Sally Hemings: An American Scandal – earnest attempt to flesh out Thomas Jefferson / Sally Hemings affair

Charles Haid, “Sally Hemings: An American Scandal” (2000)

More notable for the performances of its lead actors Carmen Ejogo as Sally Hemings and Sam Neill as Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States and one of the signatories to the US Declaration of Independence, this television mini-series attempts to put flesh on the bones of the relationship the famous leader had with his much younger slave mistress based on the scanty historical information that is available about their affair and on what is generally known of American society of their time (late 18th century / early 19th century). The film is essentially a romantic fictional drama, told in conventional chronological order mostly from Sally’s point of view, that ties together the bits and pieces that are known about the affair, why Sally stayed so long with Jefferson and how the affair reflects the contradictions between Jefferson the idealist and Jefferson the all-too human gentleman farmer / landowner / slave-master.

The film opens when Sally is a young teenager accompanying Jefferson’s two daughters Martha (Mare Winningham) and Polly to France in 1788. Jefferson was the US ambassador to France at the time. Jefferson is already a widower and viewers come to learn that Sally and Jefferson’s dead wife Martha were half-sisters and that Martha and Jefferson inherited Sally and her mother Betty Hemings (Diahann Carroll) along with the Monticello farm and the other slaves working there. While in France, Sally learns to speak French and to read in both English and French. Some time during her stay in France, she and Jefferson begin their affair. Over the next 38 years, Jefferson and Sally were to stay together and their relationship produced six children of whom four survived to adulthood; three of the four children successfully passed as white people and married into white society. The affair weathered public exposure and disapproval – the notion of slave-owners keeping slave women as mistresses wasn’t unusual but such affairs were usually kept discreet – and Jefferson’s post-presidential life during which he was burdened with debts and bankruptcy, and with regret that he did not campaign more strongly against slavery as president or free his slaves when he should have.

Viewers will not learn very much about Jefferson’s achievements in public office or what else he did that made him highly regarded during his life-time and which his daughter Martha was anxious to protect. The first half of the mini-series is rather awkward and unsure, and the fragmented time-line it follows is partly to blame. Only during the last stretch of the film in which the aged Jefferson decides to found a university but struggles with funding it while fighting off debtors at the same time, and Sally tries to maintain Monticello to a respectable standard, does it become compelling watching. The warm affection between Jefferson and Sally is obvious but there is always the ever-present worry that once Jefferson is dead, Sally will be denied her rightful inheritance (that is, her freedom) by Martha.

The film could have been much better and stronger in its focus and direction had the drama been framed differently. Since much of what we know about Sally and Jefferson comes from their descendants, the narrative could have been structured as a series of flashbacks based on Madison Hemings’ 1873 interview and his brother Eston’s memoir. Sally’s children could have been more significant characters and their lives after Jefferson’s death could have been described in a way so as to throw light on how freed slaves were able to integrate into mainstream white society and the problems and discrimination they faced. As it is, the film throws up half-baked episodes of Sally’s life that might or might not have occurred.

The affair might have been better treated as a documentary with fictional re-enactments of events in Sally and Jefferson’s life together. Not enough is known about Hemings that the film should have taken the liberty to portray her as a “strong black woman / mother” stereotype simply to feed a socially liberal audience’s expectations. Within the film’s own parameters, I feel not enough is made of Sally’s decision to return to Monticello in 1789 as a slave and not to stay in revolutionary France as a free woman, and the regrets she might have had over that decision.

I must say though that Neill and Ejogo are excellent in portraying Jefferson and Sally respectively over the near-40 years they spent together: Neill plays a conflicted and hypocritical Jefferson very well, and Ejogo carries off both a teenage and a mature Sally. Mare Winningham is another notable actor with her portrayal of Jefferson’s daughter Martha, though the conflict between her and Sally reduce her to a prim stereotype that does injustice to her attempts to preserve Monticello and keep her father’s debtors at bay. These three actors maintain the drama’s energy and spark and are very much all it has going for it.

Rejuvenation of British politics and student activism on “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 86)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 86)” (RT.com, August 2015)

Perhaps the best thing that former UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband ever did for his party was to resign after the general elections in May 2015, which saw the Conservative Party returned to power and able to govern in its own right. In the current scramble for the vacant UK Labour Party leadership, MP Jeremy Corbyn has emerged as a popular successor with his platform calling for renationalising public utilities and railway transport, tackling corporate tax evasion and avoidance, restoring university student grants and abolishing tuition fees, unilateral nuclear disarmament, urging the Bank of England to create money by funding infrastructure projects, stopping cuts in the public sector, and calling for dialogue with groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and with Russia. Corbyn’s sudden popularity has unsettled the British political establishment and the mainstream British media across the political spectrum – and this includes supposedly progressive media outlets – has leapt to its masters’ defence and is pouring savage opprobrium upon his head. In this episode of “Sputnik …”, Geroge Galloway and guest Seamus Milne of The Guardian (one so-called progressive news outlet that scorns Corbyn and rubbishes his platform) discuss Corbyn’s huge popularity among young people and what it represents in British life: a deep revulsion against the Cameron government and its neoliberal policies, and a desire for political and economic change and social justice.

