Jan 302019
 

Since Trump came to power, there has been much talk about the media. Trump says the mainstream news outlets are lying, but what do we say? For my part, I can’t say I have all that much confidence in mainstream news outlets either; yet, there is no doubt that they have offered me wonderful articles and illuminating documentaries. So what will it be?

Thirty years ago, Edward Herman & Noam Chomsky had a book published called Manufacturing Consent. About the media. About how the media is not as free as we like to believe. About how the powers that be control public opinion without censorship.

Much has changed since then. When you stop to consider that personal computers hardly existed when the book was written (on a typewriter, I am told) and that email was an exotic and very technical affair, it really is quite remarkable that the mechanisms described in the book still apply today.

I would like to recommend a piece on the Internet written by a man of whom I know nothing except what he writes himself: that he is a youngish journalist, that he deeply admires the very much older Noam Chomsky and that the latter has agreed to be interviewed by him. What follows the journalist’s introduction is not so much an interview as a very agreeable and interesting conversation between the two about, yes, the media as it splashes all over the place, on the verge of spilling into the next decade.

Why, in spite of so much knowledge out there, in spite of any number of extremely talented and hard-working journalists, are we so ill-informed, so confused, so battered by the elements?

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present Matt Taibbi and Noam Chomsky.

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Jan 052019
 

Nothing I can say or write, nothing anybody can say or write, can hold a candle to what the Lebanese film director Nadine Labaki has managed to record in Capernaum, which received a long standing ovation and the Jury Prize when it was shown at Cannes this year.

I am certain that no kid, not even a Lebanese street urchin, is as wise as the film’s tiny protagonist Zain (played by the Syrian refugee Zain Al Rafeea), who eventually, through sheer grief and with nothing whatsoever to lose, beats the system. If there were such a kid, there would also be supremely wise adults, which evidently is not the case. Nobody is beating the system. I suppose Nadine Labaki is about as close to doing so as anyone ever was, because those of us who see that film will never be the same.

As far as I can make out, Ms Labaki has two good reasons for allowing the film’s protagonist to beat the system and for suggesting from the very start of the film that he may be able to do so. One of them is that the public would never otherwise be willing to endure witnessing so much injustice and so much pain, knowing – oh yes, and without a shadow of doubt – that what the restless camera reveals to us is the Lord’s truth.

The film is spiked with humorous incidents, and we laugh, relieved at each break from the sordid documentary reality we don’t really want to know about. Laughing and pleased by our hero’s resourcefulness, we are dragged to the next scene of humiliation and hopelessness, during which we gasp and shiver until somebody’s kind smile, or a charming remark, again alleviates our discomfort.

The three heroes are fabulously alive, though only on the screen; without ID documents, they would none of them be missed if they vanished: a tiny Lebanese street urchin, an “illegal” Ethiopian immigrant, and her lovely toddler.

Thanks to Nadine Labaki, they won’t ever vanish. To really make her point, she has apparently chosen her actors for the film from among the sort of people she is portraying.

The second of the two reasons for allowing the film’s protagonist to beat the system is to try to prod us into doing likewise. “If a street urchin can do it, so can you, ” she seems to be saying.

Nadine Labaki, I take my hat off, I bow to you.

In November 2018, director Nadine Labaki reported Al Rafeea’s situation had changed:
Finally, he has a Norwegian passport. He’s resettled in Norway. He’s been there for the past three, four months. He’s going to school for the first time in his life. He’s learning how to read and write. He’s regained his childhood. He’s playing in a garden; he’s not playing anymore with knives and in garbage.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zain_Al_Rafeea (as per 05.01.2019)

Feb 192018
 

I need not remind you that what we imagine we know about the past tends to be what victors of the past wanted us to believe. Ever since barons, of one sort or another, came into existence, they made sure to hire and overpay the most talented bards to sing their praises. In our day, we have the media. Running an attractive media outlet costs far more than consumers are willing to pay, and modern barons are happy to sponsor those who tell their side of the story.

I have just been to Cordoba, Spain. There are many reasons to visit Cordoba, one of which surpasses every other. True, you may not share my tastes, but the Mesquita in Cordoba is the most sublimely beautiful building I have ever visited! To my mind, neither the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg nor the Acropolis in Athens nor any Gothic cathedral hold a candle to the Moorish Mesquita in terms of transcendental architectonic harmony.

