Pilger Book Review


Freedom Next Time – Resisting the Empire.  John Pilger.  Nation Books, New York, 2007.

 

John Pilger is one of the foremost journalists today who, in the current vernacular, ‘walks the walk’.   He has been to most of the world’s hotspots, and whether or not the standard media has considered them ‘hot’, has revealed much of the truth behind the cynical and disguised if not hidden rhetoric of politicians, businessmen, and, discouragingly, former freedom fighters.  In Freedom Next Time, Pilger explores five countries, exposing the contradictions between the actions viewed by the people of the land and the words of rationalization supplied by the politicians. 

 

Pilger starts very directly and succinctly, stating with his very opening line, “This book is about empire, its facades and the enduring struggle of people for their freedom.”  He examines two empires working in unison, the American, globally powerful after a quick post war ascendancy, accompanied with a heavy dose of remnant British Imperialism, the two combining in all areas to some degree or other.  The introduction discusses the changes of viewpoint created within the media, the dichotomy of ‘ours’ and ‘the other’, formed in part by the spin of what is reported as newsworthy and what is ignored.   The current American government’s political devices are reminiscent of approaching fascism, especially as one considers George Bush’s considerable powers with his ‘presidential signing statements’ most recently used with “The National Security and Homeland Security Presidential Directive,” giving him virtual unitary power over all facets of government in an emergency (signed May 9, 2007).  The current liberalism cloaks a renewed pride in empire, the rhetoric of bringing freedom, democracy, and capitalist free-market structures to the world (mostly the latter). 

 

Freedom Next Time is a story of the majority of people looking for their own individual peace and security, away from the grip of encroaching empires, in spite of the weaknesses of their own governments.  And it is, ironically, the people, the public, who hold considerable power, if only they were well informed.  The ‘leaders’ of the new militaristic neoliberalism know “that if power was truly invincible it would not fear the people so much as to expend vast resources trying to distract and deceive them.”

 

With his directions clearly stated and outlined, Pilger starts with the mostly unheard of Chagossians.  More than three decades ago, the British and the Americans conspired, colluded, to give the American forces the island of Diego Garcia for a major military base.  Formerly a tropical paradise, free of tropical storms, a sustainable economy and lifestyle, it had, more importantly a large protected natural harbour and plenty of room to build a major airbase.  Through trickery, conniving, and back-room political manoeuvring that kept it out of sight of Parliament, Congress, and the media, the people within the Chagos Archipelago where Diego Garcia is located, were forcefully expelled, tricked into leaving, and refused the right of return (that has a familiar ring to it).  Pilger fills in many of the details of “La lutte” (“struggle” in French) calling it a “crime that allows us to glimpse how great power works behind its respectable, democratic façade and helps us to understand how much of the world is run for the benefit of the powerful, and how governments justify their actions with lies.”   Much of the criticism here is directed at the British crown, whose “collusion demonstrates where elite royalty so often lies – not with the home country, its citizens or its democratic institutions, but with a rapacious foreign regime seeking to occupy sovereign territory for reasons it wishes to conceal from its own people.”  Harsh words, but accurate.

 

Used as a prime military base, its location in the centre of the Indian Ocean gives it paramount strategic importance to the United States for controlling, or attempting to control, the strategic resources of the Middle East.  Unfortunately, it is entirely an illegal occupation.  The Chagossians have persisted with their court actions, succeeding in receiving the right to return in 2000, and just recently (May 23, 2007), after many trips to court because of various appeals, had that right upheld.  What remains to be seen is whether there will be still more appeals (which from the obvious illegality of the initial action should probably just be thrown out) and how those rights will be “interpreted” and acted upon.  If patterns of the past are any indication (Guantanamo comes to mind), the American military is there to stay.

 

The longest section of the work is “The Last Taboo”, that taboo being to recognize the ongoing occupation and conflict in Palestine as an historic injustice.   While the United States is currently acknowledged as the main supporter of the Israeli government, Pilger identifies “Britain [as] a principal architect of the historic disaster in Palestine,” suggesting that the “Balfour Declaration invests the British government with a special responsibility to honour its commitment…to support international action aimed at ending Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.”  In modern times, the now defunct Blair government “disguised the fact that British support for Israeli repression was secretly accelerating.” 

 

Many familiar arguments and much historical information is provided to support the idea of the last taboo: the brutal assault on Jenin; the defiance of UN resolutions; the warlike nature of many Israeli leaders – Begin, Shamir, and Sharon – the latter responsible for several notable massacres, including Sabra and Chatila; the “gross acts of vandalism….to destroy the infrastructure of organised society”, the violence, the attacks on children, women, the elderly, the murder and incarceration of adults; home demolitions and roadblocks; the reversal of the argument of occupation such that the Palestinians become the perpetrators of the violence (a similar imperial story in most areas from South Africa to Iraq); military connections with South Africa’s apartheid regime, along with many comparisons to the actuality of apartheid; and on.  What differentiates Pilger’s work from others is his extensive record of interviews with a variety of people within the upper echelons of Israeli society, interviews that clearly show their racist and ‘victimizing’ perspectives.

 

Israel/Palestine is a prime example of how media bias serves the purpose of those in power.  The BBC news is seen as having “an overwhelming bias towards the policies of the State of Israel,” again the perpetrator becoming the victim, their attacks being part of the ‘war on terror’.  One of the larger media constructions still remains the so called ‘peace process’, a powerfully flawed process that eventually led to the ‘disengagement plan’ whose actual purpose was “to distract attention from international criticism of Israel’s construction of a wall across the West Bank [ruled illegal by the ICJ]” and “designed to freeze the peace process” such as to “ensure permanent Israeli control over the entire Land of Israel while foreclosing the emergence of a viable Palestinian state.”  

 

The comparisons with apartheid South Africa are frequent.  Both governments “deprived millions…of their liberty and property perpetuat[ing] a system of discrimination.”  Ostensibly democratic with all the trappings of democratic institutions, both are primarily racist.  The separation of families, the forced separation of races, the use and abuse of workers, the development of military technology, in particular nuclear weapons outside the standards of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, are paralleled in each. What is missing in the commonalities is that of boycott.  The South African boycott worked to a degree, but anytime an Israeli boycott is mentioned, it becomes an act of anti-Semitism, of academic freedom in relation to the universities, of keeping politics out of sports, of freedom to trade.  While the Americans superficially sided with the boycott on South Africa, the likelihood of it doing so with Israel is extremely minimal (South Africa after all was not as important for geopolitical strategy).

 

Before discussing the idea that “Apartheid did not die”, Pilger takes a brief tour into India, where the same themes arise.   In India, more than elsewhere, Britain has done the most at impoverishing the masses in order to enrich the few.  It began with the East Indian Company and is recognized in the Hindi word “loot”, now commonly recognized in English, defined as “goods taken from enemy, spoil; booty, illicit gains made by official.”  Today India is one of the poorest countries in the world as it is “home to more people living in poverty than any other country in the world (recognizing that India has more people than all countries except China, which has its own problems with the rich-poor gap). 

 

Life in India is mainly one of poverty, of ” a life preordained by powerful groups for their benefit…they need the poverty…for their enrichment.”   Health services are poor, ranking 171st out of 175 countries, while private health spending “is among the highest in the world.”   Accompanying this are the abuse of drugs in clinical tests, food and water contamination in most areas, and the abject desperation of “thousands of ‘globalised’ Indian farmers sell[ing] their kidneys in order barely to survive.”   As with most states worried about their wealth growth, the military is an important factor, in India “consuming almost half the national budget” (recognize that most military budget comparisons are to the GDP, a significantly different and more misleading figure).

 

Democracy in India is seen as a direct result of “the non-violence of the freedom movement.  Democracy perhaps, but freedom waits.”

 

This provides Pilger with an excellent sequitur into conditions in South Africa, discussed above in relation to Palestine/Israel, his emphasis being that “Apartheid Did Not Die.”  Pilger had been to South Africa in the 1960s where he found “Humiliation and brutality, at once systematic and arbitrary, exemplified apartheid.”  It becomes familiar territory.  Forced removals from homes and home demolitions moved the black population to ‘bantustans’ or tribal homelands with all the “fake trappings of self-government,” and serving as a source for the “cheapest labour possible.”  As elsewhere, poverty and its associated ills of poor health, lack of education, and ultimately violent resistance became the norm. 

 

With apartheid legally abolished, the unfortunate record is that of continuing black oppression.  The leaders of apartheid, including the much beloved Nelson Mandela, have been co-opted into the neoliberal economic policies of the ruling white class, the “inclusion of a small group of blacks in the country’s white corporate masonry….has allowed white and foreign capital to fulfil its legal obligations under new corporate charters.”   This means, as elsewhere, low wages, poor working conditions, union stripping, poor social services including health and education for the masses, and alternately the increasing wealth and control of the corporate elite.  Those blacks that ‘succeeded’, “proved they could be as ruthless as their former white masters in labour relations, cronyism and the pursuit of profit, hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost in mergers and ‘restructuring’.”  The latter, as is too frequent in African oppression, as a result of  “World Bank-supported tyrants.”

 

The British remain in the picture, as the “Old symbiotic relationship with Britain has a special place.”  Again through a combination of personal interviews and economic information, Pilger presents a picture showing “that apartheid and capitalist exploitation were twos ideas of the same coin,” while the new “liberal humanitarianism turned out to be a shallow, tawdry, deceptive thing.”

 

Probably the same motives could be applied to “Liberating Afghanistan” with the current government described as a “façade”.   The usual – well perhaps not so usual for mainstream media – history of American and British complicity in the Afghani problems is provided.  Afghanistan has become minor news in Pilger’s world (whereas in Canada it frequently dominates due to our ongoing occupation).  As with the previous chapters, the anecdotal style of reporting his various interviews with those in power and those suffering from that power demonstrate the arrogance and social blindness of the rulers.

 

The theme of the facades of imperialism and the enduring struggle for freedom is well supported throughout Freedom Next Time.  While I sometimes wondered what timeline I was on while reading some of the anecdotal material, that perhaps demonstrates again the similarities of empires past and present, the militaristic grab for wealth and power at the expense of the people of the land.  John Pilger’s writing is clear and accessible, presenting a picture to the reader of people struggling against the almost overwhelming power of the global corporate elite.  Perhaps ‘next time’, a different story will be available because of that enduring struggle.

 

 

Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews to Palestine Chronicles.  His interest in this topic stems originally from an environmental perspective, which encompasses the militarization and economic subjugation of the global community and its commodification by corporate governance and by the American government.   

 

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