December 31, 2013
Everyday Rebellion: Interview with Filmmakers Arash and Arman Riahi

Yosef Brody, Truthout:

I had the opportunity to sit down with Arash and Arman Riahi at the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival (CPH:DOX) in November, where Everyday Rebellion had its world premiere and won the 2013 Audience Award. 

The brothers talk about their film, their upbringing and the technical activism platforms they are creating.

October 25, 2013
On Russell Brand

Artist-comedian Russell Brand has written a fiery and funny polemic very much worth reading in the New Statesman as part of his guest editorship of the British magazine.

Who is this clown and why should we take him seriously?

Few contemporary voices pack such political profundity and authenticity along with the provocative humor and lightheartedness that we normally associate with advertising and consumer culture; this is a highly potent mixture. (Rolling Stone financial reporter Matt Taibbi comes to mind as another that might fall in this category.)

Sut Jhally, professor of communications at UMASS-Amherst, has argued that in order to compete with the compelling images and narratives of mass advertising, left movements in the 21st century need to allow themselves to be sexier and more fun than they were in the 20th. Russell Brand’s unique voice fits that model I think and, though it won’t suit everyone, adds to the diversity of the social and environmental justice movements. He’s a real pot stirrer.

As he says in this piece, “Serious causes can and must be approached with good humour, otherwise they’re boring and can’t compete with the Premier League and Grand Theft Auto. Social movements needn’t lack razzmatazz.”

Brand had earlier this year caused a stir with his subversive speech at a GQ awards show that tore into the hypocrisy of all the glitz and glamour. He then broke down the absurdity of it all in this brilliant op-ed in The Guardian.

October 2, 2013
Obedience, Consumer Culture, and Climate Change

Obedience to Corporate-State Authority Makes Consumer Society Increasingly Dangerous

Sunday, 29 September 2013 00:00 By Yosef Brody, Truthout | Op-Ed

Fifty years ago this month, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram published a groundbreaking article describing a unique human behavior experiment. The study and its many variations, while ethically controversial, gave us new insight into human tendencies to obey authority, surprising the experts and everyone else on just how susceptible we are to doing the bidding of others. The original experiment revealed that a majority of participants would dutifully administer increasingly severe electric shocks to strangers - up to and including potentially lethal doses - because an authority told them that pulling the levers was necessary and required (the “shocks,” subjects found out later, were fake). People who obeyed all the way to the end did so even as they experienced tremendous moral conflict. Despite their distress, they never questioned the basic premise of the situation that was fed to them: the institution needed their compliance for the betterment of the common good.

Milgram was driven by the need to comprehend Nazi horror, and today his research is rightly recognized as a warning of how easily things can go wrong if people obey authority uncritically and systematically. Yet its social contribution is only rarely understood to have here-and-now implications. We urgently need to update our appreciation of the perils of obedience to accommodate our contemporary global situation.

The most powerful authorities today make demands that can appear pretty reasonable on the surface - yet are driving us toward oblivion. Climate scientists have reached consensus that our behavior, if unchanged, is likely to result in social and environmental devastation, including mass species extinctions and human suffering on an unprecedented scale. Will our society continue to pull levers until we administer catastrophic doses?

The Milgram experiments offer a potentially helpful metaphor for our current predicament, one that I will expand on below. But first a few words on obedience and disobedience more generally.

Universal Experience, Social Construction and Personal Choice

Obedience and disobedience are universal social experiences. All human beings know what it feels like to obey - with varying degrees of enthusiasm - and we all know what it feels like to disobey. Each of us has plenty of experience with both, and we are always capable of one or the other at any given moment. Every individual with the capacity for independent thinking and action makes multiple daily decisions about whether to obey or disobey various laws, rules, wishes and suggestions of others, whether we are aware of these decisions or not. 

Modern societies are largely founded on the seductive idea that valuing obedience over disobedience will bring personal success and social cohesion. We are taught from an early age that even minor disobedience will sharply increase the likelihood of scary prospects like personal failure and social chaos. These emotionally powerful messages are drilled into us at home and at school, cultivating the necessary habits for powerful interests to function effectively, from parents and teachers to state institutions and large multinational corporations.

When it comes to the nature of obedience-disobedience, there is nothing we could accurately call normal. While obedience can be a particularly strong habit to break, humans (in contrast to other primates with more hard-wired social behavioral programming) are born neither obedient nor disobedient. We have strong tendencies to engage in both types of behavior across cultures and generations, in rational and irrational ways. Whether to obey or disobey in any given situation is a personal choice. Human social reality is extremely variable and complex. As long as we remain social creatures, we must deal with the obedience-disobedience question.  

