The Red Dagger: a fiery poem essay narration and diatribe against corruption and oppression

Alan Cox, Heathcote Williams, “The Red Dagger” (2013?)

Presented in six parts on Youtube, British actor / poet Heathcote Williams’ poem essay “The Red Dagger”, a diatribe against the City of London and the part it has played in oppressing humanity across the world since the 1300s at least, is given vivid and impassioned audiovisual life by fellow UK actor Alan Cox who narrates the poem and supplies the montage of art, photographs, film stills and snippets of film and video to accompany his recitation. The red dagger of the title refers to the red sword that appears on the emblem of the City of London and, according to Williams and Cox, represents the dagger used in the murder of Wat Tyler, one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt in England, in 1381 by officers loyal to King Richard II. (According to other sources I have read, the red sword on the emblem is a representation of St Paul, the patron saint of London.) Through the details of Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, in which Tyler and rebel monk John Ball led a movement insisting on social equality, abolishing the political hierarchy supporting the monarchy and ending the feudal system (under which peasants were the de facto property of landlords, bound to their masters’ lands), the poet Williams calls attention to the corruption of the political and economic elites that surrounded King Richard II (reigned 1377 – 1399) and finds parallels with the present City of London, its corruption and its control of the global financial industry, and how the activities of the financial elites impoverish and enslave entire nations.

Parts 1 and 2 of Cox’s fiery narration cover the 1381 uprising of English peasants against the King and his lords, and in itself the uprising as portrayed is very stirring. Whether or not the uprising has lessons for us in the 21st century might be debatable: for one thing, the levels of technology in mediaeval England were low, scientific and other general knowledge was limited, and the manipulation and exploitation that English elites exerted over the peasantry correspondingly were limited to mainly physical means, with some limited brainwashing of people’s minds courtesy of the Christian Church, a significant landowner and itself a major landlord oppressor of peasants. The most significant parts of Cox’s narration are Parts 3 and 4 in which he goes into detail about the extent of the activities and networking of the elites in the City of London and its secretive institutions, the extent to which the City of London controls the British government, its past participation in the British colonial / imperial project and the Atlantic slave trade, and its current participation in trafficking arms to nations with sordid human rights records and the global drug trade. Individuals and businesses in the UK financial services industry take advantage of opportunities to evade paying taxes owed to the government by sending money into offshore trust accounts or transfer pricing arrangements in tax havens. Something of the lavish, decadent culture of the City of London elites, dependent on rich banqueting and the associated networking, fuelled by addictions to drugs, casual sex and use of prostitutes, and possible links to sex trafficking and other sordid underground activities, is revealed in the narration and montage.

Cox’s film and Williams’ poem cover much ground and detail of how the City of London operates and has operated over the centuries, and viewers might well need to see the film at least twice to absorb most details. Being based entirely around Williams’ poem, the film does not give information sources so viewers will need to do their own research to confirm the information about the City of London. (A good start is Nicolas Shaxson’s book “Treasure Islands” which investigates the global scourge that is taxation evasion.) While the poem and film might play hard and fast with some details in parts, and Tyler’s actual rebellion might not have been as utopian, idealistic and socialist as the poem implies, the poetry genre proves to be an ideal format by which Williams (1941 – 2017) brings important political, economic, social and historical information to the general public’s attention.

The film along with transcripts of each part and footnotes giving information sources can be viewed at this link.

Magnitsky Acts are dangerous laws based on a hoax – Interview with Lucy Komisar: how human rights legislation is being degraded

Glen Isherwood, “Magnitsky Acts are dangerous laws based on a hoax – Interview with Lucy Komisar” (Citizens Insight / Australian Citizens Party, 28 October 2020)

In light of news that politicians Andrew Hastie and Kimberley Kitching are pursuing a bill through the Australian Parliament that would empower Canberra to target and impose sanctions on officials and individuals for supposed human rights abuses – the so-called Magnitsky legislation – Australian Citizens Party researcher Robert Barwick interviews US investigative reporter Lucy Komisar on the work she has done exposing such legislation using supposed human rights abuses to target and blacklist nations such as Russia, China, Iran and Venezuela and set them up for strategic confrontation and regime change. This interview is very detailed if selective (mainly due to time constraints), starting with Komisar’s early work as an investigative journalist and human rights activist across three continents in the 1960s through to the 1980s and then jumping to her work investigating the activities of Bill Browder in Russia through his Hermitage Capital Management Fund in the 1990s to capitalise on the privatisation of Russian state corporations under the Yeltsin presidency.

Taking the form of a conversation in which Barwick allows Komisar to explain at length what Browder did over the 1990s and the early 2000s, setting up shell companies for the purposes of transfer pricing (originally a legitimate practice in which two related companies in different taxation jurisdictions exchange goods and the price at which the exchange takes place is settled by the tax authorities in those jurisdictions according to rules and methods those authorities agree upon; companies may take advantage of such rules and methods to reduce the amount of tax they pay) and taking advantage of and abusing legislation in Kalmykia (an administrative region in Russia where the major ethnic group is Buddhist Kalmyks) in which companies got tax concessions if they employed people with disabilities, the bulk of the interview can sometimes be hard for viewers to follow unless they are already familiar with the history of Browder’s activities and of Magnitsky himself. The truth is Magnitsky was arrested and jailed for tax evasion as Browder’s accountant, and that Browder himself was being pursued by Russian authorities for stealing millions through the shell companies he set up with Magnitsky’s advice and assistance. The notion that Browder and Magnitsky are or were human rights champions keen on uncovering and exposing corruption in Russian politics in the 1990s and beyond – a notion that Browder promoted in the US and the EU, and is now promoting in Australia – proves to be a smokescreen covering up Browder’s own venality which as Komisar explains extends back in time even further than his adventures in Russia with Hermitage Capital Management Fund.

The more interesting part of the interview comes late in its second half when Barwick and Komisar discuss how her submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade – Human Rights Sub-Committee exposing Browder as a human rights fraud and that the Magnitsky sanctions legislation is based on lies was redacted and virtually ignored by the sub-committee. (As a result of her submission, Komisar was accused by Browder of being allied to or working in some capacity for the Russia government.) This leads among other things into a discussion on how the weaponisation of human rights in the form of sanctions legislation can be an attack on the concept of human rights itself, in that sanctioning individuals for supposed human rights crimes makes a mockery of human rights legislation and can be used to attack genuine human rights activists. If the bill backed by Kitching and Hastie were to be passed in Canberra, people targeted by the legislation would have no right of due process if they were to try to challenge it. (Even Australian citizens themselves might fall foul of such legislation, if they were to try to send money or gifts to relatives linked to sanctioned individuals or relatives living countries whose governments have been sanctioned.) The Human Rights Sub-Committee is deliberately ignoring submissions like Komisar’s submission in driving the new Magnitsky sanctions legislation, and the reason for doing so is purely political: to persecute and isolate individuals, organisations and even entire nations that follow policies or agendas that the US, the UK and their allies disagree with. Australia is expected to follow what the US and the UK decree, even at its own expense.

The danger of the West adopting the Magnitsky laws is that they set a dangerous precedent and model for other governments to target the political opposition and dissidents within their own nations. Laws that purport to uphold human rights are instead twisted into laws that degrade human rights. In addition, adopting Magnitsky laws that sanction individuals, organisations and nations when laws already exist to censure such entities can only result in confusion for governments to enforce and for courts to interpret if the new legislation contradicts current legislation.

The interview deserves to be seen at least twice or three times for viewers to understand the danger that passing the Magnitsky sanctions bill in Parliament poses to human rights activists in Australia. Viewers will need to do their own research on Browder and Magnitsky’s activities in Russia in the 1990s and the early 2000s that resulted in Magnitsky’s arrest and imprisonment. The implication that even in death Magnitsky is being used as a pawn by Browder to escape trial and imprisonment and to enrich himself, at the expense of people living in countries targeted by Magnitsky legislation where it has been passed, and of genuine human rights activists, is not lost on viewers. That Bill Browder can continue to cause havoc wherever he goes, and is seemingly unstoppable, given his history, might encourage some viewers to consider that he may be an intelligence asset.

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech (2020) / Q&A Session

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech at the XVII Meeting (Final Plenary Session) of the Valdai International Discussion Club (Moscow, 22 October 2020) – Part 2: Q&A Session

After his speech (see Part 1), Russian President Vladimir Putin took several questions from Fyodor Lukyanov, the moderator of the plenary session, and various attendees at the Meeting both in person and online. These questions covered a wide range of topics, not all of which had been mentioned in Putin’s speech, and several were general, even abstract almost, while others were specific and covered incidents that were topical at the time.

As moderator, Lukyanov probably had the lion’s share of questions (though he may have been relaying questions from parts of the audience) and one pertinent question was why Russia would not pursue an economic lock-down again if it were hit by a second wave of COVID-19 and if this meant that Russia’s priorities in dealing with the pandemic had changed to favour the economy rather than people’s health. The examples of Sweden and Belarus as nations that did not introduce economic lock-downs were cited. Putin replied that during the lock-down during the first wave in Russia, the government mobilised resources and funding to support individuals, families, small to medium-sized businesses and even companies and industries, and to build up the healthcare system so it has the flexibility (including a reserve of hospital beds) to cope and deal with the pandemic should it flare up again. Putin believes that the funding allocated to support the health sector and other economic sectors was used effectively, and that this will enable the country to ride through a second pandemic wave without having to introduce a second nationwide lock-down that would destroy jobs and threaten distribution networks, and create distress including mental health problems among the public. The President notes also that Sweden and Belarus had their particular reasons for not introducing lock-downs, and that interestingly Sweden did not mobilise its resources to support its economy or its people during lock-down.

Several questions raised the issue of arms control and whether Russia has made too many concessions in adhering to international treaties and limiting its arsenal in the wake of recent US belligerence in refusing to renew treaties or to walk away from them, or even to accuse other nations of violating treaties when in fact those nations had done no such thing. Putin’s response is that arms control treaties are still necessary if the world is to have a future; but if other nations wish to throw their weight around and ignore arms control treaties, the Russians are prepared to build on what has already been achieved in the past, even if it was one step forward and two steps back, and are ready to work with others to achieve arms control no matter what stage or level of global arms control has been reached.

Because I am familiar with Anatol Lieven as a writer and policy analyst, I took note of the question he asked about what position Russia would take with regard to the outbreak of war in Nagorno-Karabakh, whether Russia would side with Armenia against Azerbaijan and Turkey if ceasefires and other attempts at peace fail, and if this conflict might be an opportunity for Russia to work with France and other western European nations. Putin’s reply is to point out that Russia does not favour Armenia over Azerbaijan simply because of having Orthodoxy in common as a religion, and that Russia’s connections with both countries make it ideal as a mediator. As for allying with France against Turkey’s ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean Sea region, Putin states Russia is not keen on picking sides. While perhaps Putin’s replies might not satisfy Lieven and others who want Russia to take one side or the other, one should understand Russia’s reluctance to take on such roles that could give an opportunity for the US and its allies to aid the opposing side, to sap Russian military power and at the same time create other conflicts that would try to draw in Russia as well and force the Russians to fight on several fronts. It is not Russia’s intention to act as the world’s enforcer or police officer and its stand on potential conflict between France and Turkey, or between Armenia and Azerbaijan, reflects that intention.

A related issue was posed to Putin, as to what Russia’s fundamental foreign policy goals are towards nations around its borders that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. Putin’s reply is that Russia’s foreign policy goals are taking place within the framework of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and that all the post-Soviet states will recognise the common interests and overlapping histories and cultures they share which will help to draw them closer and achieve stability.

The issue of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny and his recent poisoning while flying from Tomsk to Moscow, during which his plane was diverted to Omsk where he received hospital care, later to be transported to Berlin (at the request of his family, which Putin granted even though Navalny was technically under house arrest) where doctors reported he had been poisoned with Novichok, brought into the spotlight the question of whether Germany and Russia still had a special relationship (due to the mixed history of relations between Germany and the Soviet Union / Russia in the past) or whether that relationship had changed. After noting that Russia had opened an investigation into Navalny’s poisoning, in which investigators had asked for information from Germany to assist (and that information had not been supplied), Putin notes that the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev played a major role in allowing East and West Germany to reunite in 1989, that Germany is Russia’s second largest trading partner (after China) and that having mutual interests such as trade and stimulating employment will always be at the heart of Russian-German relations.

Questions on Chinese-Russian relations were dealt with by Putin emphasising the areas in which Russia and China are working together (trade, sharing military technologies, developing infrastructure, holding joint military exercises).

A question from Anton Roux, head of the ADC Forum in Melbourne, on how Putin might wish to be remembered, brought forth Putin’s reply that he is not concerned about his reputation or how future generations of Russians might see him. (A very interesting response indeed, given that many Western leaders seem anxious about leaving a highly burnished reputation behind despite being very mediocre politicians.)

The last question put to Putin concerned the lack of government support for Antarctic research, even though a research station was already under construction with government funding, and Putin promised to bring up this issue with the relevant government department and find out why the research funding is being neglected.

While the range of questions put to Putin covered many different areas, and many related to domestic Russian issues as well as international issues, Putin’s responses generally err on the side of caution, with a conservative attitude that stresses co-operation and mutual agreement, and Russia’s strategic interests. While this means Putin’s answers are not exciting or particularly revelatory, one can understand the caution given that many questions came from people living overseas in countries where anti-Russia propaganda is in full swing among people at all levels of society and some of these questions may have required careful answers.

Perhaps the most significant revelation for Western audiences is that Putin actually approved the transfer of Alexei Navalny to Germany for medical treatment despite knowing that Navalny was a criminal. Amazingly, no-one seems to have asked why he personally intervened and gave permission for Navalny to be flown overseas. Surely Putin’s action casts a slur on the heroic attempts of the doctors, specialists and nurses at the Omsk hospital to save Navalny’s life?

Several of the questions asked were typical of questions Putin gets during his annual Q&A sessions with the Russian public and one might expect that in future Valdai Club Meetings, the moderators perhaps should steer questions away from issues of a domestic nature and encourage people to ask questions relevant to the topics raised in the annual Meetings. The downside of this suggestion though would be to make the Valdai Club Meetings rather less attractive and accessible to the Russian general public and perhaps limit its access to Putin to raise his awareness of important national and regional issues. For his part, Putin may not mind being asked questions concerning domestic issues at the annual Valdai Club Meetings if he is keen on keeping a finger on the public pulse.

It seems very odd that Westerners in Putin’s audience did not press him further on his vision of what constitutes a free, strong and independent civil society with vibrant institutions supported by the state and the citizenry, or challenge him on what he says or insinuates about the United States and its alliesi, or those NGOs and international organisations that act as regime-change agents and creators of instability and chaos. In my view, we have missed an opportunity to learn something from Putin and what his vision of Russia might be.

A transcript of this Q&A forum and of Putin’s speech preceding it can be viewed at this link.

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech (2020): finding hope, opportunity and direction in a world in crisis

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech at the XVII Meeting (Final Plenary Session) of the Valdai International Discussion Club (Moscow, 22 October 2020) – Part 1

The 17th Annual Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club was held in Moscow over 20 – 22 October 2020 with the theme “The Lessons of the Pandemic and the New Agenda: How to Turn the World Crisis Into an Opportunity for the World”. For the first time in its history, the Club’s programme, ranging over the global COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences, the escalating US rivalry with China, the possibility of global tech war and global climate change, all inter-related and in which a common theme of the world falling apart through suspicion and paranoia rather than coming together with an open spirit can be detected, was open to the news media and the general public. On the last day of the Meeting as per custom, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered the final speech via video link. At the end of his speech, Putin took questions from various individuals attending the Meeting, both physically and via video link: the questioners included Samuel Charap, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, well-known writer / journalist / policy analyst Anatol Lieven, Anton Roux of The ADC Forum in Melbourne, Hans-Joachim Spanger of The Leibniz Institute Peace Research Institute in Frankfurt and Zhao Huasheng of The Institute for International Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai.

