What’s Going On? By William Bowles

20 April 2003

Of course Marvin Gaye’s memorable and ground breaking album ‘What’s Going On?’ about the Vietnam war, civil rights and the future of the planet, made in 1971 could never be made in the America of 2003, never mind that it was a massive hit record as well. You only have to ask the Dixie Chicks about it, or indeed any other person who dares question the status quo.

So what is going on? What has changed? What are the political classes of the Anglo-Saxon Alliance afraid of? Is it really a handful of messianic terrorists or WMDs or ‘rogue states’, the ‘axis of evil’ and the other convenient comic book caricatures that have been trundled out ad nauseum for consumption by the masses?

After all, what do they have to be afraid of? Are they seriously suggesting that a handful of terrorists threaten the future of their freedom to control the world’s resources? Or could it be something else? Could it be desperation that motivates the Bush/Blairs of our world to mount such a hysterical and sustained attack not only on the essentially defenceless populations of developing countries but the propaganda war on the populations of the US and the UK? Of course, there’s nothing new about these propaganda campaigns, merely that the scale and the hysteria has reached new levels of absurdity and disconnection from reality.

I was born two weeks before the US were the first to use two of the ultimate Weapons of Mass Destruction on the defenceless populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, purportedly to save the lives of US soldiers. And no doubt Saddam Hussein would use have used the same argument when he used gas against the soldiers of Iran (as the Iranians would have defended the use of the same weapons against Iraqi soldiers). So why is it okay for the US to use them but not for anyone else? By what logic does the US defend its possession of a vast and expanding arsenal of WMDs but would deny any other country the right to do the same? I’m reminded of the amendment to the US constitution which gives the right of US citizens to ‘keep and bear arms’, something apparently that is a ‘right’ reserved only for ‘God’s chosen people’ or is that Israel, which also is the only country in the Middle East with the ‘right’ to possess them.

Of course, us lefties had the wind taken out of our sails when the Soviet Union imploded in 1989. But the end of the ‘evil empire’ apparently ‘solved’ all the problems that had confronted us for the better part of the 20th century. It was the ‘end of history’ and paradise was just around the corner. The ‘peace dividend’ was going to beat all the swords into ploughshares and the new world order of free markets was going to unleash the entrepreneurial spirit of ‘market capitalism’ which had been crushed under the heel of the totalitarian state. Ordinary people were now free to pursue the accumulation of capital and become, like those in the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’, entrepreneurs and businessmen. But it’s a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world and there’s no guarantee that a life of toil will get you a home in the suburbs of ‘any town USA’ or a place near Tunbridge Wells. Some dogs are a damn sight bigger than others.

So what’s going on?

Starting in the 1980s, the biggest shift of wealth ever, took place, from the poor, working and middle classes to the (already) wealthy took place in the USUK. Millions of people lost their jobs. Entire communities were wiped out. ‘Rust belts’ spread across the land like a cancer. Cuts in health care, education, housing and unemployment benefits. The developing world saw what little progress it had made since the success of the liberation movements of 50s and 60s, not only come to a halt but living standards and development regressed. Health, education, housing, all suffered. Entire countries collapsed in the chaos of the ‘new world order’ decreed by the IMF and the World Bank as ‘Structural Readjustment’ took hold. And, once the ‘evil empire’ was removed, the process of rolling back the gains of the past one hundred years of struggle for emancipation and development increased in pace and ferocity.

‘Brother – brother – brother
What’s going on, what’s going on?’

One must ask the question why? Is it purely coincidental that since 1990 the assault on the poor and dispossessed of the world has been accelerating? And all of this taking place in a world of staggering material abundance! A world drowning in consumer products of bewildering diversity, much of it made in vast 19th century sweatshops set up in tax free zones that have been created in virtual isolation not only from the countries that they exist in (Mexico, China, Indonesia, Guatemala, Vietnam, El Salvador ad infinitum) but from the rest of the world. Out of sight, out of mind.

