Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Distortion & Distraction: Media, Terrorism, and the Middle East

A Conversation With Alternative Radio's David Barsamian

By Valerie Saturen and Gabriel Matthew Schivone

VS: You have discussed the phenomenon of using the passive voice within the mainstream media. In a January 23, 2003 interview with the El Dorado Sun, you said: “The use of the passive voice in journalism excludes agency and obfuscates responsibility. The headlines: 'People in Afghanistan were killed,' 'Lives were lost,' and 'Children starved' are all passive constructions — there's no agency. The active voice is absolutely critical in writing journalism."

I think the active voice is absolutely essential in providing clarity to readers or listeners and viewers so that they understand who is responsible for these acts, and that we’re not dealing with acts of nature. There is state responsibility. So, “Palestinian villages were razed,” “houses were demolished.” Well, how were they demolished? Through some magic? Was it some Houdini magician that came along and was responsible for that? There are enormous political implications in the use of language. If you want to trash the environment, if you want to clear cut trees, then you call it the “Healthy Forest Initiative.” You say that you’re green, and you wave a green flag. If you want to pollute the air, you talk about “Clear Skies.” If you want to gut public education, you call it “No Child Left Behind.” I call it “No Child Left a Dime.” So the use of language is critical. Orwell, of course, was brilliant in describing this, particularly in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” And Chomsky and others have talked about how language is used to manipulate and control the public mind. So now we’re in a “War on Terror.” Everyone accepts that. In fact, on NPR this morning, they said “most Americans are unhappy with the war in Iraq, but they support the War on Terror.”

VS: I'd like to ask you about that. During the same interview, you described terms such as "beacon of democracy," “axis of evil,” and “the war on terror” as “terms of propaganda rather than terms of description.” Even those who challenge the narrative behind these catch phrases often find themselves using them, simply because this is the only terminology everyone understands. How does one avoid this pitfall?

By clearly defining its parameters and its reality, and then trying to create an alternative vocabulary. I always say, “The so-called War on Terror,” because it is not a war on terror. That’s like having a war on jealousy. How can you have a war on terror? If there are criminal acts carried out by individuals or small groups, then that is a matter for police, not for invasions and occupations of countries. I’m not a big fan of the British Empire, but look how it dealt with the uprisings in Northern Ireland. If it followed what the U.S. did, it would have demolished New York and Boston, because that’s where the money for the IRA was coming from. All the arms were being purchased in the United States and being shipped to Ireland. There would have been huge air attacks on Belfast and other cities and towns in Northern Ireland. But they didn’t do that; it was a limited military and police action. It was brutal, but it was much more contained than what the US is doing in Afghanistan and Iraq, and what it is proposing to do in Iran, which is scarier.

VS: As someone of Armenian descent, the Armenian genocide is clearly something close to your heart. You once stated that the Armenian genocide "is not an abstract, ancient history; it's our present and our daily life.” There remains a pervasive denial in Turkey of the genocide, and Turkish novelists Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak have been placed on trial for referencing the genocide in their work. What are your thoughts on the impact of the trials of Elif Shafak and Orhan Pamuk?

Well, it has brought an enormous amount of attention to Turkey and its very restricted and narrow definition of how history should be constructed under article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code [which makes it a crime to "insult Turkish identity"]. Under 301, it is extremely difficult for anyone to speak out in a forceful way about Turkish history and Turkish realities. Orhan Pamuk, of course, is a Nobel Prize winner and very well known. Shafak’s book The Bastard of Istanbul just came out, and there are other books out. There are more and more writers speaking out. This is very, very important because writers occupy a unique place in the cultural life of the community. They simply cannot be dismissed as political hacks or opportunists that are trying to be elected. And so I think things are changing in Turkey. Tragically, it may have taken the assassination of Hrant Dink on January 19 by a Turkish nationalist, a young boy who may or may not have been set up by other forces to do their dirty work, because children (in this case he’s 17) won’t get the death penalty. That’s the speculation. It’s important that Turkey face the past so that it can be in the present and move forward into the future. And it’s important for the Armenians to have recognition and resolution, so that this issue can be closed. It’s just hanging over all of us like a Damocles sword. It’s never resolved; it’s an open wound. In my own family, three of my four grandparents were murdered, and 22 out of 25 members of my mother’s family were killed. We lost everything, and every Armenian in the diaspora has some connection to that genocide, to those events that occurred not just in 1915 but continued right through 1922. Elif Shafak and Orhan Pamuk should be honored and praised for speaking out, speaking the truth.

VS: Why is there such a strong taboo within Turkey against addressing and even acknowledging the genocide?

Turkey has a history of militarism, patriarchy, and machismo, and it seems very difficult for them to acknowledge that this crime occurred. We’re not talking about people today; we’re talking about people 90 years ago. I don’t know why [the taboo exists]. I think it’s a fear; it’s a deep-rooted fear of acknowledging reality, that crimes were committed, and that millions of Armenians were killed, displaced, or converted to Islam. I’ve met people all over Turkey who’ve told me, “Oh, my grandmother was Armenian.” Oh really? How did she become Muslim?

GMS: Let’s talk about the politics of terrorism. Eqbal Ahmad, who was a professor of International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, observed in an August 1998 interview that “The United States has sowed in the Middle East and South Asia very poisonous seeds. These seeds are growing now. Some have ripened, and others are ripening. An examination of why they were sown, what has grown, and how they should be reaped is needed. Missiles won’t solve the problem.” Would you talk about the dire relevance of his words today in the current “War on Terror” and what this thoughtful analysis means for people and society nine years later?

Well, you see the foresight and prophetic quality of Eqbal Ahmad, who is one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met—very creative, innovative, always looking for alternatives for existing situations and problems. Even while decrying, perhaps, a particular situation, he felt it incumbent on the role of an intellectual to provide alternatives, to provide answers, not just to critique. So that, I think, is very, very valuable. Everything he says in that quote, of course, has come true. The United States, first under Clinton and then under Bush, has militarized the whole issue of terrorism. Terrorism has proliferated under the so-called “War on Terror.” It is now a growing international problem. The 9/11 Commission Report and the Baker-Hamilton Report show that the attack on Iraq—the criminal aggression in Iraq—has greatly exacerbated and emboldened the jihad. The Baker-Hamilton Report calls Iraq the “cause celeb” for jihadis, like it’s some kind of gala spectacle or Hollywood premiere. Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Iraq has everything to do with oil. Iraq has everything to do with the Project for the New American Century and the neo-con dream to turn the Middle East into an American link, which they’ve virtually done. The entire region has been militarized. Iran is being threatened with military action. Iran is completely surrounded with U.S. bases. A major U.S. naval armada is right off the coast of Iran. Rhetoric is being ratcheted up, and Iran also had nothing to do with September 11. In fact, they were an ally with the United States. They helped oust the Taliban from Afghanistan. Iran, in the year 2000, almost went to war with the Taliban because Iranian council members were massacred in Mazar-e-Sharif. So how is Bush able to pull this all off? By manipulating the servile support of the U.S. corporate media, which went along with all the lies and became more like stenographers than journalists. They don’t really do journalism.

GMS: I’d like to ask you about that. In an editorial in the London Tribune, in July of 1944, George Orwell observed “the voluntary reticence” in the pathology of the British press, deducing that: “Circus dogs jump when their trainer cracks the whip, but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns his somersault when there is no whip.” I’m very interested in the subtleties of self-censorship, the inducements to which individuals conform to the party line, so to speak. Could you talk about this function, how it is instilled among journalists and in the front lines, in the notion of embedding?

It’s hard to come up with a more Orwellian phrase than “embedded.” In fact, you know, “sleeping with the enemy.” How can you have any distance and objectivity if you’re being protected by the people you’re supposedly covering? Structurally, it just reeks of such an inequality and imbalance that your ability to perform your task as a journalist is severely compromised, so I don’t give it any credibility at all. The whole system of censorship works through a series of perks, and it’s very seductive. If you play ball with power, you will be richly rewarded. Look at Bob Woodward—he lives in a Georgetown townhouse. He’s a millionaire. He’s all over the other corporate media. He’s very successful; when he calls someone, the calls are returned. Thomas Friedman plays golf or tennis with the Secretary of State, and he brags about it. I would be ashamed. I would feel so debased if the Secretary of State even had my telephone number and would invite me to play tennis or golf with him or her. You would have to think, well, what do they want from me? Do they admire me as an independent journalist? Hardly. They want to manipulate and control the news. This is all about spin and propaganda. So the system is very seductive. When you go into the Oval Office and the President greets you by your first name: “Hi Val, how are you? How’s the family? Are you doing OK?” He’s totally briefed on your background and doesn’t know you from Adam or Eve. But you feel that you’re a part of something. And then you’re called on in a press conference: “Yeah, you back there, Gabe, how’s it going?” So you become part of this fraternity, part of a cohort--and it eliminates the possibility to do objective journalism. You’re just a stenographer; you become a court reporter, and that’s what most of the Washington reporters are.

GMS: I’d like to talk about media, propaganda, and the State. In various lectures you’ve cited Reich Marshall Herman Goering: “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and then denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.” It's quite clear that wars of various sorts in our history have been carried out by the media or public relations campaigns inducing consent among public opinion, usually from fear and nationalism.

Let’s talk about the fundamental structure of corporate media in the United States. Under the Nazis, the Ministry for Popular Enlightenment operated as a government department specifically designed for propaganda. But in this society, the government has not the power to control the media and they operate as an independent entity yet function in much the same way as Goering testified.

Well, that’s not entirely true about the electronic media, which is licensed by the federal government. Every TV station, every radio station, does in fact have that structural relationship with the State. Print media are not licensed in the same way that electronic media are. Today, in an age where 80% of Americans get 90% of their news from the electronic media, particularly television, that’s very significant. Ben Bagdikian has tracked the conglomeration, monopolization, and centralization of the media from 50 in 1983 to 5 today. This severely limits the ability of media to provide Americans with a broad range of opinions in order to get information and to understand what’s going on. Instead of having perspectives and views from A to Z, I’ve been saying for years we have perspectives from A to B. But now I’m revising that—it’s more like A to A squared. You get this representative from the Brookings Institute and this representative from the Heritage Foundation, and there’s a so-called debate, but this debate is entirely based on imbedded assumptions, like that the U.S. has the right to attack, invade, and occupy any country in the world. There is no one there challenging that basic imbedded assumption. The media have largely become an apparatus of propaganda.

VS: Due to the American role in the Middle East, the region receives a tremendous amount of coverage within the American media. How can we better understand this role and its subsequent impact on how the region is portrayed?

The idea that the U.S. is even-handed or an honest broker is so incredibly ludicrous and preposterous as to defy any kind of description. We are extremely hostile to Arab nationalism. We’ve done everything possible to crush Arab nationalism, and in fact have supported fundamentalist Muslim organizations. This was particularly true in Egypt, when the U.S. was opposed to Nasser, because Nasser represented an independent force. The U.S. supported Saddam Hussein and helped the Ba’athist coup in 1963 against the nationalist government of Qassim.

There is no area in the world that is more subject to propaganda than the Middle East. There are two reasons for that: one is oil, and the other is Israel. The US expends maximum military and diplomatic support to a country of six million people, completely dwarfing military aid and diplomatic support to any other country on Earth. The other thing is the oil reserves of the region, which the U.S. is obsessed with, and has been since the end of WWII. A State Department document in 1945 described the oil reserves in the Middle East as “the greatest strategic prize in the history of the world.” So Israel has become an attack dog, a land-based aircraft carrier for the United States. U.S. policy has put the residents of Israel in, I think, enormous danger and peril. I think it’s very manipulative, and history shows us that there is no guarantee that this policy will continue in the future. History shows us that those who are weak today will be strong tomorrow. Israel today has maximum military superiority in the Middle East. That’s not a permanent situation.

David Barsamian is the host of nationally syndicated Alternative Radio and the recipient of many honors, including the Upton Sinclair Award, the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center Award, and the Cultural Freedom Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe. His many published works include Targeting Iran with Noam Chomsky, Ervand Abrahamian, and Nahid Mozaffari, The Future of History with Howard Zinn, The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile with Arundhati Roy, and The Pen and the Sword with Edward Said. His numerous in-depth interviews with Noam Chomsky have sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide.

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