Friday, May 1, 2015

Tell me What you Watch and I’ll Tell you What you Know (written on April 9)

Rob Kall, the publisher of where I am a senior editor, disagrees with me on the value of foreign TV news, whether it be ‘Putin’s bullhorn’ or France 24, both available 24/7 in Philadelphia thanks to independent MIND TV, which also brings us NHK, the Japanese English channel that brings a far Eastern perspective on the news. I think the most misunderstood fact about ‘Putin’s Russia’ is the specific socialist tradition of pumping for peace.  It is well illustrated by a quote from The New Detente, a compendium of articles by government officials and academics from across Europe, who were inspired by German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s ‘Ostpolitik’ that was inaugurated in 1969.
Ostpolitik was a series of measures that aimed at transforming Western Europe’s standoff with the countries of Eastern Europe into cooperation.  Academics from across the Soviet sphere met regularly with counterparts in Western Europe - as well as some in the United States - to try to overcome the Cold War.  The book was put together by Richard Falk, former professor of international law at Princeton and UN rapporteur on Palestine, Mary Kaldor, a British peace activist and writer, and Gerard Holden, a member of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam.  Contributors to this tightly packed four hundred page work include Adam Michnik, advisor to Lech Walesa, and seventeen other academics and peace activists from across Eastern and Western Europe as well as the Soviet Union.
The contribution by the Czech writer Jaroslav Sabata, a founding member, together with Vaclav Havel among others, of Chart 77, expresses the essence of the European peace movement that constituted the Central European zeitgeist at that time. The reason why I am quoting from it is because this zeitgeist continues to be ignored by American foreign affairs analysts at a time when nuclear war is more likely to become a reality than it was during the Cold War. And it is probably because this worldview drives RT’s choice of programming that the channel is vilified by those in charge of American foreign policy.
My own book Une autre Europe, un autre Monde actually foresaw the reunification of Europe that the contributors to this book still thought a long way off when it too was published in 1989, but what interests me is the uninterrupted emphasis on cooperation as opposed to war that has characterized the socialist movement from its beginnings in nineteenth century Europe.
<blockquote> The  main protagonists which took part in the negotiations that determined the new post-war status quo in Europe all made decisions based exclusively on the superpower principle. The fact that they were at the same time irreconcilable adversaries only underlined the fatefulness of the events of that time.  It is irrelevant whether, for instance, President Roosevelt sincerely believed all he said and wrote.  In his view, post-war peace was to be neither an American peace nor a Russian peace, or any other national peace.  It should have been a universal peace based on the cooperation of all nations.  He probably fully believed all this, just as he had been undoubtedly fully convinced he was acting in the interest of peace when he told Czech president Benes in 1928 to do all he could to avert a conflict with Hitler and a war with Germany.…Roosevelt was unable to prevent the post-war peace from becoming a peace of the large nations - an American and Soviet peace - just as President Wilson in 1918, despite his diplomatic ideas, had been unable to prevent his concept of the League of Nations from becoming a trap for the sovereignty not only of Czechoslovakia but of other nations as well.
….People are becoming ever more aware of the serious threat to our civilization.  Ever more frequently people speak of the need to create a new, more sophisticated civilization…The Czech philosopher Radim Palous [refers to] a transition from one epoch to another, of the temporary situation which separates the Euro-age from the ‘World-age’.  The new World Age to come will pay due attention not only to Man but to the Natural world as well.</blockquote>
Having spent six years living behind the Iron Curtain, first in Poland then in Hungary, I can testify to the fact that contrary to what Western publics have systematically been led to believe, this aspirational approach to world affairs permeated that world, as opposed to the ever threatening stance that has typified the United States since the Cold War.
The Soviet Union has been condemned both for the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, by which the new Bolshevik government withdrew a drained nation from the first World War against imperial Germany in 1918, and the Stalin/Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, which gave the country two years to prepare for Hitler’s invasion.  Reading Chris Hedges ‘Death of the Liberal Class’, I was struck by his description of the near-hysterical popular American attitude toward German-Americans during the first world war, and it occured to me that this hysteria morphed quite naturally into a similar attitude toward Communists after the Russian revolution. If Germans were bad because they were not democratic (and America entered the first World War in order, in Wilson’s memorable words ‘to make the world safe for democracy’), it followed that non-democratic Communists were even worse, because they came to power through revolution, a sort of double whammy.
Hitler spelled out his plans for conquest in a widely read book Mein Kampf (My Struggle), yet the descendants of the ‘democratic’ world’s diplomats who didn’t believe his threats of war, have systematically claimed they could not trust communists, whose rhetoric has consistently been about peace! (As World War I approached, Europe’s socialist parties affirmed that workers had no skin in the conflict between warring imperialists and that they should refuse to fight. Ultimately, they had to bow to their respective governments.)  Although it could be argued that the Soviet Union’s consistent pro-peace rhetoric serves the goal of overthrowing capitalism rather than a principled opposition to war, the consistent message of Marxist as well as other socialist currents has been that socialism is about enabling a supportive environment that allows every individual to live economic and culturally fulfilling lives. War is self-evidently contrary to this goal, unless it is thrust upon a nation by an aggressor.
From the first days of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the worldwide conflict has been about the many versus the few, and that conflict continues to this day. When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics dissolved into separate sovereign states, Russia, with the ‘help’ of the West, adopted a market economy and a presidential system of representative government.  Contrary to assertions in the American media, it did not throw the socialist baby out with the bathwater: Russians still enjoy free medical care and university education, and government mandated pensions, like most of the developed world except for the United States.  And the developing world does its best to emulate this model.
As American oligarchs transformed hatred of imperial Germans into hatred of Russian and other socialists such as China or Cuba, they imposed the idea that socialism’s peace rhetoric could not be trusted because it was contradicted by calls for revolution.  The latest incarnation of this massive ploy is the claim - with no supporting evidence - that the Iranian revolutionary government cannot be trusted.  Although Iran has never invaded another country or initiated a war, its support for liberation movements such as Hamas or Hezbollah is equated with terrorism, and to boot, the West claims without supporting evidence that Iran has never kept its word.
Where does ‘Putin’s bullhorn come in, in all of this? Can it be ‘trusted’?  And what do other foreign government supported news channels bring to the news smorgasbord?
RT’s motto is ‘Question More’, and it seems to take a wicked pleasure in showing up America’s faults and failings. But that constitutes a small part of its offerings, and many Americans are on its roster.  Larry King has two programs, one in which he interviews media personalities, the other that features political interviews. Thom Hartmann is a progressive American icon, and his Big Picture features pushback discussions with conservative contributors as well as little known authors.  Abby Martin recently left RT after a three-year run of Breaking the Set, a hard-hitting rival to Democracy Now. Tuesday, Gary Johnson, former New Mexico governor and 2012 Libertarian presidential candidate, was interviewed on the four o’clock news. The news anchors are mostly American or British, but most of the reporters are Russian. And two remarkable Russian women interview a wide range of cultural and political figures: Sophie Schevarnadze, who I believe is the granddaughter of Gorbachev’s Foreign Minister, and Oksana Boyko whose questions are as complex as the answers they elicit. I don’t know of any tv personality who can hold a candle to her: she possesses in-depth and up-to-date political knowledge and holds her own with academics twice her age.  A recent guest on her program was Princeton’s Joseph Nye, and today’s guest, as news breaks that the deal could fall apart, is Dr Abbas Milani, the Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, to whom Oksana cedes no points. Finally, historian Peter Lavelle’s Crosstalk pits three knowledgable guests against each other in what are often acrimonious discussions of front-page news, and rounding out RT’s offering are documentaries on incredibly varied and newsworthy subjects from all over the world by international film makers, that you will not see on any American channel. 
I am not suggesting that Americans should get all their news from Putin’s bullhorn, but they are wrong to think they are broadening their news sources by watching the BBC: the British flagship channel is simply a more sophisticated rendition of Washington’s message.  Very differently, France 24 not only provides the French government’s take on national and international news. In addition to documentaries and reports, some of which are suggested by viewers around the world, it closely follows events in the twenty-eight—nation European Union. And as a former colonial power, France continues to be heavily involved in both Asia and Africa, and France 24’s coverage of Africa’s fifty odd countries is a must for anyone who wants to be informed about the wider world. Its debate programs involve both French and foreign participants, and although American journalists are frequent guests, ensuring that Washington’s message is heard, the debates can sometimes be quite hard-hitting.

Obviously, not everyone can spend their days channel hopping as I do, but the advantage of foreign television news is that it covers a broader spectrum than either the mainstream or the on-line press. And there is a distinct advantage to being able to balance out what our own government, under the guise of a so-called ‘free’ press, serves up, with what foreign governments want you to know about them. The cherry on the cake is that what individual foreign governments don’t want you to know about them is revealed by their respective adversaries.

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