enormous amount of divisiveness brought on by various self-interested race-baiting individuals and groups that take advantage of the plight of oppressed people (via race-baiting) which promotes dependency and narrow-thinking that, in turn, prevents them from questioning the system, uniting with other oppressed people in similar economic circumstances, and locks them into a sense of powerlessness in an effort to further their own narrow agendas. Having listened to the perspectives of many people of color, I'd say they could use more Parenti, less Ramona. Maybe that would encourage more participation among the disenfranchised than the pathetically low amount that already exists.

The responsibility you're placing on lecturers is really the responsibility you ought to place on yourself. If you are looking to a lecturer to serve as some kind of guru to dictate to you how to organize, or waiting for him or her to make the call for revolution before you can start doing something, then how can you expect change to happen?

For those who don't like his style, I guess that has something to do with what you're used to. Like Mr. Parenti, I came from a rough working class background and even as a person of color I find that his manner of speaking and anecdotes resonate with me. If I had middle class sensibilities I'd probably prefer a less harsh, non-offensive, non-threatening Chomskyesque type of speaker, the kind who remind me of certain monotone professors I've had whose lectures I couldn't attend without my Vivarin.

To James Still, you're probably the only person on the planet who's unaware of the fact that Parenti is a Marxist --far from the free-market capitalst you though he was.