Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Conflict and the art of compassion

The year draws to a close here at zenpolitics with reflections on conflict, mass killing and how we think about those who execute such acts.

It's been another day of indiscriminate Israeli bombing in Gaza. Israeli politicians are vying for electoral killing points, while rejecting any suggestion of a humanitarian ceasefire. The 'international community' remain dutifully silent in response to Israel's massacre of innocents.

And then there's this kind of gratuitous pleasure over the spectre of lives lost in Gaza:

"Finally, a month and a half before the elections, Israel takes some action. I definitely see this as linked, but it's OK, better late than never. What's been happening in Gaza is fantastic. I feel very bad about the man killed in [the Israeli town of] Netivot."
Do we rage or despair at such indifference to others' misery?

The BBC, meanwhile, are proclaiming their 'fairness' and 'diligence' in reporting the atrocity - though, terms like "atrocity" are unlkely to feature in such reports. Here's a token something sent to one our Media Lens contributors from Jeremy Bowen, supposedly meant as a serious, analytical reply:
Dear Rhisiart

I di[s]agree with your inaccurate description of BBC reporting from this story. We are working as hard as we can to report the story fairly, accurately and impartially. What we will not do is take sides.

I suspect that a fair number of the 'millions of us common punters' for whom you say you speak are in fact getting their news about Gaza from the BBC.


Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East Editor
A few replies to Bowen asking him to consider multiple evidence to the contrary seems to have made little impact. Still, we try:

Dear Mr Bowen,

Your reply to Rhisiart Gwilym is even more shameful than the template responses packaged-out by Helen Boaden, Stewart McCullough and other BBC hierarchy.

The claim that the BBC do not take sides is risible. It takes no great genius to see the massively loaded – or lacking - context, imbalanced language and selective omissions in these and other BBC reports.

Where, for example, are the words “massacre” and “atrocity” in any of these pieces, terms used without hesitation in describing state murder in non-western countries and other attacks like Mumbai?

You apparently “suspect that a fair number of the 'millions of us common punters' for whom you say you speak are in fact getting their news about Gaza from the BBC.”

Sadly, that's seems to be the case. And the really depressing outcome is that the limited information the public do get from the BBC on Gaza and the wider Occupation only serves to limit and neutralise their understanding.

I help run a Palestinian human rights campaign in Glasgow and one of the principal questions we're always asked at our weekly public stall is a variation on: “I had no idea all that was going on. Why haven't the BBC been telling us?”

It's not just the current apologist language for Israeli violence in Gaza that's at issue here. It's the deep institutional deference the BBC reserves for Israel, an understood quietism which results in the daily non-reporting of the Palestinian tragedy.

That's a large part of why this Palestinian misery has gone on for so long. And journalists who hide behind the BBC veil of 'objectivity' in denying that elementary truth are complicit in that suffering.

John Hilley
Sometimes one can feel a littlel drained following adversarial exchanges. Though ever-motivated by the 'good fight' against the powerful and their acolytes, the language of criticism, sometimes veering beyond the sharp, can disturb, even where one has challenged journalists so obviously biased in the service of power.

And yet, we carry on, energised by the conviction that to be submissive while others face the much harsher assaults of war, hunger and oppression would be even more dispiriting.

Today, our Glasgow Palestine Human Rights Campaign ran an extra emergency stall. And it was inspiring to hear so many visitors come over to voice their eager concern and support for the people of Gaza. Which, despite the relentless media distortions, proves that people really do care about such state-inflicted suffering.

Yet, even in the midst of all this conflict, it's useful to reflect a little on the point and practice of such engagement. It's not to hate those we oppose. It's not to find oneself convulsed by anger. It's not to revel in spiteful attacks. Rather, it's to cultivate, however possible, the art of compassionate activism.

A last word on that task.

The Dalai Lama recently declared that he "loves George W Bush", an arresting thought for those rightly convinced that Bush should be arrested. And yet, a little closer meditation suggests the alternative possibility of a profoundly radical thought.

Part of that meditation involves, for me, a desire to comprehend the warmonger's mindset. Why do people like Bush, Olmert, Livni, Brown and Blair fail to see the true consequences of their actions? How can they seem so oblivious to mass murder? Watching Bush's shrugging response to the recent shoe-hurling incident, it occurred to me, not for the first time, that he may be so completely absorbed in his own simplified 'reality' that perhaps he simply can't comprehend the staggering loss and suffering he has helped unleash in Iraq and elsewhere.