Putin opens his speech by observing how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the Valdai International Discussion Club’s ability to hold debates and discussions and introduce new experts to share their views and opinions. He then goes on to describe how the Russian government has met the challenge of the pandemic in Russia itself, and how this challenge has emphasised the importance of certain values such as mutual assistance, service and self-sacrifice within the country. Putin stresses that only strong and secure states can deal effectively with the crisis presented by COVID-19, and that such states are strong because of the trust and confidence their citizens place in them. For states to be strong, they must have their own political cultures and traditions, and their own visions of what they want for their citizens and their particular pathways to achieve those visions. The state must support public initiatives by providing them with appropriate platforms, infrastructure and resourcing to sustain them and by opening up opportunities for them to grow an thrive. To the extent that this can be possible, other nations cannot impose their visions of “democracy” and “civil society” on states developing their own political cultures and traditions. (This is a clear jibe at Western nations interfering in other countries’ affairs to the extent of infiltrating and grooming non-government organisations and charities in those countries to carry out regime-change activities and overthrow their governments.) Putin then describes how Russia in the 1990s, and other countries in a similar situation, were dependent on foreign funding to finance non-government organisations and the threat this posed to Russia’s survival as a single nation.

Looking at the world in 2020, Putin observes how much it has changed since the end of World War II in 1945. Then, the post-war order was (as Putin sees it) established by the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. Since then, the Soviet Union has disappeared and Russia has taken its place to some extent; the United Kingdom has become a waning power; the United States still believes in its own exceptionality and invincibility but is also a declining power; and other nations such as China and the Federal Republic of Germany are rising to superpower status. Putin notes that international organisations established to carry out particular missions as part of the post-war international rule of law have been subverted by particular nations and behave in particular ways according to ideology, and not on the basis of reason, pragmatism or need depending on the context or the situation. The result is that various issues end up highly politicised and cannot be resolved properly because they are interpreted and polluted by false propaganda narratives.

On the other hand, there have been initiatives established by nations coming together to solve specific issues and Putin expresses hope that mutual help between nations can and will continue to achieve international stability and security, fight terrorism and solve problems beyond the ability of any one nation to solve successfully. These problems include climate change as it manifests in different parts of the world: in Russia, it manifests in the melting of the Siberian permafrost, leading to the sinking of buildings in towns and cities, disruption in utilities and necessary infrastructure, and the large-scale release of methane into the atmosphere which will accelerate global warming.

Lastly Putin discusses the impact of COVID-19 on cyber-technologies that enable distance communications but which also exposes people and communities to issues of cyber-security such as hacking and other cyber-crimes, and unwanted and intrusive surveillance by governments and corporations, public and private. All these plus the other crises and challenges Putin has mentioned in his speech can certainly pose threats to our security but they also present opportunities for transformation to a better way of life and a more secure and stable planet.

Throughout his speech Putin poses the choice facing us all: we can choose to react with fear and paranoia to the challenges brought about by changes that have occurred throughout the world since 1945, as a result of a relatively long peace in First World and Second World nations (in large part because they cynically used Third World nations as their proxy battlegrounds), the fall of Communism in the late 1980s / early 1990s, and the arrival of new technologies, in particular digital technologies, that changed cultures and societies; or we can choose to overcome our fears, prejudices and presumptions about others to reach out to friends and foes alike, find common ground, and work together to find solutions to the threats endangering Earth and humanity’s future. The point here is that what appears at first to be a crisis with potential for great loss, destruction and chaos can be turned into an opportunity to achieve better and greater things – but only if we are prepared to work with others, and that means respecting their rights, opinions and beliefs, and not insisting that they change to our expectations.

Significantly as in previous Valdai Club plenary session speeches, Putin does not name those nations that seek to undermine other nations’ governments and security through overthrowing their leaders and installing their own increasingly despotic and vicious versions of “democracy”, “freedom” and “civil society” but his audience will well understand him to mean the United States, the United Kingdom, France and other EU nations, and their allies.

The Q&A session that follows Vladimir Putin’s speech will be dealt with in a separate essay. An English-language transcript of the speech and the Q&A forum following can be found at this link

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The Image Book: a demanding critique on the role of film in contemporary Western society

Jean-Luc Godard, “The Image Book / Le Livre d’Image” (2018)

At 84 minutes, in no way is this a long film, yet it’s far more demanding of one’s attention in so many different aspects than more commercial films that are at least half as long. This film works on so many levels and probably needs to be seen at least a few times for Godard’s message/s to sink in.