Milne contrasts the rejuvenation of the UK Labour Party that Corbyn has brought with his platform with the general torpor that has existed in British politics since Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister. He and Galloway briefly touch on the slander, including accusations of anti-Semitism, that has been hurled at Corbyn. Whether Corbyn may have much effect outside Britain is yet to be seen but Milne and Galloway speak of the possibility that the Corbyn phenomenon may resound with Europeans tired of neoliberal politics and economic austerity. Having known Corbyn for a long time and having followed his career in politics, Milne and Galloway agree that he is essentially a decent and honest man. Whether though Corbyn can translate that decency and goodness into effective political leadership, neither Milne nor Galloway can say.

Unfortunately at no point in the discussion does Galloway challenge Milne on his newspaper’s general hostility towards Corbyn and his policies, and why The Guardian vilifies him in the way it does. Strangely, both Milne and Galloway admit to being as surprised as the rest of the country at Corbyn’s apparently phenomenal rise in popularity though with their respective backgrounds, I would have thought they were in a position to predict his Messiah-like coming as they would have (or should have) been aware that many Britons, especially young Britons, were thirsting after real political, social and economic change.

The theme of rejuvenation continues in the second half of the episode with second guest Shadia Edwards-Dashti (hereafter referred to as SED merely for convenience), student anti-war activist and a leader of Stop the War Coalition. She and Galloway discuss the radicalisation of university students angered by past government policies of reducing public funding of tertiary education and increasing tuition fees, with the consequent exploitation of students by banks offering student loans at exorbitant interest rates, combined with the lack of suitable part-time jobs to help pay off student debt and the dismal job prospects faced by many graduates; and various factors such as racism that may or may be influencing this new-found political activism. SED also mentions a growing and insidious culture of policing and snitching at universities, and refers to Jeremy Corbyn as a great representative and advocate for young people.

For my money, SED was the better of the two guests and I wish the Galloways had interviewed her for the whole 25-minute episode. As a student activist, SED is in a better position to analyse and offer an opinion as to why Jeremy Corbyn is so popular with young people, and what his popularity says about the Britain of today and the Britain that might come.

Exposing Browder: a glimpse into a sordid world of tax fraud and undermining a sovereign country

“Exposing Browder / Spisok Braudera” (Rassledovaniye, 2014)

At last this Russian documentary exposing the shady activities of the investment fund manager Bill Browder has an English-language voiceover soundtrack and is available on Youtube. The grandson of Earl Browder, a founder and secretary general of the Communist Party USA (which later expelled him on suspicion that he was a spy), and son of Felix Browder, a famous mathematician, Bill Browder gained experience as a consultant in the Boston Consulting Group in London and as an investment manager for Salomon Brothers. Along the way, Browder shed his US citizenship and adopted British citizenship. In 1996, he and a partner established Hermitage Capital Management to capitalise on the large-scale privatisations of state corporations in Russia. The firm used the services of Firestone Duncan as consultants on legal, taxation and accounting issues in Russia and the head of that firm, Jamison Firestone, seems to have become quite close to Browder and HCM in their subsequent forays in the Russian investment scene.

HCM did very well though the financial crisis in 1998 must surely have threatened HCM’s capital inflows and gave quite a few of its investors headaches. Riding on HCM’s success – by 2004, it was the largest foreign investment fund in Russia managing over US$3 billion and representing several thousand investors – Browder became a shareholder in the energy corporation Gazprom where he made a name for himself exposing corruption and financial mismanagement.  HCM’s strategy was ostensibly to buy shares in a large undervalued company (usually an energy company) and demand access to that company’s financial records, supposedly for the purpose of uncovering suspicious irregularities in company management. HCM would loudly bray about such irregularities in articles published in Western financial media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal or use lawsuits to shame the target company managers. Political lobbying was another weapon Browder did not hesitate to use.

HCM’s fortunes took a turn in 2005 when Browder found himself barred from entering Russia on the grounds of “national security”. Initially supportive of Russia, Browder soon turned against Moscow as HCM became the subject of tax evasion probes and government raids on its offices. In following years, Russian police came across a network of various companies based in odd parts of Russia (Kalmykia near the Caucasus being one such place) through which HCM operated. These companies employed mentally and physically disabled people as financial advisors to exploit a loophole in Russia’s taxation system so as to claim tax rebates. This harebrained scheme was the brainchild of the Firestone Duncan accountant / auditor Sergei Magnitsky.

Magnitsky’s subsequent imprisonment and later death from undiagnosed heart disease or a chronic pancreatic condition (I’m not sure which) while in prison received a great deal of publicity and media attention in the West as an example of Russia’s treatment of political prisoners. Magnitsky’s purported ill treatment was one of a number of issues the United States government flagged as a stick with which to beat and taunt Russia, and an example to sell to a gullible news media and its audience as “proof” of the authoritarian and repressive police-state nature of Russia since Vladimir Putin came to power as President in 2000 and set the country on an independent political and economic course that greatly displeased the US. Among other things, the United States government drew up and approved the so-called Magnitsky blacklist of Russian politicians, business people and other prominent figures who could not enter mainland US territory and whose financial assets in the US, if they had any, were frozen.

