Sunday, 25 January 2015

Disapproval over honouring Saudi despot - don't mention West's own tyranny

The grovelling tributes of Western leaders over the death of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah seems to say it all about the special treatment reserved for our tyrant allies. 
 
You only have to read Glenn Greenwald's scathing piece, contrasting Obama's curt statement on the passing of Hugo Chavez, an elected leader much-loved by his people, who nationalised his country's oil to try and help the poor, with the deference reserved for Abdullah, a virulent dictator who held his subjects in a state of fear, while appropriating that state's vast oil wealth for a tiny elite. 

Predictably, no such commentary is remotely evident on the BBC, with its craven obituary, token references to Saudi human rights 'problems' and tame inference about Britain's 'difficult-but-strategic alliance' with the Kingdom.       
 
Alongside much of the liberal media's safely-measured output, some notable Tories have, seemingly, expressed more specific 'outrage' over the West's fawning of a despot whose country has committed every human rights offence in the book, including the beheading and degradation of women.  
 
Ex-Tory MP Louise Mensch was apoplectic over the issue, launching a tweet-stream of despairing invective: 
It is so unacceptable to offer deep condolences for a man who flogged women, didn't let them drive, saw guardian laws passed, & STARVES THEM
Her additional ire is, apparently, directed at the West's top men:
F--- you Saudi Arabia and shame on the supine male leaders of the West @David_Cameron @BarackObama
The Sun also proudly announced her as one of their columnists, amplifying the message of Britain's 'abandonment of decency': 
Cameron’s fawning over dead Saudi despot shames UK, says @LouiseMensch:
And here's Mensch again, now even more dispirited that even one our 'most respected' female world leaders could be associated with such a fiend: 
fawning: if you want to be really depressed, not only did Miliband, Cameron pay tribute, @ said "personal friend"
Later, reflecting on her own 'boldness', Mensch imagines what her fate might be if she had ever made high office:  
I guess if I ever had made it to minister, I would be being sacked today.
Mensch also rushed to commend Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, who had previously tweeted her apparent disgust.
Flying flags at half mast on gov buildings for the death of Saudi king is a steaming pile of nonsense. That is all.
Yes, all very noble. Yet, one might ask Mensch, Davidson and all those hailing their interventions: what primary moral honour are you actually assuming in those flags and government buildings, what kind of conduct are you expecting in all those leaders?  
 
In truth, ex-UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia Sir William Patey is the more 'useful' voice here. He, at least, is 'up-front' about the issue: look, they're our allies, and we don't really give a f### what they do, whether beheading women or exporting terrorism, so long as they keep our arms companies in business, the oil flowing and our geopolitical interests secure.
 
Mr Patey, seasoned diplomat, doesn't, of course, say that. But the essential message is contained in his nicely tempered language and intimations about 'continuity', 'pragmatic alliance' and 'patient reform'. Thus: "King Abdullah went as fast as he thought the population of Saudi Arabia would bear." A lovely turn of imperialist phrase, making it helpfully clear just how much Britain and the West have ever cared to make a fuss over human rights. 
 
UKInc is, in this elementary sense, precisely expected, indeed entitled, to lower its flags and have its political and royal retinue honour Mr Abdullah. That's because the Windsors, Cameron, Blair and the rest of Union-Jack-Britannica are all part of the very same terror-inflicting network. Why would they do anything else? More immediately, why would we remotely expect them not to be doing such things as lauding Abdullah? 
 
Why would a state that's helped wipe-out Iraqis in their hundreds of thousands, caused mass carnage in Afghanistan and Libya, supported Israel's slaughter in Gaza, been a leading party to rendition and torture, armed sundry warmongers to the teeth, and overseen multiple other mass miseries around the globe be acting any differently over Abdullah's death?
 
The problem is not denunciation of the Saudi despots. It's the base assumption that 'we', as some kind of 'paragon state', have any moral worth or 'authority' in the first place to tell 'them' how to behave.
 
Doesn't it say so much about the twisted propaganda that Mensch and Davidson can so readily show such disapproval, that so many approve their disapproval, and that none of this includes the same, or greater, disapproval of what our own terror state and despot leaders really stand for? 

Friday, 23 January 2015

Situation of urgency - time for standing outside systems of power

Not for the first time, I have to admit a certain reverential awe for what comes out of the propaganda lab, and how liberal 'insiders' give it vital, daily legitimacy.

A mere 80 people now hold more wealth than 3.5 billion of the world's population. The planet's ecology edges towards the danger zone of corporate-led annihilation. Millions are being murdered and more lands plundered as we spiral deeper into warmongering, neoliberal hedonism. And, all the while, our liberal classes, self-preening media and liberty-bell celebrities are urging us to get indignantly defensive about 'free speech'.

As France pursues a mass clampdown on those expressing 'contrary' views, UK Home Secretary Theresa May and Tory MP Eric Pickles demand that Muslims start showing 'true regard' for 'British identity', with mosques told to exercise 'greater responsibility' in helping to avert 'the rise of anti-Semitism'. All opportune hyperbole, of course, used to expedite more policies and funding for the imperative 'War on Terror'. And don't dare mention Israel's and the West's genocidal actions in the Middle East as obvious context for 'Islamic' radicalisation.