So, the real challenge lies in cultivating an ability to speak and act in ways which not only help bring such people to actual justice for their crimes, but to feed our capacity for
compassionate understanding - even towards those who bring such pain to others. Therein lies the true possibility of meaningful alternatives to a system built on hate, anger and violence.

To that enduring task.

Peace and love - wherever our suffering friends in Gaza and elsewhere can find it - this new year.


Monday, 29 December 2008

BBC's Gaza-speak

The slaughter in Gaza goes on. As does the disgracefully loaded way in which the BBC reports it.

Here's a classic example of the 'Israel-said' form from Jeremy Bowen, supposedly the BBC's finest correspondent in the region.

“Israel has laid out an ambitious war aim. It says it wants to create a new security environment, to protect Israelis who live within range of rocket fire from Gaza.”

“The ground for it was prepared by clever psychological warfare.”

“An Israeli intelligence briefing this morning argued that many Palestinians in Gaza were fed up with Hamas.”

“Israeli generals always assume that they have a limited time to achieve their goals.”

Bowen, no doubt, sees himself as a strategic analyst, giving this reportage the imprint of cold-rational assessment. Thus, the actual carnage and loss of life becomes incidental to the ways in which Israel sees and plans its operations. In this vein, Bowen notes the bombing of Hamas-built infrastructure, not Palestinian infrastructure, as though the 'taint of Hamas' makes it a seemingly legitimate target.

There's no explanation or detail on the actual siege of Gaza. Rather, the piece begins from, and implies effective acceptance of, the claim that Israel is engaged primarily in a defensive, rather than offensive, action. Nor do we find mention of the singular fact that since the start of the Hamas-initiated truce no Israelis were actually killed, in stark contrast to the murderous punishment now unleashed by Israel.

Bowen's reference to Israel's “clever psychological warfare” further encourages us to 'understand Israel's defensive agenda'. His slavish repetition of an “Israeli intelligence briefing” that “Palestinians in Gaza were fed up with Hamas” receives no contrary comment, no suggestion that they might be much more fed up with Israel's starvation siege - and how that demoralisation impacts on support for Hamas.

Likewise, the report implicitly asks us to recognise the 'difficult task' of the Israeli generals who “always assume that they have a limited time to achieve their goals.”

All this 'information' is couched in language which sanitises the aggression, while inviting moderated reading of the aggressor's mindset.

It also complements perfectly the kind of 'reasoned' 'calls' from Israeli-friendly leaders:

Foreign Secretary David Miliband also called for an "urgent ceasefire and immediate halt to all violence". Mr Miliband described the humanitarian situation in Gaza as "deeply disturbing" and said that the "rise in rocket attacks on Israel since December 19" and Saturday's massive loss of life "make this a dangerous moment which should be of concern to the whole of the international community."Mr Brown said that he was "deeply concerned" by continuing missile strikes from Gaza on Israel and by Israel's response yesterday. He urged Gaza militants to cease all rocket attacks on Israel immediately and Israel to do everything in its power to avoid civilian casualties.”

This is not the language of peace and restraint. It's actually the language of violence. When politicians refuse to condemn the actions of the oppressors, they give a green light to more oppressive, violent actions. It's no exaggeration to say that Brown and Miliband are deeply complicit in the massacre of Gaza. They assuredly knew the slaughter was imminent and did nothing to stop it. And when it did unfold, they said nothing that might compromise or discourage further Israeli killing.

As with Brown's and Milibands's expressions of 'concern', the BBC's output is part of the same, safe moderate-speak that turns an effective blind-eye to mass murder.


Sunday, 28 December 2008

The massacre of Gaza

27 December 2008: a day that should live in infamy - and would if the BBC and its media peers were doing their rightful job.

Instead, the massacre of Gaza is being reported as an essentially 'understandable' show of Israeli force in the face of Palestinian 'provocation'.

With over 270 Palestinians slain in this latest act of mass murder, the perpetrators and their 'international apologists
can always depend on a servile media to rationalise such state terrorism. The early evening BBC News (27/12/08) even had Jeremy Bowen - the BBC's most 'critical' correspondent - telling viewers how Israel was effectively acting in self-defence.

It's the template media context: Israel responds to attacks from Hamas, never Hamas responds to Israel's brutal and violent siege.