As there is such a huge disparity between what Browder claims the Russian government did to bring down HCM and Magnitsky, and what government investigators say they found, and given that investing in Russian companies during the 1990s and the early 2000s was a complicated business even at the best of times when the country’s financial markets were unstable and financial regulatory laws and institutions poorly developed – and the country’s assets were being seized by foreigners like Browder, HCM and Firestone Duncan – a documentary like “Exposing Browder” is very welcome to help viewers try to understand something of what happened and why the example of Browder and HCM and what they did in Russia in stripping the country’s assets and engaging in tax fraud and evasion on an outrageous scale is so important. There is no little irony in the fact that the grandson of a former Communist Party office-bearer in the US should have become the very exemplar of a predatory self-interested capitalist investor who got to the top in that supposedly time-honoured American tradition of striking out on his own, taking major risks, riding out the bad times, reaping benefits in the good times and presenting as a heroic white knight uncovering and reporting corruption and criminal activity.

It is a pity then that the documentary seems rather rushed in its English translation and looks quite slapdash in its breathless presentation. The film was made for TV as part of a current affairs program and should be appreciated in that light. It follows Browder’s career as an investment consultant and manager in the developing financial market in Russia after the country adopted free market principles in running its economy during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. Being a Russian-made documentary, the viewpoint understandably is aligned with that of the Russian government and investigators against Browder. It makes no apologies for being partial. There is plenty of detail and viewers may need to see this film a few times to understand the scale of Browder’s underhand activities.

The second half of the film deals with Sergei Magnitsky and his involvement with Browder and Firestone Duncan, how his collusion in tax fraud led to his imprisonment and death, and the way in which the last years of his life have become politicised and exploited by others, Browder most of all. Though what he did merited serious jail-time, Magnitsky emerges as a pathetic figure. While prisons in Russia are not lovely places to be in, and the medical treatment Magnitsky received from prison doctors speaks of their incompetence and indifference to his plight, his death from heart failure is eerie in that he was one of several people associated with Browder who met mysterious deaths from heart disease and other strange causes. The film makes a case that Magnitsky remained loyal to Browder to the end and counted on the American to get him out of jail. After his death, Browder used Magnitsky’s treatment and death as a stick to continually beat the Russian government, slandering various government officials and lobbying the US government to slap travel bans, asset freezes and other punishments against Russian politicians and civil servants.

The last few minutes are a revelation in which the value of Browder and the Magnitsky List to the US government’s agenda against Russia, and the propaganda potential that can be milked from it to convince Western audiences and Russians opposed to Vladimir Putin and Moscow (whether they are genuine oppositionists or those liberal oppositionists funded by US agencies) that Russia is an authoritarian police state hell bent on persecuting individuals, is spelled out. As of this time of writing, Browder is protected by the United Kingdom from arrest by Russian authorities for tax fraud and tax evasion. He is currently working towards convincing the European Community into adopting its own version of the Magnitsky List to further damage Russian financial and other interests in European Community member countries (especially Cyprus). The feeling that Browder may be acting as an agent provocateur and spy on behalf of the UK and US governments is hard to shake off. Why have so many individuals close to Browder, HCM and Firestone Duncan died in mysterious circumstances nearly all at once? How did Browder manage to convince the US government into passing bans and restrictions against Russia and Russian individuals despite his having renounced US citizenship?

With all its faults, the documentary is an excellent introduction into the complexities of the tax fraud / tax evasion affair of Bill Browder, HCM, Firestone Duncan and Sergei Magnitsky from the Russian point of view.

Spotlight on Cuban medical diplomacy and ISIS in “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 46)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 46)” (RT.com, 3 October 2014)

In the first half of this episode, George Galloway interviews Bernard Regan from The Cuban Solidarity Campaign / The Campaign for Cuba on Cuba’s response to the Ebola epidemic outbreak in western Africa by sending a team of doctors and nurses there as opposed to the automatic US and UK emergency response in sending thousands of soldiers to the region. Galloway and Regan discuss Cuba’s use of medical professionals as diplomatic shock troops and bearers of goodwill who ask no questions and demand no payment as they assist Third World nations deal with unexpected medical emergencies. They contrast Cuba’s response in Sierra Leone with the tortoise-like reactions of First World nations in providing medical help to Guinea-Conakry, Liberia and Sierra Leone which have been badly hit by the Ebola disease outbreak since March 2014 when Guinea-Conakry reported its first case. Both host and guest then discuss the punitive US attitude towards Cuba since Fidel Castro seized power in the country in 1961 and how this has affected Cuba’s economic development and trade relations with other countries.

The focus is mainly on how Cuban medical diplomacy has benefited Third World countries, having helped over 80 million people throughout the world since the 1960s and trained many doctors from many of these countries and even from the US itself. Unfortunately there is very little about how Cuban medical training might emphasise the importance of community and public health infrastructure and policies, and how these affect the health of individuals and their families, over medical technologies that favour wealthy individuals and the diseases and conditions they suffer (like heart disease and certain cancers) as a consequence of their life-styles. There isn’t much about the history of Cuban medical diplomacy, how and why it developed, what its goals and agendas originally were and how these might have changed over time, and what future developments the Cuban government intend for it. There is no discussion of what threats the program might face, how continued US economic isolation might jeopardise its future, and what might happen after Fidel Castro and his brother Raul pass on.

The Ebola outbreak itself is not dealt with on the program and viewers interested in a discussion about how the disease appeared in the poorest west African countries, all of them with a history of unstable politics, civil war, interference from foreign powers coveting their considerable natural resources (diamonds, oil to name a couple), and Liberia and Sierra Leone especially host to US bio-weapons laboratories, will have to wait for another episode.