American Sniper certainly doesn't. Up for an Oscar, it's giving voice, rather, to its depraved subject, Chris Kyle, as well as the reactionary mindset of its director Clint Eastwood. Movie-goers are reportedly coming out of US film theatres snarling with patriotic hubris, amplifying the intended message that 'our' governments and military were right and noble, after all, in going in there to kill all those Muslim 'savages'. After so much slaughter and destruction, you've almost got to marvel that even Tinsel Town can still produce such clichéd tripe, never mind laud it as award-deserving 'entertainment'.

A more wry despair occurs in watching the 'intellectual angst' of the remaining Charlie Hebdo circle as they agonise over their 'response edition' and how to draw-out their very own little war on 'Islamic errorism'. Wasn't it amusing to see their 'anti-establishment' satire getting appropriated as 'free speech' propaganda by that very establishment and its parading world leaders? Beneath Hebdo's 'resolute iconoclasm', as sympathetically portrayed by the Guardian's Ed Vulliamy, lies a much more capricious mix of racist jibe and neoconservative subtext. None of which appears to be concerning the new 'liberty-seeking' effort to 're-situate' the old Hebdo 'situationists'. Are Hebdo now anarchic insiders or anarchic outsiders? Or might we just say to the residents of that deluded 'cartoon town', wherever it's now situated: all is forgiven?

Meanwhile, having done its own vital bit for truth and liberty, the BBC celebrates BBC Democracy Day. If only Orwell were really here to tear down their pious Orwellian front.

So much power-speak. So much corporate hegemony. So much liberal rationalisation of its systems of control. We are being lied to and deceived on a mega-industrial level. And there's no reasonable prospect of reversing any of it through conventional political means. That's the real situation.

So, if meaningful change cannot be realised from within the system, isn't the most rational and urgent recourse to stand outside it? Why do we accept so much of this dominant conditioning, while still believing it can be changed from the inside?

In Revolution, Russell Brand's joyous splash of anarcho-humanism, we get, if not a detailed manifesto, a much more valuable spiritual primer on mindfulness as a source of progressive resistance.

One of the many beauties of Brand's book is how it encourages a deep, radical consciousness from the true within, starting with nominally small but vital examples of how we might come to question our own deference to power. 

For Brand, the reclaiming of our political souls can begin with little displays of dissent, like the rejection of cringing, hierarchical titles, including 'Your Majesty' - as if "she's all majestic, like an eagle or a mountain", rather than a "little old lady in a shiny hat - that we paid for." Instead of 'Your Highness', imagine if we all just started calling her 'Mrs Windsor' (Revolution, pp 117-118).

Nothing deeply radical here, you might think, especially for already-convinced republicans. But it's a useful exercise in questioning the insignia of authority and calls to obedience that stultify our capacity for nonconformity and critical observation.    

In the same spirit, we might stop to reflect on the loaded lingua of consumer status. Just think, for example, about daily terms like 'VIP' (Very Important Person), as if everyone else were JUPs (Just Unimportant Persons), the social discrimination of 'First Class' travel, or the elevation of moneyed high-flyers implied by 'Business Class'. Isn't it just so good, this all tells us, to feel like an 'important insider'? 

Alongside the market-defined notions we absorb about class, inclusion and aspiration, the appeal to ego also makes it difficult to resist plaudits from authority. In the craving for high recognition, the fetishism of Honours can even supersede our supposedly egalitarian identities.

We seek economic, social and emotional comfort within market existence. Yet, nothing of real human value can come from a system dedicated to elite interests, class privilege and corporate ideologies intended to keep so many competing, struggling and desiring that version of 'security'.
 
And while we're all being tamed through mass propaganda, many 'more knowing' activists are being compromised by more insidious forms of patronage and incorporation.

Eco-campaigner (and confidante of Prince Charles) Jonathon Porritt has finally admitted after years of postulating on 'corporate responsibility' that the giant oil companies are now incapable of change. Alas, his belated acceptance comes with no new useful acknowledgement that the system of capitalism itself is essentially psychopathic, that insatiable corporations can do nothing other than pursue destructive profit.

The same delusional mitigations are evident across liberal-minded charities. Of the new findings on mass wealth inequality, Oxfam International executive director Winnie Byanyima says:
“The message is that rising inequality is dangerous. It’s bad for growth and it’s bad for governance. We see a concentration of wealth capturing power and leaving ordinary people voiceless and their interests uncared for.”
There's obvious concern here for the poor and voiceless. But it's all pitched as worry over the dangers of capitalist inefficiency ("bad for growth") and the body politic ("bad for governance"), a concern with correcting the prevailing capitalist order, rather than serious moral examination over how we overthrow it.

Channel 4 News took the same mechanical-economist view, with Jon Snow overseeing a truly anodyne discussion of the wealth issue with the Spectator's Fraser Nelson and (Blair-awarding) Save the Children's Head of Inequality [sic] Faiza Shaheen.

Neither was pushed to discuss the moral obscenity of mass wealth inequality, nor the futility of trying to achieve meaningful change via appeals to our political leaders.

