By Saswat Pattanayak
(Written for Kindle Magazine)
Possibly the greatest myth about the world we inhabit today, is that things are just getting worse everywhere. Apparently, the claim goes, things were all flourishing until a couple of decades ago. People used to be all nicely employed, they owned their own houses, had finest of healthcare, made tons of savings, expressed themselves freely without fear, and were generally happy-go-lucky. And that, things are just plain ugly today, with uncertainties looming large, with privacies encroached upon, people falling prey to corporate propaganda, and intellectual vacuum looming large.
Alas, even the worst myths have some credibility. So let’s start from there – yes, things used to be great for some folks, back in the days. In those good old days. In those abjectly feudal, and overtly colonial eras. Since there was slavery, the plantation owners had it good. Since there were princely states, the royals had it good. Since there were colonial empires, the colonialists had it good. Since there was Apartheid, the racists had it good. In fact, the myth has so much credence that the ruling class of every epoch believed they all had it so good. Quite naturally then “You’ve never had it so good!” became the US Democratic Party campaign slogan in 1952 and was swiftly adapted by the UK Conservative Party five years later. The myth of goodness apparently existed until the advent of the 60’s, if not until the end of the 70’s.
What in the world suddenly changed?
Here’s the shocker: nothing perhaps has changed. Maybe the world is still the same. Whether things were nice and dandy back then depends on who we seek that answer from. Usually, a white privileged male in the US, an upper-caste landlord in India, a French right-wing supremacist in Algeria, among numerous other categories may find things getting worse over the period of time. Whereas a black Afrocentric radical, a feminist of color, a gay man, a disabled woman, a Dalit activist – may in fact claim that either things have remained just the same, or they in fact, have improved. People who were being lynched in the public because of the color of their skin or women who were treated as no more than dishwashers are not the one to complain about the gradual turns of events. They may rightfully complain about the viciously slow growth, but they are in no rush to turn back the clock and tune into the halcyon days. As Louis CK points out rather profoundly regarding white privilege: “I’m not saying that white people are better. I’m saying that being white is clearly better, who could even argue? If it was an option I would re-up ever year. Oh yeah I’ll take white again absolutely, I’ve been enjoying that, I’ll stick with white, thank you. Here’s how great it is to be white, I could get in a time machine and go to any time and it would be fuckin’ awesome when I get there. That is exclusively a white privilege. Black people can’t fuck with time machines. A black guy in a time machine is like hey anything before 1980 no thank you, I don’t want to go.”
History of the world can be written through the lens of the
ruling class, or it can be narrated from the perspectives of the oppressed.
From the lens of the latter then, the world could indeed be making progresses.
It is making progress when we witness women demanding wages for house work, it
is making progress when men join protests against rape culture, it is making
progress when outcastes reject the dominant paradigm, it is making progress
when the racial minorities establish academic departments in hitherto elite universities.
And these progresses do not happen merely incidentally, they do not happen
because of sudden change of hearts; instead they do, because of concerted
efforts and revolutionary movements of the working class – a vital credit which
the ruling class deliberately refuses to concede, lest such experiments become
too commonplace to be suppressed.
Even greater in significance than the myth are the means.
How exactly do the historically oppressed manage to make progresses? After all,
they traditionally lack not just power, but also access; they start out
disadvantaged, with entry behavior knowledge, skills, and abilities
compromised. The dominant understanding of emancipation is that the ruling
structure empowers the oppressed through greater facilitation of resources. The
truth is way unsavory: the historically oppressed invariably always turn
ungrateful towards their ruling masters. They take time to gain the knowledge
to challenge the status quo, make efforts to acquire skills to equip themselves
to face eventualities, and finally work in solidarity to dismantle the
oppressive structures, at times gradually, and at other times suddenly. What
usually seems spontaneous in revolutionary framework is invariably always a
result of prolonged preparations and wait for the opportune moment.
Among the means to challenge and dismantle structures, the
most pivotal one comprises education. Historically, slaves and landless
peasants used to be educated by their masters with the sole purpose of becoming
more efficient servants, and yet some of those ingrates after having their
consciousness raised about their oppressed conditions through the newly
acquired knowledge, then used to utilize that very transformation as a tool
against their own masters. This is an inevitable process pertaining to
historical stages of development. The greed of the ruling class, the tactic of
the oppressed class, and the revolution as the synthesis.
Media of all kinds are only extensions of that irresistible
weapon of education, that ineluctable tool of emancipation.
