Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 7: Adam Ruins College): how financially naive young adults end up in the grip of neoliberal economic ideology

Paul Briganti, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 7: Adam Ruins College)” (2017)

Aiming squarely at its target audience of US high school students and undergrads, this episode is nevertheless of interest to foreigners who coasted through undergraduate university and college courtesy of government-funded grants or scholarships, or even enjoyed free tuition, and might be mystified as to how and why Americans these days land themselves in life-long debt because of … student loans! Adam Conover takes prospective college student Cole (Lukas Gage) and the audience through what almost amounts to a labyrinth of why going to college these days is so necessary – because most jobs in the future will demand a college degree – yet how going to college can become an unnecessary financial millstone around young people’s necks.

Initially Cole thinks he can be like Bill Gates and become a drop-out tech billionaire. Not so fast, Adam points out – most people who have only a high school diploma will eventually end up, at every stage of their career, earning less than someone with a college degree. Quickly convinced by Adam’s argument, Cole decides to read the US News & World Report’s college rankings guide on what college to choose – only for Adam to explain how the guide is manipulated by college administrators and ultimately can’t advise on the best colleges to attend with respect to the quality of education offered. Moving into a noisy student party, Adam and Cole shout their way through a quick history of lending to college students: initially government funded and regulated, the institution known as Sallie Mae was privatised in the 1990s and almost immediately began to exploit naive 18-year-olds for profit in much the same way that banks began pushing subprime mortgages onto people with suspect credit histories who could not pay off their housing loans.

In spite of the happy atmosphere and Cole’s kooky, gullible nature, the episode does deliver a very grim message: to get ahead in life, people need college degrees but may risk acquiring a huge debt that only could take a life-time to pay off but which could also affect their eligibility for future social welfare, not to mention limiting their choices as to work, having shelter and even planning a family. Happily Adam suggests to Cole that he should see a financial advisor about the kind of loan that would suit him and that community college or a publicly funded college may be a better option than going to an expensive Ivy League university.

The action seems a lot more histrionic and the whackiness has a forced quality about it due to over-acting on Conover and Gage’s part. Oddly there’s none of the animation that enlivens other episodes in the “Adam Ruins Everything” series. As with other episodes I’ve seen of this series, there are no really great revelations that most members of the public, particularly college students and their families, wouldn’t already be familiar with. Still this is a very entertaining show that moves briskly and which ends on an upbeat note.

Ultimately though the show can only go so far as to demonstrate that privatising institutions that offer student loans can open the door to predatory profiteering on financially naive people, and cannot draw parallels between the nation-wide student loan manipulation rort and similar bubbles such as the subprime mortgage bubble that killed off Lehmann Brothers in 2008 and ushered in the Great Recession. Once again, neoliberal capitalism rears its ugly head to prey on the vulnerable. Is there an alternative? “Adam Ruins Everything” unfortunately cannot offer one: for one thing, suggesting that university tuition should be free might not go down well with a TV-viewing public brainwashed to believe that a social welfare state is too, er … socialist.

 

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 5: Adam Ruins Art): the hermetic world of fine art is dashed to pieces by loudmouth comic

Matthew Pollock, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 5: Adam Ruins Art)” (2017)

In this episode, Adam swipes the world of fine art, art galleries and art auctions by demonstrating that what is currently considered great art wasn’t necessarily so at the time it was made, and that the current fine art market in which certain artworks worth millions can exchange ownership is nothing more than a tax scam by which wealthy people can gain tax concessions by gifting or donating paintings. The episode gets off to a grand start by examining the worth ofLeonardo da Vinci’s famous “Mona Lisa” painting and how it originally became ubiquitous: someone stole the painting from the Louvre in 1911 as at the time the painting was considered a minor work and therefore didn’t merit around-the-clock guard. The publicity the painting gained after its theft and later (two years later in fact) return was enough to cement it in the public mind and its status rose accordingly.

With art student Persephone (Celesta de Astis) as his Frida Kahlo clone companion, Adam takes a grand tour of history and shows Persephone (and viewers) that originality in art is over-rated and what really matters is how artists adapt familiar themes, ideas and other people’s work and mould them into something different. He reveals that famous Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo began his career copying ancient Greek and Roman statues and was often able to pass his copies off as the real things. Of course, everyone should know that famous English playwright William Shakespeare took his subject matter for nearly all his plays from other people’s literary works.

The rest of the episode is taken up by Adam’s shredding of the art market world and how the prices of paintings can be manipulated by insiders currying favour with a small clique of critics and buyers to exclude people wanting to join the clique. The result is that artists themselves end up as pawns of the art market and their careers as artists can be made or broken on the whims of people who know the price of everything but the value of nothing as the cliche goes. At this point Persephone despairs, her dreams of becoming a great artist having been dashed into smithereens, and considers going to business school; but Adam tells her she can still create great art if it comes from the heart and represents what she feels as a human being.

Most of what Conover covers about the hermetic world of the art market will be no big surprise for those who know something of its manipulative creepiness but will certainly be eye-opening for Conover’s target youth audience. Even the revelation that the CIA promoted abstract expressionism during the 1950s by sponsoring experimental art shows and gatherings (no matter how much Western publics actually preferred representational art to abstract art) as a way of combating the Soviet Union and its rival socialist realism movement in an artistic Cold War will be familiar to many people. Indeed, there’s not much in this episode that hasn’t been said before except perhaps the revelation about how the world’s most famous portrait actually became famous. What makes this latest report from “Adam Ruins Everything” notable is its colourful use of animation and live action to put its points across and Adam Conover’s own mouthy and comic encyclopaedic style topped with an amazing surf-wave haircut and a loud pink suit.

Secret History (Season 14, Episode 4: The Great Wall of China – Hidden Story): taking audiences through the length and breadth of Chinese history

Ian Bremner, “Secret History (Season 14, Episode 4: The Great Wall of China – Hidden Story)” (2014)

The famous Great Wall of China is rightly one of the most awe-inspiring engineering feats in human history and this documentary valiantly tackles those aspects of the Wall’s own history that have inspired its construction and made it such an important megastructure. The documentary follows chronological order from the time the Wall was first begun over two thousand years ago, using that basic logical structure as a foundation to explore some of the more quirky characteristics of the Wall.

The documentary begins with the dimensions of the structure itself and, from following recent research, discovers that the Wall is made up of at least sixteen different walls plus other walls whose remains still lie underground. Altogether all these walls have a total length of 21,000 km which is much more than the distance between the North and South Poles! Naturally the question of why the Chinese went to so much trouble to build walls arise and the program diverts to an investigation of a nomadic horse-riding tribe, the Xiongnu, living in the Gobi and other realms north who during the first few hundred years of the first millennium CE harassed the Chinese empire at about the same time that Germanic and Hun barbarian tribes tormented the Roman Empire with raids and plundering. The Xiongnu’s cavalry tactics forced the Chinese to improve their defence capabilities by building a network of walls that acted as much as a communications network and a form of military offence against the nomads as it did as defence. Unfortunately nothing is said about how successful the Wall was in its myriad functions against the Xiongnu or what happened to these nomads.

A major attraction of the Wall is its longevity and here the most surprising aspect of the documentary is revealed: during the Ming period (1368 – 1644), when reconstructing the Wall became a major engineering priority, mortar made of sticky rice was used to help cement massive bricks. During this period, the Wall’s reconstruction stimulated brick-making on an industrial scale and encouraged hundreds if not thousands of craftsmen, workers and their families to migrate to northern and north-central China to work in kilns located near or on the Wall itself.

Finally the program considers the success of the Wall in its various functions (actual and expected) and finds a rather mixed record: it was not all that successful in repelling Genghis Khan and his mixed Mongol / Turkic forces in the 1200s, or the Manchus in the 1600s. Nevertheless the Wall continues to stand as a symbol of Chinese civilisation, ingenuity, determination, stability and invincibility.

