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Sydney Morning Herald
Is America sick? December 15th, 2003 "... the symptoms can be traced to a powerful cocktail of ignorance, hypocrisy and obedience ... "
In "Stupid White Men" and "Bowling For Colombine", Michael Moore introduced millions of readers and moviegoers worldwide to some of America's ills: guns, corrupt politicians, fearful citizens, unchecked corporations, crumbling social services. These are big problems for a nation that plays such a dominating international role.
Understanding them is one thing, but what can be done to fix them?
In his unpublished manuscript, The IHO Syndrome, Julien Ninio suggests the best way to understand America's ailments is to study their symptoms, in the same way a doctor examines a patient - and that the diagnosis is of a disease that can be cured by both Americans and non-Americans.
In the five excerpts here, Ninio examines America's self-image: the "cradle of democracy", the "land of plenty", the "beacon of justice", the "best way of life", the "land of the free". He finds gaps between the self-image and the reality, which he calls the "symptoms" of the disease. He argues that the symptoms can be traced to a powerful cocktail of ignorance, hypocrisy and obedience - the "IHO syndrome". As a cure for this disease, Ninio proposes that people replace ignorance with knowledge, hypocrisy with sincerity and obedience with resistance.
* Both French and American, Julien Ninio has an MBA from Harvard. He was a financial markets trader in Tokyo and a start-up CEO in San Francisco. He left the United States for Australia six weeks after the September 11 attacks and now lives in Sydney.
Excerpt from The IHO Syndrome, chapter 2: The cradle of democracy
One man, 68 votes
American democracy had deep flaws long before the 2000 election. For instance, each of our 50 States elects two of the country's 100 senators. Wyoming's 500 000 residents elect two senators. California has 68 times the population of Wyoming; its 34 million residents also elect two senators. This means each Wyoming resident has 68 times more weight than a Californian in choosing the country's 100 senators. Instead of 'one man one vote', we have 'one man 68 votes'. Because of the many low density conservative States in the middle of the country, this one issue has a major influence on the tone of our national debate. It gives conservatives a voice out of proportion with their numbers. It also gives them an unfair weight in questions the Senate settles without input from the House of Representatives, like confirming federal judges. (For laws, the House of Representatives balances the Senate somewhat because we elect its members in proportion to population.) To make matters worse, the high cost of senatorial campaigns gives us a Senate that resembles a millionaires' club. The 100 members of the 108th Senate include at least 40 millionaires--taking the low end of official financial disclosures that exclude the value of senators' homes. The 100 senators include 86 men, 59 law school graduates, no Hispanics and no blacks, a composition that hardly mirrors the population.
Apologists for our system of two senators per State say that the citizens of each State should have equal weight in one of the houses. Under the same logic, others could say that the citizens of each gender, religion or ethnicity should have equal representation in one of the houses: 50 senators chosen by men, 50 chosen by women; or 20 chosen each by whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans. We could end up with four houses: one giving each citizen equal weight (the House of Representatives); one giving each State equal weight (the Senate); one giving each gender equal weight; one giving each race equal weight. Taking even more groupings (like age, religion, favourite colour), houses would multiply; the houses would never agree, laws would never get passed. There is nothing magical about the division of the citizenry into States rather than races, genders or any other grouping, nothing that justifies upsetting plain democracy to give one man 68 votes. If we chose all members of Congress democratically, could the more populous States outvote the less populous States? Sure, just like today whites can outvote blacks. One man one vote, the many outvote the few--that is called 'democracy'.
Even if some view the design of Congress as compatible with a form of democracy, one glance at our voter turnout should convince them that our democracy has broken down in practice. Only half of eligible Americans ever vote in a typical election, a performance that earns us the 140th spot out of 163 nations that held elections in the 1990s. And those who vote do not represent the population, since our likelihood to vote increases in direct proportion to income and education. Only one in four of our lowest earners bothers to vote. In America, the poor seem to view elections as civic exercises that concern others.
This may shock our democratic instincts. A ruler who looks after the rich may help them with secondary needs like acquiring condos at the mountain, but a ruler who looks after the poor can help them with basic needs like food and housing, so the poor should have the most reason to vote. When they don't, we cannot just take easy shots at their education, we must look for deeper reasons.
One reason lies in the position low earners occupy in our culture. Status proceeds mostly from wealth: Low earners have no wealth and no status. From our youngest age, we learn that we must look out for ourselves, that we must focus on 'getting ahead', so we train our attention on the rich. If a middle class boy ever thinks of poverty, he probably views it as another place to board the American dream's mighty train, and he forgets about it at once. From reading magazines and watching television, a low earner in America could conclude she exists only as a derogatory epithet like 'white trash', or as a crime statistic if she has black skin. She feels not like a valued member of society, but more like a broken machine that contributes nothing to the economy, like a dispensable piece of humanity to be thrown in jail, fed to the army, or left to fester in her juices. The national debate bypasses her, so she feels like a foreigner in her own land. Foreigners do not vote: Why should she?
And if she did vote, who should she vote for? Our political system has two major parties, and neither represents the interests of low earners. Democrats stand at Republicans' left elbow, but they represent neither the poor nor even anyone who earns less than upper middle class wages. Of the 40 millionaires in the Senate, 18 (including the five richest) are Democrats. Republicans could not have dismantled social services like Clinton did over eight years: Democrats would have protested. When Democrats demolished our social services, we lacked a major party to their left, a force strong enough to stop them.