On one level, the film questions and criticises the dominant role of cinema as escapist entertainment in an age where so many technologies and trends that have developed at the same time and in parallel or even enmeshed together with cinema have had destructive effects on humanity around the world: modern warfare, the development of weapons capable of destroying all life on earth, propaganda, societies dependent on technology (including cinema) and materialism to keep people distracted and unaware of their repression by Deep States. On a second level, in its use of snippets of other directors’ films, film audio soundtracks, music and paintings, Godard pays homage to directors and films that he may consider significant: I managed to pick out Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salo”, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and Georges Franju’s “Blood of the Beasts” among the films referenced. By juxtaposing audio soundtracks from other films with the snippets of film organised collage-style, Godard creates a new narrative that, among other things, criticises Western viewpoints of Arabic-language peoples and their cultures and histories, and invites viewers to question how their opinions and worldviews have been moulded and manipulated by film in all its variety, documentary and newsreel film as well as film drama. This narrative includes a completely fictional story about the despotic ruler of an imaginary Arab country called Dofa which has no resources – not even oil or natural gas to speak of – but which lack does not stop this ruler from dreaming of dominating all the Arabian Gulf oil states.

There is much beauty, a lot of it deliberately over-coloured or overlit in ways to make the film look psychedelic and hallucinatory, as if to call attention to the power of film and film narrative to keep people in a heightened state of addiction and to change their neural networks (not always for the better). For all its experimentation, the film does present a linear narrative based on the five fingers of the hand – because the hand does much if not most of the work of the imagination and creation – with each chapter in the narrative representing some form of motion or conflict: water, trains, warfare, the law and the Western view of the Middle East.

The film’s collage nature and confrontational message make it difficult viewing for most people. I must confess I did find the middle section of the film quite heavy and tiring.

Exposing propaganda at work in “The Thom Hartmann Program: The American Destruction of Venezuela – The Real Story”

“The Thom Hartmann Program: The American Destruction of Venezuela – The Real Story” (21 February 2019)

In recent months, with the 2020 US Presidential year looming on the horizon, there has been talk of a set of programs and policies known as the Green New Deal (named after former US President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal programs in the 1930s that invested in infrastructure construction and stimulated job creation and employment during the Great Depression) to address national issues such as failing infrastructure, climate change and its effects, unemployment and rising social inequalities across the nation. A major objection to the Green New Deal, usually lobbed by neoconservative politicians and think-tanks, is that its programs will lead to hyperinflation and economic / political instability of the kind currently (or supposedly) present in Venezuela under Nicolas Maduro’s Bolivarian socialist government. On this radio talk-show, host Thom Hartmann invited Dr Richard Wolff to discuss this objection and the real agenda behind the false association of the social-democratic policies proposed and the economic situation in Venezuela.

Much of the first half of Hartmann’s conversation with Wolff focuses on the definition of hyperinflation (a situation in which too much money is chasing too few goods) and how the phenomenon can occur in any political / economic environment regardless of the prevailing ideology. Wolff points out that the hyperinflation argument is trotted out in public to dissuade voters and even aspiring politicians (and presidential candidates) from favouring government policies and programs spending money on infrastructure construction and maintenance projects that would generate jobs and incomes – and thus more tax revenue – and help reduce social inequalities. Such programs, including a nationalised healthcare system, have their consequences such as reduced healthcare expenditures in the future (because the population ends up much healthier if health insurance is subsidised by the government rather than privatised). Wolff says the issue is that such government policies must be paid for by increased taxation, particularly taxation of the wealthy, and this is the issue that neoconservative politicians, talk-show hosts and think-tanks (and the people and organisations who fund them) object to.

The actual discussion about Venezuela involves a comparison of the people in Maduro’s government and the Constituent National Assembly, most of whom are of mixed ancestry, and the anti-government National Assembly, all of whom are of white European ancestry. Wolff makes the point that Maduro’s difficulties in governing Venezuela and steering the nation’s economy away from disaster stem from the old Venezuelan white minority elite’s determination to maintain its power and control of the country’s resources at the expense of the majority poor, and US sanctions on the country which include the freezing of Venezuela’s financial and other assets held in foreign countries.

The discussion is densely packed with information and jumps from one topic to the next, due to the restricted time allocated to Wolff. I daresay though that viewers and listeners will learn much more about the political and economic reality in Venezuela, and the US propaganda use of that country’s dire economic straits to browbeat Americans into accepting agendas that impoverish and degrade them even more than they currently are.

The Making of a Modern British Soldier: how ordinary people are trained to become killing machines

Ben Griffin, “The Making of a Modern British Soldier” (Veterans for Peace UK, October 2015)

All you see in this video uploaded to Youtube is a man in mufti standing before a white blank wall, telling the story of his life from the time he was old enough to walk and ask questions of his grandfather about his experiences as a military man and his medals – but what a story he tells, about the propaganda and indoctrination he was subjected to as a teenage army cadet well into his training to be an SAS marine; to the physical and psychological methods used in the British armed forces to mould ordinary people into elitist psychopathic killers; to his experiences as a soldier in the Iraq war after the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein; to his realisation that Western forces in Iraq had merely replaced Hussein’s government in terrorising people, and moreover were protecting Western corporate interests in Iraq (all intent on making money and profits from grabbing and selling the oil and other natural resources that rightfully belonged to the Iraqi people) instead of bringing “freedom” and “democracy” to a long-suffering nation. Former British SAS marine and co-founder of Veterans For Peace (UK) Ben Griffin tells the fascinating true story of his old life as a killing machine and how he, like many other people in the British armed forces, had been seduced by highly romanticised military histories and tales of derring-do to join an army cadet group and army camps for teenage kids who were not academic. As an army cadet, Griffin was allowed to smoke, drink and do all sorts of things that youngsters in civilian institutions were discouraged from doing, and from this beginning, the notion that he and other teenage army cadets were special, a higher grade of human who could look down on everyone else, took hold.

Griffin speaks in great detail about the military values instilled into him and they make for frightening listening: following orders from above instantly and without hesitation for fear of punishment; Spartan-like loyalty to one’s own unit and hatred of everyone else; the enforcement of discipline by punishing an entire unit for one individual member’s mistake; and the removal of one’s natural aversion to killing people with methods including sleep deprivation and repetitive drills. The end result of such intense inculcation must surely be an emotionally and spiritually hollow shell of a human, into which fanatical beliefs and behaviours, a hatred of anyone and anything different, even on the flimsiest criteria, replace empathy and compassion. Punishments for mistakes are severe and brutal.

Griffin’s turning-point in his old military career comes during his deployment to Basra in southern Iraq where, after witnessing or being party to grave injustices committed by the British on Basra civilians, he realises that he can no longer stomach the lies that have been shovelled into his head over the years and which he starts to doubt. He is uneasy at the presence of Western corporations with their private security in major cities in Iraq, and what that presence and the security details might say about US-led allied forces and their actions and behaviour.

The film cuts out abruptly while Griffin is still describing how he became involved with the Veterans For Peace organisation in the US and decided together with fellow former soldiers to set up their own British chapter. By this stage, he has said more than enough about how military recruits are effectively manipulated and broken down into dehumanised sociopaths and how British forces, mingling with US and other allied forces, engaged in torturing prisoners (usually culled from the civilian population by raiding their homes and taking male residents) at “black sites”. For this reason, reports of “US forces” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East / North Africa, and maybe other parts of the world, can be assumed to include forces (plus mercenaries from private corporations – and, depending on the region involved, freelancers, militias and naive people recruited via social media or personal / community networks, often portrayed in the media as “freedom fighters” or “terrorists” when the situation permits) from other Western nations.

Griffin’s talk, peppered with anecdotes and very surprisingly detailed information about aspects of British military culture, is highly informative and lively. Griffin’s description of how he as a child fell for the relentless ear-bashing propaganda and how he signed up for army boot camp for wannabe teenage soldiers like himself is especially chilling. This talk is recommended listening for Griffin’s animated style and the information he offers.

It is no wonder that extreme fascist / neo-Nazi / white supremacist beliefs find a ready home among the armed forces in most Western nations if Griffin’s experience is typical of what most young people who join the armed forces, often because the only other choice available to them is the dole queue, are exposed to.

Why ‘Wonder Woman’ is Banned in Lebanon: taking a stand against propaganda that denies history and exalts violence and brutality

Nora Barrows-Friedman, “Why ‘Wonder Woman’ is Banned in Lebanon” (Electronic Intifada, 8 June 2017)

With every passing year, the commercial movie industry in the United States, popularly known as Hollywood, reveals itself more and more as the propaganda arm of US foreign policy, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the spate of superhero movies, based on characters in comics published by DC Comics and Marvel Comics. The Batman / Dark Knight trilogy of films directed by Christopher Nolan insinuates that in order for good to triumph over evil, good must stoop to the level of evil (including the killing of innocents as “collateral damage”) and promotes the cynical Straussian notion that societies can only function if their citizens are persuaded to believe lies – because knowing the truth would inevitably lead to chaos. These and other superhero films fetishise technology and violence, in the process disdaining character development and sticking to stereotyped plots and narratives that reject diplomacy, compromise and co-operation between opposed forces, preferring instead to solve problems with overwhelming force and violence.

In this context, the casting of a former Israeli soldier, who participated in Israel’s war against Lebanon in 2006, and who supported and praised the Israeli Defense Forces in their pounding of Gaza in mid-2014, as the superhero Wonder Woman in a film of the same name in 2017 takes Hollywood and the superhero movie genre to a new low. Hollywood’s use of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman represents a tacit acceptance of Israel’s ongoing war against the Palestinians and Lebanon. No wonder that Lebanon – admittedly after much prompting from its own activists – banned the screening of the Wonder Woman movie in its cinemas, in line with a law banning transactions that involve Israeli partners which “normalise” or implies acceptance of past Israeli actions or policies that oppress Palestinians and people living in territories neighbouring Israel.

In this interview hosted by Electronic Intifada, reporter Nora Barrows-Friedman speaks with academic and activist Rania Masri who explains why the ban on “Wonder Woman” is a boycott and not an example of censorship. Masri calls attention to the settler movement in Israel which continually encroaches on Palestinian lands and forcibly ejects Palestinians from them with approval and support from the Israeli government. She also reminds listeners that Israel also threatens people in the Shebaa Farms region in southern Lebanon bordering Israel, and people in Syria’s Golan Heights region. Masri then turns her fiery ire onto the English-language press which has deliberately misrepresented the Lebanese ban on “Wonder Woman” as censorship and left out the context surrounding the Lebanese decision.

Masri emphasises that the people now known as Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians were one before World War I and were separated when their lands were divided and claimed by Britain and France as colonies in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement. It was as a result of this agreement that the Zionist movement in Palestine, enabled by the British who thought to use the Zionists as their sheriffs in the Middle East to keep watch over the Arab peoples, took deeper root especially after the Balfour Declaration in 1917, eventually giving rise to the founding of Israel in 1948 after the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem by the Irgun terrorist gang in that year. How galling it would be for Lebanese audiences to watch a film in which the star is not only a former soldier and a proud patriot of a country that still seeks to destroy Lebanon, but is also a reminder of the forced separation of the Arabs in the Levant which deliberately weakened them and subjected them to a subservient role in their own lands.

Left out of Masri’s argument is other reasons why films like “Wonder Woman” are propaganda: they help promote the idea of the United States as an exceptional nation, as they espouse values and behaviours considered typically American, with the result that those who resist the US must want to destroy all that the US supposedly represents and defends; and they flatten history, especially recent history, and drain it of context so it has nothing to teach audiences or to encourage them to think about what they have seen. Masri could have included these reasons in her criticism but perhaps time did not permit and Barrows-Friedman had quite a list of questions to ask her.

The Curious Incident of the Skripal Poisoning in Salisbury, UK: a View from the Russian Foreign Ministry

Russian Foreign Ministry Meeting with Foreign Ambassadors on Skripal poisoning case (21 March 2018)

For nearly all of March 2018, the world was gripped by a strange incident in the sleepy English cathedral town of Salisbury – the kind of provincial English urban centre that might be a setting for a low-budget television crime / mystery series – in which an elderly Russian ex-spy and his adult daughter from Moscow were found unconscious (and the daughter suffering convulsions and loss of body functions to boot) on a park bench in the town’s shopping mall on a Sunday afternoon. The couple are attended by a doctor who administers first aid before they are taken to the local general hospital. Initially the two are thought to have suffered an overdose of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid drug which can be fatal in small amounts, not just to those who ingest but also to first-response emergency personnel who accidentally breathe or touch the particles while treating the victims. The narrative however starts to change from one day to the next: a police officer is reported as having been stricken by the same poisoning agent (which changes from fentanyl to a mystery nerve gas toxin) but the onset of his symptoms is very different (sudden as opposed to gradual in the case of the Russians) yet his condition is described in media reports as serious but stable while the Russians’ condition is critical. British police make a strange show of going to the local cemetery in Salisbury to cordon off the graves of the ex-spy’s wife and son and having two officers in hazmat suits perform a lap around them.

By the middle of March, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have blamed Russia for poisoning the Russian ex-spy Sergei and daughter Julia Skripal with a Novichok nerve gas agent, and demanded an explanation from the Russian ambassador, despite having no evidence that the Russian government or its agents had anything to do with the poisoning, if indeed poisoning with a man-made agent let alone Novichok did occur. At the same time the British government refused to share any information about the Skripals’ condition or to reply to Russian requests about Julia Skripal, and denied Russian consular access to the stricken woman. The British government also appointed a barrister to represent the Skripals’ interests in a High Court hearing on 22 March 2018 to allow doctors to obtain fresh blood samples from the couple; as far as is known, said barrister refuses to contact family and business connections of the Skripals in Russia.

With the British ultimatum to Russia demanding an explanation for the poisoning of the Skripals passing its deadline, the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow summoned all foreign ambassadors to a meeting on 21 March 2018 to discuss the Skripal poisoning incident. Speaker Vladimir Yermakov gave an outline of the situation surrounding the incident from a Russian point of view, noting that Russia was within its rights in requesting samples of materials for testing for the presence of Novichok from the British. He observed that the British had not shared any information about the incident or the condition of the Skripals with Russia, and that the way British authorities were dealing with the incident and blaming Russia was clumsy and inept. The possibility that British authorities themselves were involved in the attack on the Skripals, directly or indirectly, was raised.

Yermakov noted that the Director-General of the Organisation of Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had met with the United Nations Security Council to discuss the use of chemical weapons in Syria, at which meeting the Salisbury incident was raised by the British. The Russians asked questions about the incident, to which the answers were evasive. Yermakov went on to say that Russia itself had destroyed all its chemical weapons stockpiles under OPCW supervision and control by late September 2017.

Two other speakers were invited to give a broader context to the issue of the possible use of Novichok or a Novichok-like agent in the Salisbury incident. Major General Igor Kirillov from the Ministry of Defence spoke of the recent discovery made by Syrian Arab Army soldiers in East Ghouta (which had been held by jihadi forces for several years), in the Damascus region, of secret laboratories for the production of chemical weapons. Jihadis in that area had been preparing a large-scale CW attack that would be blamed on the Syrian government. He went on to discuss the issue of Novichok and how most information about it in the West comes from one former Soviet chemist, Vil Mirzayanov, who currently lives in the US and who holds anti-Putin views. Mirzayanov published the formulae for making Novichok in a book and on the Internet – which means that anyone with a chemistry background up to and including undergraduate university level can make the stuff. More information about Mirzayanov and his publications, and the research on Novichok and related nerve gas agents (including a list of these) was provided by Viktor Kholstov from the Ministry of Industry and Trade.

Kirillov also reminded the audience that the UK also researches and makes toxic nerve gas agents including VX nerve gas and sarin in its Porton Down laboratory (some 12 kilometres away from Salisbury) and has tested them on human guinea pigs in the past. He mentioned in particular the name of Ronald Maddison, a young soldier who was killed by sarin liquid in one experiment in the 1950s which he had volunteered for after being invited to participate in a flu vaccine trial.

There then followed a Q&A session in which ambassadors from various Western European countries and the US expressed support for and solidarity with Britain on the Salisbury incident. The ambassador from Bosnia and Hercegovina complained about the Serbian ambassador having mentioned incidents in Sarajevo and other parts of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s that were used by NATO to justify bombing Serbia, and suggesting a parallel with these incidents and the Salisbury incident, in that the Salisbury incident was being exploited by the West to isolate and demonise Russia. The ambassador from Venezuela expressed support for Russia to resolve the investigation of the Skripal poisoning in a manner transparent to everyone and urged the British to do the same.

This meeting should be of interest to all those keen to see the Salisbury incident dealt with in the manner that all incidents in which individuals are victims of possible foul play should be treated: in the manner that shuns finger-pointing, blaming others and holding kangaroo courts before evidence is properly collected, sorted and analysed to determine how the incident occurred, who most likely had the means to cause and create it, and the possible motive the perpetrator had to do it. The meeting presents the official Russian point of view of the Salisbury incident and provides a good (if embarrassing) example of how Western nations have closed ranks around the British position despite the lack of definitive evidence or proof provided by the British government so far of Russian involvement in the attack on the Skripals.  (For an example of such evidence, see this slideshow presentation made by the British Embassy in Moscow.) The British reaction to the Salisbury incident and the British government’s exploitation of it demonstrate the extent to which British elites are prepared to jettison British principles, values and institutions – and the British people themselves – to pursue an agenda against Russia.

Rethinking Putin: stripping away Western criticism and fantasy, and painting a picture of pragmatic and steady leadership

Stephen F Cohen, “Rethinking Putin”, Annual Nation Cruise (2 December 2017)

Professor Stephen Cohen is a scholar and professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, and the spouse of Katrina vanden Heuvel who edits The Nation magazine, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he was invited to give a speech to the magazine’s subscribers on its annual cruise. He chose as his subject current Russian President Vladimir Putin who, if you believe Western mainstream news media, is Planet Earth’s equivalent of Star Wars villain Darth Vader, and in his speech sets out to show Putin as a major national leader of importance and a politician born of historic circumstances and political and economic trends in post-Soviet Russia.

Regrettably Cohen gets off on a wrong footing by stating that Putin has been in power for 18 years since early 2000; in fact, Putin was only Prime Minister from 2008 to 2012, second to President Dmitri Medvedev. During this period, Russia supported the Western call for a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011, such call leading to the NATO invasion of that country and its descent into chaos. Had Putin been President then, Russia most probably would not have supported a no-fly zone over Libya and the country might not have lost its independence and Colonel Muammar Gaddhafi. From then on, listeners are wise to be wary of any prejudices and limitations on Cohen’s part in discussing the extent to which Putin currently wields power in Russia as the current President. Anyway, Cohen observes the extreme and often hysterical demonisation of President Putin in the Western news media, and starts his talk proper by emphasising what Putin is not, rather than what he is. He emphasises that Boris Yeltsin as President from 1991 to 1999 behaved in a way that was highly authoritarian and corrupt, and presided over post-Soviet decline and deindustrialisation, often with the underhanded help of the US government, so any authoritarian tendencies in the current Russian administration or any corruption and concentration of wealth in the hands of an oligarchic elite did not start with Putin. Cohen also states that the killings of Russian journalists and prominent opposition figures did not begin during Putin’s early presidency. From there, Cohen strips further layers of Western criticism and fantasy about Putin.

For Cohen, Putin comes across as a reactive and conservative politician, especially in the realm of foreign policy, in the sense of attempting to preserve the status quo. Putin’s previous work in the KGB has had no bearing on his leadership style or the policies he pursues. In the last few minutes of his speech, Cohen outlines his idea of Putin: initially a young, inexperienced public servant who found a collapsing and unstable Russia, and who over the years restores proper governance, stability and security to the country in a pragmatic system of “managed democracy”. This for Cohen extends to controlling to some extent what history and historical narratives can be passed from one generation to the next, so that young people have a sure idea of what Russia represents and what its values are: this is actually no more and no less what Western countries have done for much of the 20th century. To an extent, Putin represents a conservative, somewhat traditional segment of the Russian population (who might be called the silent majority in most Western countries) who desire to see Russia as a great power with a stable and robust economy, and a society with a clear direction not disturbed and riven by the agendas of competing social and cultural groups.

At this point, the talk breaks off just as Cohen warms up to discussing Russia’s treatment of its Jewish minority but the gist of his view of Putin has been established. Whether Cohen’s view is accurate, I have no idea, not knowing any more about Russia or Putin than most people in the West do but it seems to me that to call Putin reactive and conservative in his foreign policy is doing him and his government an injustice. In an age where governments are expected to spring to action immediately over a major terrorist or other incident with no thought as to the consequences of such action, Russian delay in response, and the kind of considered action that does follow – and which often ends up flummoxing the US and its allies, and puts them in a bad light (which they richly deserve) – is no bad thing at all. One even senses that Putin takes mischievous delight in the considered actions he does take, especially if the West ends up with egg on its collective face.

Cohen paints a picture of a pragmatic and cautious leader who has steadily restored stability, security, economic and cultural progress, and most of all pride to Russia. He does not say anything about how Putin’s leadership has inspired the country to turn around from a failing and despairing post-industrial scrap-heap into a growing economic power in the space of less than 20 years; that could have been a very interesting discussion. At the very least though, Cohen gives us a vision of a country that has rediscovered a path to security and prosperity.