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John Pilger on the international politics of bollocks

Supporters of the new US president refuse to admit that the "man of change" is, in fact, changing the truth.

Growing up in an Antipodean society proud of its rich variety of expletives, I never heard the word bollocks. It was only on arrival in England that I understood its magisterial power. All classes used it. Judges grunted it; an editor of the Daily Mirror used it as noun, adjective and verb. Certainly, the resonance of a double vowel saw off its closest American contender. It had authority.

A high official with the Gilbertian title of Lord West of Spithead used it to great effect on 27 January. The former admiral, who is a security adviser to Gordon Brown, was referring to Tony Blair's assertion that invading countries and killing innocent people did not increase the threat of terrorism at home.

"That was clearly bollocks," said his lordship, who warned of a perceived "linkage between the US, Israel and the UK" in the horrors inflicted on Gaza and the effect on the recruitment of terrorists in Britain. In other words, he was stating the obvious: that state terrorism begets individual or group terrorism at source. Just as Blair was the prime mover of the London bombings of 7 July 2005, so Brown, having pursued the same cynical crusades in Muslim countries and having armed and disported himself before the criminal regime in Tel Aviv, will share responsibility for related atrocities at home.

There is a lot of bollocks about at the moment.

The BBC's explanation for banning an appeal on behalf of the stricken people of Gaza is a vivid example. Mark Thompson, the BBC's director general, cited the corporation's legal requirement to be "impartial . . . because Gaza remains a major ongoing news story in which humanitarian issues . . . are both at the heart of the story and contentious".

In a letter to Thompson, David Bracewell, a licence-fee payer, illuminated the deceit behind this. He pointed to previous BBC appeals for the Disasters Emergency Committee that were not only made in the midst of "an ongoing news story" in which humanitarian issues were "contentious", but also demonstrated how the corporation took sides.

In 1999, at the height of the illegal Nato bombing of Serbia and Kosovo, the TV presenter Jill Dando made an appeal on behalf of Kosovar refugees. The BBC web page for that appeal was linked to numerous articles meant to stress the gravity of the humanitarian issue. These included quotations from Blair himself, such as: "This will be a daily pounding until he [Slobodan Milosevic] comes into line with the terms that Nato has laid down." There was no significant balance of view from the Yugoslav side, and not a single mention that the flight of Kosovar refugees began only after Nato had started bombing.

Similarly, in an appeal for victims of the civil war in the Congo, the BBC favoured the regime led by Joseph Kabila by not referring to Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and other reports accusing his forces of atrocities. In contrast, the rebel leader Laurent Nkunda was "accused of committing atrocities" and ordained the bad guy by the BBC. Kabila, who represented western interests, was clearly the good guy - just like Nato in the Balkans and Israel in the Middle East.

While Mark Thompson and his satraps richly deserve the Lord West of Spithead Bollocks Blue Ribbon, that honour goes to the cheer squad of President Barack Obama, whose cult-like obeisance goes on and on.

On 23 January, the Guardian's front page declared, "Obama shuts network of CIA 'ghost prisons'". The "wholesale deconstruction [sic] of George Bush's war on terror", said the report, had been ordered by the new president, who would be "shutting down the CIA's secret prison network, banning torture and rendition . . ."

The bollocks quotient on this was so high that it read like the press release it was, citing "officials briefing reporters at the White House yesterday". Obama's orders, according to a group of 16 retired generals and admirals who attended a presidential signing ceremony, "would restore America's moral standing in the world". What moral standing? It never ceases to astonish that experienced reporters can transmit PR stunts like this, bearing in mind the moving belt of lies from the same source under only nominally different management.