The adjective activist serves to dismiss anyone to the left of the Democrats, like students who knocked on doors to create grassroots support for Nader in the 2000 election. In a well-ordered society, only 'radicals' could possibly want to campaign for or against anything. Fearing association with 'radicals', Democrats have expelled the more progressive from their ranks. This partly explains American politics' continuous shift to the right. By now, the Democratic Party represents what every foreign country calls the right: the party that cuts back social services and makes cosy deals with big business, as opposed to the party that campaigns for job security and longer vacations. I do not say that the people who vote Democrat all embrace right wing views--indeed many of them lean frankly to the left; I say that the party they vote for promotes right wing policies instead of the social policies of the traditional left. Things might settle in the middle if the same dynamics operated on Republicans. But Republicans embrace extreme-right views instead of evading them, and indeed by now the Republican Party represents what every foreign country calls the extreme right: the party whose politicians cannot have a rational debate, the party whose leaders want to drive the population to church, keep women out of abortion clinics, shut the borders, silence opponents, and bomb brown people.
We call our low earners disenfranchised as though they suffered from a mysterious disease we can do nothing about, but the word describes a precise condition: No one represents the poorest Americans. Voting means choosing between the right and the extreme right. It makes as much sense to low earners as flipping coins, so they abstain; in practice, our system robs them of their voting rights.
Instead of elections 'by the people', we have a system of 'one man 68 votes' in the Senate, and elections that only concern half of the population.
1. Sean Loughlin & Robert Yoon, 'Millionaires populate US Senate', CNN.com, 13 June 2003, [9 September 2003].
2. Mildred L. Amer, Membership of the 108th Congress: a profile, Congressional Research Service, 8 May 2003.
3. For the ranking of average voter turnouts in the 1990s, see the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance's website at [27 July 2003]. In the eight US presidential elections between 1972 and 2000, voter turnout ranged between 49 and 55 per cent. Only 49 per cent of the eligible voters turned out for the presidential election in 2000. In 1998, a non-presidential year, only 35 per cent came out to the polls. [27 July 2003].
4. Twenty-eight per cent of the lowest earners (adults with family incomes of $5000 or less) reported voting in 2000, compared to 51 per cent for those earning between $25 000 and $35 000, and 72 per cent for those earning more than $75 000. Twenty-seven per cent of Americans who never finished junior high school reported voting, compared to 50 per cent for high school graduates, 70 per cent for college graduates and 76 per cent for those with a master's degree. US Census Bureau, 'Voting and registration in the election of November 2000', tables 5 & 8, available at [27 July 2003].
Excerpt from The IHO Syndrome, chapter 6: The land of the free
Americans have a legal right to speak more freely than most people on earth. Our Constitution's first Amendment guarantees that 'Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech'. We pride ourselves on our right of free speech and scoff at those who strike speech they dislike.
Yet no country has completely free speech, not even us. First, I have no right to walk into your bedroom and whisper in your ear, because my right of free speech conflicts with your right of privacy. Our laws consist not of absolute rules that interlock in a formal system like middle-school geometry, but of variable rules that weave a system of compromise. Second, we do not treat all speech equally. We protect speech differently depending on its type--obscene, commercial, political. We ban child pornography always; we ban commercial speech when government can show it violates an 'important' interest; we can ban any speech when government sees 'compelling interest' to do so. Even in free speech land, we accept that speech can harm, like any other action, and that we should sometimes suppress it.
In fact, we long forbade the category of speech called seditious, speech that criticises the government. Under the 1917 Espionage Act, we sent five-time presidential candidate Eugene Debs to jail for making an anti-war speech. Under the 1940 Smith Act, we sent a dozen leaders of the American Communist Party to jail for teaching the Marxist doctrine in the United States--and we outlawed the party. Apart from these two famous examples, we prosecuted thousands of dissidents over nearly 200 years. In 1964, we finally revoked the 1798 Sedition Act that made it illegal to speak or write critically about the government, allowing us to meet the minimal condition for a democratic society for the first time. We have enjoyed our present level of free speech only for a short period, and we can easily lose it.
To control speech, lawmakers now act more subtly than by just yanking rights away. They reduce speech by playing with the balance of rights, by granting government agencies rights that interfere with our right of free speech. For instance, in return for our freedom of speech, the government has a 'freedom to listen'. The recent USA Patriot Act allows government to wiretap us and search our apartments without proving our 'probable involvement' in a crime. The USA Patriot Act also allows government to monitor our emails and the web sites we visit. If an FBI agent worries about a letter you wrote to the editor, he can now order your travel agent, your doctor and your librarian to turn over your records without telling you. The FBI can ask bookstores and libraries to turn over the list of people who bought or borrowed certain books. The USA Patriot Act does not restrict our speech directly. You can say whatever you like, but the FBI can come and bully you if it dislikes whatever you say. If the government has a right to sift through our underwear every time we speak out, we may have a kind of right of free speech, but a weak one, not one we should brag about.
Officially, our system of speech laws aims to promote truth. Does our system work? To answer that, we need to take a closer look at the philosophy behind it. Our judges claim that our system serves the pursuit of truth by allowing speech to 'compete in the marketplace of ideas'. This means that if you disagree with what I say, you can fight my speech with more speech. This system helps a weak truth-teller who fights a powerful liar, at least compared to a system that deters the truth-teller from even expressing herself. If a woman wants to distribute pamphlets that criticise a fast food chain, she has more freedom to do so in America than in England. In England, the food chain's lawyers could spend an hour drafting a libel lawsuit, then sit back. To defend herself, the woman would have to prove each of her accusations; defending the lawsuit could keep her in court for years. Knowing that, the woman may never distribute the pamphlets: English corporations deter critical speech by their ability (and willingness) to sue. In America, in a libel lawsuit, the fast-food chain would have to prove that the woman wrongly accused them--the food chain would have to fight the woman's speech with more speech. Assuming the woman's pamphlet only contained truthful accusations, in this case our system favours the pursuit of truth, at least compared to England. In America, the woman has the full opportunity to express the truth.
Still, our marketplace of ideas far from guarantees that truth prevails. The woman stands at a great disadvantage compared to the fast food chain, which can spend millions of dollars publicising its side of the story through advertising and public relations. The woman can distribute pamphlets at various restaurants every day after work for fifteen years, but her efforts will not weigh much in the balance. News companies will likely not publicise her story for fear of losing advertising deals with the fast food chain. Thanks to public television, the woman would stand a better chance of publicising her story in England. In this respect, the English system does a better job of promoting the truth.
In our marketplace of ideas, where speech supposedly competes with speech in the pursuit of truth, the woman's truth will probably lose in the end. Why? Because our marketplace philosophy makes beautiful sentences but no practical sense. Markets do not produce truth. Markets produce winners. In the commercial markets, products compete on quality, price, brand, advertising, design, and more. The product with the best design (the equivalent of an idea's truth) does not always win, as we know from famous standards wars, like Betamax v VHS for video and 'QWERTY' v 'DSK' for keyboards. In the marketplace of ideas, speech competes on the basis of simplicity, appeal, source, loudness, truth, and much more. The speech with the most truth does not always win, otherwise the creationist movement could not survive.
In fact, the most truthful speech often stands at a marked disadvantage, because as our saying goes, truth is unpopular. The pursuit of truth depends not just on a dissident's right to express herself, but also on the number of newspapers in which she can speak. One day, try to advance an unpopular idea in the mainstream media, and see how far you go. Six corporations control three quarters of the news we consume, and news companies all cater to the same general constituency--advertisers. You will have an easier time expressing an unpopular opinion in the English media, whose range of viewpoints blows away our official purple-to-mauve spectrum. Unlike most democratic countries, we have no public television channel independent of commercial interests, so in the marketplace of ideas, some truthful ideas have no forum in which to get aired. In the marketplace of ideas, speech competes, but far from fairly. Money often determines the winner. If an unpopular truth ever wins, it does so not thanks to the system's design, but to the stubbornness of its proclaimers, and to the public's occasional insistence on knowing. Free speech means neither true speech nor fair speech.
Once we see this, we can better understand why some countries take different positions on speech. Some countries decide that they best promote truth not by allowing everyone to compete in the marketplace of ideas, but by banning certain kinds of speech they regard as harmful. We accept the idea of banning speech in the case of child pornography, or when the government sees 'compelling interest', so it is only a matter of where to draw the line. To promote truth, some countries may ban schools from teaching accounts of human existence other than evolution. To promote truth, some countries may ban their citizens from publishing books that deny the Holocaust happened. This classic debate divides us from the French. Our government protects speakers, leaving listeners to protect themselves from harmful speech by choosing from alternate sources of speech, if available. The French government protects listeners by killing harmful speech before it happens. Somehow, they fail to see how allowing Nazi apologists to compete in the marketplace of ideas promotes truth. On both sides, most people regard holocaust denial as garbage, so the debate hinges on policy rather than quality. We should reflect on that before bashing other designs. Whatever the benefits of our 'marketplace of ideas' for citizens, and these benefits are real, they do not include the automatic promotion of truth. Markets are dominated by forces. Only by chance do these forces coincide with virtue, good design, or truth.
Our attitudes further erode the pursuit of truth. First, many of us never exercise the right of free speech we cherish so much. Second, we have developed awesome skills at silencing critics. We shout at them, we intimidate them, we threaten them, we fire them, we ignore them. Some say we even kill them. A man whose job depends on the assent of others understands this, so he does not say the words that would get him shouted at, threatened, fired, or ignored. Sometimes, this amounts to self-censorship, but not always, as we adjust by developing filters that guard us from thinking critical thoughts and wanting to criticise.
When the towers went down in New York, we had a chance to look in the mirror. Immediately, we asked: What have we done? Why us? The attack made no sense in our view of the world, where America presides as the planet's righter of wrongs. For the entire day of the attacks, news programs showed countless Americans asking why anyone would want to hurt us. Then at night Bush appeared and gave a final, abstract answer: 'America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world'. After that, few dared use their right of free speech to suggest more concrete reasons anyone could resent our country. We rallied behind Bush. Those who hated him for stealing the presidency now carried him to the top of the polls. We turned our criticism sensor all the way up, and stoned anyone who whispered the least doubt about the official answer--'they hate our freedoms'. The irony should not be missed: We took away their freedom to disagree with the claim that others hate us for our freedoms. Two weeks after the attacks, essayist Susan Sontag provoked an outburst of outrage when she wrote a piece that contained a single suggestion for her compatriots--to think: 'Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together'. Her suggestion marked her as insensitive and unpatriotic. In times like these, we cannot engage in cold analysis; we must respect other people's feelings, we must respect their wishes neither to think nor to hear contrary views.
A dictator could leave us our right of free speech, because it serves a mostly ornamental role. Subtle but effective devices of coercion ensure that anyone who speaks up finds herself out of the game. We would impress the dictator; rather than employing dedicated censors, we use the high-end in censorship technology, a decentralised system that spreads the job of silencing critics among the entire population. A man who comes up with a thought outside the purple-to-mauve spectrum, finding himself alone, will likely conclude his logic has gone astray. A woman with enough confidence to speak green or brown becomes not a journalist, but a dissident, and few will hear her. For those to whom it matters the most, the freedom of speech often reduces to a freedom to shout at walls.
Despite free speech laws, we have lies and silence instead of truth.
1. Courts review laws that restrict commercial speech on a standard of 'intermediate scrutiny'. Recently, corporations and some Supreme Court judges have argued that courts should raise the standard to that of 'strict scrutiny', allowing all commercial speech unless the government can show 'compelling' reasons to restrict it. This would grant corporations a right to lie to the public in speech not directly connected to a sale, speech like press releases (but excluding advertising). See which discusses the free speech issues surrounding the 2003 Supreme Court case Nike v Kasky.
2. Noam Chomsky makes this point, citing legal scholar Harry Kalven, in Understanding power: the indispensable Chomsky, edited by Peter Rounds Mitchell & John Schoeffel, The New Press, 2002, p. 270, footnotes available at [14 July 2003].
3. The Progressive collects examples of the 'New McCarthyism' on its website at [15 August 2003]; stories abound of FBI visits to individuals who read, say or display something that hints at a critical view of the government.
4. I paraphrase. In his dissent to Abrams v United States, 250 US 616, 630 (1919), Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said 'the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market'.
5. For instance, loudness unpacks into money, access to media, and the speaker's willingness to speak in the first place, which hinges on her capacity to avoid persecution from her government, her boss and her neighbours.
6. The Executive Director of Media Alliance in San Francisco contends that five or six big media companies control 75 to 80 per cent of Americans' media diets. (AOL Time Warner, The Walt Disney Company, Bertelsmann AG, Viacom, News Corporation and Vivendi Universal.) See Dan Fost, 'FCC close to easing media caps', San Francisco Chronicle, 12 May 2003. FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy points out that the big six own only a quarter of the broadcast and cable channels and that if they get three quarters of our attention, 'that means they're doing a pretty good job of catching eyeballs'. See for charts and links about the concentration of media ownership.
7. An official report from our 94th Congress documents the FBI's role in the assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton as part of the COINTELPRO counterintelligence program. Chomsky, supra, chapter 4, note 33. In 1999, the family of Martin Luther King brought a civil wrongful death suit against co-conspirators and presented evidence linking the FBI, CIA and other federal agencies to the civil rights leader's assassination. The jury found for the King family, but the verdict barely made the news. William Pepper reports on this case in An act of state: the execution of Martin Luther King, Verso Books, January 2003.
8. The New Yorker, 24 September 2001.
Excerpt from The IHO Syndrome, chapter 13: Sincerity
To create a climate of sincerity, we must not only challenge obvious hypocrisies but also demolish some hypocrisies so solidly entrenched in our culture we no longer notice them. This section highlights several common hypocrisies that hide within our economic and political debate.
Survival of the brainwashed
To justify letting the poor fester in their juices, some invoke the 'survival of the fittest', as though these words stood for an incorruptible law in human society, on a par with the law of gravitation in physics. From the idea in biology that organisms best equipped to tackle their environment have a better chance to reproduce and thus to survive over generations (the fittest survive), these social Darwinists derive the claim that humans have a moral right to abandon the most vulnerable among them. Can you follow the logic? I can't. How does an argument about the breeding of organisms over thousands of generations relate to 280 million Americans? How does an observation about chances of survival pertain to how anyone should behave? Do the unfit deserve their unfitness, and should we punish them for it?
'Fitness' depends mostly on the luck of winning the genetic or geographic lottery at birth. 'Unfit' stands for 'oppressed', it just sounds more polite. A society can use the fitness argument to justify any oppression--slavery, racism, genocide. The social Darwinists take a group's lowly status in society as proof of their 'unfitness'--the group cannot cope with the harsh conditions of society. They conclude that society has every right to oppress the group. 'Survival of the fittest' means: This group cannot overcome our oppression, so we should continue to oppress them. Under this argument, any man could become a victim of the 'survival of the fittest'--society only needs to start kicking him in the face, then when the man can no longer get up, comment he cannot survive in our harsh world, and kick him twice as hard as a result. Time after time, when one points out America's social inequities, the privileged spout their dictum like trained parrots: 'It's the survival of the fittest!' It takes a special blend of indoctrination, self-importance and lack of critical thinking to say something that absurd, the kind of blend one can perhaps only acquire in a university (not that all university graduates possess that blend). The notion of 'survival of the fittest' is not fit to survive in our political debate.
To eliminate poverty, we follow the principle of Hood Robin: We take money from the poor and give it to the rich. You see, since the time of Robin Hood, we have discovered that we help the poor best by taking from them instead of giving to them. We implement this principle by dismantling social programs to save money then funnelling that money to the rich through tax cuts. To kick the economy out of recessions, we take even more from the poor and give even more to the rich. While the poor would spend all their cash, circulating money through the economy, the rich just let their extra cash sit in bank accounts. Apparently, we stimulate the economy better by letting more money sit around. The mechanics of this do not make intuitive sense, but politicians and sophisticated journalists have convinced us that this works in an upside down kind of way--a bit like the paradox about the French, who eat lots of greasy food but live longer. An average person may not understand this, but an average person does not have a PhD in nutrition or economics. PhD or not, only on drugs or under hypnosis can anyone believe we will solve poverty by taking money from the poor. In our fight to root out rote hypocrisies, we must hang Hood Robin from the highest branch.
'Culture of fear': wrong disease
Rulers throughout history have used fear as a tool to control the population. Our rulers understand this tool's mechanics. Using techniques of propaganda, deception and intimidation which they have refined to an art, they aim to keep us ignorant, because ignorance breeds fear, and fear produces obedience.
In America, the art of governing and running companies consists partly in taking more and more from people while keeping us frightened and isolated, in coming as close as possible to that line where we might think of resisting, without ever crossing it. Since many of us have no information besides the official story and no communities besides our families where to discuss issues, government and corporations easily drive fear into our minds through threats both real and absurd, real in the case of the risk of losing our jobs, absurd in the case of potential attacks by puny foreign despots.
When we worry about losing our job, we obey the boss; when we worry about foreign attacks, we panic at the ballot box and elect the most authoritarian candidate. Our rulers have managed to create hysteria time and time again: over communist spies stealing our atomic secrets, over Russia, Nicaragua, Libya, Iran, black criminals, crack cocaine, anthrax, Iraq.
Some pin most of our woes on a 'culture of fear'. That kind of interpretation of the world leaves us powerless because we cannot attack something like a 'culture of fear'. We cannot tell our rulers to please stop frightening us: Why should they listen, fear makes us more obedient, that's why they chose to frighten us in the first place. We cannot tell the media to stop scaring us: Why should they listen, hysteria sells more newspapers. On the other hand, we can attack the main causes of fear: ignorance and the lies that produce ignorance. By fighting ignorance and hypocrisy, our confusion falls, we gain confidence in our grasp of the world, and our rulers' scarecrows cease to scare us. We stand a better chance of solving our woes if we worry about a 'culture of ignorance' (though I do not suggest using such a provoking phrase) rather than a 'culture of fear'.
We can do nothing about fear but we can do something about ignorance and hypocrisy--we can fight the IHO syndrome. The longer we explain our ills by a 'culture of fear', the longer we delay curing them. In the end, the very notion of 'culture of fear' benefits our government and corporations: As long as we diagnose diseases we can do nothing about, everyone continues business as usual. 'Culture of fear' threatens to become a convenient concept entrenched in our political debate, a hypocrisy elites can repeat without fear of causing any change to the established order. We must deflate the 'culture of fear' like every other rote hypocrisy. Next time someone blames our problems on the 'culture of fear', point out the fear's causes, show him he has diagnosed the wrong disease.
Excerpt from The IHO Syndrome, chapter 15: Resistance
We feel powerless to affect policies. To fight powerlessness, we must change the dynamics between the three main poles of power in society: people, corporations and government. We have at least that power - through a thorough program of resistance.
What does resisting mean? Not revolution, not aimless defiance, but a plan we can implement in our daily lives, a plan to reduce the power of corporations and government and to increase our own. First, it means resisting our roles in American society--refusing to work harder and buy more without pausing to ask what would really make us happy. Second, it means breaking the isolation by immersing ourselves in our communities and organising groups where we can discuss society's issues. Third, when our groups reach critical mass, it means pushing through large changes to our political system--acquiring tools of government by the people for the people, acquiring the true democracy that will allow us to decide policy.
Resistance starts with refusing to fulfil our economic role as isolated economic agents, as workers and consumers blindly trying to maximise our income and property. We can never fully pull out of the economy because we will always have to touch money, unless we move to isolated communities based solely on sharing or barter, in which case we will also have pulled out of society and lost the ability to affect it. But we can pull out of the economy gradually by consuming less and working for goals other than money, a process some call 'downshifting'. True, those who work just so they can afford the bare necessities cannot downshift--they can neither consume less nor work less. But they should at least benefit when others downshift, first because better jobs gradually become available as others leave well-paid jobs, second because when fewer people need to earn high salaries, the wage pressure on basic workers abates. I describe the process of downshifting knowing full well it can apply only to half of the population.
Refusing to buy
Consuming less seems simple enough, but a few tricks can make the process easier and painless--in fact, enjoyable.
First, before you buy anything, ask yourself one question: Will I use it this month? If not, do not bother buying it now; in a month, you will have forgotten about it.
Second, don't replace products that work. Keep that pair of sneakers until it wears out; drive your car until it falls apart. Refuse to replace your computer every three years, stop upgrading your software and operating system. When did you last appreciate an improvement in word processing technology? If you learn a basic upkeep routine, your computer should last you ten years.
Third, find alternatives to buying. Borrow your neighbour's power drill. Share rides to town or take the bus. Exchange plumbing work for apple pies. Swap houses instead of paying for overpriced weekend getaways. Borrow books from the library. Learn how to cook and invite people over instead of dining out. Bring coffee to work in a vacuum bottle, bring your lunch in a box. Use pay phones again, disconnect your cell phone.
Fourth, resist marketers. Embrace reverse advertising: If you see an ad, make a mental note not to buy the product; if you see a particularly cute or clever ad, underline your mental note in mental red marker. Refuse to be someone's target: If you fall outside marketers' lifestyle clusters, advertisers can no longer manipulate you. Refuse to serve as a human advertisement: Decline free shirts inscribed with logos, or erase them; buy no clothes with identifiable branding.
Fifth, just say no to your kids, no matter how much they ask for that latest gizmo or special brand of clothes. They will not only survive, they will reshuffle their priorities and grow in directions other than those planned by marketers.
Sixth, if you have to buy, buy ethically. Let products with excessive packaging rot on the shelf rather than in the landfill. If activists accuse a company of mistreating workers or destroying the rainforest, assume the company guilty until proven innocent, and cross yourself off its customer list. Read nutrition labels and boycott companies that try to poison you with artificial flavours, colours and preservatives. Buy from small companies that do the best job of convincing you of their ethics. If you go wrong, you help a small-time crook instead of a large one. If you cannot buy from small companies, undermine our large corporations by buying Japanese.
Seventh, pay cash. Cancel five of your credit cards, leave the last one at home, take cash out once a week.
Last but not least, set a monthly budget that amounts to half or even a third of what you normally spend after rent or mortgage. Compute how much that allows you each day. If money used to burn through your pockets, you will feel a violent shock in the first week. A small budget forces you to think about every buying decision and look at every price. When stores do not display prices, you will have to ask how much things cost. You may (or you may not) find this the greatest initial hurdle: Worrying that people will call you 'cheap' when you ask the price of a pastry or when you decline to buy the pastry after hearing its price. But you will quickly overcome such intimidation, real or perceived, and when you do, you will feel better for standing up to merchants and refusing to get robbed. Nothing is so cheap that you should have to pay double its fair price. Your basic rights in any commercial transaction include asking the price and deciding whether to part with your cash. You should not have to sign blank checks anymore than a merchant should let you decide a product's price.
Staying within budget may challenge you but it may also reward you. At first you may think the task impossible because you will have to deny yourself things you once bought mechanically--you may even suffer withdrawal from overpriced coffee drinks. With resolve, you will quickly break those mechanical buying habits, and 'not buying' will replace 'buying' as the norm. Your new habits will make you appreciate luxury again. After a few months of abstinence, if a friend treats you to a nice restaurant, you will savour the meal as much as you did long ago, before pricey meals became commonplace. Your smaller budget will incite you to seek free events and free hobbies. You may take more walks, rediscover an old guitar, spend more time with friends, attend free lectures: Almost immediately, you will find that spending less forces you to do things that make you happy. After a while, you may find yourself spending even less than your budget; you will have shed the consumer skin that corporations and government spent so much to graft onto you. You will have refused half of your official economic duties--buying more. Corporations and government will have lost much of their power over you.
Refusing to work
To further reduce corporations' and government's power over you, you must resist the other half of your economic role - working hard to maximise your income. This could mean cutting your hours at your current job or moving to a lower paid job you enjoy more. Once you consume less, you need less income, so you should find it easier to work for less.
You may already enjoy your job. But unless you deeply care about the software that allows people to manage their stock portfolios with their cell phones, do not make it your life's purpose to propagate that software. Refuse to fight someone else's battles. Fight your own.
Some shrink at making the change because they have no dream waiting to be pursued. If you have not yet identified your dream, you will not find it by spending long days at the office. Cut your hours in half if you can. That will not only create a good job for someone else, but also give you time to think. With extra time on your hands, you may soon overflow with ideas. If not, run a series of experiments: Volunteer your time with several non-profits; enrol in a philosophy class; learn to play the guitar; attend meetings at your town council; with two friends, take mindless jobs in a retail chain with the goal of creating a union. Eventually you will hit on something you like. You cannot worry that finding out what you like will be too hard. Finding out is half the fun. If you never try, you will never find out.