The (since updated) Ha'aretz version, likewise, announced:

"Israel launched Saturday morning the start of a massive offensive against Qassam rocket and mortar fire on its southern communities, targeting dozens of buildings belonging to the ruling Hamas militant group."
Ha'aretz and other press were rather coy in emphasising that the buildings in question were police stations, part of Gaza's civic 'infrastructure' - or what passes for that term in this annihilated piece of earth. Imagine the media response had Israeli police stations been targeted. The bombing of Palestinian police offices, on the other hand, can seemingly pass without the slightest comment.

The 'failed truce' provides another rationalisation for Israeli aggression. As Ali Abunimah puts it:

What the media never question is Israel's idea of a truce. It is very simple. Under an Israeli-style truce, Palestinians have the right to remain silent while Israel starves them, kills them and continues to violently colonize their land. Israel has not only banned food and medicine to sustain Palestinian bodies in Gaza but it is also intent on starving minds: due to the blockade, there is not even ink, paper and glue to print textbooks for schoolchildren.

As John Ging, the head of operations of the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), told The Electronic Intifada in November: "there was five months of a ceasefire in the last couple of months, where the people of Gaza did not benefit; they did not have any restoration of a dignified existence. We in fact at the UN, our supplies were also restricted during the period of the ceasefire, to the point where we were left in a very vulnerable and precarious position and with a few days of closure we ran out of food."

That is an Israeli truce. Any response to Israeli attacks -- whether peaceful protests against the apartheid wall in Bilin and Nilin in the West Bank is met with bullets and bombs. There are no rockets launched at Israel from the West Bank, and yet Israel's attacks, killings, land theft, settler pogroms and kidnappings never ceased for one single day during the truce. The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah has acceded to all of Israel's demands, even assembling "security forces" to fight the resistance on Israel's behalf. None of that has spared a single Palestinian or her property or livelihood from Israel's relentless violent colonization. It did not save, for instance, the al-Kurd family from seeing their home of 50 years in occupied East Jerusalem demolished on 9 November, so the land it sits on could be taken by settlers.

Once again we are watching massacres in Gaza, as we did last March when 110 Palestinians, including dozens of children, were killed by Israel in just a few days. Once again people everywhere feel rage, anger and despair that this outlaw state carries out such crimes with impunity.

Abunimah also has strong words for the Egyptian government's shameful collaborations:

But all over the Arab media and internet today the rage being expressed is not directed solely at Israel. Notably, it is directed more sharply than ever at Arab states. The images that stick are of Israel's foreign minister Tzipi Livni in Cairo on Christmas day. There she sat smiling with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Then there are the pictures of Livni and Egypt's foreign minister smiling and slapping their palms together.

The Israeli newspaper
Haaretz reported today that last wednesday the Israeli "cabinet authorized the prime minister, the defense minister, and the foreign minister to determine the timing and the method" of Israel's attacks on Gaza. Everywhere people ask, what did Livni tell the Egyptians and more importantly what did they tell her? Did Israel get a green light to turn Gaza's streets red once again? Few are ready to give Egypt the benefit of the doubt after it has helped Israel besiege Gaza by keeping the Rafah border crossing closed for more than a year.

Meanwhile, the 'international community' - that homely Western invention of global togetherness - speaks 'decisively' about wanting an end to violence. How touching. Blair calls for a ceasefire. How very admirable. It's all part of the decent inaction intended to 'show concern' over the loss of Palestinian civilians while backing Israel's right to kill them.

The posturing hypocrisy of the diplomatic class and their media acolytes seemingly knows no bounds. Israel claims to be acting in 'necessary defence' and Brown, Merkel, Sarkozy and Obama nod in dutiful compliance. There's not even a caveat criticism about 'proportionality'.

The murder is going on today, with renewed 'air strikes'. They're called 'air strikes' by the media and political class because that gives the mass murder a respectful tone; part of the sanitised vernacular reserved for state-instructed carnage. 'Air strikes' to 'target militants' in 'response to' the 'the ongoing threat' of 'deadly' Qassam rockets.

But, of course, Israel is a democracy, just like us. Unlike them. It may, on occasion, act a little 'excessively' in making its point. But it must still be supported.

Except that it isn't a meaningful democracy. It's an apartheid state engaged in violent ethnic cleansing and the ruthless purging of criticism, internal and external.

The recent treatment of UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk is a case in point. Falk, an American Jew and eminent professor, has described how he was detained and humiliated at Ben-Gurion airport before being sent back on a plane to the US for daring to criticise Israel. That even a senior UN-appointed person, acting in due accordance with the law, can be treated as a subversive is a clear signal of Israel's intolerance. Was there ever a blacker sign of Israel's claim to be an open and tolerant democracy?