The Moors were defeated and driven out of Spain, and most of us are unaware of the remarkable scientific and artistic supremacy and – not least – relative tolerance that had characterised Moorish culture in Spain during what is known elsewhere in Europe as the “dark ages”. “We won”, as it were, and we are telling our story now, a story that centres on Western moral superiority, on the one hand, and Islamic religious fanaticism and brutality, on the other. The story is no more true than innumerable other fanciful concoctions spun out of ignorance. The ghastly war crimes committed by US soldiers in Vietnam, for instance, do not mean that US Americans are cruel monsters.

Now, telling a fib is not as straightforward as you might think. After all, incorrect facts can be gainsaid, although the correction will often only be found on the last page, in small print and long after the entire population has taken the venomous bait. In the long run, though, a mainstream news outlet would not want its reputation to be tainted as fallible, so journalists and speech writers need a more indirect approach, which is where their semantics come into the picture, their choice of words.

If you are up against a brutal dictator, and there are many of those, you may be engaging in political activism, but as soon as your authorities get on to you, they will not convict you of political activism but of “sedition”** or “incitement” for the simple reason that no self-respecting country will admit banning “political activism”. In the news, your friends will hear about a “rioting mob”, rather than about a “crowd of demonstrators”. Nobody wants to be part of a “mob” and most people are reluctant to have anything to do with a “riot”. Serious opposition to your country’s authorities will not be labelled a “rebellion” – since anyone can easily be sympathetic of a rebellion against a tyrannical regime – but as “treason” or “terrorism”.

In fact, even in a country that does not have a tyrannical regime, you risk being indicted of treason if you are some Mr Nobody who exposed your country’s war crimes. On the other hand, presidents who harm their countries past the point of no repair are very rarely accused of anything at all.

Mind you, semantics – the words that are used to describe, in this case, your political opposition – matter not only to you as a dissident, but to all who attempt to bring down tyrannical regimes. No country is an island, not even North Korea. Your country will have financial, military, strategic and other ties to other countries. The US, for instance needs to keep its military bases in a large number of minor countries and will not risk disrupting relations with a regime that has taken draconian measures against “terrorists”.

As for the rest of us, those who believe that the occupants of the White House are – ehem – whatever-we-believe-they-are, we are all “conspiracy theorists”. Those of us in favour of some redistribution of income and wealth are “populists”, and analysts who expose the inefficiency and financial extravagance of the US health system are elitist, and their arguments are merely referred to as a “narrative”, i.e. something distinctly dubious.

Israel refers to all who have the slightest sympathy for the Palestinian cause as anti-Semite. Makes my blood curdle, in fact, because I very much resent being called a racist.

Unfortunately, those of us who are referred to as populists, conspiracy theorists, elitist or anti-Semite are often no better. Referring only to myself, I have on occasion vehemently stated that so-and-so was a racist, a fascist or for lack of anything more precise, a bastard. Only recently I referred to a very prominent person as a hooker, on these very pages. I can’t say I very much regret having done so, because letting off steam feels good. My words were less elegant, though, than those used against me, and would have no other effect than to make it clear that I loathed the object in question, and that was not really my aim, which was to make the reader share my loathing.

Any political movement that is referred to as populist, elitist, anti-Semite or based on conspiracy theory will probably never seriously get off the ground, so semantics do matter.

**A recent case from a so-called Democratic country is that of Catalonia: Although the separatist movements earned a majority in Democratic elections for the second time in a row in December 2017, the Spanish authorities have indicted the separatist movements’ leaders on charges of “sedition”.

Jun 282017
 

You may have heard – and then again, you may not have – that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have issued an ultimatum against Qatar, the 13 so-called “demands” the country must meet within ten days, “or else”.

If Qatar meets the demands, it will have ceased to be a state: It will merely be a vassal of Saudi Arabia, since what is demanded is in reality that the country surrenders its sovereignty.

It all started with an economic and diplomatic blockade launched in the wake of the US emperor’s visit to Saudi Arabia, and since the Saudis evidently feel confident about US support, goodness knows where it will end. For that very same reason – i.e. US support – nobody even mentions this issue around here. In Europe you don’t talk back to the US! Not in this country, not in any European country, least of all in the UK.