Some resist switching to more enjoyable but lower paid jobs because they want to get rich first, before moving on to the things that make them happy. If this applies to you, I suggest you reconsider your strategy. First, if your end goal is to maximise your happiness, you are wasting precious time you could spend doing the things that make you happy. Second, you may never switch. I know many people who set wealth goals for themselves and continued to work long after they reached the magic number. As the years went on, they became used to a 'higher standard of living' and had to keep saving more; as they settled into their careers, they gradually wrote off their dreams as youthful utopias. Third, you may never have a chance to enjoy your nest egg. I once hired a young lawyer who had just made partner after paying his dues with years of long hours and hard work. Months later I heard he had died from cancer--he never had a chance to enjoy the fruits of his labour. Fourth, you may never get rich despite all your hard work. Consider this lesson from Japan. I moved there in 1988; around that time, the Nikkei stock index peaked at 38,000; when I left in 1993, it had fallen to 20,000; I assumed it would gradually recover, but ten years on it hovers around 8000. A Japanese man who took a high-pressure job at a prestigious company after graduating from university in 1988--pegging his fortunes on the economy and the stock market--basically lost fifteen years of his life. Think about what this means for us. Economies do not have to grow, stock markets do not have to rise. If you think our economy could plausibly stagnate for one, two or three decades, should you stay in a job you don't especially like, a job you chose primarily because it could make you rich if the economy grew? No. Waiting to get rich may last a lifetime. Find a job you really like. If you have always dreamed of becoming a teacher, become one now. In a few years, if we realise we have entered a period of long-term stagnation, people will kill for that kind of job.
1. Even members of remote tribes that still cling to traditional ways in Papua New Guinea now need money to purchase some essential items.
2. A few tips to save you money on computers. Open-source software may soon eliminate your need to buy commercial software. In the meantime, find a configuration that works and stick to it. Keep all the CDs for the operating system and software installed on your computer. In five years, when you replace your hard drive, reinstall the same operating system and software. (Upgrades suck up memory and disk space, bringing older computers to their knees.) For a twice-yearly maintenance routine that cleans up and speeds up your PC, learn to do the following: (1) backing up your data, (2) uninstalling programs you don't need, (3) purging the list of programs that run at start-up, (4) removing spyware, (5) cleaning your registry, (6) defragmenting your disk.
3. For more on this topic, see Naomi Klein, No logo, Picador, 2000, and the magazine Adbusters.
Excerpt from The IHO Syndrome, chapter 15: Resistance
Constitutions can make fascinating reading, especially when read together as a group of documents with similar ambitions--like a collection of love poems by different authors. They range widely in style. A constitution's style may first reflect the drafters' personalities more than national traits, but as that style frames national debates over the years, at length it must influence the national character. Compare these excerpts:
Greek men and Greek women have equal rights and obligations . . . Respect for and protection of human dignity constitute the primary obligation of the State.
We [the Japanese people] desire to occupy an honoured place in an international society striving for the preservation of peace, and the banishment of tyranny and slavery, oppression, and intolerance for all time from the earth. We recognise that all peoples of the world have the right to live in peace, free from fear and want.
The personal, economic and cultural welfare of the individual shall be fundamental aims of public activity [in Sweden]. In particular, it shall be incumbent upon the public administration to secure the right to work, housing and education, and to promote social care and social security and a good living environment.
The French people hereby solemnly proclaim their dedication to the Rights of Man . . . France is an indivisible, secular, democratic, and social Republic . . . National sovereignty belongs to the people, who exercise it through their representatives and by means of referendums.
All Spaniards have the right to enjoy decent and adequate housing . . . Everyone has the right to education . . . The public authorities shall guarantee the defence of the consumers and users . . . The public authorities shall concern themselves with the rational use of all natural resources for the purpose of . . . protecting and restoring the environment . . . The public authorities shall implement a policy of . . . integration of those who are physically, sensorially, or mentally handicapped . . . The right of workers to strike in defence of their interests is recognised.
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. (United States)
To read these lines, I feel that our most intense national debates arise from questions other countries solve in their constitutions' first paragraphs. Because we wade about in problems whose solutions other countries take as starting points for their societies, we cannot even begin to address problems that govern the quality of people's lives. Our Constitution throws us into a market arena where corporate bylaws sort out winners from losers, instead of a human community where the principle of government 'for the people' assures all citizens they will never want for food, shelter or medicine.
We have a landowners' constitution that reads like the rules to a country club or a sweepstakes:
If any bill shall not be returned by the President within ten days (Sundays excepted) ...
And they shall make a list of all the persons voted for . . . which list they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government . . . directed to the President of the Senate . . . [who] shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates . . .
This document has served a purpose, but after 300 years of tearing and pulling, it has run threadbare and we can barely patch it up. In 1787, Washington advised us to change the Constitution: 'People can decide with as much propriety on the alterations and amendment [to the Constitution] which shall be found necessary as ourselves, for I do not conceive that we are more inspired, have more wisdom or possess more virtue than those who will come after us'. Jefferson agreed: 'Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them . . . too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment . . . [As] manners and opinions change with the change of circumstance, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilised society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors'.
We need principles that serve people, not rules about sealed envelopes. We have amended the section about 'free persons' and 'three fifths of other persons', but they remain intact at the beginning of our Constitution - a disgrace--because we have never 'restated' it. No one can read the Constitution's first few lines, with their barbarous mention of 'free persons' and 'other persons', and think that the document can have much relevance to modern America. To start governing for the people we should stop arguing over the holes in a crumbling parchment, and draft a new constitution. Good models abound; with a bit of cut-and-paste, we could quickly find ourselves back on the road to civilisation. Difficult? Trivial. Countries adopt new constitutions all the time.
