John Pilger: Washington is flying the flag and faking the news on Iraq

Loud noises from Washington about a US pull-out from Iraq are a poor disguise for America’s determination to control.

Edward Bernays, the American nephew of Sigmund Freud, is said to have invented modern propaganda. During the First World War, he was one of a group of influential liberals who mounted a secret government campaign to persuade reluctant Americans to send an army to the bloodbath in Europe. In his book Propaganda, published in 1928, Bernays wrote that the "intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society", and that the manipulators "constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power in our country". Instead of propaganda, he coined the euphemism "public relations".

The American tobacco industry hired Bernays to convince women that they should smoke in public. By associating smoking with women's
liberation, he made cigarettes "torches of freedom". In 1954, he conjured a communist menace in Guatemala as an excuse for overthrowing the democratically elected government, whose social reforms were threatening the United Fruit Company's monopoly of the banana trade. He called it a "liberation".

Bernays was no rabid right-winger. He was an elitist liberal who believed that "engineering public consent" was for the greater good. This could be achieved by the creation of "false realities" which then became "news events". Here are examples of how it is done these days.

False reality The last US combat troops have left Iraq "as promised, on schedule", according to President Barack Obama. The TV news has been filled with cinematic images of the "last US soldiers", silhouetted against the dawn light, crossing the border into Kuwait.

Fact They have not left. At least 50,000 troops will continue to operate from 94 bases. American air assaults are unchanged, as are special forces' assassinations. The number of "military contractors" is 100,000 and rising. Most Iraqi oil is now under direct foreign control.

False reality BBC presenters have described the departing US troops as a "sort of victorious army" that has achieved "a remarkable change in [Iraq's] fortunes". Their commander, General David Petraeus, is a "celebrity", "charming", "savvy" and "remarkable".

Fact There is no victory of any sort. There is a catastrophic disaster, and attempts to present it as otherwise are a model of Bernays's campaign to "rebrand" the slaughter of the First World War as "necessary" and "noble". In 1980, Ronald Reagan, running for president, rebranded the invasion of Vietnam, in which up to three million people died, as a "noble cause", a theme taken up enthusiastically by Hollywood. Today's Iraq war movies have a similar purging theme: the invader as both idealist and victim.

False reality It is not known how many Iraqis have died. They are "countless", or maybe "in the tens of thousands".

Fact As a direct consequence of the Anglo-American-led invasion, a million Iraqis have died. This figure, from Opinion Research Business, follows peer-reviewed research by Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, whose methods were secretly affirmed as "best practice" and "robust" by the Blair government's chief scientific adviser. This is rarely reported or presented to "charming" American generals. Neither is the dispossession of four million Iraqis, the malnourishment of most Iraqi children, the epidemic of mental illness, or the poisoning of the environment.

False reality The British economy has a deficit of billions which must be reduced with cuts in public services and regressive taxation, in a spirit of "we're all in this together".

Fact We are not in this together. What is remarkable about this PR triumph is that only 18 months ago, the diametric opposite filled TV screens and front pages. Then, in a state of shock, truth became unavoidable, if briefly. The Wall Street and City of London trough was on full view for the first time, along with the venality of once-celebrated snouts. Billions in public money went to inept and crooked organisations known as banks, which were spared debt liability by their Labour government sponsors.

Within a year, record profits and personal bonuses were posted and the "black hole" was no longer the responsibility of the banks, whose debt is to be paid by those not in any way responsible: the public. The received media wisdom of this "necessity" is now a chorus, from the BBC to the Sun. A masterstroke, Bernays would surely say.

False reality Ed Miliband offers a "genuine alternative" as leader of the Labour Party.

Fact Miliband, like his brother and almost all those standing for the Labour leadership, is immersed in the effluent of New Labour. As a New Labour MP and minister, he did not refuse to serve under Blair or to speak out against Labour's persistent warmongering. He now calls the invasion of Iraq a "profound mistake". Calling it a mistake insults the memory and the dead. It was a crime, of which the evidence is voluminous. He has nothing new to say about the other colonial wars, none of them mistakes. Neither has he demanded basic social justice - that those who caused the recession clear up the mess and that Britain's fabulously rich corporate minority be taxed seriously, starting with Rupert Murdoch.