Channel 4 News also quoted the 'crusading' Byanyima:
In the past 12 months we have seen world leaders from President Obama to Christine Lagarde talk more about tackling extreme inequality but we are still waiting for many of them to walk the walk. It is time our leaders took on the powerful vested interests that stand in the way of a fairer and more prosperous world. [Emphasis added.]
All spoken as if our leaders aren't really part of that same system of powerful, vested interests, even if they don't all hold the same higher levels of corporate wealth.

As reported by the Guardian, that same Davos elite have now, predictably, invited Byanyima to their cosy summit, a standard act of incorporation that she, in turn, predictably extols:
Byanyima said: “I was surprised to be invited to be a co-chair at Davos because we are a critical voice. We go there to challenge these powerful elites. It is an act of courage to invite me.” [...] Speaking to the Guardian, Byanyima added: “Extreme inequality is not just an accident or a natural rule of economics. It is the result of policies and with different policies it can be reduced. I am optimistic that there will be change. “A few years ago the idea that extreme poverty was harmful was on the fringes of the economic and political debate. But having made the case we are now seeing an emerging consensus among business leaders, economic leaders, political leaders and even faith leaders.”  [Emphasis added.]
Are we really? And what kind of consensus? Does her ego extend to the same summit heights in believing that their invite and her presence is all part of some courageous act and meaningful engagement?

Like so many liberal 'reformers', Byanyima exhibits an inability to stand much more usefully, and with real courage, outside the big power tent; to see, expose and do something radical about the dire situation of capitalist 'democracy'.

Alongside system apologists like Oxfam and Save the Children, key opinion-forming outlets like the Guardian and Independent play the same vital role in maintaining the great illusion of the 'critical insider'.

For example, George Monbiot has just delivered a searing indictment of the BBC from the pages of the Guardian. But what of the Guardian's own vital role as a power-protecting organ? Couldn't Monbiot's demolition of BBC bias be matched with similar criticism of the Guardian, Independent and other liberal-establishment outlets, all stated more effectively from outside the domain of compromised media?

Likewise, from the same Guardian pages, Seumas Milne has been dispensing damning truths on the Davos oligarchs, showing how, in the case of Latin America, it really is possible to achieve progressive advancements and checks on inequality by standing defiantly outside much of the neoliberal system. Yet, how more hitting might that message be if Milne, with Monbiot and others, were operating outside as a truly independent media of the commons?

The same problem of compromise and adherence is evident, too, in Owen Jones's continual effort to promote, trouble-shoot and save the Labour Party. Jones's Guardian column has been urging Labour to steal a lead on Green policies. But all this ultimately does is give sustenance to a bankrupt neoliberal party, a loaded parliamentary system and that same boundaried media, none of which can ever deliver meaningful change because they're all, essentially, part of the same corporate-serving network.

Indeed, political-corporate taming of the mainstream green lobby should be a landmark lesson here. 
 
As Media Lens lament:  
What about green groups, many of whom look to the Guardian for favourable coverage of their campaigning and concerns? Will they ever recognise the folly of working with so-called 'responsible' elements of state and corporate power? 
Just as it's painfully apparent that 'working with' or 'inside' the prevailing 'agenda' on climate change - accepting the delusional narrative of 'corporate social responsibility' - has been a disaster, so too are many 'critical' journalists hopelessly misguided in believing that working with, or inside, the corporate media can ever bring about radical solutions, most urgently, environmental ones.   
 
None of this should really take much deduction. As Brand, with humble clarity, puts it:
I'm not Noam Chomsky; I'm happy to be Norman Wisdom. All I'd like to do is dispel the idea that there are no alternatives to the systems we are currently using to organise society (Revolution, p191).
Wise and elementary words, even if the commendable Russell himself has a little way to go in questioning kindred, supportive voices like Monbiot and Jones on their participation within the prevailing system, and whether this - indeed, for Brand too - is the most effective way of realising serious alternatives.  

The key, if uncomfortable, question for many such figures proclaiming system change, thus, is how ready and willing are they to stand outside the interconnecting systems of power they themselves inhabit, showing real radical commitment to systemic change? 

The institutional pressures, career disincentives and self-regarding antipathies to this are, of course, huge. It's no coincidence that raising these issues with such figures can invoke the most hostile forms of response - or, more usually, non-response.    
 
This is the exquisite functionality of the system. Without any need for conspiratorial closure, it reproduces its own defensive armour.  

Which should only compel us to keep asking the central question: is it really worth being a 'campaigning' voice or fig-leaf 'dissident' within organisations that continually prop-up power, reinforce illusions and help sustain the dominant, corporate system we're supposedly striving to overcome?

Friday, 16 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo: real fight is over who controls the terms of debate

So, Charlie Hebdo releases its much-awaited 'edition of defiance', hailed by much of the political elite and liberal media.

Is this latest depiction of the Prophet - now shown weeping, and holding a "Je Suis Charlie" placard, below the Hebdo message "All is forgiven" - intended as a firm 'rebuke to terrorism', the telling of Muslims that 'these killers don't speak for Islam', or even, as suggested by some, a statement of 'forgiving outreach'?

