The World Tomorrow (Episode 3: Moncef Marzouki): human rights and open government getting short shrift

“The World Tomorrow (Episode 3: Moncef Marzouki)” (Russia Today, 1 May 2012)

In this episode, Julian Assange interviews Moncef Marzouki, the President of Tunisia and a former human rights activist who was imprisoned by previous President Ben Ali in 1993. The underlying theme of the interview is how Marzouki will stay true to his ideals and continue to champion freedom, democracy, openness and accountability, and govern Tunisia effectively in a world of hypocritical Realpolitik. In contrast to Episode 2, this third installment is very low on pyrotechnics: Marzouki is a cool, calm and articulate speaker and his manner is gentle and courteous.

Assange begins by asking Marzouki about how he survived prison which included four months in solitary confinement, and gradually moves onto questions about openness in Tunisian society and what role Marzouki will play in encouraging that openness and accountability, then onto issues of regional North African / Middle Eastern importance such as the political turmoil in Syria and the possibility of Tunisia giving asylum to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It is intriguing that Marzouki prefers to sidestep talking about Bahrain, an equally oppressive state as Syria but supported by Tunisia, and criticises Hezbollah’s Secretary General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah for supporting al-Assad and considering Israel’s government and its actions as the greater threat to political stability in the Middle East. One might wonder if Marzouki has his priorities right in downplaying Israel’s role in fomenting discord between itself and its neighbours. Surely if Marzouki is still committed to supporting human rights and condemning governments that violate them, he should be just as harsh on the Bahraini government as he is on the Syrian government?

Further into the interview, Marzouki admits as President that he has limited political powers which often clash with and compromise his beliefs as a human rights activist.

Other questions Marzouki dodges include one on recent Tunisian government censorship of the Internet in Tunisia and whether he is willing to open past intelligence files to the general public. It is curious that he would open secret intelligence archives to historians but not to the people on the basis that such knowledge could be dangerous and lead to personal vendettas over issues that can never be healed … why not throw open the files to the public and at the same time initiate a reconciliation process in which crimes can be forgiven and appropriate compensation be made?

The issue of double standards in relation to the United States’ stand on human rights, co-existing as it does with that country’s recent record on torture and illegal incarceration of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay prison, is raised briefly. Marzouki notes an occasion where he was invited to the United States to speak on human rights issues and meet a person in the White House whom he suspected to be implicated in Guantanamo Bay prison abuses. Naturally he refused to meet this person but I wonder if he had met him and agreed to make public speeches … wouldn’t it have made some impact on the American public if Marzouki had met the person and told him off for his hypocrisy and for having blood on his hands?

The questions Assange asks are not very searching or challenging to Marzouki and the journalist frequently gives Marzouki the benefit of the doubt. Curiously he doesn’t throw any curveball questions to Marzouki in the way he did to Nasrallah. Assange accepts Marzouki as a genuine democrat who consciously strives to live up to his ideals every day as President. Assange doesn’t realise that by dodging the issue of Bahrain’s treatment of dissidents, Marzouki has already shown himself as compromised and perhaps dependent on the US and other Western powers for political survival.

The interview can be viewed on Youtube here and a transcript of the interview is also available.

 

The World Tomorrow (Episode 2: David Horowitz and Slavoj Zizek): a brief glimpse into a moronic and ugly worldview

“The World Tomorrow (Episode 2: David Horowitz and Slavoj Zizek)” (Russia Today, 24 April 2012)

For this episode, interviewer Julian Assange brought together two opposed public intellectuals, US political commentator David Horowitz and Slovenian philosopher / psychoanalyst / cultural critic Slavoj Zizek. Horowitz was once a left-wing activist who supported the Black Panther movement in the US in the 1960s and whose parents were members of the American Communist Party who supported Joseph Stalin; he now supports hardline American political conservatism. Zizek opposed Communism in Yugoslavia in the 1980s but might now be called centrist in his political outlook. The topics Assange covers in the 30-minute discussion with Horowitz and Zizek include Israel’s uneasy relationship with Palestinians, Joseph Stalin, the US occupation of Iraq, the decline of Europe, the descent of the US into a security-obsessed police state that deprives its citizens of liberty and Horowitz’s relationship with the Black Panthers.

On paper, Horowitz was an ideal choice as interviewee: what made a left-wing activist who supported the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers, and whose parents were strongly pro-Soviet, turn to the political polar opposite and support President Reagan in the 1980s and convert to an ardent Zionist, distrustful of Hamas and Palestinians generally? Assange isn’t able to ask the question due to the arguing between Horowitz and Zizek and his deference to those boxing heavyweights but later in the discussion when Horowitz recounts his experiences with the Black Panthers, one gets the impression that his conversion to the politically conservative viewpoint was less dramatically Damascene and more grubbily out of pique at being ostracised by former left-wing friends upset at someone’s death which Horowitz says was wrongly blamed on him. (This suggests that his left-wing views must not have been very deeply held and felt; surely one’s political beliefs shouldn’t be contingent on one’s friendships?) If ever we needed to know the difference between ACTING like an idiot and actually BEING an idiot, Horowitz and Zizek provide it in buckets: Zizek jumps up and down, waves his arms furiously, but his opinions demonstrate that he lives in the real world with the rest of us while Horowitz spouts one stupidity after another: he calls the European social welfare state experiment a disaster and sees it as a “cultural theme park” and Sweden as having no morals. For Horowitz, US President Obama is a “leftist” and “leftism” is responsible for most of the world’s problems including the abysmal state of post-Hussein Iraq and the erosion of freedoms, security and peace in the US.

There is no shortage of former left-wing political activists who now have conservative opinions and positions on most political / social / economic issues: in the US, they often follow the philosophy of Leo Strauss, support the notion of radical change and believe the US should invade other countries to bring “democracy” and “freedom” to their supposedly benighted inhabitants. The architects of the Project for the New American Century who include Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and various others fall into this neo-conservative camp and anyone of them could have been interviewed. It would have been instructive for viewers if Assange could have quizzed Horowitz on what he might know of Strauss and his position on what the US and NATO should do about Libya, Syria and Iran. (The bit where Horowitz suggests people are the problem and hence “checks and balances” are needed against them is creepy and one might think he would welcome the Straussian viewpoint that people must be deceived with ideology and religion.)

On the other hand, there seem to be very few public intellectuals of a formerly politically conservative background who now hold what might be considered centre-left views and are critical of US, Israel and NATO and their actions in the world today, available for interview: Zizek with his history of opposing Communists in the old Yugoslavia is a compromise. Probably a better candidate to oppose Horowitz would have been US economist Paul Craig Roberts, the former Reagan government official who would have countered Horowitz’s views on Palestine, the US invasion of Iraq, and the loss of freedom and rights in the US more lucidly than the excitable Zizek; another suitable candidate might have been US writer Justin Raimondo who edits the Antiwar.com website and who is highly critical of Israel and US foreign policy.

Anyway the terms “left” and “right” in their political sense hardly mean anything any more as so-called “leftists” are no different from the so-called political conservative side in wanting to invade and pillage other countries for their resources or for not playing ball in granting “democracy” and “freedom” to their populations so that US and other Western corporations can infiltrate their minds with consumerist values and ideologies and rob them of economic / cultural / political autonomy. Hard to believe that Julian Assange still peddles this tired old paradigm of distinguishing between two similar camps of economic rationality when the real distinctition should be between those who would centralise power and deny freedom to people on the one hand and on the other those who favour decentralisation and diffusion of power, freedom and responsibility. After all he’s been put through by the US (dominated by political / social “rightists” who believe in “individualism” if it applies to corporations) and Sweden (dominated by political / social “leftists” who believe in “egalitarianism” if it means enforcing social and economic conformity on individuals) but then his series is pitched at the general public whose political education is elementary to say the least.

As it is, the discussion between Horowitz and Zizek amounts to very little amid the quarrelling and Assange is almost forced to manhandle Zizek away from punching Horowitz’s face on the laptop screen. At the very least, we find out more about Horowitz’s view of the world than we ever want to know. Thanks Julian, for giving us a glimpse into the hardline US conservative worldview and showing that it’s even more moronic than our wildest nightmares could have conjured up.

 

The World Tomorrow (Episode 1: Hassan Nasrallah): an informative insight into Hezbollah

“The World Tomorrow (Episode 1: Hassan Nasrallah)” (Russia Today, 18 April 2012)

First in a series of 12 interviews conducted by Wikileaks dissident Julian Assange and hosted by Russia Today, this interview of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah the Secretary General of Hezbollah is straightforward and highly informative. Sitting in a room with two Arabic-language interpreters, Assange uses a basic question-and-answer approach with Nasrallah to elicit his views on the status of Israel, the Arab Spring across the Middle East and north Africa, Tunisia’s refusal to recognise Bashar al Assad as the legitimate leader of Syria and the US blockage of Hezbollah’s Al Manar television network. Assange listens to Nasrallah’s replies respectfully while Nasrallah explains his opinions clearly and the reasons he holds them.

This was the first time I had seen Nasrallah at all and he conducted himself graciously and pleasantly, and at times humorously. He favours dialogue and political reforms in Syria instead of violence which he suspects is being fomented by the United States and Israel. This perhaps was the reason Assange decided to interview Nasrallah: at the time the interview took place, Syria was convulsed in civil strife and there was talk in the Western media of NATO intervention under the pretence of the Responsibility To Protect doctrine; Assange wanted to know what Hezbollah’s role might be should the unrest continue. Throughout the interview, Assange allows Nasrallah to explain his position on various issues and the reasoning behind his position, never interrupting him and challenging or distorting what he says. In this way, Nasrallah comes across as reasonable even though you and I may not always agree with what he says about Israel’s legitimacy (or lack thereof) and what he believes is Hezbollah’s purpose in the Middle East.

Towards the end, the interview topics become lighter, more personal and more humorous as Assange and Nasrallah slyly converse about encryption – Assange says he knows a lot about encryption (though he doesn’t say not enough that he could have prevented two British journalists from giving away the password to his encryption software program linked to a file that contained hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables, in a book they wrote) – and about Nasrallah’s joke about simplicity defeating complexity in the context of how Hezbollah’s encryption codes befuddled Israeli intelligence code-breakers. Then Assange throws a curve-ball question at Nasrallah: would Nasrallah be willing to challenge monotheistic religion’s “totalitarian” hold over people? Nasrallah guesses the motive behind Assange’s question – it’s a challenge to his personal beliefs and identity, questioning whether he sees contradictions between his worldly jihad and his spiritual jihad – and skews his answer to say that monotheistic Abrahamic religions are inherently instinctive and human-based: therefore belief in these religions is consistent with wanting to resist the United States and all other countries and institutions working to deny freedom and the right of individuals and countries to self-determination as freedom, striving for justice and truth, and self-determination are human and instinctive motivations.

If one fights for social justice, one must be ruled by one God and cannot fight for several gods or the universe would be in ruin: Nasrallah may have been literal but there is a more complex philosophical truth in what he says – the ultimate goal, achieving freedom and bringing that to others so they may transform their lives, end poverty and injustice, and make the world a better place for future generations, is the most important issue and we must remind ourselves of this aim constantly. There may be other issues leading off from this objective along the way but we must remember they are aspects of it, just as in, let’s say, Hinduism the hundreds of gods and godlings are aspects of the Supreme Being Brahman, or in Islam there are 99 aspects of Allah (as described by the 99 beautiful names) but there is only one of him.

On the whole, I found this interview was well-conducted and I learned quite a lot about Nasrallah, his worldview and that of Hezbollah. The questions Assange asked were fairly open and were not aimed at tripping him up. It may be that had Assange pressed Nasrallah more and on controversial issues such as whether Jews deserve to have a homeland in Palestine, the Hezbollah leader might have revealed himself as prejudiced against Jews per se, though from the answers Nasrallah gave to two questions, he appears religiously tolerant. Some questions on Hezbollah’s organisation and its day-to-day concerns could have been asked – I was interested in learning about Hezbollah’s environmental department and the organisation’s efforts in educating Lebanese people about living in an environmentally sustainable way that’s consistent with Islamic Shi’ite beliefs – but Assange may have been pressed for time due to the satellite link-up which was necessary as he remains under house arrest. I am looking forward to the next installment in this series.

The interview can be viewed here.