Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Independent: taking Obama's justifications at face value

Here's another piece of appalling propaganda from Britain's most progressive newspaper:

"And so Mr Obama presented the humanitarian argument as the main justification for intervention"

Of course he did! As I pointed out in my previous article:

Throughout history leaders have used humanitarian rhetoric to justify and legitimise their imperial goals. As Noam Chomsky explains:

"The French were carrying out a "civilizing mission", Mussolini was nobly uplifting the Ethiopians. If we had records from Genghis Khan when he was massacring tens of millions of people, he probably also had a "noble vision". See if you can find an exception"(Chomsky, 2005, 'Imperial Ambitions', Penguin Group, p.118).

Unsurprisingly, the Independent article takes for granted that Obama's stated goals are his real goals (despite the fact there is very credible evidence that Libya is being attacked for rapacious reasons) and focuses on whether his noble objectives can be achieved.

In 1984 Orwell showed how easily friends and enemies change their roles. There are many examples: before the Gulf War Saddam was supported despite his disgusting human rights record, but his human rights abuses were used to justify the war when he threatened Western oil interests by invading Kuwait. 'Our' leaders also supported the brutal dictator Manuel Noriega, despite the fact that he was involved in the drugs trade, because he was useful in the war against Nicaragua.  In 1984 and 1989 he stole both elections in a similar fashion. On the first occasion he was supported and praised; on the second he was vilified and the way was prepared for the invasion of Panama in December 1989.  The reason for such hypocrisy is clear: in every case it is because the henchman has asserted his independence from his boss in Washington. "It's all quite predictable, as study after study shows. A brutal tyrant crosses the line from admirable friend to 'villain' and 'scum' when he commits the crime of independence" (Chomsky, N. 'What Uncle Sam Really Wants', 1992, p.51).

 Two other Independent articles also provide a brilliant example of this warped perspective:

Now that Gaddafi has given up his nukes, paid for Lockerbie and come in from the cold, the good he has done to his country is easier to see. He was a driving force in the successful bid by Opec, back in 1973, to force Western oil companies to pay real money for oil, at a stroke multiplying the state's revenue many fold. This was an initiative that is still the great exemplar for all poor countries endowed with mineral wealth, and the great dread of those who plunder them. He oversaw the Great Man-Made River project, bringing millions of litres of "fossil water" a day from aquifers deep under the Sahara via four metre-wide pipes to the coastal belt where 90 per cent of Libya's nearly six million people live. He created an NHS-type health service, and raised the literacy rate from 17 per cent to 80. He threw open his nation's borders to Africa, to prove that his pan-Africa rhetoric was not just moonshine.

  23 February 2011
To neutralise threats, Colonel Gaddafi became a master of divide and rule, bribing the Wafalla to stay loyal while ensuring that other tribes and ethnicities were at daggers drawn with each other. … At the same time, he built up brutal paramilitary forces and recruited a spying network of formidable size and prominence even by Middle Eastern standards. You could not walk down a street in Tripoli without remarking on the amazing number of young men with nothing better to do than lean against walls and gaze around. Long-term watchers of Colonel Gaddafi remember the way he toyed with sub-Saharan Africa, championing the notion of Africa United - while his own citizens treated the Africans on their doorstep worse than dirt.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Bombing Libya: saving lives or pursuing empire?

"We own half the world, 'oh say can you see,'
and the name of our profits is Democracy
So like it or not you will have to be free,
'Cause we're the cops of the world, boys, we're the cops of the world." - Phil Ochs, 'Cops of the World' (1965)


Throughout history leaders have used humanitarian rhetoric to justify and legitimise their imperial goals. As Noam Chomsky explains:

"The French were carrying out a "civilizing mission", Mussolini was nobly uplifting the Ethiopians. If we had records from Genghis Khan when he was massacring tens of millions of people, he probably also had a "noble vision". See if you can find an exception"(Chomsky, 2005, 'Imperial Ambitions', Penguin Group, p.118).

The voices of those being massacred were always ignored. However, as the European empires crumbled in the aftermath of the Second World War, the oppressed consciousness of the colonial people was incorporated into the new theories of 'postcolonialism' that were being developed by writers such as Frantz Fannon and Edward Said. No longer was it considered respectable to portray the victims of colonialism as savage hordes that needed to be "civilised" for their own good.

In recent years, however, the claim that imperialism is primarily about power and profit has been pushed to the margins by stentorian sophists who feel no compunction about promoting the US as the benevolent empire. A concomitant issue that emerges from this new kind of political discourse, argues Anchin Vanaik,

"is also a much greater willingness to reassess in a much more favourable manner previous imperialisms such as the Pax Britannica with a view to providing historical insight and advice on how a Pax Americana can be instituted. Niall Ferguson's recent works are but one striking example of this turn toward a modern form of the "White Man's Burden" - the claim that British imperialism was (and by analogy US imperial behaviour today is) in fact primarily of benefit to its supposed victims, the colonized, rather than the colonizers."(Vaniak (ed), 2007,'Selling US Wars', Arris Books, p.1)

The notion that 'our' governments invade other countries to liberate rather than exploit or oppress is also ubiquitous in the mainstream media. The BBC’s Mark Mardell, for example, echoed Ferguson when he pondered on why 'our' leaders decided to use military force to interfere in Libya's internal affairs:

“They felt it was their duty to intervene. We don't focus on this nearly enough.

Why does the West feel this way, when no one else does? Is it a legacy of the enlightenment, a sense of responsibility and shared humanity? Or does it follow from colonialism, a feeling that it is their role to rule, that there is still a version of Kipling's "White Man's Burden", - the "savage wars of peace" - even if it is defined by geography, not colour.”

Some defenders of the doctrine of good intentions are willing to accept that colonialism was bad and that hundreds of thousands of people may have been slaughtered in Afghanistan and Iraq for rapacious reasons, but things are different this time, they argue. Our leaders really do care about democracy and human rights.

How can we put our leaders' sincerity to the test? The best way is to apply the technique pioneered by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky known as the study of paired examples. Simply put, we can consider how they respond to situations where it would be easy to help promote democracy and human rights, and situations where it is more difficult. Ian Sinclair makes the point well:

“Moreover, to effect change in Libya, the US has to actively and aggressively act by deploying billions of pounds of military hardware against an enemy regime. In contrast, to quicken "reform and democratisation" in Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia the US merely needs to stop supporting and arming friendly dictatorships”.

When Tony Blair was interviewed by Time magazine in 2001, shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan, he could not refute the charge of hypocrisy:

Time: Your wife chaired a press conference about the bad treatment of women in Afghanistan. What about Saudi Arabia? Do you approve of the way women are treated there?

Blair: I'm not going to get in the business of attacking the Saudi system.

Time: but you do attack the Afghan system.

Blair: Yes, but we are in a conflict with the Taliban regime...At the present time I don't think it's very helpful for us to tell the Saudis how they should live. (Time: 10 December 2001)

Clearly, then, Britain and the US will support any regime, no matter how brutal, that benefits most the economic interests of Western elites. In conlusion, the Pursuit of empire and the promotion of democracy and human rights are completely incompatible. Those who argue that ‘we’ need to do something about Libya must remember this.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Why do journalists and politicians care so much about the 'plight of the white working class'?

In recent years, journalists and politicians have drawn attention to what they describe as the "plight of the white working class." According to Leo McKinstry, for example,

“Anti-racism has become the central theme of today's political culture, yet the obsessive concern for racial sensitivities rarely seems to be applied to the white working class. This is the one ethnic group that it is perfectly acceptable to insult and ignore.

Once regarded as the backbone of Britain, the people who saved our country in two world wars, the indigenous, less affluent, sector of the population is now treated with contempt by liberal elitists, who sneer at the supposed idleness, vulgarity, xenophobia and ignorance of so-called "chavs" or "white trash”.

Hazel Blears added: “White working-class people living on estates sometimes just don't feel anyone is listening or speaking up for them"

On surface these concerns seem legitimate. The term 'white working class’, however, is actually an oxymoron.  That is to say, it is primarily used to blame immigrants and ethnic minorities for the social and economic problems that are caused by the inequalities which exist within the 'indigenous' white population. Poor people from different ethnic groups do experience oppression quantitatively and qualitatively in different ways, but we need to understand how these forms of oppression function within the overarching system of class exploitation.

What is class exploitation? To answer this question we need to draw on the work of Karl Marx. Marx explained that one's class position was defined by how one stood in relation to the means of production. In every society (except the most primitive) those who own and control the means of production (farms, mines, factories tools etc.) are the ruling class and those who do not own them are exploited because they have no choice but to produce food, housing, clothing and so on for those who do.

For Marx, the conflict between workers and a small, wealthy class of non-producers was the driving force of human history and the conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie would be the culmination of this struggle. The proletariat that Marx was writing about has obviously become more heterogeneous over the last few decades as more and more of us now work in offices and the service industry.

Therefore, argues Professor Michael Bray (2008, in 'The Office and Philosophy', p.120), "the clear dualism that underlay Marx's reading of modern society - the antagonism between the capitalists, who own the means of production, and the working class, which owns nothing but it's labo(u)r - seems to vanish into a mass of workers of different grades, positions and powers". It is fair to say that Bray is guilty of hyperbole. Changes in the world of work have tended to neutralise 'class for itself', but 'class in itself' remains intact. Certainly, in the West at least, the revolution that Marx prophesied does seem to be a long way off but if we focus on trying to erode the root cause of social and economic problems - i.e. the huge gap between the rich and the poor - we remain within the framework of class conflict.

