Unit 10 – Final Essays – The Socjournal


At the end of this unit, students will:

  • Understand the political and economic meaning of empire.
  • Understand the importance of power in relation to our ability to “create” the world that we live in.
  • Relate the topics presented in John Pilger’s Freedom Next Time to themes develop in this book.

Core Readings

Steckley, John and Clark, Arthur (2007). Chapter Fourteen: Social Change and The Future.

Pilger, John (2007). Freedom Next Time: Resisting the Empire. Nation books: New York

Hathaway, William T. (2005). Summer Snow. Avatar Publications. St. Albert.

Mainstream Media Commercial http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zV5UTHRx0a4&feature=user

Commentary and Assignment

In this chapter we conclude our sociological look at the world by reading chapter twelve of our textbook and completing (if we haven’t already) the books, Freedom Next Time, by John Pilger and Summer Snow by William Hathaway.  Pilger’s book is, as you will see, collection of several case studies of “empire.” Pilger, a long time journalist, provides us with a detailed and rather horrifying, in my opinion, look at how political and economic power is used to construct reality, and it’s not a pretty picture. So far in our textbook we’ve looked at socialization and gender and inequality and seen how, in each case power is as a salient factor. It’s true that we call create our reality and reproduce, more or less, but in this unit we really see the extent to which power is concentrated into the hands of a few powerful elites and then utilized to fortify and extend the interests of said elites. Like I said, it’s not a pretty picture, but it is a necessary story to hear. Pilger’s work provides an important corrective to naïve views of the world that either pretend that the social world is a random outcome of evolutionary directives, or that present the individual as solely responsible for the reality around them.

Pilger’s book is in the traditional of critical political journalism and if you have never encountered a book like this, you’ll be in for a treat. It’s quite different than what we might normally expect from a journalist. Whereas  mainstream media focuses on what we might call the “sensational little details of life” (i.e., who will be the next “idol”, what bank has been robbed, what local person has been stabbed or murdered, where the latest flood, tornado, or cyclone has hit, etc.) Pilger takes an extremely critical look at the political, economic and social realities of this world which, as we see in the book, are rather unpleasant. From the callous dispossession of Chagos Islanders in the service of U.S. military interests, to the perpetuation of harsh economic and political oppressions in SA, to the stunning disregard for human life and dignity in India, Pilger’s book is a criminal indictment of the power elite of this planet.

Interestingly, the accuracy of Pilger’s comment is something I can attest to personally. In 2007 my family and I took a six-week trip to South Africa.  It was an interesting trip for me. As a student radical back in the early 80s, I had been active in international efforts to end apartheid (i.e., the military exclusion and oppression of South African native). At that time I had participated in numerous boycotts of Shell gas (a long time supporter and corporate benefiter of apartheid), disrupted the political visits of white South African government officials to our campus, and generally worked to raise awareness and concern for the crimes being committed against natives of the continent. I was studying to be a sociologist at the time when the movie Cry Freedom came out and I was fully aware of the historical significance of the “fall” of apartheid. When apartheid crumbled it was victorious time for a lot of people and I, in my overseas naivety, thought that we had made a difference.

So, you can understand my excitement when, close to a decade later, we boarded a plane for our twenty-eight hour flight to SA. I remember my excitement. I was going to a nation that I had helped “liberate” and was fully expecting to find political and economic emancipation, development, and a new shambhala emerging. I had every intent to visit SOWETO (i.e. the south west townships), talk to blacks, and learn about the struggle that I had (in a very minor and almost caricatured way considering the depth of oppression and suffering experienced by the black South Africans) participated in.

When we arrived I had no untoward opinions. I saw a country dominated by a sea of black faces. Our hosts took us to our lodge and we passed out from the jet lag. However, it wasn’t very long before my illusions of emancipation began to crumble. It started as we drove on the highways past the still prevalent shanty towns where millions of people lived out their lives in tiny shacks thrown together from refuse tin siding. The disillusionment continued as we met the natives of the country. Unfortunately, what we found was not a country where racial, economic, and political equalled ruled but a country where racism was still rampant, where native African’s were underpaid, unemployed, dying from black lung from the bad conditions in the mines, and living in shacks just like they had under Apartheid.

