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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Chomsky Interview on Education By Noam Chomsky and Jennifer Pagliaro

Noam Chomsky

I saw that you were quoted as saying "education is ignorance" --

Well, that's what it often is in practice. It shouldn't be.

I'm just wondering if you can speak to this idea of education being mostly something that teaches obedience rather than critical thinking.

I didn't say that's what it mostly is. I said that's what it's becoming. There's strong pressure to turn it into that. There's a major attack on public education going on everywhere, which is shifting the nature of the educational system towards test passing, obedience, discipline, cutting back individual initiative and so on. For example, in the United States, the teaching to test programs -- what's called No Child Left Behind, and similar programs in other state capitalist democracies. I haven't looked at Canada specifically, but I'm sure if you look you'll find something similar.

I know that there's been a lot of discussion lately in that undergraduate degrees are really losing their value because of the number of people that are now being accepted into university. Do you see the system as lowering its standards?

The problem is the opposite I think. It's fine to accept more and more people into the university. For example, take a poor country: Mexico. There's a city university in Mexico funded by the city, which is open admission.

They have programs to assist students that don't have the right background and so on. There's high quality teaching as students are taken through. I'm not saying that Mexico is any kind of utopia, but I think they have the right idea.

They don't have a fraction of the resources that we do. Considering the economic level of the country, considerable resources are going into it. I think it's kind of scandalous in my opinion that we have to look to Mexico for something like that. It's much easier for us.

In terms of elite universities versus the state college system, does it make more sense to have this more open system for higher learning?

I think there should be an open system, period. But it should be adapted to the needs and interests of the students. If somebody wants to become an engineer, let's say, they're going to have different educational opportunities than someone who wants to be become a philosopher.

I think education should be free. And there are a lot of ways of organizing it, but it should be geared to the ideal of helping each person, each student, achieve their goals in the best way.

As a student especially, you hear a lot of complaints from students that the system doesn't work for them. What's the fix? How does a student direct their own academic career?

There's no single magic answer for that. There can be a lot of problems. I got into college at age 16. By age 17 I was ready to drop out because it was so boring. Then I sort of found my own way. But there's no single answer to what is the failure of the university system to address your own needs, concerns and wishes.

What do you see as some of those major issues that stand out to you in the American system?

The major issue, which varies from place to place of course, is the tendency to move towards a model of teaching, which sort of back a couple centuries ago, used to be called filling a vessel with water instead of encouraging students to be creative and independent and develop their own interests and concerns. Now that's not everywhere.

For example, my own university, which is a science-oriented university, is quite different. Students aren't expected to regurgitate what they heard in a lecture. They're expected to challenge, to innovate, to question and so on. Science couldn't survive without that. But that's unfortunately not the general pattern.

And you said that you yourself were bored. What were you able to do to convince yourself to keep pursuing a degree?

I did pretty much drop out of college. And one quite friendly professor sort of induced me back into college by suggesting that I take some of his graduate courses. And I did and then I went on to start taking a scattering of graduate courses in other fields and I sort of put together an individual program.

Actually, I'm not professionally qualified in any field. My own colleagues could tell you that. But it's just a strange collection of interests that I was lucky enough to be able to pursue. Not everyone has that good fortune.

I'm wondering what you think about students having a say in the way universities are run at the administrative level or governing level.

There should, in my opinion, be student participation. Ultimately there can't be student decision about some matters, because they infringe on personal rights.

We had a situation here last week. Our group of Students Against Israeli Apartheid was protesting the university's continued investment in certain companies, which this group feels are involved in war crimes. And they basically stopped a Board of Governors meeting from taking place. I'm just wondering what you think about this sort of clash between students and governing bodies.

I think students should have a perfect right to pressure their university to avoid participating in what they regard as criminal activities. They should have a right to take that position and to present it to a university-wide audience and to try to gain a support for it if they can.

Exactly what tactics they should use, well you know, that depends very much on the particular circumstances. They can't be involved in things that have personal rights, like the right to privacy of another student. That wouldn't be fair. But on questions of endowment investment, that's a public matter.

If you were to go back and start your undergrad again now, what advice would you have for students that are in that position?

You know, I get hundreds of letters every day and a great number of them are kind of like that, from people asking for advice. And it's kind of frustrating because there's no way to answer.

It's a highly personal matter. There are a lot of opportunities. They just have to decide. I didn't try to give advice like that to my own children who I know well. And if I had given them advice they would have rightly disregarded it.

They had to find their own way. You can try to help out if you can, but these are highly personal decisions. My own particular experience, I could go through it in detail, but it's not going to generalize to anyone else.

It was highly peculiar to my own particular concerns and interests. And I happened to be lucky enough to find an odd way through that morass so that I never really did have to face the problem of professional qualifications. But not everybody's going to have that luck.


Z Magazine Monday, July 18, 2011

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Mark Steel: Time to inflict pain on the terminally ill

How do YOU suggest we cut the deficit then? You'll be asked this if you ever oppose a cost-cutting scheme, such as merging the sewer system with the library service or something. So here's one answer, we could pay a bit less to ATOS, a company that receives £100m a year from the Government for assessing who should be cut off from disability benefit.

The method they choose is to interview each claimant, asking them a series of questions such as, "Do you look after your own pets?" Because clearly if someone can feed a hamster they're capable of driving a fork-lift truck. Another is "Do you cry?" If you do, you're probably told it's all very well being depressed but there's no reason why you can't get a job imitating actresses who've won an Oscar, or hiring yourself out to appear at funerals to make it seem the deceased knew more people than they did.
During this questioning the interviewer taps the answers into their computer, which makes an automatic calculation as to whether the claimant loses their benefit. This is so much quicker as a method of assessing health than the old-fashioned way of examining someone.

Hospitals should follow this example. Instead of faffing about with X-rays and stethoscopes, the consultant could say, "Which do you prefer, pizza or a curry? Who would you rather have to dinner out of Fearne Cotton and Dermot O'Leary? OK, let's see what the computer says – aah, you've got gallstones."

Maybe the plan is to turn the whole process into a radio panel show called "Fit on the Fiddle", in which claimants answer the questions from a panel including regular captain Gyles Brandreth. One man who might as well have done this was Larry Newman, who attended an ATOS interview with a terminal lung disease, when he could hardly breathe. So he took his medical records and ATOS ignored them, preferring their method of asking questions.

They decided there was nothing wrong with him so his benefit was cut, and a few weeks later, as the hospital attached a ventilator he'd have to wear permanently, with splendid jollity he said to his wife: "Still, at least I'm fit for work." He died a few weeks later, and I expect if his wife took him in again now they'd still say there was nothing wrong with him and send him for an interview to be a town crier.

Still, the cuts have to be made somewhere so I suppose it's only fair that the brunt of them should fall on the terminally ill. But here's where it gets complicated. The ATOS system has worked so well that in the past three years 160,000 people have successfully appealed against their decision. So from now on perhaps they'll use a more reliable method, such as rolling two dice and anyone who gets eight or over loses their money. Or they could still call people in for interviews but do three at a time while the assessor lines them up and goes, "Ip dip dog shit, you are not it", and the loser has to crawl to the job centre.

The trouble is that these tribunals have cost £30m (and you'll laugh at this bit), and that money is paid by the Government, out of taxes. So they still get paid the £100m, out of taxes, and all the mistakes are paid for out of more taxes.

It's like a minicab firm that always takes you in the wrong direction, but you still have to pay them, then they charge you again to bring you back where you started. And to complete the analogy, on the way home they run someone over and shout: "If you can stroke a cat there's nothing wrong with you", as the victim is carried into the ambulance.

So here's my suggestion. On live television ATOS are called in for an interview by a panel of disabled people, who ask them to mime looking after their pet, then assess whether they're entitled to still get £100m or have to go and get a proper job.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Amid the Murdoch scandal, there is the acrid smell of business as usual by John Pilger

In Scoop, Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant satire on the press, there is the moment when Lord Copper, owner of the Daily Beast, meets his new special war correspondent, William Boot, in truth an authority on wild flowers and birdsong. A confused Boot is brought to his lordship’s presence by Mr. Salter, The Beast’s foreign editor.

“Is Mr. Boot all set for his trip?”

“Up to a point, Lord Copper.”

Copper briefed Boot as follows: “A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the Patriot side and a colourful entry into the capital. That is The Beast policy for the war... We shall expect the first victory about the middle of July.”

Rupert Murdoch is a 21st century Lord Copper. The amusing gentility is missing; the absurdity of his power is the same. The Daily Beast wanted victories; it got them. The Sun wanted dead Argies; Gotcha! Of the bloodbath in Iraq, Murdoch said, “There is going to be collateral damage. And if you really want to be brutal about it, better we get it done now...”. The Times, the Sunday Times, Fox got it done.

Long before it was possible to hack phones, Murdoch was waging a war on journalism, truth, humanity, and succeeded because he knew how to exploit a system that welcomed his rapacious devotion to the “free market”. Murdoch may be more extreme in his methods, but he is no different in kind from many of those now lining up to condemn him who are his beneficiaries, mimics, collaborators, apologists.

As former prime minister Gordon Brown turns on his former master, accusing him of running a “criminal-media nexus”, watch the palpable discomfort in the new, cosy parliamentary-media consensus. “We must not be backward-looking,” said one Labour MP. Those parliamentarians caught last year with both hands in the Westminster till, who did nothing to stop the killing of hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq and stood and cheered the war criminal responsible, are now “united” behind the “calm” figure of opposition leader Ed Miliband. There is an acrid smell of business as usual.

Certainly, there is no “revolution”, as reported in the Guardian, which compared the “fall” of Murdoch with that of the tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania in 1989. The overexcitement is understandable; Nick Davies’ scoop is a great one. The truth is, Britain’s system of elite monopoly control of the media rests not on Murdoch’s News International alone, but on the Mail and the Guardian and the BBC, perhaps the most influential of all. All share a corporate monoculture that sets the agenda of the “news”, defines acceptable politics as maintaining the fiction of distinctive parties, normalises unpopular wars and guards the limits of “free speech”. This will only be strengthened by the allusion that a “bad apple” has been “rooted out”.

When the Financial Times complained last September that the BSkyB takeover would give Murdoch a media dominance in Britain, the media commentator, Roy Greenslade, came to his rescue. “Surely,” he wrote, “Britain’s leading business newspaper should be applauding an entrepreneur who has achieved so much from uncompromising beginnings?”. Murdoch’s political control was a myth spread by “naïve commentators”. Noting his own “idealism” about journalism, he made no mention of his history on the Sun and later as Robert Maxwell’s Daily Mirror editor responsible for the shameful smear that the miners’ leader Arthur Scargill was corrupt. (To his credit, he apologised in 2002). Greenslade is now a professor of journalism at City University, London. In his Guardian blog of 17 July, he caught the breeze and proposed that Murdoch explain “the climate you created”.

How many of the political and media chorus now calling for Murdoch’s head remained silent over the years as his papers repeatedly attacked the most vulnerable in society? Impoverished single mothers have been a favourite target of tax-avoiding News International. Who in the so-called media village demanded the sacking of Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie following his attacks on the dead and dying of the Hillsborough football stadium tragedy? This was an episode as debased as the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone, yet MacKenzie has been frequently feted on the BBC and in the liberal press as the “witty” tabloid genius who “understands the ordinary punter”. Such vicarious middle-class flirtation with Wapping-life is matched by admiration for the successful Murdoch “marketing model”.

In Andrew Neil’s 470-page book, Full Disclosure, the former editor of Murdoch’s Sunday Times devotes fewer than 30 words to the scurrilous and destructive smear campaign he and his Wapping colleagues waged against the broadcasters who made the 1988 Thames television current affairs programme, Death on the Rock. This landmark, fully vindicated investigation lifted a veil on the British secret state and revealed its ruthlessness under Margaret Thatcher, a Murdoch confidante. Thereafter, Thames Television was doomed. Yet, Andrew Neil has his own BBC programme and his views are sought after across the liberal media.

On 13 July, the Guardian editorialised about “the kowtowing of the political class to the Murdochs”. This is all too true. Kowtowing is an ancient ritual, often performed by those whose pacts with power are not immediately obvious but no less sulphuric. Tony Blair, soaked in the blood of an entire human society, was once regarded almost mystically at the liberal Guardian and Observer as the prime minister who, wrote Hugo Young, “wants to create a world none of us have known [where] the mind might range in search of a better Britain...”. He was in perfect harmony with the chorus over at Murdoch’s Wapping. “Mr. Blair,” said the Sun, “has vision, he has purpose and he speaks our language on morality and family life.” Plus ce change.

21 July 2011

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The strange silencing of liberal America by John Pilger


How does political censorship work in liberal societies? When my film, 'Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia', was banned in the United States in 1980, the broadcaster PBS cut all contact. Negotiations were ended abruptly; phone calls were not returned. Something had happened. But what? 'Year Zero' had already alerted much of the world to the horrors of Pol Pot, but it also investigated the critical role of the Nixon administration in the tyrant’s rise to power and the devastation of Cambodia.

Six months later, a PBS official told me, “This wasn’t censorship. We’re into difficult political days in Washington. Your film would have given us problems with the Reagan administration. Sorry.”

In Britain, the long war in Northern Ireland spawned a similar, deniable censorship. The journalist Liz Curtis compiled a list of more than 50 television films in Britain that were never shown or indefinitely delayed. The word “ban” was rarely used, and those responsible would invariably insist they believed in free speech.

The Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, believes in free speech. The foundation’s website says it is “dedicated to cultural freedom, diversity and creativity”. Authors, film-makers, poets make their way to a sanctum of liberalism bankrolled by the billionaire Patrick Lannan in the tradition of Rockefeller and Ford.

Lannan also awards “grants” to America’s liberal media, such as Free Speech TV, the Foundation for National Progress (publisher of the magazine Mother Jones), the Nation Institute and the TV and radio programme Democracy Now! In Britain, Lannan has been a supporter of the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, of which I am one of the judges. In 2008, Patrick Lannan personally supported the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, he is “devoted” to Obama.

On 15 June, I was due in Santa Fe, having been invited to share a platform with the distinguished American journalist David Barsamian. The foundation was also to host the US premiere of my new film, 'The War You Don’t See', which investigates the false image-making of war-makers, especially Obama.

I was about to leave for Santa Fe when I received an email from the Lannan official organising my visit. The tone was incredulous. “Something has come up,” she wrote. Patrick Lannan had called her and ordered all my events to be cancelled. “I have no idea what this is all about,” she wrote.

Baffled, I asked that the premiere of my film be allowed to go ahead as the US distribution largely depended on it. She repeated that “all” my events were cancelled, “and this includes the screening of your film”. On the Lannan website “cancelled” appeared across a picture of me. There was no explanation. None of my phone calls were returned, nor subsequent emails answered. A Kafka world of not-knowing descended.

The silence lasted a week until, under pressure from local media, the Foundation put out a brief statement that too few tickets had been sold to make my visit “viable” and that “the Foundation regrets that the reason for the cancellation was not explained to Mr. Pilger or to the public at the time the decision was made”. Doubts were cast by a robust editorial in the Santa Fe New Mexican. The paper, which has long played a prominent role in promoting Lannan events, disclosed that my visit had been cancelled before the main advertising and previews were published. A full-page interview with me had to be hurriedly pulled. “Pilger and Barsamian could have expected closer to a packed 820-seat Lensic [arts centre].”

The manager of The Screen, the Santa Fe cinema that had been rented for the premiere, was called late at night and told to kill all his online promotion for my film, but took it upon himself to re-schedule the film for 23 June. It was a sell-out, with many people turned away. The idea that there was no public interest was demonstrably not true.

Theories? There are many, but nothing is proven. For me, it is all reminiscent of the long shadows cast during the Cold War. “Something is going to surface,” said Barsamian. “They can’t keep the lid on this.”

My talk on 15 June was to have been about the collusion of American liberalism in a permanent state of war and the demise of cherished freedoms, such as the right to call government to account. In the United States, as in Britain, serious dissent - free speech - has been substantially criminalised. Obama, the black liberal, the PC exemplar, the marketing dream is as much a warmonger as George W. Bush. His score is six wars. Never in US history has a president prosecuted as many whistle-blowers; yet this truth-telling, this exercise of true citizenship, is at the heart of America’s constitutional first amendment. Obama’s greatest achievement is having seduced, co-opted and silenced much of liberal opinion in the United States, including the anti-war movement.

The reaction to the Lannan ban has been illuminating. The brave, like the great whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, were appalled and said so. Similarly, many ordinary Americans called into radio stations and have written to me, recognising a symptom of far greater suppression. But some exalted liberal voices have been affronted that I dared whisper the word, censorship, about such a beacon of “cultural freedom”. The embarrassment of those who wish to point both ways is palpable. Others have pulled down the shutters and said nothing. Given their patron’s ruthless show of power, it is understandable. For them, the Russian dissident poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko once wrote, “When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.”

Sunday, July 03, 2011

The invasion of Australia - official at last by John Pilger

John Pilger

The City of Sydney has voted to replace the words “European arrival” in the official record with “invasion”.  The deputy lord mayor, Marcelle Hoff, says it is intellectually dishonest to use any other word in describing how Aboriginal Australia was dispossessed by the British. “We were invaded,” said Paul Morris, an Aboriginal adviser to the council. “It is the truth and it shouldn’t be watered down. We wouldn’t expect Jewish people to accept a watered-down version of the Holocaust, so why should we?”

 

In 2008, the then prime minister Kevin Rudd formally apologised to Aborigines wrenched from their families as children under a policy inspired by the crypto-fascist theories of eugenics. White Australia was said to be coming to terms with its rapacious past, and present. Was it? The Rudd government, noted a Sydney Morning Herald editorial, “has moved quickly to clear away this piece of political wreckage in a way that responds to some of its supporters’ emotional needs, yet it changes nothing. It is a shrewd manoeuvre.”

The City of Sydney ruling is a very different gesture, and admirable; for it reflects not a liberal and limited “sorry campaign”, seeking feel-good “reconciliation” rather than justice, but counters a cowardly movement of historical revision in which a collection of far-right politicians, journalists and minor academics claimed there was no invasion, no genocide, no Stolen Generation, no racism.

The platform for these holocaust deniers is the Murdoch press, which has long run its own insidious campaign against the indigenous population, presenting them as victims of each other or as noble savages requiring firm direction: the eugenicists’ view.  Favoured black “leaders” who tell the white elite what it wants to hear while blaming their own people for their poverty, provide a PC cover for a racism that often shocks foreign visitors. Today, the first Australians have one of the shortest life expectancies in the world and are incarcerated at five times the rate of blacks in apartheid South Africa. Go to the outback and see the children blinded by trachoma, a biblical disease, entirely preventable, eradicated in third world countries but not in rich Australia. The Aboriginal people are both Australia’s secret and this otherwise derivative society’s most amazing distinction: the world’s oldest society.

In its landmark rejection of historical propaganda, Sydney, the country oldest and largest city, recognises black Australia’s “cultural endurance” and, without saying so directly, a growing resistance to an outrage known as “the intervention”. In 2007, John Howard sent the army into Aboriginal Australia to “protect the children” who, said his minister for indigenous affairs, were being abused in “unthinkable numbers”. It is striking how Australia’s incestuous political and media elite so often rounds on the tiny black minority with all the fervour of the guilty, unaware perhaps that the national mythology and psyche remain culpably damaged while a nationhood, once stolen, is not returned to the original inhabitants.

Journalists accepted the Howard government’s reason for “intervening” and went hunting for the lurid. One national TV programme used an “anonymous youth worker” to allege “sex slavery” rings among the Mutitjulu people. He was later exposed as a federal government official and his “evidence” discredited. Of 7433 Aboriginal children examined by doctors, just four were identified as possible cases of abuse. There were no “unthinkable numbers”. The rate was around that of white child abuse. The difference was that no soldiers invaded the beachside suburbs, no white parents were swept aside, their wages diminished and welfare “quarantined”. It was all a mighty charade, but with serious purpose.

The Labor governments that followed Howard have reinforced the new controlling powers over black homelands: the strict Julia Gillard especially: a prime minister who lectures her compatriots on the virtues of colonial wars that “make us who we are today” and imprisons refugees from those wars indefinitely, including children, on an offshore island not deemed to be Australia, which it is.

In the Northern Territory, the Gillard government are effectively driving Aboriginal communities into apartheid areas where they will be “economically viable”. The undeclared reason is that the Northern Territory is the only part of Australia where Aborigines have comprehensive land rights, and that here lies some of the world’s biggest deposits of uranium, and other minerals. The most powerful political force in Australia is the multi-billion dollar mining industry. Canberra wants to mine and sell and those bloody blackfellas are in the way again. But this time they are organised, articulate, militant, a resistance of conscience and culture. They know it is a second invasion. Having finally uttered the forbidden word, white Australians should stand with them.


1 July 2011