The day after the earthquake in Haiti struck I posted an excellent article by Peter Hallward on my facebook page. In the article Hallward accurately points out that the disaster is both a natural disaster and a manmade calamity that would not have been anything like as disastrous were it not for Haiti’s treatment by the United States. Quoting Brian Concannon he notes that had Haiti not followed free market prescriptions much of the population of Port-au-Prince would never have been there:

“As Brian Concannon, the director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, points out: “Those people got there because they or their parents were intentionally pushed out of the countryside by aid and trade policies specifically designed to create a large captive and therefore exploitable labour force in the cities; by definition they are people who would not be able to afford to build earthquake resistant houses.” Meanwhile the city’s basic infrastructure – running water, electricity, roads, etc – remains woefully inadequate, often non-existent. The government’s ability to mobilise any sort of disaster relief is next to nil.”

After I posted the article a friend of mine with similar political views rather surprised me by writing:

“Interesting how he decries the exploitation of Haiti. Especially when he is exploiting the worst disaster to befall them in living memory to further his agenda.”

In subsequent conversation my friend suggested that Hallward’s timing was tasteless.

Mainstream reporting has accurately described how the effects of the earthquake were massively accentuated by Haiti’s extreme poverty and the weakness of the Haitian government but for the most part it has not seriously inquired into the history of Haiti – specifically its treatment as an imperial plaything – first by France and then by the United States. Mainstream reporting has also not inquired into how it can be that poor blockaded Cuba can respond relatively well to natural disasters but that Haiti under the tutorship of the “international community” suffers so much more.

So the obvious question arises – is ignoring history and presenting the poverty of Haiti as just one of those things not also an “agenda” and one that by failing to name the traditional torturers of Haiti makes it all the more likely that similar calamaties will befall the country. Eliding historical realities is so normalised in our culture that as in the case of my friend telling the truth about imperial crimes is often mistaken for axe-grinding or agenda pushing.

If we want to honour the dead and help the living victims of this disaster we should tell the truth about why those people had to suffer and die, and that truth is not a truth that should wait for a month or a year later. It’s a truth that should be told right now.

To help victims of the earthquake:

Oxfam donate: http://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressrelease/2010-01-13/large-earthquake-haiti

Also available here:

http://dissidentvoice.org/2009/12/heroism-under-tyranny-apathy-under-freedom/

The following remarks are excerpted from a series of leaflets produced by a Christian based anti-war group at Manchester University:
 
“Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be ‘governed’ without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct.”[1]
 
“If the British people are already so corrupted and spiritually crushed that they do not raise a hand, frivolously trusting in a questionable faith in lawful order of history; if they surrender man’s highest principle, that which raises him above all other God’s creatures, his free will; if they abandon the will to take decisive action and turn the wheel of history and thus subject it to their own rational decision; if they are so devoid of all individuality, have already gone so far along the road toward turning into a spiritless and cowardly mass – then, yes, they deserve their downfall.”
 
“Tennyson speaks of the British as a tragic people, like the Jews and the Greeks, but today it would appear rather that they are a spineless, will-less herd of hangers-on…”

“Do not forget that every people deserves the regime it is willing to endure!”

I wonder how these words strike the reader. Perhaps they seem harsh, condemnatory and surely likely to alienate the average reader. I have a little experience of writing campaign leaflets and I don’t believe I was ever the co-author of anything with such a stern tone, nor have I have ever read anything of a similar character produced by any anti-war group in the country. Perhaps the reader might find themselves preparing rebuttals to such blanket accusation – given the impact of the mass media in dulling critical faculties and insinuating lies the public cannot be considered wholly to blame for its apathy and so on…

However, there’s a simple reason for the unusual tone of these excerpts: they weren’t produced in Manchester at all. Rather, these words are from the work of the White Rose: the German anti-Nazi student group that operated during World War II at the University of Munich. I have simply swapped Britain for Germany and had Tennyson stand in for Goethe. The most famous members of the group were Hans and Sophie Scholl who, along with another activist – Christoph Probst, were tried for treason and executed by a Nazi ‘people’s court’ in 1943.

If the tone seems harsh when the intended audience is believed to be British, it seems vastly more so when we consider that the audience were people living under the rule of the most vicious and cruel dictatorship the world has ever seen, a regime that reacted to dissent with the most extreme brutality – decapitation in the case of the White Rose group, hanging from meat hooks in the case of the anti-Nazi generals, and the slaughter of most of the population of the Czech town of Lidice in the case of Reinhard Heydrich’s assassins.
 
The White Rose group could hardly have been unaware of the cruelty of the regime they opposed and yet the group did not shy from exhorting, in fact demanding that their fellow citizens take action to against the Nazi state. They took it to be a sacred duty of all people to oppose violence and authoritarianism regardless of the personal cost:
 
“Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right – your moral duty – to eliminate this system?”
 
I would suggest that the reason the text of the leaflets appears so alien is that the heroism of groups such as the White Rose is largely alien to contemporary Britain. The British historian Mark Curtis estimates[2] that since World War II, the UK has borne significant responsibility for the deaths of at least ten million people around the world. Those include the victims of direct aggression: the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan; the murderous sanctions imposed upon pre-invasion Iraq that have been all but airbrushed from history; the arming and supporting of authoritarian regimes the world over, from Pinochet’s Chile, Suharto’s Indonesia (the author of perhaps the worst case of genocide by proportion of population since 1945 in East Timor) and Putin’s Russia, to the colonial settler society of Israel amongst many others. Not included in these figures are the casualties resulting from the West’s economic relations with the third world, which have inflicted deliberate underdevelopment in order that those countries might remain little more than resource extraction zones for Western corporations and dumping grounds for Western products and waste. We could also add to the list the victims of the economic ‘shock therapy’ imposed upon the former Soviet bloc that led to precipitous declines in life expectancy and other health indicators across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
 
Today Britain is embroiled in two wars, it is the seventh largest arms dealer in the world and it is a supporter of some of the worst human rights abusers in the world, including Colombia, the most violent and oppressive regime in the western hemisphere, Nigeria, Uzbekistan (where the favoured form of torturing dissidents is immersion in boiling water), the Saudi theocracy and Israel amongst others.
 
While Britain can hardly compare to the monstrous depredations of the Third Reich, many of its practices abroad, as well as those of its allies, are not wildly dissimilar. (Muzafar Avazov[3] was probably little comforted as he was tortured to death by our Uzbek allies by the fact that his captors were not members of the Gestapo or the SS. And it is unlikely to be much of a consolation for an Afghan family to be bombed by the RAF rather than the Luftwaffe).
 
Unlike Germans living under the Nazis, punishment for dissent in the UK is slight, especially for relatively affluent, educated people such as myself. In dissenting what do people like myself risk? Career prospects maybe, the disapproval of others perhaps, at worst getting tear gassed and beaten at a demonstration – but unlike the White Rose and present-day activists in countries such as Colombia, China or Saudi Arabia, people like me generally do not risk their necks through their political activities. One might imagine that given the freedom of our society and how much blood is on the hands of our leaders, Britain would be a country in a constant tumult of radical political activity, and yet that is transparently not the case. Principled radical dissent remains a marginal presence in our culture. One could of course provide reasons and excuses for that lack and there is some force to those reasons: our educational system and the mass media, it is true, breed little more than cynicism and deceit. However, that cannot offer an explanation for the political apathy of our society. There are simply too many people who know all too well about the crimes they are complicit in but who do nothing or close to nothing to retard and stop those crimes. If I think of my friends and family in the UK they are all, almost without exception, left-wing and progressive, opposed to war, opposed to injustice. And yet I can count on one hand the number of people I know who are actively doing something more than bemoaning the state of the world.
 
A similar situation pertains with my American friends. Almost without exception they are politically progressive and yet they also do little to act upon those convictions. The one political ‘activity’ my American friends do engage in is bashing the Republican party and its Christian fundamentalist allies. My friends seem to genuinely believe that it is the political right that is the problem: if only the Republicans and Christian extremists would vanish, all would be right with America and the world. But I would like to respectfully suggest to my friends that it is they who are the problem. They are the problem and people like them are the problem – good, progressive, relatively privileged and educated individuals who aside from voting for the liberal hero of the hour every four years consider themselves to have no moral duty to take political action. I don’t say this with much sense of moral superiority – I consider myself to be part of the problem too. Having immersed myself in radical politics I have perhaps fewer illusions about my country than many others and yet my political activity has often been half-hearted and infrequent – for the past two years I have done virtually nothing aside from produce a few articles – instead, like so many I have prioritised hedonistic consumption and my own private psychodramas over more worthwhile concerns.
 
Even in the most twisted and evil of ideologies there can sometimes be found little kernels of truth that are worth contemplating. Take Muslim fundamentalism for instance. There are many factors in the rise of militant Islam but I would aver that one of the reasons for its appeal is that fundamentalists have sensed something true about us – they have recognised that for all our beautiful words, for all our talk of human rights and democracy, and despite whatever faith we may profess, our real guiding philosophy is a kind of chronic hedonism. Instead of reaching for the heroism of the Scholl siblings we routinely put our careers or our dreams of consumption or our personal travails above the lives of others.

Here are some more harsh words from the White Rose group:

“Why do German people behave so apathetically in the face of all these abominable crimes, crimes so unworthy of the human race? …The German people slumber on in their dull, stupid sleep and encourage these fascist criminals; they give them the opportunity to carry on their depredations; and of course they do so. Is this a sign that the Germans are brutalized in their simplest human feelings, that no chord within them cries out at the sight of such deeds, that they have sunk into a fatal consciencelessness from which they will never, never awake? It seems to be so, and will certainly be so, if the German does not at last start up out of his stupor, if he does not protest wherever and whenever he can against this clique of criminals, if he shows no sympathy for these hundreds of thousands of victims. He must evidence not only sympathy; no, much more: a sense of complicity in guilt. For through his apathetic behaviour he gives these evil men the opportunity to act as they do; he tolerates this ‘government’ which has taken upon itself such an infinitely great burden of guilt; indeed, he himself is to blame for the fact that it came about at all! Each man wants to be exonerated of a guilt of this kind, each one continues on his way with the most placid, the calmest conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!”

What on earth would the White Rose have said about us?
 
 

 
Notes:
 
[1] http://www.katjasdacha.com/whiterose/leaflets/index.html
 
[2] http://www.amazon.co.uk/Unpeople-Britains-Secret-Rights-Abuses/dp/0099469723
 
[3] http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/8667

Aside from a bit of patriotic silliness this is an interesting and amusing talk by James Howard Kunstler author of The Geography of Nowhere. He’s talking about the United States but much of what he has to say is relevant elsewhere. The key quote for me is this:

“When you degrade the public realm you automatically degrade the quality of your civic life and the character of all the enactments of your public life and communal life that take place there.”

This piece is now available at Dissident Voice: http://www.dissidentvoice.org/2009/03/cowell-and-cryonics-a-dream-for-our-times/ 

I don’t often find myself thinking about pop impresario Simon Cowell, but last week I came across the news [1] that the reality show star has declared his intention to have himself cryonically preserved when he dies in order to be revived by doctors in the future. Cowell’s intentions were of course met with predictable derision as the typically bizarre behaviour of the senselessly rich and famous, and his press agent quickly moved to say that Cowell had merely been joking. Often what we find amusing are ideas that take conventional attitudes and reveal their absurdity by taking them to their logical conclusion. Cryonics is a perfect case in point – an idea that while bizarre is entirely in keeping with our culture and the dominant values of our age.