We found a country where the whites believed in the propaganda of “progress” and who didn’t want to hear about black revolutionaries like Steven Biko. We found a country where native Africans were still terrified of the white master. I talked to one African, Peter our driver,[1] from the township of Alexandria, one of the most violent townships in the Josie (i.e., Johannesburg) area. As we drove through the dilapidated townships where blacks were burning car tires and releasing noxious gasses to be inhaled by the children playing nearby (Peter tells me they are after the “previous metals” inside the tires), he said things had improved. He no longer had to worry about being called a chimpanzee and being chained and dragged behind a tractor just for looking at a white man the wrong way. Improvement! However, as I walked through his 400 square foot home (a mansion compared to what others were living in around him) with its six-foot ceiling and black mould problem, I could see there were still problems. Although there had been political and economic “liberation,” the blacks that I met were still treated like slaves. They worked long hours for the equivalent of slave wages and were afraid of repercussions.

While we were there we developed friendships with Sam (an immigrant from Maori) and Julia (a native of South Africa), two black workers at our lodge. Our interactions and conversations with them were very  enlightening. These two individuals spent a lot of time with my wife and I. We talked, we laughed, and we made supper for them almost every night we were there. We invited them to sit at our dinner table with us and they reluctantly (at first) agreed to. From them we learned the realities of South African not only from the conversations we had but also from the behaviours we observed. What was most interesting for me was that despite the fact that our white hosts claimed “enlightenment,” the blacks that worked for them in the lodge were still terrified of their masters. When the white South Africans joined us for supper, the blacks would not sit at our table. They simply refused. We, my wife and I, invited and cajoled, assured them there would be no repercussions, and even spoke to our white hosts but still Sam, Julia, and Peter would not sit with us. They believed, probably correctly, that if they overstepped the boundaries that still existed between white and black, they would be punished. Of course, it was no longer legal to drag them behind trackers, but given the high rates of unemployment and the lack of a social safety net, losing their job was tantamount to a sentence of slow, grinding death.

And it wasn’t just at the lodge we observed this behaviour. One night my driver got me lost on the way to a gathering. It was raining, the streets were poorly lit, and not surprisingly he lost his way. He drove me around for a long time trying to find his way to our destination and during the course of events you could see his panic and discomfort grow. Riding in the front of the car, I asked him at least ten times to phone our hosts and have them give us direction but he refused. He was too scarred.


Perhaps he knew that “failure to perform” would be punished. He would lose his job and very likely lose additional opportunities for employment. If he didn’t get me to my destination under his own steam, it would be a disaster. There would be no forgiveness for him. There would be no support. There would be judgment and condemnation without trial or defence and he was right. When we arrived at our destination, I saw it as clear as day in the face of my host as he glared with hatred and condemnation at helpless Peter who had committed the unforgivable “sin” of getting lost in the darkness. Of course, appearances had to be maintained and as soon as my host saw that I was looking at his face, a smile was forced and an illusion was erected. But it was too late. I had seen through the façade to the ugly reality below.

After the excitement of the trip over to South Africa, and after the powerful expectation of change and social advance that I brought with me, the experience was deflating to say the least. To think that all that global struggle and effort had basically amounted to nothing was disappointing. As Pilger points out in his book, nothing had really changed. Of course, the brutalist of oppressions were gone, and it’s true the elites had changed skin color (some black South African’s could now be seen driving the high status Mercedes Benz), but other than that, little had changed. The face of South Africa remains the smiling face of Apartheid. A pleasing and privileged reality for a few, grinding hardship and slow painful decay for the masses.

Surprised, deflated, but not confused, I left South Africa. Even before reading Pilger, I understood what had happened. Power plays an important role in our ability to create the world and no doubt power had been at work here. Local and global economic interests had mostly prevailed over the desire to help people. Change did not extend much beyond the façade. In South Africa, the same single middle class female who victoriously claims spiritual enlightenment, and runs around proclaiming “it’s all good, it’s all part of the plan” is unwilling to lift a finger to clean her own house and has not one, but two black housekeepers. In South Africa, jewel of Africa and shining example of social change, status is still measured by the height of your fencing and the vast majority of native South African’s still live in fear.

Of course, this is an old story and my experience, and Pilger’s documentation, provide only a few examples of a pattern of power, privilege, and abuse that spins a ten thousand year tail of woe. There are a thousand more examples from all levels, from all points in history. Political corruption, the oppression of a weaker people, violence, the rule of law used to justify criminal acts, Canada’s own ignominious history with it’s native population, and on and on. History is filled with this and while it is true that there are lots of examples of social and economic progress for the underprivileged of this world, and although we can point to advances in the status of women, or the successes of trade unions, and even the political advances of spiritual leaders like Mahatma Ghandi who organized the overthrow of colonial British rule in India, nevertheless the fact remains—injustice is rampant.