Such purges also signal a failure to convince. As with the expulsion of Falk, the wanton elimination of Palestinian lives before the eyes of the world illustrates an increasingly desperate effort to sustain the unsustainable. The Gaza massacre might be cloaked in respectful language. But neither a pliant media nor Israel's complicit political friends can hide the true extent of its systematic cruelty inside the human laboratory of Gaza.


Monday, 15 December 2008

One Voice: do not disturb

My attention has been drawn to the Glasgow University Guardian article 'Voices unite in plea for peace' (3 December 2008), a report by Ross Mathers on a recent public meeting held by One Voice (10 November 2008).

The opening line reads:
"A MEMBER OF AN OPPOSING MOVEMENT interrupted a recent rally held by the Glasgow chapter of One Voice."
Further into the article, hailing One Voice and its adherents, Mathers contends that:

"The evening was disrupted, however, by a member of the Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign [sic] accusing One Voice of diluting the reality of the conflict and of backing the Israeli occupation. The situation in Israel and Palestine was also compared to the apartheid seen in South Africa.

Speaking to Guardian, One Voice supporters said they expected such a reaction. This came after One Voice's leafleting campaign on campus was disturbed by similar protestors who voiced their concern over the underlying loyalties and aims of One Voice."

The words "interrupted", "disrupted" and "disturbed" are highly revealing of how One Voice and its coterie view criticism of their message. There's also the curious anomaly of how an invited opinion aired from the floor of an open public meeting constitutes an interruption or disruption to such proceedings. As with One Voice's own evasions on the key issues of Palestine/Israel, one can only presume, from the absence of any contrary opinion in this piece, a similar kind of closure.

Mathers's sanitised reportage complements One Voice's own aversion to critical examination. There's not a word of serious discussion on the actual issues in his gushing article. Instead, we're treated to a generalised lauding of One Voice's 'higher' peace agenda, its lofty supporters - notably Charles Kennedy (who, at the OV meeting, lavished praise on Blair's Middle East 'peace' efforts) - and this Israeli One Voicer's anguish over the external hatred she believes is being directed at her country:

"It's hard, because sometimes we feel alone when the world seems to hate us so much. The media shows what it wants to show."

Thus speaks the 'suffering Zionist', a default defence of Israel which finds ready welcome inside One Voice. It's a denialist mindset which helps insulate Ms Lipnik from the core causes and staggering scale of Palestinian oppression. It also protects One Voicers from the truth of what the BBC and other Western media do show, which amounts to daily distortion, omission and a servile apologetics for Israeli conduct.

Don't mention the 'A' word

Support for this 'persecution complex' is apparent in Mathers's own intimation of contempt at my charge of "apartheid", as though uttered by an extremist interloper falsely impugning Israel.

Perhaps Mathers and the selective One Voice respondents in his report should pay a little attention to the growing body of international figures making that very indictment.

For example, UN General Assembly President Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann recently denounced Israel's apartheid system, while calling for an intensified boycott, divestment and sanctions to help break the illegal Occupation and siege of Gaza. As the activist writer Phyllis Bennis notes, Brockmann's use of the 'A' word “was really quite extraordinary" coming “from the highest levels of the most democratic part of the United Nations, the General Assembly".

As documented, Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter and many other notable peace-makers view Israel as an apartheid state. The Israeli human right group B'Tselem have made similar statements. Even the former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Cold War hawk, acknowledges the apartheid comparison with South Africa. UN Rapporteur Richard Falk, meanwhile, has just been refused entry into Israel for condemning its racist conduct.

International campaigns like Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid are also serving to highlight Israel's state abuses and war crimes. The admirable Action Palestine are doing similar work across UK campuses, providing, contra One Voice, a true picture of the Occupation and Israel's contrived 'peace agenda'.

At a recent AP meeting in Strathclyde Union, three Palestinian students gave moving testimonies on educational apartheid in the West Bank and Gaza (as part of the Right to Education week). It's a pity Mr Mathers wasn't there to report their astute thoughts and harrowing experiences. Again, it seems, that's an unwelcome "interruption" of One Voice's select narrative.

Unlike One Voice and Mr Mathers who endeavour to shun discussion of international law and Palestinian rights, it's reassuring to know that one is in the better moral company of Brockmann, Tutu and journalists like Pilger - people prepared to use honest, informed vocabulary in calling Israel to account for its crimes.