Some will invoke our 'duty' to show reverence to the present Constitution. I assure them that we would not hurt the Constitution's feelings by laying it to rest. Our feelings for people take priority over our feelings for a document. We owe nothing to a piece of paper; we owe it to ourselves and our children to provide the conditions for a good life. The supreme law of the land must evolve to serve people's needs. The longer we keep the Constitution in its present shape, the more it becomes like a cult. We need not even trash the present document. We can use it to write a final Amendment that passes on the baton to a New Constitution, thus allowing the old one to take on a ceremonial role and retire gracefully.
I write this, conscious that this change may not happen during my lifetime. Then again it may happen in the next decade. I have one certainty: Our present Constitution will eventually disappear. How could it not? Surely no one imagines it surviving 15,000 years, the time that has passed since early humans painted bisons in European caves. Why not precipitate the inevitable? We should at least start to contemplate the question.
1. Mike Salvaris, 'Community and social indicators: how citizens can measure progress', Institute for Social Research (Australia), November 2000, Appendix A-4.
2. Noam Chomsky, Understanding power: the indispensable Chomsky, edited by Peter Rounds Mitchell & John Schoeffel, The New Press, 2002, p. 329, and chapter 9, note 11.
3. The Jefferson quote comes from a Letter to Samuel Kercheval, 1816, quoted in Leonard Roy Frank, editor, Quotationary, Random House Webster's, 1998.
Comments? Email: email@example.com.
Copyright © 2003. Julien Ninio.
Sydney Morning Herald
The strange, sad death of the American way
June 18th, 2004
George Bush's war imperils a cherished political tradition, writes Paul McGeough.
There is a growing sense that Americans have become victims of September 11 in a way that has blinkered their democratic instincts.
So now the hard questions are being put in a pre-September 11 context. Would Americans ordinarily tolerate a president who lies and exaggerates? A leader who uses fear to manipulate his people to his own ends? A president whose staff blow the deep cover of a CIA agent as political payback? A president whose Administration channels billions of dollars to crony corporations on false pretexts? A president who deems torture acceptable?
Would they accept a president who seems to agree with his advisers that he is above the law?
The commentator William Rivers Pitt poses them all before concluding: "The time has come, bluntly, to get over September 11; to move beyond it; to extract ourselves from this bunker mentality which blinds us while placing us in moral peril. It happened and it will never be forgotten, but we have reached a place where fear and obeisance can no longer be tolerated."
Bush, Blair and Howard would dearly love to move on, to shelter in that obedient, obeisant world and their shallow argument that the global community must deal with the reality on the ground in Iraq; hoping, too, that we'll just slip-slide with them, over and around their recklessness in dragging Iraq into the War on Terror.
But legitimacy is truth and questions of legitimacy will keep drawing us back to the propriety of their decision-making on the road to Baghdad - the lies, the half-truths, all the obsfucation. This is not just a history lesson; or a debating point for Americans and Australians as they luxuriate in their democratic right to vote on the performance of their leaders in the coming months.
In less than two weeks the US-led occupation of Iraq gives way to the saddest little "sovereign" government the world has seen in a while.
Its legitimacy is in doubt and, therefore its viability, as much because of the false-pretence by Washington, London and Canberra to justify war as by Iraqi suspicion of the democratic fundamentals of interim government by appointment, by the continued occupation of their country and by a firm foreign grip on their treasury purse-strings.
And while some will dismiss all of that, arguing that time will tell, the greater reality on the ground in Iraq is that the chaos and death from a mismanaged foreign occupation is a product of all the lies.
Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney can't help themselves. Only hours before the September 11 reports were published, Bush was talking up the sketchily known activities of the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi as the "best evidence" of a connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. It was another lie. Cheney was at it a few days earlier, claiming there were "long-established ties" between Saddam and bin Laden.
Almost buried in the blitz of reports on the commission's work was yesterday's statement by a group of 27 former US diplomats and military leaders - many of whom were appointees of this president's father and other Republican administrations.
These are men who have done time in the Middle East, in Moscow and in the highest levels of the US military, and this is what they said: "[The Bush Administration] justified the invasion of Iraq by manipulation of uncertain intelligence about [WMD], and by a cynical campaign to persuade the public that Saddam Hussein was linked to al-Qaeda and the attacks of September 11."
"From the outset, President George W. Bush adopted an overbearing approach, relying on military might and righteousness, insensitive to the concerns of traditional friends and allies, and disdainful of the United Nations ..."
John Howard's unquestioning support for Bush puts him in the same dock as the US President.
My anxiety on the road to battle was about the number of don't-know questions that underpinned the Bush-Blair-Howard case for war and the leaders' remarkable certainty.
Now we find that the unnecessary Iraq war has sucked resources away from the War on Terror. Bin Laden is at large but Saddam is in captivity; Iraq did not help al-Qaeda or bin Laden and it was invaded, while Pakistan, which did help al-Qaeda and did sell its nuclear know-how around the Axis of Evil, has just been elevated to the exclusive ranks of "major non-NATO ally" by George Bush.
Other realities are confusing.
The White House insisted that US forces would be welcomed in Iraq with flowers and songs. But only 2 per cent of Iraqis see the Americans as liberators - and that's according to a poll by the US occupation authority in Iraq.
Biological and chemical weapons? I've been carrying self-injecting syringes of an expensive nerve gas antidote in my first aid kit since before last year's war. I'm off to Baghdad again tomorrow. It's a city where I don't need - never needed - the antidote. But truth serum would not go astray in several other capitals.
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