Interpretations abound. But it's significant that we're expected to approach and answer these questions through a dominant filter of liberal understanding, most of which complies with a 'Voltarian' default-type idealism in support of Charlie.  

Yet, claims over the sacrosanct status of 'free speech' and its expression as 'satire' cannot elide the more elementary issue of human consideration and social responsibility. As cartoonist Joe Sacco observes, Hebdo's output is a "vapid way to use a pen." One might also add, pernicious, vulgar and racist.

Is this latest cover any less offensive, not only in proclaiming such caustic messages, but doing so now, apparently, 'on behalf' of Muslims? 

The argument that, content aside, they should still have the right to publish such material seems an even more diversionary trope. 

Besides Sacco, I'm with Will Self, who said that: 'If I were a satirist the people I would be attacking are the security state.'

Which, beyond liberal issues of 'satirical taste', suggests more substantive questions about the relative value of 'free speech' set against how that speech is used to explore more pressing, yet conveniently concealed, issues of power and powerlessness.

Here, as Self also reminds us, lurks the dark paradox that the much-proclaimed 'imperatives' of 'secular democracy' and 'free speech' are being stated in similar quasi-religious tones to that of those 'Islamic' fundamentalists.

And this brings us to the essence of what's so crucial in this debate: that the issue is not, essentially, about 'free and universal speech'. Rather, it's about the determined power to control popular narratives; to direct the very ideological-cultural terms of that debate.

It's what Edward Said wrote so incisively about in Culture and Imperialism; how the ability to conquer, control and render the 'other' subservient was achieved not only through the dominance of weaponry, but also through the messages, latent or overt, flowing through imperialist text and image.

It was, for Said, about the removal and marginalisation of that 'other' voice, the all-important negation of independent agency.

Simply stated, it was, and still is, about power getting to call the shots, both through imperialist violence and narrative-laden denigration.

Much of that same intent and subtext can be seen in the Charlie Hebdo case, both in this latest appropriation of the Prophet, and in how that choice depiction has been hailed as yet another instance of 'our' 'higher authority' and 'sacred' Western-liberal narrative of 'truly civilising free speech'.  

As Jonathan Cook concisely puts it:
For me the Charlie Hebdo cover precisely embodies the very problem it thinks it exposes: not of a clash of civilisations, but our desperation to control the narrative to our advantage. It is telling in my view that the cartoonist says he cried at the moment he came up with the idea. The cartoon is not cheeky or subversive, as Western critics would have us believe; it is hugely sentimental while being at the same time presumptuous and racist in the deepest sense of the word. What it does is to strip the Prophet, and by implication all Muslims, of any agency or voice. A white cartoonist gets not only to speak for them, but to impose on them – as Muslims – an apology. To implicate them all – through those three words – in a crime committed by two gunmen.

Yes, the cartoon is offensive, but not in the clash of civilisations sense – one that leaves us in the west feeling vindicated and self-righteous. It is offensive because it offends against history, offends against the self-determination of peoples long colonised by us, offends against the values we claim for ourselves as enlightened beings.
Backed by liberal outpouring on the War for Civilisation, and the barbaric Western crimes this helps disguise, that sense of 'superior enlightenment' permeates the political and cultural discussion. 

It ranges from approving Guardian reporting of Hebdo's latest cover, to George Clooney and other celebrities sporting Je Suis Charlie badges at the Golden Globe film awards. 

In serving to reaffirm cherished notions of 'unfettered expression', both are pertinent examples of what Said had in mind when he wrote about populist propaganda and cultural hegemony.

Indeed, would-be advocates of 'inviolable speech' like Clooney are actually the worst kind of apologists for power. As safe voices of boundaried 'dissent', they provide, unwittingly or otherwise, an easy 'standard' around which people often unsure of the issues will readily rally.

If Said were alive today, he'd likely be making this very point about how the establishment and its liberal-serving agencies greatly approve and promote such calls and shows of support; how such declarations work as reinforcement of dominant interests through the comforting illusion of 'hard-won freedoms'.

For, after all, don't we already, here in the West, live in an already benighted liberal democracy, where we get to vote for real choice parties twice a decade, and hear our most radical views aired on Question Time? Or are we really now slipping into satire?

As part of this 'great open debate', we also see much pandering to the sensibilities of 'the Muslim community', helping to instil the idea of 'tolerant,' 'dialogue-willing' liberal engagement. Yet this only further consecrates the notion of a 'freedom-defining us', bestowing noble legitimacy on liberal vanguards as the ultimate arbiter of 'how to best help them'.  

Much of that liberal-speak, of course, includes Islamic voices. And many liberal-minded Muslims have adopted the same agenda-setting narrative, feeling compelled to 'deny terrorism' and engage in foisted forms of 'self-examination'.
 