Now I was brought up with the BBC. I feel warmth and gratitude to the BBC. I know the names of many of their foreign correspondents. I download BBC podcasts and listen to them. But let us not delude ourselves: BBC is a British broadcasting company, and Britain is very cosy with the USA. As for the USA, well, need I remind you …? No, I won’t remind you, because that would require not a website but many tomes of modern history. However, take a look at Reporters without borders. If you click the map you will see that the USA ranks no higher than 43 out of 180 states as far as freedom of the press is concerned.

My country is also uncomfortably cosy with the USA, if not quite as cosy as the UK, but certainly cosy enough for its national broadcasting company to refrain from ever quoting Al Jazeera. Yet, I suspect that all good foreign correspondents – be they from my country or from the BBC – consult Al Jazeera more than almost any other outlet, at least about Middle East issues. Why? Because Al Jazeera is good, very good! And they are not bound by the US Patriot Act.

One of the 13 “demands” is that Qatar close down Al Jazeera. Now I don’t know whether you watch Al Jazeera, but what I do know is that whether you do or don’t, the news outlet will have considerable impact on what is revealed to you about world affairs. If it were not for Al Jazeera, the US and the UK could tell their side of the story, and nobody would know the difference.

I wish to quote another Guardian article of today (also quoted, by the way, by Al Jazeera):  Asked whether the closure of al-Jazeera was a reasonable demand, the UAE envoy said:

We do not claim to have press freedom. We do not promote the idea of press freedom. What we talk about is responsibility in speech.

I ask you, could any quote be clearer?

Mar 182017
 

Several European countries are facing national elections, these days. Lately, I have taken to watching the evening news on television, rather than just reading RSS feeds or listening to podcasts, because so many of my lunchtime companions talk about Trump’s and Gert Wilders’ hairdos that I feel a need to be visually informed.

But alas, information comes at a price. Watching the evening news means you can’t skip paragraphs or fast-forward. You have to listen to a lot of – excuse my French – crap, and crap makes me feel slightly ill. Now, I realise I seem to be echoing Mr Trump as far as distrust of the media is concerned, and for that I prostrate myself in abject apology, but there is no denying that the media has no choice but to record what dominant actors say and do, not least what Mr Trump says and twitters, which is quite a mouthful.

Tonight an opposition party in my country trumpeted: “We intend to redistribute wealth!” Why are they saying that? Because they hope to attract low-income voters. Will they succeed? I doubt it. Why? Because people know that what is meant is really “we will raise taxes”, and although they only want to raise taxes on the filthy rich, we all know that when taxes go up, the bottom two thirds of the population pay more, but when taxes go down, the top third of the population pays less. Why this is so? Beats me!

But taxes do have to be be raised. Why? Because the wealth gap between the top 10 percent and the rest of the country is growing exponentially, here as elsewhere in the western world. As you will know if you have read your Piketty, this is not only because the right-wing parties currently in power here have lowered taxes on wealth and capital, though tax reductions in recent years have been considerable and have gone almost unnoticed. (Everybody got a tiny tax reduction, whereas the top of the pyramid got an enormous tax reduction. Since we don’t want to loose our “tiny” tax reduction, we don’t talk about it.)

While making serious adjustments to cater to the companies and billionaires that regularly contribute outrageously large sums of money to its two main parties, the right-wing government has to attract low-income voters to stay in power. It therefore spends an awful lot of money on trifles that will win votes, oblivious to the unpalatable fact that what goes out has to come in.

Meanwhile, the number of poor people in this country has grown considerably in recent years – and the poor are growing poorer – and a growing number of frustrated and angry young poor are lured by whispered rumours of “great leaders” – charismatic right-wing and/or religious misfits with personality disorders.

The poor are the elephant in the room. Here, there and everywhere.

Elections should be regarded as entertainment, no more, no less, the verbal equivalent of a football match. Contenders hand out chocolates on street corners, appear on talk shows, dress to the nines and repeat their carefully chosen mantras until we all turn into sleep walkers.

If you want to win an election, you have to tell people what they want to hear. You certainly don’t tell them that we have to raise taxes. You don’t tell them that unless we do something about it, the wealth gap will continue to widen. You don’t tell them that unless we do something about it, there will be more terrorism. You don’t tell them that unless we do something about it, most of the planet will sooner or later be uninhabitable.