The historically oppressed have always tried to seize the
media and to make them work in their mission to overthrow the systems of
oppressions. At times, they have succeeded. And at other times they have been
defeated. This was true for print media, it was true for electronic media, and
it is true for digital/online media.
The ruling class interpretation however has been starkly
different. Obsessed as it remains with keeping the oppressed duly invisible,
and focused as it remains with its own profit charts, the ruling class
interpretations are concerned only with the conversation its own team members
have with each other. As a result, both liberal and conservative publications
entirely leave out narratives that have direct impacts on the racially
oppressed, for instance. The need for black underground press in the US rose
specifically to challenge the prevailing discourses between educated whites who
shaped media agenda while entirely ignoring existing racial tensions as a structural
given, not as a symptomatic aberration. Most of the researches conducted at
elite schools focus therefore, on media monopolies and the gory sketches of
their battles to redraw the maps of territorial conquests. They remain
oblivious to the underground rebellions by innumerable insurgents, at times
deliberately oblivious because they are convinced that the noisemakers are not
aspiring for a takeover. And more often than not, they are right. A political
analysis will draw the parallel between the nature of the colonizers and the
nature of the colonized. Whereas the colonizers worry about expanding their
territories, the revolting masses only are interested in their own
And so is the case of media. Huge majority of the world
possibly has no interest to become media moguls. Rupert Murdoch is neither
their competition, nor their enemy. The anti-poor, racist, casteist policies
furthered by their oppressive governments are their concerns. Reclaiming a
country’s past (sic) glory is not something they remain bothered about,
especially since that system never worked for them anyway. Besides, the
majority rightfully demands for a life with basic needs fulfilled, and not
everyone thinks that unlimited greed is a good thing. And so they are interested
in subverting the dominant paradigms without needing to reinforce those very
undesirabilities themselves. From radical comic strips to basement mixtapes,
from underground hip-hop to homemade newspapers – the creative subversion of
media over the time has been aimed at being emancipatory without being
necessarily competitive. The producers of these media have been jailed by the
authorities, harassed by the communities, and ostracized by the advertisers.
But the quest to challenge the dominant media narratives has never ceased
anywhere in the world at any point of history.
And so it is with the Internet and online media.
Started as a militarist project, aided by money from the
capitalist regime, Internet has been subject to sustained appropriations by
hackers, hobbyists and housewives. In the times of big corporate media engaged
in mergers and acquisitions, Internet has enabled plethora of independent
bloggers, many remaining anonymous, and most continuing to update their
platforms without necessarily fear of authorities or expectations of profits.
They are aware of their state of being othered, marginalized and oppressed. And
they are in no hurry to make compromises, while steadfastly remaining glued to
making revolts. Many of them are even found micro-blogging on Facebook and
Twitter, making alliances with strangers all around the world, generating
consensus with hashtags, and creating alternative universities in the virtual
world where conventional, institutionalized truths are massacred and unfounded
claims are doubly, nay, innumerably checked for veracity. Internet has provided
for Afrocentric literatures that could never be found in public libraries or
dominant media’s breaking news, it has allowed for interviews with those
freedom fighters to be shared and archived, who would never get an invitation
from any of the four estates of democracy.
There are challenges to Internet of course; enormous ones.
Just as there were challenges to all previous and contemporary forms of media.
But there are opportunities too on Internet; enormous ones. For one, it
provides access to those who can access it, which is far greater an empowerment
compared to, let’s say, writing a letter to the editor of a print newspaper,
while waiting for it to be published uncensored. Secondly, the social media
bring people together, virtually if so desired, and for real, if so. It allows
for more people to get informed about and to participate in a protest rally, an
Occupy demonstration, an awareness march against sexism. All one needs to do is
post an event, provide a backgrounder, interact with the audience to answer any
question, make changes to the plans real time, cover the event for those who
could not attend, and archive it for future references. Not to discount the
difficulties or even impossibilities of such networking at the face of enormous
digital divide that has rendered majority of people without access to Internet,
to begin with. But to underline the fact that Internet, when enabled, emerges
greater as an accessible form of media than any other. The need therefore is to
democratize it and to make it universally accessible, to make it truly
For the teeming millions, the question is often not about
ownership. The question is about participation. The joy lies not in
monopolizing. It lies in distributing. Maybe it is how most of us have simply
been raised – amidst the sheer joys in, or necessities of sharing. And
therefore it becomes our second nature to simply enjoy the very fact that we
are able to share new information with each other, through blogging, through
micro-blogging, through file-sharing. Maybe that something which appears to be
unproductive by the ruling class is something we just tend to be doing over and
over again. In an otherwise individualistic, secretive world reveling in
distrust, suspicion and increasing abandonment of neighbors, maybe the virtual
media is what boldly caters to our needs. Who knows if it is good, bad or ugly.
For sure, at least for now, the authorities think it is threatening them. This
coming together of people who disregard their carefully assigned social
locations and organize themselves for a common cause that transcends boundaries
set by the ruling class. Maybe that is what is a constant irritant to the
historically oppressive ones, and for that reason alone, it must continue as a
No wonder, Obama’s NSA is after these people, these global
ungrateful netizens. In the most recent development, Verizon which at first
denied, and later admitted of having turned over the call records of millions
of American citizens to the NSA has, only this September, testified in the
court that it wants to prioritize those websites and services that are willing
to shell out for better access. Verizon has made it clear that the company
would block online content from those companies or individuals who do not pay
its tolls – obviously undermining Net Neutrality principle. Concerned by the
NSA and its corporate partners such as Verizon, Brazil has become the first
country to propose rejecting America’s web authority. President Dilma Rousseff
has recently ordered a series of measures to ensure Brazilian online
independence and security to defy NSA interceptions. The way Brazil wants to do
this is by compelling Facebook, Google and other US companies to store all data
related to its citizens locally on Brazilian servers and by pushing for new
international rules on privacy and security through the UN General Assembly.
Its potential effectiveness, or even viability, is yet to be evaluated, but it
is certainly something that may encourage other countries to follow suit. This
suspicion also underlines the refusal on part of international community to be
convinced by Obama’s assurances regarding user privacies. The bigger concern of
course is if the anti-Americanism itself may then give way to invincible
national repressions. Will it be any more ethically sustainable on part of
other countries, to filter contents or to keep a watch over their respective
Answers to that already exist within the US, where many a
domestic horror stories remain untold until after a case reaches a court of
appeals. The most invisible ones are related to Internet freedom, precisely
because any expose of that would discredit the country’s long standing, albeit
hypocritical, claims on free speech, while equating it with let’s just say,
China. Or, for that matter, with India. When two girls landed in trouble over
commenting on Facebook about Bal Thackeray, it made world headline last year.
And yet the US has been persecuting its own citizens for much lesser Facebook
activisms that go unnoticed. In 2009, six employees at the Hampton Sheriff’s
office in Virginia lost their jobs after registering their ‘likes’ on the
Facebook page of the person who contested their boss in an election. Two of
those employees, Deputy Daniel Carter and Robert McCoy, filed a lawsuit
claiming they were fired by Sheriff B.J. Roberts specifically for liking a
Facebook profile for Roberts’ opponent, Jim Adams and as many as four years
later, only last month, a court of appeals decided that liking something on
Facebook was the “Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one’s
front yard” and hence it would be considered protected speech.
While the cat-and-mouse game persists, losing sight over the
pattern would be a travesty. Harassment of the audience based on their media
consumption, or arrests of producers based on their media activism is not a new
trend. Neither is encroachment on individual privacy rights as is being largely
claimed following Snowden’s grand revelations. The entire saga of FBI is
nothing, if not one state sponsored and violence-laden surveillance program.
The Red Scare, the infamous Smith Act, McCarthyism, the war on Black Panthers
are all among numerous systematic assaults on privacy rights in the US.
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The truth is there never were any golden days of freedom and
equality for the world in the past, as is being felt nostalgic about these
days. Unless, we value the life of, or demand for freedom by the most oppressed
as being inherently lesser – since there have been substantial outcries against
oppression at every stage of history, most of them not just regarded as such
only because the history textbooks follow ruling class ethos. Only when we take
the starting point of analysis as one where the status quo is considered to
have remained virtually the same, if not emerged better, we can recognize that
more people – even purely quantitatively speaking – are able to join global
resistance against capitalism and express themselves today, than ever before.
And this political opportunity has opened itself up, because as the bearded old
men have hinted at, the Internet may indeed be what the capitalism has produced
to further its own gains, and yet, it may eventually become its own
grave-digger. As more desperate measures are taken to control Internet and as
even more resistance surfaces to free it – through the radical voices of the
hitherto underrepresented – the fall of ruling elites and the victory of
hashtaggers will become equally inevitable.