Friday 9 November 2012

Review: David Cromwell, Why Are We the Good Guys?

Before reaching the actual text, the title of David Cromwell's latest book denotes an effective piece of radical art in posing the simple, probing question: Why Are We the Good Guys?

As co-editor of Media Lens, the book's subtitle is no less appropriate and invitational: Reclaiming Your Mind From the Delusions of Propaganda.

In lieu of some highly perceptive analysis of corporate control, establishment closure and the liberal media which helps sustain it all, Cromwell's text is commendable throughout in detailing some of the social and personal influences underlying his radicalism.

It's a refreshingly welcome inclusion, helping to humanise his messages and observations - a quality of content and texture, alas, rather lacking in much well-intentioned, yet mechanical, leftist writing.

An introductory chapter has, in this regard, a particularly familiar appeal.  Close to my own experiences, Cromwell was brought up in a (near) Glasgow, Catholic and left-politicised household, his dad, like mine, a member of the Communist Party.  Like Cromwell's early exposure to the Morning Star, I too have strong memories of such output - my late dad always having great leftist people around our busy house.

And, like Cromwell's recounting of comments made to him by a seemingly politicised science teacher about British oppression in Ireland, I also recall a much-revered teacher relating similar home truths on this very subject.

As the author suggests, such impressions can take mindful residence, helping to shape our onward 'radical consciousness'. As is clearly evident across the book, these life markers have imbued Cromwell with a deeply human capacity for viewing power institutions and getting behind the liberal facades which help protect them.

Cromwell excels in unpicking the multiple deceits driving Western foreign policies, the ideological veil that keep us from ever seriously questioning the 'benign intentions' of 'our' leaders' or a media which regards itself as an associate 'good guy'.

How readily we will see on TV a shocking murder or brutalised victim and ask 'what kind of depraved mind could do such a thing?' Yet, when 'our' politicians order mass bombing and unbearable suffering on anonymous foreigners we seem somehow incapable of even comprehending these as acts of depravity, certainly not as psychopathic. 

In detailing the staggering scale of Western killing, such as the over one million dead of invaded Iraq and, before that, the half million sacrificed through inhuman sanctions, Cromwell is asking us to think deeply about those committing such genocides and the inuring role a pro and rationalising war media play in maintaining the West's 'good guy' status.

Much of Cromwell's tenacious, yet always courteous, letters to senior journalists will be readily familiar to Media Lens regulars. Yet, even this reader was surprised by the extensive range of those enquiries - most often eliciting the kind of indignant, hostile response that says so much about the spotlighted liberal.

In one notable exchange, Cromwell pushes the BBC's James Reynolds to explain the brazen lack of balance in reporting the supposed 'nuclear threat' from Iran.  Cromwell cites a key WikiLeaks cable revealing that, in Washington's eyes, the IAEA's new head Yukiya Amano is "solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program." All too typically, there's no engagement of this crucial evidence. The response from Reynolds:

"I shall reflect on the points you raise. It is always important for me to hear from licence-fee payers - the lifeblood of the BBC."

Such is the cursory tone of BBC dismissals. Note also the "important for me" retort, intimating that, for Reynolds and other status-driven journalists, such token 'consultation' is always a valuable prop for their own 'professional development'.

In another such letter, Cromwell asks Guardian journalist James Randerson to follow-up on an opinion offered by Sir David King, chief scientific adviser to the UK government, in the run up to the bombing of Iraq. King had expressed the belated view that the reason for prosecuting war on Iraq was not to remove WMD, but to secure scarce energy supplies, a view which, he asserts, was shared by others around him at the time.

So, why didn't he express this view to Blair, Cromwell asks? And why doesn't Randerson, even now, pursue the matter, asking King why he didn't state his feelings and whether, given the immense scale of the killing that followed, he has any regrets about not doing so.

No further response arrived from Randerson and King was never pursued over his 'undeclared' views on Blair's war agenda, a collective reticence which Cromwell aptly calls "the triple failure of journalism, academia and politics."

Besides the collective complicity to warmongering, there's no more pressing example of that interconnecting failure than that noted in the chapter title: 'Global Climate Crime'. With helpful elucidation of the stark scientific evidence on climate change, Cromwell again points to the elephantine issue effectively ignored by those in the rooms of power and influence: the "inherently biocidal, indeed psychopathic, logic of corporate capitalism". The charge is part of a listed indictment, the 'eight great unmentionables', that should be "at the heart of any debate on the climate crisis in a truly free media." 