It’s fashionable to pour scorn on those who cry ‘conspiracy’. I’m not sure who coined the term ‘history is a conspiracy’ but used in this context, it resonates in my mind. After all, wars large and small have been instigated by the US and the UK under one pretext or another (the ‘Suez Crisis’, the ‘Domino Theory’, ‘Tonkin Gulf’, the ‘Communist plot’, ‘Al Qu’eda’, to take over the world and so on). It seems conspiracies are okay if the ‘enemy’ devises them but the work of deranged minds if the same criteria are used against those who would oppose the policies of the imperialists. It would seem only the ‘enemies of democracy’ have minds devious enough to conceive such fiendish plans for world domination. And not surprisingly, these ‘fiendish devils’ are more often than not, of a darker hue than the ‘defenders of democracy’ and ‘gad sir’ they’re not even Christians, damn their souls!

Not coincidentally, as the economies of the leading capitalist nations falter and teeter on the edge of crisis, the clamour to ‘sort out’ these evil men and their fiendish plans for world domination increases in volume and hysteria. We’ve entered the Age of the Apocalypse, where even a new bug takes on Armageddon-like qualities. Again, it’s no coincidence that as the rationale of the leading imperialist nation looks more and more like a suit of the Emperor’s New Clothes when subjected to serious scrutiny, so too does the desperation of the defence of their actions.

And here, in the offices of the ‘chattering classes’ we see the hollowness of their defence of the status quo. In a desperate attempt to head off the ‘enemy’ at the pass, we see the more ‘extreme’ views of the Anglo-Saxon Alliance presented to us as the work of a ‘neo-conservative cabal’, plotting away in some White House basement or in some neo-conservative think-tank. In other words, the fundamental objective of the USUK is not really world domination, the ‘neo-cons’ are just the opinions of a minority of ‘extremists’ who don’t in any way represent the views of Tony Blair, Jeff Hoon, Jack Straw or even George Bush. Don’t worry about the Perles and Wolfowitzes, they don’t determine the policies of the USUK governments.

What is amazing about the apologists of the ‘new’ imperialism is their ability to side-step and slide around the issues. That the ‘New American Century’ (see http://www.policyreview.org/JUN02/kagan.html) is not exactly something new, indeed it has its roots at the beginning of the 1990s, is rarely mentioned at all in the corporate or state-mediated press. And if it is alluded to, it is presented to us out of context, indeed out of history entirely. It is never presented as a fundamental element of USUK policy, merely as the opinions of an obscure think-tank located somewhere near the Washington DC Beltway. So too, with Robert Cooper’s world of ‘Double Standards’ (http://www.observer.co.uk/worldview/story/0,11581,680095,00.html). That he is a high ranking and extremely influential policy-maker in Whitehall and whose views form the basis of the Blair thesis for invading Iraq, is never mentioned even when his document is referred to in public utterances. That it contains fundamental ideas about the future of British-American imperialist policies not only in connection with the developing world but also the UK relationship to the EU is conveniently ignored. Instead, the realities of the world are presented to us in vox pop sound bites and scurrilous news headlines that obscure the underlying reasons as to why we invaded a sovereign state in contravention of every law governing relations between states that have been passed since the first Geneva Convention was drawn up in 1907.

The Big Lie

You may ask, indeed you should, how is it possible for our leaders to get away with such outlandish, indeed, outrageous behaviour? How can they twist the facts, lie to us, treat us with such disdain? Well some of you may well have read ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ or even delved into the writings of one of the architects of state propaganda in the 20th century, Joseph Goebbels, the Big Lie. And today, we are presented with an even greater concentration of ownership of media than during the days of Hitler or Stalin with even more awesome powers of persuasion than those used in the past.

Try reading say the Independent and the Guardian newspapers side by side, and you’ll see that with few exceptions, they carry absolutely identical stories, even down to a single paragraph of local news. So close are they that it looks like they’ve been manufactured and distributed from some central ‘news factory’. The BBC, both its radio and television news follow the same predictable course, each major ‘news’ item reinforcing what I call ‘received opinion’.

‘Received opinion’ works as follows: some arbitrary ‘objective’ position is established, which by some process is determined to be somewhere in the ‘middle’, though the middle of what is never made clear except that it is presented as being neither too much to the ‘left’ or too much to the ‘right’. Again the idea of ‘too much’ is never spelt out but rest assured, whatever it is, it will reinforce the status quo. Any idea or opinion which steps ‘outside’ this theoretical middle is per se, excluded or derided or both.

In turn, these ‘objective’ ideas are then presented to us as somehow representing what the ‘average’ man or woman ‘in the street’ believes to be the ‘truth’ because, as ‘we all know’, the ‘average man or woman’ is neither too much to the left or to the right. That these ‘objective facts’ conveniently line up with the dominant culture’s view of the world, is, well, convenient to say the least. Hence a ‘reasonable’ view of the world is presented to us as effectively being what we all (well most of us anyway) think.

Let’s take one event as an example of this process at work, the public ‘debate’ around the legality of the invasion of Iraq. In the first instance when voices were raised over the dubious nature of the legality of the invasion, the government told us, ‘we never bring into the public domain the details of the issue’ or words to that effect. In other words, some kind of vague ‘tradition’ determined the lack of government accountability for its actions. But demands for accountability continued and eventually the government issued a statement which in effect said that the government’s chief lawyer (the Lord Chancellor) had looked at the issues and had concluded that the law was on its side, citing UN Resolution 1441. Now the key wording in 1441 was the right to take ‘extreme measures’. Yet the exact nature of what extreme measures consisted of has never been spelt out anywhere, including in the UN Security Council, never mind the corridors of Whitehall or in any relevant government statutes. Nor has the ‘free’ press conducted any kind of real challenge to this vague and obscure justification for blowing up thousands of people, destroying their culture and putting an alien one in its place.

And how did the media deal with this? Effectively, not at all. Oh yes, the question was raised, after all, invading a foreign country on such a dubious pretext as ‘extreme measures’ demands to be questioned but the rationale used by the government was duly reported and a few eyebrows raised and then the issue was conveniently brushed aside, never to be referred to again.

Contrast this with the way the press handled Iraq’s ‘blatant refusal’ to accede to the fifteen, count them, ‘fifteen’ UN Security Council’s resolutions passed since 1990, which, like a dog with a bone, the press never let go of. Indeed we were beaten over the head with the bone until any questions we may have had were obscured by the blinding headache we now had. Buried under an avalanche of repeated lies and half-truths, the real and abiding issues simply disappeared.

When two million people marched against the war in London, Blair’s response was simple, ‘Fuck you! I’m going to war whatever you think? I know I’m right and if you defy me, I’ll resign.’

And how did the press handle it? It’s initial response was shock and possibly even awe but it once it realised that Blair didn’t give a damn how many people marched, it got on with the business of preparing us for the inevitable. Indeed, that’s exactly how it reported things. It was ‘business as usual’ and the only question to ask was when and how long would it take? Critical analysis vanished as fast as it had briefly appeared in supposedly ‘anti-war’ newspapers like the Independent or the Daily Mirror. In fact, once ‘our boys’ were ‘over there’ it was difficult to spot the difference. The press, now in lock step with the government line got on with the business of reporting the turkey shoot. Even Robert Fisk’s reports in the Independent on the horrors of war, did little to address the central issue of why we were there. At most they made some of us feel real bad about women and children being blown to bits but hey, that’s what war’s all about. And I suppose it went some way in salving the conscience of those bleeding heart liberals, who want imperialist wars to be as bloodless and ‘surgical’ as the ‘Doctor Strangeloves’ would have us believe they are.

I can almost hear you howling as you read these words. How dare I impugn the likes of Robert Fisk? ‘He cares damn you!’ ‘He might even be on your side.’ Yes of course he cares but he also works for the corporate media and if he wants to keep his job, he’ll keep his opinions about why we went to war, to himself. It’s one thing to report on the effects of the war and how it’s conducted, and quite another to report on why we went to war in the first place, unless it conforms to the official line. Contrast Fisk’s reports from Baghdad with all the other reports on the nature of the Ba’athist regime and why it was so important to get rid of it regardless of the cost in human lives or the legality of it. Ends and means, means and ends.

What lessons can we draw from this exercise in the power of the dominant culture to persuade or where that doesn’t work, contain? We can see quite clearly, that if these tactics don’t work, they’ll intimidate, they’ll suppress. Eventually, they’ll pass laws that make sure we can’t do anything about their desire to dominate, all in the name of preserving freedom of course. But whose freedom? And what kind of freedom will it be? Will it be one worth having? Judging by events in the US, it won’t be worth the paper it’s written on. How soon before the same thing happens here? But of course, it couldn’t happen here, could it?

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