The second guest invited onto the show is Irish foreign correspondent for The Independent Patrick Cockburn, recent author of a book on the Middle Eastern terrorist organisation Islamic State (hereafter referred to as IS), also known as ISIS or ISIL. Cockburn describes the connections between IS and previous terrorist organisations like al Qa’ida and those Sunni Muslim nations whose religion is Wahhabi Sunni Islam, and the severity with which IS applies its narrow and literal interpretation of Shari’a and Islam to captured Iraqi soldiers and civilians. Galloway and Cockburn then go on to discuss the ways in which Western nations, in particular the US and the UK, have shaped the conditions in the Middle East that have given rise to IS and allowed it to flourish in the borderlands of NW Iraq / NE Syria. The opposition from Sunni Muslims in Iraq to the Maliki government, appointed by the US, practising sectarian politics and looting the country’s treasury and resources, has been instrumental in allowing IS to grow by recruiting disaffected youth in Sunni Muslim communities. The Western decision to bomb IS-held territories (and also areas reclaimed by the Syrian Army, for the real goal of Western intervention is the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al Assad) will only make a bad situation much worse and benefit IS.

In 12 to 13 minutes, the conversation can’t penetrate very deeply into the complicated politics involved and why the West and its barbarous allies in the Middle East resort to more violence and brutality to deal with violence and brutality. Nevertheless the discussion is wide-ranging and very informative. Cockburn is a very eloquent speaker and Galloway and Pertiwi listen attentively and respectfully.

By now, Galloway and Pertiwi are a good double act, Galloway often quite theatrical and Pertiwi acting as his foil. Their program has a very marked politically socialist bent with guests usually coming from that side of politics but, given the often extreme right-wing bent of most mainstream news and current affairs media, the Galloways provide a welcome breath of fresh air with their discussion of topics that would otherwise remain unknown.

Sunday evening TV discussion of geopolitics on “An Evening with Vladimir Soloviev – Russia’s Response to US ‘Declaration of War’ ”

“An Evening with Vladimir Soloviev – Russia’s Response to US ‘Declaration of War’ ” (Rossia 1, 2014)

In Western countries, Sunday evening TV consists of reality TV shows, nature documentaries or light entertainment; in Russia, or at least on one TV channel, there is “An Evening with Vladimir Soloviev” which comes in prime-time viewing right after the evening news and which draws in a large audience. Host Soloviev interviews various public figures on the hot issues of the day and this episode, featuring six experts on geopolitics, revolves around US President Barack Obama’s speech to the UN in October 2014 in which he effectively said that Russia was a greater threat to world peace and stability than either ISIS in the Middle East or the emerging Ebola pandemic in western Africa.

Each expert gives his view – by the way, all six experts are male – on what the problem is, and how the US is trying to undermine Russia and conduct warfare through economic and diplomatic means, and via proxy nations like Ukraine. The discussion initially focuses on what has influenced Barack Obama to say what he said in the speech and one interviewee notes that in the past Obama had read works and was inspired by past American Cold War-era politicians such as Dean Acheson and George Kennan who held anti-Soviet views and advocated “containment” of the USSR. One expert eventually swings the discussion around to what Russia can and should do, which is to focus on its own economic development and progress, and to curb the growth of Bandera worship among Ukrainians. (Stepan Bandera was an infamous Ukrainian nationalist who collaborated with the Nazis, was jailed by them, and after the Second World War worked with British, American and West German intelligence agencies to run agents into Ukraine before eventually being assassinated by Soviet spies who infiltrated West German intelligence.)

The second half of the program becomes considerably animated as host and interviewees decry what they view as shortcomings in Russian society and culture, in particular the shallow materialist culture that took hold during the 1990s with its emphasis on immediate gratification, a consumerist mind-set and the degradation of values, qualities and beliefs that conflicted with the demands of a consumption-based society where people are treated as clients and consumers and not as citizens. Soloviev and his guests all agreed that Russia needs to develop a different economic system that includes its overseas partners in China, Iran, Pakistan and several others in Asia and Latin America, and that the Russian state must improve upon and escalate its manufacturing and engineering sectors. The moral fibre of the nation is also found lacking, evidenced in the high rates of vodka consumption and alcoholism, and the experts agree more must be done to improve people’s lives.

The program is interesting in one way in that it affords Western viewers the opportunity to see what Russians themselves consider to be ideal Sunday evening TV viewing and what the important issues facing their country are. They take quite seriously the threat against them posed by the US and its allies. Russians are deeply aware that there is still a lot they have to do to advance their economy and manufacturing before they are equal to the US. They know they need China’s help and friendship, and the friendship of other countries such as Brazil and India.

The program may be an example of state-controlled TV, and is very mainstream in its views and presentation, but at least it treats its audiences as intelligent and familiar with the topics it presents, and does not talk down to them. The pace is fast and viewers need to concentrate quite closely on what Soloviev and his guests say. The discussion is quite lively and there is no obvious Putin worship that Westerners might have expected. Unfortunately there is no opportunity for the studio audience to ask questions of Soloviev and his guests but this does mean that the program does not get bogged down in confrontational politics. Soloviev is known to detest the so-called liberal opposition forces in Russia who receive funding and instruction from various US agencies such as the National Endowment for Democracy, so presumably the guests who appear on his program will be those public figures who more or less support the current Russian government under President Vladimir Putin and its agenda.