Others, however, appear to be denouncing the narrative, like left-liberal Muslim Mehdi Hasan, Political Director at the Huffington Post, who, "fed up" with their hypocrisy, has turned on the "Free Speech Fundamentalists":
Let's be clear: I agree there is no justification whatsoever for gunning down journalists or cartoonists. I disagree with your seeming view that the right to offend comes with no corresponding responsibility; and I do not believe that a right to offend automatically translates into a duty to offend. When you say "Je suis Charlie", is that an endorsement of Charlie Hebdo's depiction of the French justice minister, Christiane Taubira, who is black, drawn as a monkey? Of crude caricatures of bulbous-nosed Arabs that must make Edward Said turn in his grave? Lampooning racism by reproducing brazenly racist imagery is a pretty dubious satirical tactic. 
Hasan also includes here: 
the liberal-left pin-up Jon Snow, who crassly tweeted about a "clash of civilisations" and referred to "Europe's belief in freedom of expression".
All good comment. Yet, how ready is Hasan himself to criticise much more directly his HuffPost host, or other liberal media like Channel 4 News and the Guardian, as key purveyors of that dominant narrative? 

Consider this, also, from Huffington Post Assistant Editor Jessica Elgot, who tweeted on Hasan's piece: 
I don’t agree with ’s column. Isn’t that the great beauty of free speech?
Again the liberal conceit; another neatly-revealing example of how such voices view 'other' speech, even that of a journalist colleague, as though inclusion of Hasan's opinion as a liberal-left Muslim at the HuffPost is some major proof of the sacred liberal munificence which people like Elgot have the 'much higher responsibility' to uphold.

I wonder if Hasan can see the ways in which that dominant, 'assumed right' to the narrative is being played out, just as Said would have understood it.

It's also worth noting here that the Huffington Post recently called upon readers to 'unfollow' various Twitter sites like Wikileaks, Media Lens and George Galloway, a reminder of how many liberal-left figures and platforms are themselves so often hostile, protective of their status and closed to free, fair and critical engagement.

For all that, Hasan's key charges on the hypocrisy of 'free speech' fundamentalism, and objection to the Hebdo depictions, remain. And state intolerance of that dissent in France is helping to show just how efficiently that counter-narrative is being demonised and suppressed.  

There's deep resentment over the prosecuting of anti-Hebdo dissent, while French politicians and media defend the paper as a paragon of free speech. 
  
Though decrying the Paris killings, many French schoolchildren also feel deeply affronted at being compelled to partake in 'Je Suis Charlie' acts of 'unity'. Alongside the selective attention they see over the Hebdo deaths, compared with killings in, say, Palestine or Syria, many resent the social discrimination they're experiencing as 'equal' French citizens:  
 “You go to a nightclub, and they don’t let you in,” said Binakdan, a transit worker in Paris. “You go to a party, they look at your beard, and say, ‘Oh, when are you going to Syria to join the jihad?’ Charlie Hebdo is a part of that, too. Those who are stronger than us are mocking us. We have high unemployment, high poverty. Religion is all we have left. This is sacred to us. And yes, we have a hard time laughing about it.”
Again, it's all indicative of who is trying to drive the public narrative, and how the political class and its supportive media is using manipulative 'moral' argument to control that agenda. As the shameless stage gathering of leaders in Paris showed, this is the calculating opportunism of repressive state forces posing in liberal garb. 

And what ultimate purpose does public association with deep authority serve, other than gifting greater powers of state control? Why isn't this much more problematic incorporation of the populace and subversion of radical speech, in the 'land of liberté' and beyond, not being seriously discussed, exposed or satirised? Largely, because that more vital power narrative of 'liberal rights' is serving to draw an expedient voile de l'illusion around it.    

Yes, we may all have those notional 'liberal rights' to criticise and even offend. But how much does the idealisation of such really advance our true and realisable freedoms? And does it supersede serious empathy, social manners and compassionate concern for others' sensitivities, particularly the sensitivities of an already deeply marginalised community?
        
Beyond the standard liberal narratives and terms of debate, some writings and commentaries containing more critical observation, free thinking and human understanding: 

Nadine El-Enany and Sarah Keenan
“I am Charlie and I guard the Master’s house”
 
Media Lens
Charlie Hebdo and the War for Civilisation

Mehdi Hasan
As a Muslim, I'm Fed Up With the Hypocrisy of the Free Speech Fundamentalists

Glenn Greenwald
France arrests a comedian for his Facebook comments, showing the sham of the West's "free speech" celebration

Seumas Milne
Paris is a warning: there is no insulation from our wars

Ali Abunimah
Who’s a Charlie? France cracks down on free speech in order to defend it

Chris Hedges
A Message From the Dispossessed
 

Joe Sacco
On Satire – a response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks

Tariq Ali
Maximum Horror

Corey Oakley
Charlie Hebdo and the hypocrisy of pencils

Will Self
Speaking on 'Should satire only target people in power? - video'

Russell Brand
Charlie Hebdo: Whose Fault Is it?

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Pretensions in Paris: perfect day for real media speech

 
The aftermath of the appalling Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris has seen much media proclamation of the rights to free speech and critical expression. All seemingly noble. Except for the uncomfortable truth that our 'best' and most 'searching' liberal media have cravenly forfeited any such 'rights' in its routine prostration to power.

'Goodfellas'
As over 40 of the world's most 'freedom-extolling' heads gathered in Paris to 'lead' a demonstration in support of those 'inviolable rights', here was the very opportunity to question such hypocritical pretensions, not only over those individual states' records on freedom of speech, but of their collective repression, violence and warmongering under the Western/Nato axis in denying others around the world the very freedom of life.

