Friday, September 16, 2011

Decline and fall

When I was younger I remember reading the journalism of John Pilger with some admiration. His style was exemplary and I was particularly taken with his work on Cambodia. This was the time when the UN refused to recognise the government installed by Vietnam after the invasion that ended the genocide. Instead, they gave the Cambodian seat to the representatives of the Khmer Rouge, then busy mounting a terrorist campaign from the border with Thailand with covert support from the West and China. Pilger's exposure of the horrors of Pol Pot's regime and his support for the intervention that brought it down made an impression. Even if he was too uncritical of the Vietnamese, he was an eloquent advocate of a successful humanitarian intervention that was being opposed by powers locked into a cynical foreign policy. Then something began to go wrong.

It really started with the civil war in Yugoslavia and his opposition to Western action against Serbia.  Where now was his belief in humanitarian intervention? The only way he could maintain consistency was to distort the evidence in order to say that this intervention was somehow not the same as Vietnam's, not merely mistaken or inauthentic, but in some way duplicitous. Instead of exposing massacres and human rights abuses, as he had in Cambodia, he indulged in denying them in the teeth of overwhelming evidence. In doing so, he started down a dark path that leads away from evidence, truth and a commitment to expose the evils of the malign, to a place of mirrors where the crimes of those you are inclined to support are miraculously transformed to become all the fault of those that you oppose. It is the paranoia of partisanship. He was not alone on this journey and his descent continued through international crisis after crisis until we reach Libya. Even the UN decision to support the revolution against a gruesome dictatorship could not disturb this mindset and when I read a piece he published on the Stop the War Coalition's site, I knew he was lost. Even by the baleful standards of  that organisation, it slumps into the gutter.

For Pilger, the Libyan revolution "is a coup by a gang of Muammar Gaddafi's ex cronies and spooks in collusion with Nato", who "told journalists what they needed to know: that Gaddafi was about to commit "genocide", of which there was no evidence" (apart from the thousands of unarmed demonstrators killed already, Gaddafi's direct threat, the aircraft bombing rebel areas indiscriminately and the tanks rolling into Beghazi, together with the impassioned pleas of those about to die - but then that's what happens when you abandon truth in favour of prejudice). But it gets worse. The revolution - oops, sorry - "revolution", was down to "Nicholas Sarkozy, a Napoleonic Islamophobe whose intelligence services almost certainly set up the coup against Gaddafi". Why? No prizes for guessing.
"Nato attacked Libya to counter and manipulate a general Arab uprising that took the rulers of the world by surprise. Unlike his neighbours, Gaddafi had come to power by denying western control of his country's natural wealth. For this, he was never forgiven, and the opportunity for his demise was seized in the usual manner, as history shows".
Of course, there are a few inconvenient facts glossed over here, like the fact that Gaddafi was gleefully handing control of his country's natural wealth to the West in return for rehabilitation and that the UN (it was a legal intervention led by NATO and mandated by a UN resolution) dithered for ages about whether to do what the increasingly desperate revolutionaries were asking for. Rather than manipulating the revolution, they saved it from certain defeat. For those of us with longer memories, this makes a refreshing change.

All this would be bad enough, yet there is something worse lurking underneath. Missing voices. The voices of ordinary Libyans. Certain that the reason why the UN provided air support for the Libyan revolution is counterfeit, the likes of Pilger have to dismiss the explosions of joy at the end of Gaddafi's regime. And, ironically, by doing so they are infantalising the people, seeing them as manipulable subjects of the imperial powers, incapable of expressing their own feelings and taking action for themselves. And it makes me wonder just who are the imperialists now.

It is a curious journey that Pilger has undertaken. But it is one that shows what happens when you abandon critical thought to allow a predetermined narrative to overcome any commitment to principle you might have once had and try to shoehorn a messy reality into a tidy explanation that suits your prejudices. Thinking back to my early admiration, I can only see it as a tragedy, not a farce.


kellie said...

Added to my list of Pilger links.

Anton Deque said...

Bang on Peter. I too was once an admirer but now find Pilger's views extraordinary, if not disturbing.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading his guff on Libya in The New Statesman, I always know exactly what he is going to say before I even click on the link.

Jim Denham said...

You're so right, Peter. I too was once an admirer of Pilger and even now find his sad decline into crazy "anti-imperialism" and support for the likes of Milosevic, and now Gaddafi,very, very sad. An object lesson in where "my enemy's enemy" gets you in politics.

Alex said...

"apart from the thousands of unarmed demonstrators killed already"

But when NATO went to war, Libya was already embroiled in civil war. The unarmed demonstrations had long stopped.

"Gaddafi's direct threat"


Gaddafi was a horrific individual, but not every negative claim about bad people is true.

"the fact that Gaddafi was gleefully handing control of his country's natural wealth to the West"

Gleefully is entirely wrong:

"in return for rehabilitation"

You must have missed the revelations about the cosy relationship between Gaddafi and the CIA and MI6 during this rehabilitation.

kellie said...

Alex, the Boston Globe piece you link to is by Alan J Kuperman. He repeatedly distorts his sources as demonstrated here. In short, he is a fraud.

The Plump said...

Thanks Kellie

Alex, I will just reply to this one point:

You must have missed the revelations about the cosy relationship between Gaddafi and the CIA and MI6 during this rehabilitation.

You should have scrolled down a few posts to read this one - Principles.

I was absolutely delighted that the decision to back the revolution meant the abandonment of this sordid policy. I am surprised you cannot share the joy and the gratitude of the Libyan people that the UN supported their revolution and helped it succeed. The fall of a tyrant is a moment for celebration, even if the next stages down the path are uncertain.

The Plump said...

And Kellie, Alex, there is a general point here which is not just about Kuperman's reliability. It is about the structure of an argument when contrarians are quoted uncritically as proof of an assertion, often when they are contradicting clearly established facts or overwhelming evidence.

This is how conspiracy thinking and denialism works. It asserts that the opinion of one or more person trumps evidence. And it is the evidence, not the opinion, that is treated with scepticism.

In this case, the opening paragraphs of this interview are instructive. This is because the interviewee, Gilbert Achcar, is not wholly sympathetic to the intervention, but is absolutely clear about the evidence of impending disaster in Benghazi.

I quote in response to the Boston Globe article:

Anyone who from far away disputes the fact that Benghazi would have been crushed is just lacking decency in my view. Telling a besieged people from the safety of a Western city that they are cowards – because that’s what disputing their claim that they were facing a massacre amounts to – is just indecent.

sackcloth and ashes said...

Peter, a point to make - the story of Western support for the Khmer Rouge during the 1980s came from none other than Pilger himself. He got taken to court by ex-soldiers from 22SAS he accused of training the KR, and had to settle for damages.

The US and British governments backed the Armee Sihanoukienne. The Chinese and Thais backed the KR.

Anonymous said...

sackcloth and ashes, the US and the UK were ensuring that the Khmer Rouge kept Cambodia's seat at the United Nations.

It's sad that Pilger has ended up as he has, because as I remember he seemed to be fired by genuine anger at injustice, unlike his cold-fish associate with the argument that admits no dissenting facts, Noam Chomsky.

The pair of them are both due to feature at the Rebellious Media conference in London on 8-9 October. Chomsky's keynote speech is ironically blurbed "Chomsky has written that those wishing to play a meaningful role in influencing public policy must begin with honest inquiry, and education of themselves and others".

James Bloodworth said...

Excellent post.

Think I'm going to cancel my New Statesman subscription. I've decided not to waste any further money on a magazine that publishes Peter Wilby, John Pilger and Mehdi Hassan, whom I do not read these days, because I am not mad.

Conormel said...

Also interesting that Pilger should condemn the US for supposedly bankrolling 'Mujadeen Islamists [sic]' in Libya, given that he once said of the Iraqi 'resistance' - "We cannot afford to be choosy. While we abhor and condemn the continuing loss of innocent life in Iraq, we have no choice now but to support the resistance, for if the resistance fails, the "Bush gang" will attack another country. If they succeed, a grievous blow will be suffered by the Bush gang."

Andrew Coates said...

On Cambodia it's worth recalling that Pilger was not the first person (internationally) to expose the Khymer Rouge - an impression frequently given.

That honour goes to François Ponchau. His Cambodge, année zéro 1977 was published a full two years before Pilger's famous documentary on the subject.

On this topic it's worth noting that Alain Badiou - now celebrated as a 'Marxist' philosophical sage defended the Khymer Rouge up to and after the Vietnamese. intervention,

Andrew Coates said...

My comment should have read Khmer Rouge.

I blame the usual band of neo-Cons and Western interests for their influence on my spelling

Svensen said...

Yep you're right, Peter. I Have been reading.