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Journalism as Subversion

Posted on Mar 22, 2015

By Chris Hedges

  A farmer looks skyward as he sits amid his storm-damaged wheat crop in the Indian state of Rajasthan last week. (AP / Deepak Sharma)

The assault of global capitalism is not only an economic and political assault. It is a cultural and historical assault. Global capitalism seeks to erase our stories and our histories. Its systems of mass communication, which peddle a fake intimacy with manufactured celebrities and a false sense of belonging within a mercenary consumer culture, shut out our voices, hopes and dreams. Salacious gossip about the elites and entertainers, lurid tales of violence and inane trivia replace in national discourse the actual and the real. The goal is a vast historical amnesia.

The traditions, rituals and struggles of the poor and workingmen and workingwomen are replaced with the vapid homogenization of mass culture. Life’s complexities are reduced to simplistic stereotypes. Common experiences center around what we have been fed by television and mass media. We become atomized and alienated. Solidarity and empathy are crushed. The cult of the self becomes paramount. And once the cult of the self is supreme we are captives to the corporate monolith.

As the mass media, now uniformly in the hands of large corporations, turn news into the ridiculous chronicling of pseudo-events and pseudo-controversy we become ever more invisible as individuals. Any reporting of the truth—the truth about what the powerful are doing to us and how we are struggling to endure and retain our dignity and self-respect—would fracture and divide a global population that must be molded into compliant consumers and obedient corporate subjects. This has made journalism, real journalism, subversive. And it has made P. Sainath—who has spent more than two decades making his way from rural Indian village to rural Indian village to make sure the voices of the country’s poor are heard, recorded and honored—one of the most subversive journalists on the subcontinent. He doggedly documented the some 300,000 suicides of desperate Indian farmers—happening for the last 19 years at the rate of one every half hour—in his book “Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories From India’s Poorest Districts.” And in December, after leaving The Hindu newspaper, where he was the rural affairs editor, he created the People’s Archive of Rural India. He works for no pay. He relies on a small army of volunteers. He says his archive deals with “the everyday lives of everyday people.” And, because it is a platform for mixed media, encompassing print, still photographs, audio and film, as well as an online research library, it is a model for those who seek to tell the stories that global capitalism attempts to blot out.

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“Historically, libraries and archive have been controlled by governments and by states,” he said when we met recently in Princeton, N.J., where he is teaching at Princeton University for the semester. “They have also been burned by governments, states and regimes since before the time of the library of Alexandria. Secondly, archives have been the sites of major state censorship. You classify something you don’t allow people to know. In medieval Europe and elsewhere, people resisted being documented. They didn’t want to be part of the archive. They knew that recording and measuring their assets were the first steps toward seizing those assets for the ruling class. Hence, the idea of the people’s archive that is not controlled by states, governments or other figures of authority. This is an archive people can access, people can create, people can build and authenticate. So the idea became the people’s archive.”

“It’s not different from what I’ve done for 35 years as a journalist, especially my 22 years as a full-time journalist in India countryside,” he said. “The big difference is that a digital platform allows me to do what I was doing earlier but on an infinitely larger scale and in collaboration with hundreds of other journalists. This site has two biases. One is labor, the work of people, how [the] nation and society rest on the backs of their labor. The second is languages.”

Sainath’s work is a race against time. He laments that in the past 50 years nearly 220 Indian languages have died. Only seven people in the Indian state of Tripura, for example, now speak the Saimar language. And it is not only languages that are going extinct. The diverse styles of weaving, the epic poems and tales told by itinerant storytellers, the folk dances and songs, the mythologies, the religious traditions, local pottery styles and rural trades such as that of toddy tappers, who scamper up 50 palm trees a day to drain the sap to make a fermented liquor called toddy, are all vanishing, leaving the world ever more impoverished and dependent on mass-produced products and mass-produced thought.

Sainath is determined to archive all of India’s some 780 languages, many of them thousands of years old, spoken by 833 million rural Indians. He has amassed 8,000 black-and-white images of rural Indians. And he has sent filmmakers into villages to capture the deep humanity of the poor as they struggle to endure in a world that is increasingly hostile to their existence. For example, the archive website has a powerfully moving film about a 21-year-old dancer, Kali Veerapadran, titled “Kali: The Dancer and His Dreams.” Raised in grueling poverty in a fishing village by his mother, the boy masters the Indian classical dance form known as Bharatanatyam and three ancient forms of Tamil folk dance (one of them perhaps 2,000 years old), and he makes his way to the country’s leading dance academy and finally the academy’s professional classical dance troupe. Online visitors can also see and hear five girls at a tiny and poorly equipped rural school sing, in English, the potato song.


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