In contrast, it's a shameful kind of campus 'journalism' that employs terminology like "disrupted" to demonise critics of One Voice while Israel uses its violent disruptions and apartheid powers to break Gaza and the West Bank.

John Hilley

Saturday, 13 December 2008

One Voice - simplifying the 'choices'

As with George W Bush's "with us or against us" line, simplified 'choices' often serve a purpose in excusing murderous regimes, hiding their crimes and preventing just solutions.

Here's another "pick a side" choice from One Voice coordinator Anthony Silkoff who has just been given a Young Thinkers Award for extolling the ideas of One Voice:

" 'Palestinians do not deserve a State and are incapable of governing themselves. They must be managed, imprisoned, or exiled.'


'The state of Israel is a hydra-headed monster, comprising Zionist ethnic cleansers, US imperialists, and Arab collaborationist regimes.'

Pick a side. Any side, so long as it's black and white. Farcical, perhaps, but this is the true extent of polarisation to be found in Britain today on this issue."

How very One Voice.

In essence, we're invited to read these propositions as polar opposites, the implication being that 'fair-minded moderates' should not only oppose the former position but also reject the scurrilous charges against Israel noted in the latter.

This is not a essay on true choices. It's an exercise in crude dissembling from our One Voice advocate, a sleight-of-hand typical of the chicanery that passes for intellectual reasoning from this deceitful organisation.

Alas, Mr Silkoff has a lot more thinking to do on the actual issues. His seeming dejection at the "polarisation" between Palestinian and Israeli groupings across UK campuses is used as a rallying call for One Voice 'moderation'. Yet, it's a discourse which only serves to inhibit understanding of the core causes and possible solutions.

By circumventing or dismissing the inconvenient language of occupation, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, Zionism and other signifiers of the, yes, "hydra-headed" system of Israeli oppression, he does a disservice to Palestinians, Israelis and others seeking an honest examination and just peace.

Nor, apparently, is it productive to talk about "US imperialists" or the "collaborationist" role of Arab regimes. Presumably, this 'moderate view' precludes discussion of America's geopolitical conquests and its other ambitions in the region, Israel's client-state part in that project, the billion-dollar cheques issued annually from Washington to Tel Aviv helping to maintain Israel's illegal Occupation, the brutal siege of Gaza and the dual US-Israeli arms economy underlying all that oppression. It's also, no doubt, rude to mention the conditional US aid lavished on Egypt, serving to keep its borders sealed and the people of Gaza in a state of near starvation.

In more 'thinking' mode, campus Palestinians and their supporters are caricatured by Silkoff as hostile intransigents, unable, apparently, to see the One Voice message of 'mediation'. The 'balance', of course, is served by disapproving token comment on their Israeli campus adversaries. Again, how very One Voice to conflate arch-Zionists and Palestinian groups campaigning for fundamental human rights - as though the latter's campaign for justice based on international law is somehow detrimental to 'moderate dialogue' - or One Voice's white-washed version of it.

There's also something precociously arrogant about Silkoff's problem with "outside opinions" and the "domination" of "academics viewpoints" rather than "what the majority of Israelis and Palestinians themselves actually want." This is another standard One Voice play to 'moderate' 'on-the-ground opinion', implying claims of mass-support for its work, while dismissing a rich field of critical academics, many of whom work as dedicated activists in pursuit of both justice for the Palestinians and the moral regeneration of Israeli society - which broadly involves a one state solution with full rights for all people.

As noted elsewhere, One Voice may not approve of Israeli historian Ilan Pappe's landmark text The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, but they should have the intellectual honesty to acknowledge that, contrary to their facile 'choices', a definitive and massive ethnic cleansing did actually take place - indeed, it's still ongoing, as evidenced by the stealthy purges against Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

In similar vein, they may not wish to recognise the academic and humanitarian efforts of Israeli professor Jeff Halper, whose heroic (non-academic) activism includes lying down in front of Israeli soldiers and bulldozers in an effort to stop Palestinian homes being demolished.

These are acts of real human solidarity, far-removed from the cosy-cloistered 'engagement' of people like Silkoff and his One Voice friends.

Perhaps they should visit the Sheik Jarrah district of East Jerusalem, from where the al-Kurd family have just been brutally evicted from their home after 52 years, a trauma too much for Mr al-Kurd who died days after of a heart attack.

Moreover, where is One Voice's recognition of the international activists who stand beside the al-Kurds and other Palestinians facing Israeli violence, such as the besieged villagers of Bi'lin and Ni'lin? Are they also part of that "polarisation"? Have they also made the wrong 'choice'?

