[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications...]
Sometimes I am chased by nightmares: I am in the middle of some bombed out refugee camp, maybe in Congo (DRC) or in some other desperate country at the periphery of media interests. Children are running around with swollen bellies, clearly suffering from malnutrition. Many women in the camp have swollen bellies too, but not because of an act of love, but as a result of the rape they suffered in recent months. There is gunfire coming from the hills and UN troops are helpless to stop it.
Sometimes I wake up and the dream is gone. Or I manage to suppress it; purge it from my subconscious. But sometimes it stays with me for the rest of the day. And often it is not a dream at all, but reality. I actually find myself in places like Kibati, facing the desperate eyes of children, the resigned, red and swollen eyes of women, the barrel of a gun. There are fires on the horizon and the sounds of gunfire coming from the bush. And instead of a pillow, I am squeezing the shutter of my professional Nikon, or the metal tube of my pen.
What I write and what I photograph appear periodically on the pages of newspapers and magazines. Sometimes one or two images make it to the walls of museums or galleries. But it is always a fight, a struggle to convince editors, publishers, distributors, or curators to accept at least some watered-down glimpse of reality – to be shown to the general public.
The era of brave reporters and determined editors seems to be over. Correspondents who covered the Vietnam War, who actually helped to stop the Vietnam War, are getting older. They write memoirs and publish books, but they hardly witness today’s conflicts. There are still some fearless and dedicated journalists – Keith Harmon Snow or John Pilger to mention just two – but they are more exceptions that prove the rule than a common occurrence.
And yet brave alternative voices are needed more now than in any other time in recent history. As corporate control over the media becomes nearly complete, almost all large outlets now serve establishment economic and political interests. The more they do, the more they talk about the need for freedom of the press, objectivity, and unbiased reporting; somewhere else, not at home.
While most of the English language media is exercising an unprecedented suppression of information about, for instance, the brutality of Western foreign policy in sub-Saharan Africa or about the ongoing Indonesian genocide in West Papua (two parts of the world with tremendous raw material wealth exploited by multi-national mining companies), establishment media outlets in the United States, UK, and Australia intensify their attacks against alternative points of views coming from Beijing (PRC), Caracas, or Havana. The more complete the grip on power by market fundamentalists, the more anti-Chinese or anti-Chavez rhetoric appears on the channels of Western mass media – channels whose propaganda now reaches basically every corner of the globe.
I grew up in Czechoslovakia and although I don’t remember Soviet tanks rolling down the streets of Prague in 1968 as a small child, I clearly remember the aftermath – the collaboration, lies, and cynicism of the so called "normalization process". What is shocking to me now – being a naturalized citizen of the
In a way, control of information is now much more complete in the
It all goes mostly unchallenged: propaganda and the lack of alternative views. It seems that we forgot how to question things. It seems that we accepted manipulation of our present and our history; that we are even turning against those few who are still left standing tall and defending common sense and truth and what can be seen with the naked eyes but is denied in the name of freedom, democracy and objectivity (great words that are now abused to the point that they are losing meaning). Are we, in the West, once again entering an era when we will point fingers at dissidents, turn ourselves into snitches, and collaborators? We had many periods like that in our history. Not long ago – not so long ago at all!
In the meantime, while our intellectuals are collaborating with power and getting rewarded for their efforts, great parts of the world are bathed in blood, starving, or both. Collaboration and the silence of those who know or should now is partially to blame for the present state of the world.
Perfected politically correct speech became embedded in the writing, speech, even psyche of many of our thinkers so, god forbid, they would not offend people in poor countries (they can be butchered and encouraged to butcher each other, but they should not "be offended", especially their corrupt political and religious leaders who are serving Western and multi-national interests). Practically speaking – the limits of discussion permitted to appear on television screens or on the pages of our newspapers were defined. Or one could say that the right wing and establishment derided as "politically correct" to challenge the limits of discussion, also the smears. If it suits the establishment, it defines feudal dictatorship in far away places (as long as they serve its interests) as part of the culture of this or that country it controls or wants to control. If religion serves Western geopolitical interests (read: if religion helps us to kill progressive/Left-wing leaders and their followers), the West will declare its profound respect for such religion, even our support, as England supported Wahhabism in the Middle East, as long as it believed that Wahhabism would suppress the strife for egalitarian society and fair distribution of natural resources.
While we are busy trashing Cuba for human rights abuses (a few dozens of people in jail, many of whom would probably be charged with terrorism in the West, since they openly aim at overthrowing the constitution and the government) and China for Tibet (glorifying by all means the former religious feudal lord just because antagonizing and ostracizing China is the main goal of our foreign policy – an openly racist approach) there are millions of victims of our geopolitical interests rotting or already buried in Congo (DRC) and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, in West Papua, the Middle East, and elsewhere.
Our human rights record (if we consider all human beings "human" and accept that violating the rights of a man, woman or child in Africa, Latin America, Middle East, Oceania or Asia is as deplorable as violating human rights in London, New York, or Melbourne) is so horrid – presently as in the past – that it is unimaginable that our citizens still could believe that our countries have some moral leverage and should be allowed to arbitrate and exercise moral judgment.
While post-Cold War propaganda (busy destroying everything that is left from progressive movements) dares to compare the Soviet Union to Nazi Germany (the same Soviet Union that was sacrificed by the West to Nazi Germany; the same Soviet Union that at the cost of more than 20 million lives saved the world from Fascism), it omits the fact that the first concentration camps were not built by the Russians but by the British Empire in Africa; and that no gulag can match the horrors of colonial terror exercised by European powers in between two world wars.
The propaganda is so embedded in the national psyche in the
Of course it was all about money and European greed – about raw materials – why tens of millions in
And we are not outraged, anymore. Law-obeying citizens of our countries are buckling-up, not littering on the streets, waiting in the middle of the night obediently for a green light to cross the streets. But they don’t oppose massacres performed in the name of their economic interests. As long as the massacres are well packaged by the media and propaganda apparatus, as long as it is not being spelled out that the killing is to support big business but also the relatively high standard of the majority of those living in so called "developed countries," as long as it is all officially for human rights and democracy and freedom. One of the reasons why official propaganda is so readily accepted is because it helps to massage and calm our bad conscience.
Intellectual elites and academia are not immune to accepting, recycling, and even inventing lies. In the last few years I have been invited to speak at several elite universities in English speaking world – from Melbourne to Hong Kong University, Columbia and Cornell, Cambridge and Auckland. I realized that challenging existing theses does not mean that one defends intellectual integrity: quite the opposite. Even more than in the mass media, academia is deeply hostile to the challenges of established clichés. Try to openly disagree with the thesis that Indonesia is a tolerant state, a striving democracy, and who knows what else that gained so many professors their tenure, and you will be labeled as an extremist, or as a provocateur at best. And it will be very difficult to avoid open insults. Try to challenge the monolithic anti-Chinese views!
In Anglo-Saxon academia, to voice one’s own opinion is undesirable, almost unacceptable. To make a point, an author or the speaker is expected to quote someone else: "It is said by Mr. Green that the earth is round." "Professor Brown confirmed that it was raining yesterday." If no one else said it before, it is doubtful that it ever happened. And the writer or speaker is strongly discouraged from voicing his or her opinion on the matter at hand. In summary: almost any point of view or bit of information is expected to be confirmed by the establishment, or at least by some part of it. It has to go through the informal censorship.
Long lists of footnotes now decorate almost any non-fiction book, as groups of academics and many non-fiction writers, instead of doing much of their own research and fieldwork, tirelessly quote and re-quote each other. Orwell, Burchett, or Hemingway would find it extremely difficult to operate in such an environment.
The results are often grotesque. Two cases in Asia are great examples of this intellectual cowardice and servility not only of the diplomatic but also academic and journalistic community: Thailand and Indonesia.
Clichés created by Anglo-Saxon media and academia are repeated tirelessly by the main networks, including the BBC and CNN, and by almost all influential dailies. When our media talk about Cambodia, for instance, they rarely forget to mention the genocide of the "Communist" Khmer Rouge. But one would have to search samizdat to find out that the Khmer Rouge came to power only after savage U.S. carpet-bombing of the countryside. And that when Vietnam forced the Khmer Rouge out, the U.S. demanded at the U.N. the "immediate return of the legitimate government"!
There is hardly anything in the online editions of the Western newspapers of record depicting the horrors unleashed by the West against Indochina, Indonesia (2 to 3 million people killed after the U.S. supported a coup that brought General Suharto to power) and East Timor, to mention just a few.
I have never heard of any public figure in the West using the mass media to call for the boycott of anything Indonesian because of the continuous killing of Papuans (just as few seemed to be outraged in the 1970s and ’80s over genocide in East Timor). Tibet is quite a different matter. Criticism of China over its policy toward Tibet is epic. Criticism of China in general is monumental and disproportionate.
Whenever China fails, it is because "it is still Communist;" when it succeeds, "It is not Communist anymore." As a reader, I want to hear from Chinese people whether their country is Communist or not. From what I hear, it still is and, moreover, the great majority still wants it to be.
But that’s not good enough: the planet’s oldest major culture cannot be trusted to describe itself: the job has to be done by English native speakers, by the only people selected or chosen to influence and shape world public opinion.
I want to hear from my colleagues in Beijing. I want them to be able to argue openly with those who hold their country responsible (absurdly) for everything from Sudan to Burma to the ruined environment. How many reports have we seen on BBC World depicting Chinese factories belching black smoke, and how many have we seen on the pollution created by the U.S. – still the greatest polluter on earth?
Or what are the thoughts of Japanese scholars, writers and journalists on the Second World War? We all know what English-speaking journalists based in Tokyo believe their Japanese colleagues are thinking, but why are we habitually prevented from reading direct translations of works written by those who are filling the pages of some of the largest newspapers on earth, published in Japan and China? Why do we have to be guided by a wise invisible hand that forms the global consensus?
Being fluent in Spanish, I realize how little of the current trends in Latin America are fairly represented in U.S., British and Asian publications. My Latin American colleagues often complain that it is almost impossible to discuss Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez or Bolivian President Evo Morales in London or New York with those who do not read Spanish – their opinions appear to be uniform and frustratingly biased.
These days the left is of course the main topic – the real issue – in Latin America. While British and North American journalists and writers are analyzing recent Latin American revolutions in accordance with the political guidelines of their own publications, readers all over the world (unless they understand Spanish) know close to nothing about the opinions of those who are at this very moment making history in Venezuela or Bolivia.
How often does it appear on the pages of our publications that Chavez introduced direct democracy, allowing people to influence the future of their country through countless referendums while the citizens of our "real democracies" have to shut up and do what they’re told? Germans were not allowed to vote on whether they wanted unification; Czechs and Slovaks were not asked whether they wanted their "Velvet Divorce;" British, Italian, and U.S. citizens had to put on boots and march to Iraq.
English-language newspapers are full of stories about China without Chinese people being allowed to speak for themselves. They are also full of stories about Japan, where Japanese people are being quoted but not trusted to share their full articles about their own country – pieces that would be written by them from beginning to end.
For now, the English language is the main tool of communication in the world, but not forever. Its writers, journalists, newspapers and publishing houses are not facilitating better understanding between nations. They are completely failing to promote a diversity of ideas.
Media outlets use English as a tool that serves political, economic, even intellectual interests. A growing number of non-native speakers are forced to use English in order to be part of the only group that has influence; the group that matters – the group that reads, understands, and thinks the "right" way. On top of spelling and grammar, newcomers to this group learn how to feel and react to the world around them, as well as what they should consider objective. The result is uniformity and intellectual discipline.
When I wake up in the middle of the night, chased by nightmares and images that I, a long time ago, downloaded from my cameras to extended memory, I begin dreaming about some better and more just arrangement of the world. But there is always the same creeping question that I ask myself: how can it be achieved?
I think about all successful revolutions of the past – they all have one common pre-condition: education and information. In order to change things, people have to know the truth. They have to know their past.
This is what was repeated over and over again to the citizens of Chile, Argentina, and South Africa. No better future, no honest and just reconciliation can be achieved unless both the past and the present are analyzed and understood. That’s why Chile succeeded and Indonesia failed. That’s why South Africa, despite all its complexities and problems is on course to exorcise its demons and move toward a much better future.
But the West – Europe, United States, and to a great extent Australia – are all living in denial. They never fully accepted the truth about the terror they unleashed and are still unleashing against the great majority of the world. They are still rich: the richest, as they live from the sweat and blood of others. They are still an empire – one Empire – united by colonialist culture: a trunk and branches: all one.
There will never be peace on earth, a real reconciliation, unless this culture of control disappears. And the only way to make it disappear is to face reality, address and revisit the past.
It is the responsibility of those who know the world and understand the suffering of its people to speak the truth. No matter what the cost, no matter how many privileges will disappear with each honest sentence (we all know that the Empire is vindictive). Not to speak truth to power (it does not deserve it) but against power. To disregard existing institutions from media to academia, as they are no solution but part of the problem, co-responsible for the state of the world in which we are living! Only a multitude of voices repeating what everybody, except those in the ruling countries, seems to know; voices amalgamated in "J’accuse", will defeat the present wrongs that rule the world. But only voices truly united and only in a multitude. With determination and great courage!