However, when we talk about the 'white working class' the exact opposite becomes true. The term 'white working class' allows people to deny that they possess the state of mind which psychologists have called 'ethnocentric'. Journalists and politicians claim that they are not racist, but when they focus on the reasons why it so difficult for poor white people to find decent jobs and affordable housing they, deliberately or otherwise, stay silent about class conflict and thrust race and immigration to the centre of the stage. This is the main reason why there is a huge gap between prejudice and reality. A recent Populus survey revealed that 48% of us would consider supporting a new anti-immigration party. This is shocking, but xenophobia in Britain has a long history.  A hundred years ago, for instance, it was just as ubiquitous as it is today. Robert Tressell explained why in his classic novel, 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists':

"The papers they read were filled with vague and alarming accounts (about) the enormous number of aliens constantly arriving, and their destitute conditions, how they lived, the crimes they committed, and the injury they did to British trade. These were the seeds which, cunningly sewn in their minds, caused to grow up within them a bitter undiscriminating hatred of foreigners"(1993 [1914], p. 23).

The 'aliens' who were being used as scapegoats back then are our ancestors, and those are who are inveighed against in today's papers are the relatives of future generations. The question we need to ask ourselves then is, will we continue to let the seeds of bitterness and hatred grow in our minds or will we see our common bond as workers facing those who are really responsible for the problems we care about?

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Is left-wing bias written through the BBC's DNA? Or is Peter Sissons in need of serious medical attention?

After nearly a decade, Paul Reynolds has left his position as world affairs correspondent for BBC online news and in his final article about the future of journalism, he claims that the internet has reinforced the BBC's commitment to balance and impartiality. His argument provides a good example of the fallacy known as the argumentum ad temperantiam:

"I engaged in quite long e-mail correspondences with various critics. Of these, I remember an American living in London who thought the BBC very overrated and very leftist. On the other side was Media Lens, whose editors and contributors believe that the BBC is a corporatist supporter of the establishment.

"Both, in fact, had corrections to offer and lessons to teach. But the BBC could not survive if it took advice solely from either of them."

By framing the issue of bias as a debate between two opposing extremes, Reynolds allows the BBC to emerge as a fair and balanced institution that overcomes the errors but incorporates the elements of truth in the cases put by both groups.

Some people including, Peter Sissons, do argue that BBC is inherently very leftist. However, as the British historian Mark Curtis puts it, if Sissons "really believes this, then I apologise for saying that I think he needs serious medical attention. There is overwhelming evidence that the BBC and commercial television news report on Britain's foreign policy in ways that resemble straightforward state propaganda organs" ('Web of Deceit', 2003, p.379). To elaborate, 'our' leaders' justifications for invading Iraq and Afghanistan are believed to be pure and basically identical to those presented in official discourse. Consider the following examples:

"The coalition came to Iraq in the first place to bring democracy and human rights” (Paul Wood, defence correspondent, BBC1, News at Ten, December 22, 2005).

"Tony Blair passionately believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and posed a grave threat." (Reeta Chakrabarti, BBC1, Six O’Clock News, February 24, 2009).

The war in Afghanistan is "not just about women's rights or more clinics and schools. It's about stitching the fabric of a nation together" (George Alagiah, BBC News at Ten Wednesday, 17 November, 2010)

When I wrote to Helen Boaden, the Director of BBC News, to point out the BBC should not marginalise the credible claim that George Bush invaded Iraq and Afghanistan for rapacious reasons, she sent me this reply: "We don't agree with point you make because it is simply a fact that Bush has tried to export democracy..." (Email, January 08, 2008).

Journalists are free to question the attainability of democracy or the wisdom of those who try to 'export' it - but questioning the purity of the motivations or their legitimacy places oneself outside the parameters of respectable debate. Bridget Kendall made it clear that she understands this when she asked: "Was it (the Iraq war) justified or a disastrous miscalculation?’(The Six O’Clock News of March 20, 2006). The suggestion that many innocent men, women and children continue to be killed in Iraq and Afghanistan primarily for oil, power and profit is not even considered to be worthy of serious attention let alone presented to the public as fact.

Paradoxically, when Kendall et al focus on the actions of those who have been designated official enemies - including Hamas, Iran , Venezuela and Russia, the exact opposite is true. They often demonise them and do not feel the need to present their proclaimed intentions as their real goals. Vis-a-vis, they try to find "hidden" economic and strategic goals. For example, Emily Maitlis described Russia's justifications for invading Georgia in 2008 as "the kind of Newspeak that would make George Orwell proud" (Newsnight, August 11, 2008).

Bridget Kendall added:

“And that opens up the question of whether Russia's humanitarian justifications were always only a pretext.

"Or was this operation part of a much more ambitious plan to reassert Russian control over a region Moscow has for centuries claimed as its rightful sphere of influence, and which it feared was about to be turned - by the Americans - into a Nato outpost in the Caucasus?”

Restricting the question to whether Russia's invasion of Georgia was "justified or a disastrous miscalculation" would, of course, place Kendall outside the bounds of respectable debate.

Reynolds may believe that the internet has made the BBC's news output more balanced and impartial but on every major issue, including the economy, it continues to act as a conduit for elite opinion. Or to put it another way, the fact that the most important people at the BBC continue to be appointed by the government ensures that pro-establishment bias is written through the BBC's very DNA.