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John Pilger: Britain, America and the war on democracy

From the Chagos Islands to Pakistan, innocent civilians are pawns to America, backed by Britain. In our compliant political culture, this deadly game seldom speaks its name.

Lisette Talate died the other day. I remember a wiry, fiercely intelligent woman who masked her grief with a determination that was a presence. She was the embodiment of people's resistance to the war on democracy. I first glimpsed her in a 1950s Colonial Office film about the Chagos Islanders, a tiny creole nation living midway between Africa and Asia in the Indian Ocean. The camera panned across thriving villages, a church, a school, a hospital, set in phenomenal natural beauty and peace. Lisette remembers the producer saying to her and her teenage friends, "Keep smiling, girls!"

Sitting in her kitchen in Mauritius many years later, she said: "I didn't have to be told to smile. I was a happy child, because my roots were deep in the islands, my paradise. My great-grandmother was born there; I made six children there. That's why they couldn't legally throw us out of our own homes; they had to terrify us into leaving or force us out. At first, they tried to starve us. The food ships stopped arriving, [then] they spread rumours we would be bombed, then they turned on our dogs."

In the early 1960s, the Labour government of Harold Wilson secretly agreed to a demand from Washington that the Chagos archipelago, a British colony, be "swept" and "sanitised" of its 2,500 inhabitants so that a military base could be built on the principal island, Diego Garcia. "They knew we were inseparable from our pets," said Lisette. "When the American soldiers arrived to build the base, they backed their big trucks against the brick shed where we prepared the coconuts; hundreds of our dogs had been rounded up and imprisoned there. Then they gassed them through tubes from the trucks' exhausts. You could hear them crying."

Lisette, her family and hundreds of the other islanders were forced on to a rusting steamer bound for Mauritius, a journey of a thousand miles. They were made to sleep in the hold on a cargo of fertiliser - bird shit. The weather was rough; everyone was ill; two of the women on board miscarried.

Dumped on the docks at Port Louis, Lisette's youngest children, Jollice and Regis, died within a week of each other. "They died of sadness," she said. "They had heard all the talk and seen the horror of what had happened to the dogs. They knew they were leaving their home for ever. The doctor in Mauritius said he could not treat sadness."

This act of mass kidnapping was carried out in high secrecy. In one official file, under the heading "Maintaining the Fiction", the Foreign Office legal adviser exhorts his colleagues to cover their actions by "reclassifying" the population as "floating" and to "make up the rules as we go along". Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court says the "deportation or forcible transfer of population" is a crime against humanity. That Britain had committed such a crime - in exchange for a $14m discount off a US Polaris nuclear submarine - was not on the agenda of a group of British "defence" correspondents flown to the Chagos by the Ministry of Defence when the US base was completed. "There is nothing in our files," said the MoD, "about inhabitants or an evacuation."

Today, Diego Garcia is crucial to America's and Britain's war on democracy. The heaviest bombing of Iraq and Afghanistan was launched from its vast airstrips, beyond which the islanders' abandoned cemetery and church stand like archaeological ruins. The terraced garden where Lisette laughed for the camera is now a fortress housing the "bunker-busting" bombs carried by bat-shaped B-2 aircraft to targets on two continents; an attack on Iran will start here. As if to complete the emblem of rampant, criminal power, the CIA added a Guantanamo-style prison for its "rendition" victims and called it Camp Justice.

Wipe-out

What was done to Lisette's paradise has an urgent and universal meaning, for it represents the violent, ruthless nature of a whole political culture behind its democratic façade, and the scale of our own indoctrination in its messianic assumptions, described by Harold Pinter as a "brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis". Longer and bloodier than any other war since 1945, waged with demonic weapons and a gangsterism dressed as economic policy and sometimes known as globalisation, the war on democracy is unmentionable in western elite circles. As Pinter wrote, "It never happened . . . Even while it was happening it wasn't happening." Last July, the American historian William Blum published his updated "summary of the charming record of US foreign policy". Since the Second World War, the United States has:

1) Attempted to overthrow more than 50 governments, most of them democratically elected.
2) Attempted to suppress a populist or national movement in 20 countries.
3) Grossly interfered in democratic elections in at least 30 countries.
4) Dropped bombs on the people of more than 30 countries.
5) Attempted to assassinate more than 50 foreign leaders.

In total, the United States has carried out one or more of these actions in 69 countries. In almost all cases, Britain has been a collaborator. The "enemy" changes in name - from communism to Islamism - but mostly it is the rise of democracy independent of western power, or a society occupying strategically useful territory and deemed expendable, like the Chagos Islands.