Brain-washing propaganda or not, this particular evening with Soloviev is good viewing and one only wishes that Sunday evening TV viewing in Australia could be even half as good.

Thanks to Vineyard of the Saker for uploading the episode of the TV program onto his website and to his team for translating the Russian dialogue into English and providing sub-titles.

An Evening with Vladimir Soloviev – Dmitri Rogozin Interview: revealing the direction and agenda of Russian military modernisation

“An Evening with Vladimir Soloviev – Dmitri Rogozin Interview” (Rossia 1, 2014)

A very grateful thank you to The Vineyard of the Saker blog for uploading a video of the current affairs TV show “An Evening with Vladimir Soloviev” together with an English-language translation of host Vladimir Soloviev’s grilling of the Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, Dmitri Rogozin, before a live audience. Rogozin is the head of the Military – Industrial Commission and is tipped by TVotS blogger The Saker himself as a successor to the Russian President Vladimir Putin. The interview can be viewed on TVotS at this link.

The two men stand some distance apart facing each other at white lecterns in a setting that might remind some people of the sets for the famous quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Initially Soloviev asks Rogozin about the current state and progress of Russia’s military technology since 1991: a timely question given that as of this writing Russia was facing the likelihood of war from NATO due in no small part to the conflict that has been ravaging Ukraine since April 2014 and Russia’s supposed role, talked up by the US government with no evidence to support its statements, in directing the activities of the anti-Kyiv separatist rebels in the Donetsk and Lugansk areas in eastern Ukraine. Over the past 20 years, Russian military technology has had mixed fortunes: during the Yeltsin years, technological advance in this area stalled for lack of funding and corruption in government, and since 2000 military designers have been playing catch-up with the rest of the world. Particular emphasis is placed on having technology that can project power away from Russian territory in a way similar to how the US projects power throughout the world through its aircraft carriers and other technology, and on training soldiers to be highly mobile and flexible, able to use a variety of technology at different levels of complexity in different defence contexts. Quality of weaponry and of soldierly preparation over quantity of weapons (the Soviet Union was infamous for having too many weapons that were never used) and soldiers (Rogozin believes that the country’s population is too small for the geographical territory Russia covers) is preferred.

The conversation moves to a brief discussion of the decline of the engineering and manufacturing industries in Ukraine since 1991, how industry in that country has frozen and been left behind by both the EU and Russia for lack of funds and the crony capitalism looting the country’s assets and wealth, and how Russia has ended up benefiting from Ukraine’s loss as Ukrainian scientists, engineers and technicians move to Russia and put down roots. Rogozin emphasises how the defence industry is not only attracting good workers with high technical and scientific skills but it is attracting such a large number that the average of defence workers has dropped by more than ten years since the early 2000s to age 45 years. The two men also discuss the Mistral warship contract, the behaviour of the French government over the warship and what that implies about the character of such a government in refusing to supply the ship, built to Russian naval specifications and therefore useless to other countries, to a country that had already paid in full for it. Interestingly, Rogozin says that the ship is not needed (in fact, it was ordered by a former disgraced defence minister who has been charged with corruption).

Soloviev asks quite searching questions and Rogozin is up to the task of explaining in detail how the Russian defence ministry is modernising the country’s armed forces and its equipment. For someone who trained in economics and has a doctorate of philosophy, Rogozin’s knowledge of Russian defence capabilities is wide and quite deep without being very technical. (His father was a military scientist by the way.) He presents very well without coming across as having been groomed and rehearsed through his speech, and he is genuinely passionate in his explanations. Rarely does he repeat himself or resort to stock phrases as most Western politicians put on the spot do during interviews. During the course of the interview, viewers discover Soloviev has known Rogozin for a long time and the two men are friendly, so Western audiences expecting an adversarial and aggressive interviewing approach will be surprised. Perhaps Soloviev could have asked Rogozin more awkward questions about how Russia can finance all its defence improvements and how quickly and well the country can do so in a global environment in which its enemies are circling it and pushing it towards a major war. He could have probed some of the risks of the agenda adopted by the Russian government in modernising the armed forces and military technology.

Western audiences will be intrigued that the interview takes place before a live audience who listen intently and seem very interested in what Rogozin has to say. There are no interjections and unfortunately at the end there is no opportunity for the audience to ask questions. A sceptical Western viewer might say this episode is merely full of hot air in its own way, if less glossy.

The interview is important for what it reveals about current Russian military strategy and the Russian government’s view of the challenges it faces in changing its armed forces, plotting a direction for its military and seeking to avoid war while it is still modernising its industry, while the West grows ever more hostile and rattles its sabres against Russia and the country’s allies.

Bedlam Behind Bars: wringing its hands over abuses in the US prison system

Matthew Hill, “Bedlam Behind Bars” (BBC Panorama, 7 July 2014)

In a country that was founded as an ambitious social experiment in democracy, freedom and the pursuit of happiness, and which is now devolving into a severe technocratic and brutal corporate police state, the weakest and most vulnerable victims turn out to be the mentally ill. This BBC Panorama episode investigates the increasing use of the public prison system as a substitute mental asylum network.

