Mark Crispin Miller is a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University and the author of several books, including Boxed In: The Culture of TV, Cruel and Unusual: Bush and Cheney’s New World Order, and Fooled Again: The Real Case for Electoral Reform. He is also the editor of the newly-launched “Forbidden Bookshelf” series of e-books.
Michael Nevradakis: On a global level, how are the media furthering and promoting neoliberal policies and the politics of economic austerity, and how is freedom of the press being threatened?
Mark Crispin Miller: The corporate media worldwide has done an excellent job promoting neoliberal policies in every sector of society and culture. American media, which rank very low in the integrity of their news broadcasts, daily media coverage and commentary, are a kind of endless propaganda drive on behalf of austerity economics. For example, the US press is uncritically promoting a huge attack on public education and public schools, extolling the virtues of charter schools, attacking the teachers’ unions and so on. I would say that the press is in the hands of the plutocracy, the 1%, and it has a profound effect on press freedom and freedom of expression.
I’ll talk primarily about the effect that this trend has had on book publishing. We are the land of the First Amendment and therefore tend to congratulate ourselves on the state of freedom of expression in the United States. It’s hard, though not impossible, to find examples of journalists who are obviously targeted for violence, as journalists in Russia have been, for example, and in other countries where the attack on a free press is marked by brutal and explicit violence. That kind of thing has actually been happening in the US, something that doesn’t get much press attention. For example, the Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings met his end in an inexplicable car accident in the middle of the night, and this is someone who had taken down a very important general in the US military with a highly critical article that damaged this officer’s career. He was said to be working on something even more controversial and was quite nervous about his well-being when his car inexplicably sped up and crashed in the wee hours of the night.
One of the purposes of “Forbidden Bookshelf” is to get people to reclaim the skepticism that I believe is essential to the survival of democracy, a willingness to believe that elites are up to no good, are indeed capable of conspiring against our freedoms and our economic well-being.
Here in the United States, we tend to talk a lot about certain kinds of books that are marked for censorship by Christian groups or by highly conservative school boards in the South. They’re usually erotic masterpieces, almost exclusively novels, books like The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison or erotic classics like Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. We make much of books that offend a certain kind of taste and are therefore subject to local, highly parochial acts of censorship. A particular group will try to have a book removed from the library shelves or they will forbid teachers to assign particular books in school because they’re just too “dirty” or not Christian enough. That kind of thing is deplorable, and I think it’s good that there are organized groups that fight such censorship, but that is not actually the most dangerous kind of suppression that we face in the US.
We face a much subtler kind of suppression in the form of inexplicit tactics used to make sure that books threatening powerful interests either don’t see the light of day or quickly disappear. I’m talking about threats of litigation by powerful corporations or rich families, books whose own publishers have sometimes been complicit in failing to market or to print enough copies so that the book can succeed; books that reviewers shun; books whose existence you never hear about; or more often, books that are dismissed as “conspiracy theory.”
That’s why I’ve started this new series called “Forbidden Bookshelf.” What we’re doing with this series is bringing back as e-books volumes that were killed at birth in the ways that I’ve discussed. Publishing them means not simply making them available as objects; it also means telling the world about them, soliciting reviews, advertising them. We’re publishing them with new introductions, either by the authors themselves; or in the cases where they’re dead, we have noted experts writing new introductions. Our aim is to bring back books on important subjects, books that deal with abuses of power or high crimes by the government itself, books that deal critically with extremely powerful interests like the DuPont family or the NFL.
We want to bring these individual books back because they’re important works of scholarship and journalism, and they deserve and require a second life. But we’re also doing it to make the larger point that we have become too ready, certainly in the US, to believe those voices that laugh off uncomfortable works as “lunatic fantasy,” as “conspiracy theory.” This is a fairly recent tactic that’s been used by the state and others to dissuade people from reading these important works. One of the purposes of “Forbidden Bookshelf” is to get people to reclaim the skepticism that I believe is essential to the survival of democracy, a willingness to believe that elites are up to no good, are indeed capable of conspiring against our freedoms and our economic well-being.