Likewise, what of the Shministim school-students in Israel who have refused to serve in the Israeli Occupation Forces, choosing jail, instead, in an admirable act of defiance and support for suffering Palestinians? Isn't their "pick a side" action more moral and immediate in drawing international attention to the real issue of Israeli repression?

Instead of the slanted choices offered by One Voice, the discerning thinker might more usefully look - even if the media has ignored it - at the damning statement and report just issued by UN Special Rapporteur, Richard Falk, condemning Israel's gross violations in Gaza. It's yet another unequivocal reminder that, contra One Voice's 'two sides' distortion, there's actually an Occupier and an Occupied here. And the former is visiting unspeakable suffering on the latter.

As Falk reminds us: "Silence is not an option." One Voice would prefer that we all remain respectfully mute on these key, crisis issues; that we 'moderate' our language to 'accommodate dialogue'; that we, in essence, eschew the words spoken by Falk and international others on Israel's "apartheid system", "illegal actions" and "war crimes" against the Palestinian people.

One Voice's optional silence on all this is not just an illustration of fake moderate-speak, it's a stark reminder of how the disguising of such basic truths and language amounts to actual complicity in those crimes.

Time, indeed, to "pick a side": the side of the occupiers and oppressors or the occupied and oppressed.


Friday, 5 December 2008

Monbiot, Media Lens and the Guardian

There's been a significant debate, of sorts, over at Media Lens following this message board posting from George Monbiot intimating charges of 'double standards' towards the ML Editors:
Can this be true?

If so, I think I have reason to feel aggrieved.
Monbiot's posting was in response to an online article by the multiple aka blogger Bob Shone, alleging "hypocrisy" over the ML Editor's 'reluctance' to criticise the New Statesman (in their occasional pieces for that organ), while, at the same time, taking Monbiot to task for not seriously criticising the Guardian.

I won't reprise the arguments against Mr Shone. Suffice to say, he has obsessive form for stalking Media Lens. What's more disappointing is George Monbiot's acknowledgement of Shone's "evidence" as a basis for challenging ML.

In response, ML issued an impressive Alert piece, 'Can this be true', comprehensively exposing Shone's fabrications, documenting their own difficult dealings with the NS and Guardian and talking of the systematic issues for journalists working within the corporate media. Implicit in this thoughtful critique was an invite for George Monbiot to answer previous questions put to him about the Guardian's positions on Iraq and climate change, as well as particular statements Monbiot had made about the 'threat' from Iran.

Again, disappointingly, Monbiot could only reply, thus:
I post a one-line question on the Medialens message board and receive an entire Media Alert, just for me, in response. Well I'm deeply honoured. But could it suggest just a tiny morsel of defensiveness on the editors' part?

Anyway, Happy Christmas and best wishes to you all,

Following ML's admirable Alert, and many other thoughtful board comments, it seemed a surprising abrogation of the issues from such a respected campaigner, prompting my own further response:
I now count five short messages, mostly one liners, from George Monbiot here, not one of which:

1. Is concerned to address his questionable use of Bob Shone's site and 'evidence'.
2. Has dealt with ML's fine and compassionate Alert.
3. Has answered any of the questions put to him by ML about the Guardian's hypocrisies re the war and climate change.

Instead, George seems to think this kind of dismissal counts as a political point:

"Signing off now to fight a battle with a real enemy (one of the airline companies)."

Let's, for a moment, try to put this board discussion in its proper context. It's not about infighting. It's not about diverting attention from the "real enemy". It's about getting into the open the vital problem of the Guardian and other liberal media outlets which keep real forces for change, notably over war policy and the environment, safely checked and contained.

That's a crucial "battle with a real enemy." And, as a major campaigner and writer for the Guardian, George Monbiot has a significant stake in that issue.

So, let's dispense with this 'let's all move on to the real battle' stuff and recognise the pressing need to have this ongoing debate, the principal aim of which should be critical exposure of the Guardian and how it serves to pacify public opinion and neutralise dissent.

With a million-plus dead in Iraq, and the Guardian's disgusting apologetics for it, that's more pressing, in my opinion, than rushing-off to criticise airline companies.

What's really extraordinary is George Monbiot's apparent unwillingness to see and confront such concerns.


