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Confronting empire

June 22, 2007 | Pages 8 to 12

SOME 1,000 people came to Socialism 2007 in Chicago for a long June weekend of political discussion, debate and entertainment--with the goal of revitalizing the left and renewing the struggles against war and for social justice. At a plenary session on "Confronting Empire," six activists from around the world spoke out against the U.S. war machine. Here, we print excerpts from that session.

John Pilger | Martín Sanchez | Dahlia Wasfi | Camilo Mejía | Jeremy Scahill | Rob Will | Joel Geier

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John Pilger

Renowned investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker who has reported on wars and revolts on every continent for four decades. He is the author of numerous books, including most recently Freedom Next Time.

IT'S ALMOST exactly 102 years since the Industrial Workers of the World was born here in Chicago. I learned about the IWW from my father, Claude, who was a founding member of the Wobblies in Sydney, Australia. The Wobblies, he would say, spoke the minds of ordinary people and were prepared to stand up and fight--and standing up and fighting was what mattered.

What else to read

Haymarket Books is distributing audio CDs of all of the nearly 100 meetings at Socialism 2007. For a full list of meeting topics, see the schedule at the Socialism 2007 Web site. To order CDs of any of the talks, or for more information, call Haymarket at 773-583-7884 or e-mail [email protected].

You can also watch several presentations from Socialism 2007 by:

John Pilger

Jeremy Scahill


So it's fitting that my own political education should achieve graduation here on the streets of Chicago, during the four days of August in 1968, when the antiwar movement marched on the Democratic Party's infamous convention from that year.

I was on those marches as a foreign correspondent. Although I was tear-gassed during the battle of Michigan Avenue, I was delighted to learn I could outrun a posse of Chicago cops, wishing to break my head with their nightsticks.

That year and the years that followed, millions of young Americans reclaimed much of this country from the warmakers. The atmosphere was electric, inspiring--at times, almost revolutionary. People from all backgrounds were proud to belong to a movement that fought for civil rights in America and peace in Vietnam.

What did that movement achieve? It finally ended slavery in the South, and it stopped an all-out military mobilization that would have set alight Asia well beyond Indochina.

Today, the same critical public intelligence is stirring again. Generations immersed in Cold War and post-Cold War propaganda are waking up--thanks to Bush, Cheney and Blair and the rest of the gang. A great many people in the West no longer see humanity merely through the eyes of their rulers and the media--as useful or expendable, as worthy or unworthy.

I believe that fundamental changes in public attitudes are underway, especially toward governments, patriotism and war.

It's an awakening expressed both directly and indirectly. Witness the millions of people who took to the streets in cities all over the world in those two days in February 2003--the first time in history an invasion was so widely condemned before it began.

Witness the response of people in the West to the tsunami in 2004. While Bush and Blair offered stricken countries aid worth less than the cost of Bush's inauguration party, ordinary humanity reached out. More than charity, their generosity was, I believe, a spontaneous attempt to reclaim the politics of community, morality and internationalism. It was a statement to the warmongers and the neoliberal fanatics that we, the people, are different from them.

In Britain today, the majority of opinion polls leave no doubt that most people revile Blair as a liar. In the years I've lived in Britain, I've never known such contempt for a prime minister. In the last two British general elections, barely a fifth of the eligible adult population voted for the Blair government--the lowest turnout since the vote was won a century ago.

That wasn't apathy, as the media like to tell us. It was, and it is a general strike.

The great liberal thinker Walter Lippmann once described the public as a bewildered herd. This contempt is shared today by those who claim his elite legacy, in politics and the media. Why? Because they fear that the so-called herd will suddenly change direction.

They fear this because they know their power is not invincible. That's why they expend so much energy and wealth trying to distract and deceive us. That's why the New York Times on Thursday of this week carried a full-page decrying the campaign for sanctions against Israel. There was a sense of panic about that ad. Why? Because the boycott campaign is growing, and growing fast--and Tel Aviv and Washington fear its power.

Of course, there are those who argue that ordinary people have been successfully distracted. Well, if they have, the anesthetic is wearing off.

Who would have predicted--including, perhaps, some of you here tonight--those recent huge demonstrations of anger by Latino immigrants? Here were the lowest-paid, the most brutalized, suddenly demonstrating their power. I must admit, I looked at the pictures of that great militant spectacle on the streets of America, and felt both admiration and a sense of longing.

Today, two-thirds of Americans want their country out of Iraq, according to the polls. To achieve that, they voted for the Democratic Party last November. And what did they get? They got the usual bipartisan bullshit, and Bush got another $124 billion to extend the war.

There have been some great demonstrations against the war, but the so-called liberal Democrats have been allowed to confuse and divide the forces of dissent, and not for the first time.

This was the same party in government that attacked Vietnam, then produced a carpet-bagger, Robert Kennedy, and a false prophet, Jimmy Carter, and clever, head-wagging Bill Clinton, who rained bombs on Iraq and destroyed its children, while ending the last decencies of the New Deal.

It's surely time to abandon wishful thinking, the lesser of two evils, and the Democrats completely--just as Britons are abandoning Blair's corrupted Labour Party.

And it's surely time for the antiwar movement to address the alienation of ordinary Americans, and express their dissent and anger and frustration. It's simply not good enough for certain groups to claim their own territory. This week, in Los Angeles, the theme of the gay pride celebration was being who you are. That's fine. But was there anything said about the 655,000 Iraqis who have no choice ever again to be who they are?

I believe people are never still, and that human renewal is not a phenomenon. Yes, the continuation of a struggle at times appears frozen. But there's always a sea beneath the snow.

Look at countries where it seemed hopeless--where people had nothing except their will and courage, like South Africa, East Timor and many others. Look at Latin America today. The sheer ferocity of the propaganda coming from the American media tells us that something good and exciting and hopeful must be happening down there, and it is.

Witness the triumph of indigenous people in Bolivia--the poorest of the poor. Remember Sánchez de Lozada running for his plane to Miami. Look at Venezuela, and the tens of thousands of people who came down from the barrios to rescue their president. Witness the Venezuelan children who no longer die from preventable disease.

Look even at the Middle East, where every day, Palestinian families get their children to school against odds that we can't imagine. Look at the ordinary people, who, unarmed, marched toward the Israeli army in southern Lebanon last year, and saw them off.

And of all the headlines about Iraq, the one we never read is that a popular Iraqi national resistance is defeating the most powerful invader in history.

I believe, in conclusion, that our task is straightforward. It is to reject outright the notion that collusive liberalism sets the limits of free debate. It is to end indulgence of parliaments and congresses and governments that commit and sanction crimes in our name. It is to persuade people that their precious freedoms were not handed to them, but won by the struggle of people just like them.

As activists, never believe that ordinary people are as conservative as you might think they are. Remember always, how isolated people often are. And as activists, be brave. Always speak your mind in the face of the most casual bigotry, bullying and hypocrisy.

For we are potentially the greatest popular movement the world has seen. And those who regard humanity merely as useful or expendable should be warned. People all over the world are rising. Indeed, I would say that their resistance never stopped--and is unbeatable.


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