Since I’ve taken to championing important works that need to see the light of day, I’ve discovered that even many of my ostensible allies on the left are also reluctant to discuss many of these issues. So I no longer see this in left-right terms, to tell you the truth; I think that the problem of free speech and free expression and so on transcends that division, because I think many of the outlets and individuals on the left have been co-opted in various ways, often through their funding sources. They get money from particular foundations that make clear they don’t want certain subjects discussed.
We’ve seen numerous high-profile cases involving whistleblowers in recent years, and the government crackdowns which have followed, in many instances. Where do you see this going in the next few years?
The fact is that this kind of revelation is easier than ever, thanks to the internet, and is precisely the reason why governments the world over have stepped up their efforts to wipe out this kind of unauthorized public information. The easier it is to tell the world what’s going on, the less control states have over the means of information, the more extreme measures governments have to use in order to keep the faucet shut. Barack Obama has actually been a more aggressive antagonist and persecutor of whistleblowers than any president in American history. They have used the Espionage Act, an unfortunate relic of World War I, to go after more whistleblowers than all of our previous presidents combined. I think the number is seven Espionage Act cases by now. This is an extreme step and indicates a rising uneasiness over the possibilities that people may hear what they’re not supposed to hear, in this culture of extreme secrecy that now passes for a government.
I also want to add that it’s under Obama that the state has committed itself explicitly to a policy of covert subversion of certain kinds of public discussions. There’s a famous First Amendment lawyer, Cass Sunstein, who went to work for Obama. He actually coauthored an essay for a journal published by Harvard University on the need for what he called “cognitive infiltration.” He was talking specifically about 9/11 and the fact that there are more and more people questioning the official explanation and really unprecedented numbers of reputable experts, architects, engineers, and so on, who are calling the official account of 9/11 into question on purely scientific grounds.
Since 2000, our presidential elections and many of our congressional elections have been rigged through electronic means.
According to Sunstein, this kind of public discussion is extremely dangerous. He believes that it poses a mortal threat to the survival of American democracy. I think what he actually believes is that it poses a threat to the American government, to its reputation. The solution that he explicitly advanced in his article was the use of “trolls” to find ways to disrupt these discussions by sowing discord among the discussants or counterattacking with propaganda shots that would distract people from the issue at hand.
That kind of extreme subversive activity is completely continuous with the recent statements by British prime minister David Cameron, who actually said that 9/11 skepticism is as dangerous as ISIS, and Francois Hollande of France recently made a similar statement, that this kind of public discussion is dangerous. I can’t think of better examples of extreme overreaction of states around the world when it comes to the danger of being confronted with free conversation of “forbidden” subjects, and it has everything to do with the universal availability of taboo information on the internet.
Do you see, in any of the candidates who have declared or who are likely to declare for the presidency of the United States, any hope for a change of direction on issues pertaining to freedom of the press, freedom of speech, or freedom of information?
I can think of a few possible candidates whose policies would take us in the right direction. But such a discussion of these particular candidates is unfortunately besides the point, because, as I myself have demonstrated extensively in a book that was blacked out in exactly the way that I’ve been describing, America’s election system is among the worst in the so-called “free world,” and in fact, since 2000, our presidential elections and many of our congressional elections have been rigged through electronic means. This is the thesis of my book, Fooled Again, which came out in 2005 and was an exhaustive demonstration of how the Republican right stole the election of 2004 for Bush and Cheney.
The theft of the 2000 election by Bush and Cheney is fairly widely accepted, because the Supreme Court stepped in at the last minute and halted the vote count in the state of Florida. That’s something that the press has been willing to discuss and acknowledge. But the theft of the 2004 election, primarily through electronic means, is one of those forbidden subjects, and discussion thereof has been stigmatized as “conspiracy theory.”
