An Interview with Mickey Z / Mark Hand of Press Action – 2005-01-11 21:42:11
(January 10, 2005) — With outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell announcing to the world a couple weeks after the November election that there would be no retreat from President George W. Bush’s offensive foreign policy, anybody hoping this faith-based administration would adopt a more humble approach to the rest of the world during a second term quickly discovered their prayers would go unanswered.
In fact, it would be downright un-American for Bush not to be the best War President he can be. Occupants of the White House, especially during the past 100 years, have carried out aggressive overseas wars with regularity during their tenures in Washington.
George W. Bush is not unique among presidents in his fetish for seeing human beings in other nations terrorized by American firepower; he’s perhaps just a little less shy than recent commanders-in-chief in displaying his true intentions.
Mickey Z., the New York City author, essayist and poet, chronicles America’s thirst for war in many of his works. His most recent book on the topic, The Seven Deadly Spins: Exposing the Lies Behind War Propaganda, takes the reader on a journey through US war propaganda from the Spanish-American War to the current Bush administration’s adventures in Iraq.
Mickey’s mission in Seven Deadly Spins is to present the war party line and juxtapose it with the facts. But as with his essays on topics ranging from electoral system reform to veganism, Mickey understands that people should not be lulled into believing that merely presenting the facts is enough to change either people’s minds or public policy. “Pointing out the lies behind wartime spin is only a means to an end,” Mickey writes. People then need to act on this information, using the various tools available in our society to affect change.
Mickey’s other books include Saving Private Power: The Hidden History of ‘The Good War’, The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet, and A Gigantic Mistake: Articles and Essays for Your Intellectual Self-Defense. Many of Mickey’s articles appear on Press Action and he was a regular contributor to a newsletter I published in the early 1990s called Incite Information. He also participated in an October 2004 author forum I organized here in Arlington, Va., called “Outside the Ballot Box,” which aired on C-Span.
Prior to launching a career writing books, Mickey worked for a time as a martial arts film actor. He has a presence on the web at http://www.mickeyz.net. Below is an interview I recently conducted with Mickey.
— Mark Hand
Propaganda: The Lies of our Times
Question: Howard Zinn, who in fact contributed an introduction to one of your recent books, “A Gigantic Mistake,” and wrote a nice blurb for your first book, “Saving Private Power.” How has Zinn’s “A Peoples History of the United States” and his other works affected how you now view US history and current events?
Mickey Z.: He was huge in my radical development. I relate to his New York style, his wit, his ability to tell a story, and the way he reports scholarly info in a manner accessible to all. Also, I must say he’s been incredibly supportive of my work. As for “People’s History,” the best way for me to sum up how I feel about that book is this: Whenever I encounter someone just starting out in this crazy journey of shrugging off the shackles of propaganda, “People’s History” is the first book I recommend. (Second is Blum’s “Killing Hope”).
Question: Speaking of “Saving Private Power,” I understand it’s scheduled to be re-released in 2005 but not by its original publisher. Can you explain how this idea to re-release it came about and whether you think it will reach a wider audience than the first edition?
Mickey Z.: Sander Hicks, as founder and publisher of Soft Skull Press, was the first to take a chance on me by printing “Saving Private Power” in 2000. Since then, he has moved to start a new publishing venture, Vox Pop, and SPP has come along for the ride. I’ve added a short preface and some revisions but the big change is the title: “There is No Good War.” As we agitate against a perpetual war against “evildoers,” the lessons of “The Good War” are more valuable than ever.
Question: You’ve mentioned in past interviews about how many readers of “Saving Private Power” displayed an open-mindedness that you didn’t expect. But I’m sure you’ve also been attacked for some of the conclusions in the book. Do you think it was the duty of the U.S. to crush the Japanese military and how do you respond to people who justify the atrocities in Hiroshima and Nagasaki by saying Japan was not prepared to surrender?
Mickey Z.: It was never about America repelling an attacker…it was all about gaining control over resources that Japan was dominating. To disguise this motivation and gain public support for the war, a powerful propaganda campaign demonized the Japanese to the extent that dropping atomic bombs on Japan’s civilians was not seen as a war crime. On the contrary, it was cheered.
