Monthly Archives: December 2017

Western foreign policy and the dangerous ignorance gap

Western foreign policy and the dangerous ignorance gap
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
20 December 2017

While the mainstream media’s self-serving obsession with so-called fake news and Russian interference in elections looks set to continue for a long time, a far more serious problem with Western journalism is being conveniently ignored.

This could be called the dangerous ignorance gap of Western foreign policy: the often huge gulf between the reality of what the US and UK do in the Middle East – painfully understood by the populations on the receiving end of Western interference – and the woeful level of awareness the American and British general public and commentariat have about these interventions.

The aggressive and illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq, and subsequent occupation, is a key site in understanding this divergence. According to a 2013 ComRes poll of the British public, 74 per cent of respondents estimated that less than 50,000 Iraqi combatants and civilians had died as a consequence of the war (59 per cent estimated less than 10,000 Iraqis had died). In comparison, a 2013 study published in PLOS medical journal estimated the war and occupation directly and indirectly claimed the lives of approximately 500,000 Iraqis between 2003 and 2011 – the answer given by just 6 per cent of respondents of the ComRes poll.

Since 2014 a US-led coalition has carried out 28,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria targeting Islamic State. The US military admits they have unintentionally killed 801 civilians in these strikes. In contrast, the independent monitoring group Airwars estimates US-led coalition strikes have in fact killed at least 5,961 civilians. After visiting 150 sites of coalition airstrikes, the journalists Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal discovered that one in five of the coalition strikes resulted in civilian death, “a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition.” Amazingly, in July the UK government made the extraordinary claim to have caused no civilian casualties after carrying out 1,400 airstrikes – “a statistical impossibility”, said Airwars.

Turning to the ongoing conflict in Yemen, since 2013 the US and UK-backed Saudi-led coalition assault has killed thousands of civilians. A joint statement in July from the heads of UNICEF, the World Health Organisation and the World Food Programme stated Yemen is in the midst of “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis”. The July 2016 Washington Post headline ‘In Yemeni capital, signs of hatred toward Americans are everywhere’ shows Yemenis well understand the role of the West in destroying their country. “Perhaps in no other city is anti-Americanism in such full display today”, the report noted.

In contrast, a YouGov poll earlier this year found only 49 per cent of the British public had heard of the war in Yemen. And though it wasn’t asked in the poll, it seems likely a significant number of this 49 percent will not be aware of the UK’s despicable role in arming and supporting Saudi Arabia in the conflict. “There is a really interesting discrepancy liberal interventionist newspaper columnists talking about Syria and talking about Yemen”, Dr David Wearing, a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, explained in a recent Media Democracy podcast. “As in they talk about one [Syria] and not about the other [Yemen] despite the fact we’ve got much more ability to do something about what is happening in Yemen than in the case of Syria.”

Western militaries have a vested interest in treating the public like mushrooms – keeping them in the dark and feeding them bullshit – and therefore deploy expensive and sophisticated public relations campaigns to engage the population. However, the supposedly independent and fiercely critical media also play a central role in the creation and maintenance of this deadly ignorance – often not reporting, or minimising the significance of, much of the reality of the West’s interventions around the world. For example The Guardian did report that a July 2016 US airstrike killed at least 73 Syrian civilians – the majority women and children, according to activists. However, the story appeared as a small report hidden away at the bottom of page 22 of the newspaper.

These omissions have a long history. “The press and politicians for the most part keep the people of this country in ignorance of the real treatment meted out to the natives”, Labour Party leader James Keir Hardie wrote in 1906.

The enormous distance between the reality of Western foreign policy and the Western publics’ understanding of what their governments do in their name is dangerous for two reasons. First, it’s deadly for those on the receiving end of Western military force. Western populations can only exert a humanising influence on Western foreign policy if they are aware of what’s going on. If Western wars in the Middle East are effectively hidden from view then they are more likely to continue. Second, it’s dangerous for the general public in the West because the ignorance gap is where anger about Western foreign policy festers and grows. It is, in short, the public, rather than the government actually implementing the policies, who bear the brunt of the enlarged terrorist threat to the UK that is massively boosted by UK actions abroad.

So if we want to reduce the chances of future London Bridges and Manchesters then we urgently need to educate ourselves and others about the death and destruction our governments are carrying out in the Middle East.

 

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My favourite books of 2017

My favourite books of 2017
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 December 2017

Published a long twenty years since her Booker Prize winning debut novel The God Of Small Things, Indian writer Arundhati Roy’s new book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton) is a sprawling epic about contemporary India – from a guesthouse for trans women in Delhi, to grassroots protest movements and the dark arts of the intelligence services. Since her initial success, Roy has turned her attention to activist politics, eloquently questioning and criticising the government and corporate elites in her own country and across the world. These concerns worm their way into the narrative, evidenced by her vivid descriptions of India’s brutal actions in Kashmir and the perilous lives of those enduring and resisting the military occupation. Though it doesn’t quite reach the giddy heights of her first book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’s ingrained left-leaning politics and its yearning friendships and romance between school friends make for an affecting literary journey.

Tom Mills’ The BBC: Myth of a Public Service (Verso) is an essential corrective to mainstream journalists and commentators blowing a gasket about fake news and alternative media. From the 1926 General Strike to the 2008 financial crisis, Mills, a Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University, highlights the BBC’s long history of towing the British establishment line on key issues. The censure of the BBC’s Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg by the BBC Trust for erroneously editing a 2015 interview with Jeremy Corbyn, the BBC’s shameful lack of coverage of the UK-enabled humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and the corporation’s North Korea-style coverage of Prince Harry’s recent engagement suggest little has changed.

Somewhat amateurish in its presentation, George Paxton’s Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis (YouCaxton) is nevertheless one of the most important books I’ve ever read. While Western political culture unquestionably repeats the idea that violent struggle against Nazi Germany was the only option, Paxton, a trustee of the Gandhi Foundation, tells the stories of those who non-violently resisted the Nazis in Europe. Even in the most authoritarian circumstances there was, it turns out, opportunities to challenge – and sometimes win small, but important, changes to – Nazi policies. A 1941 strike in France against food shortages involving 100,000 miners won more food coupons, while in Berlin in 1943 the non-Jewish wives of Jews protested in the street and stopped the threatened deportation of their husbands. Fascinating and inspiring in equal measure.

Book review: Against Meritocracy. Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility by Jo Littler

Book review: Against Meritocracy. Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility by Jo Littler
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2017-January 2018

The concept of meritocracy – “a system structured around advancement of people who are selected on the basis of individual achievement” – has been a powerful idea in post-war industrialised societies, especially in the more economically unequal US and UK.

From Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair and now Theresa May, meritocracy – and its close cousin ‘equality of opportunity’ – “has become the key means of cultural legitimation for contemporary capitalist culture”, Jo Littler, a Reader in the Department of Sociology at City, University of London, argues in her wide-ranging volume. This neoliberal-friendly dogma has a strong grip on the general public, with a 2009 Joseph Rowntree Foundation survey finding 69% of respondents agreed with the statement “Opportunities are not equal in Britain today, but there is enough opportunity for virtually everyone to get on in life if they really want to”. Just 14% disagreed.

In her impressive introduction Littler highlights a number of key problems with this dominant ideology that both justifies increasing levels of inequality and obfuscates decreasing levels of social mobility. First, “it endorses a competitive, linear, hierarchical system in which by definition certain people must be left behind”, she notes. “The top cannot exist without the bottom.” In addition, it pushes a socially destructive ethic of self-interest and individualistic thinking, tends to view talent as an innate characteristic, uncritically valourises certain professions and forms of status, and downplays structural inequalities that mean ‘climbing the ladder’ is simply much harder for some people than others.

Today, the culture of meritocracy has absorbed the language of equality and identity politics that grew out of the 1960s social movements, she notes. This has important ramifications for activism and resistance, with Littler arguing this appropriation “has created lonely forms of selective empowerment, ones profoundly ill-equipped to deal with the wider structural causes of sexism, racism, environmental crisis and economic inequality.” As she discusses in the book’s second half, a lot of popular culture perpetuates the meritocratic myth – The Apprentice and the 1990s sitcom Sex In The City, for example – while TV shows such as The Wire, Breaking Bad and Lena Dunham’s Girls provide smart critiques.

Surely the definitive study of the subject, Against Meritocracy is very much an academic work with bags of references and footnotes, though one that is broadly accessible to the general reader. With Jeremy Corbyn’s belief in collective aspiration presenting a real challenge to capitalist-compatible meritocracy and the British plutocracy more broadly, the book has an important role to play in informing the growing movement working to sweep away the Tory government. As the US socialist Eugene Debs said “I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks” – an egalitarian sentiment Littler would support, I’m sure.

Against Meritocracy is published by Routledge, priced £29.99.