As long as the Republican party, with Democratic complicity, has a hammerlock on the voting system so that they can install politicians despite the will of the electorate and pursue agendas that are completely detested by a majority of the population, we’re in big trouble.
The fact is that we now have a computerized voting and vote-counting system in the United States, a system that was a bipartisan achievement, although it was primarily the Bush Republicans who drove it home. And not only do we have a system that is very easily hacked, the counting easily rigged, the electronic voting lists easily purged, imperceptibly changed, but the companies that manage the election process are all private companies, owned and managed by right-wing Republicans, rabid Christianists, theocrats, people with an anti-democratic agenda.
One of the things I’ve been trying to do for years is promote a broader understanding of the fundamental threat that this development has posed to the survival of American democracy. The right in the US is vastly overrepresented in terms of its representation in Congress, in terms of those presidents who seemingly have been elected by right-wing voters. There is no evidence that Bush-Cheney won the 2004 election other than the official claim that he won. All the solid evidence actually suggests that John Kerry won that election, just as all the evidence makes clear that Al Gore actually did win the 2000 election.
The fact is that we’re not going to make any progress until we have a legitimate election system. I say this as one who is thoroughly disgusted with both major political parties in the US: I’m not naive about the fact that the major parties are all too similar on economic issues, on war issues and many other issues. However, in a country like the US, the possibility of some kind of alternative means of changing the direction of the country through an actual revolution in the streets is remote to the point of non-existence.
You must have a viable election in order to get anything meaningful accomplished, and as long as the Republican party, with Democratic complicity, has a hammerlock on the voting system so that they can install politicians despite the will of the electorate and pursue agendas that are completely detested by a majority of the population, we’re in big trouble.
So-called socialist parties have, since the 70s, been betraying their supporters. … What we’re witnessing is the imposition of a neoliberal order against the will of the electorate.
Let me add that there are three states that have governors who are pushing radical neoliberal agendas: Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan. Three governors representing the so-called “Tea Party,” backed by the Koch family. They are dismantling the public workers’ unions; attacking public education; promoting extreme agendas despite the fact that in all three states, there is evidence that these governors and many other officers who have taken over those governments simply were not elected. Yet, this is something that almost no one talks about. Every time we have an election in the US, everybody talks about the candidates and their chances and strategies and the demographics of the electorate. All of this is fundamentally beside the point as long as our elections system is corrupt.
What could social movements and citizens do to hold their governments and to hold the system as a whole more accountable? For instance, in Greece we’ve seen the election of a left-wing government which has gone back on many of the pre-election promises which likely got it elected in the first place.
Greece is in its precarious situation precisely because it’s been practically the only country whose people have resisted vigorously. There are some others who have done so, but Greece stands out for the intensity of its resistance. A seemingly alternative government was elected, and yet we now see that government backtracking. Similar things have happened before throughout Europe. So-called socialist parties have, since the 70s, been betraying their supporters. It’s happened in France, in Britain, in Germany, and it’s happened with the active assistance of the USA. and the covert arms of its government. What we’re witnessing is the imposition of a neoliberal order against the will of the electorate.
Two things have to happen. There has to be a reassertion of the necessity of legitimate electoral democracy. In the Netherlands, in Ireland and in Germany, they tried to use computerized voting, and in all three countries they went back to hand-counted paper ballots, which is the only way to go. However, beyond this discussion of electoral integrity, social movements are essential.
Social movements are just another word for democracy. We have to have an aroused plurality of voters who will not accept the failure of their governments to honor the agendas that they promised and that got them elected in the first place. Something sort of like that happened in the US when a clear majority of voters were actively led to believe that Barack Obama would offer – I don’t know if I would say “radical” – but a marked difference from the policies promoted by Bush-Cheney. I didn’t believe it, I’m from Illinois, where Barack Obama was a senator, so I knew enough about him not even to vote for him, because I knew it wasn’t true, but the fact is that he got elected overwhelmingly, primarily because his team advertised him as a bold departure from the status quo. Despite that, we have seen this administration outstrip Bush-Cheney at all the worst policies that people objected to and that led them to vote for a Democratic alternative.
They don’t want a faculty that’s expensive, that has the kind of job security that permits them to resist.
I believe that there should be a larger and more vigorous social movement in this country to fix the election system and otherwise work against those entrenched interests that are pushing us all towards extreme income inequality and a kind of serf-like existence for the majority of Americans, and I think that such social movements in other countries have to continue to fight and to intensify the fight, and I think ultimately, align themselves one with another, to comprise a global movement. I think that our only hope lies in that direction.
How would you gauge the impact of neoliberalism on education, especially in terms of issues such as cost and accessibility and privatization, and also on the quality of education, and the de-emphasizing of the liberal arts?
We have universities increasingly dominated by hedge fund managers, corporate lawyers, real estate developers, building contractors and Wall Street bank presidents. No university in the world is more perfectly dominated by that element than New York University, whose board is unique for the fact that there’s not a single professor on that board. They are all financiers, neoliberal players, and this has had a shattering effect on NYU, which is now the most expensive university in the US. It has the worst financial aid.
The aim of the system is not to educate, it is to extract as much cash as possible from the paying customers and to create a generation of people who don’t know enough about what’s going on to question it.
Our student body carries a debt load 40 percent heavier than the national average. Seventy percent of our courses are now taught by non-tenured faculty, by adjuncts, by contract faculty who are full time but have no union and are crushed by a huge teaching load, tons of committee work, and still an expectation of publishing scholarship and who are paid much less than the tenured faculty, whose numbers are also dwindling because the board and its hand-picked administration don’t want a tenured faculty. They don’t want a faculty that’s expensive, that has the kind of job security that permits them to resist. Students are increasingly squeezed and shortchanged and offered courses that have less and less of a critical component, that serve more and more as credentials for finding work in the neoliberal machine.
What can academics do about this? What we need is for students and faculty to work together and say no to this huge trend, and one of the biggest incentives for such organization and resistance is the scourge of student debt, which under this neoliberal regime has risen to become the most common form of debt in the US. It has surpassed consumer spending debt; it’s over a trillion dollars, and in the US, students are essentially legally prevented from declaring bankruptcy when they go broke because of this crushing debt.
We have students who are basically embarking on lives of peonage until their dying day because the debt that they carry for their education is so heavy. There are groups that have been formed in the US, specifically around the issue of student debt, but I believe that education is now at a point of unprecedented crisis, not only here but worldwide, and it’s because of these high rollers who have taken over the institution to the point that education as we’ve always known it is almost impossible.
The aim of the system is not to educate, it is to extract as much cash as possible from the paying customers and to create a generation of people who don’t know enough about what’s going on to question it; to make the content of education apolitical, uncritical to teach people to think that this is all conspiracy theory and insanity.
I believe that we have to return to something like the spirit that obtained in this country in the ’60s and ’70s, and in other countries, France, Greece, when there was a broader critical movement by the student masses in favor of a more humanistic and engaged education. It’s difficult to do that today, precisely because of the crushing debt burden borne by so many students, so many of whom tell me that because of their debt, they are paradoxically afraid to do anything to resist or protest it. They’re afraid they’ll lose a scholarship, that their chances for finding work, which are already pretty slim, will shrink even further.
When we’re talking about social movements and possible mass responses to the situation prevailing today, we have to take into account the peculiarly inhibiting effect of debt, which aside from its material destructiveness also has a kind of psychological effect that can be incapacitating. I think the more we talk about this, the more we organize to show that it is possible to fight back, to demand debt forgiveness, the better off we’ll be. That’s where our salvation lies, and I think it’s possible to do it.