Tag Archives: John Pilger

Book review. ‘Capitalism: A Ghost Story’ by Arundhati Roy

Book review. ‘Capitalism: A Ghost Story’ by Arundhati Roy
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
August – September 2015

Indian writer and dissident Arundhati Roy’s work has long embodied John Pilger’s belief that a journalist should be ‘an agent of ordinary people, not of those who seek to control them.’ Scathing and lucid, the slim Capitalism: A Ghost Story, is no exception.

Made up of seven short, accessible essays, Roy deftly skewers the hypocrisy and rapacious nature of India’s elite, highlighting the extreme inequality and poverty, corruption and subjugation that are endemic in ‘The World’s Largest Democracy’.

The book’s first section explains how the influence of big business has neutered many NGOs and charities working in the Global South. For Roy, this corporate patronage is all about ‘turning potential revolutionaries into salaried activists… luring them away from radical confrontation’.

Elsewhere Roy slays several liberal sacred cows including Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, the Gates Foundation, and Muhammad Yunus’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning micro-finance initiative, the Grameen Bank.

She peppers her denunciations with shocking facts. For example, the richest 100 Indians own assets equivalent to a quarter of the nation’s GDP, while 80 percent of Indians live on less than 50 US cents a day.

Meanwhile, in the central state of Chhattisgarh, a government-organised militia has burned, raped and murdered its way across hundreds of villages, forcing 50,000 people into police camps and 350,000 people to flee.

Those, like this reviewer, who are unfamiliar with India will wish that a map had been provided. A glossary explaining Indian terms, place names and people would also be very useful.

However, these are small criticisms of a fascinating primer on contemporary India, a country whose importance in global affairs will only grow in the years ahead. With many non-US progressives seemingly more knowledgeable about the actions of the US than their home nations, Roy’s book is a timely reminder that many people’s focus of concern is back to front.

Capitalism: A Ghost Story is published by Verso, priced £7.99.

The biggest crime you’ve never heard of

The biggest crime you’ve never heard of
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
29 May 2015

They must have known, mustn’t they? How could they not? Perhaps they chose not to know? With the world commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi-run death camps the question of what ordinary Germans knew (and did) about the genocide their government was perpetrating has once again been in the news.

Of course, the assumption behind much of the coverage of the liberation of Belsen and other camps is that we, living enlightened lives in contemporary Britain, are lucky to live in a society where horrendous crimes do not happen. And if they did, they would be quickly reported by our free and stroppy media and quickly halted.

But what if our own government has been responsible for genocide-level suffering, without the media raising the alarm and therefore leaving the general public in a state of ignorance? What would this say about our political class? What would it say about the media? And what would it say about us?

Unfortunately this isn’t a hypothetical debate but the cold, brutal reality.

To understand this distressing fact we need to return to February 1991 when the US-led coalition kicked Iraq out of Kuwait, which it had illegally invaded in August 1990. According to John Hoskins, a Canadian doctor leading a Harvard study team, the US-led air assault “effectively terminated everything vital to human survival in Iraq – electricity, water, sewage systems, agriculture, industry and healthcare”. Purportedly to compel Saddam Hussein’s government to give up its Weapons of Mass Destruction, the United Nations imposed economic sanctions on Iraq, which lasted until the 2003 invasion. The sanctions regime was enforced by the US and UK who took the toughest line on compliance.

“No country had ever been subjected to more comprehensive economic sanctions by the United Nations than Iraq”, notes Hans von Sponeck, the former UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, in his 2006 book A Different Kind Of War. “Communicable diseases in the 1980s not considered public health hazards, such as measles, polio, cholera, typhoid, marasmus and kwashiorkor, reappeared on epidemic scales.” In 1999 the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimated that over 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five had died because of a lack of medication, food or safe water supplies.

To counter some of the worst effects of sanctions, in 1996 the UN set up the Oil-For-Food Programme, which allowed Iraq to sell oil in exchange for food, medicine and other goods. However, the programme was far from adequate. “At no time during the years of comprehensive economic sanctions were there adequate resources to meet minimum needs for human physical or mental survival either before, or during, the Oil-For-Food Programme”, von Sponeck notes in his book. In 1998/99, each Iraqi received a food allocation of $49 – 27 cents a day – for a six month period. In contrast, the dogs the UN used to help de-mine Iraq each received a food allocation of $160.

In protest at what seventy members of the US congress called “infanticide masquerading as policy”, Denis Halliday, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq who ran the sanctions regime, resigned in 1998. Noting the sanctions were causing the deaths of up to 5,000 children a month, Halliday bluntly stated “We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that. It is illegal and immoral.” Speaking to journalist John Pilger, Halliday later explained “I was instructed to implement a policy that satisfies the definition of genocide: a deliberate policy that has effectively killed well over a million individuals, children and adults.”

Halliday’s successor, von Sponeck, resigned in protest two years later, asking in his resignation letter “How long should the civilian population of Iraq be exposed to such punishment for something they have never done?” Later he told Pilger “I have not in the past wanted to use the word genocide, but now it is unavoidable”.

Making a hat-trick, Jutta Burghardt, head of the UN World Food Program in Iraq, resigned two days after Von Sponeck, describing the sanctions regime as “a true humanitarian tragedy.”

With a few honourable exceptions such as Pilger, Tony Benn and George Galloway, the response of the British political class and media was to either to ignore or dismiss the fact sanctions were killing Iraqis on a mass scale. According to the media watchdog Media Lens, in 2003 Halliday was mentioned in just 2 of the 12,366 Guardian and Observer articles mentioning Iraq. Von Sponeck was mentioned a grand total of 5 times in the same year. Von Sponeck’s book on the sanctions has never been reviewed in the British press, and has been mentioned just once – by the veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk.

Echoing the denials of New Labour ministers such as Peter Hain and Robin Cook, in 2002 Observer Editor Roger Alton responded to a reader challenging him about the sanctions, stating “It’s saddam who’s killing all the bloody children, not sanctions. Sorry”. The highly respected Middle East specialist Professor Fred Halliday was equally dismissive, rubbishing “claims that Iraq still lacks the means to provide a basic supply of food” in a book review in the Independent in 1999.

The governing elite, assisted by a pliant media and the silence of much of academia, have carried out a magic trick of epic, sinister proportions: in a world of 24-hour news culture they have effectively managed to bury the bodies of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died as a direct result of British foreign policy. The lack of coverage, concern or discussion today about the sanctions shows how shockingly successful they have been in this endeavour.

As Harold Pinter sarcastically noted in his Nobel Peace Prize speech: “It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest.”

No conspiracy is needed. “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban”, writer George Orwell argued in his censored preface to Animal Farm. He provides two reasons for thought control in democratic society: first, the owners of the British press, socially, politically and economically part of the governing elite, “have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics.” And second, he explains that “At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it”.

As always, it’s up to those who care about the lives of people regardless of their nationality or skin colour, who care about truth, who take their responsibility as world citizens seriously, to raise their voice and remember this moral and historical outrage.

An open letter to Bruce Springsteen REM, Wilco and Arcade Fire on President Obama

An open letter to Bruce Springsteen REM, Wilco and Arcade Fire on President Obama
by Ian Sinclair
Winnipeg Free Press
25 February 2012

Dear Bruce Springsteen, REM (RIP), Wilco and Arcade Fire,

First a few admissions in the interests of transparency. Bruce, I consider you to be the most important and vital singer-songwriter working today. My deep respect for you led me to write my 15,000-word dissertation on your music for my masters of American studies. I would include Murmur in my top 20 albums of all time. I remember Automatic For The People playing in the background as I fell in love at university. I think Pitchfork Media was spot on when they awarded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot their 10 rating. I love, absolutely love, Anodyne. In short, you have all played a huge role in soundtracking and enriching my life.

Oh, yes. I almost forgot. Arcade Fire. I like your music but have never completely fallen in love with you like everyone else. But you are very much the band of the moment and everyone I know thinks you are touched by the hand of God, so I thought it was important to include you.

I am writing to you all because in 2008 you enthusiastically endorsed the Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, playing numerous benefit concerts in support of his campaign.

Speaking to the BBC Culture Show, Bruce described Obama as “a knight” who had come to save the United States from “the disastrous administration of the past eight years.” During his public appearances at Obama’s election rallies, Bruce emphasized Obama’s qualities of “temperateness,” “compassion,” and “understanding.” In November 2011, Michael Stipe and Mike Mills of disbanded R.E.M. appeared on BBC Newsnight and stated they were “huge fans” of President Obama and would be voting for him again come November. Speaking backstage at a concert where he introduced the then Illinois senator as “the next President of the United States,” Jeff Tweedy of Wilco explained that Obama “melted our hearts” when the band first met him in 2005.

Guys, with your support – and the votes of nearly 70 million of your fellow Americans – Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States in January 2009. However, while many of you were openly critical of the Bush Administration, as far as I can tell none of you has made any public criticisms of the Obama administration. Of course this could be because Obama’s actions in the White House do not warrant criticism. But can this be true if former CIA director Michael Hayden is correct when he says “there’s been a powerful continuity between the 43rd and the 44th” presidents?

The former head of Britain’s MI6 is in general agreement with his American counterpart, noting foreign policy under Obama has remained “very aggressive and hardline.” On Afghanistan, Obama has actually escalated Bush’s war, sending an additional 30,000 American servicemen and women into danger. Predictably this has led to an escalation in violence, with the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office recently noting that the number of insurgent attacks grew by 14 per cent in 2011 to 13,983 attacks a year. Similarly, civilian deaths are at an all-time high. How did you feel when U.S. warplanes bombed the Afghan village of Granai in May 2009 killing perhaps 140 people, around 90 of them children? The killing continues. Earlier this month, NATO killed eight Afghan children in a bombing raid. Does Obama’s policy of propping up an Afghan government that runs medieval-like torture systems, including a stretching rack, make you queasy?

Across the border in Pakistan, did you know Obama is just as unpopular as Bush was, with a 2011 Pew Research poll finding 69 per cent of Pakistanis view the United States as an enemy? Turns out Pakistanis aren’t that keen on American drone strikes. Would you be happy if another country was conducting drone attacks on New Jersey, Athens, Chicago or Montreal? The Bureau of Investigative Journalism recently reported drone strikes in Pakistan “have been stepped up enormously under Obama,” averaging one every four days and killing between 282 and 535 civilians.

Did you know the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who joked about using drones on the Jonas Brothers, has now authorized drone attacks in six nations across the world – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and Libya? This reflects Obama’s preference for targeted killings – sometimes of American citizens – rather than capturing suspected terrorists, the latter the preferred policy of the Bush administration.

What do you think of the Obama administration’s treatment of Bradley Manning, described by 250 legal scholars in the United States as “degrading and inhumane”? And what to make of Obama’s deliberate attempts to scuttle any serious attempt to get a global deal on climate change?

Back at home, it is widely accepted Obama is running a “Wall Street government.” The signs certainly weren’t good when he hired Timothy Geithner, a key player in the deregulation of finance in the 1990s, as his treasury secretary, were they? “At every crucial opportunity, Obama has failed to stand up for the poor and middle class,” Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs noted last year. “It’s not hard to understand why. Obama and the Democratic Party politicians rely on Wall Street and the super-rich for campaign contributions.” Were you aware Obama was raising far more money from Wall Street than John McCain when you publicly endorsed him? And does the October 2011 Washington Post article explaining “Obama has brought in more money from employees of banks, hedge funds and other financial service companies than all the GOP candidates combined” concern you at all?

All of this is not to say you were not right to support Obama over McCain in 2008, and wouldn’t be right to back Obama over the Republican presidential nominee in 2012. There are clearly real differences between having a Democratic and Republican president, especially for the most vulnerable members of society. But does this mean you should stay silent when Obama carries out the same or similar policies as his predecessor?

“Obama’s greatest achievement is having seduced, co-opted and silenced much of liberal opinion in the U.S.,” argues journalist John Pilger. Your silence during the death and destruction of Obama’s first term is living proof of the political con-trick he performed to win Ad Age’s marketer of the year award in 2008. But do you think the Pakistani mother whose child is killed by an American drone cares whether the attack occurred under a Democratic or Republican president?

Isn’t a key role for artists in any society to ask awkward questions? To hold power to account? To think outside the box? Songs like Born in the USA, Welcome to the Occupation and The Flowers of Guatemala were some of the most powerful critiques of the Reagan administration’s domestic and foreign policies. But this is 2012, not the 1980s. If the narrator of Born in the USA was “born down in a dead man’s town” a generation later, he would have “a brother in Helmand/Fighting off the Taliban.” The Flowers of Guatemala would be renamed The Flowers of Pakistan.

Rather than continuing to support the most powerful politician in the world – what Matt Taibbi calls the “imperial administrator” – isn’t it time you, as popular artists with huge audiences and all the influence this suggests, began to give a voice to the victims of the Obama administration?

Yours,

Ian Sinclair
London, UK

Chemical weapons in The Newsroom

Chemical weapons in The Newsroom
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
October 2013

Much like Matt Santos’ Obama-like bid for the White House in the Aaron Sorkin-penned television drama The West Wing, the sarin gas attack storyline in The – also Sorkin written – Newsroom prophesised events in the real world. But it’s not the Syrian Government who is accused of using chemical weapons by the staff of fictional news network ACN but the American Government itself. Led by Jeff Daniels’ charismatic anchor Will McAvoy, the news team believe they have uncovered a massive cover-up by the US military.

During the discussions about whether to run the story, White Phosphorus (WP) is mentioned, with ACN’s president Charlie Skinner noting in passing that if US forces “shot White Phosphorus into an enclosed area that alone would be chemical warfare.” His remark is ignored and the narrative soon moves on. The story (spoiler alert!) turns out to be false. There was no government cover-up.

Sorkin, seen as one of the smartest guys working in television, seems to be unaware that there is no need to explore the issue in a fictional context: The US has fired WP in an enclosed area – in Falluja, Iraq in 2004, with many arguing this constituted the use of a chemical weapon. I’m not aware of any reliable figures for how many Iraqis were killed by the US use of WP in Falluja. However, a Red Cross official noted that at least 800 civilians were killed during the November 2004 US assault on the city. During the attack the US targeted medical buildings, cut off the water and electricity supply, refused entry to aid agencies and refused exit from the battle zone to males aged 15 to 55 years old.

Initially, when questions were raised the US military denied using WP as a weapon. However, in 2005 bloggers uncovered evidence showing the US had indeed deployed WP as a weapon. “WP proved to be an effective and versatile munition”, noted the March 2005 edition of the US army’s Field Artillery magazine about the US attack on Falluja in November 2004. “We used it for screening missions at two breeches and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes where we could not get effects on them with HE [High Explosive]. We fired ‘shake and bake’ missions at the insurgents, using WP to flush them out and HE to take them out”.

Speaking to the BBC a spokesperson for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) stated that “If… the toxic properties of white phosphorus, the caustic properties, are specifically intended to be used as a weapon, that of course is prohibited, because the way the [Chemical Weapons] Convention is structured or the way it is in fact applied, any chemicals used against humans or animals that cause harm or death through the toxic properties of the chemical are considered chemical weapons.”

For me, a lay person, this quote seems to show the US use of WP in Falluja in 2004 should be considered a use of chemical weapons. The Guardian columnist George Monbiot agrees, telling Democracy Now! In 2005 “The US Army was acting in direct contravention of the Chemical Weapons Convention. It committed a war crime.” However, the chemical weapons experts I contacted for clarification were far from certain. Dan Kaszeta, a former officer in the US Army’s Chemical Corps, noted “WP falls into a grey area and opinions” vary widely. Alastair Hay, a Professor of Environmental Toxicology at the University of Leeds, noted the OPCW definition above “requires a lawyer to interpret it.” Another expert who declined to be quoted explained that if used as an incendiary WP is not a chemical weapon, although if it is used for its toxic properties then it could be considered a chemical weapon.

While the experts stress the complexity of the issue, it should be noted the Pentagon has no problem making a clear statement on the subject. A declassified US Department of Defence document from 1991 reports that “Iraqi forces loyal to President Saddam may have possibly used white phosphorus (WP) chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels”.

All this is important when one considers how the possible use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Government in August 2013 caused an avalanche or moral outrage in the media. Taking her cue from the US and UK governments, the day after the chemical weapons attack Channel 4 News′s Sarah Smith asked “Syria chemical weapons horror – is it time for intervention?” Over at the Independent the front page headline on 26 August 2013 was ‘Syria: air attacks loom as West finally acts’. The Indy’s use of “finally” speaks volumes.

In contrast, although the possible use of chemical weapons by the US government in 2004 received some attention from the mainstream media, it was often reluctantly covered following pressure from concerned viewers and readers. There was, and continues to be, a noticeable lack of moral outrage outside of a couple of honourable exceptions like Monbiot and John Pilger. And there has been a distinct lack of further journalistic investigation, which if the experts’ uncertainty is anything to go by, is desperately needed to uncover the truth.

Arguably, Sorkin, along with many contemporary conspiracy theorists, fundamentally misunderstands how modern day propaganda works. The most effective, most insidious thought control is not based on huge cover-ups involving tens, maybe hundreds of people. After all the US use of WP in 2004 did receive some coverage in the mainstream media. But importantly it has been quickly forgotten and certainly didn’t inform the political debate about how or who should respond to the Syrian Government’s possible use of chemical weapons. War crimes happen and war criminals get away with it because the historical events are refracted and therefore shaped by non-conspiratorial journalistic and academic processes such as omission of key facts, framing, sourcing bias, subservience to power, careerism and adherence to the dominant ideology.

As with many things, George Orwell explained it best. “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary”, he wrote in the suppressed preface to his 1945 classic novella Animal Farm. “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.” How? “At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it”.

The continued silence of the vast majority of UK journalists, columnists and editors clearly shows it is currently “not done” to say the US may well have used chemical weapons in Falluja in 2004. Or that the US helped Iraq to use nerve gas during the Iran-Iraq War, as Foreign Policy magazine recently reported. No doubt many journalists in Syria have also stayed silent about the many crimes of the Assad Government. And for good reason – reporting inconvenient truths in Syria today could well be life-threatening. What excuse do journalists working in our supposedly free and combative media have for their silence?