Far from "deconstructing the war on terror", Obama is clearly pursuing it with the same vigour, ideological backing and deception as the previous administration. George W Bush's first war, in Afghanistan, and last war, in Pakistan, are now Obama's wars - with thousands more US troops to be deployed, more bombing and more slaughter of civilians. Last month, on the day he described Afghanistan and Pakistan as "the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism", 22 Afghan civilians died beneath Obama's bombs in a hamlet populated mainly by shepherds and which, by all accounts, had not laid eyes on the Taliban. Women and children were among the dead, which is normal.

Far from “shutting down the CIA’s secret prison network”, Obama’s executive orders actually give the CIA authority to carry out renditions, abductions and transfers of prisoners in secret without threat of legal obstruction. As the Los Angeles Times disclosed, “current and former US intelligence officials said that the rendition programme might be poised to play an expanded role”. A semantic sleight of hand is that “long-term prisons” are changed to “short-term prisons”; and while Americans are now banned from directly torturing people, foreigners working for the US are not. This means that America’s numerous “covert actions” will operate as they did under previous presidents, with proxy regimes, such as Augusto Pinochet’s in Chile, doing the dirtiest work.

Bush's open support for torture, and Donald Rumsfeld's extraordinary personal overseeing of certain torture techniques, upset many in America's "secret army" of subversive military and intelligence operators because it exposed how the system worked. Obama's newly confirmed director of national intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, has said the Army Field Manual may include new forms of "harsh interrogation" which will be kept secret.

Obama has chosen not to stop any of this. Neither do his ballyhooed executive orders put an end to Bush's assault on constitutional and international law. He has retained Bush's "right" to imprison anyone, without trial or charge. No "ghost prisoners" are being released or are due to be tried before a civilian court. His nominee for attorney general, Eric Holder, has endorsed an extension of Bush's totalitarian USA Patriot Act, which allows federal agents to demand Americans' library and bookshop records. The man of "change" is changing little. That ought to be front-page news from Washington.

The Lord West of Spithead Bollocks Prize (Runner-Up) is shared. On 28 January, a nationally run Greenpeace advertisement opposing a third runway at Heathrow Airport in London summed up the almost wilful naivety that has obstructed informed analysis of the Obama administration.

"Fortunately," declared Greenpeace beneath a Godlike picture of Obama, "the White House has a new occupant, and he has asked us all to roll back the spectre of a warming planet." This was followed by Obama's rhetorical flourish about "putting off unpleasant decisions". In fact, the president has made no commitment to curtail America's infamous responsibility for the causes of global warming. As with George W Bush and most other modern-era presidents, it is oil, not stemming carbon emissions, that informs his administration. His national security adviser, General Jim Jones, a former Nato supreme commander, made his name planning US military control over the exploitation of oil and gas reserves from the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea to the Gulf of Guinea off Africa.

Sharing the Bollocks Runner-Up Prize is the Observer, which on 25 January published a major news report headlined, "How Obama set the tone for a new US revolution". This was reminiscent of the Observer almost a dozen years ago when liberalism's other great white hope, Tony Blair, came to power. "Goodbye xenophobia" was the Observer's post-election front page in 1997 and "The Foreign Office says 'Hello World, remember us?'". The government, said the breathless text, would push for "new worldwide rules on human rights and the environment" and implement "tough new limits" on arms sales. The opposite happened. Last year, Britain was the biggest arms dealer in the world; currently, it is second only to the United States.

In the Blair mould, the Obama White House "sprang into action" with its "radical plans". The president's first phone call was to that Palestinian quisling, the unelected and deeply unpopular Mahmoud Abbas. There was a "hot pace" and a "new era", in which a notorious name from an ancien régime, Richard Holbrooke, was despatched to Pakistan. In 1978, Holbrooke betrayed a promise to normalise relations with the Vietnamese on the eve of a vicious embargo ruined the lives of countless Vietnamese children. Under Obama, the "sense of a new era abroad", declared the Observer, "was reinforced by the confirmation of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state". Clinton has threatened to "entirely obliterate Iran" on behalf of Israel.

