Sunday, 30 November 2008

Workshop report: intellectual self-defence

Intellectual self-defense means you have to develop an independent mind - and work on it. Now that's extremely hard to do alone. The beauty of our system is that it isolates everybody - each person is sitting alone in front of the tube. Now it's very hard to have ideas or thoughts under those circumstances. Some people can, but it's pretty rare. The way to do it is through organization. So courses of intellectual self-defense will have to be in the context of political and other organization...”

Noam Chomsky, from the film 'Manufacturing Consent'

As an activist, or dissenter, or maybe you simply attended a street demo, it's likely that you have dealt with a barrage of political and idealogical challenges during every day life. For this reason, the organisers of Chomsky at 80 were keen that a workshop take place on "intellectual self-defence."

Andrew Bowman began by explaining why confidence and competence building for such situations is important for making the experience more bearable and fruitful. The group went on to discuss the numerous scenarios when appearing to deviate from the status quo can cause friends, colleagues, strangers and loved ones to confront your ideas as inferior. We found that similar questions and comments are often thrown at us, such as “You will never change anything”, “You're too idealistic”, “Why don't you start a political party then?”, “Well what do you propose instead?”...etc.

It was agreed that we are up against deep set indoctrination from sources such as the mainstream press, to the education system. However, in line with Chomsky, this indoctrination is not of a strictly conspiratorial nature. Then after sharing some personal experiences, the group came up with ten top tips for practising intellectual, or collective, self defence:

  1. Know your history! (not just the text book history)

  2. Learn the facts relating to your topic of concern, especially the neglected ones!

  3. Learn to explain your ideas simply, to critical, non specialist audiences.

  4. Use, support and if possible develop, sources of alternative media.

  5. Use the internet to it's full advantage: read widely, read often, and be careful with the reliability of sources.

  6. When in arguments (at least ones you wish to be productive), try to seek common ground with opponents rather than 'defeat' them.

  7. Develop listening skills

  8. Know your opposition in detail rather than simply dismissing them. Read their publications, get to know and understand their arguments properly.

  9. When forced to justify your position, do so. But don't just accept a subordinate status in the hierarchy of ideas, also go on the counterattack: make people holding mainstream positions justify themselves to the same standards of evidence that they are holding you to! Ie. Ask them questions as well.

  10. Be honest! Admit when you don't know things!

"For those who stubbornly seek freedom around the world, there can be no more urgent task than to come to understand the mechanisms and practices of indoctrination. These are easy to perceive in the totalitarian societies, much less so in the propaganda system to which we are subjected and in which all too often we serve as unwilling or unwitting instruments."

Noam Chomsky, 'Propaganda, American Style.'

"Great event, not enough people"

Yesterday it finally Happened.

Months of planning and liaising with various speakers, workshop-givers, finding last minute replacements when a couple of people let us down... all culminated in a day that went very well, with various workshops and discussions going off without a hitch. Thanks to all speakers, facilitators and participants.

The feedback forms were overwhelmingly positive, and a few helpful hints for any future event we did. These responses- anonymised, and the various flipcharts that participants filled in- will be posted on the Chomsky at 80 website imminently.

The only real downside of the day was simply Not Enough People. Various reasons can be mooted, but it's not easy to see what else we could have done, given our budget.

Anyway, over the coming days and even weeks, we'll be posting reports from the day, and other useful information. The first, about the Intellectual Self-Defence workshop, will be posted today.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Dr Tom Hickey

Another loose end... we're happy to confirm that Dr Tom Hickey will be joining Siobhan McGuirk of Reclaim the Uni to help lead the responsibility of intellectuals and academic workshop.
Dr Hickey is principal lecturer in Philosophy and Politics at the University of Brighton, Chair of the Brighton University & College Union and a member of the National Executive Committee of the UCU. He is speaking on behalf of BRICUP, the campaign for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, and will be discussing the reasons behind controversial calls for an academic boycott of Israeli universities.
We also need to confirm that Hilary Wainwright of Red Pepper is unlikely to be able to attend this workshop.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Loose ends

A few more loose ends tied up.
Firstly, another stallholder to add - Manchester Solidarity Federation will also be joining us (another flavour for the political mix).
And the second speaker for the US Foreign Policy workshop, alongside Ron Senchak, will be Marc Hudson, one of the conference organisers. He studied politics at the University of California in the 1990s, before working as an aid worker in Southern Africa over the course of three years. He reviews books for Environmental Politics and Red Pepper, has co-edited two books about climate change and is one of the founders of Manchester Climate Fortnightly. He tried to appear on Mastermind with US covert and overt foreign policy operations as a specialist subject, but they wouldn't let him on the grounds that too many of the answers might be 'contentious.' So he did Tom Lehrer instead...

