Notes on Cultural Renaissance in a Time of Barbarism
By James Petras (opening comment by Les Blough)
May 12, 2007, 12:32
Editor’s Comment: Perhaps never before in history has the popular class been so challenged by an illusion of the invincibility of the barbaric state. When the mass media and the state enjoy an alliance for advancing the purpose and direction of the ruling class, ghosts of futility and defeat often visit the consciousness of the people. James Petras’ essay reveals the deepest hopes and abiding power that lives in the “cultural renaissance” now thriving in the face of state’s militarism, mass media control and economic violence. In this essay, we on the left, learn from our mistakes, renew our confidence and reinvest our selves in the mission we share with “the people”. – Les Blough, Editor
“The truth is that the barbaric state is vulnerable, tactically powerful because of money and arms but strategically vulnerable: No institutions, even those that buttress a police state, can stand in the face of a sustained cultural and political resistance that exposes its deceptions, its criminal acts, its corruption and depredations.”
We live in a time of imperial-driven destructive wars in the name of ‘democracy’, savage exploitation in the name of ‘emerging world powers’, massive forced population displacement in the name of ‘immigration’ and large-scale pillage of natural resources in the name of ‘free markets’. We live in a time of barbarism and the barbarian elites employ an army of linguistic and cultural manipulators to justify their conquests.
The great crimes against most of humanity are justified by a corrosive debasement of language and thought – a deliberate fabrication of euphemisms, falsehoods and conceptual deceptions. Cultural expressions are a central determinant in class, national, ethnic and gender relations. They reflect and are products of political, economic and social power. But just as power is ultimately a social relation between antagonistic classes, cultural expressions are also mediated through the lenses, experiences and interests of the dominant elites and their rebellious subjects.
Even as the writers of the barbarous elites have fabricated a linguistic world of terror, of demons and saviors, of axes of good and evil, of euphemisms which embellish the crimes against humanity, so have new groups of writers, artists and collective participants come forth to clarify reality and elucidate the existential and collective bases for demystifying the lies and creating a new cultural reality.
In the face of elite barbarism, a cultural renaissance is born. Revelations of crimes are made through journalistic investigations, plays and songs. Affirmations of integrity, social solidarity and individual rejections of the monetary enticements strengthen moral commitment in the face of ever-present threats, assassinations and official censure.
The great crimes of the imperial powers and their local clients include the massacres and daily death counts, propaganda, which pronounces every victim a criminal, and every criminal a savior. The political delinquents have not, do not and cannot silence, deafen or blind a new generation of critical intellectuals, poets and artists who speak truth to the people.
There are several themes which are essential in the advancement of the emerging cultural renaissance and our challenge to the reign of barbarism: These include the politics of language, conceptual misconceptions and intellectual courage in everyday life. The great conflict is between the power of the mass media and collective solidarity, and the false association of class with high and mass culture.
The Politics of Language
The corruption of language is a prescription for complicity in political crimes. Corruption of language takes the form of euphemisms concocted by propagandists, transmitted through the mass media, echoed in the pompous language of academics, judges, and translated into the gutter language of the sensationalist yellow press. Monstrous crimes against rural communities perpetuated by the police state are described as ‘pacification’; reduction of salaries and social services are described as ‘stabilization’; and the elimination of labor legislation protecting employment from arbitrary firings and weakening of trade unions is described as ‘labor flexibilization’.
Human rights advocates defending victims of military violence are called ‘accomplices of terrorists’; systematic state and paramilitary violence is called national security; opposition to military and political linkages to death squads is called terrorism; large scale counter-insurgency plans designed and funded by foreign imperial powers are labeled measures for ‘national salvation’.
There is also the pretext of providing a pseudo-scientific neutral terminology to inhuman acts – destroying thousands of communities and displacing millions is described as ‘liquidating subversive elements’ and likened to the extermination of noxious insects.
Euphemisms are a form of collective anesthesia – to tranquilize the population not directly affected by state violence. The imagery evoked by euphemisms is always portrayed as benign to obscure the malignant reality. To ‘pacify’ suggests a ‘pacifier’ and allows a parent to gently calm an infant and eliminate its irritable cries. ‘Pacification’ of a people means the opposite: the violent eruption of military forces into a tranquil community that causes screams of pain and shudders of death.
Stabilization in the mouths of state authorities means to reduce trade and budget deficits by lowering wages and salaries while retaining subsidies and tax-exemptions for the ruling class. Stabilization for big business and the banks means de-stabilization for the working class and the poor: the loss of health services, increases in the prices of basic commodities like food and transportation and the loss of employment leading to family break-ups, children leaving school, single parent homes and rising rates of suicide and alcoholism.
The dress rehearsal for any political and social transformation is linguistic clarity – speaking and writing in a language in which words and concepts evoke the reality we live, especially the differential class impact of specific policies. The unmasking of euphemisms is not a job for linguists but for all committed intellectuals and artists.
Language and the Left
Too many times the left fails to elucidate the meaning of euphemisms – resorting to the lazy device of hanging quotation marks around the targeted phrase. The quotation marks are meant to indicate irony and criticism or rejection of the euphemism – but they are just as obscurantist as the euphemism they seek to discredit. For example, many writers deal with authoritarian or police state regimes which claim to be democratic by simply putting quotes around ‘democracy’ – as if the quotes are self-explanatory. The critics fail to take the time and make the effort to elaborate a more precise term, which captures the cognitive meaning of the political system. The resort to quotation marks has a long tradition of abuse on the left, an abuse that serves to undermine the pedagogical purposes of educating the popular classes and providing a new and useful political vocabulary.
More recently, especially among intellectuals who have a pretence of communicating or leading the working class and peasantry, they abuse popular understanding by swearing. When using ‘swear words’ intellectuals abdicate their responsibility to widen the vocabulary of the working class or peasant activists. When workers or peasants resort to swear words, much depends on the context and tonality to determine meaning. The same swear word can be a denunciation or a term of affection, depending on the context. But when there is a political vocabulary that is more precise and varied, the pseudo-populist intellectual should introduce and define its meaning instead of pretending to establish rapport on the basis of the most limited and simplistic level of communication: vulgarity.
The intellectual playing down to the workers and peasants doesn’t raise their understanding; instead it reduces the literacy of the intellectual.
The other side of the coin is the problem of the exoticism of the intellectual: The use of an unfamiliar, abstract language derived from highly specialized texts, which fail to connect to the concrete realities and struggles of the workers and peasants. The task for intellectuals is to take complex ideas and make them comprehensible – to illustrate ideas from everyday practice. It is easier to write for other intellectuals than it is to take the effort of explaining the content and meaning of a concept to the popular classes. But that is what must be done without condescension or over-simplification.
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