A notable feature of the liberal press is the columnist who speaks loftily of ‘geopolitics’, prosecuting war on ‘successful military terms’, and of ‘global threats’ from ‘rogue states’, while also espousing humane values including an apparent concern for the ‘gap in living standards between the rich and poor worlds’. The turn of the year, in particular, is a time when commentators set forth grand visions of what may lie ahead in the next twelve months, all within an established framework of unspoken assumptions:
a. Political leaders truly are motivated to close the ‘great chasm’ between rich and poor.
b. A ‘healthy’ economy can ‘support’ a war, such as that planned by Bush/Blair on Iraq (rather than relying on war, sold as ‘humanitarian intervention’, to maintain economic hegemony).
c. ‘Pressure points’ of regional tension, such as Afghanistan, India/Pakistan and Korea have a ‘sad inevitability’ about them, largely because ‘we’ in the West haven’t paid ‘proper attention’ to such places.
d. Usage of ‘we’ typically refers, not to the general population, but to elite interests and their cheerleaders in the media and the intellectual community.
Brimming with expertise in international relations and economics, the specialist commentator suffers from a profound inability to relate his or her vision of ‘geopolitics’ and the world economy to the true human misery that it entails. A recent piece by Hamish McRae, economics correspondent of The Independent, managed to display all the afore-mentioned features within the space of about 1200 words in an article titled, ‘A year when more realistic expectations should not lead to disappointment’. (The Independent, January 1, 2003)
“Last year seemed dispiriting”, McRae writes, “because so few of the problems of the beginning of the year were solved”, although at least the “war in Afghanistan” was successful “in military terms”. The “war”, of course, was a massacre. The “triumph” involved the scattering of an enraged terrorist diaspora from Afghanistan around the world, about 5,000 direct Afghan deaths from US bombing, and many tens of thousands of indirect deaths from starvation and disease (no one was counting). McRae recognises that “the chief quarry [Osama bin Laden] remains at large and the terrorist threat continues”, contradicting his claim that the massacre was “successful in military terms”, given that removing bin Laden and the al-Qaeda threat were the stated war aims of Washington and London.
“We have become too gloomy in recent months”, writes McRae, “not because what has been happening is especially disturbing but because we had unreasonable expectations”. This is the classic conflation of “we, the leaders” and “we, the general population” that is one of the hallmarks of authoritarian, indeed fascist, societies, as the anarchist Rudolf Rocker observed:
“Just as the ‘will of God’ has always been the will of the priests who transmitted and interpreted it to the people, so the ‘will of the nation’ could be only the will of those who happened to have the reigns of public power in their hands and were, consequently, in a position to transmit and interpret the ‘common will’ in their own way.” (Rudolf Rocker, ‘Culture and Nationalism’, Michael E. Coughlan, 1978, p.178)
‘Our’ gloom, in fact, is a gloom manufactured by our leaders through the endless hyping of ‘terror threats’. It is a shameless deception consciously designed to terrorise the populace into obedience for war. The true source of McRae’s reference to ‘gloom’ is the political and media propaganda system working in perfect harmony, as the Observer inadvertently makes clear:
“‘Happy New Fear,’ screamed one newspaper headline last Wednesday. ‘We’re all doomed,’ said another. Other Fleet Street gloom-mongers promised a ‘grim’ or ‘nightmare’ 2003 after Tony Blair had warned in a sober new year message: ‘I cannot recall a time when Britain was confronted, simultaneously, by such a range of difficult and dangerous problems’.” (Ben Summerskill, ‘Cheery Britons grin through warnings of imminent gloom’, the Observer, January 5, 2003)
McRae adds: “What is happening in the Middle East is profoundly disturbing, but it was just as disturbing three years ago. Back then we just weren’t paying proper attention.”
‘We’ certainly weren’t paying proper attention – UNSCOM arms inspectors reported Iraq 90-95% disarmed of weapons of mass distraction in 1998, but Iraq was ferociously bombed anyway in Operation Desert Fox. The press failed to ask the usual obvious questions and what amounts to a medieval siege of the country was allowed to continue with barely a murmur of dissent. What was happening in Iraq wasn’t “profoundly disturbing” then because it didn’t serve elite interests – but we, particularly the media, are “paying proper attention” now, on the command of Bush and Blair.
McRae makes a bold attempt to account for the breathtaking hypocrisy of Western responses to different ‘crises’:
“An important distinction can be made… between tensions that may create misery for the region but are unlikely to affect the rest of the world, and those that pose a global threat. Into the former category come the wars of sub-Saharan Africa; into the latter comes North Korea’s nuclear arms programme.”
An important distinction can also be made between crises that threaten Western interests and those that do not. If we check we will find that “global threats” turn out to be threats to Western interests, whereas tensions that merely “create misery for the region” are either of no consequence to the West or promote our goals. The Russian obliteration of Chechnya, for example, falls into the second category and therefore elicits the customary media shrug of indifference. Strictly speaking there are no problems as such, only power-problems – problems defined as such by power. Blair said of Chechnya in 2000:
“Well, they [the Russian government] have been taking their action for the reasons they’ve set out because of the terrorism that has happened in Chechnya. We’ve been calling for restraint in the Russian action, but this is a fight that has been going on – a civil war within Russia.” (Blair, quoted, The Guardian, March 15, 2000)
Consequently, Chechnya is not a crisis or a problem for our media.
The possibility that the vast military might of the United States residing in the hands of right-wing hawks might “pose a global threat” is illogical by definition – the US/UK are the sources that define threats for the media, and so cannot themselves be a threat. The tragi-comedy of all this becomes clear when we reflect that the impoverished, famine-stricken hulk of North Korea is instead chosen as a “global threat”, one that justifies investing $238 billion over the next 15-25 years to guard against its predicted national suicide bid, to be made by attacking the US with ballistic missiles. None of us should expect happy endings when this level of insanity is able to prevail. As the US economist and media analyst Edward Herman notes:
“The readiness with which the media and intellectuals adapt to and serve their leaders’ rampaging surprises many who don’t grasp the extent to which the corporate media are a part of the imperial enterprise and structure and how naturally the intellectual community accepts and works within the parameters fixed by imperial needs. If the structure of imperialism gives the United States the power to impose its will in many foreign locales, its institutions and intelligentsia will, as a matter of course, normalize and support the ensuing projection of power.” (Herman, ‘Nation-Busting Euphoria, Nation-Building Fatigue’, Z Magazine, December 2002)
Here in the UK, the ‘liberal’ press praise Tony Blair for his role as ‘peacemaker’. An editorial in The Independent on Sunday, which declares itself unequivocally against war in Iraq (which is not the same thing as reporting facts and voices that offend power and make war less likely), states: “The Prime Minister, to his credit, has so far shown caution, wanting to give diplomacy a chance.” Blair is praised for acting as a brake on George Bush and his warmongering advisers:
“Fortunately, Mr Bush’s deeds in the 15 months since the terrorist attacks have been more measured than his sometimes intemperate language. He overruled his most hawkish advisers, choosing to deal with Saddam Hussein through the UN.” (‘If there is to be a war, the world needs to know why’, editorial, The Independent on Sunday, 15 December, 2002)
Undiscussed, as ever, is the possibility that the best way of “acting as a brake” on George Bush would be to join Germany and France and deny the US the vital ally that lends its actions an air of ‘respectability’. Similarly, the press has conveniently forgotten that it was Blair who urged Clinton to lift the brake by calling for a bloody ground war against Serbia in lift 1999. The conclusion that might be drawn from these two examples – that Blair is an audacious opportunist willing to do whatever it takes to serve his own power interests – might have been made by a genuine opposition party. Alas, it goes unheard now because Blair himself destroyed all mainstream opposition to power when his coup transformed the Labour Party into the Conservative Party with a smiley face – Blair’s original and defining example of political opportunism at everyone else’s expense.
Notice also that Washington’s bombing raids against Afghanistan – at a time when 7.5 million Afghans were facing death from starvation – constitutes a ‘measured’ response, according to the Independent. Mass violence initiated by the West genuinely does seem ‘measured’ to liberal editors because the idea that ‘we’ are benign is immovably entrenched in their psyches, no matter what ‘we’ do, and the people we kill just do not register very highly on the liberal scale of human tragedy. The sight of people leaping to their deaths from giant skyscrapers in New York rightly sends a dagger of compassion through the heart, but reports of countless thousands of women and children frozen in the snows of Afghanistan, or lying incinerated in their houses in Iraq are merely ‘unfortunate’. To be sure, our compassion for them is ‘measured’. The Iraqi gassing of 5,000 people at Halabja was a monstrous “crime against humanity” from which lessons must be learned; the US slaughter of 2-3 million peasants during the Vietnam War was an example of “blundering efforts to do good”. One of the fundamental errors of our time is the assumption that because the suffering we inflict on ‘them’ stirs no great compassion in ‘us’, it is of no great importance to anyone, perhaps not even to ‘them’. But it does matter and there is always, eventually, a terrible price to be paid for unthinking cruelty in the cause of greed.