Reporter Hilary Andersson visits state prisons in Chicago and Texas to document incidents of violence, torture and other abuses committed by prison guards and wardens against prisoners with bipolar disorders and schizophrenia. With a mix of interviews with prisoners, lawyers and mental health professionals, on-site filming and videos made by the prisons themselves, overlaid by voice-overs by Andersson and some of her interviewees, the episode reveals the dismal state of the prisons in which mentally ill people are held, bullied and beaten by guards. Prisoners’s cells are often filthy with mould growing inside or raw sewage seeping in. People may be kept in solitary confinement for hours at a time. Guards chain one man, naked, to his bed and force him to eat lying down with his wrists and ankles in chains; some days later, the man dies from heat exhaustion and dehydration in his cell. Other prisoners are punished with excessive and dangerous use of pepper spray by the guards. The irony is that earlier in the twentieth century, state hospitals established for the mentally ill were often just as bleak and brutal as the prisons today are. The asylums were later closed and community-based care institutions were established. Over decades however, as funding for such places was withdrawn by succeeding Federal, State and county governments, patients ended up on the streets or in the care of families, and many people were scooped up by public prisons through some incident involving a public disturbance or violence.

Although Hilary Andersson may be a good investigative interviewer, the program doesn’t push very far as to why the imprisonment of mentally ill people is still tolerated by Federal, State and county governments. Many interviewees who are in charge of the prisons deny that a problem exists or appear to make excuses for the prisons. Lawyers for prisoners talk of obtaining justice for their clients but no-one seems to question the situation where mentally ill people or people with hallucinations and delusions are ending up behind bars when they need medical help and treatment that prison employees deny. Curiously police officers appear as extras rather than as the shock troops of a brutal system and only one is interviewed. Another aspect of the prison system missed by the BBC Panorama program is the growth of private prisons whose operations are kept secret from governments and the public, and whose corporate owners often finance politicians’ election campaigns.

At the end of the program, Andersson and her team contact the Department of Justice with statistics on the numbers of mentally ill people who have died in the prison system but are rebuffed. While one woman interviewee is working to draw public and government attention to the plight of sick people in the prison system, the situation remains dire. No solution or set of solutions that would go some way to removing unwell prisoners from incarceration and giving them the treatments they need is suggested. American society appears helpless and at a loss for remedies.

Nowhere in the program is it ever suggested that the structure of American society and trends favouring privatisation, more social inequality, increasing social fragmentation and other pressures that encourage or aggravate mental illnesses are to blame. Political inertia exists because the prison system as it is benefits current US politics and the money links that bind politicians to corporations, some of which now own and operate private prisons. Unfortunately with the BBC becoming a propaganda front for US and UK and government and corporate interests, the program adopts a helpless approach to its subject matter: it can only shine a light into some dark areas of the US prison and justice system and wring its hands.

Al-Maydeen TV Interview with Sheikh Nabeel Naiem: stunning revelations about ISIS connections with the US

“ISIS: The Bombshell Interview to Impeach Obama” – Al-Maydeen TV Interview with Sheikh Nabeel Naiem at SyriaNews (3 July 2014)

Recommended by Moon of Alabama and The Vineyard of the Saker blogs, this interview which can be viewed over at the SyriaNews blog is a real humdinger in that all the way through the conversation the interviewee Sheikh Nabeel Naiem, a former Al Qa’ida commander and founder of the jihadi movement in Egypt, links the creation and funding of the jihadi terrorist group ISIS with the United States.  In a nutshell, Sheikh Nabeel Naiem explains that ISIS head Abu Bakr Baghdadi demands allegiance from Al Qa’ida leader Dr Ayman Zawahiri as he (Baghdadi) has funding and resources from the US government, that ISIS began in Iraq and received training from US marines in camps in Jordan, that the Americans are using ISIS and the Sunni-Shi’ite split within Islam to create continuous instability in the Middle East and keep the Arab peoples weak, and that politicians within the US and Israeli governments have been working together since 1998 to destabilise and overthrow the governments of Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In particular, takfiri elements – the term refers to Muslims who accuse other Muslims of apostasy against Islam – in Saudi Arabia are being groomed to overthrow the Saudi royal family and government.

The interview is 40 minutes long and carries on at a fairly fast clip. Everything the interviewee says about ISIS and its fighters is riveting. Those who cannot understand Arabic will be relieved to know that the SyriaNews blog carries an English-language transcript by Arabi Souri of the interview. Much of the early part of the talk revolves around where ISIS gets its funding, arms, other resources, advice and training from. The topic later switches to discussing the kind of people who join ISIS and what ISIS offers that attracts Muslim youth from across Europe. Nabeel Naiem identifies takfiri ideology as being ISIS’s main attraction but does not say why this should be so. One guesses that takfiri ideology appeals to young idealistic people because it concerns itself with sweeping away perceived corruption within Islam and Islamic societies, cleansing the religion and its principles and laws, and starting afresh with a pure and idealistic interpretation of Islam as they believe must have been practised by the Prophet Muhammad and his followers. In this way the Islamic Caliphate will be restored throughout the Muslim world and reach out beyond. It’s not difficult to see how a simplistic paradigm appeals to naive people ignorant of Islamic history and their original cultures who see around them corruption running deeply through the world. In particular young Muslims living in Western societies who experience discrimination simply because they are Muslims or Arabic-speaking, who have grown up with limited experience of their own cultures and whose experience of Western culture has not enriched them very much because it is mediated through an infantilising Americanised filter with exploitation as its tool and financial profit as its goal, may be vulnerable to ideologies promising an alternate path to a utopia in which absolute obedience to a narrow and literalist interpretation of Islam replaces mind-numbing consumerism with its cynical treatment of people.

The most chilling parts of the interview include those passages where Nabeel Naiem admits that ISIS is fighting both Sunnis and Shi’ites and has no hesitation in killing anyone and everyone who does not or will not submit to the ISIS takfiri ideology. Absolutely no-one is safe.  The sheikh also refers to Western writings and plans such as the Project for the New American Century as providing the blueprint for ISIS actions in the Middle East which do not discriminate between governments and ordinary people: all are equally apostate and therefore kuffar (infidels) to be killed if they will not submit.

Naturally the interviewer says the phenomenon of ISIS and the takfiri ideology needs more discussion and research and Nabeel Naiem states that all Islamic countries, Sunni and Shi’ite, and others, must work together to get rid of such jihadi groups as these represent the new and brutal face of Western neo-colonialism. The sheikh emphasises that the Prophet Muhammad met similar firebrand ideologues, known as Khawarij (outlaws), and condemned them.

If what Nabeel Naiem says is accurate and not exaggerated, then the conclusion is that the US and Israeli governments are even more depraved and psychopathic in their exploitation of the Middle East and its conflicts and problems so as to maintain control over the region and get what they want out of it. In spite of many historical examples demonstrating that manipulating other people’s conflicts for the purpose of controlling them does not succeed – one would think that the US would have learned something from meddling in Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1970s and from interfering in the affairs of Latin America throughout the 20th century – the Americans and their Israeli ally blunder on ahead immersing themselves in more violence and chaos while their peoples sink further into poverty. Eventually if ISIS fails to establish a secure caliphate across the Middle East and suspects that it was betrayed by the US and Israel – and these countries are likely to betray ISIS if only because ISIS can’t be allowed to be more than a gadfly causing irritation and upset – then its fighters will turn upon their sponsors and the American and Israeli public will be victims.

 

 

 

A tale of two countries, the question of independence and misrepresentation of the truth on “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 17)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 17)” (RT.com, 8 March 2014)

I haven’t been following this weekly series of interviews since December 2013 – I made up my mind to tune in only if someone of interest featured on the show – and Episode 17 piqued my interest as it features RT.com legal commentator Alexander Mercouris giving his opinion and insights on the Western media’s presentation of events in Ukraine since November 2013. As a visitor to and commenter on Russia-related blogs The Kremlin Stooge and Da Russophile, I’ve come across Mercouris’s comments on many topics that the blog authors and their guests post and have occasionally conversed with Mercouris myself. If this background means of course that I’m biased in my assessment of this episode, then so be it: at this point in time, I think it impossible to be impartial on the events in Ukraine and how they are being interpreted in the Western press, if one believes that the role of the media is not only to report accurately on events as they occur but also strive for truth and be an advocate for those whose interests are not served or enhanced by violent seizures of power from legitimately elected governments (no matter how incompetent and corrupt those governments may be) by groups who pretend to be one thing but serve hidden masters and agendas.

Mercouris is a clear-voiced and articulate speaker who is easy to follow, thanks to his careful arguments which are evidence of his ability and legal experience in analysing complex issues. Galloway’s interview of Mercouris focuses largely on the telephone conversation between Baroness Ashton, chief foreign envoy of the European Union, and Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet who at the time of their conversation had just returned from a fact-finding mission about the demonstrations and shootings on the Maidan in Kyiv over February and March in 2014. In their conversation (hacked and made public by Russian hackers), Paet speaks of talking to a woman doctor who is not identified in the conversation but is known to be Dr Olga Bogomolets, a pro-Maidan supporter, about the attacks on the Maidan demonstrators by unknown snipers on 22 February 2014. Bogomolets mentions that she treated both the police and some of the demonstrators for bullet wounds and noted that the bullets that hit the police were similar to those that hit the demonstrators: an indication that the bullets came from the same fire-arms.

Galloway and Mercouris note that the phone conversation is calm in its discussion of the sniper attacks and that Ashton expresses surprise and shock and makes noises about investigating the sniper attacks. Since the attacks though, Ashton appears to have done little to start an investigation. Mercouris  compares the sniper attacks with the ongoing war in Syria, noting that the same people who funded the neo-fascist seizure of power in Kyiv, forcing the legitimate if weak President Yanukovych to flee for his life to Russia, are much the same people funding the Free Syria Army and jihadi forces in Syria against President Bashar al Assad. Both interviewer and interviewee agree that if Ukraine is to avoid falling apart, with eastern Ukraine threatening to break away after the recent Crimean referendum in which Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia, the West must work together with Russia to help Ukraine financially.

In just under 14 minutes, both interviewer and interviewee can’t hope to cover all aspects of the crisis in Kyiv and Ukraine. They note that the Western media has done a poor job in reporting the situation there: while mainstream news media in the US have completely ignored events in that faraway country, so-called quality news media like the BBC have misrepresented the situation as one in which Russia is the villain threatening Ukrainian integrity and must be stopped with threats of war or actual war. Unfortunately neither Galloway nor Mercouris touch on why the Western media might be doing such a shoddy job, nor why a situation exists in which the quality news media tells more lies than the tabloid news media, for all its obsession with celebrity gossip and sport, does. The time passes very quickly and Galloway is forced to cut off his interview quite abruptly.