Easy to follow thanks to Paul McGann’s narration, and with experts like William Lindesay, chemistry professor Bingjian Zhang and military historian Mike Loades on hand for more detailed explanations and enthusiastic demonstrations, the program provides interesting fodder at a steady clip and weaves its way through the Wall’s history, jumping from one topic to the next smoothly and skilfully. Animations help audiences appreciate the size and complexity of the Wall’s various meanderings across northern China.

Audiences are sure to ponder questions such as whether the Wall could have led to an industrial revolution in Ming-era China but this and other issues arising from the program’s narrative demand independent investigations in their own right. This documentary is aimed mainly at a family audience and school students learning Chinese history: what better way to understand some of the length and breadth of that history through its best-known engineering feat?

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 3: Adam Ruins the Hospital): challenging beliefs and misconceptions about hospitals and medical treatments

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 3: Adam Ruins the Hospital)” (2017)

Hosted by eponymous comedian and writer Adam Conover, “Adam Ruins Everything” is a comedy / education TV series that aims to challenge commonly held beliefs and misconceptions about many aspects of everyday life, in particular the everyday goods and services that people take for granted. In this episode, Adam visits Rachel (Melissa Tang) who has arrived in a hospital to get treatment for a head cold and perhaps get her mammogram done. In a relentlessly cheery fashion, Adam helpfully informs Rachel (and the show’s intended US target audience) how and why inflated hospital costs have led to medical care being out of reach for the majority of Americans, with the poor being hit the hardest of course, why antibiotics are not as effective as they used to be and may in fact be worthless, and that mammograms have been oversold to women fearful about their health with consequences that may actually be as harmful (if not more harmful) than breast cancer itself.

Potentially the most interesting part of the episode is the chat about ascending hospital costs and how hospitals determine the cost of medical (including surgical) procedures to patients. Most US hospitals refer to chargemasters (often their own) which are lists of medical items billable to patients or their health insurance funds. The prices of items are usually inflated way beyond what their actual cost so that hospitals can offer “discounts” to patients who belong to certain health funds. In addition, wealthy patients or insured patients can bargain down the cost of an item with hospital administration staff while the poor or uninsured patients have to pay full prices. Disturbingly, in most US states (apart from Maryland) hospitals can set their own chargemasters and there is often no regulatory authority that would oversee chargemasters and force hospitals and other medical treatment centres to make these publicly available so that people can shop around and make price comparisons. Unfortunately the swift pace of the episode means that the issue of escalating hospital costs can lose viewers if they happen to look away for a few seconds, and the treatment of the issue looks a little superficial. I’m sure also most viewers would have wanted to know how this state of affairs came about and who was / were responsible for this shambles.

The issue of declining antibiotic effectiveness is crisply well done with animation demonstrating how bacteria can become resistant over time to antibiotics. Once again though, there’s not much on how people themselves can ensure antibiotics are not abused (by feeding them to farm animals whose meat ends up in butcher shops and delicatessans) at a personal level such as washing one’s hands thoroughly and not overusing anti-bacterial soaps and handwash, or at a community level by protesting the use of antibiotics meant for humans in commercial agriculture.

Finally the question of how effective mammograms really are in detecting breast cancer in women before they notice symptoms comes in with an interview with Dr Joann Elmore who explains that there’s not much statistical difference between the number of women who discover they have breast cancer through mammograms and the number who find their breast cancer without the help of mammograms. She also explains that breast cancer cells may behave very differently, some being more aggressive than others. There is the possibility that some women may be diagnosed with breast cancer via mammogram who do not actually have the disease or have a slow-growing cancer, and can end up subjected to major medical procedures that are completely unnecessary and which could jeopardise patients’ long-term health.

The information is delivered in a fun way with slapstick and serious medical advice given equal time. With his surf-wave haircut, guileless manner and a mouth that never stops moving, Adam ploughs through three quite meaty medical issues with a raging and sneezing Rachel in tow. I’d have liked the episode to be a bit longer – another 15 minutes please? – with more information on how the US has ended up spending more on per capita healthcare costs than any other First World country. Yet Americans seem no healthier than other First World nations and could possibly be some of the least healthy people on Earth. The connection between excessive per capital healthcare costs and American’s decreasing well-being certainly merits attention.

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.