Siobhan McGuirk

Like a typical prying hack I've been making all the speakers for this weekend give me some kind of biography of themselves for this blog. So now I can introduce Siobhan McGuirk, who'll be helping to the lead the discussion on the responsibilities of intellectuals:
"I am a graduate in Social Anthropology and Politics at the University of Manchester and currently studying for an MA in Visual Anthropology at the same institution. I grew up on the University of Nottingham Campus. I've been involved in activism (student and otherwise) and the Students' Union for a good few years. I have written for Student Direct, The Mule and Red Pepper."
Siobhan describes her political position as "anti-capitalist."

Solidarity Movements

The loose ends have finally been tied up on another workshop (thank goodness. It's all nearly over now and the pub beckons...).
The session on solidarity movements is intended to take a critical look at some of the issues that international solidarity movements have faced over the past three decades. Why do certain solidarity groups take root strongly in certain countries (for instance, why did the East Timor movement gain more foothold in Australia than the UK?). How do solidarity movements cope when the liberation struggles they support become governments, themselves running the security forces and economic policies? How should solidarity movements react when the organisations they support overseas have sexist, homophobic or nationalist views at variance with solidarity values? And in an era whan plane travel is (hopefully) becoming ethically less acceptable and financially more difficult, how will solidarity movements adapt to a potentially less mobile international political population?
The speaker/facilitators will be:
Matt Fawcett, who has spent time in Chiapas with Zapatista solidarity groups and in Guatemala with the human rights observation organisation Peace Brigades International, and;
Sarah Irving, who visited Nicaragua with a Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign work brigade in 1996 and has remained involved with the organisation since, and whose three visits to Palestine with the International Solidarity Movement have led to 7 years of engagement with the region through fair trade and educational travel groups and journalism.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Website updated, new Chomsky essay, tribute page

Hello all,

Firstly, the Chomsky at 80 website is looking a lot more respectable. The next time it will be updated is after the big day itself, with photos, accounts, etc.

Secondly, Chomsky has just posted a new essay on Znet, entitled "The Election, the Economy, War and Peace"

It's a corker, with observations on how electing a minority isn't such a "first"-

"The rhetoric has some justification if we keep to the West, but elsewhere matters are different. Consider the world's largest democracy, India. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, which is larger than all but a few countries of the world and is notorious for horrifying treatment of women, is not only a woman, but a Dalit ("untouchable"), at the lowest rung of India's disgraceful caste system.

"Turning to the Western hemisphere, consider its two poorest countries: Haiti and Bolivia. In Haiti's first democratic election in 1990, grass-roots movements organized in the slums and hills, and though without resources, elected their own candidate, the populist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The results astonished observers who expected an easy victory for the candidate of the elite and the US, a former World Bank official.

True, the victory for democracy was soon overturned by a military coup, followed by years of terror and suffering to the present, with crucial participation of the two traditional torturers of Haiti, France and the US (contrary to self-serving illusions). But the victory itself was a far more "extraordinary example of democracy at work" than the miracle of 2008.

"The same is true of the 2005 election in Bolivia. The indigenous majority, the most oppressed population in the hemisphere (those who survived), elected a candidate from their own ranks, a poor peasant, Evo Morales. The electoral victory was not based on soaring rhetoric about hope and change, or body language and fluttering of eyelashes, but on crucial issues, very well known to the voters: control over resources, cultural rights, and so on. Furthermore, the election went far beyond pushing a lever or even efforts to get out the vote. It was a stage in long and intense popular struggles in the face of severe repression, which had won major victories, such as defeating the efforts to deprive poor people of water through privatization.

"These popular movements did not simply take instructions from party leaders. Rather, they formulated the policies that their candidates were chosen to implement. That is quite different from the Western model of democracy, as we see clearly in the reactions to Obama's victory."
And a host of other worthwhile observations about- as the title suggests- the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Iran.

And thirdly, Milan Rai, who is attending the Chomsky at 80 event, has created a website where you can post appreciations/birthday wishes to Noam.

Hope to see you "all" on Saturday.