Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Good News for Modern Persons

There was an interesting post at A Distant Ocean recently, about an American Iraq War veteran named Victor Agosto, who refused deployment to Afghanistan. As a result he was court-martialed and sentenced to a year in prison. He appeared on Democracy Now with Amy Goodman, and explained how he got to the point where he began to resist.

VICTOR AGOSTO: It just didn’t make sense to me why we were there, why—why these contractors were making, you know, all this money. And eventually, I started making the connections between that and just the idea of empire. And I realized that what I was doing there was just that, just being a soldier for empire, basically, not to make America or Afghanistan a better place, I mean. So I read some books. I read some Chomsky. I realized that there’s absolutely no American moral superiority. There’s no—we were no one to impose anything on the people of Iraq or Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you get a Noam Chomsky book in Iraq?

VICTOR AGOSTO: I ordered it on Amazon.com.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting. Peter Pace was asked on Meet the Press about a former prime minister—I think it was Jaafari—that he said Chomsky was his favorite author, and Pace said, "I hope he has some other books on his bookstand."
So, John Caruso wrote at The Distant Ocean,
So think about that: there are people in Iraq and Afghanistan wearing American uniforms and carrying guns who are literally just one book away from changing their entire world view and refusing to kill. And that's one reason why writing about this stuff, speaking out, talking to people you know, spending time in discussion forums and so on really does matter—because you may never know what effect it will have on someone out there who's ready to hear it. ...

Assuming someone really was just one book away from an epiphany, what book do you feel would be most likely to get them there? Not limited to Chomsky, of course,
though it's hard to beat his combination of ideological orientation and information density if you've only got one book to change someone's mind.
An epiphany? Dewd. I'm all for encouraging people to read, and I agree with Caruso's remark about the importance of "writing about this stuff", but I found the evangelical tone here a bit off-putting, the sense that millions of ignorant savages go to sleep each night without ever having had a personal relationship with Noam Chomsky, but they are "just a book away" from salvation, if we give them the right book. What if Agosto had read a book by Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck instead? Oh noes! It's too awful to contemplate.

The discussion in comments was more of the same, with people saying things like:
Anyway, I did make the mistake of sending my father a copy of Manufacturing Consent; it was probably the wrong thing to start off with. Maybe The Umbrella of U.S. Power would have been a better choice. Especially given that he thinks Chomsky is a communist and a traitor to start with.
I have often thought about sending something by Chomsky to my career military brother, now retired. Then I realized that Chomsky can be read two ways: the way Chomsky wants to be read and the way that someone who thinks the US status quo is under attack from the left (and doesn't like that) would read it. Chomsky shows the left to be ineffectual. My brother would take it that way. He would be encouraged by Chomsky not 'converted'.

I can hear him saying "You want to give the country back to the Indians? That wouldn't work." Or something to the same effect.... And I think that Victor Agosto is rare and that Chomsky will find fairly few military converts in Afghanistan.

"Converts"? "Epiphany"? My dear. The writers seem to have missed Agosto's own account. He made it clear that he'd already figured out that something was badly wrong before he read the Gospel According to Saint Noam. I put it that snarkily, not because I would never recommend Chomsky to anyone -- I've put a few of his tracts into trembling hands myself -- or because I don't suggest reading materials if people ask me, but because of the rather patronizing implication that people like ourselves can lead a person out of political darkness by giving them the book that is all they need to have an epiphany. The older I get, the less faith I have in such a belief, or that much will be gained by reading any one book or article or author. I'd prefer to see more people explore a range of ideas and views, which seems to me a better way for them to figure out what they think or want to think, and will prepare them better to deal with people who disagree with them.

But that's just my own approach to things, which has become more routine as I've gotten older. Whether it was coming to terms with my homosexuality, deciding what I thought about Christianity, or about American politics, or many other topics, I prefer to canvass a range of views. For example, one of my personal turning points was seeing Tom Hayden speak at Notre Dame University in 1969 or 1970. This was when Hayden was still a left radical, before he became an all-too-mainstream American liberal politician. He explained how the US had become involved in Vietnam, how the US undermined the possibility of a political settlement in the 1950s and installed a subfascist puppet to rule the South. This was all news to me, so I went to the library and found a few books on the history of US involvement in Vietnam, and found that Hayden was right. Even though the authors of those books generally supported US policy, their account of the history agreed with Hayden's -- they just held that the US had to intervene, violating international agreements and law by doing so, because if there had been free elections, the Communists would have won. That had more of an impact on me than Hayden's speech had, because it meant that the historical facts weren't really in dispute.

The same thing happened with Christianity, though I'd been an atheist for years anyway. I'd say something negative about Christianity, and a Christian would tell me that I misunderstood Christianity, I shouldn't judge Christianity by this or that bad Christian, I should read this or that book and it would explain what Christianity really is. I read a number of books that such people recommended to me, each of which would be disparaged by the next Christian I talked to, who'd point me to the next one. Eventually I went to the source, the New Testament and its depiction of Jesus, which confirmed my atheism better than any atheist writer I'd encountered could have managed to do.

I know, most people probably aren't going to put that much effort into learning, even about things that they claim to take very seriously. So much the worse for them, and for the world we all inhabit. They baffle me, though: how can they care so little? How can they be so little interested in learning more about important issues?