As on the climate issue, Cromwell's forensic questioning of spurious academic texts is, perhaps, most evident in his 'Endless Echoes' chapter, revealing how President Truman and Western interests sought both geopolitical and moral cover for the atomic bombing of Japan.

In challenging both orthodox and (later) anti-revisionist schools, Cromwell offers-up some fascinating details of how US officials rigged the Potsdam terms and played-down the significance of Soviet entry into the Pacific conflict in mendacious promotion of the claim that the bombing was necessary in order to save greater allied numbers. 

Here we see how academics have assisted policymakers not only in legitimising an historical war crime, but in framing and perpetuating the exclusive 'right' to Western offensive war.

As Cromwell asserts, we should take sharp notice of such historical manoeuvrings and dark narratives as a similar unholy trinity of political, media and academic forces seek excuses to demonise and bomb Iran.

Cromwell also permits a very frank and instructive account of his own career, notably his tenure at corporate giant Shell. How, some readers might wonder, could this radical-minded writer have made the ethical 'compromise' to work there, particularly given the environmental issue he most earnestly champions? What comes across well here is Cromwell's growing political awareness and nonconformist urges, as described in the stern reaction from Shell when he and some colleagues raised objections to being party to the company's dealings in South Africa.

His journey through and out of corporate employment also helps illuminate the truth of how we're all deeply pressurised to accept, join and live by the economic demands and grasping culture of corporate life. In this case - as with principled journalists like Jonathan Cook - Cromwell has experienced the insidious inside reality of corporate existence and walked the other way, as opposed to many other 'early radicals' who 'wise up' and embrace the establishment system.

There's a neat reminder of this pressure to career conformism in the chapter 'The Madness of the Global Economy' where Cromwell is upbraided by Sunday Times economics editor David Smith. Having asked Smith why he omits any discussion of capitalism's systemic faults and crises, Cromwell is dismissed with the now familiar rebuke: "Most of us get these things out of our system when we are students."

As Cromwell intimates through many other examples, it's this institutionalised understanding of how to 'fit in', to be a non-awkward player, to self-police one's output, which negates any actual need for totalitarian-type control of journalists, editors or, indeed, anyone else working under such corporate expectancy.

In another finely-focused email, Cromwell asks the Guardian's Polly Toynbee whether, in her praise for David Cameron's (then in opposition) 'new realisation' that ignoring relative poverty was "a real breakthrough", she might somewhere have discussed the fundamental reason for poverty: rampant capitalism.

Like a similar letter to the paper's Deborah Orr, his message was ignored, all part of "the lexicon of liberal evasions" Cromwell has charted over the years.

The 'c' words - corporate/capitalism - seem too 'crude', too 'rhetorically charged', too 'abstract' for such writers' attention. Mainstream reportage, rather, is all about comparing party 'positions' on such issues.

In denial of such servile shadowing, the BBC also wish to demonstrate 'equality' of space. Yet, as Cromwell notes in his close reading of the Power Report and its media coverage, there's no counterpoint, no public counter-voice, to the combined messages of all these identikit party policies.

Plaintively, Cromwell is asking, where is the real, alternative critique of capitalism and corporate power in all this discussion?

In his tracing of the "neoliberal nightmare" that has stalked states and societies since Thatcher/Reagan, Cromwell cites a range of radical economic commentators such as Harry Shutt, posing searching questions about the standard narrative of 'boom and bust' and the ideological quest for economic growth. Cutting through the mythology of economic 'icons' like India and China, we see, through meticulous presentation of contrary statistics, just how false are the 'success stories of capitalism'.

Another central point, contained in Cromwell's account of the great banking heist, is the media tendency to highlight selective rogues and fall-guys like Sir Fred Goodwin, conveniently circumventing serious discussion of turbo-capitalism itself, a system predicated on ultra-privatisation, profit maximisation and ruthless inequality. Preservation of the 'good guy' structure often requires sacrificial exposure of a 'good-guy-turned-bad-guy' scapegoat.

The book concludes with a remarkable last section on philosophical possibilities for rejecting all this barbarism, greed and unhappiness, both as a process of collective activism and in a spirit of personal transcendence.