What the childish fawning over Obama obscures is the dark power assembled under cover of America’s first “post-racial president”. Apart from the US, the world’s most dangerous state is demonstrably Israel, having recently killed and maimed some 4,000 people in Gaza with impunity. On 10 February, a bellicose Israeli electorate is likely to put Binyamin Netanyahu into power. Netanyahu is a fanatic’s fanatic who has made clear his intention of attacking Iran. In the Wall Street Journal of 24 January, he described Iran as the “terrorist mother base” and justified the murder of civilians in Gaza because “Israel cannot accept an Iranian terror base [Gaza] next to its major cities”. On 31 January, unaware he was being filmed, Tel Aviv’s ambassador to Australia described the massacres in Gaza as a “pre-introduction” – a dress rehearsal – for an attack on Iran.

For Netanyahu, the reassuring news is that the new US administration is the most Zionist in living memory, a truth that has struggled to be told from beneath the soggy layers of Obama-love. Not a single member of the president's team demurred from his support for Israel's barbaric actions in Gaza. Obama himself likened the safety of his two young daughters with that of Israeli children but made not a single reference to the thousands of Palestinian children killed with American weapons - a violation of both international and US law. He did, however, demand that the people of Gaza be denied "smuggled" small arms with which to defend themselves against the world's fourth-largest military power. And he paid tribute to the Arab dictatorships, such as Egypt, which are bribed by the US treasury to help the United States and Israel enforce policies described by the UN special rapporteur Richard Falk, a Jew, as "genocidal".

It is time the Obama lovers grew up. It is time those paid to keep the record straight gave us the opportunity to debate informatively. In the 21st century, people power remains a huge and exciting and largely untapped force for change, but it is nothing without truth. "In the time of universal deceit," wrote George Orwell, "telling the truth is a revolutionary act."

www.johnpilger.com

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 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009

© MARK PETERSON/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Goodbye to the Confederate flag

After the shootings in Charleston, the Republican right showed it was finally ready to reject the old symbols of the Confederacy.

On 27 June, an African-American activist named Bree Newsome woke up before dawn, put on her climbing equipment and scaled a 30-foot flagpole on the lawn of State House in Columbia, South Carolina. She then removed the Confederate battle flag that flew from it. “We can’t wait any longer,” she explained later in an online statement. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy.”

After she was led away in handcuffs, the flag was raised again.

Newsome’s protest reflected a growing impatience within America’s black community and anger about liberal inaction. Political rallies by the Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been disrupted by the Black Lives Matter campaign against violence committed on young African Americans and the cultural and legal biases that justify it. While promoting his book on race in the US, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that, to African Americans, the battle flag represents a lingering attempt “to bury the fact that half this country thought it was a good idea to raise an empire rooted in slavery”.

Yet, on this matter, to everyone’s surprise, the black civil rights movement and many southern Republicans have proved to be of one mind. On 9 July the House of Representatives in South Carolina voted to lower the battle flag for good. It stood, representatives said, for racism. It had to go.

The context of this agreement was a painful one. Ten days before Newsome’s act, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to his room-mate, he wanted to start a race war. The TV screens showed a photo of him holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other.

If the demands for redress made by civil rights groups didn’t come as a surprise, conservative acquiescence did. The Republican Party had built a solid base in the South by courting white voters who cherished the memory of the Confederacy. Yet the party’s presidential hopefuls from both the North and the South – including Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and George Pataki – said that the battle flag ought to be lowered. The most striking intervention was made by the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who denounced the use of the Confederate flag and signed the bill removing it. Haley is now tipped to figure on the list of potential vice-presidential nominees.

The volte-face of the US right is in part a result of the horror of the Charleston shootings. Yet it also occurs in the context of major shifts within American society. There are still many conservatives who will defend Confederate heritage as a matter of southern pride but the culture wars are changing as the US becomes increasingly European in outlook. This is taking place across the country. It just happens to be more pronounced in the South because no other region has fought so violently and so long to resist the liberal tide.