In the UK there has lately developed a movement perhaps best described as a sort of militant atheism. With biologist Richard Dawkins as its figurehead this movement has identified religious fundamentalism and the various brands of new age spiritualism as the greatest threats to rationality and progress. I would prefer to argue as others have [2] that there are two other brands of fundamentalism much more pervasive and of far greater threat to humanity – the cryonic dream of a radically lengthened life span being entirely typical of both.

Consumerist Fundamentalism

We live in an age of aggressive state managed capitalism, a system predicated on endless economic growth and the sating of endless desires. Boosted by the PR and advertising industries the ideology of consumerist fundamentalism is near inescapable. Like other brands of fundamentalism, the consumerist variant flies in the face of reason, elementary facts about the world we live in and the realities of human psychology. Based as it is on the expectation of constant economic growth consumerist ideology is obliged to pretend that we live on a planet of infinite resources. So despite the fact that it is now clear that we are endangering the possibility of decent life for ourselves on Earth (much less the other forms of life we “share” the planet with) the ideology is incapable of adapting to reality but instead continues to pretend that unbridled consumption can be sustained in the long run. The academic and activist Robert Jensen puts it this way:

Imagine that you are riding comfortably on a sleek train. You look out the window and see that not too far ahead the tracks end abruptly and that the train will derail if it continues moving ahead. You suggest that the train stop immediately and that the passengers go forward on foot. This will require a major shift in everyone’s way of travelling, of course, but it appears to you to be the only realistic option; to continue barrelling forward is to court catastrophic consequences. But when you propose this course of action, others who have grown comfortable riding on the train say, “Well we like the train and arguing that we should get off is not realistic…” [3]

The high priests of consumerist fundamentalism also pretend that the accumulation of consumer products will bring us happiness despite the fact that psychology and simple common sense, (it takes a minutes perusal of the celebrity press to see how miserable, delusional, and quasi psychotic many of the supposed winners of our society are), tell us otherwise. There is by now a substantial body of data showing that once basic survival needs are met extra income and consumer products have minimal effects in terms of long term happiness. Directly comparable to substance addiction – the acquisition of new products provides the consumer with a fleeting feeling of pleasure quickly followed by feelings of deflation and unhappiness – and like the addict the consumer feels compelled to to return to the source again and again in the hope of finally finding lasting happiness. Psychologists and writers such as Oliver James, James Hillman, Erich Fromm, Clive Hamilton and many others have told us what does contribute to human well-being: community, meaningful non-alienated work, relative economic equality, shared goals and values, and an altruistic other-centred orientation. These are all of course values and attitudes that the dominant institutions of our time at best fail to provide, and at worst actually destroy.

Technological Fundamentalism

The ecological precipice we now find ourselves on has been reached because of our arrogant and ignorant application of technology in a fragile ecosystem whose workings we only barely comprehend. Instead of adopting the precautionary principle we have utilised unproven technologies without any acknowledgement of the fact that the effects of those technologies are frequently unpredictable and often disastrous. The results are polluted air and water, massive soil erosion, the destruction of other species and habitats, and now the apocalyptic threat of runaway climate change. Given that reality one might expect that the introduction of new technologies would now be carried out in a far more responsible manner but unfortunately in the grip of technological fundamentalism we appear incapable of changing our practice and instead we barrel ahead in the same arrogant way that has brought us to this parlous state. Amongst the more striking examples of this arrogance are the various techno-fixes currently being proposed to solve global warming. Those proposals include trying to boost the albedo effect of the earth by methods such as hanging mirrors in space to reflect sunlight away from the planet or lofting sulphur into the atmosphere in order to create a “global dimming” effect. Regarding the latter the authors of the Corporate Watch report [4] Technofixes: A Critical Guide to Climate Change Technologies note that:

there are a number of significant issues with this particular approach. It is essentially fighting pollution with more pollution. Sulphate pollution causes a thinning of the earth’s ozone layer. The sulphates will eventually come back down to earth, with an unknown impact on ecosystems. Governments have been working to reduce emissions of sulphates because they cause acid rain. Nobel prize winner Paul Crutzen, who advocated research into sulphate aerosols as a last ditch solution to global warming, predicted around half a million deaths as a result of particulate pollution. New studies have shown that the historic droughts in the Sahel region of Africa that caused widespread famine in the 1970s and 80s were caused in part by industrial emissions of sulphates in the West.

Given that many of the effects of the industrial/technological revolution were wholly unpredicted there may be vastly worse consequences of such proposals that we simply cannot envisage. The authors of the Corporate Watch report warn us of the literal insanity of advocating such leaps in the dark when we have already demonstrated how our monumental hubris can endanger future life on earth:

Humanity is already conducting an uncontrolled planetary scale experiment with the planet’s climate through greenhouse gas emissions. Is it really sensible to start another one which could have equally disastrous and unpredictable consequences?”

Cryonics – A “Science” For Our Times

The idea of cryonics is of course entirely typical of the two modern forms of fundamentalism, and the Cowell story was likely taken seriously because a desire for more life is a logical denouement of the celebrity lifestyle. Cowell is estimated to earn upwards of fifty million pounds a year. He owns several sports cars and a helicopter. He has changed his physical appearance with botox and dated various models and socialites. It would be absolutely consistent with consumerist fundamentalism that having acquired more or less everything money can buy Cowell would then attempt to get more of what is inherently finite – life.

In his book The Way of Ignorance the essayist, novelist, small farmer and poet Wendell Berry remarks that dominated by consumerism we have lost all sense of what Erich Fromm called ‘the art of living.’ Without community, meaningful work or any sense of shared goals we no longer have any understanding of form or limits. And the idea of greeting death with a certain degree of equanimity having enriched our community and the lives of those around us is by now an utterly alien idea:

We seem to have lost any such thought of a completed life. We no longer imagine death as an appropriate end or as a welcome deliverance from pain or grief or weariness. Death now apparently is understood, and especially by those who have placed themselves in charge of it, as a punishment for growing old, to be delayed at any cost.” [5]

Typical of consumerist fantasies the cryonic dream is also profoundly anti-social; like many other luxuries it is by definition only possible for a minority – since the earth plainly cannot hold more than one generation at a time. Just as the planet could not long survive were everyone to consume at the level of the average American or Western European it would be impossible for cryonics to be available to all. It is also a dream that imagines a person as a completely detached entity, adrift in space and time, divorced from all community, human solidarity and in this case even family. That is a nightmarish conception of human existence, it is also a conception of human existence that gets closer to reality by the day.

Our techno-fundamentalist age has been characterised by an incredible disrespect and contempt for nature. Consider for instance so-called “terminator technology” – genetically modified plants whose seeds self-destruct thereby forcing farmers to depend on agro-industry rather than saving their seeds for each new season. The conception and implementation of such perversions of nature are representative of what is in effect humanity’s war on the biosphere. The Indian physicist Vandana Shiva makes the comparison between those attempting to live in some kind of balance with nature and those waging war on natural systems for profit and market share:

“When we plant a seed there’s a very simple prayer that every peasant in India says: “Let the seed be exhaustless, let it never get exhausted, let it bring forth seed next year.” Farmers have such pride in saying “this is the tenth generation seeds that I’m planting,” “this is the fifth generation seed that I’m planting.” Just the other day I had a seed exchange fair in my valley and a farmer brought Basmati aromatic rice seed and he said “this is five generations we’ve been planting this in our family”. So far human beings have treated it as their duty to save seed and ensure its continuity. But that prayer to let the seed be exhaustless seems to be changing into the prayer, “let this seed get terminated so that I can make profits every year” [6]

The pseudo science of cryonics is similar in its contempt for nature – instead of viewing death as healthy, inevitable and essential for life death is instead re-conceptualised as a mere technical problem that will eventually be solved and the question of whether it is wise or moral to interfere with one of the most fundamental elements of all natural systems is considered irrelevant.

We would be living in a far better world if cryonics were purely an outlandish fantasy but however technically unfeasible it may be, or however bizarre it may seem, cryonics is a perfectly logical extension of our current mode of thinking. It is a mode of thinking that has always threatened the mental and physical well-being of ourselves, it now threatens the existence of the biosphere at anything more than a grossly degraded level.

 

 

Notes:

[1] http://new.uk.music.yahoo.com/blogs/snapcrackleandpop/1698/cowell-to-be-frozen/

[2] http://www.counterpunch.org/jensen08252008.html

[3] http://www.zmag.org/zaudio/2797

[4] http://www.corporatewatch.org/?lid=3126

[5] ‘The Way of Ignorance’, Wendell Berry, counterpoint.

[6] http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/shiva.html

 

Originally written back in early 2004 this article was an attempt to apply the “Propaganda Model” originally outlined by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky in ‘Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media’ (http://www.amazon.com/Manufacturing-Consent-Political-Economy-Media/dp/0375714499) to the BBC. The “Propaganda Model” is a framework for understanding how and why commercial news outlets present a picture of the world that is highly serviceable to centres of domestic power. In this piece I attempted to modify the model to account for the similar performance of what is ostensibly a public service broadcaster – the BBC.

Unfortunately I never managed to get this piece published – though a shorter article based on this piece can be found at Z Net: http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/6920

 

The BBC and the Propaganda Model

The BBC occupies a privileged position amongst British and international broadcasters. In times of national and international crisis BBC News is the place the majority of the British public turn to. While commercial broadcasters have successfully challenged the BBC’s dominance in the provision of entertainment, the BBC remains unassailable in the provision of news in times of crisis. Despite much excitement over the plethora of new channels and services available since the advent of multi-channel cable, satellite and digital television, the British public still spend the vast majority of their viewing time watching the five terrestrial channels, in particular BBC 1 and ITV. [1] Furthermore the BBC retains its special status as the broadcaster that most obviously forges a certain national identity and a sense of social cohesion (whether real or imagined). When it comes to national spectacles such as great sporting events or royal occasions, most people when presented with a choice choose to watch on the BBC.

In its annual report the BBC cites an ICM poll estimating that 93% of the UK population followed the first two weeks of the Iraq war on the BBC. According to the poll in the first week of the war around 40 million people watched BBC News 24 (the BBC’s 24 hr service launched in 1997 to compete with other 24 hour services such as CNN). The poll also revealed that the BBC is the broadcaster most trusted by the general population. [2]

Since its creation in 1922 the BBC has successfully fostered an image of impartiality and objectivity, which has perhaps been a crucial factor in its success. This image is relentlessly promoted by the corporation; its claims succinctly put by former Director- General John Birt when he stated that “the BBC fosters a rumbustious, vigorous and informed democracy. We strain to ensure that all voices are heard, however uncomfortable, that they are given a fair hearing and are tested.” [3]

Recently this view has been contested by both the government and by sectors of the press, (predominately the right-wing sector). They have criticised the BBC both over the essentially marginal issue that is the Dr Kelly affair, and for its coverage of the war more generally. The BBC has been accused of being both virulently anti-war and institutionally biased against the government.