In SPP, I outline how the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were as much the opening the salvo of the Cold War as the final blow of the Good War. The lies behind the Japanese planning to never surrender and the deceptions surrounding eventual US casualty counts should an invasion occur remain in place today and, as Studs Terkel stated so eloquently, if you tell this to most Americans, they’ll “spit in your eye.”
Question: Getting spit in the eye is what a lot of people fear in today’s antiwar movement. That’s why we constantly hear the “support the troops” refrain. What’s your take on some enlistees’ claims of ignorance about the role of the military in imperial America and the “poverty draft” defense that many people, including Noam Chomsky, make for the soldiers?
Mickey Z.: It’s not black and white. I personally know people who have volunteered for the military because they are attracted by that culture and/or are moved by world events to defend (sic) the US.
Of course, it’s no secret that many volunteers are in dire financial straits and see (rightly or wrongly) the military as an economic step in the right direction. Just as fuzzy is the reaction of soldiers once reality sets in on the battlefield. Some, from either of the groups mentioned above, are sucked into the macho, us vs. them vibe and kill with fervor and rage. Others (again from either group) wake up to the hypocrisies of US foreign policy and become dissenters. The bullets and bombs of their opponents may not differentiate between these groups… but we can.
Those who oppose war must do an infinitely better job at spreading the truth about why the US government (and the corporations that own it) wage war. Until then, it would be foolish to expect that an all-volunteer army will run out of cannon fodder.
Question: That job of successfully countering US propaganda about the military, the scope of which you outline in your Seven Deadly Spins book, appears to be an impossible task. Given our relative powerlessness to directly change US foreign policy, would we be wise to focus on undermining the foundation of militarism here at home as much as possible, which ultimately could have some positive trickle-up effects on US foreign policy?
Mickey Z.: That depends on what you mean by “undermining.” I recently wrote something about what I call the patience/urgency ratio.
A successful social movement must walk the fine line between unrealistic expectations and being too patient. Not an easy task… but a lot easier than submitting oneself to ever-increasing misery of daily life in a capitalist society.
We cannot expect masses of people to suddenly embrace the concept of individual thought when everything they’ve ever heard has denied its existence. Joe Citizen won’t make the leap from watching Reality TV to challenging the capitalist power structure overnight… and spontaneous insurrection by a dedicated few is doomed by definition (smashed by state power and publicly mocked by corporate media).
A delicate balance of patience and adventure must be found before a system of repression can be dismantled. Change involves time, planning, provocation, and the sincere willingness to engage in ever-evolving direct action…all blended with a sense of urgency and solidarity.
As for the task of countering propaganda being “impossible,” it might be…but we cannot accept that as fact. It helps to consider that 40 years ago, Lenny Bruce was arrested for a stand-up routine that could appear on prime time TV today. William Burrough’s Naked Lunch could not be imported into this country.
Activism can inspire and provoke positive change. We need to understand what came before… and discover past progressive thinkers and their struggles. I feel that the greatest method of justifying the work of those who oppose authority is to illustrate their victories… even if those victories have been obscured, downplayed, or simply stolen by the power elite.
Since the 1960s evoke the most emotional of responses from both ends of the spectrum, it makes sense to focus there because the changes on a cultural level were of revolutionary proportions. The problem lies in the widespread perception that nothing was accomplished. This perception is shaped by institutional structures.
Since the power elite does not want people to understand that, yes, they can provoke drastic changes… there is nothing in the official culture to tell us we succeeded. Without institutional support for reality, the fabricated message we hear is that the ‘60s were a failure; just a bunch of longhaired losers who did nothing of value.
Again, any successes that resulted from the movements of the 1960s are ignored, distorted, or co-opted by the elites. As powerful as this message of failure may seem to be, it is as tenuous as the emperor’s new clothes. All one needs to do is examine life before the 1960s and then examine life today, and the monumental cultural and social changes are exceedingly obvious.
Question: We’ve seen resistance efforts by animal rights and environmental organizations have an impact, albeit small, in their areas of focus. PETA, as well as groups like the Animal Liberation Front, have had some success in shutting down vivisectionists and animal exploiters. Even mainstream environmentalists have succeeded in rallying the public against certain industrial projects in their neighborhoods. Wouldn’t you agree then that efforts such as these are much more productive than simply supporting candidates inside the electoral arena?
Mickey Z.: It doesn’t have to be either/or. Environmental campaigns have an edge on other issues that involves appealing to human selfishness… or maybe I should call it self-preservation.
If someone is told that a certain toxin may kill them or their loved ones, they are more likely to act swiftly and decisively. Tell that same person about US war crimes in a far-off country and here’s comes the spit in the eye.
Recognizing such differences can allow activists to pursue direct action where it has a better chance of success while simultaneously supporting alternative candidates, electoral reforms, and the like. These are not mutually exclusive…it’s just a matter of perceiving the subtle nuances that exist from one issue to the next and setting your priorities.
It’s also important to recognize that the ALF and to some degree, PETA, have been demonized and slapped with the label of “terrorist.”
The lessons of COINTELPRO cannot be forgotten. It was Kenneth Rexroth, who wrote about “the self-appointed bureaucrats of the New Left” who “preach massive confrontation and deploy massed ranks of defenseless students as though they were the armies of Frederick the Great.” We don’t need martyrs.
Question: I understand why we should ignore people who would want to turn us into martyrs. But don’t you, as a martial artist, sometimes feel so angry about, let’s say the New York City police shooting Amado Diallo 41 times, or Bill Clinton bombing Serbia for 77 straight days or George Bush killing more than 100,000 Iraqis since March 2003, that you simply want to lash out at a symbol of government authority out of frustration? I mean, Bakunin did say the urge to destroy is a creative one.
Mickey Z.: Lots to answer here. Firstly, let me clarify: I didn’t necessarily mean to insinuate that we should ignore someone pushing frustrated and naive activists toward martyrdom… there’s something to be learned from every human experience, as Lou Reed sings.
I do agree with Bakunin and I was quite the juvenile delinquent in my day. However, my martial arts training, paradoxically, made me less prone to violence.
Regardless, the situations and atrocities you mention certainly do provoke anger and, perhaps, if the odds weren’t so monumental, a violent reaction would be called for. It would be self-defense if viewed with any intellectual and moral honesty.
In the end, I value my ability to stay cool under pressure and do what I can do under the bleak conditions: which is wake people up. I’m answering this question after being at a wedding the night before. A co-worker of my wife’s… so the guests knew me mostly as Michele’s “writer husband.”
More than one person took that as an opening to talk “politics” and I was confronted with much hand-wringing over Bush winning the election and talk about the Christian right and blah, blah, blah. Not a single person there (of at least 150-200 people) would have even been receptive to the concept of violent revolt in America in any form.
Multiply this by tens of millions from sea to shining sea and you have another reason to avoid “lashing out” in the face of state-sponsored criminality… no matter how difficult that can be. Not only would you face crushing state power and overwhelming corporate propaganda, the Third Column would be the American people who’d glibly categorize such activists as “extremists” and have ZERO sympathy when they end up like Mumia or Peltier.
We haven’t been conditioned and indoctrinated and programmed all these decades just for the fun of it. Thus, without even a modicum of public support and a state apparatus itching to crush any and all resisters, what would armed struggle serve except the “more-radical-than-thou” ego? I know that’s not a satisfying answer… but I haven’t heard a compelling argument against it unless one’s goal is simply to be a martyr.
Question: You were also one of the prominent writers lashing out against people on the Left during this past election season who were telling us we should vote for John Kerry because Bush was the worst president ever and would lead us to Armageddon. That strategy failed to win Kerry the White House. Were you surprised by how many Leftists and socialists came out in support of DLC candidate Kerry in 2004 and do you think there’s hope they will support a non-Democratic candidate in 2008?
Mickey Z.: I could go on for hours about the records of every single president. Let’s face it, they’ve all sucked. The fascists are always at the gate and the sky is perpetually falling. George W. Bush fulfills the same need to the Left and Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein play for the Right: Evildoer.
The Left scares a chunk of Americans to death with stories of creeping fascism and the Right scares another chunk with tales of monsters coming after them.
