Monday, June 11, 2007

John Pilger on Resisting Empire

One of the books I read while in Australia last year was Freedom Next Time: Resisting the Empire by renowned investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker John Pilger.

Pilger has spent most of his adult life documenting the American empire and the resistance it has encountered from various places around the world. Freedom Next Time, for instance, looks at ongoing struggles in Afghanistan, Diego Garcia, India, Palestine, and South Africa.

In addition to authoring several books, Pilger has made over fifty documentaries – the most recent being The War on Democracy (the trailer of which can be viewed

Last Friday, John Pilger was interviewd by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales, the hosts of Pacific Radio’s Democracy Now! program. As you will see, this interview offers the type of informed conversation and analysis that is sorely missing from American media coverage of international events.

In the following excerpts from this interview, Pilger talks about his new book and film on resisting empire, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the failings of the mainstream media, and the rise of popular movements throughout Latin America.


Amy Goodman: Talk about the main thesis of your book and your latest film, resisting empire.

John Pilger: Well, the book is about empire – [and] as you say, it’s about resisting empire. But it’s [also] about how modern empire works – especially through misinformation. It’s about double standards. It’s about censorship by omission, which runs through so much of the mainstream media. And it’s about that eternal struggle . . . of people against power and the struggle of people against the abandonment of collective memory and historical memory.

The title, Freedom Next Time, comes from, I suppose, looking at a number of struggles where people have glimpsed freedom, in some cases have touched it, as in South Africa, but it is yet denied to them. And it’s denied to them by the forces of empire. . . .

Amy Goodman: This week is the 40th anniversary of the Arab-Israeli war in 1967. There is a lot of coverage all over the world now about what is happening there. I was surprised to see a BBC documentary that said that the classic myth is the Israeli David to the Arab Goliath. But what that doesn’t include, the BBC said, is the US and British backing of Israel at the time.

You have done several films, Palestine is the Issue, and . . . years later another film, Palestine is Still the Issue. You have a chapter in your latest book, Freedom Next Time, [entitled] “The Last Taboo,” that begins with two quotes: Amira Hass, the Israeli journalist . . . who said, “An ideology that divides the world into those who are worth more and those who are worth less, into superior and inferior beings, does not have to reach the dimensions of the German genocide to be wrong.” And then you quote the Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, saying “There is no such thing as Palestinians. They never existed.”

John Pilger: Well, when you first quoted the BBC of the Arab Goliath and Israeli David, I’m afraid that is still the view. I quote at length in the book a pioneering study done by Glasgow University Media Group in which it asked a cross-section of viewers of television news in Britain, what they knew about the so-called Arab-Israeli conflict. And they found that of young viewers, I think people under the age of 21 who watched TV news, 92% of them thought that the settlers, the illegal settlers, were Palestinians. And the clear message from this report was that the more people watch television, the less they knew. And, I think Edward Said’s rather bitter lament just before he died, in which he blamed journalists – foreign journalists – for ignoring the history of the Palestinian struggle, never contextualizing it, never using the terms equally, like terrorism towards Israel as well as toward the Palestinians. . . . His complaint stands today, and I think the fact that we still have so much misinformation about what is the world’s longest military occupation and one of the world’s longest struggles for basic justice, is a reflection on the so-called media age in which we are said to live.

Amy Goodman: Do you feel like it changed from 1974, when you did Palestine is the Issue, to 2002, when you did Palestine is Still the Issue?

John Pilger: No. I made this film, Palestine is the Issue 30 years ago, and in calling the new film the same, Palestine is Still the Issue, [I] meant to say that . . . the basic issues are still there. It is about justice for the Palestinians, their right to return to their homeland, the right to live decent lives, the right to have all the things that we take for granted. . . .

You know, our language has been so distorted. You now have constantly in the United States, and to a great degree in Britain, Hamas, for instance, is reported always with the follow-on as the terrorist organization committed to the destruction of Israel. Israel is not reported as an organization – call it a terrorist if you like, I would – committed to the destruction of Palestine. And that is the news day after day, the destruction of Palestine, the building of a wall through Palestine, the denial of the occupied territories, the encircling and imprisonment of the 1.4 million people of Gaza. In other words, we’re still asked to see, with the very honorable exception of your own program and others, we’re still asked to see the Middle East in terms of Western/Israeli power, of its usefulness or its expendability.

Juan Gonzales: In your viewpoint, what is the basis for why especially the media in the West have such a blind spot toward a fair portrayal of the situation in Israel? And how has does that relate to your overall theme of this book of empire and the importance of understanding empire in the world?

John Pilger: I think I started to realize what I was first sent to Vietnam as a foreign correspondent, and [soon realized] that basically what we call the mainstream media, that amorphous thing, is an extension of great power. Yes, there are exceptions and very fine exceptions.

[In relation to the Israeli/Palestinian situation, you have] extraordinarily powerful, vociferous groups supporting Israel [and] associating any criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. And I’ve been at the tail wind of this, with massive e-mail campaigns and so on. Very intimidating. It’s worked on the BBC to a great extent. I think when you have that, then the media will then revert back to what it sees, interestingly, as the center. Well, it’s not the center. It’s really an extension, an expression of government and power. Yes, personalities are criticized. George W. Bush is fair game probably now. Certainly, finally, Tony Blair is, but the system that produced them is not. . . .

Amy Goodman: John Pilger, talk about [your new film, The War on Democracy].

John Pilger: Well, the film The War on Democracy is the first one I have done for cinema that will be shown on television later. It opens in the U.K. on the fifteenth of June. It is set in Venezuela, Bolivia, Chile, Central America, and here in the United States. And it really is, I suppose the story of empire, again, in the 21st century.