Thus, amid the 'refusal to be intimidated by violent terrorists', where was all the media outrage over the presence of Israel's key trio of terror gangsters Netanyahu, Lieberman and Bennett? Where, also, was the media's coverage of their visit as a PR disaster for Israel? 

Why was President Hollande's clampdown on civil liberties (for example, France is the only Western state to try and ban pro-Palestinian protests) and France's wider record of state terror, from Algeria to Syria, Libya to Mali, not up for scrutiny? If 'France' as a country is said to be mourning, why can't journalists speak so generically of France's state crimes?   

And what of the obsequious treatment reserved for UK Prime Minister David Cameron?

On January 11, Channel 4 News presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy interviewed Cameron over his appearance in Paris.

In the piece, Guru-Murthy allows Cameron to pontificate about Voltairian values, responding only with an insipid line of questions on the prospects of him 'raising the threat level' in Britain, the need for armed policing, and whether it "stick[s] in the craw" to be seen marching with Egyptians or Russians on a freedom of speech march. The extent of Cameron's own part in subjugating the media, via the mendacious activities of UK intelligence, and the British state's own staggering record of terror-stamped war and interventionism is never mentioned. The limit of Guru-Murthy's 'satirical probing': 'Is this your first demonstration?'

A short twitter exchange ensued:
John Hilley‏@johnwhilley                                          
Here's how 'freely' our 'best free' media are willing to challenge our 'freedom marching' leader
 
Tony Shenton ‏@tony_shenton                                  
was more probing when he used to interview kids on Newsround. Could Cameron have bern given an easier ride?
 
Krishnan Guru-Murthy ‏@krishgm                                
I really don't think it was the day to rough him up. There will be another chance for that.
 
John Hilley ‏@johnwhilley                                  
. How very 'on-message'. The dark irony of 'free-speech' journalism afraid to expose posturing leader.
On January 13, Media Lens message board contributor Ed Murray wrote to Channel 4 News anchor Jon Snow:
Mr Snow,
In tonight's Snowmail (1), you rather proudly announce:

"...while Inigo Gilmore has been challenging the Front National leader, Marine le Pen, about whether her party is exploiting the killings and their aftermath."

I must have missed your 11th January Snowmail, where you announce:

"...while Krishnan Guru-Murthy has not been challenging Tory leader David Cameron, about whether his party is exploiting the killings and their aftermath."

Guru-Murthy, replying to comments about his supremely supine interview with Cameron, opined that it was not the right day "to rough him up" over such allegations, when in fact, it was the perfect day to ask him about his hypocrisy.
It was, indeed, that most perfect opportunity for such a challenge. When else should it have happened? When the world wasn't watching so many of those leaders posturing on Parisian streets in their carefully-staged 'demo'?

In the supposed celebration of 'Je Suis Charlie freedoms' and the 'right' to iconoclastic mockery, why was this day considered so sacrosanct, this kind of interview deemed an inappropriate moment to challenge, expose and even mock the truly powerful?

Doesn't it say so much about our 'vanguard' media that it can so readily uphold the right to publish, and even offend, yet, in its own vacuous output, still fear to question such political exploitation or appear 'offensive' to select leaders?

And what serious charges and indictments do those like Guru-Murthy really have in mind, anyway, when they 'promise' to "rough-up" the political elite?

Guru-Murthy assures us that "there will be another chance for that." What serious prospect of this happening, do you think? Are we likely to see any illumination of the real context behind these events, that which takes us beyond the artificial liberal 'news' agenda of 'defending free speech' and politicians forever condemning terrorism, rather than exposing the powerful forces - state terrorism, corporate interests and their ideological agencies - that keep the whole process of violence, greed and hatred going?   

While we 'await' that coming 'inquisition of power', here's Russell Brand with a much more probing, enlightening and compassionate set of insights.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Liberal condemning of Charlie Hebdo killings offers little civilising solace

Very sad thoughts with the victims and families of the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris.

Whatever might be claimed about the merit or effect of such journalistic views and images - mocking, controversial, satirical, provocative, incendiary, blasphemous, iconoclastic, defiant or otherwise - there is not the slightest moral justification for such violence or the murder of those who publish such things.

Yet, any measured observation of that violence must be seen against the much greater level of violence and murder perpetrated by the states living under such attacks.

Many, Muslims and non-Muslims, will have made the essential point that these killers are no more representative of Islam than the Ku Klux Klan is of Christianity.  Many across the Islamic world have condemned the Paris deaths.
 
Which raises the perennial question: why do Muslims, once again, feel so compelled to make such defensive appeals?

Largely out of basic humanity. But, also, because a lot of liberal empathy for socially besieged Muslims and 'moderate Islam' is still laced with false dichotomies and misplaced loyalty.

The problem with much liberal 'Je Suis Charlie' solidarity is not its condemnation of violent jihadism, or cherishing of free speech. It's that such expression still relies on flawed identifications with 'enlightened' entities like 'our' states and their 'civilising' status.

Although well motivated, Owen Jones, for example, comes close to such a blanket label in this tweet:
Sickening act of mass murder in Paris. People from all communities will be repulsed by this atrocity. Solidarity with France. 
All fair and honourable comment on the terrible act and widespread response. But why any particular solidarity with France?