The idea of Blair “the peacemaker” ignores the reality that Bush and Blair represent two wings of the same US-UK War Party, with Blair playing the crucial role of ‘independent’ propagandist for Bush: presenting, for example, the infamous dossiers on alleged links between Osama bin Laden and 9-11 (used to ‘justify’ an attack on Afghanistan) and Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. Of the latter contribution from Blair, Robert Fisk wrote in the Independent:
“It’s difficult, reading the full report, to know whether to laugh or cry. The degree of deceit and duplicity in its production speaks of the trickery that informs the Blair government and its treatment of MPs.” (‘The dishonesty of this so-called dossier, The Independent, September 25, 2002)
Turning to the threat of a devastating war against Iraq, McRae is preoccupied with the possible impacts, not on twenty-three million already suffering Iraqi people, but on the global economy:
“The highest estimates of the costs of a Middle East war, which include a sharp rise in the oil price, are around $600bn. That would be equivalent to only about six months’ natural growth. But if supplies were to be seriously disrupted and the oil price were to rise to, say, $80 a barrel, then a serious world recession would follow.”
McRae deserves credit for pointing out one good reason not to go to war: the likelihood of a global recession (See Milan Rai’s excellent recent book, ‘War Plan Iraq’, Verso, London, 2002, for nine other good reasons). He adds ambiguously: “Take that threat out and the world economic output appears less gloomy.”
No mention is made of the two hundred and fifty thousand victims of the last Gulf War, or of the real possibility of half a million people being killed in a new US-led attack on Iraq. McRae’s only gesture in this direction is a token remark to the effect that, “Provided economic growth is maintained the world can ‘pay for’ a war – insofar as one can ever pay for the loss of human lives.” Meanwhile, international aid organisations have warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe” in the event of war generating perhaps one million refugees.
That a liberal analyst can write a ‘sober’ piece on ‘geopolitics’, lightly passing over the prospects for death and suffering of millions of people should come as no surprise, indeed it is the norm. Compassion is deemed an obstacle to accurate reporting in the media, a sign of ‘committed’ journalism. This is claimed to be on the grounds that emotion impedes objectivity. Historian Howard Zinn indicates the fallacy of the argument:
“True, emotion can distort. But it can also enhance. If one of the functions of the scholar [or journalist] is accurate description, then it is impossible to describe a war both unemotionally and accurately at the same time… Thus, exactly from the standpoint of what intellect is supposed to do for us – to extend the boundaries of our understanding – the ‘cool, rational, unemotional’ approach fails.” (The Zinn Reader – Writings on Disobedience and Democracy, Seven Stories Press, 1997, p.506)
The real reason compassion makes editors and journalists cringe is that it betrays the priorities of the writer – someone susceptible to compassion might not toe the line, might not keep quiet and play by the cynical rules of the game.
“It is very hard to be confident about geopolitics at this moment but, at a more narrow economic level, expect another year of adjustment – and by the start of 2004 the world should be ready for better growth.”
There is a place for discussion of war “at a narrow economic level”, but surely not also at a narrow moral level. And yet we live in a society where discussion of war almost always proceeds as if the consequences were to be played out on a computer, with the blood and suffering erased at ‘shut down’. Is it possible that we are actually living in a kind of moral dark age? We know that political parties across the world, particularly in the US and UK, have converged like never before under the pressure of big business. We know that the influence of the ‘bottom line’ in society and culture has reached awesome levels under the weight of the world’s giant corporations. How might this influence our capacity for moral thought?
The problem with the ‘bottom line’ is that it treats the world as a kind of abstract accounting version of the real thing. Robert Hinkley, who spent 23 years as a corporate securities attorney, explains that corporate law ensures that the people who run corporations “have a legal duty to shareholders, and that duty is to make money”. Failing this duty, Hinkley writes, can leave directors and officers open to being sued by shareholders:
“Corporate law thus casts ethical and social concerns as irrelevant, or as stumbling blocks to the corporation’s fundamental mandate. That’s the effect the law has inside the corporation. Outside the corporation the effect is more devastating. It is the law that leads corporations to actively disregard harm to all interests other than those of shareholders. When toxic chemicals are spilled, forests destroyed, employees left in poverty, or communities devastated through plant shutdowns, corporations view these as unimportant side effects outside their area of concern. But when the company’s stock price dips, that’s a disaster.” (Hinkley, ‘How Corporate Law Inhibits Social Responsibility’, January/February 2002 issue of Business Ethics, see articles section www.medialens.org)
The awesome truth of our time is that global society is in the grip of a system of economic and political power that views human suffering and impending environmental collapse as incidental to the core issues of revenues generated and costs incurred. This, surely, is why compassion, concern for our victims in war, and dissent, are also almost nowhere to be seen in the corporate mass media.
There is no hope in the systems of institutionalised greed somehow reforming themselves. But there is hope, enormous hope, in our power as individual human beings to force change by speaking out, by exposing the deceptions and corruption we experience, by putting aside our selfish concerns and working to relieve the suffering of others.
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