Now as a student of sociology you can make of this what you will. Although I have my own opinions here, it is not my desire to cast a moral judgment over all this, but to simply highlight the truth of it, a truth that is hidden from us by our grade school history books and our mainstream media. For better or worse, this truly is a world we create, but it’s not without its problems. Whether it’s through the reproduction of gender, the socialization of our children, imposition of hidden curriculum in school, activities in the lodges, work we do for our political parties, or the activities of the economic elites we, more or less, create the world—but not with equal force. As we study sociology we must always attend to the fact that some of us clearly have more power to create than others. Sociology is the study of how we create the world but since power is a central feature of our creative efforts, sociology is also the study of power.

And that’s how we end the course. With a collection of stories about how the world is created—a picture of the creation of the world at the top levels by those with the power to move mountains. It is not a pretty picture to leave you with, but it a useful ending for this course and although you may agree or disagree with the politics and the outcomes, you can’t argue with the basic point. We do (more or less depending on our power and understanding) create and/or reproduce the social world we live in.

Of course, although we end the course here, this is not really an end. In fact, it is only the beginning. Although I came into sociology naïve, unaware of the wider realities of world, I knew after my first sociology class I could never go back to sleep. I was hooked and I wanted to know more. I wanted to know more about power, inequality, gender, stratification, and how it all worked together. I loved it so much that I went on to complete advanced degrees in sociology. I have never regretted it. Although at times it has been a depressing and negative journey, it also been enlightening and empowering. In ending this course it is my hope that I have conveyed to you some of my passion and love for sociology. I also hope I have provided you with a new way of looking at the world that will provide you with a useful and empowering perspective on things. Whether or not you go on to take another sociology course, whether you decide to pursue a degree, or whether or not you move into graduate study remember, we create the world we live in. As such we can participate in the world that’s already there, or we can (by changing your thinking and your behaviours, by working with others to improve the world) work to change it. It may not be easy, and you may encounter resistance, but it is possible.

Assignment: Commentary on Pilger

There are two parts to this assignment.

Part one (1600 to 2000 words): Choose one chapter from the book Freedom Next Time (however make sure you read the whole book, you will base asked general questions about it on the final) and provide a four to five, double space, type written essay on it. Provide a summary of the contents of the chapter, outline the common themes, and then provide a discussion of your chosen chapter in the context of the main theme of this course which is that sociology is the study of the world that we create. Ask yourself the question, how does approaching the topics of Pilger’s book from a sociological perspective help you to understand and contextualize the story he tells. Tell us what you think about Pilger’s story and be sure to use relevant themes from the course where appropriate including concepts like power, socialization, gender, inequality, the social construction of reality, deviance, race and ethnicity, and so on.

Part two (800-1200 words): Compare and Contrast Pilger with Hathaway. Although one is fiction and one is fact, many of the same themes are explored in both both (Imperialism, violence, etc.). Spend two or three typed pages highlighting and exploring the common themes you see in both.

Study Questions

  1. What is the difference between being a skeptical globalizer and being anti-American?
  2. How would you define ‘terrorism’? Why is it difficult to come up with a definition that is relatively politically ‘neutral’?
  3. What elements are necessary for you to say that a particular country is ‘democratic’?
  4. Do you think that neoliberal policies of organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund automatically lead to the weakening of the economy and social fabric of Third World nations?
  5. What is meant in the textbook by the statement that: ‘Thin democracy might be spreading, but broad democracy really is not.’
  6. Discuss this statement: Technology is never socially neutral.
  7. People are not necessarily consistent in adhering to one of the five positions concerning social change. They might adhere to modernism in terms of medical technology, but to conservatism in terms of the environment. What are ways in which you differ in the position that you take? Does it follow a ‘technology good’ but ‘social forms changing’ bad pattern?
  8. Discuss the following statement from Neil Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), page 20: ‘New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop.’
  9. One of the most important social concepts in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek (in all its variations) is the prime directive. While it is never clearly stated, the sense is that Starfleet should not interfere with the ‘natural development’ of cultures (particularly pre-warp drive cultures) that their representatives encounter in space. How does this reflect the evolutionist model of social change?
  10. Do you think that ‘fashion’ changes (i.e., changes that are not advances, movement backwards, adaptations, or advances for some and movements backwards for others) are just to promote sales, or is there more to it than that?

[1] My family and I were not allowed to rent our own vehicle and drive ourselves around while in Johannesburg. The reason? ? Too dangerous!! In the web of hiways and shanty towns that surround Johannesburg, it’s too easy for foreigners to get lost and end up on the wrong street corner where car hijackings and murders are, because of the grinding economic hardship, daily affairs.

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