Thomas Piketty has just refused the Legion of Honour, insisting that the French state has no such validity in determining who or what is honourable. Why isn't Jones similarly specific over who deserves such empathy?  

Or consider, more problematically, this reading from Channel 4's Jon Snow:
Paris: brutal clash of civilisations: Europe's belief in freedom of expression vs those for whom death is a weapon in defending their beliefs.
Is this really a 'clash of civilisations'? How did Snow arrive at this generic conceit of 'Europe's belief' in anything?

And if we are to speak of Europe as such an entity, what of its own dark record of murderous violence? 

One could more accurately characterise Europe's part in Western/Nato invasions, occupations and imperialist plundering as distinctly anti-civilising: 'those for whom death is a weapon in defending their geopolitical interests, rather than beliefs.'

Just think, past and present, of France's own militarist atrocities and self-serving interventions in Algeria, Indo-China, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Mali and other parts of Africa. Indeed, two of the Paris suspects are reported to have returned from jihadist service in Syria, the very same theatre of appalling violence the French state have been so wilfully fuelling.

While much of the liberal political class and media make lofty proclamations and pitch the Paris killings as a red line issue over free speech, they have virtually nothing equivalent, or worse, to say about such states crossing the 'civilisational' line into mass and sustained terrorism.

All of which perfectly shields the hypocritical condemnations and 'we will defend democracy' breast-beating of Hollande, Cameron and Obama. Where are all the searing media comments on their suitability to invoke the values of life and liberty?
 
This indulgence also provides liberal space for the right's poisonous claim that Western states are still soft on Islam. Thus on Channel 4 News was war hawk and neocon Douglas Murray allowed unopposed room to bewail the 'attack on Western freedoms' and declare that "terrorism works".

Likewise, in condemning the killers and urging liberal defence of free speech, a Guardian editorial can muster only token words on the gravity of Western crimes:  
Poverty and discrimination at home may create fertile conditions for the spread of extremism, and western misadventures abroad can certainly inflame the risks.
Those last nine words say more about the Guardian's own feeble mitigations, pandering to power and failure of brave expression than any Voltairian defence of untrammelled speech.
 
Appalled by the Paris killings, Jon Snow indulges in even more liberal hubris: 
Make no mistake, this is a landmark moment in the affairs of man.
Can you imagine Snow offering similar enunciations over the West's mass slaughter of Iraq, Israel's grotesque crimes in Gaza, or the sustained killing of Afghan civilians by Nato forces?

For Snow and much of the liberal media, men in jihadist garb killing journalists is barbaric, while men in suits, ordering others in uniform to mass murder and maim millions of innocents has, seemingly, no such 'landmark' significance.  
 
None of which ultimately detracts from the personal responsibility of those who unleashed this wicked killing in Paris. Their actions are as inhumanely futile in closing down real democratic speech as they are in furthering or illuminating Islam.  
 
And, as ever, such acts only provide the purveyors of 'civilising' state violence even greater powers of control, surveillance and repression of serious speech, alongside the vitally extended freedom to inflict even more militarist aggression across the planet.

The mark of a truly courageous media is not its willingness to reproduce more caustic cartoons or proclaim defiant words of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. It's that media's readiness to condemn and indict the 'civilising' politicians and states responsible for even greater acts of barbarous violence.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Tragedy, avoidance and the 'why'

An out-of-control bin lorry crashes through a crowded Glasgow street, snuffing out unsuspecting lives. Christmas shoppers, everyday folk, lost in a cruel instant. We shudder at the thought, witnesses, helpful and helpless, now trying to allay the shocking images from their minds. And, as the background stories and personal testaments emerge, people gather in silent displays of sadness and respect.

It's always touching to see the very natural process of communal grief and kindly remembrance, an assuring reminder of the essential compassions we hold deeply as human beings.

We simply identify, showing intuitive empathy for the victims, imagining their families' ordeal.

Some have suggested a particular 'Glaswegian pulling together'. Perhaps. But the essential inclination of people to help and care in such situations is surely universal. 

And yet the 'where', 'when' and 'why' questions still perplex.

How, we ask, could such a thing happen here, of all places? A seemingly safe environment. That's always a relative notion, of course: more people, more vehicles, more activity, more likelihood of tragic incidents.  Even after the helicopter which crashed through the roof of a Glasgow pub last year, there's still little cause to think that such seemingly bizarre things will occur in our apparently 'ordered' locale. Yet, how complacent might we be, at large, to such realities? 

Though a terrible event, the bin truck tragedy was treated as a 'standard road accident' by the emergency services. Many others occur daily, often with similar multiple fatalities. That kind of news seems almost dismally routine by comparison, our  responses, in turn, seemingly more 'accepting'. We appear almost inured to such reports, regarding even major motorway pile-ups as an 'inevitable' consequence of modern living, rather than a global epidemic.

The 'where' of fatality and tragedy thus suggests wider issues of emotional closeness and distance. It's perhaps natural that we grieve more painfully for a close relative or loved one than a stranger in a distant place, affected as we are by immediate familial feelings and proximate relationships.

Thus could those far from the devastating Boxing Day tsunami ten years ago still comprehend the horror, feel deep empathy, still show generous support, while always comfortably knowing that it didn't happen 'here'. As the search continues for victims of the appalling AirAsia plane crash off the Indonesian coast, we might presently be feeling that same basic human, if still distanced, empathy.

Yet what of our responses to conflict in 'other' places? Although capable of similar human concern, we often seem relatively less shocked and affected over killing in war-torn locations, most often where 'our' leaders unleash so much large-scale suffering. Again, it seems like 'just more dreary news' of death and destruction. But is our consciousness of the 'where' in this case shaped more by routine presentation of 'benign intervention' and 'necessary militarism'?  

The latest mass slaughter of innocents in Gaza this year saw an outpouring of global empathy for suffering civilians. But it still seemed like a qualified emotion, ever-conditioned by loaded media narratives of another 'faraway' and 'intractable' conflict involving 'two warring sides', rather than an occupying state ruthlessly pulverising a besieged people.

There's also the sad timing of tragedy, the 'when' question, and how the sense of loss, as in the Glasgow accident, is seemingly greater around an occasion like Christmas.

Again, it's that very instinctive human empathy in thinking how we would feel losing loved ones at a special festival time when we're supposed to share an extra closeness.

Yet, while invoking the spirit and celebrations of Bethlehem, what acknowledgement of the daily misery going on behind its afflicted, apartheid wall?    

Or what reaction, say, to the 5-year-old child in East Jerusalem shot in the face by an Israeli soldier on Christmas eve? Very little, given that, like so much other anonymous Palestinian suffering, it was never actually deemed newsworthy 'here and now'.

How naturally and sincerely we can feel for others, wherever and whenever they suffer. But, again, so much of that empathy is measured and mediated by how much of the where and when we're actually told. 

And then there's the 'why' question, that more metaphysical point of reflection. The 'why' is often just a form of rhetorical exasperation, a comfort, a useful palliative, requiring no particular answer. But it's still, in our religious-conditioned society, adopted as plaintive enquiry: why, in the 'great scheme' of things, would any God or Grand Designer allow such cruel pain and suffering?

Flowers and candles, prayers and other mitigating spiritual words, provide solace for some. Yet, others ask, isn't it just enough to accept that such events are random? What actual need of the 'why' when the 'laws' of cause and effect suggest a better rationalising exercise? Or is that in itself just another comforting rationale?

There's always scope for more preventative action over public safety, as in recognising the silent crisis of death on the roads, and the corporate influences fuelling it. We may also think and act more carefully as individuals at festive and holiday times when one's guard may be easily down. Yet, for all that, isn't much of life still a game of chance? How fragile and contingent is our very existence?

While things might be done, say, to improve the safer operating of bin lorries in public places, the possibility of general error or other human calamity in life remains. But many other decisions, policies and directives leading to tragic loss could be more readily prevented.

So, beyond the ponderous and the abstract, what more useful employment of the 'why'? How might we better utilise that perennial question, even with spiritual intent?

Here's one thought process: why are situations of suffering that are actually more avoidable the ones that usually result in most tragedy and mayhem?

Consider, in this regard, how serious disincentives to car use - with all its attendant problems of global pollution - could enhance public safety. Thus a more practical rumination: why do commercial interests and the road lobby enjoy such powerful influence over pedestrian interests, better public transport and general social health?

We might usefully posit many other such 'whys'. Just think, for example, how the removal of guns from American streets would sharply improve the potential for safer, more prolonged and happier life. The logical, persistent question to power: why are guns actually allowed on those streets?

Imagine, likewise, if police in that conflicted country stopped 'detaining' black people with such brutal force. Key question: why such state propensity to unwarranted and provocative violence?

Or consider, more broadly, the potential for longer life and greater happiness if elites re-focused their voracious capacity for armed violence towards meaningful forms of peace-seeking diplomacy. Thus: why do we rarely ask why war is wielded so eagerly by 'our' states and their corporate clients?

And, invoking the greatest issue of avoidance and concern: why are corporations being allowed to drive life on our planet to the point of extinction?

This may all seem far removed from the simple act of respect and grieving. Loss through accidents surely differs in context from loss through war and conflict. Yet, in all such cases, the usual 'why' often negates more substantive use of that question in better serving to respect, safeguard and enhance life.

All loss of life, all pain, is to be acknowledged, and, to the fullest possible extent, avoided. Yet it's also helpful to realise the ubiquitous presence and likelihood of human suffering.

I personally incline towards some loose Buddhist perspective on suffering and tragedy as an inevitable part of existence, coupled with a responsive mindfulness which seeks to act, as well as meditate, on practical ways of relieving and minimising it. That's meant more as humble reflection than grand advocacy. But it helps, I think, to move beyond the more futile, if, for some, still comforting use of the 'why'.

At this year's end, we can but show our deepest compassion to all those devastated families, from Gaza to Glasgow and elsewhere, helping us remember both the preciousness of life and the imperative task of trying to best protect it for all.

And in that universal, humanist endeavour, with assuredly more avoidably tragic events to come, may we continue to ask many more of those vital 'why' questions.