Besides the board responses to this and other facets of the discussion, I received this enquiry from Daniel Simpson:
Hi John (and Davids),


Are you saying George Monbiot ought to make himself unemployable at the Guardian, either by resigning, or by "confront[ing] such concerns" as your desire to see more "critical exposure of the Guardian and how it serves to pacify public opinion and neutralise dissent", perhaps by denouncing its "disgusting apologetics" in print, or proving he can't?

If not, what are you saying?

Isn't the "ongoing debate" for which there's a "pressing need" one about being realistic as well as demanding the impossible?

Either you think it's vital that dissidents inside the system move outside it (and sustain themselves by other means than salaries from corporate media), or you're prepared to acknowledge that there are calculations people have to make, in which case a bit more honesty/realism in the critique might achieve something more than eliciting comments from George Monbiot that dissatisfy you.

I'm copying this to the ML editors because I'd be interested in hearing their thoughts too.

Best regards,

In essence, this view is concerned about "being realistic". So, let's address the realities of the Guardian's role as a progressive force for change and the progressive function of those who work within it.

With over one million souls dead in Iraq and Blair et al off the hook, did the Guardian act in any decisive way to help expose this systematic criminality? With the planet in a state of ticking-clock environmental crisis, has the Guardian's harbouring of fossil-fuel offenders and refusal to ban their advertising helped or hindered understanding of the eco-emergency? With all this and other gentlemanly canoodling of the elite in mind, are we seriously "being realistic" any more in believing that we can't do without the influence of 'insider journalists'?

What we have to be truly realistic about is the politics of co-optation which the incorporation of journalists serves.

The ML Editors have given valuable insights in their Alert on just how difficult it is to get a piece critical of the host media past their gateway editors. The constraints are much more obvious for those like Monbiot, directly employed by such media. Which, however much we see their presence there as relatively useful, still negates their ability, or willingness, to tackle the substantive problem of their media employers.

We can argue the pros and cons of whether journalists should actually resign their positions. I see this not as impossible, but improbable. What Monbiot and others do is a matter for their own consciences. But, given the critical role of the Guardian in subverting true discussion and action over the war and climate change, I think it's an option that should be given realistic consideration.

Consider, for instance, the effect of Monbiot resigning in principle over the Guardian's climate posturing. It would have two important effects. Firstly, it would alert much of the Guardian's own safe liberal readership to the truth of their paper's hypocrisy, thereby undermining an organ which acts as a key sop to the establishment. Secondly, it would encourage people towards an alternative media and information free from corporate manipulation.

The counter-argument is, again, obvious: better having good people in the tent than outside it. Yet, the prospects for serious change coming from within are rarely given realistic appraisal by such journalists. Why? The reasons are varied, ranging from career factors to delusional belief in their own capacities. Generally, they rationalise it as just being "realistic." What they rarely seek to be realistic about is the way in which the Guardian and its peers are the problem.

Better, I think, that we deal with that reality - and how it legitimises the 'reality' of war and eco-catastrophe - rather than the token space people like Monbiot are given to say their 'radical' bit. If we want to be "realistic" about challenging the system that lives by war, environmental abuse and other corporate destruction, we better start tackling, in new and realistic ways, the media that gives it all a protective gloss.


Thursday, 4 December 2008

Venezuela: distortions, reforms and the music of hope

Following the recent election results in Venezuela, giving Hugo Chávez another impressive mandate, the Venezuelan Information Centre issued this concisely-worded reminder:
"VIC will continue to explain the truth about Venezuela and challenge the media distortions which, in reality, reflect incredulity that any Latin American country should have the temerity to break free of the tutelage of the United States and use its natural resources to improve the well being of its people."
It seems, indeed, for the US and its media proxies, a seemingly audacious idea. Time, for example, talk of "how passionately the anti-U.S. firebrand [Chávez] keeps working to thwart Washington's interests in the hemisphere" - as if Venezuela's own interests have no significance. Try to imagine Time noting "how passionately the anti-Venezuelan firebrand [Bush] keeps working to thwart Caracas's interests in the hemisphere".

While Time revel in how "el comandante's celebration was blunted" by the opposition gains, they're forced to acknowledge the inconvenient truth that:
"Then again, Chávez is hardly a dictator. Venezuelans can still criticize him in the media, and ever since he was elected in 1998 (and in a special 2000 election and again in 2006), he's followed democratic procedure and conceded defeat, however irascibly, when it's come. Chávez's backers insist that even if term limits are eliminated, Venezuela's opposition, unlike Cuba's, can still dethrone him."
Which should answer objections to Chávez's newly-proposed referendum on constitutional extension of the presidential term. Yet such caveats remain token admissions among the endless pages of character assassination.

Encouraging the reforms

We needn't be under any illusions about the success, to date, of the Bolivarian reforms to see the kind of forces attempting to strangle them. Nor should we shirk from recognising the internal problems the revolution is facing.

Chávez's PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) lost a number of seats in the elections, the partial consequence, notes Mike Gonzalez, of the growing gulf between the poorest, still supporting Chávez, and a brooding, rightist middle class unhappy at seeing their privileges eroded to the reforms. The spectre of corruption among some of the new "Chavista bureaucracy", argues Gonzalez, also had a negative electoral effect for Chávez, a warning of discontent from below that the reformist agenda must be strengthened.

Gonzalez also remains a useful voice in asking where the revolution is going. While part of the revolutionary movement in Venezuela rightly involves the defence of Chávez by the poor - those who defined the revolution in 2002 by saving him from the coup plotters - Gonzalez also sees the need to intensify the transfer of power from the state and nascent party apparatus to the Bolivarian networks; namely, the people.

This is not to undermine Chávez. Rather, it's to recognise the contradictory tensions within the revolutionary process as the state/party entrench new figures with powers and privileges they become reluctant to give up, thereby stunting citizen ownership and controls, the very goals of Bolivarian participatory democracy.

Gonzalez's critique is, in this vein, a laudable look at the structural faults of the revolution; an educational analysis of the tensions for Venezuela as it seeks, with regional allies, to build a pan-Latin alternative to Washington/Wall Street hegemony, while pursuing its own internal micro-based Bolivarian reforms.

And, as Gonzalez and many others know, there's a consistent queue of media assassins ever-ready to discredit those reformist endeavours.

Much of this comes in crude reference to Venezuela's social problems. For example, in a recent Unreported World film, Venezuela: Cult of the Thugs, the spectacle of ongoing crime and violence across Venezuelan barrios is offered as supposed evidence of Chávez's 'failures':
"Venezuela, the world's fourth largest oil producer, has seen its murder rate triple after nine years of leadership by President Hugo Chavez. At least one person is murdered every 40 minutes and the government's own statistics show it now has one of the world's highest murder rates."
This is trite liberal reportage which fails, or refuses to see, either the wider regional or economic context within which such crime prevails. Nor do we get the sightest hint of the massive political-corporate forces weighing on Chávez and the revolution. Instead, it's pitched as some kind of 'stark revelation' that the 'great socialist alternative just can't deliver'.

As admirably noted in Sean Penn's recent meetings with Chávez in Caracas and Raul Castro in Havana, the West continues to paint a grossly distorted picture of Venezuela, Cuba and this reformist hemisphere. It's also a staggering anomaly that people like Chávez can be so widely vilified while Bush, Blair and their cohorts enjoy effective exemption for their mass crimes. As Penn noted, in preparation for his visits:
"I had grown increasingly intolerant of the propaganda. Though Chávez himself has a penchant for rhetoric, never has it been a cause for war."
Never do Time and other media servants to power see fit to discuss the criminality and genocide perpetrated by successive US administrations in Iraq, Afghanistan and, of course, across Latin America itself.

Make music, not war

While much of the Western media continue their routine slander of Chávez and the Bolivarian reforms, here's one inspiring lesson in social intervention, Venezuelan-style, that films like Unreported World fail to mention. Born of an earlier initiative, now supported by the Chávez government and Venezuela's local communities, the globally-acclaimed El Sistema project is taking thousands of deprived kids from the barrios and giving them a participatory education in musicianship.

All children are eligible and encouraged to participate. Many have become internationally-renowned performers. Yet, even that's a kind of secondary accolade beside the aims of this wonderful collective, giving joyful stimulus to youngsters susceptible to a life of crime and poverty.

One of El Sistema's finest talents is the brilliant young conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Leading the stunning Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, a product of El Sistema, Dudamel and his colourful entourage wowed last year's London Proms with a carnivalesque performance, including an unforgettable rendition of Bernstein's Mambo.

In a pleasing departure for the BBC, the story of El Sistema's development was featured in Alan Yentob's recent Imagine series. In a memorable sequence, we see the humanitarian arts figure Richard Holloway visit Venezuela with a Scottish delegation. His heart captured by the performing kids, Holloway helped bring the El Sistema idea back home to a deprived part of Stirling, an initiative that continues to spread to other poor locales.

It's inspiring to see this positive human energy resonate around the world, particularly as it derives from a country so engaged in meaningful, if still difficult, transition.