But it is the story of the backyard, the story of that whole neglected terrain of empire. And it’s a very positive story because it charts the rise of popular movements throughout Latin America: in Bolivia, in Argentina, in Ecuador, and in Venezuela, and the meaning for democracy with these popular movements, how they are very different from the representative democracy that we like, that we subscribe to in this country [and] in Britain, but how the grassroots are becoming part of a new movement, and how this threatens the United States. There is something of a deja vu of Nicaragua, where I also made a film in the early 1980s. But that was a small, isolated country of 3 million people. These are some very powerful countries, especially Venezuela, which is a supplier, of course, of much of the United States’ oil. . . .

Juan Gonzales: I’d like to ask you, given the historical reality in Latin America, that there have been popular movements arising certainly throughout most of the 20th century, and for at least during the Cold War, the United States was always able to argue: well, these are movements either instigated or inspired by communism, by the international communist movement. Obviously, [since] the collapse of the Soviet Union, our government cannot say that anymore. They have to deal with the reality, as you say, that these are popular movements dealing with the concrete conditions and contradictions of their own societies, where obviously the United States has a big role in the current realities of those societies. But to what degree do you sense . . . that the forces in these various countries are coming together in a sort of a common front against the American empire?

John Pilger: There has always been, as you suggest, a tradition of great popular movements in Latin America. In my view, Latin America has a great deal to teach us, and perhaps because it’s had a great deal to teach us in the West, we’ve chosen to ignore them. In the nineteenth century, countries like Venezuela, with its great son, the liberator Simon Bolivar, won independence. Most of the history of Latin America, the struggle against the Spanish, then against to some degree against the European invasion, and then against the Americans – the North Americans – has been largely ignored. And Chavez and Morales and others throughout Latin America and the great movements, are part of that historical process. But this time they’re ahead of the game.

The interesting thing in the past is the US, using the rather thin cover of communism, has been able to crush them. Castro was not a communist when he was declared an enemy – or at least he wasn’t a self-proclaimed communist when he was declared an enemy. The point about Castro and the point about all these people was that he was daring to be independent and daring to defy the United States.

And what is also interesting, is for the first time in modern history, not only are the indigenous people organizing, producing their own government, for example in Bolivia, but there is a regional cooperation between countries in which people barely knew anything about each other. The communications in Latin America were controlled by the British, for instance, in the 19th and early part of the 20th century. So it is a coming together. I have to say it is quite an exciting time. There are pitfalls. It’s not going to plan, exactly, here and there. But it is clearly that that old cliché about the Sandinistas, it’s the threat of a good example. And if you hear this campaign now being mounted in so much of the Western media, against Latin America, it is very evocative of the same campaign that painted tiny Nicaragua as a threat to the United States. . . .

Juan Gonnzalez: You’ve been to all these countries around the world where people are in resistance, do you perceive this Bush-Blair period, do you see as just an abnormality? Or do you see it as the empire consolidating its reactionary nature?

John Pilger: I think both are probably happening. There is no doubt that there is a crisis within the empire. But I think those who think it is about to fall apart, and collapse under the weight of its own contradictions and all that, they are wrong. . . .

To read Democracy Now!’s interview with John Pilger in its entirety, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Taking on Friedman
In Search of a “Global Ethic”
Let’s Also Honor the “Expendables”
Praying for George W. Bush
John le Carré’s “Dark Suspicions”
Tariq Ali Discusses Rudyard Kipling

Recommended Off-site Links:
Graeme Greene’s interview with John Pilger
Pablo Navarrete’s interview with John Pilger
Faces of Resistance: Images and Stories of Progressive Activism at the Turn of the Millennium


Anonymous said...

We've seen oh so many great-socialist-hope leaders come and go. Mugabe is a nice example. Now the darling of the left wing media is Chavez. Perhaps when he gets completely addicted to power and starts brutalizing his people, all in the name of 'standing up to empire' we'll both still be blogging. Then I'll be able to chime in and remind you of what a bonehead you are to support guys like that, and the left wing media chorus that loves guys like that.

The John Pilger's of the world have a whole lot of responsibility for Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Winnipeg Catholic,

Could you please indicate for me where John Pilger shows (or has shown) support for "Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe"?

Also, two questions:

1. Are you saying that only leftist leaders get "addicted to power and start brutalizing their people"?

The best-intentioned leaders, from either end of the political spectrum, can and often are corrupted by power. It's ultimately their choice to allow themselves to become corrupt. Why blame those who supported them when their intentions were more honest and noble?

2. Are you saying we shouldn't "stand up" to the brutalizing power of empire?

Finally, you need to read my latest comment on this post.



Anonymous said...

OK Yes he also has a point about defying the USA and Israel, being immediately condemned as antisemitic for going up against Israel with regard to Palestine, et cetera.

It just seems like people that make that point end up idolizing a Chavez and playing into the propaganda of leaders who justify themselves as standing up to The Man.

I think it is one thign to sell your people on a government of their choice and then to get squashed by an external force.

It is quite another thing to sell your people on standing up to an external force, and then using that real or imagined opposition to excuse horrific actions at home.

You could argue that Bush is doing that with Terrorism, or that Israel is doing that with Terrorism, or that Hitler did it with the Soviet Union, or that the Soviet Union did it with, er, the world, or that ...

I suppose I just get a little rattled when otherwise bright journalists end up playing into the propaganda of a distract-and-rule despot-in-the-making. Which, Chavez will be if he doesn't retire.