The story of the battle flag is the story of the South. The first official Confederate flag used in the civil war of 1861-65 caused confusion during fighting – through the haze of gun smoke, its design of 13 stars and red and white bars was hard to distinguish from the Stars and Stripes. An alternative blue cross was rejected for being too sectarian; the racist Confederacy was anxious not to offend its Jewish citizens. So the cross became a diagonal X. This flag was never officially adopted by the Confederate army. In the years after the war its use was infrequent.

There was little need to visualise southern difference in a flag. It was self-evident in the physical signs of racial segregation: separate schools, pools and drinking fountains; black people confined to the back of the bus. Political displays of the battle flag of Dixie (the historical nickname for the states that seceded from the Union) only really resurfaced when that racial order was challenged by northern liberals. In 1948, the Democrats – then the party overwhelmingly in control of the South – split over modest calls for civil rights. The conservatives who refused to support that year’s presidential ticket, the “Dixiecrats”, triggered a rev­ival of flag-waving across the region.

The old battle flag suddenly appeared on private lawns, on cars and at political rallies. Supposedly ancient cultural traditions were invented overnight. For instance, the 1948 student handbook of the University of Mississippi confessed: “Many Ole Miss customs are fairly new; they lack only the savouring which time brings . . . Ole Miss has adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of the Mississippi spirit. Each football game finds the scarlet flag frantically waving to the rhythm of the Rebel band.”

I can confirm that this “tradition” was still going as recently as in 2005. That year, I attended an American football game at Ole Miss and was surprised when the band played “Dixie” at the end. White boys and white girls stood up and belted out the folk song of the Confederacy, while black students filed out.

In 1958, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the battle flag. Three years later, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war, it was hoisted above its Capitol building in Columbia. That day, there was a struggle in the US Congress to keep federal funding going for segregated schools.

So clear is the link between the postwar white resistance to civil rights and the battle flag that many see it as the symbolic equivalent of the N-word. Jack Hunter, the editor of the conservative website Rare Politics, says: “Some people insist that it’s not about racism, not about slavery, not about segregation. But it’s about all those things.” Hunter grew up in Charleston and used to skateboard in the car park of the church that Dylann Roof attacked. When he was a young journalist, he appeared on local radio as a rabidly right-wing masked character called “the Southern Avenger”. His past was exposed in 2013 while he was working for Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, and Hunter stepped down from his position. He publicly renounced his youthful association with racial conservatism. He now eschews any romanticism about the Confederate cause and its demand for states’ rights. “States’ rights to do what?” he asks: the right to discriminate against African Americans? He is glad that the State House flag is gone. He ascribes its longevity to ignorance, which was corrected by Roof’s rampage: “It was the first time that [southern Republicans] were able to see a different perspective on this symbol.”

Not everyone agrees. Richard Hines – a former South Carolina legislator, Reagan campaign state co-chair and senior activist with the Sons of Confederate Veterans – insists that the flag is “an enduring symbol of the southern fighting man”. Indeed, a poll in July found that 57 per cent of Americans think it stands for southern heritage, rather than racism. Yet that heritage has a political dimension. “Southern people are proud of who they are and there is a leftist assault to destroy the best part of America,” Hines says. “The Trotskyite elite in control of the establishment wants to root out the southern tradition” – a tradition of religious devotion, chivalry and military honour. It is possible to cast the battle flag as a pawn in a much larger cultural conflict.

In 2000, civil rights activists lobbied hard to get the battle flag removed from the top of the South Carolina Capitol and succeeded in having it shrunk in size and relocated to the grounds of State House. The issue came up in that year’s Republican presidential primaries – an unusually poisonous contest between George W Bush and John McCain. Supporters of Bush put out a false story that McCain had fathered an interracial child out of wedlock. McCain added to his woes by opining that the battle flag was “a symbol of racism and slavery”. An organisation called Keep It Flying flooded the state with 250,000 letters attacking him and he lost the crucial competition here to Bush.