The owner of the Daily Telegraph, Conrad Black, (or Lord Black of Crossharbour as he now is), in a letter to his own newspaper, accused the BBC of being “pathologically hostile to the government and official opposition,” as well as “most British institutions” and “American policy in almost every field.” He remarked that it should not be the function of the BBC to “assassinate the truth about the Iraq war.” [4]

Eoghan Harris, writer and political columnist with the Daily Telegraph and the Irish Sunday Independent made similar accusations:

The BBC current affairs cabal is simply behaving like a political party: the New Labour Left – a party which dislikes both Blairite social democrats and conservatives and which is also consciously acting against the centrist culture of the West to which both Blair and Duncan Smith subscribe…The BBC’s antipathy to the war in Iraq is as palpable as its softness on Sinn Fein.” [5]

Leader of the House of Commons Peter Hain wrote in the Independent on Sunday that the BBC had hyped its findings “to ensure the greatest embarrassment [to the government] in the best tradition of the tabloids, rather than a public service broadcaster.” [6] The BBC has even been referred to as the “Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation” by some of the more hawkish members of the Blair administration. [7]

In response the BBC has mounted a vigorous defence of its image, with the backing of some of the press, predominately the quality left-wing broadsheets along with some unexpected Conservative support. The BBC chairman Gavyn Davies strongly denied accusations of bias and claims that the BBC had a vendetta against the government: “The Board reiterates that the BBC’s overall coverage of the war, and the political issues surrounding it, has been entirely impartial… the BBC did not have an agenda in its war coverage, nor does it now have any agenda which questions the integrity of the Prime Minister.” [8]

The acceptable public debate voiced in the mainstream media is over the question of whether the BBC is impartial and objective in its reporting, or whether, as the government and the right wing press conjecture, the BBC is anti-war and institutionally biased against the government.

Curiously the only systematic studies of the BBC and television coverage of the war support neither position.

A study of the four main British broadcasters – BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Sky – carried out by the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies concluded that the BBC had the most pro-government agenda. The study revealed that the BBC was twice as likely to use government sources as ITV and Channel 4, and that the BBC also used more military sources than the other channels. The BBC was less likely to use either Iraqi official sources or independent sources such as aid agencies that were often highly critical of the war. The BBC also appeared to significantly downplay Iraqi casualties: Only 22% of BBC stories concerning the Iraqi people were with regard to Iraqi casualties, compared with figures of 44% and 30% for Channel Four and Sky respectively. The study found that the BBC was more likely to unquestioningly relay false stories from military sources such as the non-existent scud missiles supposedly fired at Kuwait in the early stages of the war and the mythical Basra “uprising”. The study also makes reference to Tony Blair’s claim that British soldiers had been executed by the Iraqi authorities (a claim Downing Street retracted the next day). The BBC relayed that claim but (unlike other broadcasters) not the retraction. [9]

A second study was carried out by the Media Tenor group for the German newspaper the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which looked at broadcasters in five countries. Their findings revealed that the BBC gave less airtime to dissenting views than any other broadcaster with 2% of airtime given over to dissenting views, lower even than the US broadcaster ABC which featured 7%. (US media is typically assumed to be more slavish in its support for US foreign policy than its UK counterpart). [10]

It seems then that neither of the positions within the public debate appear to even remotely correspond to reality. As Professor Justin Lewis, deputy head of the school of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University, put it when presenting the Cardiff studies findings:

far from revealing an anti-war BBC, our findings tend to give credence to those who criticised the BBC for being too sympathetic to the government in its war coverage. Either way, it is clear that the accusation of BBC anti-war bias fails to stand up to any serious or sustained analysis.” [11]

The BBC’s virtual exclusion of dissent is particularly disturbing given the unprecedented level of opposition to the invasion of Iraq, significantly higher than opposition to other conflicts such as the bombing of Yugoslavia or the 1990 Gulf war with at the very least around 40% of the public opposed during the conflict, (figures were somewhat higher both before and after the war). Had someone foolishly tried to gauge popular feeling in the UK from only watching the BBC, they might have been forgiven for assuming that opposition to the invasion was closer to 4% rather than 40. While the lead up to the war witnessed the largest anti-war demonstration in British history, the BBC responded by refusing to interview members of the Stop the War Coalition who had organised the demonstration. Andrew Bergin, the Stop the War Coalition press officer commented that:

Representatives of the coalition have been invited to appear on every TV channel except the BBC. The BBC have taken a conscious decision to actively exclude Stop the War Coalition people from their programmes.” [12]

As well as excluding the opposition the BBC appears to have colluded with the government in shaping public opinion in the lead up to the war. The media monitoring group Medialens reported on the 18th of December that the BBC was relaying unsubstantiated government claims of terrorist threats. In a letter to the BBC’s news reporter Margaret Gilmore and Richard Sambrook, the Director of BBC news, the editors of Medialens wrote:

We have noticed a consistent pattern of recent BBC reports…The BBC has passed on almost daily reports of terrorist threats based on government sources. To select a few examples from this month at random: there has been a report that sky marshals may soon be guarding against terror attacks on British planes, a report of possible smallpox vaccinations against the threat of a terrorist attack, of the arrest of a Taliban sympathiser by anti-terrorist police, of North Africans arrested on terrorism charges in Edinburgh and London. Tonight (December 18 ) you delivered the useful information that intelligence services believe that if al-Qaeda were to carry out an attack in the UK, they would probably go for a ‘soft target’ – large public gatherings – using traditional weapons such as cars packed with explosives, etc.” [13]

According to a former intelligence officer cited by Medialens such relaying of government propaganda was part of a “softening up process” to prepare public opinion for the invasion of Iraq.

In another seeming effort to shape public opinion the BBC broadcast a Panorama special entitled ‘Saddam – A Warning From History’ on November 3, 2002, a title curiously similar to an earlier BBC documentary entitled ‘The Nazis – A Warning From History.’  The programme excluded all dissenting voices from its discussion of Hussein and his regime. There was no mention of the fact that according to UNSCOM inspectors Iraq had been 90-95% disarmed of weapons of mass destruction by 1998. There was no recounting of former weapons inspector Scott Ritter’s view of UNSCOM’s success and Iraq’s “evasion of inspections”:

Most of UNSCOM’s finding of Iraqi non – compliance concerned either the inability to verify an Iraqi declaration or peripheral matters such as components and documentation, which by themselves do not constitute a weapon or a program. By December 1998 Iraq had in fact, been disarmed to a level unprecedented in modern history.” [14]

While the programme dwelt extensively on Hussein’s catalogue of horrendous crimes throughout the 1980’s there was precious little discussion of enthusiastic western support (both diplomatic, economic and military) for Hussein right through his worst crimes (including the gassing of more than 5000 Kurds at Halabja in 1988 ) and beyond. Western support for the Ba’athist regime was described by the programme’s narrator John Simpson as follows:

Even by Iraq’s bloody standards, Saddam’s Ba’athists were ferocious, yet when they seized power in 1968 they had the backing of the CIA which thought their nationalism was better than the old government’s communism.” [15]

Better for the CIA and the United States government? Or better for the people of Iraq? Simpson neglected to say.

Simpson also downplayed the devastation caused by allied forces during the first Gulf war:

The big attack [Operation Desert Storm] didn’t bring the terrible loss of life that Saddam had expected.”

Iraqi deaths during the Gulf war are estimated at around a quarter of a million people. By this measure there was no “terrible loss of life” on September 11th 2001, nor during the recent earthquake in Bam.

In 1998, following a US manufactured crisis, UNSCOM inspectors were withdrawn from Iraq at the request of the British and American governments to pave the way for the “Desert Fox” bombing of alleged Iraqi weapons sites. In the build up to the invasion of Iraq the BBC seemed to have some difficulty in recounting this simple fact. Medialens reported that the BBC’s Jane Corbin had reiterated the government’s line that weapons inspectors “were thrown out.”[16] In a slight variation the BBC’s James Robbins reported that inspectors were “asked to leave.” More evasively (though somewhat more accurately) John Simpson simply stated in the Panorama special that: “In 1998 the inspectors had to leave.”

Following the coalition victory the BBC were ecstatic in their praise for Tony Blair. In a gushing report Andrew Marr the BBC’s political editor declared that: “It would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger Prime Minister as a result.” [17]

In an article in the Guardian on April 22 David Miller rather accurately described the BBC’s reaction to victory:

As Baghdad fell on April 9, BBC reporters could hardly contain themselves in their haste to endorse the victors. This was a “vindication” of the strategy and it showed Blair had been “right” and his critics “wrong”. Here the BBC enunciated a version of events very similar to that of the government. According to the BBC, “dozens” witnessed the statue pulled down by US marines in Baghdad on April 9th, while “thousands” demonstrated against “foreign hegemony” in the same city on the 18th. Yet the footage of the former was described as “extraordinary”, “momentous” and “historic”, while the larger demonstration was greeted with scepticism. “Are they confined to a small vocal minority?” the newscaster asked.”  [18]

Curious behaviour for a broadcaster whose hostility to the war was “palpable.”

The Propaganda Model

In their classic study of corporate media Manufacturing consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky outline what they call a propaganda model as an alternative framework for understanding the mass media. The model describes a series of filters through which the raw data of news passes leaving the public with “only the cleansed residue”. As the study only deals with corporate media, several of the filters are inoperative with regard to the BBC – such as advertising, private ownership, and profit orientation (although a somewhat different economic constraint does apply in the BBC’s case.)

In their place I would like to tentatively suggest another set of filters, some peculiar to the BBC, which arguably restrict and filter news as well as the filters described in Herman and Chomsky’s model. While few people will have read Manufacturing Consent, many of its conclusions with regard to corporate media are now commonly recognised, (if not fully understood), particularly the distorting effects of advertising and private ownership. However, when it comes to public broadcasters, such as the BBC, there is very little understanding of how they distort and manipulate the facts on a whole range of issues. As mentioned earlier the BBC has successfully fostered an image of objectivity and impartiality which has led to the BBC being considered the most trustworthy of British broadcasters. Without a serious understanding of how the BBC functions the public will remain unusually vulnerable to BBC propaganda.

Government appointments: The director general and the board of governors. The first filter:

The BBC is regulated by a board of governors, the twelve members of which are appointed by the Queen on “advice” from government ministers, as the BBC puts it,  (“instruction” might be a more accurate term). The board’s brief is to “safeguard [the BBC’s] independence, set its objectives and monitor its performance.” [19]

The governors appoint the BBC’s director general and with him the executive committee, made up of the directors of the BBC’s sixteen departmental divisions. The performance of each division is overseen by the government appointed governors. A variety of advisory bodies are consulted by the governors but the board is not obliged to act on any advice it receives. According to the BBC’s website, “BBC governors differ from directors of public companies, whose primary responsibilities are to shareholders and not consumers. BBC governors represent the public interest, notably the interests of viewers and listeners.” [20]

It is worthwhile to examine the general character of the board of governors. The twelve current members of the board all are graduates, half of them Oxbridge educated. Four have worked for and have close links to government; for instance the BBC’s chairman Gavyn Davies was an economic advisor to the 10 Downing Street policy unit and has given sizeable donations to the Labour Party. [21]

The Vice-Chairman Lord Ryder of Wensum is a former MP and Government minister, who among other posts served as Political Secretary to Margaret Thatcher. Another governor, Dame Pauline Neville-Jones DCMG, is a career diplomat who served in various diplomatic missions and as the deputy secretary to the Cabinet office before becoming Head of the Defence Secretariat of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Baroness Sarah Hogg served as head of the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit between 1990 and 1995 and was, as the BBC’s own website puts it: “closely involved in the programmes of privatisation and private finance, performance measurement in public services and international economic issues.” [22]

Of the twelve governors six have links to big business. Prior to his appointment as chairman, Gavyn Davies was chief international economist and managing director of Goldman Sachs International, and has a personal fortune estimated at over £150 Million. Sir Robert Smith is Vice Chairman of Deutsche Asset Management and a director and chairman designate of The Weir Group plc. Professor Fabian Monds CBE is a founding partner of Medical and Scientific Computer Services Ltd, and of Western Connect Ltd.

Dame Pauline Neville-Jones is the former managing director and head of global business strategy for NatWest Markets and chairman of NatWest Markets France. She then became vice chairman of Hawkpoint Partners Ltd., the corporate advisory arm of NatWest Bank. She is currently the chairman of the Qinetiq group plc and of the Information Assurance Advisory Council.

The Cambridge educated Dermot Gleeson is executive chairman of the MJ Gleeson Group plc. He is a former director of the Housing Corporation and a former head of the home affairs section of the Conservative Research Department.

Baroness Sarah Hogg is chairman of 3I, Europe’s leading venture capital company, and of Frontier Economics, a consultancy firm specialising in strategy, competition and the economics of regulation. She is also a director of P&O Princess and GKN.

For the most part, the members of the board are drawn from a narrow elite sector of society with intimate links to government and big business, unsurprisingly given that the appointments are at the governments discretion. The remaining members of the board appear to be largely apolitical token figures drawn from the arts world and charitable organisations. Given the backgrounds and interests of the board members it is unrealistic to believe that they will encourage the BBC to in any way seriously challenge the interests that they represent.

Just as it is unrealistic to suppose that the government would appoint board members who would challenge the government, it is similarly unrealistic to suppose that the governors will appoint adversarial employees. The BBC’s current director-general, appointed by the board of governors, is Greg Dyke. Former director of London Weekend Television Dyke was an open supporter of Margaret Thatcher during the 1980’s, he then made the rather small jump to becoming a New Labour supporter. He is believed to have donated around £50,000 to New labour. [23] The tendency in the BBC, as in all relatively authoritarian hierarchical institutions is for the outlook of the controlling sector (in this case the board of governors) to be replicated throughout the lower tiers of the institution, leading to the employment of individuals who have ‘internalised’ a certain view of the world and who understand the necessity of staying silent on certain issues. This aspect of propaganda in democratic societies has long been understood; writing with regard to the virtual impossibility of publishing anything negative about the Soviet Union during World War Two, George Orwell (who in sanitised form is the great hero of the liberal press) wrote that:

The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news – things which on their own merits would get the big headlines – being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.”[24]

As James Curran notes the politicisation of Board appointments has long been recognised and became glaringly evident in the 1980’s:

If the BBC was to be encouraged to be friendly towards the Government’s project, you needed to be sure of the loyalty of those who ran it. Hence, during the 1980’s, appointments to the BBC’s Board of Governors became increasingly politicised. Qualified but unsympathetic candidates were not appointed, while ill qualified ones were… Hugo Young in his biography of Mrs Thatcher quotes a colleague: ‘Margaret usually asked “Is he one of us?” before approving an appointment.” [25]

With the merging political consensus and the effective end of a meaningful two party system that followed the establishment of the New Labour project it can be safely assumed that both parties whether in government or opposition can rest assured that newly appointed board members will always be “one of us”.

Economic constraints and the licence fee as control mechanism: The Second Filter:

The esteem with which the BBC is held is to some extent derived from the fact that it does not carry advertising and is therefore felt to be above commercial pressures, this in turn serves to endow the BBC with a certain “quality” that commercial broadcasters are unable to replicate. The BBC is instead funded by a licence fee paid by viewers themselves, subject to renewal after review every ten years. The licence fee renewal is at the government’s own discretion, giving the government another means of bringing the corporation to heel. An interesting early example of the power granted the government by this mechanism of control is given by James Curran and Jean Seaton in their classic work on the British media ‘Power without responsibility.’ In 1935 the BBC planned a series on the British constitution with a variety of speakers including the communist Harry Pollitt and the fascist Sir Oswald Mosley. The Foreign Office objected on the grounds that “Pollitt could not be allowed to broadcast as he had recently made a speech supporting armed revolution”

While being opposed only to the communist Pollitt (and not the fascist Mosley) the Foreign Office recognised that it might be more efficacious to ban the series on the grounds of preventing Mosley from speaking. In the face of the BBC’s obstinate refusal to cancel the program the government turned to the licence fee:

The matter was finally brought to an end when the Postmaster General wrote to Reith [then Managing Director of the BBC] pointing out that as the Corporation licence was due for renewal, it would be wiser to comply with government demands.” [26]

The series was dropped.

Governments are not always so explicit but the licence fee threat is always there in the background and indeed most governments have at some point threatened to revoke the licence.  Furthermore the government is at liberty to reduce or freeze the licence fee thereby inflicting dramatic reductions in the BBC’s budget. The BBC responds to these threats and constraints by periodically engaging in radical reform of itself in an effort to protect itself from government intervention. The desire to keep the government on side also leads to a pervasive culture of self-censorship. If the BBC did not behave in this manner it is doubtful whether it would now exist in its present form, as James Curran and Jean Seaton put it:

The Corporation only survived by voluntarily and lavishly doing to itself everything a hostile government wanted.” [27]

While relations between the government and the BBC have always been uneasy they declined to perhaps their lowest ebb under the Thatcher administration. The administrations hostility stemmed from its ideological opposition to publicly owned industries, its antipathy to the public service ethos that at times the BBC has fulfilled (though rarely in its news reporting) and from the more totalitarian tendencies of Mrs Thatcher’s government which found the BBC’s level of subservience to be insufficient (tendencies emulated by the Blair government).  The BBC was subjected to a series of drastic reforms leading to the creation of an internal market whereby producers had to buy from competing service providers within the corporation as well as from the commercial sector. The 1990 Broadcasting Act stipulated that the BBC must commission 25% of its programmes from outside the corporation, regardless of whether this was efficient or good for viewers. The BBC often boasts that because it is funded by the licence fee it is insulated from the financial imperatives that the commercial sector is subject to, but in fact the tight control of the corporation and the financial limitations forced upon it by the government has meant that in reality the BBC is driven by the need to keep costs low as much as commercial broadcasters. The desire to protect itself has meant that the BBC has little incentive to challenge the government and the interests it represents.

Sourcing: The third filter:

As described in Manufacturing Consent, the media are predisposed to go to official sources such as governmental and corporate centres. This occurs largely due to the financial constraints that both the BBC and the corporate sector are subject to. The government and other centres of domestic power (corporations, political think tanks etc) are reliable sources of information, they provide briefings, press conferences and leaks; as Herman and Chomsky emphasize it makes sense from a financial point of view to concentrate journalists at the centres where “news” reliably occurs. In this way, the government and other official sources effectively cover some of the costs of news production that might otherwise be born by the broadcasters; a capacity which is not shared by alternative sources of information:

In effect, the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access by their contribution to reducing the media’s costs of acquiring the raw materials of, and producing, news. The large entities that provide this subsidy become “routine” news sources and have privileged access to the gates. Non-routine sources must struggle for access, and may be ignored by the arbitrary decisions of the gatekeepers.” [28]

Secondly the official status of such centres confers upon them a certain prestige that unofficial sources cannot compete with, it is felt by mainstream news organisations that official sources are somehow to be trusted and that information can be passed on safely without the need to check in any great detail (if at all), as we saw earlier in the case of false information passed to the BBC both prior to and during the attack on Iraq.

The pressure on the BBC to make savings and to demonstrate its economic viability can only serve to discourage BBC journalists from investigating alternative sources of news and instead to focus intensively on official sources.

Flak: The fourth filter:

As with the sourcing filter, ‘flak’ is common to both corporate broadcasters and publicly owned media such as the BBC. The term flak refers to critical reactions to the coverage of a particular media institution or media subset, for example the centre left press (Guardian, Independent etc). Flak is produced by sectors of the press, powerful individuals, the government, quasi-governmental institutions, and non-governmental pressure groups. In Manufacturing Consent Herman and Chomsky describe the workings of flak within the US press. The so-called ‘liberal’ sectors of the US media, most prominently the New York Times, come under a near constant attack from flak producing institutions for their supposed left-wing extremism. In reality the criticism is largely farcical with the liberal media sticking extraordinarily closely to the cross-party consensus. The effect of flak is to sharply delineate the limits of reasonable debate and to de-legitimise views which are considered more extreme than those presented by the liberal media, the logic being that if the liberal media is indeed extremely leftist and hostile to the government then anything more extreme might reasonably be viewed as being literally insane. 

As a side benefit the production of flak allows the “left” media to present themselves as adversarial trailblazers committed to challenging the powerful when in fact they rather slavishly follow the cross-party consensus.

In the case of the BBC the corporation has been subject to a barrage of criticism from the government and the press for its alleged anti-war bias, [29] criticism that seems difficult to reconcile with the corporation’s coverage of Iraq. In an article for the Daily Telegraph entitled “Disinfect the BBC before it poisons a new generation,” Barbara Amiel recommends the effective dissolution of the corporation, arguing that the alleged leftist takeover of the BBC has been so extreme that it needs to be purged of political unreliables:

the hijacking of the BBC by any ideology must end, It is time to clean house. This means a radical purge in order to re-establish the objectivity that is the BBC’s mandate and is practised only in the breach.”  [30]

Sadly Amiel doubts the feasibility of such a purge and so suggests some other possibilities; her preferred solutions are to either scrap the licence fee (and presumably privatise the corporation) or (a more novel suggestion) maintain the BBC but scrap its news and current affairs, leaving it to stick to the “intelligent comedy, drama and music that it has always handled well.”

Extreme though these suggestions might sound, Amiel reassures us of the gravity of the situation:

those [BBC] departments suffer from a world view that is now infecting a new generation of viewers. Like other nasty viruses, this one requires swift containment.”

So grave is the threat from the virus that the Telegraph set up a “Beebwatch” section to monitor the  BBC’s performance since it “seems unable to control the political impulses of its journalists, which point with depressing uniformity in a Left-liberal direction.” [31]

The Murdoch group were similarly hostile, unsurprising perhaps given Murdoch’s desire to break into terrestrial TV, although thundering editorials from the Times and the Sun neglected to mention this fact. The Telegraph’s Tom Leonard reported that News of the World journalists were ordered to write an editorial attacking the BBC:

Journalists had spent the day working on a piece critical of the Government only to be told late in the afternoon they were now to write one that was sympathetic. Sources on the paper claim the turnaround was ordered “straight from the top”. [32]

The evidence offered to support the claims of BBC antiwar bias is extremely selective and presented out of the context of the corporations output as a whole. In an article entitled “It is the BBC’s political agenda that should be investigated” Barbara Amiel had to cite an obscure BBC world service program that was hosting several anti-war speakers as the best evidence to support her argument. [33] Tellingly none of the BBC’s critics (from the right) have cited the findings of Media Tenor or the Cardiff study.

It is perhaps an interesting psychological question as to whether commentators such as Amiel believe the analysis that they produce. Maybe they are very consciously distorting the truth, or perhaps they are so rigid in their slavish support for Anglo-American aggression, that in their eyes anything short of total obedience is tantamount to treason; perhaps it is the 2% of dissent aired by the BBC that provokes the fury of Amiel and her kind.

Discussing hostile government and press reaction to the BBC’s largely pro-British  coverage of the Falklands war, former assistant Director General of the BBC Alan Protheroe remarked that:

Their ideal for the 9 o’clock news would have been a man in uniform backed by the Union Jack. The signature tune would have been replaced by the National Anthem and it would have been a kind of RaRaRa news bulletin.” [34]

Perhaps this is what Barbara Amiel and Lord Black of Crossharbour would prefer.

The BBC has been defended by the more ‘left wing’ sectors of the media, in particular the Guardian, (sometimes described by the right as being the agenda setter for the BBC.) The findings of the Cardiff study were even cited in isolated articles by Justin Lewis and David Miller. However it is interesting to see how the issue was framed by one of the Guardian’s chief commentators, Polly Toynbee. In an article entitled “BBC needs a Bullywatch,” Toynbee made an impassioned defence of the corporation. The BBC was as she put it (probably accurately):

In graver danger than many of its friends may realise… It has never come under such an ominous onslaught of attacks from so many directions.” [35]

She argues that the government’s attack on the BBC is unjustified since there is “Independent academic evidence showing it was the most balanced”. As Toynbee does not say which “academic evidence” she is referring to we must assume she is referring either to the Media Tenor study or the Cardiff findings (maybe both). However, contradicting Toynbee’s assertion, the two studies did not find that the BBC was the “most balanced,” rather they found that the BBC was at the more extreme end of pro-war bias amongst broadcasters. Here Toynbee is setting the limits of acceptable debate: The BBC was either biased against the government or (as is Toynbee’s view) was balanced and objective (regardless of what the facts reveal). This is not to say that the alternative view of a firmly pro-war BBC offered here was entirely excluded from the media (it maintained a toe hold at the Guardian and the Independent), but for the most part this alternative story was articulated by the dissident community through alternative media rather than within the mainstream. Worryingly there is evidence to suggest that the barrage of flak was so effective that it caused a decline in the BBC’s trust ratings during the conflict due not to its pro-war subservience but rather because of its perceived anti-establishment and anti-war bias, a perception that was entirely the creation of the flak producers. [36]

The assault on the corporation is likely to constrain BBC reporting even further; the Telegraph’s Tom Leonard reported on the 3rd June 2003 that the BBC board of governors had requested quarterly reports on the BBC’s impartiality. The governor’s stated that they wanted to “track performance over the year and examine specific aspects of new coverage”. [37]

The War on Terror: the dominant discourse:

The Fifth Filter:

The last filter in Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model is the ideology of anti-communism. This filter operates as the prevailing ideology which is accepted and shared by the major media institutions and operates as the orthodox underlying framework for mediating events for a variety of useful purposes:

This ideology helps mobilize the populace against an enemy, and because the concept is fuzzy it can be used against anybody advocating policies that threaten property interests or support accommodation with Communist states and radicalism. It therefore helps fragment the left and labor movements and serves as a political-control mechanism. If the triumph of communism is the worst imaginable result, the support of fascism abroad is justified as a lesser evil. Opposition to social democrats who are too soft on Communists and “play into their hands” is rationalized in similar terms.” [38]

In the wake of the September 11th attacks it was widely perceived that anti-communism had been superseded by the “anti-terror” discourse articulated by the Bush and Blair administrations (with enthusiastic support from others), however this is misleading. It is closer to the truth to say that the two ideologies are complementary; indeed they buttressed each other long before the atrocities of September 11th. As Chomsky pointed out, the war on terror was first declared by the Reagan administration in the 1980’s [39] (which comprised many members of the second Bush administration). Initially the state sponsor of terrorism was alleged to be the Soviet Union and its allies (real and imagined). Their counterparts following September 11th were Iraq, Iran, Syria, Cuba and any other state that was insufficiently subordinate to the United States (with the usual gloss of human rights concerns and terrible threats; in this case “weapons of mass destruction,” that highly dubious conflation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons).

The elevation of the anti-terror discourse following September 11th stemmed from two factors: First and most obviously the collapse of the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union and its satellites, and secondly the catastrophic and spectacular character of the September 11th attacks. Prior to the attack it had proven difficult (though by no means impossible) to present terrorism as much more than a worrying security problem, given the relatively small body count that could be attributed to non-state or “retail” terrorism (as opposed to the vastly greater numbers killed in acts of state terror.) The spectacular nature of the attack made it far easier to present terrorism as a genuine threat to Western civilization and made it highly serviceable as the kind of control mechanism that anti-communism had operated as in the recent past. This aspect of the atrocity also served to mask some of the fundamental characteristics of that act and subsequent acts of retail terrorism: while the attack was devastating it was a low-tech operation exploiting a weakness in US security systems. The attack revealed that while terrorists may be able to carry out isolated atrocities against civilians they have no substantial arsenal of advanced weaponry (as the Soviet Union most certainly did), and are unable to offer a meaningful challenge to the US military.

In the annals of retail terrorism September 11th was unusual in the scale of the atrocity, not in its method. It did not represent a new and unusually dangerous form of terrorism except in the narrow sense, (it was obviously the first terrorist act to utilize passenger jets in this way.) It revealed the ability of fanatical terrorists to kill huge numbers of civilians – it did not reveal their ability to inflict meaningful military or economic damage on the United States, (despite appearances the targets chosen were probably selected for their symbolic rather than their perceived military or economic value), nor an ability to challenge the United States’ global dominance.

The discourse of anti-terrorism is rather similar to that of anti-communism: both offer a radically distorted Manichean view of the world. The favoured states (the US and UK and, to a lesser extent, their allies) are cast as the repositories of freedom and justice, engaged in a desperate struggle with what George W Bush, echoing Reagan and other illustrious predecessors, calls “the evil doers”, (Al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, the Islamic Iranian regime at present, the Soviet Union and its satellites in the past). The simplicity of the position was eloquently put by Bush Jr. when he stated that “you are either with us or with the terrorists.” Terrorist acts are typically presented by the BBC and the rest of the mainstream as discrete events separated from all historical, social and political contexts. Within the mainstream (particularly in the United States but also in the UK) it is verging on the treasonous to even investigate the reasons for such acts. It takes some effort to avoid the historical context of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, since the terrorist perpetrators were drawn from the pool of violent radical fundamentalists that the United States had trained, supplied and funded during the 1980’s, specifically during the Mujahedeen’s fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. (At the time the radical fundamentalists were portrayed as brave freedom fighters both in the mainstream news and in popular culture more generally; for example the third Rambo film found Sylvester Stallone fighting heroically alongside the Mujahedeen).

For this reason the attack is sometimes cited as an example of what is called ‘blowback,’ whereby US covert operations rebound disastrously upon the United States, however this is somewhat misleading since the events of 9/11 were, patriotic posturing aside, largely welcomed by the US administration which immediately recognised their utility for pursuing its radical agenda at home and abroad. The term ‘blowback’ might have been more appropriate had the attack been symptomatic of a meaningful threat to US economic and military hegemony, which it was not. From the point of view of the Bush administration the attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon is probably better conceived as a welcome, though unintended side benefit to the covert operations of the 1980’s. In the broader context of the long history of American aggression the mainstream media also neglected to mention that September 11th was the date of another terrible tragedy: the overthrow of the democratically elected reformist socialist government of Salvador Allende by General Augusto Pinochet with the help of the CIA, which led to the deaths, disappearance and torture of thousands of Chilean leftists and others, (quantatively a tragedy roughly comparable to September 11th 2003).

The anti-terror discourse underpins BBC reporting; terrorism is primarily discussed as a security matter and the terrorists themselves are portrayed as vicious sub-humans motivated by the desire to inflict pain and suffering and rob us of our political and religious rights. Claims that terrorists “hate our freedom” are accepted without question and the idea that the atrocities committed by terrorists might stem in part from legitimate grievances is not to be countenanced. Disturbingly the discourse also underpins BBC coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Watching the BBC’s coverage of the conflict we see the brutal ethnic cleansing and violent oppression of an entire nation transformed into a mere ‘security problem’. Palestinian suicide attacks are prominently featured while the vastly greater number of atrocities carried out by the Israeli army are downplayed, and the daily misery and horror of the illegal Israeli occupation is barely reported at all. Following the December 26th suicide attack carried out by the PFLP, which killed three Israeli soldiers and one Israeli civilian, the BBC reported that this had broken a “lull” in the conflict. Mere moments before the attack Israel had fired rockets into the Gaza strip killing five Palestinians including two civilians. [40] Two days earlier on Christmas Eve Israel raided a refugee camp in the southern Gaza strip killing eight Palestinians including at least three civilians, and wounding forty-two others whilst demolishing ten houses leaving their inhabitants homeless. [41] On the twentieth a five-year-old boy Muhammad Naim Tesrida was shot in the chest and killed. The same day Nur Imran, 13, was also shot and killed by the “Israeli Defence Force.” [42] On the 19th four more Palestinians were killed in a raid on the West Bank town of Nablus [43] and on the 18th a 17-year-old boy was killed in the Rafah refugee camp. [44] This is what the BBC calls a “lull in the conflict.”

Another effect of the discourse is to exclude the idea that the British and American Government and military might be acting for malevolent reasons: (to maintain control over the valuable resources of other countries for instance). Instead in the media portrayal we are always fighting with good intentions and for noble purposes. Occasionally of course we may go awry but this is because of “mistakes” often stemming from being too zealous in our desire to see freedom and justice triumph, or else it is the result of corrupt individuals who are not a reflection of the institutions they represent. This is what the British historian Mark Curtis calls the concept of “basic benevolence”:

The ideological system promotes one key concept that underpins everything else – the idea of Britain’s basic benevolence. Mainstream reporting and analysis usually actively promotes, or at least does not challenge, the idea that Britain promotes high principles – democracy, peace, human rights and development – in its foreign policy.” [45]

This underpinning leads to the casual acceptance of establishment claims, no matter how ludicrous. Those departing from the dominant discourse find themselves in an essentially hostile environment where the questioning is vastly more aggressive than the treatment meted out to faithful servants of power. As such the fifth filter helps to create an environment where certain views flourish and where others are drowned out, if they are even featured at all.

Conclusion

It should be emphasized that all institutions no matter how totalitarian are subject to countervailing forces [46]. The BBC does respond to popular pressure to a limited degree. In the liberal tradition the media is portrayed as an arena where the various views of society are presented and interact, however this portrayal ignores the fact that certain groups within the society, namely the sectors which dominate the economic, political and juridical systems are at an enormous advantage. It is an exaggeration to say that the BBC always follows the two party line or that it always operates as a propaganda weapon for elite sectors of our society given the capacity of the general population to pressure it into more accurate reporting (there is also the issue of professional objectivity which offers at least a mild counter measure to the pressure of the filters). Nevertheless the BBC mostly follows the two party line and it mostly operates as a propaganda weapon (of an unusually subtle type).

The public perception of the BBC is not a trivial matter. Those within the anti-war movement work, (or at least should do), on the assumption that the greater the dissemination of accurate information on the alleged reasons for the invasion of Iraq the greater public opposition would have been. It is a tribute to the movement that it was able to foster the level of dissent that was achieved given the powerful government/media nexus arrayed against it. However the failure to spread a more serious critical understanding of the media and in particular the BBC may have been a factor in the failure of the opposition to rise yet further. [47] Had opposition to the war reached higher levels it is probable that Britain might well have pulled out of the invasion force, indeed the level of opposition that was achieved was sufficient to cause the MOD to draw up contingency measures for doing just this:

The Sunday Telegraph, the newspaper most closely linked to the British Armed Forces, went on to reveal that on Tuesday 11 March, “Mr Hoon’s department [the Ministry of Defence] was frantically preparing contingency plans to “disconnect” British troops entirely from the military invasion of Iraq, demoting their role to subsequent phases of the campaign and peacekeeping.” [48]

As Milan Rai has documented this might well have derailed (or at least postponed) the entire operation and saved the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and Iraqi troops (who should be viewed as essentially the same as male adult civilians, given the vast majority were conscripts unlike their professional adversaries from the US and UK). This is not to say that there has not been an excellent sustained critique of the BBC’s coverage, however this has mostly focussed on what the BBC has done rather than the reasons motivating its actions. The view that we have a relatively free press that broadly tells the truth is still much too prevalent, and while this background of relative trust persists the public might well dismiss examples of BBC dishonesty as ‘marginal’ or ‘lapses’. Rather, they should be viewed as the near inevitable product of a largely systematic process whereby those views that faithfully serve power and privilege dominate, whilst views which instead serve their victims are marginalized or excluded altogether. This failure must not be allowed to continue. Lives depend on it, perhaps even our own.

 

 

Thanks to Robert Wotherspoon and Christian Hunt for additional research and material. 

Notes:

1. James Curran, Media and Power, Routledge 2002, p.188.

2. BBC Annual report 2002/03, Review of Services: News - http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/report2003/pdf/news.pdf

3. Cited in Mark Curtis,‘Web of Deceit: Britain’s real role in the world’, Vintage 2003, p379

4. Daily Telegraph, 26 July 2003

5. Daily Telegraph, 23 July 2003

6. Independent on Sunday, 27 July 2003

7. Christian Science Monitor, 10 July 2003

8. BBC Press release http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2003/07_july/06/gavyn_daives_statement.shtml

9. The Guardian, 4 July 2003

10. The Guardian, April 22 2003

11. The Guardian, July 4 2003

12.Medialens Media Alert: The Ruthless and the Dead, March 18 2003

13.Medialens Media Alert: BBC Channelling Government Propaganda, December 18 2002

14. Cited in Milan Rai ‘War Plan Iraq’, Verso 2002, p67

15. Saddam – A Warning from History transcript, http://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/shared/spl/hi/programmes/panorama/transcripts/03_11_02.txt

16. Medialens Media Alert: Beating up the cheerleader, 24 July 2003

17. BBC1, News at ten, April 9 2003

18. The Guardian, April 22 2003

19. BBCi Web site

20. BBCi Web site

 

21. The government has been amusingly brazen in its failure to give even the pretence of impartiality in its appointments; as Medialens revealed Gavyn Davies wife runs Gordon Brown’s office, his children served as pageboy and bridesmaid at the Brown’s wedding and Tony Blair has stayed at his holiday home.

22. BBCi website

23. The Guardian, October 6 2003

24. George Orwell, Proposed Preface to Animal Farm, Secker and Warburg 1995, p162

25. James Curran and Jean Seaton, ‘Power without responsibility’ , Routledge 1997, P. 216

26. James Curran and Jean Seaton, ‘Power without responsibility’ , Routledge 1997., p122

27. James Curran and Jean Seaton, ‘Power without responsibility’ , Routledge 1997, p220

28. Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, Vintage 1994, p22

29. It has also been criticised for being pro-Palestinian –on the 11th of November 2003 the Daily Telegraph reported that the BBC had appointed a “Middle East policeman” because of supposed “pro-Arab bias”, a sane viewer of the BBC might be forgiven for thinking that the corporation might require a “Middle East policeman” to do a rather different job.

30. Daily Telegraph, June 7 2003

31. Daily Telegraph, November 26 2003

32. Daily Telegraph, June 23 2003

33. Daily Telegraph, July 8 2003

34. Cited by Greg Philo, Television, Politics and the New Right, Glasgow University Media group, online article- http://www.gla.ac.uk/departments/sociology/Television.pdf

35. The Guardian, September 19 2003

36. The Guardian, August 4 2003

37. Daily Telegraph, June 3 June 2003

38. Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, Vintage 1994, p29

39. Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, Hamish Hamilton, 2003, p109

40. The Guardian, December 26 2003

41. The Guardian December 24 2003

42. Al Jazeera website, 22 december http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/C23EAAF6-3600-44D8-8A17-B70D94A64491.htm

43. Al Jazeera website, 19 December 2003- http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/606D86E6-358F-4973-BBA9-A7B91CCA9D6A.htm

44. Al Jazeera website, 18 December 2003- http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/442443B7-B68C-45C4-80AA-4AA1B51895FC.htm

45. Mark Curtis, Web of deceit, Vintage 2003, p380

46. As anyone who has spent time organising on the left will be aware the feeling of powerlessness remains disturbingly widespread amongst the general population this is particularly concerning given the great opportunities for effecting change in a relatively free society such as ours. Just as an example of the possibilities for effecting change it is worth remembering that even National Socialist Germany was subject to popular influence to some extent; – the T4 program – the mass murder of German mental patients the precursor to the holocaust- was temporarily halted due to popular outcry. And this in a society where public opposition carried with it punishments immeasurably worse than those that exist in a society such as ours.

47. There are of course other things that could have been done – the failure to mobilise the existing anti-war population into engaging in sustained civil disobedience was a terrible mistake.

48. Milan Rai, ‘Regime Unchanged: Why the war on Iraq changed nothing’, Pluto Press 2003, pxxi

 

Gaza article

January 17, 2009

The nice people at Dissident Voice have posted my recent piece on Gaza:

http://www.dissidentvoice.org/2009/01/massacre-in-gaza-whos-to-blame/

The following is only a rough version. I feel pretty tentative about this piece so comments, criticisms etc are very welcome.. (please forgive the many grammatical errors)

 

Those of us on the political left have frequently been criticised, and often rightly, for failing to clearly define what it is that we want. We make it abundantly clear what we are opposed to: poverty, gross inequalities in wealth, imperialist violence, the suicidal destruction of the bio-sphere, but we fail to provide a coherent vision for the future much less a realistic strategy for transporting us from our currently dire situation to that future. While there is much truth in this portrayal of the radical left recently greater efforts have been made to address the critique, I am thinking here most particularly of the efforts of those engaged in the Participatory Economy movement (or Parecon) who have provided a convincing account of what a just economy could be. Flowing from such work as yet lesser efforts have been made to extend the principle of participatory democracy to other spheres of life, for instance Stephen Shalom’s work on Participatory Polity and Justin Podur’s work on kinship.

                                                                           
Of huge importance though this work is it does not, at least not directly, offer us answers to certain more fundamental questions… that is what should be the goal of human existence in this imagined future? What should humans be concerned with? Is the goal of revolutionary politics purely the end of material want and coercive structures? Is there a more fundamental goal that we can identify?

                                       
Two Paths

Possible answers to such questions can be found in the work of the writer and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm. In ‘To have or to be’ he distinguished between two fundamental modes of human existence: the “Having Mode” and the “Being Mode”. The having mode is distinguished by selfishness, the drive to possess, the absence of spontaneity and the aggressive application of technology. Fromm contended that the Having Mode as the dominant mode of existence in consumer oriented societies such as ours infiltrates and subverts all aspects of human thought and behaviour: for instance he gives the example of human conversation – if two people who are dominated by the Having Mode engage in a conversation or an argument they experience that interaction as a kind of barter – the principle concern of the two participants being the airing of their own views, they are not respectful nor genuinely interested in the others opinions and they do not view conversation as a process of learning or mutual understanding but instead as an opportunity for self-aggrandisement. In the case of an argument the participants will jealously defend the beliefs that they have, they are not interested in the other participant influencing their own views and they dread being shown to be wrong which would in effect reveal that the opinions that they possess would have shown themselves to be valueless.

                       
In contrast the Being Mode is characterised by openness, selflessness, a cautious concern for others, and spontaneous creativity – the goal of those in the Being Mode is not that of piling up possessions (whether physical, financial or intellectual) but instead reducing the suffering of others and making possible the full flowering of human potential. In the example of the conversationalists the result of operating in this other mode is very great:

“In contrast [to those in the Having Mode] are those who approach a situation by preparing nothing in advance, not bolstering themselves up in any way. Instead, they respond spontaneously and productively; they forget about themselves, about the knowledge, the positions they have. Their egos do not stand in their own way, and it is precisely for this reason that they can fully respond to the other person and that person’s ideas. They give birth to new ideas, because they are not holding onto anything and can thus produce and give… They come fully alive in the conversation, because they do not stifle themselves by anxious concern with what they have. Their own aliveness is infectious and often helps the other person to transcend his or her egocentricity. Thus the conversation ceases to be an exchange of commodities… and becomes a dialogue in which it does not matter any more who is right. The duelists begin to dance together, and they part not with triumph or sorrow – which are equally sterile – but with joy.” p 29 (having and being)

Another striking example that Fromm offers is the way in which the predominance of the having mode in contemporary consumerist society has come to corrupt the very language that we use – so that almost all human experience is unconsciously and inappropriately described as an experience of possession:

“A certain change in the emphasis on having and being is apparent in the growing use of nouns and the decreasing use of verbs in Western languages in the past few centuries.
A noun is the proper denotation for a thing. I can say that I have things: for instance that I have a table, a house, a book, a car. The proper denotation for an activity, a process, is a verb: for instance I am, I love, I desire, I hate, etc. Yet ever more frequently an activity is expressed in terms of having; that is, a noun is used instead of a verb. But to express an activity by to have in connection with a noun is an erroneous use of language, because processes and activities cannot be possessed; they can only be experienced.” (p17)

Similar examples of the contrast between the two modes can easily be made regarding other aspects of life: love, sex, politics, art, pedagogy, in every area we can contrast the attitude of the loving creative way with the possessive jealously acquisitive way. It is particularly transparent if we consider the language found in love songs and other conventionally romantic material; the object of desire is commonly reffered to as a belonging and love is expressed in constrictive, possesive terms such as having and holding. In contemporary culture love is more commonly described as an object of possession rather than a process, but this view is a pathological attitude towards love, which should properly be seen as a spontaneous, creative experience that involves constant change and development.

           
Fromm was by no means the first to recognise the two possible modes of existence, as he noted similar descriptions can be found in the writings of the great religious traditions – the authors of the gospels and later contributors such as Meister Eckhart within the Christian tradition. In ‘The Hero With a Thousand Faces’ the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell argued that all of the major world religions and lesser mythologies have throughout history transmitted similar attitudes and the journey of Campbell’s ‘Hero’ can be seen as a journey from having to being in which the hero must slay the demons of the ego: greed, lust and the craving for earthly power. However it is within the Buddhist tradition where the importance of shifting from the having to the being mode is most transparent. Buddhist writings have not merely described the two modes but have provided a detailed practical methodology for attaining the paradigm shift from having to being. Fromm also took inspiration from the writings of the radical left – for instance in his work on Marx (marx’s conception of man) he argued that Marx’s work was so vulgarised by orthodox “Marxists” that it was utterly emptied of its spiritual (here I do not mean spiritual in the sense of belief in a deity nor any other magical phenomena but of the transformation from one mode of being to another) and genuinely revolutionary content, instead of being a harsh critic of the effects upon human psychology that the birth of capitalism instigated Marx was instead transformed into an arch-materialist who supposedly believed that humans are driven by a fixed and innate fetish for material objects:

“Marx’s “materialistic” or “economic” interpretation of history has nothing whatsoever to do with an alleged “materialistic” or or “economic” striving as the most fundamental drive in man… He differentiated between constant or “fixed” drives “which exist under all circumstances and which can be changed by social conditions only as far as form and direction are concerned” and “relative” drives which “owe their origin only to a certain type of social organisation.” Marx assumed sex and hunger to fall under the category of “fixed” drives, but it never occurred to him to consider the drive for maximal economic gain as a constant drive.”

In fact rather than being an advocate of this vulgarised materialism Marx recognised the conflict between the two fundamental modes of existence and the disastrous consequences of living in the having mode:

“The less you are and the less you express of your life – the more you have and the greater is your alienated life”.

Similar views are to be found in the left-marxist tradition, much anarchist thought, the French situationists – most obviously Raoul Vaneigem, the lesser known works of Aldous Huxley and coming up to the present day the writer and media critic David Edwards, the activist writer Robert Jensen and the popular psychologist Oliver James.

 
Spiritual poverty and the failure of the left


“A society that scorns intrinsic religiousness and trivialises the pursuit of meaning discards thousands of years of insight and can only suffer for it.”
Clive Hamilton ‘Growth Fetish’

As runaway climate change threatens the lives of billions, as the threat of nuclear war increases, as species after species are driven to extinction one would imagine that the search for a way out of current crises might lead to a heightened interest in those proffering solutions – the left. And yet outside of Latin America the left remains small, weak, divided, marginalised and sectarian. Why? There are many answers – the hostility of the mainstream media, the material poverty of the left, in some countries the persecution and repression of leftists organisers, the relative lack of focus on tactical and strategic questions, historical amnesia, and the aforementioned lack of material on questions of visions and goals. These are all important factors but I would like to concentrate on factor that is rarely considered – that of the ethical motives, both professed and real, of the radical left.
                      

Within popular movements, to the extent that it is even considered, the relationship between what we believe is right and our practical behaviour is viewed in a highly mechanistic way with little recognition of the realities of human psychology. So according to this point of view we recognise what is the just thing to do and proceed to follow the correct path, and if we fail to identify the correct path – for example if we choose to engage in direct action say at a point in time when this may be counter productive this is nothing to do with the psychological motivation of the participants but rather due to a lack of data – our tactical thinking is flawed due to a lack of information and thus a mistake occurs. However although we act for the most part as if this were the case we all know that the mistakes of the left can often be attributed to psychological factors – the drive for power, recognition, careerism, defensiveness and so on. We live in a society that promotes and rewards cruelty, expressions of dominance, and rampant egotism it is deeply naive to suppose that one can the escape years of conditioning which entrenches such anti-social attitudes and our disastrous historical inheritance merely by identifying as a leftist. I would suggest that most left-activists and I would certainly count myself in this case, are motivated by a variety of factors some positive and characteristic of the Being Mode and others that are highly destructive and indicative of the persistent resilience of the Having mode even amongst it’s avowed enemies. So within each of us envy, compassion, the craving for status and the altruistic concern for others sit uneasily. However despite the transparent obviousness of this fact we continue to act as if we have no psychological failings – we do not consider how we can help each other to become more compassionate and less concerned with ourselves. This neglect of human psychology is remarkable considering the extremely debilitating effects of our negative drives and the apocalyptically high stakes game we are now playing. And not only do we do little to counter the power of these drives we sometimes even view them as positive. For instance consider the question of “righteous anger”…

                          
Raging against the machine


On the left anger is often viewed as a positive emotion – angry militancy denotes the strength of a movement, and proof that said movement cares deeply about the people at the sharp end of governmental or corporate policy. This view of anger as positive pervades leftist culture – think of the comedian Bill Hicks or hip hop’s Public Enemy – and anger often colours our political activity. Consider for example the attitude of many demonstrators towards the police. Now why do we have demonstrations? What are they for? We demonstrate in order to build popular movements – to enlarge the number of left participants, to develop a feeling of community, to boost our confidence. We also do it to raise the costs – by demonstrating we threaten the ruling sectors of our society – we demonstrate to them that if they persist in a particular policy – the occupation of Iraq say we will threaten their privilege – we will cause so much disruption within our society that the perceived gains of engaging in such policies will be outweighed by the the threat to their privilege and control that we represent. As Michael Albert notes in his memoir ‘remembering tomorrow’ when American congressmen turned against the Vietnam war they did not do so because they had been convinced by the left of the cruelty and violence of US policy in Indo-China instead, as they themselves explained, they turned against the war because they believed they were ‘losing the next generation’ that is the mostly young demonstrators were displaying such militancy and such hostility to so many of the central institutions of American society that it appeared doubtful that they would go on to accept their allotted role in that society – thereby threatening the privilege and power of domestic elites.
                       

Now on a some demonstrations a minority of protesters exhibit hostility towards the police – how well does such hostility towards the police aid us in achieving our goals? Does such hostility aid us in building popular movements? No. Hostility towards the police scares people away. Such hostility is used by the mass media to demonstrate to the population that protest movements are not about concern for others and combating monstrous crimes but instead are about promoting chaos or “anarchy” in the pejorative sense of the term. But if violence or even low level hostility is so counter productive why do any people on the left engage in it? The answer is obvious – when leftists engage in such behaviour they do so because at that moment concern for those at the sharp end is pretty slight – instead what is motivating people is anger, hatred and vengeance – a desire to make perceived oppressors suffer – however damaging this might be for those we are supposed to be trying to aid. And this I would suggest explains many of the failings of the left – far too often suffering people are not foremost in our minds – too often we are venting our own anger or we rank our desire for prestige or status above more altruistic concerns.

                               
There is of course an argument that anger concentrates the mind, builds momentum, and aids our determination to end suffering. This seems unlikely to me. Imagine for a moment that your house is on fire – caused by a simple accident – and in an upstairs bedroom your child is trapped and you have to attempt to rescue them from the flames – now would it in any way aid your efforts to rescue your child if you were to discover that the fire was no accident but a deliberate act of arson? It’s a little hard to see how. It’s easier to see how the reverse could be true – that anger can cloud judgement, can cause recklessness and shifts attention from what should be the real concern – in this case the trapped child – to the object of our anger – the hated perpetrator.
                                 

John Lydon of the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd once famously sang that ‘Anger is an energy’. However if anger is an energy it is in my opinion an energy that exhausts us, an energy that poisons us, an energy that does not aid us in reaching our goals but deflects us from them, an energy that does not draw others to us but one that forces people away. If we are to build movements that will transport us to a better world the emotion that should be most dominant is the one prized by religious tradition: compassion, concern for others, in particular concern for the most vulnerable. Before we engage in any political action we should ask ourselves ‘will this action aid suffering people or harm them’? This may seem so obvious as to not be worth stating but however obvious it is the reality is that we engage in actions and make choices which harm, however indirectly, the people we are supposedly trying to help all the time. And a major reason for this is that there is often more anger in our hearts than there is compassion and that these two emotions do not coexist well if at all.

                                        
We could sketch out endless examples of the damaging effects of anger, greed, envy and self-concern but it is enough to say that the lefts revolutionary goals are daily torn asunder by our spiritual poverty and our refusal to acknowledge much less combat our negative drives. The value of religious insight (and also certain trends within psychoanalysis) with regard to such problems is that unlike leftist theorists or philosophers the prophets and sages of the worlds religions have, to varying degrees, not merely confined themselves to identifying the correct answers to moral problems but have considered how we can come to act on our ethical impulses and reduce the influence of our negative drives. One example is the practice of “loving-kindness” meditation within the Buddhist tradition. This is a method whereby one consciously and very deliberately attempts to increase ones concern for others and reduce self-concern. Instead of bemoaning selfishness in oneself or others or viewing such tendencies as natural or innate the practioner takes concrete steps to combat this failing within herself. The way the practice works is by attempting to slowly and with much repetition expand ones circle of ethical concern. So in standard descriptions of the practice one begins by stimulating feelings of compassion by thinking of those we most easily feel compassion for: a good friend or a grandparent and then slowly the practioner attempts to feel the same degree of love and compassion for others – at first for those whom the practioner may feel indifferent towards and eventually towards those who have previously been the object of scorn or hatred. In this way a practioner will less easily be diverted by feelings of dislike or hatred.

                              
It is practical methods such as these which offer those of us on the left the chance to become more in tune with our ethical goals and not so easily sidelined by feelings of hatred, greed and the desire for status. We ignore the gifts of religious experience at our peril.

                              
Institutional ignorance, accommodation to power and the failure of religion

             
“The devil is incarnate today as the structural violence that pervades and ruptures the interconnected world.”
Stephen Batchelor ‘Living with the Devil’


Historically religious organisations have for the most part betrayed their ethical bases and have often allied themselves with the most reactionary of regimes, defending the status quo against revolutionary forces – some of the more conspicuous examples include the evangelical churches in Latin America, the Catholic church in fascist Spain, Wahabbi Islam in the gulf states and the racist colonialist strains of Judaism within Israel/Palestine. Even Buddhism – of the worlds major religions perhaps the one with least blood on its hands – has accommodated itself to often monstrous political forms. Although many Buddhist practioners would prefer to ignore the political world and portray their religion as an ahistorical purely spiritual phenomena Buddhist traditions remain scarred by the feudal societies they developed within as Stephen Batchelor notes:

“In Asia, Buddhism tended to ally itself with powerful aristocratic patrons, thereby limiting its capacity for initiating radical social change. The detachment of monastic institutions, an inherited wariness of secular politics, and a growing bias toward introspection all contributed to Buddhism’s preference for gently modifying a status quo rather than seeking to overthrow it” (living with the devil, p176)

This accomodation to violent power structures persists and the political innocence of religious adherents is often very striking. Although there are certainly exceptions – engaged Buddhists, the Quakers to mention two obvious examples religious adherents despite often great ethical achievements in the personal sphere are often extremely credulous with regard to mainstream interpretations of world events – and so ethical concern is directed towards the victims of the enemies of the western powers rather than our own victims. Focussing on the crimes of ones enemies rather than our own or those of our friends is hardly unique to religious adherents but it is rather striking as such people have quite genuinely I believe eroded their own self concern and are filled with far more empathy than the average person. However as they do not question mainstream narratives their empathy is channelled down familiar (and for domestic power structures essentially harmless) pathways – so the empathy is directed at the victims of the Chinese, or the Taliban, or Al Queda, or Iran instead of the victims of the United States, Britain, Columbia, Israel, Nigeria etc. The reason their empathy is so easily channelled in this way is I believe because of a fundamental ignorance regarding the major institutions of western society. For instance consider the mainstream media – it is generally assumed that the western media is “free” and that it provides a tolerably realistic picture of the world. However if one has a proper understanding of the structure of the media corporations it is much harder to make this assumption. The ‘Propaganda Model’ first outlined by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky provides the missing information: the mainstream media provide a picture of the world that downplays western crimes whilst boosting crimes of official enemies because of the institutional architecture of the mass media. The features of that architecture serve to filter the news providing a gross distortion of reality, a distortion that is highly functional to the maintenance of domestic power structures. There is no room here to discuss the model in depth but a brief overview of the model can be found here: http://www.chomsky.info/onchomsky/2002—-.htm
                        

If one remains ignorant of the filtering process it is all too easy to take media reporting at face value and to concentrate ones ethical commitments in certain areas whilst ignoring others.

                  
Today the great religions of the world for the most part though they may rhetorically oppose the dominant ideology of our time (even the current pope – arch enemy of liberation theology and the left-wing clergy – offers denunciations of consumerism) do little to undermine this ideology. The propagation of views in tune with the Being mode – Buddhist renunciation of material pleasures or the Quaker doctrine of “plainness” are inherently antithetical to the having mode (embodied in the form of the modern corporation) but as long as the numbers who live their lives in such a spirit remain few such doctrines pose little threat to the dominant institutions of our time. However when religious movements have attempted to tackle oppressive structures directly and effect major changes in the nature of our societies they have been viciously repressed – this is not the case while religions consign themselves to rhetoric and acts of charity. The inherent dangers of revolutionary activity as compared with charitable acts is encapsulated in the Brazilian archbishop Dom Heldar Camara’s pithy remark that:

                                        
“When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist”


The adherents of liberation theology in Latin America, those who adopted “the preferential option for the poor” found to their immense cost that the corporate-state nexus will not countenance opposition to “business as usual” even if that opposition is situated in a usually compliant and respectable organisation such as the Catholic Church. However unless the progressive wings of the worlds religions do confront the institutional agents of the having mode they will be fighting a constantly losing battle given that there are entire industries – particularly the PR and advertising industries whose purpose at a psychological level is maintaining us in the having mode. Greed and hatred are problems inherent to human existence and as such the religious emphasis on personal struggle is correct but until religious adherents also recognise and face down the threat of institutional forms that foster the very worst aspects of human psychology the historic goals of religion will remain a distant dream.

                                      
Merging the spiritual and the political


If the critique I have offered of religious organisations and of left activism is correct then the question of practical changes arises. In the case of religious organisations the changes seem to me rather obvious; religious adherents need to accept the institutional critique offered by the left and shift their priorities accordingly, rather than buttressing the priorities of the political mainstream and the corporate media. Moreover they need to question the institutional character of religious organisations themselves – are they democratic? Do they serve or stifle their communities? Do they pamper to an elite group whilst marginalising the rest? In the case of left activism the implications seem to me slightly less straightforward but as first steps the left needs to break with the focus on relieving material poverty (not that material poverty should not be addressed but that relief of material want should not be seen as the end of the train ride so to speak – but rather as one of the steps on the journey) and instead place the eventual shift from the having to the being mode as the long term goal. And further to this the left needs to replicate an important aspect of the religious life – that is being within a “community of ethical struggle” where one is very consciously and with the help of ones community grappling with and attempting to rise above ones more negative drives.

                         
The struggle for a world where humanity can at last be freed from the nightmare of the having mode will likely fail unless those fighting for this world acknowledge the totality of the forces arrayed against them. The struggle for revolutionary social and economic change will fail if we do not confront the destructive drives that constantly sabotage our best efforts to enact social change. Similarly the attempt at spiritual transformation, the emerging of the being mode, described in Buddhism as the awakening of our “Buddha nature” or amongst quakers as the voice of the “inner light”, will remain a preserve of the few as long as we ignore the monumental cruelty of man-made structures that breed injustice and violence. At this potentially terminal phase of human existence, as the biosphere dies under the blows of rapacious state-capitalism, the failure to recognise and combat those forces may well have unthinkable consequences for us all.

 

 
Suggested Reading:

 

Erich Fromm: ‘To Have Or To Be’

Erich Fromm: ‘Marx’s concept of man’
David Edwards: ‘Free to be human’
Stephen Batchelor: ‘Living with the devil’
Oliver James: ‘Affluenza’
Oliver James: ‘The selfish capitalist
Erich Fromm: ‘The Art of loving’
Aldous Huxley: ‘Island’
Stephen Batchelor: ‘Alone with others’
Clive Hamilton ‘Growth fetish’
Tim Kasser: ‘The High Price of Materialism’
Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky: ‘Manufacturing Consent’

In both the mainstream media and alternative sources there is much discussion regarding where the blame lies for the Israeli assault on the Gaza strip. I would like to suggest that as so often the roll call of those who are in some sense “to blame” is pretty lengthy – the responsibility of Israel is clear and transparent – as is the responsibility of those states who have armed and provided diplomatic cover for the relentlessly brutal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza – from it’s inception up to the latest outrages. Other actors who are to blame are the media themselves who have so successfully distorted the reality of the conflict that they have managed to present the struggle between a high-tech, imperialist, racist, first-world state and a weak, divided, impoverished and militarily insignificant opponent as an equal fight. We can also consider the apathetic wilfully ignorant sectors of the populations of the western powers; educated privileged people who could if they so chose learn about the conflict and move to do something about it, but who choose to remain in their ignorance – at monstrous cost to the Palestinians,(and also I would argue to Israelis in the long term). However I would like instead to consider another group who are significantly to blame – a group I’ll call “the people like me group”…
 
I was involved in consciousness raising activities around the Israel-Palestine issue whilst I was at University – some four years ago now. I helped to organise various events; guest speakers, video showings, building for demonstrations as well as writing for the student press on the topic. And in 2004 I briefly visited the occupied West Bank. While there I saw the infrastructure of the occupation – the tanks, the soldiers, the settlements, the settler only roads, the machine gun nests, and so on. I saw the inside of an Israeli settlement and watched as Israeli settlers sunned themselves next to the communal swimming pool – while literally a couple of hundred yards away were living Palestinians who have to conserve every drop of water that the Israeli’s will allow them. I visited refugee camps and saw the squalid conditions that the refugees have to endure. I met a family of eight whose house had been demolished and were now living in a tent next to a rubbish dump. I saw the scars of one of the members of that family who had stood in front of the bulldozer and slashed at himself repeatedly with a knife in a desperate attempt to stop the demolition. I met a mother in Nazareth whose son had been shot dead by IDF soldiers at the start of the Intifada. I met a family who were living next to an Israeli settlement and endured constant harassment from the settlers and had seen part of their house demolished. The eldest of the family – a man of about seventy was crying as he was explaining the situation to me and the rest of our group. I met a family in Hebron – the mother of the family explained to us the psychological problems her son had developed as a result of living near the stone throwing, M16 wielding religious-fanatic settlers who have turned the centre of Hebron into a ghost town.
 
I explain all these details to make it understood that the reality of the suffering that the population of the occupied territories was enduring was crystal clear to me . And yet despite that clarity after I left university – aside from attending a couple of demonstrations – I did virtually nothing regarding the conflict. To a degree that reflected a shift in focus as I decided to put my effort into working to build an alternative media project. However that project has not taken up anything like all of my time – and I could if I had wanted remained active in the Palestine solidarity movement. How one chooses where to put one’s effort in a world of myriad problems and struggles is not easy but I was educated about the conflict, relatively articulate and someone who had seen directly the reality of the occupation, and yet I chose to do nothing. As to why I slipped away from useful action – that’s hard to say definitively but I would say that essentially on a daily basis I chose to put my own often minor problems and my desires for comfort above more worthy concerns. Today, as the Israeli operation expands to a land invasion, I feel guilt and complicity in the nightmare that the population in Gaza is enduring. And there are I suspect many others like me who could have done much more but chose not to.

The academic and activist Robert Jensen says that we can roughly divide the United States population (and the same is no doubt true for the UK) into roughly three groups. One third are arrogant – those who are so colonized by the mainstream narratives of the western powers that they look upon the crushing of those who resist imperial designs with much satisfaction. The second third are ignorant – the wilfully disinterested people who I already mentioned – those who take a conscious decision not to know; perhaps akin to the “good Germans” living happily under the Nazi regime who expressed mock-surprise and bewilderment at the depredations of the Third Reich after its defeat. The last group are the cowardly – those who know all too well about the reality of the criminal cruelty of the imperial states and the monstrous suffering of their primary victims but who despite that knowledge do all too little to alleviate that suffering. I count myself as residing squarely in the latter camp. So we can if we want to focus on Israel, or the United states, or the UK, or Egypt, or AIPAC but as so often responsibility also lies closer to home.

Roadmap To Nowhere

January 5, 2009

Originally published in Z Magazine in August 2003 http://www.zmag.org/zmag/viewArticle/13736

It has long been understood that one of the major effects of propaganda is to divest political terms of their substantive meaning. One of the best examples of this effect is the benign-sounding phrase “the peace process.” In the context of the illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza strip it might seem more appropriate to come up with another term – perhaps the “occupation process” or the “diversion process” might be more apt.

The latest stage in this process is the so-called Roadmap to Peace, which announces its goal of a “final and comprehensive settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict by 2005.” 

As part of the occupation process the Roadmap is an expression of longstanding Israeli policy towards the Occupied Territories that aims to ensure Israeli control over the land and resources of the territories while transferring the expensive job of population control to a collaborationist Palestinian authority. 

Ignoring the illegality of the occupation and the daily suffering and humiliation endured by the Palestinians, the Roadmap re-conceptualizes the conflict as one caused by terrorism. Each of the phases of the agreement places responsibility on the Palestinians to ensure Israel’s security. (There are no reciprocal obligations on the Israelis despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties of the conflict have been Palestinian.) In the first phase, the Palestinians are asked to rebuild the security apparatus of the Palestinian Authority whose role will be to suppress Palestinian resistance (in all forms, it seems, despite the legality of armed resistance to an occupying power). As in the past, the PA will be supervised by the CIA, with training by the Jordanian and Egyptian security forces (who know some- thing about repressing discontented populations). 

The Roadmap does not require the dismantling of Israeli settlements despite their illegality under Article 4 of the Geneva Conventions, but, instead, calls for a settlement freeze and the dismantling of recently built outposts that will have no effect on the major areas of illegal settlements, which already create a crippling discontinuity between Palestinian areas, destroying the viability of a Palestinian state. 

The second phase of the Roadmap calls for the creation of “an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty.” There is no explanation of what is meant by “attributes of sovereignty,” but, given past Israeli policy, it is likely to mean that the Palestinian Authority will gain some control over civil matters within the territories while Israel retains control over the economy, resources, and overarching security matters. In the words of Labor dove Yitzhak Rabin when talking about the Roadmap’s predecessor, the Oslo Accords, this will be “a Palestinian entity, less than a state that runs the life of Pales- tinians.” 

As with Oslo, the Roadmap does not call for international monitoring of the territories. Following the signing of the Oslo Accords the Israeli Labor government launched a massive settlement expansion program—doubling the number of Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and Gaza between 1994 and 2000. In the absence of effective monitoring we can expect similar policies from the Israeli government this time around in keeping with the understanding of the efficacy of the appearance of dip- lomacy while creating “facts on the ground.” 

The continued existence of the illegal settlements means that the proposed Palestinian state will be comprised of three enclaves cut off from one another inside the West Bank, (in addition to the Gaza strip). The southern enclave will consist of the Hebron-Bethlehem area, which will be cut off from the central enclave of the Ramallah area by the settlements and the connecting settler roads. The Ramallah enclave will, in turn, be cut off from the northern enclave of Jenin and Nablus by the massive settlement bloc of Ariel-El-Shiloh.  As well as failing to deal with the settlements and the right of return for Palestinian refugees, the Roadmap makes no mention of the 25-foot-high “separation” wall being built on stolen Palestinian land that will entirely surround the three Palestinian enclaves as well as annexing more than 300,000 Israeli settlers into Israel proper. 

Thankfully, support for such a plan is very slim among Palestinians. (The current Intifada was a reaction to the humiliating terms of the Oslo Accords, which the Roadmap effectively reiterates.) Abu Mazen, the new Palestinian prime minister and preferred negotiating partner of Israel, the U.S., and the EU has a popularity rating of about 3 percent among Palestinians, according to recent polls. His beachside mansion in Gaza has been repeatedly attacked by Palestinian demonstrators. The Roadmap has been rejected by a significant section of Fatah along with the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), as well as Islamic Jihad and Hamas. 

While Palestinian opposition is strong, there is a great deal of support for the Roadmap in the United States, the EU countries, and many Israeli politicians who recognize it as a way of crushing the popular Intifada in the name of “the peace process.” It remains to be seen whether the Palestinian people will one day come to accept the “freedom” of an autonomous con- centration camp.   

Welcome to my blog

January 5, 2009

Hello there, I’m going to be using this blog in part to collate articles articles old and new that are published elsewhere but hopefully I’ll be doing some less formal writing here too… I’ll be posting old articles in the next couple of days..

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