Acts of obedience have over the centuries been the cause of far more destruction and savagery than have acts of disobedience - maybe most dramatically during World War II. Humanity witnessed an eruption of systematized violence on a scale never before seen, an outcome fully dependent on the obedient behavior of ordinary people. The war ended with two extraordinarily destructive acts: a handful of men obediently followed orders over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in the instant incineration of several hundred thousand human beings. Soon afterward, as a result of the Nuremberg Tribunal, it became crystal clear for anyone touched by the war that personal considerations of conscience were simply unavoidable when making decisions in hierarchical contexts. The duty to obey authority could no longer justify inhumane actions, neither morally nor legally. Questions regarding obedience and disobedience were revealed to the world as intensely personal, deeply ethical and of supreme consequence. In a post-Nuremberg world, the ultimate responsibility for one’s actions falls on the individual, not on powerful interests that persuade or coerce. 

Unfortunately, the nature of habits is that they take concerted effort to break. So powerful are the habits to obey others that we often continue to do so even when our actions are no longer in our own best interest, or when our ethical principles demand otherwise. 

Definitions and Subtypes

Obedience, a voluntary form of submission, means acting in a manner consistent with the prescriptions, suggestions or wishes of an individual or institution in a position of perceived authority or relative social dominance. So a child can be obedient to an older sibling, parent or school, and an adult can be obedient to a spouse, state, public or private organization, or other social authority. But we would not usually say, without irony, that a parent is obedient to a small child; this would seem to describe a different type of social interaction, as power and authority normally reside with the adult. Similarly, when someone follows her peers’ behavior or acts according to the wishes of a person of similar social status, it is usually more appropriate to call this conformity rather than obedience. Obedience is an action performed by an actor of relatively lower social status at the behest of an actor of relatively higher status. 

Similarly, we would not usually apply the label of obedience to cases where submissive behavior is forced rather than voluntary. Obedience implies some degree of free choice. People in relatively open societies usually have a high degree of free choice about whether to obey or disobey. This remains true even though Westerners sometimes can be unaware of this enormous freedom and even though decisions about obedience are often highly complex. While we often convince ourselves that our hands are tied - because of potential sacrifices that might result from defiance, like varying degrees of economic insecurity or, much less often, even physical danger - we almost always have a choice whether to obey or disobey. 

Most problematic is the process I call malignant obedience, the type of ongoing, systemic obedience that contributes to social or environmental injustices. Without successful intervention, malignant obedience is, like a cancer, apt to propagate itself until system collapse. 

Not all obedience is malignant, of course. Obedience has an important function as a social bond, a behavioral link between people arranged in hierarchy. Many acts of obedience are pro-social and foster organizational functionality, cooperation and the betterment of life in general. Too often, however, obedience results in ongoing harm, destruction and suffering. 

As for disobedience, it can be manifested in almost infinite forms. Disobedience can be public or private, violent or nonviolent, rational or irrational, passive or active, individual or collective, legal or illegal, rooted in narcissism or rooted in an empathic desire for greater social justice. 

Pulling the Levers of Consumerism

Returning to Milgram’s obedience paradigm, let’s examine these classic experiments in the context of our lives today. While teaching them in my courses, I’ve come to realize that Milgram’s experimental design parallels our ongoing political-economic experiment remarkably well - and may offer the outlines of a solution.

The authority in the Milgram experiments was a man with a gray lab coat and a stern disposition who repeatedly told subjects to administer increasingly intense electric shocks to another person.

In contemporary society, the most powerful authorities are the interlocking boards of directors of major business corporations and the state apparatuses that support them. As in the Milgram paradigm, the demands made by these authorities on today’s consumers and citizens are leading to increasingly grave consequences for human life, including dangers that were not foreseen when Corporate America first launched the mass consumerist experiment in the years following World War I.

How is obedience maintained in consumer society? What sorts of escalating consequences can we expect if it continues?

While large corporations sometimes give direct orders to consumers, more often they exact obedience in indirect ways by suggesting images, ideas and social narratives, and by manipulating emotions so that desired behaviors become more likely. This is what we call marketing and advertising, and it works extremely well.

In recent years, a growing body of psychology research, including important work by Tim Kasser at Knox College, has revealed associations between corporate propagation of materialist attitudes (i.e., having a strong value orientation toward money and possessions) and poorer life satisfaction, higher levels of anxiety and depression, poorer quality of interpersonal relationships and lower self-esteem.

According to other researchers, such as Susan Linn at Harvard University, the consequences of prioritizing the consumerist mindset are even more debilitating for children than they are for adults, especially for young children who have not yet developed the capacity for critical thinking. Direct corporate messaging to children, a relatively new and highly sophisticated phenomenon, is a pretty easy way to boost sales, but it also has predictably negative effects on kids’ social, psychological and physical health. For example, most marketing to children is for junk food, a significant risk factor for obesity. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, obesity-related disease is predicted to shorten kids’ life spans to such a degree that the current generation will probably die younger than their parents for the first time in the modern era.

As mass consumerism was being promoted in the early 20th century and the modern advertising industry was developing, the full matrix of hazards were unknown. The “shocks” caused by obedient behavior were limited and minimal - the equivalent of a slight tickle. This is no longer the case. As circumstances have changed with time, the consequences of obedience to the corporate imperative have become much more dangerous.

In spite of overwhelming evidence that the habitability of our ecosystem is threatened due to rampant hydrocarbon exploitation, natural resource depletion and unrelenting pollution, we are surrounded by incessant appeals from dominant institutions to pull levers of consumption to keep ourselves and our society flourishing.

Overconsumption is a function of obedience built on the false premise that eternally acquiring more goods will make you, your family and your society happier. These goods are produced in a way that - we now know - is likely to lead to global environmental catastrophe. While many authorities acknowledge climate realities, they also claim that the extraction of fossil fuels continues to be necessary for powering a high-tech, industrial economy.

Is there really no alternative to digging up and burning all the oil, gas and coal that industry can find? Safe energy alternatives to fossil fuels are, in fact, already technologically feasible, but they do not maximize profits and therefore are not offered as a serious replacement. Full transformation to a green energy economy is a realistic option that would come with many permanent jobs, but this is not a choice offered by fossil fuel corporations and the state that subsidizes them to the tune of billions of dollars a year. At the end of the day, an “all of the above” energy policy like that of the Obama administration cannot hold back irreversible climate change.

Maximum Voltage: Destruction of the Human Habitat?

As the dangers escalated and ambivalence intensified, Milgram’s authority kept insisting confidently to subjects that “the experiment requires that you continue,” a phrase reminiscent of demands made by today’s corporate and political elites. And just like Milgram’s subjects, many of us experience anxiety about the bleak consequences of our behavior even as we continue to obey out of habit, rationalizing to ourselves that our personal responsibility for the environmental crisis is limited or nonexistent. 

Fortunately, sparks of hope exist. Climate disobedience in America is becoming increasingly common. The avant garde includes people like Tim DeChristopher, who spent 21 months in federal custody for obstructing the leasing of Utah land to oil and gas corporations. Many others have been willing to get arrested as part of a civil disobedience campaign attempting to block construction of the Keystone/XL oil pipeline, including more than 1,250 people at the White House in August 2011. In early August 2013, more than 200 people were arrested for trespassing at a Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, demanding an end to the burning of fossil fuels and a transition to renewable energy. A week later in Idaho, at least 20 others were arrested for blocking the delivery of oil refinery equipment on its way to Canadian tar sands mines. Other nonviolent activists have been resisting mountaintop-removal coal mining by blockading not only the companies that literally are blowing up mountains for profit, but also the investment banks funding these projects, leading to climate arrests from Appalachia to Connecticut

When habitual obedience leads to malignant outcomes, the most responsible actors take personal risks and sacrifice their own comfort by refusing to cooperate with the will of authority. Modern, civilized society is a historical achievement that grew out of countless acts of principled and nonviolent disobedience, courageous power struggles with unjust and corrupted institutions over fundamental moral issues.

Not all disobedience is virtuous, of course - defiant behavior that is irrational, impulsive or truly dangerous to others should be avoided. Ethical and effective disobedience is most likely when goals, strategy and tactics are well-devised and the common good is prioritized. (An excellent resource for thinking about tactics is the 2012 book Beautiful Trouble, assembled by Andrew Boyd.)

Since Milgram shocked the world in 1963, the consequences of mass obedience to authority have become considerably more malignant. Today we must confront the probability that continued obedience will lead to the destruction of the most valuable thing we have: a viable habitat. Thoughtful acts of nonviolent disobedience can not only deepen our democracy, they could very well ensure our species’ survival.

http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/19050-the-experiment-requires-that-you-continue-obedience-to-corporate-state-authority-in-an-increasingly-dangerous-consumer-society

May 25, 2013

From The Real News:

Yes Mr President, This Is Who We Are

Michael Ratner and Paul Jay analyze President Obama’s defense of his drone and Guantanamo policies - a policy based on continuing US dominance in the Middle East; Obama’s speech was interrupted by Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin

May 14, 2013

Activists tackle Paris housing shortage

Al Jazeera English:

Empty buildings in French capital being occupied by familes on public-housing waiting lists for years.

Tackling the housing shortage in larger French cities was at the centre of President Francois Hollande’s election campaign promises last year.
 
Since taking office, his government has been trying to identify disused buildings that could be converted into public housing.

Al Jazeera’s Jacky Rowland reports from Paris.

March 14, 2013

Video: A Chinese journalist’s inside view of censorship

February 28, 2013

"King: A Filmed Record" (1970) directed by Sidney Lumet

A powerful and rarely seen documentary that shows how organized people, taking nonviolent action, can change a seemingly intractable situation. With James Earl Jones, Ruby Dee, Paul Newman, and your friendly local KKK.

February 21, 2013
U.S. Media and the Keystone March: Little coverage of large climate action

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting:

Tens of thousands of climate activists marched in Washington D.C.on February 17. The event brought together religious leaders, climate campaigners and Canadian indigenous rights activists. 350.org's Bill McKibben said they were “the antibodies kicking in as the planet tries to fight its fever.”

Did the corporate media notice them?

February 5, 2013
Four New Documentaries About Political Economy, Global and Local

My latest on Truthout:

When Bubbles Burst

Those seeking deeper understanding of the planet’s shaky economic and financial condition should watch Hans Petter Moland’s When Bubbles Burst. The main subject of this Norwegian documentary is the relationship between finance and what economists call the real economy, and how unleashing finance to grow at the expense of the real economy—to allow a parasite, essentially, to overtake its host—leads inexorably to greater economic suffering and environmental degradation. The film revolves around the tragic story of a small town in Norway whose elected officials were persuaded by financial consultants, at the height of the stock boom, to invest in Citibank’s mortgage-backed securities, products that became worthless with the crash of the global casino in 2008. We follow two representatives of the formerly wealthy town as they journey overseas to New York and Detroit in order to investigate causes and effects. Along the way we hear many voices of reason, including those of Joseph Stiglitz, Michael Lewis, and the inspirational Carlota Perez. Perhaps most valuable is the film’s long view of financial-economic history and the cogent policy discussion it offers (hint: tight regulation of finance, public investment in green industry). If Inside Job left you feeling like you wanted more intellectually, When Bubbles Burst will satisfy that thirst. 

We’re Not Broke

Victoria Bruce and Karin Hayes have put together a well-researched and powerful new documentary about a crucial but largely ignored piece of the national economic puzzle: Most large American corporations—via international tax havens, lobbying, and the exploitation of loopholes in corporate law—pay nothing in federal taxes, and many even receive large refunds from the IRS. In addition to playing a key role in the slashing of public spending on things like teachers, police, and firefighters, the special coddling of the corporate giants by the federal government puts small businesses—which have no lobbyists or teams of corporate lawyers—at a distinct competitive disadvantage. At a time when the necessities of economic belt-tightening and faith in the so-called “free-market” are still considered conventional wisdom, We’re Not Broke rationally and competently dismantles political economic myth. It also provides a helpful look into the grassroots activism raising awareness about corporate tax-dodging since even before the takeover of Zuccotti Park by Occupy Wall Street. If the film’s exposition of the problem unfolds without fanfare, the images of massive crowds in Times Square demanding an end to corporate rule over national politics still bring chills. Will the public keep up the pressure?  [Disclosure: I appear briefly in this film.]

Downeast

David Redmon and Ashley Sabin (the directors of the excellent Girl Model) inform us at the end of Downeast that 132,000 factories have closed in the U.S. since 2001, resulting in a loss of 6 million jobs. This film presents the story of one of those factories: A sardine cannery with 128 employees in small town Maine that closed in 2010. Enter Antonio Bussone, an Italian immigrant and small businessman who aims to take over the space, convert it into a lobster meat cannery, and restore jobs for the city’s elderly, impoverished residents. The town is eligible for federal stimulus money, but the city council—whose top official owns a competing business—coldly forgoes its approval. The film follows Bussone and several of the town’s unemployed 70somethings as they desperately try to turn things around despite the lack of local government support. Things actually start looking up, that is until business begins to get personal in the meanest way. Bussone’s efforts start to resemble the steaming, rotting piles of lobster shells the old ladies mechanically shuck and discard each day. Bussone’s bank ultimately freezes his accounts and seizes his assets, leading to the shuttering of the plant for the second time in a matter of months. The most poignant moment of the film has to be watching the exhausted ladies at the end of their shift speculate on what a lobster might or might not feel as its life is being taken.

Big Boys Gone Bananas

A compelling study in the ongoing megabattle between corporate public relations and the search for truth, starring an enormous American multinational and a muckraking Swedish film director. Big Boys Gone Bananas* exposes the ruthless machinations of the PR industry and goes a long way towards explaining how the public’s perceptions of economic realities are deliberately distorted by corporate professionals. It begins with director Frederik Gertten—who also made the 2009 investigative documentary Bananas*, about pesticides and the health problems of banana workers in Nicaragua—receiving a cease and desist letter from the Dole Food Company before his film’s premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. From there we witness some of the best of corporate intimidation, with targets including Gertten’s partners, film festival managers, journalists, the Swedish ambassador, and some incredulous members of the Swedish parliament.  This is a film about systemic manipulation of information by the most dominant institutions in democratic society—a freedom of speech drama between the little guy and the largest fruit and vegetable company in the world.

December 8, 2012
To Fight Climate Change, Students Take Aim at Institutional Divestment from the Fossil Fuel Industry

NYTimes:

Fossil fuel companies represent a significant portion of the stock market, comprising nearly 10 percent of the value of the Russell 3000, a broad index of 3,000 American companies.

November 17, 2012
Helping Hands Also Expose a New York Divide

NYTimes:

Ms. Rivera said that she was thankful for the help, but that its face — mostly white, middle- and upper-class people — made her bitter.

“The only time you recognize us is when there’s some disaster,” she said. “Since this happened, it’s: ‘Let’s help the black people. Let’s run to their rescue.’ ”

“Why wait for tragedy?” she added. “People suffer every day with this.”

November 15, 2012

Democracy Now:

It’s been more than two weeks since Superstorm Sandy hit New York City, yet thousands of people in the city’s public housing buildings are still in the cold. The city says it has restored some level of power to all housing projects, but as of Wednesday nearly 16,000 public tenants were without heat and hot water. Some remained without any reliable water — hot or cold. Also out of service were dozens of elevators impacted by the storm. One of the areas most affected has been Coney Island at the southern tip of Brooklyn, where the storm poured saltwater into basements, devastating equipment. Despite going weeks without power in some cases, the city’s public tenants are still being asked to pay their rent on time before getting a credit in January. New York City Housing Authority Chairman John Rhea drew criticism earlier this week when he called the upcoming rent credit “a nice little Christmas present.” On Wednesday, Democracy Now!’s Amy Littlefield and Martyna Starosta headed to Coney Island and filed this report.

October 25, 2012

Kickstarter:

The Yes Men Are Revolting is a funny, action-packed adventure. With the environment on the brink of collapse, we ask a pressing question: at a time when corporate forces have bought and sold democracy, how can we effect real change? Our answer: get every viewer involved in the struggle.

For the last four years we’ve worked with dozens of groups on infiltrations, impersonations, and mass actions to try to make a difference. Check out the video on this page for a little taste! After the part where we ask for your support, you’ll see a scene where we hold a press conference pretending to be from the US Chamber of Commerce (big-money lobbyists who spend hundreds of millions blocking and dismantling environment, labor, housing, and health laws). The press conference goes well, and the Chamber’s real PR guy even shows up—comedic vigilante justice at its best. Stay tuned to this page for more videos in coming weeks.

But as we continued pulling off actions like the one against the Chamber, the Obama years rolled by, and as money’s chokehold on democracy got tighter, we got more frantic. We even took it out on each other, and our “band” almost split up. But then, a sequence of unbelievable global uprisings, from Tahrir Square to Occupy Wall Street, got us excited about the idea of a global revolution–and we began to realize that we can do it too.

Then, energized by our involvement with the Occupy movement, we came to realize our true role in social change. Now, we’re hatching our most ambitious plan ever.

October 20, 2012
The facts are in: Nonviolent resistance works

National Catholic Reporter:

Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan uses graphs, charts, sociological research and statistical analysis to show how in the last century, nonviolent movements were far better at mobilizing supporters, resisting regime crackdowns, creating new initiatives, defeating repressive regimes and establishing lasting democracies.

October 7, 2012
The Quiet American

Gene Sharp is ‘an 84-year-old man whom dictators around the world fear and despise’

If his NYTimes profile interests you, I recommend the documentary, How to Start a Revolution by Ruaridh Arrow (2011). (Read my review of it.)