Galloway’s second interview is with a former UK Labour Cabinet minister, Brian Wilson, who happens to be a long-time friend of Galloway’s and who plans to tour with Galloway promoting the “No” case against Scottish independence ahead of the September 2014 referendum. Surprisingly, Galloway does not compare the upcoming Scottish referendum on the question of independence with the mid-March referendum in Crimea on whether to accede to Russia or revert to the 1992 Ukrainian Constitution’s position on Crimea’s status in Ukraine (in which the peninsula would enjoy autonomy under Ukrainian sovereignty) though I suppose to have done so would have bogged him and Wilson down in a long discussion comparing the two.

Wilson makes a point that Scottish people living and working in England apparently will be unable to vote in the referendum; though he does not elaborate further, that fact may well suggest that the organisers of the referendum have chosen to obscure the extent to which the Scottish economy is enmeshed with the economy of the rest of the UK and independence could have quite adverse consequences on Scottish employment levels. Would Scottish people living and working in other parts of the UK be forced to return to Scotland where there may not be any jobs available in the general industry area these people work in? For that matter, would non-Scottish UK citizens have to leave Scotland to try to find work elsewhere in the UK – and end up finding none? Additionally Wilson points out that the obsession with independence and Scottish identity might be obfuscating other more pressing issues that Scots are interested in. If Scottish identity depends on Scotland being independent, then Scottish identity might be very weak to begin with and independence will not solve that problem. The experience of Ukraine as an independent country since 1991, during which time the government made few attempts to establish a Ukrainian identity and a Ukrainian culture to bring together and unite different groups with varying histories, languages, religions and cultures, should serve as a warning.

There’s much to be said for Wilson and Galloway’s case against independence for Scotland but 13 minutes just aren’t enough time for a deeper discussion and the “No” case seems a bit superficial. I’ll have to find out more myself about what independence might mean for Scotland and whether there’s a real case for the “No” cause.

Though Galloway and his missus Gayatri Pertiwi might not have realised at the time, Scotland could learn something from Ukraine’s experience of independence and proceed a bit more cautiously down the road towards breaking away from the United Kingdom. The case for independence may not be as clear-cut as Scottish voters might be led into thinking it is.

Hidden truths revealed (or maybe not) on “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 2)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 2)” (RT.com, 23 November 2013)

Broadcast on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dallas, this episode partly focuses on the various conspiracy theories surrounding the death and whether any of these might be closer to the truth of what actually happened and if Lee Harvey Oswald really had been capable of shooting JFK on his own. Interviewee Michael Yardley, a weapons expert, talks at length on Oswald’s background and on the physical context of the shooting as it related to the wounds suffered by the President and the film evidence of the shooting. Yardley regards Oswald as a “deeply suspicious” character whose loyalties and ideological beliefs are extremely dodgy, and refers to a number of conspiracy theories revolving around Oswald in which the CIA and other organisations seem to be linked to him. Yardley discusses the logistics of the killing and finds that Oswald could have killed Kennedy. The interviewee also delves into the circumstances of Robert Kennedy’s killing in a Los Angeles hotel in 1968.

In the episode’s second half, the focus switches to the Chilcot inquiry into the British government’s conduct in the period leading up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 with interviewee David Davis, a Conservative Party politician. Davis refers to the snail pace at which the inquiry has proceeded due to the obfuscation thrown up by the political establishment and the embarrassment this has caused as the delays only confirm the public distrust of the government and its agencies. Davis looks at likely reasons as to why the Chilcot inquiry is blocked by the refusal of relevant institutions to co-operate with the inquiry. Despite having supported the intervention in 2003, Davis acknowledges that the invasion has failed in its supposed aims of delivering democracy to Iraq and freedom for its people, that it has caused much suffering to Iraqis and damaged US and British standing in the Muslim world, and that it has discredited the US and UK political establishments in the eyes of their people.

The switch from the JFK assassination to the Chilcot inquiry is rather abrupt – I was watching the episode on Youtube so all the advertisement had been removed – and I’d have liked the assassination to have taken up the entire episode rather than half. Admittedly while the details of the assassination are interesting, they add nothing new to the topic that most people already know. What really was interesting was Galloway and Pertiwi’s brief chat about the Kennedy brothers’ link to President Sukarno of Indonesia; whether the assassination marked a turning-point in Indonesia’s relationship to United States and might have led to Sukarno’s overthrow in 1965, and the subsequent bloodbath that followed as the Indonesian Army pursued, imprisoned, tortured and killed thousands of people suspected of Communist sympthaties, was not discussed and perhaps we shall never know. Perhaps if Galloway had steered Yardley away from the details of the shooting and the two discussed the conspiracy theories surrounding the killing, why they continue to persist and what the persistence of these theories suggest about people’s views of JFK himself, the discussion might have been much more riveting.

Both interviews are very absorbing and the time passes so quickly that when Galloway terminates both interviews, the shock that the minutes have sped by is truly disorienting.

As usual with these episodes, Galloway and Pertiwi converse a little about the topics under scrutiny and Galloway casually mentions that former US President George H W Bush, the then CIA Director, happened to be in Dallas at the time of JFK’s shooting.