The sheer scale of suffering, let alone criminality, is little known in the west, despite the presence of the world's most advanced communications, nominally freest journalism and most admired academy. That the most numerous victims of terrorism - western terrorism - are Muslims is unsayable, if it is known. That half a million Iraqi infants died in the 1990s as a result of the embargo imposed by Britain and America is of no interest. That extreme jihadism, which led to the 11 September 2001 attacks, was nurtured as a weapon of western policy (in "Operation Cyclone") is known to specialists, but otherwise suppressed.

While popular culture in Britain and America immerses the Second World War in an ethical bath for the victors, the holocausts arising from Anglo-American dominance of resource-rich regions are consigned to oblivion. Under the Indonesian tyrant Suharto, anointed "our man" by Margaret Thatcher, more than a million people were slaughtered in what the CIA described as "the worst mass murder of the second half of the 20th century". This estimate does not include the third of the population of East Timor who were starved or murdered with western connivance, British fighter-bombers and machine-guns.

These true stories are told in declassified files in the Public Record Office, yet represent an entire dimension of politics and the exercise of power excluded from public consideration. This has been achieved by a regime of uncoercive information control, from the evangelical mantra of advertising to soundbites on BBC news and now the ephemera of social media.

It is as if writers as watchdogs are extinct, or in thrall to a sociopathic zeitgeist, convinced they are too clever to be duped. Witness the stampede of sycophants eager to deify Christopher Hitchens, a war lover who longed to be allowed to justify the crimes of rapacious power. "For almost the first time in two centuries," wrote Terry Eagleton, "there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life." No Orwell warns that we do not need to live in a totalitarian society to be corrupted by totalitarianism. No Shelley speaks for the poor, no Blake proffers a vision, no Wilde reminds us that "disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man's original virtue". And grievously no Pinter rages at the war machine, as in "American Football":

Hallelujah.
Praise the Lord for all good things . . .
We blew their balls into shards of dust,
Into shards of fucking dust . . .

Into shards of fucking dust go all the lives blown there by Barack Obama, the Hopey Changey of western violence. Whenever one of Obama's drones wipes out an entire family in a faraway tribal region of Pakistan, or Somalia, or Yemen, the American controllers sitting in front of their computer-game screens type in "Bugsplat". Obama likes drones and has joked about them with journalists. One of his first actions as president was to order a wave of Pre­dator drone attacks on Pakistan that killed 74 people. He has since killed thousands, mostly civilians; drones fire Hellfire missiles that suck the air out of the lungs of children and leave body parts festooned across scrubland.

Remember the tear-stained headlines as Brand Obama was elected: "Momentous, spine-tingling" (the Guardian). "The American future," Simon Schama wrote, "is all vision, numinous, unformed, light-headed with anticipation." The San Francisco Chronicle saw a spiritual "Lightworker . . . who can . . . usher in a new way of being on the planet". Beyond the drivel, as the great whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg had predicted, a military coup was taking place in Washington, and Obama was their man. Having seduced the anti-war movement into virtual silence, he has given America's corrupt military officer class unprecedented powers of state and engagement. These include the prospect of wars in Africa and opportunities for provocations against China, America's largest creditor and the new "enemy" in Asia. Under Obama, the old source of official paranoia, Russia, has been encircled with ballistic missiles and the Russian opposition infiltrated. Military and CIA assassination teams have been assigned to 120 countries; long-planned attacks on Syria and Iran beckon a world war. Israel, the exemplar of US violence and lawlessness by proxy, has just received its annual pocket money of $3bn together with Obama's permission to steal more Palestinian land.

Surveillance state

Obama's most "historic" achievement is to bring the war on democracy home to America. On New Year's Eve, he signed the National Defence Authorisation Act, a law that grants the Pentagon the legal right to kidnap both foreigners and US citizens secretly and indefinitely detain, interrogate and torture, or even kill them. They need only "associate" with those "belligerent" to the US. There will be no protection of law, no trial, no legal representation. This is the first explicit legislation to abolish habeas corpus (the right to due process of law) and, in effect, repeal the Bill of Rights of 1789.

On 5 January, in an extraordinary speech at the Pentagon, Obama said the military would not only be ready to "secure territory and populations" overseas but to fight in the "homeland" and "support [the] civil authorities". In other words, US troops are to be deployed on the streets of American cities when the inev­itable civil unrest takes hold.

America is now a land of epidemic poverty and barbaric prisons - the consequence of a "market" extremism that, under Obama, has prompted the transfer of $14trn in public money to criminal enterprises in Wall Street. The victims are mostly young, jobless, homeless, incarcerated African Americans, betrayed by the first black president. The historic corollary of a perpetual war state, this is not fascism, not yet, but neither is it democracy in any recognisable form, regardless of the placebo politics that will consume the news until November. The presidential campaign, says the Washington Post, will feature "a clash of phil­osophies rooted in distinctly different views of the economy". This is patently false. The circumscribed task of journalism on both sides of the Atlantic is to create the pretence of political choice where there is none.

The same shadow is across Britain and much of Europe, where social democracy, an article of faith two generations ago, has fallen to the central bank dictators. In David Cameron's "big society", the theft of £84bn in jobs and services exceeds even the amount of tax "legally" avoided by piratical corporations. Blame rests not with the far right, but with a cowardly liberal political culture that has allowed this to happen and which, as Hywel Williams wrote following the 9/11 attacks, "can itself be a form of self-righteous fanaticism". Tony Blair is one such fanatic. In its managerial indifference to the freedoms that it claimed to hold dear, bourgeois Blairite Britain created a surveillance state with 3,000 new criminal offences and laws: more than for the whole of the previous century. The police clearly believe they have an impunity to kill. At the demand of the CIA, cases like that of Binyam Mohamed, an innocent British resident tortured and then held for five years in Guantanamo Bay, will be dealt with in secret courts in Britain in order to "protect the intelligence agencies" - the torturers.

This invisible state allowed the Blair government to fight the Chagos Islanders as they rose from their despair in exile and demanded justice in the streets of Port Louis and London. "Only when you take direct action, face to face, even break laws, are you ever noticed," Lisette said. "And the smaller you are, the greater your example to others." Such is the eloquent answer to those who still ask, "What can I do?"

I last saw Lisette's tiny figure standing in driving rain next to her comrades outside the Houses of Parliament. What struck me was the enduring courage of their resistance. It is this refusal to give up that rotten power fears, above all, knowing it is the seed beneath the snow.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?

New Statesman composite.
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What to read in 2017

From rebellion and religion to swimming and surrealism – these are the books to look out for in the new year.

How does the publishing industry reflect on such a politically momentous year? One urgent task is to tell us about our new leaders. Six months after the United Kingdom’s second female prime minister took office, Biteback supplies, on 24 January, her first serious biography, Theresa May: the Path to Power, by Rosa Prince. Given how little we know about this very private politician, it will be pored over for insights.

Sadiq Khan’s story is better known – I remember him saying something about being a “bus driver’s son” – but George Eaton, the New Statesman’s political editor, has delved deeper for his biography (Sadiq: the Making of a Mayor and London’s Rebirth, also from Biteback), based on exclusive access to Khan and more than 100 interviews with those around him. It is expected in May, to mark the one-year anniversary of Khan taking office as the first Muslim Mayor of London.

Since becoming a Labour MP in 1982 and joining a House of Commons that was 97 per cent male, Harriet Harman has fought for women’s rights and helped to drag parliamentary culture out of the Stone Age. Her account of those struggles, A Woman’s Work, will be published by Allen Lane next month. Jess Phillips, the 35-year-old self-described “gobby MP”, brings the feminist fight into the digital age with Everywoman (Hutchinson, March). At the “old guard” end, another Westminster memoir worth noting is Chris Patten’s First Confession (Allen Lane, June). And although it looked for a moment as if Vince Cable might have written a whole book about his time on Strictly, it turns out that Open Arms (Corvus, June) is a work of fiction: a political thriller about Westminster, India and big business.

Last year, Miles Cole assembled a cover for the NS in which Iain Duncan Smith, Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan figured as the three heads of a Brexit hydra. How blessed we are that the last two have books out: Hannan’s Europe primer What Next (out now) is joined by Carswell’s “radical manifesto” Rebel in April, both published – appropriately – by Head of Zeus.

What next, indeed? For the US, it’s too early to answer that question, but Melville House has put together a gutsy collection, What We Do Now: Standing Up for Your Values in Trump’s America, with contributions by 27 leading progressives, including Bernie Sanders and Gloria Steinem, suggesting paths of resistance. It’s due to be published on 17 January, just before the presidential inauguration.

Resistance will be in the air, not least because 2017 is the centenary of the two uprisings that became known as the Russian Revolution (in February and October). The avalanche that began last year will continue with Victor Sebestyen’s Lenin the Dictator: an Intimate Portrait (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, February), Robert Service’s The Last of the Tsars: Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution (Macmillan, also February) and China Miéville’s narrative take on the events of 1917, October: the Story of the Russian Revolution (Verso, May). Other books on Lenin are due from Tariq Ali (The Dilemmas of Lenin, Verso, April) and Slavoj Žižek (Lenin 2017, Verso, July). His ideas were built on those of Marx, so it’s neat that 2017 also marks the 150th anniversary of Das Kapital. New reflections on that work include Marx and Capital by David Harvey (Profile, July).

In 1917 Russia was in the grip of financial crisis, revolution and terror and a world war was raging. A century later, are we going the same way? It is clear, at least, that many of our liberal assumptions about progress are being upturned. Age of Anger: a History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra (Allen Lane, January) explores the origins of our “great wave of paranoid hatreds”, while populist politics and nationalism are examined in The Road to Somewhere (Hurst, March) by David Goodhart, The Rise of the ­Outsiders: the Anti-Establishment and Its March to Power (Atlantic, June) by Steve Richards and Grave New World: the End of Globalisation and the Return of Economic Conflict (Yale University Press, May) by Stephen D King. The former Economist editor Bill Emmott offers a slightly less gloomy spin in The Fate of the West, which considers the decline but also the possible “revival” of liberal democracy (Profile, March).

Having got his grandly titled history of the eurozone – And the Weak Suffer What They Must? – out of the way last year, the former Greek finance minister Yanis ­Varoufakis unleashes the gossip, telling the “extraordinary tale of brinkmanship and backstabbing” behind the 2015 EU negotiations in Adults in the Room (Bodley Head, May). A fellow economist, Evan Davis of Newsnight, adopts the phrase of 2016 for his book Post-Truth (Little, Brown, August), about how “bullshit” became “the communications strategy of our imes”.

There is plenty of “post-truth” written about Britain’s Muslims, as was illustrated last month when the Mail Online paid out £150,000 to a family that the columnist Katie Hopkins had accused groundlessly of having extremist links. Attempts to bring some honesty and clarity come from Sayeeda Warsi, Britain’s first Muslim cabinet minister, in The Enemy Within (Allen Lane, March), and Omar Saif Ghobash, in his Letters to a Young Muslim (Picador, January). Another counterblast to those who see Islam as incapable of modernising, The Islamic Enlightenment (Bodley Head, February) by Christopher de Bellaigue shows that, from the 19th century onwards, the faith has been transformed by progressive thinking.

These books will sadly be outweighed by writings on Islamic State, of which The Way of the Strangers by the Atlantic correspondent Graeme Wood (Allen Lane, January) is the most anticipated. Catherine Nixey has found a historical parallel with the destruction wreaked by IS: The Darkening Age (Macmillan, September) describes how a militant religion “comprehensively and deliberately extinguished” the teachings of the classical world, “ushering in centuries of unquestioning adherence to ‘one true faith’”. That religion was, of course, Christianity.

In biography, we will get two grand surrealists and two great engineers. The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorhead (Virago, April) coincides with the centenary of the painter and writer, while ­Jenny Uglow takes on the author of “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” in Edward Lear: a Life of Art and Nonsense (Faber & Faber, October). Bloomsbury pits two engineering geniuses, one Scottish and the other American, against each other, with Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain by Julian Glover (January) – which celebrates the “colossus of roads” and designer of the 1826 Menai Suspension Bridge – and Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge (June), in which the NS contributing writer Erica Wagner tells the story of Washington Roebling against a backdrop of civil war, family strife and superhuman achievement in construction. Peter Ackroyd is already London’s biographer laureate but in Queer City (Chatto & Windus, May), he views the capital through its gay population, from the pleasure-filled lupanaria (“wolf dens”) of Roman times to the present day.

Sexuality errs towards the non-binary these days and a raft of books reflects that. Trans Like Me by C N Lester (Virago, May) is joined by The Gender Games by Juno Dawson (Two Roads, July) and Man Alive by Thomas Page McBee (Canongate, May). There’s possibly more fun to be had in One of the Boys by the comic actor Robert Webb (Canongate, July), a coming-of-age memoir that builds on a piece he wrote for the NS in 2014: “How not to be a boy”.

Two other memoirs stand out. When the cultural theorist Stuart Hall died in 2014 he left behind a manuscript – Familiar Stranger: a Life Between Two Islands (Allen Lane, April) tells the story of his early life, from growing up in 1930s Jamaica to dealing with the thorny politics of 1950s and 1960s England. Glimpses of a great English institution are given in Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at the National Theatre (Jonathan Cape, May) by Nicholas Hytner, who stepped down as artistic director in 2015.

Beyond our cities, we have become a nation of dippers and 2017 is the year of the swim-moir. There’s Turning: a Swimming Memoir by Jessica J Lee (Virago, May), Leap In: a Woman, Some Waves and the Will to Swim by Alexandra Heminsley (Hutchinson, January) and I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice (Chatto & Windus, July), an Irish writer’s account of her “Tragic Wives’ Swimming Club”. In June Philip Hoare, the King Neptune of literature, returns with RisingTideFallingStar (Fourth Estate), a wide-ranging examination of our relationship with this watery planet.

On dry land, too, big ideas flourish. In Selfie (Picador, June) Will Storr traces the roots of our “age of perfectionism”, and Adam Alter’s Irresistible (Bodley Head, March) looks at addiction in the ­internet age. Bullshit Jobs: a Theory by David Graeber (Allen Lane, September) explains why we are trapped in a cycle of meaningless work, and in The Knowledge Illusion (Macmillan, April) the cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach claim that true intelligence “resides not in the individual but in the collective mind.”

The essay continues to enjoy a renaissance. There are offerings from the author of The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, Faber & Faber, April); Rebecca Solnit, whose Mother of All Questions (Granta, October) is a collection of “further feminist essays”; Teju Cole, whose “multimedia diary” Blind Spot, coming from Faber & Faber in July, pairs images with text; and Martin Amis, who has assembled his criticism and reportage from 1986 to 2016 in The Rub of Time (due from Jonathan Cape in the autumn). Amis is also working on a novel about three of his friends – Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow and Philip Larkin – all of whom have died since he began writing it. “That gives me a theme,” he said recently. “Death.”

In fiction, the year begins with Paul Auster’s first novel in seven years, 4 3 2 1 (Faber & Faber, January), charting a baby boomer’s four divergent life paths. From the US, too (now that an American has won the Man Booker Prize we’d better pay closer attention), there comes Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury, March), the debut novel by the short-story supremo George Saunders. Set in 1862 in a cemetery in Washington, it has drawn high praise from first readers. Also arriving with Stateside acclaim is Homegoing (Viking, January), a story of two sisters and the slave trade in the Gold Coast by the first-time novelist Yaa Gyasi.

If we are – pace Stephen D King and others – seeing the end of globalisation, it’s not showing in fiction, which in 2017 feels anything but insular. The Indian author Arun­dhati Roy returns to fiction, 20 years after The God of Small Things, with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton, June), described as “a love story and a provocation”, while the new novel by the Man Booker-shortlisted author Neel Mukherjee, A State of Freedom (Chatto & Windus, September), is a “fierce and often devastating portrayal of contemporary India”. From Turkey, Orhan Pamuk’s The Red-Haired Woman (Faber & Faber, September) is a short philosophical novel about a murder that took place 30 years ago near Istanbul. Emerging from the Iraq War is Spoils (Jonathan Cape, May), a debut novel by a former US sergeant, Brian Van Reet, centring on three characters: a young female soldier, a jihadi and a male tank crewman. Germany and the UK are the settings for the first novel by the prize-winning biographer (and contributor to these pages) Lucy Hughes-Hallett – Peculiar Ground (Fourth Estate, May), which spans the 17th and 20th centuries.

And here’s a rare event: the publication of fiction from North Korea. A cache of stories by the dissident writer “Bandi” has been smuggled out and translated by Deborah Smith, and will be published by Serpent’s Tail in March under the title The Accusation. (Smith also translates Han Kang, who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016; a new novel by the South Korean writer is to come from Portobello in November.)

Elsewhere, strong literary names dot the lists. There are novels by Jon McGregor (Reservoir 13, Fourth Estate, April), Hari Kunz­ru (White Tears, Hamish Hamilton, April), Will Self (Phone, Viking, June), William Boyd (The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth, Viking, September) and Ali Smith (Winter, Hamish Hamilton, November). We just have to hope that bookshops aren’t too busy ordering extra copies of Into the Water (Doubleday, May), Paula Hawkins’s follow-up to The Girl on the Train, to notice.

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain