Diana Johnstone, Circle in the Darkness: Memoir of a World Watcher. Clarity Press, Inc. 2020.
Diana Johnstone’s book opens up in an excellent way how the world’s current intellectual atmosphere has corrupted much of the media world. A few decades ago there was still some openness in the way journalists were reporting world affairs. Recently, however, the possibility of independent and critical reporting has narrowed dramatically. The mainstream media has cozied up more and more to the world of power elites.
Johnstone’s journalism comes from a world where factual reporting is a prime motive. She has spent most of her professional life outside the mainstream media whilst watching the growingly questionable habits of journalists who have become more famous than their work should entitle them to. Early on Johnstone noticed the close links between Western intelligence services and major media outlets. Instead of relying on “intelligence sources”, “informed sources” or “reliable sources”, she relied “on open sources and thoughtful analysis of known facts. This method turned out to be more accurate than spook revelations.” Johnstone adds: “Instead of serving to educate the public, mainstream media easily go along with a story that conforms to standard prejudices and power interests.” She points out that working for major media has obvious advantages, especially economic, but it entails a loss of freedom.
The hypocrisy of powerful Western leaders is captured in the idea of “Western values”. Johnstone goes through the historical record of how the pretense of these “values” have been used to cover violent attacks against human rights and sovereign states which were seen as enemies. She points out how during the Cold War “human rights” were carefully filtered to refer mainly to dissident groups in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
As an American who has spent most of her life in Europe, mainly in France, Johnstone is painfully aware of the U.S.’s monstrous role in trying violently to mold the world in its own image, whilst showing utter ignorance of the victim countries’ history and culture.
Europe had movements which were critical of American imperialist efforts. Johnstone watched with disgust how in the 1970s the “new philosophers” worked hard to turn the French public opinion to a more pro-American position in the Cold War. The leading French intellectuals saw oppression only in the Soviet Union although conditions had improved since Stalinist times. In this strange world Michel Foucault was the leading philosopher. Johnstone’s encounters with Foucault and his ardent follower André Glucksmann were unpleasant.
Johnstone describes one meeting with Glucksmann: “I dared suggest to Glucksmann that there were other dissidents in the world, notably in Latin America and even in the United States, and it would be more balanced to defend them as well. This was clearly out of the question.”
In her work and political activities Johnstone had her doubts about her left-wing colleagues and friends. She thought they were too enthusiastic about their own image and dreamed about a revolution which they had no idea how to accomplish. She had personal experiences of such famous left-wing activists as Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Joschka Fischer. She soon became aware of their phoniness.
Johnstone grew up in a family where the precision of language was essential. According to her experience this “implied truthfulness, something that seemed so fundamental that I was amazed as I discovered that people lied.” Johnstone’s father liked to remember who it was that said something memorable. The thought was actually from Albert Einstein: “As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.”
Later, in her professional life Johnstone often lived in uncomfortable proximity with people who liked proclamations of “truth” based on subjectivity uncontrolled by factual analysis.
Among Johnstone’s famous friends was the linguist and American dissident Noam Chomsky. Chomsky did not like some aspects of the intellectual atmosphere in Paris in the late 1970s. The animosity he in turn received in the French capital probably made life more difficult for local American dissidents. Soon Johnstone could not get anything published in France and had to turn to Spain, Italy, Germany or elsewhere.
The American shadow over Europe was constantly present in Johnstone’s journalistic work. The U.S. had one principal aim in Europe: American dominance. To achieve this aim, the Americans were more subtle than the Soviet Europe in Eastern Europe. U.S. intelligence services were in close cooperation with their Western European colleagues. In Italy, for instance, the CIA established close links with the country’s secret services. Johnstone explains how fascist sympathies remained active inside the Italian intelligence community even after the war.
Because many decent people in European countries resisted American domination, the U.S. had to turn to people who were far removed from anything the Americans would glorify as followers of “Western values”. Johnstone writes how the U.S. had no problem having contacts with the most corrupt, criminal, and just plain stupid people, “because these are the ones most eager to enjoy protection of a foreign power.”
There were very few European leaders capable of resisting American power. One was the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, who was mysteriously assassinated in Stockholm in 1986. Johnstone was intrigued by his murder because she knew that Palme had had the courage to follow his convictions when they went against the world view that Washington tried to spread in Europe and elsewhere.
A year after the murder Johnstone went to Sweden. She describes the experience thus: “My main discovery was political. After nearly half a century of Social Democratic government, Sweden’s security police remained firmly in the grip of right-wingers whose notorious hostility to the late Prime Minister Olof Palme made them prime suspects, if not as perpetrators, then as accomplices of the friendly security forces of another country.”
After World War II the pro-German attitude of the Swedish security services changed to pro-Americanism. A retired secret service office told Johnstone: “What the CIA says is the word of God. They depend on it 200%.”
Swedish historian Wilhelm Agrell told Johnstone that he suspected that elements in the Swedish security or armed forces had to do with Palme’s murder because they thought he was a threat to the nation. Among these circles there was a great yearning to turn away from neutrality and join NATO. Since then, whilst Sweden has remained outside NATO, the country has been an enthusiastic supporter of American military operations to counter the alleged “Russian threat”.
The crisis in the Balkans in the 1990s gave the Western media a new object of hysterical hatred: Serbian nationalism. As Yugoslavia was falling apart after Tito’s death, complex economic problems were tearing the country apart.Western media, though, saw it simply as a rise of nationalism.
Johnstone writes: “Although it was only one among several, “Serbian nationalism” was compared to “the rise of Nazism in the 1930s – a comparison with no relation with reality. But it caught the public ear.”
International sanctions were imposed on Serbia in punishment for its presumed leading role in the Bosnian war. In reality, as Johnstone points out, the Milosevic government was strongly urging the Serbs in Bosnia to seek a settlement with the Muslim side. Johnstone reports that what the media did not report at the time was that “there were advocates of reconciliation in all ethnic groups and that the grounds for peaceful compromise existed. It was not as clear then as it later became that major NATO powers that did not want peaceful settlements: in fact they wanted to use the human tragedy of Yugoslavia as an excuse to intervene.”
The dominant mood in the West was that the Serbs must be punished: “On August 4 (1995) the Croatian forces, with US backing, drove the Serbian population out of the borderline Krajina region – the biggest “ethnic cleansing” of the Yugoslav wars. Nobody in the West cared what happened to the Serbs.”
Johnstone saw that the events in the Balkans were reported with utmost dishonesty. This was again evident when NATO started to bomb Serbia in March 1999, a campaign based on distorted reports of events in Kosovo. As Johnstone writes, the pretense of “Western values” was used in the extreme: “It is characteristic of contemporary ‘Western values’ to care nothing for ‘Western values’ as practiced in other nations. This may be because leaders, having adopted ‘Western values,’ tend to be self-confident and reluctant to be bossed around.”
Even many “left-wing” luminaries helped to start an extremely violent attack against Serbia, amongst them Joschka Fischer and Dany Cohn-Bendit. They provided the “humanitarian” spin to a war that killed thousands of civilians and caused extreme damage to Serbian infrastructure. NATO¨s criminal intervention in the Balkans was uncritically approved by much of the West. This shows how Western media had helped to create illusions about “humanitarian interventions”
The efforts by Johnstone and some other journalists to put the record straight were not allowed. A distorted world view was to remain. These few writers saw right away that the United States was going to use this to wreak havoc all over the Middle East for years to come.
Let me quote Johnstone at length from the last pages of her book: “Today whatever leadership there is lies behind the scenes, promoting chaos and disorder. Today’s strange tyranny is something new, without a name of its own. In the “information society,” it has no clear doctrine but rather a fluid and often contradictory set of beliefs circulated by the information industry. This is a media-message tyranny, and it is significant that the most important instance of government repression has concerned not some act of violent rebellion but the peaceful revelation of facts that the public was not supposed to know. Treated by U.S. leaders as Enemy Number One, Julian Assange was not building bombs to attack Washington but was simply conveying significant information to the public.”
Johnstone’s book is a wake-up call for the reading public, but especially for young journalists who are ready to brave the oppressive media world that keeps people in ignorance of world realities.