The battle flag has retained a strong emotional power for a long time. This makes the Republican establishment’s abandonment of the flag all the more surprising. Then again, those who run the South are probably the people most likely to grasp how much the region has changed in just a decade.

***

In 2010 I took a trip through North Carolina. The landscape told a story. Dotted along the roadside were abandoned black buildings, the old tobacco sheds. The decline of the rural economy had rendered them obsolete. Over the fields that would once have been full of farmers were freshly tarmacked roads, stretching out to nowhere. My guide explained that these were supposed to be cul-de-sacs for new houses. North Carolina was going through a property boom. But who was going to buy all those homes, I asked? The answer: damn Yankees.

Demography is destiny. This once agri­cultural region developed fast from the 1960s onwards by keeping union membership, taxes and regulation as low as possible. Yet capitalism proved disastrous for southern conservatism. Northerners flooded in, seeking work or retirement and bringing their own values. The forecast is that North Carolina’s Research Triangle – the South’s Silicon Valley – will grow by 700,000 jobs and 1.2 million people in two decades.

White migration was accompanied by an influx of Spanish speakers as the service sector flourished. Between 2000 and 2010, the white share of the population of North Carolina fell from 70 to 65 per cent. The black proportion remained at roughly 21 per cent. The Latino proportion, however, jumped from 4.7 per cent to 8.4 per cent. Today, the proportion of people who are non-white and over 60 is about a third. But it’s approaching nearly half for those under 18. As a result, politics in the South is no longer biracial: a contest between white and black. It is increasingly multiracial and uncoupled from the region’s complex past.

The impact of these changes is reflected in voting patterns. In 2000, the South was still overwhelmingly Republican in presidential contests. Even the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, a southerner, lost his home state of Tennessee. But in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama took those states with the fastest-changing demographics: Florida and Virginia. He won North Carolina in 2008 and lost it in 2012 – but by less than 100,000 votes. It is true that the Republicans won back control in the 2014 midterm elections, with the result that the Deep South now sends few Democrats to Congress; but the region’s political masters are not quite as traditional-minded as they once were.

The Republican relationship with the Confederate past is complex. As the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, the GOPs’ southern support was historically small. But in the 1960s the national Democratic Party embraced civil rights and alienated its once loyal southern following; the Republicans took the opportunity to steal some conservative white voters.

The growing southern Republican vote had a class component. Its success in local and congressional races was built more on winning over middle-class moderates than on appealing to the working-class racists who filled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. The southern Republican Party did enthusiastically embrace the Confederate battle flag in many quarters. But some office-holders did so only with ambiguity, while large sections of the party never identified with it at all. The period of Republican ascendancy in the South was, in reality, linked with a softening of the area’s racial politics.

Two of the Republicans’ current southern stars are Indian Americans: Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the anti-flag governor of South Carolina. There are just two black people in the US Senate and one of them is a Republican, the Tea Party-backed senator for South Carolina, Tim Scott. Marco Rubio, the Floridian senator and presidential candidate, is Cuban American, and the former Florida governor Jeb Bush is married to a Mexican-born woman and speaks fluent Spanish. Bush has tried to push a more moderate line on immigration, in deference to how the GOP will struggle to win the White House if it appeals only to angry white voters. The Kentucky libertarian senator Rand Paul, Jack Hunter’s former boss, has called for legal reforms to correct the trend of keeping far more black than white people in prison. And he is not the only Republican to have been moved by recent race riots sparked by police violence.

***

Violence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, confirmed that there still is a culture war in the US. Yet its character has changed. In the past, civil disturbances were typically leapt upon by conservative politicians as evidence of social decline. The 1992 LA riots were blamed on single parenthood and rap lyrics. In contrast, conservative leaders today are far more likely to acknowledge the problems of white racism. There is no place in their ranks for the likes of Dylann Roof. White supremacists are tiny in number.

Jack Hunter claims: “The KKK is like 12 guys in a telephone booth. Liberal groups will use their threat for fundraising but it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t properly since the 1960s.” Roof’s actions say more about gun control, mental illness and the angst of the young than they do about popular, largely liberal views on race, as polling shows.

We can see a similar liberal shift in other areas of the historic culture war. In May 2015 Gallup released the results of a “moral acceptability” survey charting changes in national attitude across all age groups, from 2001 to 2015. Approval of gay relationships jumped from 40 to 63 per cent; having a baby out of wedlock from 45 to 61 per cent; sex between unmarried men and women from 53 to 68 per cent; doctor-assisted suicide from 49 to 56 per cent; even polygamy went from 7 to 16 per cent. Abortion remained narrowly disapproved of: support for access has only crept up from 42 to 45 per cent. This is probably a result of an unusual concentration of political and religious opposition and because it involves a potential life-or-death decision. But the general trend is that young people just don’t care as much about what consenting adults get up to.

Why? It might be because old forms of identity are dying. One way of measuring that is religious affiliation. From 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research, the proportion of Americans describing themselves as Christian fell from 78 to 71 per cent. Today, only a quarter of the population is evangelical and 21 per cent Catholic, down despite high immigration. Then there is the decline in civic or communal activity. Since 2012, the organisers of Nascar, the stock-car races, have not published attendance figures at their tracks, probably because they have fallen so sharply. The decline of this most macho and working class of sports parallels the fall in conservative forms of collective identity such as southern traditionalism.

The old culture war was, like the racial politics of the old South, binary. In the 1950s, around the same time as the South invented its tradition of flying the battle flag in colleges, the US constructed an ideal of the “normal” nuclear family unit: straight, white, patriarchal, religious. On the other side was the “abnormal”: gay, black, feminist, atheist, and the rest. The surest way to get elected in the US between 1952 and 2004 was to associate yourself with the economic needs and cultural prejudices of the majority. The approach was once summed up by a Richard Nixon strategist thus: split the country in two and the Republicans will take the larger half. But that is changing. The old normal is no longer the cultural standard but just one of many identities to choose from. The races are mixing. Women want to work more and have children later in life, possibly without marriage. Many religious people are having to rethink their theology when a child comes out as gay. And the enforcers of the old ways – the unions, churches or political parties – are far less attractive than the atomising internet.

***

Politicians are scrabbling to keep up with the diffusion of American identity. Democrats got lucky when they nominated Barack Obama and chose a presidential candidate who reflected the fractured era well: interracial, non-denominational Christian, and so on. In the 2012 presidential race the Republicans got burned when they tried to play the old culture war card on abortion. They won’t repeat that mistake. After the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage across the country in June, the right’s response was not as uniformly loud and outraged as it would have been in the past. Some protested, but serious presidential contenders such as Jeb Bush grasped the implications of the defeat. There is a cultural and political realignment going on and no one is sure where it will lead. It’s encouraging caution among the Republican top brass. It is time, they think, to abandon lost causes.

The death of southern traditionalism is part of the ebb and flow of cultural history. Identities flourish and die. As political fashions change, you find the typically American mix of triumph on one side and jeremiad on the other. Richard Hines stood vigil as the battle flag was lowered in Columbia and noted with disgust the presence of what he described as “bussed-in” activists. “They pulled out all these gay pride flags and started shouting, ‘USA, USA, USA!’ It reminded me of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

Hines reckons that more southerners will now fly the flag than ever before and says he has attended overflow rallies of ordinary folks who love their region. He may well be correct. The faithful will keep the old Confederate standard fluttering on their lawns – an act of secession from the 21st century. But in the public domain, the battle flag is on its way down and in its place will be raised the standard of the new America. The rainbow flag flutters high. For now.

Tim Stanley is a historian and a columnist for the Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars