The Power of Falun Gong: a timid presentation of a dangerous and deranged fascist cult

“The Power of Falun Gong” (Foreign Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 21 July 2020)

Purporting to be an expose of Falun Gong’s activities as a secretive religious organisation with very disturbing cult-like tendencies, and its promotion of current US President Donald Trump during the 2020 US Presidential election year, this episode of Foreign Correspondent ends up flogging the organisation with a light feather. A very brief sketchy survey of how the cult arose in China in the early 1990s starts the program, with very little information about how the cult’s founder Li Hongzhi began the organisation or about his background prior to becoming a government clerk. The program claims that Li’s ability to rally thousands of Chinese to his cult, using a mix of Buddhist and Daoist ideas that include taijiquan exercises and meditation practice along with Scientology-style beliefs about aliens coming to Earth and conservative politics, was what led the Chinese government to outlaw Falun Gong and persuade Li Hongzhi to flee to the United States. (Another source I read says the Chinese government shut down Falun Gong for persuading its followers to abstain from medical therapies and rely entirely on meditation and conforming to Li’s teachings to recover from illness. This is backed up at this blog here.)

Skipping from interviewing a young defector from the Falun Gong cult, whose mother raised her in its beliefs, to a family who lost their grandmother to the cult whose teachings on shunning medicine led to the grandmother’s death, the program presents some very heart-rending stories in a superficial way. We do not learn how the defector managed to make her own way in the world after leaving the cult and her mother. Reporter Eric Campbell meets two activists living in upstate New York, where the cult has built a huge compound that continues to grow and devour local properties, who are campaigning against Falun Gong’s greed to acquire more land and build more structures that violate local environmental laws and building safety codes; but even the activists’ story is dealt with in a vague way. We never learn if they and their followers have ever won a lawsuit against Falun Gong or managed to have much influence on their own communities and others beyond their area.

The last and most interesting part of the documentary concerns Falun Gong’s media empire, known as The Epoch Media Group, centred around flagship newspaper The Epoch Times and its increasing forays into social media platforms and advertising on Facebook. The report looks at how Falun Gong companies and websites create false social media identities and accounts on Facebook, often for the purpose of astroturfing (running fake grassroots campaigns with support from fake accounts). Unfortunately the program fails to ask where the money comes from to finance The Epoch Media Group and other media and entertainment-related groups such as the Shen Yun Dance Company, and other activities. At least the source I referred to earlier comes to my rescue with the revelation that Falun Gong’s media empire and other operations, including its compound in New York state, are funded by the US government and its agencies (possibly including the CIA and the National Endowment for Democracy) which use the cult as a de facto attack-dog propaganda outlet.

Foreign Correspondent significantly fails to connect Falun Gong’s support for Donald Trump with its worldview which believes the End Times are close by and that Trump is a divinely inspired warrior committed to ending Communism in China. How the program could have missed this damning aspect of a cult says much about its mealy-mouthed and timid approach in covering the organisation, such that Falun Gong comes over as an eccentric cult with a reclusive leader, instead of the dangerous and deranged fascist front for the US government it actually is. At the end of the day, the producers of Foreign Correspondent and the reporters who work for the program must ask whether flaying a dangerous cult like Falun Gong, which happens to be anti-Communist, lightly with a feather is more moral than lambasting China for having a style of government and a particular political ideology that its people want but which the West fears and resents.

The Secret Armada: North Korean ghost ship phenomenon covered in a superficial way

“The Secret Armada” (Foreign Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 14 July 2020)

Despite the spine-tingling thrill of the episode title, this piece on apparent North Korean fishing vessels washing up on Russian or Japanese shores in derelict condition and with dead crews was hardly informative. It came across very much as an excuse for its reporter to travel to Vladivostok and Dandong (China), presumably with most expenses paid, to sneak a peek at North Koreans across the Russian or Chinese border. The correspondent talks to local people about what they know of these North Korean fishing boats; they don’t appear to know a great deal apart from what they observe of the degraded condition of the vessels and the fact that the crews tend to be very dead. The odd thing about what the Russian interviewees say is that neither the Russian nor the North Korean government seems very interested in repatriating these degraded ships and the corpses they contain back to the DPRK. One would think Pyongyang would be very keen to get these ships and bodies back, at least to save face internationally and to make sure the vessels were not carrying information of a classified nature. Come to think of it, no government officials, whether in Russia, Japan, South Korea or (even) North Korea, feature in the program at all to deliver even just a PR statement on the North Korean ghost ship phenomenon.

There seems to have been no attempt on the Australian reporter’s part to find out just how old the ships are, how long they might have been floating in the Sea of Japan, or even whether they actually are North Korean ships and not South Korean ships. The program doesn’t seem to rely on any mainstream news media sources, let alone alternative news media, for information as to what these ghost ships are or might be. A Russian man tells the reporter he has buried two North Korean bodies found on one stranded ship; tellingly, the report admits no DNA tests had been done on the bodies so the viewer is expected to assume that these bodies are those of North Korean people.

No context is offered as to why North Koreans should be so desperate as to launch rickety fishing boats and sail to other nations’ maritime territories to fish illegally for seafood, some of which is sold to Chinese seafood sellers in Dandong. There is little mention of the crippling sanctions imposed by the US on North Korea since the 1950s, which have had the effect among others of denying North Korea agricultural technology and tools that would be effective in helping the country raise better and bigger crops of rice and other plant foods, and forcing the country to retain a large agricultural workforce that also doubles as a national army reserve. The constant references in the program to the North Korean army claiming first dibs on food produce ignore the fact that the army of the DPRK is a people’s army and that most people who serve in the army are conscripts from the agricultural sector.

At least the scenes of derelict ships rotting on remote beaches, surrounded by green countryside, clear blue waters and distant mountains rising from over the horizon are visually very moving and unforgettable. Apart from these lovely scenes, there really is very little useful information about what the ghost ship phenomenon actually is and what it might say about the state of the North Korean economy and society.

The Swedish Model: a shallow and unedifying view of Sweden’s no-lockdown COVID-19 strategy

“The Swedish Model” (Foreign Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 30 June 2020)

In March 2020, when the SARS-CoV-2 virus had already been circulating in Europe for at least two months already, most countries there adopted lock-down of varying degrees of severity – with some countries such as Spain adopting such an extreme version that even young children were not allowed outside the places where they lived – yet Sweden opted to follow an approach in which such measures as social distancing and appropriate hand hygiene would be recommended rather than ordered on pain of punishment or penalties. Restaurants, pubs and cafes would still remain open, provided social distancing was practised; schools would remain open; and people would be more or less free to continue with normal activities. The Swedish government’s aim was to limit the spread of the coronavirus infection in the country without overburdening the Swedish healthcare system. Since adopting the no-lockdown policy, Sweden’s infection rate and mortality rate compared with several other European countries have been high, and the general global consensus is that these high rates of infection and death are the result of the no-lockdown policy.

Researched by Lisa Millar, who also provides voice-over narration in parts, this episode of “Foreign Correspondent” takes a similar view, that Sweden’s relaxed no-lockdown policy is in part responsible for the high toll the disease has taken among the more vulnerable groups in society, in particular the elderly in aged care facilities and refugees and immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. A large part of the film involves following different stories of individuals: a director of an aged care home with 350 patients; a Syrian Christian activist; a university professor opposed to the no-lockdown policy who sets up a testing centre in an immigrant neighbourhood in Stockholm; and finally Sweden’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who breezily tells his interviewers that Sweden is doing the right thing in striving to achieve herd immunity as he goes about giving speeches and reassuring people that the country is on the right track. He admits that Sweden has neglected its elderly and immigrant groups but takes no personal or other responsibility for the Swedish government’s oversight as he continues on his merry way.

In covering personal stories, the film provides no analysis of why the elderly and the immigrant community bear the brunt of the pandemic that has hit the country hard. Millar tells us that the vast majority of SARS-CoV-2 deaths are of people aged 70+ years, and with most of these people also in aged care institutions, they are unlikely to benefit from lockdown conditions. Indeed, in many countries that do have lockdown, the numbers of people in aged care places suffering and dying from COVID-19 are out of proportion compared to younger age groups and in some countries the median age of death from COVID-19 is in the late 40s. Had Millar stepped back from emphasising personal stories (which, while tragic in their own ways, do not tell viewers much about the nature of the disease as it affects Swedish society), and investigated the character of aged care institutions in Sweden, compared to their equivalents in, say, Denmark or Norway, she might have found something very disturbing: Sweden’s aged care institutions are the responsibility of municipal and regional governments, which have outsourced their management to private companies. Privatisation has led to these facilities housing several hundred patients, cared for by workers on contracts on low pay and working in sometimes quite appalling conditions. To scrape together an income they can survive on, many workers work at more than one facility.

The low income and lousy working conditions in aged care homes mean that such work attracts people who can find little other work in Sweden: these people turn out to be the very refugees and immigrants who themselves have been hit hard by the disease. On top of this, these groups often live in areas designated no-go zones by police, due to gang warfare and high rates of crime, and this means that government offices providing social services (and information about COVID-19 and how to avoid it or minimise its spread) in the languages of the refugee and immigrant communities are scarce. Refugees and immigrants frequently live in very crowded and unhealthy housing, with three generations in the one residence, and aged care workers coming home from working shifts at one or more places might spread the disease and infect their older relatives even if they themselves are asymptomatic.

In general, Sweden’s poor experience in dealing with COVID-19, and in failing to protect its most vulnerable citizens, is a consequence of decades of governments privatising what should be publicly funded and resourced institutions, subject to public accountability, and ignoring the needs of marginal groups in society and the discrimination and barriers that impede their socio-economic advancement. That “Foreign Correspondent” completely missed analysing the broader context which might have enabled it to find the link between the high infection and mortality rates between two groups of vulnerable people (the aged, and the refugees / immigrants from poor countries) but preferred to wring out weepy and emotional stories to attract viewer attention reflects very poorly on the program and on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Australian viewers expect a higher and deeper standard of coverage of national and global issues at the ABC and to see this institution adopting practices associated with trashy commercial television programs purporting to feature political or current affairs issues and analysis is indeed grave and tragic.

The Doctor vs the President: sordid Russia-bashing using COVID-19 pandemic crisis

“The Doctor vs the President” (Foreign Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2 June 2020)

Even during the COVID-19 global pandemic, Western mainstream news media outlets can never resist the opportunity to bash countries they are ordered by governments, defence establishments and intel agencies not to like – countries such as Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela – when they should be highlighting, comparing and analysing different approaches adopted by nations around the world to combating the disease and developing ways of eradicating or controlling it. A prime example of the never-ending propaganda is this episode from Australian television current affairs program “Foreign Correspondent” in which home-bound Russia correspondent Eric Campbell follows the adventures through his laptop of supposed renegade ophthalmologist Anastasia Vasilyeva in her stunt to deliver boxes of masks, gloves and other PPE to hospitals battling the SARS-COV-2 virus in the Novgorod oblast (an administrative region between Moscow and St Petersburg). Along the way, Vasilyeva and her convoy of four cars (with three people in each car – what happened to social distancing?) are stopped and questioned by police who then detain her for breaking lock-down rules (she was supposed to stay in Moscow) and for having no registration in Novgorod oblast (the region having closed its borders to outsiders). Since the convoy included a lawyer, a foreign reporters and three camera crew, instead of a full complement of medical staff and nurses from her trade union (Alliance of Doctors), Dr Vasilyeva obviously knew she was going to be arrested. In addition to breaking lock-down rules, the good doctor also disobeyed police instructions so she was further detained – in full view of the camera crew.

It probably does not need to be said that had Dr Vasilyeva been genuinely concerned about the needs of hospitals in Novgorod oblast, she could have organised a fund-raising effort among Muscovites and sent money electronically to the hospitals or the PPE in the post or by courier to the same, at much less cost to herself and her petrol bill – but of course this would not have made for confrontational TV titillation. Incidentally, the two head physicians of the target hospitals in Novgorod oblast expressed surprise at Dr Vasilyeva’s stunt and concern that the equipment had no certification or registrations, and that the stunt was intended to be provocative. All of this went unreported on the “Foreign Correspondent” report.

The program says very little about Dr Vasilyeva’s Alliance of Doctors, how large it is (or not), and does not interview any other members of that trade union. One would think it should be a very large union with branches right across Russia. There is nothing about where it is headquartered or how much influence it has among the medical profession in Russia. Viewers of the program will come away with no idea of where the trade union’s income comes from. Oddly enough, the program emphasises Dr Vasilyeva’s personal connection with the charlatan “opposition figure” Alexei Navalny, who enjoys very little support among the Russian voting public, who is supposed to be under house arrest for his role in embezzling funds from a state timber company in Kirov oblast, and whose lavish life-style is far beyond the amount of money he earns from his activities and fund-raising. Anyone even mildly au fait with Russian politics will know straight away that people with personal associations with Navalny are likely not only to be feted by Western governments and media organisations, they are likely to be shady characters themselves receiving funding from foreign organisations with an interest in deposing the current Russian government and targeting President Putin in particular.

Ah, yes, no program criticising Russia can resist mocking Putin as a would-be Stalinist dictator intent on prolonging his grip on the country to 2036 through a referendum that would give him an extra two terms as President: a referendum inspired by a proposal from none other than State Duma representative Valentina Tereshkova, who in a former life was the world’s first female space traveller. Funnily, “Foreign Correspondent” does not notice that Putin doesn’t straight away sign a decree making himself President for life – no, he actually decides to put the idea to a public referendum. Elsewhere in the program, Putin is portrayed as something of a weakling in retreating from the public at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic lock-down in Moscow (instigated by Mayor Sergei Sobyanin: it was his job after all, not Putin’s) and then somehow re-emerging as the leader in tamping down the infection’s spread and halting its progress. The fact that it is other people’s jobs and the function of health ministries at the national and regional levels to control and if possible eradicate COVID-19 in Russia, with the President watching their progress as any political leader would and should, giving them encouragement and admonishing them for failures, seems to have escaped “Foreign Correspondent”. But when opportunity arises to perpetuate a stereotype of Russia as a tired, clapped-out has-been empire lost in nostalgic fantasy, and its government and leader as despotic and out of touch with reality, “Foreign Correspondent” like every other mainstream Western media outlet seizes it and flogs it at the expense of its credibility with an increasingly sceptical Australian audience.

An opportunity to critically view and report on how successfully or unsuccessfully Russia is dealing with COVID-19 – despite the huge numbers being infected, the actual death toll is very low – and the reason for the huge disparity in the statistics compared to equivalent figures in other countries, adjusted for population size, was missed.

Cynicism and citizenship for sale in “Operation Mr Chen: The Hidden Face of Quebec’s Golden Visas”

Francis Plourde, “Operation Mr Chen: The Hidden Face of Quebec’s Golden Visas” (Enquete, September 2018)

In 1986 the Canadian federal government and the Quebec provincial government pioneered investment programs encouraging wealthy migrants with at least $2 million in assets to settle in Canada and Quebec province respectively, provided that, among other conditions they had to meet as immigrants, they invested a minimum amount of $1.2 million (as a loan to the respective governments) into the country or province to generate business, revenues and jobs. Since 1986, thousands of immigrants have gained permanent residency in Canada through these programs. In 2014, the federal program shut down over concerns about its effectiveness but the Quebec Immigrant Investor Program (hereafter QIIP) continues. An investigation by Radio-Canada’s current affairs program Enquete in 2018 reveals that QIIP has degenerated into a financial scam that encourages tax evasion, money laundering and the Canadian economy’s dependence on money – much of it from China and Hong Kong – sloshing through banks and other financial institutions to prop up excessive property speculation in Vancouver and other major cities.

The Enquete investigation takes a multi-pronged approach to covering all aspects of this investment scheme and its consequences for Canada’s economy including hiring a Hong Kong man to pose as wealthy prospective businessman investor Mr Chen, with plenty of money and a shady history of businesses and tax evasion to match his wealth, who approaches an immigration consultancy to inquire about obtaining permanent residency in Quebec and a Canadian passport. What journalist Francis Plourde discovers through “Mr Chen” and his “secretary” using hidden cameras is that immigration consultants and lawyers connected with QIIP are prepared to overlook the huge gaps in the would-be migrant’s business and tax affairs and even suggest that he change his name to “Bruce Lee” (ha!) and acquire citizenship in a dodgy Caribbean tax haven place to evade both Canadian and Chinese tax authorities by establishing a trust fund based there.

Interviews with Quebec government public servants who worked in Hong Kong dealing with QIIP applications and the immigrant consultants and lawyers who represented or were asked to vet wealthy clients wanting permanent residency status in Canada reveal the extent of the corruption involved; the undercover operation using the fake investor Mr Chen confirms the sloppy way in which applications were processed and how consultants turned a blind eye to applicants’ shady financial pasts. The officials who worked in Hong Kong speak of not having enough time to do full due diligence work on applicants’ documents and of being pressed by the Quebec government to accept applicants in spite of not having the time or the resources to check and authenticate their papers.

The investigation also examines whether the QIIP program has delivered economic benefits to Quebec in the generation of new business and jobs in that province. While bureaucrats and new small to medium-sized firms in Quebec are enthusiastic about government programs that fund their growth and development, what the investigators found that the money loaned by investors (interest-free, for five years) to Quebec was placed with Investissement Quebec (hereafter IQ) which invested the money in funds at market rates. The interest earned would be invested in actual businesses. Further investigation with an economist found that the number of jobs generated by investment by IQ was far less than IQ itself claims. On top of this, the revenue earned from IQ’s investments has been low due to very low interest rates over the past decade (2008 – 2018). If this were not enough, much of the revenue has to be paid to immigration consultants in commissions for referring prospective immigrants to QIIP so the amount invested in new businesses is much, much less than it could be.

A further consequence of QIIP is that most Chinese immigrants – they make up the majority of the QIIP immigrants – end up in cities like Vancouver and Toronto where they drive up the prices of properties and help create property speculation bubbles. Many immigrants commute between Canada, China and Hong Kong, and rarely or even never set foot in Quebec. They pay very little income tax in Canada – indeed, buying property is itself a form of tax evasion – while Vancouver suffers from an overheated property market in which local people are effectively barred from buying their own homes, and Vancouver city authorities suffer the burden of supplying education and health services to foreign families that contribute very little to Canada.

In effect, the whole QIIP project has created a financial monster in which the main beneficiaries are financial institutions and people gaming the project as if it were a giant casino. The program has created opportunities for money laundering and taxation evasion. It appears that neither the Canadian nor the Quebec government seems to care very much about the adverse economic and social consequences that QIIP creates for communities in Vancouver and other cities where wealthy immigrants have flocked to buy up mansions and expensive apartments and to educate their children in private schools, as long as money is flowing into the country. In the process, an elite transnational class of people dependent on rentier income derived from property speculation and with no concept of national loyalty is created.

Above all, the notion that citizenship can be bought at a price, and the conditions attached to the purchase of citizenship can be disregarded, as long as the buyer brings plenty of money, is cynical and says quite a bit about the grubby motivations and aims of the people who dreamt up the idea of fast-tracking residency status and citizenship on the basis of material wealth.

The Coup in Venezuela, Explained: an impassioned presentation on the reality behind the news media propaganda and lies

Aaron Bastani, Gary McQuiggin, “The Coup in Venezuela, Explained” (Novara Media, 2019)

Here comes a very timely report on the recent history of Venezuela’s politics and economy, coming after the country’s Leader of the National Assembly Juan Guaido declared himself President of Venezuela on 23 January 2019, just after Nicolas Maduro’s second term as President began. Almost immediately the United States, followed by several Latin American countries and many in the European Union, either recognised Guaido as President or pressured Maduro to hold new elections. As the title says, the report provides the background to the rise of the Bolivarian political / economic / social revolution in Venezuela in the 1990s and its achievements under Presidents Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro. It also examines the history of Western hostility to Chavez and Maduro’s governments, the US attempts to overthrow Chavez and Maduro by outright coups and constant sabotaging of Venezuela’s economy. This hostility is put into a wider historical context in which the United States has always intervened, usually violently, in the affairs of Latin American countries, derailed their legitimately elected governments and replaced them with fascist elites who rule through violence and terror, and enrich themselves and their American masters by looting their nations’ economies while the population falls into poverty.

Bastani puts the Bolivarian revolution and the ascension of Hugo Chavez to the Presidency into historical and current political context, by noting that Venezuela was in a parlous state on various economic and social criteria in 1998 when Chavez became President, and comparing that state to what Venezuela was in 2010: poverty levels fell precipitously from nearly 71% in 1996 to 21% in 2010, and the level of malnutrition in the population fell from 21% in 1998 to 5% in 2012, thanks to spending on social welfare programs. However much of the money spent on social programs came from revenues from oil exports: after 2015, oil prices (and thus oil revenues) began to fall due in part to Saudi Arabia’s flooding of the global oil market in order to crash the Russian and Iranian economies, widely perceived to be dependent on energy and oil exports. At the same time, the US imposed economic and financial sanctions on Venezuela and froze the country’s oil refiner CITGO’s ability to send revenues earned in the US back to the country; the combined effect of sanctions and falling oil prices ruined the economy and forced the country to issue more money, leading to hyperinflation. Bastani observes that the American use of sanctions to ruin economies has a long and ignoble history, citing the example of the Nixon government’s sanctioning of Chile in 1973.

The only issue I have with this part of Bastani’s explanation of Venezuela’s economic history is that he omits to mention how Venezuela came to be overly dependent on oil extraction and export for export revenues, to the detriment of other industries (especially agriculture), and how this excessive reliance on exporting raw commodities was partly the result of past government policy directed by US governments which saw Venezuela as little more than a giant petrol station to be exploited for oil which Americans regarded as theirs.

The role of British mainstream news media and of the BBC in particular in propagating and perpetuating the lies about Venezuela, Maduro being a dictator and an incompetent economic manager, and the global support that Guaido is supposed to have as self-declared President, is exposed in Bastani’s parsing of the statements presented and the in-built biases they have. Shamefully the British Labour party is as much at fault as the despised Tories in supporting Guaido as President and in attributing Venezuela’s dire economic situation to Chavez, Maduro and the policies and programs they pursued. Bastani then goes over the history of Chavez’s changes to the Venezuelan Constitution and his election history, finding that Chavez consistently won the popular vote in Presidential elections. A US-supported coup against Chavez in 2002, during which he was kidnapped and held hostage, failed when Venezuelans demanded that he be set free and returned to power. Bastani demonstrates that, far from widespread Western belief, Chavez not only was no dictator but the political changes he brought made Venezuela a far more democratic country than the United States or the United Kingdom.

Bastani is a passionate and persuasive presenter who has done detailed research on his topic, backing up his statements with statistics and comparing the propaganda about Venezuela with the reality of the country and finding the lies blatant and outrageous. His presentation makes clear that the Bolivarian revolution and its principles and agenda are a threat to the greed of elites in the Western world to grab other nations’ resources (in Venezuela’s case, its oil reserves) for their own enrichment at the expense of the people whose resources are being stolen. He urges us all to stand up to our elites and call them out on their lies and propaganda, and to stop them from invading Venezuela and seizing its wealth.

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.

 

Q&A Adventures in Democracy – Richard Dawkins and George Pell (ABC1, 9 April 2012): an unedifying and pointless debate

Q&A Adventures in Democracy – Richard Dawkins versus Cardinal George Pell (Australian Broadcasting Corporation TV (ABC1), 9 April 2012)

Managed to miss seeing this episode of the usually boring Q&A program that features every Monday night on ABC1 but someone kindly uploaded this to Youtube so I can watch this as many times as I can before I have to puke. A transcript of the episode can also be found at abc.net.au. By now we should all be familiar with the ploy used by TV channel programmers to structure so-called “debates”: pick an issue or a few related issues out of a hat, tease the subject into two polarised camps and then select proponents representing those camps and have them tear each other to bits in a restricted time slot while the debate host makes feeble attempts to calm them down. It’s remarkable then, knowing what we know, that the Q&A show producers insist on forcing a foreign guest like Dawkins into such “debates” on evolution, religion, the nature of the universe and how it began, and various other social and political issues with his extreme opposite, and surround them both with the opponent’s supporters: in this case, undergraduate students from Notre Dame University, a tertiary institution run by the Roman Catholic Church, just down the road from the ABC TV studios in the Ultimo area. (Not far from where Frank Gehry’s design for the new University of Technology, Sydney, building that resembles a scrunched-up paper bag will be built to overshadow the phallic brutalist building that currently dominates the UTS Broadway campus.) Even more remarkable is that Dawkins agreed to take on Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s Number One Man in Australia: it seems he really sees his vocation as arguing with and smacking down every public religious crackpot leader he meets over topics relating to religious belief and doctrines. And few come more crackpot than our own dear Pell-star.

With Q&A host Tony Jones playing referee, Dawkins and Pell quickly got bogged down trying to answer questions from the audience and arguing with one another. Some questions were not easy to understand, as uestioners themselves were not always very clear on what they were trying to ask and ended up asking questions that probably had little to do with what they really wanted to say. (And some questions were flat-out provocative.) The best questions were usually short and straight to the point, and came from people who had sent them in by video or online. Generally though audience members did not distinguish themselves by their knowledge of issues other than those recently seen and highlighted in the mainstream mass TV and newspaper media and Yours Truly had the impression that Dawkins was not terribly stretched by the questions asked. He looked quite impatient and had the air of a man wanting to be somewhere else, away from the rent-a-mob crowd that surrounded him and Pell.

While Dawkins’s approach was to answer questions to the best of his ability (given that there was some hostility towards him and he must have felt it) and admit inadequacy on questions he was not qualified or experienced to answer, the smug Pell made a great show of his erudition (or emptiness rather), even going so far as to say which page in Charles Darwin’s biography contained the 19th century scientist’s admission that he was agnostic and telling Dawkins to “go and have a look”, as if the Q&A TV crew had Wikipedia open or all copies of Darwin’s writings on hand. Furthermore, whenever Pell made an outrageously incorrect statement, such as ancient Jewish people being “intellectual inferior” or that Neanderthal people were extinct and therefore could not possibly be cousins to Homo sapiens (as though cousins can never die!), he blustered through rebuttals and corrections from Jones and Dawkins to the extent that he made an utter fool of himself. Yours Truly had the strange thought that Pell might have been coached in advance in his responses and that he had been fed the relevant page number of Darwin’s biography by an off-screen minion. (The page number was apparently wrong and should have been the following page of the biography.)

At times the animosity between Dawkins and Pell was plain to see though the panellists were kept far apart enough and Jones did not need to resort to manhandling either of them, though he did have to shush the audience and tell its members to mind their manners.

As with Q&A programs generally, the episode featured a Twitter feed and responses flashed periodically at the bottom of the screen throughout. While some were witty and entertaining, the great bulk of them added no value to the program.

In all, this episode was most unedifying with no insights or understanding reached and each duelling panellist reduced to defending his corner and either looking embarrassed and wanting to escape (Dawkins) or proving to be stupid as well as smug (Pell). This should teach Dawkins a lesson in choosing his opponents and the appropriate framework in which to sally forth into battle against them: if debate there must be, it’s better for that debate to take place in a forum where both sides can be on equal ground, such as on a blog forum or in a newspaper or magazine, and time is not of the essence. Clearly the aim of the program was to rake in viewers and pump up the show’s ratings but the effect will only be short-lived and viewer numbers are likely to return to the low doldrums when the next episode of Q&A arrives the following week.

The episode can be downloaded here.