I wasn’t surprised when pseudo-lefties like Tim Robbins, Bruce Springsteen, Michael McMoore, and The Nation went the Anybody-But-Bush route (which was actually the Nobody-But-Kerry route). But when Chomsky, Zinn, Parenti, and lefties of that ilk hopped on the bandwagon, I was initially taken aback.
Now, with Kerry sent packing, I look at it with fresh perspective. Firstly, it was a wake-up call about how little influence these figures wield. One might have imagined that such a coalition of high profile dissidents could mobilize the few voters needed to defeat Bush but instead, the only new voters in 2004 were Republicans. This is a frightening concept because I’ve long felt that the Left needed to get famous faces to spread the word… if a Bono or Oprah truly comprehended the realities we face, imagine what they could do.
Well, going back to that indoctrinated populace, it seems that’s yet another pipe dream. From a personal standpoint, as someone whose political awakening was inspired by some of the thinkers who went ABB, it was empowering to challenge them and urge others to do the same. This could be a watershed moment when lefties can see clearly that the old guard has exhausted their bag of tricks and someone has to step up and fill the void in a major way.
Finally, about 2008, it’s tough to say who will do what but if the Democrats trot out Hillary and Obama, they will likely keep most of the pseudo-lefties in the corral. But, if you told me in 2000 that Nader’s base would become rabidly pro-Democrat, I’d call you crazy. As Neils Bohr said, it’s tough to make predictions…especially about the future.
Question: Given the culpability of the Democratic Party in sanctioning atrocities throughout US history, what if we started working now to organize an inclusive left political party that could serve as a counterweight to the Democrats? In four years, it could be a major force and one that the Zinns and Chomskys and Parentis could not so easily dismiss, don’t you think?
Mickey Z.: I’m sure the Holy Trinity (just kidding, guys) would gladly support a “real” third party but they’d also likely see it as a tiny step in the right direction… and it’s hard to argue with that. We need all the tiny steps we can take but we must be very, very cautious not to mistake tiny steps for giant breakthroughs. Each step adds up but no one should kid themselves… it’s a long journey.
Even in the face of urgent issues, dissent is a marathon… not a sprint. Activism is not about hating one man or even one party… it is holistic. The twenty-somethings making clever Dick and Bush jokes may cultivate a more nuanced understanding of the “system” one day but, sadly, many (most?) will lose faith and focus… Many will embrace compromise and denial. Carrying a sign when you’re 21 rarely translates to remaining steadfast into your 40s…and beyond. It comes back to my patience/urgency ratio.
Question: You’re a regular contributor to vegetarian and health-related publications. How can making changes in our personal lifestyles have any noticeable impact on our fellow animals, the environment and the sustainability of our world when we’re only one person and everyone else seems to be ignoring the harm their lifestyle choices are causing?
Mickey Z.: People are always asking me for direct action ideas… and I really wish I had viable suggestions. The best I can offer from my experience is this: Immediately and directly, we can each commence the reinvention of our everyday lives and challenge the cookie-cutter formulas force-fed to us from cradle to grave.
We can disobey. We don’t have to eat their food (a vegan commits direct action three or four times a day) or worship their god or fully accept their government.
We also don’t have to visit their doctors or take their medicines or use their deodorants, colognes, toothpaste, and toxic products of all kinds; we don’t need their accepted academic credentials or their cars, SUVs, and other death machines.
We can say no to engaging in conspicuous consumption, creating unnecessary waste, or purchasing items made by slave or sweatshop labor.
This simple strategy is far more menacing and radical—and deceptively effective—than it first appears. If more of us were to embrace such basic lifestyle changes, the corporate commodity culture would not only be seriously challenged… but more and more Americans would become receptive to new ideas through the motivating power of example. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh: “Do not accumulate wealth while millions are hungry. Live simply.”
In a 21st century white supremacist capitalist patriarchy like this, lifestyle choices are more powerful and important than voting choices…and challenging the power structure in this manner is a revolutionary act.
Che Guevara said, “Let me say, at the risk of seeming ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.” If he was right, well comrades, it’s time to show the world some love.
Mark Hand is editor of Press Action.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educaitonal purposes.