You don’t serve them the unpalatable truths. You serve canapés and a glass of something or other, smile your red-lipped, full-bodied smile and tell them assuaging non-truths. You tell them that we shall lower taxes, thus increasing employment and wealth for all. (Teresa May is one the real pros!) You tell them that terrorists, far from being poor are just simple killers, and will be dealt with accordingly, swiftly and effectively. You tell them that poverty, climate change and other nasty things have nothing to do with us, that the poor must look after themselves and that the climate must look after itself. In short: Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles. That is what you tell them.

Enjoy the elections!

Feb 142017
 

Some time last week my two most recent posts were highjacked by a hactivist. In other words, this site was subjected to a cyberattack. Let me add, for the record: The message was clear and it was not Russian.

I am reinserting, herewith, the two posts that were destroyed.

Dec 312016
 

Looking back, the wonderful 2013 documentary Inequality for all, in which Professor Robert Reich humorously and with endless patience explained a few very basic economic facts about what is absolutely vital for a healthy capitalist society, seems prophetic indeed. Many of the US citizens he interviewed for the film spoke their mind back then, and have presumably cast their votes now.

Those that did not vote for Mr Trump, should have paid better attention when the film was released. Or maybe the US media, as opposed to The Guardian (review), did not inform the US electorate about it?

The non-Trump media scathingly refers to Trump voters as, at best, victims of “populism”. The word populism is generally used in a pejorative sense, but I shall quote a definition I found in Wikipedia today. Interestingly, it is not pejorative.

Populism is a political style of action that mobilizes a large alienated element of population against a government seen as controlled by an out-of-touch closed elite that acts on behalf of its own interests. The underlying ideology of the Populists can be left, right, or middle. Its goal is to unite the uncorrupt and the unsophisticated (the ‘little man’) against the corrupt dominant elites (usually the orthodox politicians) and their camp followers (usually the rich and the intellectuals). It is guided by the belief that political and social goals are best achieved by the direct actions of the masses. Although it comes into being where mainstream political institutions fail to deliver, there is no identifiable economic or social set of conditions that give rise to it, and it is not confined to any particular social class.

On the basis of that definition, I’d say people would do well to vote populist.

However, assuming, as most of us do over here, that Mr Trump is even more corrupt (if possible) than the average US politician, and even less concerned (if possible) with the plight of “der kleine Mann”, I’d say the problem lies not with the voters, but with the fact that his voters actually believed that Mr Trump cared about them. And why did they do that, I ask? My question is rhetorical, of course, because I know the answer, as do you, I hope, so I won’t spell it out.

I too am worried about what havoc the dangerously reckless and ignorant Mr Trump will wreck after 20 January. But above all, it saddens me that far too few have understood the lesson to be learnt from his victory. It is not, repeat – NOT – that the majority of US voters are more fundamentally racist, misogynist and sexist than voters in other countries. Nor are they more stupid and easily duped.

The lesson to be learnt is not really very difficult. The problem is that neither on this side or on your side of the Atlantic do people want to learn it. It hurts. It’s like finding out that Father Christmas is just a fairytale.

I can only repeat: Start by watching Inequality for All, and pay close attention.

We must all hope that as many as possible of us will live to see next year’s New Year.

Mar 282016
 

A word to look out for these days is narrative. Although it might be defined differently in dictionaries, the word narrative has come to mean: an analysis or explanations – in short, a storyline – from a party with whom you tend to disagree on most but not all points. In other words you will not use a frankly derogatory term to dismiss the analysis or explanation in question, but you are subtly letting people know you don’t think much of it.

More importantly, you will find that a narrative, as the term is used today, will tend to be a little tricky to refute.

To wit, it is one of the preferred terms used about references to the Russians’ stand on the war in Syria. The thing is, we (i.e. NATO countries, the EU) need the Russians in Syria, so we can’t tell them to piss off, but we don’t quite agree with them. Why don’t we “quite agree” with them? Well, it’s all a bit awkward: After all, it is true, is it not, that when we (see definition above) did it our way, we made terrible messes of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya? Also: We are increasingly resorting to surveillance of the general public at a level that we associate with the former Soviet Union and the present Russia.

You won’t hear any reference to “the US narrative”, except perhaps in Russia. I put it to you that the US narrative is: “the Russians are supporting Assad in order to gain hegemony in the Middle East.” Mind you, I am in no doubt that the Russians are attempting to gain or maintain hegemony here and for that matter there. But are not the US Americans also doing their damnedest to do so too? Why else are we all (see definition of “we” above ) such great buddies with, say, Saudi Arabia, where they publicly flog dissidents, not to put too fine a point on the Saudis’ human rights record?

The US narrative may be subtle since it isn’t strictly speaking incorrect, but it is misleading and beside the point.

Had Assad’s so-called “moderate” detractors somehow miraculously won the Syrian civil war, Syria would most certainly not have become a democracy. Assad’s “moderate” detractors may have been moderate, but their opposition was basically only anti-Assad (understandably, to be sure). Theirs was not a coordinated movement to create a “democracy”. Had it been so, they would not have demanded such sacrifices from the Syrian people.

You don’t create democracies through civil wars, at least not in our day and age, when there is no limit to foreign intervention, arms deals and transnational financial cynicism. There is absolutely no denying the Russian narrative as far as this point is concerned.

I wish our own “narrative” were a little more credible.

Feb 272016
 

Why murder? Why the inevitable corpse in all crime films? After all, the basic plot is almost always that Protagonist A is missing or found killed and that Protagonist B (police officer, accused innocent by-stander, or close relative/friend) sets out to discover what happened, in a life or death race with Protagonist C (perpetrator).

Why do we keep watching these things? What is there to be learnt from glimpsing, for the umpteenth time, a killer’s warped mind? Occasionally, the victim’s mind is as warped as that of the killer. So?

Each murder is a personal tragedy for the victim, of course, and for the murderer, and for anybody who deeply cared for either of them. Say a dozen people, maybe two.

On the other hand, financial crimes, whether or not they have been deemed such in court, can harm, more or less dramatically, all the tax payers in an affected country. In an article 24 January 2016 “We all want Apple to pay more tax”, the Telegraph writes:

About a month ago the bankers Goldman Sachs published a list of the biggest and richest firms in the world. The top three, in order, were Apple, Google and Microsoft – and Facebook and Amazon were also in the top 10. All these tech companies make staggering sums from an avid British population. We love this stuff. We can’t get enough of it. We buy tens of billions of pounds’ worth of American hardware, software and services – and yet these companies pay quite derisory sums in tax to the UK Exchequer: derisory, that is, when you consider how much dosh they are earning from us all.”

The article goes on to defend the practice of tax avoidance schemes. It is true that technically, the Gargantuan tax avoidance schemes hatched out by influential transnational corporations are not necessarily violations of law, but they certainly would be if the average voter/tax payer had a say in the matter. But we voters don’t see and cannot understand the intricate technicalities involved.

Worse, we lack the technical insight to see our own countries’ dirty financial linen. Speaking of Iceland again: The entire country went bust, mostly as a result of the book cooking and irresponsible investments of a few financial crooks who would probably never have been exposed had it not been for the domino effect in the wake of the Lehman Brothers.

In my country, most of us hardly even noticed when the great big multinational Transocean was let off the hook a couple of weeks ago: The public prosecutor who had been pursuing Transocean for years on charges of criminal tax evasion was forced to apologise (!) to Transocean. A rather touching local article describes Norwegian legislators’ reaction as shocked and dismayed after a lecture about multinationals’ tax avoidance machinations. There’s a bad world out there, so bad that most of us think it’s just fiction.

Afterall, how can you fathom, if you run a little shop and pay your weight in gold to the taxman, that Transocean or Google or Apple can cheat and lie as much as they like as long as they have a battery of top ranking tax lawyers on their payrolls. Who can grasp there is so much iniquity in a civilised country?

Whose informed opinion weighs the most, Google’s or the voter’s? By whom is the voter’s opinion informed? Why do we prefer a film about a murder to a film about the effects of multinationals’ crooked machinations? Why don’t we even know about multinationals’ crooked machinations in spite of people’s loosing their jobs and/or homes because of them?

Whose acts, then, are the more sinister, the murderer’s or the multinationals’ crooked machinations? So lets have lots of  crime films about multinationals’ crooked machinations. We might learn something we really  need to know.