The good news is that false realities often fail when the public trusts its own critical intelligence. Two classified documents recently released by WikiLeaks express the CIA's concern that the populations of European countries, which oppose their governments' war policies, are not succumbing to the usual propaganda spun through the media.

For the rulers of the world, this is a conundrum, because their unaccountable power rests on the false reality that no popular resistance works. And it does.

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 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial

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A night in my old room, with the sink, the Wisdens, and the prospect of “full genitality”

The mirror is still there, though, into which I would, as Nigel Molesworth put it, gaze at my strange unatural (sic) beauty, and ask what purpose it served.

In my old bedroom, again. This is, at least, a matter of choice. Monday evenings and Tuesday mornings are now spent in the family home so that I can keep my father company and give my mother a chance to go to her choir practice, on Mondays, and her art class, on Tuesdays. (I suddenly asked myself today: what if my mother were rubbish at these things? She’s not, though – especially not at the singing, as anyone who saw her on Broadway or NBC back in the day can attest. As for her art, I couldn’t paint to her standard even if I applied myself to nothing else for years.)

Anyway: I find myself, after a 12-year hiatus, once again intimately concerned about a close family member’s capacity to eat, sleep, and move without injury, only this time the concern is directed towards the previous generation rather than the next one. That’s the way it goes, and from the way events are moving, it looks as though I will have only the briefest of respites from such cares until the close family member whom I worry about falling over, or worse, will be me.

And as if this temporal confusion were not enough, I now find myself once again in the room where I spent the years 1972-85, from childhood to young adulthood, learning how to leave the room. I didn’t have an unhappy childhood, apart from the unhappiness I brought to it. Which was considerable, and not so much from a gloomy nature as from the early realisation that anyone who thought things in the outside world were just dandy really wasn’t paying attention. The chafing, constantly under-entitled condition of childhood itself didn’t make things any better.

The old room has been repurposed now as a kind of art studio: but the thick blue curtains are still there, there is a sofa-bed in place of my own old bed (on which my youngest son now sleeps, perhaps absorbing its melancholy, like radon seeping from the rocks, while he sleeps), but it is in the same place; the little sink in the corner, into which I would piss and occasionally puke, is still there, but the taps have jammed solid. The mirror is still there, though, into which I would, as Nigel Molesworth put it, gaze at my strange unatural (sic) beauty, and ask what purpose it served.

For the main thing that bothered me in that room, from 1975 on, was of achieving, in the Freudian phrase, full genitality – or getting laid. Once this question arose, it became impossible to dislodge, and when I say I spent every hour of every day worried that I would somehow die before I lost my cherry, I do not mean I thought about it once an hour. No: I thought about it through all of every hour, of every day. And night. Even my dreams had only one subject.

Of course, it wasn’t just the brute urges of the body. The heart, or the soul, if you wish, yearned, too; and the idea of finding someone who could satisfy both carnal and spiritual selves seemed so perfect that it also seemed unattainable. So, to distract myself, I would read; and once I was tall enough to peer over a bar without standing on tiptoe, I would go to the local pub and have a couple of pints of Guinness, which would be enough to get my 14-year-old body sozzled. (How on earth did I manage that? I was small for my age and shaving was as remote a prospect as sex, but somehow I had the kind of bearing which convinced barmen that it was OK to serve me. I wonder if it is somehow my fault that there are now signs everywhere saying you’re going to be asked for proof of age if you look under 25. Twenty-five!)

So, in 2015, as I retrace the familiar steps and retire to bed, I look for reading matter. Most of my books are dispersed (quite a few of them in boxes in the loft above, creating ominous cracks in the ceiling beneath), but there are a few survivors; a P G Wodehouse or two, a set of Wisdens, much loved, from 1974-85. I pull out the 1974 edition and read of the promising young Somerset players Ian Botham and I V A Richards and their proud captain, Brian Close. I had forgotten he’d captained Somerset. (This was a week before his death.)

I turn the light off. The curtains in my old room shut out the light; in the Hovel it never gets dark, the street never wholly quiet. East Finchley, at night, is as silent as the grave. And the lines from Marvell pop into my head before I fall asleep. You know the ones? “The grave’s a fine and private place,/But none, I think, do there embrace.” 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide