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Abstract from talk given at the Sydney Writers' Festival on 20 May 2004.
The American people didn't know its troops abused prisoners in Iraqi jails. Ignorance. Officials who knewpretend 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 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.
Julian Ninio is the author of The Empire of Ignorance, Hypocrisy and Obedience.
http://www.ihosyndrome.com. (c) Julian Ninio
The Empire of Ignorance, Hypocrisy and Obedience
is an immensely persuasive indictment of the most powerful
country on earth. This comprehensive, highly original overview
of the American 'disease' examines its unchecked corporations,
media bias, urban poverty, gun violence, voter apathy, carefree
consumerism and burgeoning empire. It discovers the
syndrome linking all these ills, and it offers a plan of
action that everyone (American or not) can
undertake to cure America.
Part One compares the United States' self-image with the
reality: the 'best way of life' that offers recurring wars and
record-low social services; the 'cradle of democracy' that governs
for corporations and attacks other countries; the 'land of plenty'
that destroys the environment and leaves every sixth child in
poverty; the 'beacon of justice' that employs biased judges and
promotes inequality; and the 'land of the free' that demands
compliance and imprisons a huge
number of citizens.
Part Two argues that the United States' ills stem from a single
disease: the 'IHO syndrome'?a unique concept that offers an
extraordinarily powerful way to interpret American society.
Part Three picks up where most other books about America
leave off: it lays out a radical plan to 'cure' the nation. Rather
than offering policy prescriptions for government, the plan
contains practical actions that readers inside and outside the US
can take to remedy America's ills and tame the empire.
America?love it or leave it. Or learn to fix it.
Julian Ninio has at least two things in common with President Bush: an American passport and a Harvard MBA. He has tasted various versions of the American dream -- as a California flower child, as a derivatives trader, as a high-tech executive, and as a start-up CEO. Julian also speaks about the US with the perspective of an outsider: partly educated in France, where he was born, he has traveled around the world several times and spent half his adult life in Japan and Australia. He now lives in Sydney and has recently become an Australian citizen.