Noting the intellectual resistance of prominent 'outsiders', those who refuse to conform to the dominant order or standard ideology, Cromwell sees a certain value in Nietzschean ideas of strong individual assertion, a craving for meaningful values, yet finds ultimate fault both here and in existentialist aspirations to a mindful freedom. What use, in the end, of an Übermensch strength of will that doesn't translate into compassionate action towards others?

Here, Cromwell considers our daily afflictions and worries, whether over love or other fears, anxieties, insecurities and personal suffering, asking: "why should any of this matter in a book that has devoted so much attention to politics, war and the state of the world? One answer arises from the basic principle that we surely do not wish to live in a world where nobody is concerned about anyone else." Again, rather than cold economics and harsh invective, we find the welcome politics of personal feeling and compassion.

Taking a happy recollective journey through the cloisters of Glasgow University (conjuring multiple thoughts of my own good times there), Cromwell also provides a fine 'outsider's' critique of academic compliance in the great crimes noted throughout the book.

Relating personal examples of how universities deter radical activity through politicised censure and selective research funding, we see how academia shapes the "disciplined professional", or, in other guises, provides cover for that more typical 'leftist academic', the "ideologically disciplined thinker".

Risk avoidance of real critical thinking comes with an absorbed understanding that it's best not to raise one's head above the parapet or deviate too far from the 'accepted norms' of how academia should serve the 'realities' of market life. As Cromwell asks: "How can academic 'collaboration' with large corporations which are, after all, centralised systems of illegitimate power, not lead to compromise, distortion or worse?"

Again, the basic acceptance of a 'good guy' system by liberal academics generates its own complicity: "This is because their research and teaching fit into a grand narrative where the essentially benign motives of government tend to be take for granted."  For Cromwell, the "silence and acquiescence of academics is a significant obstacle to peace and justice."

Upholding an optimistic humanity, Cromwell also counters the oft-accepted view that we are little more than the accumulated sum of selfish desires and predatory urges. Embracing, amongst others, the psychologist Erich Fromm, he agrees that humans do have the capacity for both cooperative and destructive actions, but we are not in any way hardwired for outright greed, competition or violence. 

Citing Mark Kurlansky's Nonviolence, Cromwell continues fascinatingly here not just on the amorality of warfare, but the actual, productive case for seriously peaceful approaches to conflict. It's a final, salutary reminder of just what level and manner of killing the 'good guys' have committed in the name of 'liberal intervention' and how many millions of lives could have been spared through true processes of human diplomacy and conflict resolution.

At the end of this intriguing book, readers should be more alert to the staggering villainy still being executed by 'our' benign leaders and the myriad institutions of power supporting such misery.

Yet, in the closing pages, and with unexpected irony, I found myself meditating on another possible variation of the book's title: why are we - those proclaiming progressive motives - the good guys? Perhaps unintentionally, Cromwell's discussion of motives here throws up related questions for anyone presupposing their own 'good' intentions: namely, where does sincere altruism, the capacity for radical activism, the desire to show real compassion, even the ability to love another or others unselfishly, really spring from?

Whatever our latent motives for excavating elite crimes or supporting just causes, any enquiring mind will find an abundance of humanitarian argument, voluminous detail and food for onward personal reflection in reading this provocative and absorbing work.

Why Are We the Good Guys? is a hopeful encouragement to a kind of higher intellectual freedom and mindful release from the conformity of market life, the constraints of establishment places like academia and all those cages of corporate existence that negate the possibility of human liberation and active compassion.

John Hilley


David Cromwell said...

Thank you, John. What a splendid review! I really appreciate you writing about the book, and covering so many of the topics raised. And it's heartening to know that parts of the book chime with your own experience, not least the Glasgow connections. All the best, David

John Hilley said...

Many thanks for the kind words, David. It was a real pleasure reading your inspiring book and getting all those great Glasgow and other personalised references included. Appreciations to you and the other ML David for all your fine work.

Best wishes, John

Sam Rockwell said...

Excellent review - worthy of praise in itself. Thank you very much!

Anonymous said...

What an excellent review of a brilliant book. Thank you very much!

Anonymous said...

Will you write a review of Goege Orwell's 1984 ?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for an excellent review!