Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 6: Building a World-Class Gymnastics Team) – how athletes become fodder for nationalism in team events

Bess Krugman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 6: Building a World-Class Gymnastics Team)” (2020)

The final installment in this fascinating and informative documentary series follows MyKayla Skinner as she aims to do what very few other US gymnasts before her have done: leave the US national team to concentrate on collegiate gymnastics which helps her regain her original love of the sport and then attempt to break back into the elite level and win a place on the US Olympics team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Previously Skinner had been an alternate for the team at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro: she still had to practise and work on all her routines for those Games in case she had to replace a team member; unfortunately for her, no-one on the team got sick or injured enough that she was needed. After years of hard work and struggle, and periods when her motivation was flagging, Skinner retreated into collegiate gymnastics (which makes different demands on gymnasts) and rediscovered the joy and her childhood dreams. Moving back into the elite however demanded more exacting standards from her so, with the help and advice of her coach, Skinner changed and upgraded her routines, began the strenuous conditioning and practice again … and somehow, in 2019, got engaged and married to her boyfriend.

The episode explores the politics and sometimes powerful nationalism underlying the team event in major women’s gymnastics competitions like the Olympic Games and the world championships, and how geopolitical events and issues can have a deep influence on the young women competing for Team USA in gymnastics. The boycotts that affected the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, both political in nature, had a huge impact on the team and individual competitions in both men’s and women’s gymnastics: the Los Angeles competitions will always be seen as lesser compared to the 1984 Friendship Games gymnastics competitions organised by the Communist nations in eastern Europe. The example of the team competition during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, in which US team member Kerri Strug famously performed her second vault with a badly injured ankle and collapsed after hitting a perfect vault with no hops and saluting the judges, is described in considerable detail by fellow team member Amanda Borden with archival video film to illustrate her words. Borden also talks about her self-doubts even after making the 1996 Olympic team and the psychological uplift she got when all the other girls on the team voted to make her team captain.

Other gymnasts like Jordyn Wieber, Aly Raisman, Dominique Moceanu, Samantha Peszek and Betty Okino describe their experiences as US Olympic team members and how at some point in their careers they mentally switched from performing for themselves and their families to performing for the other members of their teams and ultimately for their country at team competitions. Svetlana Boginskaya remembers her time as a member of the Unified Team (formerly the Soviet Union team) for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics as bittersweet, as she and other team members won their gold team medals and then went home to new individual nations, never to perform as one team again.

While much screen time is devoted to how changes in team competition rules and scoring affects coaches’ strategies in selecting particular gymnasts for national teams, very little is said about how nationalism might have a pernicious effect on gymnasts’ psychologies and add extra pressure on the girls to perform to the expectations of not only their coaches and team officials but also of the news media in their countries, the corporations that sponsor them and the general public who follow the girls’ progress. Competing at the Olympics, especially if held in a country the gymnasts are unlikely ever to visit again, should be a fun experience where they meet new people and come in contact with new cultures and different ways of thinking and seeing things; instead it becomes an experience often filled with dread, anxiety, even fear and pain, or a reinforcement of ugly chauvinist attitudes and stereotypes about other people and countries.

As the last episode in the series, this installment might have gone out on a high note with various gymnasts and ex-gymnasts interviewed for the series saying what they believe gymnastics has done for them: has it improved their lives, given them opportunities to discover what talents and strengths they have, led them on career paths they might never have had otherwise? What do girls like Skinner, Jade Carey, Sunisa Lee, Morgan Hurd and Jordan Chiles think on their present journeys through the sport – what do they believe will open up to them in their future careers by gymnastics when they finally hang up their hand-grips and leotards for good? Apart from this, the series has been an interesting if perhaps very US-oriented exploration of the recent history and culture of the sport.

Since this series was completed, Skinner succeeded in her dream to represent the United States at the delayed 202o Tokyo Olympic Games but as one of two non-team individual gymnasts, the other being Jade Carey. Consequently Skinner did not compete in the team competition but performed as an all-round competitor in the qualification rounds. She did not qualify to compete in the all-round final but did compete in the vault final after fellow US gymnast Simone Biles dropped out of that competition; Skinner ended up winning a silver medal for vault.

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 5: Abuse and Healing in Women’s Gymnastics) – how a toxic culture obsessed with success enabled sexual predation on minors

Bess Krugman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 5: Abuse and Healing in Women’s Gymnastics)” (2020)

A major theme of “Defying Gravity …” has been the dysfunctional culture of the sport obsessed with success and winning medals at all costs to the detriment of the health and well-being of the athletes involved. The competitive and exacting nature of women’s gymnastics and the willingness of young female gymnasts to please their superiors has led to individual coaches, officials, judges and others to manipulate, shame and abuse young women. A toxic culture is created that further attracts manipulative, often sociopathic individuals who may have their own agendas with regard to the gymnasts – agendas that include the sexual abuse of under-age girls.

This episode explores the sexual abuse scandal that rocked US gymnastics in the 2010s when gymnasts and former gymnasts like Jamie Dantzscher, Jordyn Wieber, Kyla Ross, Dominique Moceanu and others exposed Larry Nassar, a sports doctor employed by Bela and Marta Karolyi at their gymnastics camp in Texas during summer holidays, as a sexual abuser. Dantzscher and Wieber describe the camp and the competitive, often abusive atmosphere created by the Karolyis which pitted girls against each other and made them afraid to complain to their parents or other significant adults. The Karolyis did not allow parents to attend the camp and this made for a cult-like ambience where girls were cut off from people who could have challenged the Karolyis and their treatment of the gymnasts. Moceanu points out the qualities that Nassar had that endeared him to Marta Karolyi in particular – among them, his eagerness to please her and flatter her – and how he was able to take advantage of her friendship towards him to assault the girls in his charge.

Unfortunately Nassar is not the only person in the gymnastics world to have abused numerous gymnasts: former US national women’s gymnastics coach Don Peters was also found guilty of sexually abusing gymnasts and many coaches in the US have been put on a banned list – although as sports journalist Blythe Lawrence observed, the criteria for banning a coach are not clear as so many coaches who should have been banned were not on the list. Former Soviet star Olga Korbut speaks bravely about the abuse her coach Renald Knysh inflicted on her and on other gymnasts he trained back in the 1970s. There is no mention of whether sexual abuse occurred in other countries’ gymnastics programs though the physical abuse Romanian coaches meted out to gymnasts (and of which Romanian gymnasts themselves have spoken to the press) is well known.

Driven by interviews with Dantzscher, Wieber and other gymnasts, the episode climaxes in trial hearings at which the gymnasts testify before judges and speak about their abuse. The court case against Nassar climaxes when he is sentenced to 175 years’ jail time. For this, the gymnasts are awarded the 2018 Arthur Ashe Award for bravery.

Ironically perhaps the very qualities instilled by their coaches into these young women – persistence, grit, grace under pressure – are the qualities that enable them to stand up to their abuse and their abusers and to speak out against a culture and organisation that for too long have condoned abuse and allowed abusers to prey on succeeding generations of young gymnasts. However, as long as gymnastics and other sports continue to prize a winner-takes-all attitude, and derive their values from a competitive and combative neoliberal capitalist ideology that winks at bullying and abuse, the potential for a sports culture that enables physical abuse, psychological manipulation and sexual predation on minors will always exist.

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 4: Unlocking Gymnastics’ Most Powerful Event: The Vault) – not the most powerful episode in the series

Bess Krugman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 4: Unlocking Gymnastics’ Most Powerful Event: The Vault)” (September 2020)

Compared to previous episodes in this six-part series, this fourth installment is not nearly as fascinating and the human stories featured seem rather superficial. The vault, its history and development, its place in gymnastics as an exacting and often the riskiest and most dangerous apparatus for gymnasts, and the experiences of various gymnasts, past and present, with that apparatus dominate nearly the entire episode.

The gymnasts who are the primary focus here are Grace McCallum and Jade Carey (both of whom later competed at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games after the series was made): McCallum comes from a large family with limited resources and Carey is coached by her father. The episode could have made much more about these families’ involvement in their daughters’ training and gymnastics careers, including the sacrifices parents and other family members have had to make, and covering the social and economic contexts (even if in a very general way) in which families are often forced to make decisions to forgo things or experiences to put their children into private sports clubs to get the opportunities to develop their talents. What sort of neighbourhood or town do these families live in, that compels them to enroll their daughters in gymnastics and not any other sport? Why do some families support their daughters in pursuing gymnastics, knowing the sacrifices they have to make and the perils that might await their children in the sport, while other families with equally talented daughters do not? There could have been references to families pushing their daughters to continue training even when the girls have lost motivation or are in pain, and the pressure and guilt gymnasts may often feel knowing that their parents and siblings have given up or denied themselves opportunities so that the girls can continue with gymnastics. The issue of whether gymnastics and other popular sports other than team sports like football or baseball should be subsidised by state or federal governments or charities – so that Grace McCallum’s family would not have needed to pay private fees for her gymnastics and maybe one or more of her siblings could also have opportunities to excel in a sport or creative activity also supported by government or charity money – would become a theme underlying the episode.

As usual, the episode is driven by interviews with past and current gymnasts who often provide good, even penetrating insight into the sport and the often toxic and cult-like culture surrounding it. Kathy Johnson especially is an excellent commentator and critic of practices within the sport that have harmed gymnasts in the past. Unfortunately though there is not very much information given about reforms and changes in the sport with regard to safeguarding and improving young gymnasts’ self-esteem and general mental health.

There is brief mention of the tragic story of Julissa Gomez who suffered brain damage after botching a vault at a competition in Japan in which she hit her head and injured her neck, and was later starved of oxygen while being treated in hospital in Japan. This incident is passed over very quickly. There is no mention of the pressure Gomez was under to perform the type of vault that led to her catastrophic injury and later death.

I rate this episode as a lesser entry in what otherwise has been a fine series so far.

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 2: Uneven Bars – The Closest Thing to Flying) – not all smooth sailing in this episode about bars and bulimia

Bess Kargman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 2: Uneven Bars – The Closest Thing to Flying)” (September 2020)

Of the four apparatus used in women’s artistic gymnastics, the uneven bars (also known as asymmetric bars) apparatus is the most spectacular but also perhaps the most punishing with regard to its demands on gymnasts’ hands, body types and limitations, and the consequences that arise and which can have devastating effects on the athletes’ psyches and overall health. Originating from the men’s parallel bars with the aim of demonstrating balance, poise and balletic or static moves, the apparatus has undergone tremendous and radical changes: starting in the 1960s, the emphasis quickly shifted from routines of linked static poses to exercises of near-continuous fluid moves based on kips, beats, wraps and release moves from one bar to the other. From the late 1960s on, uneven bars started being manufactured separately from the parallel bars and their design was changed with the addition of tension cables that allowed the bars to be adjusted for width, allowing them to be moved farther apart. Such a change enabled experimentation with new skills, especially release skills, and elements borrowed from the men’s high bar apparatus that stress continuous movement approaching flight (and which put pressure on gymnasts to maintain a particular body / weight ratio to remain light). Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut pioneered the Korbut flip, the first upper bar somersault release skill at the 1972 Munich Olympics and Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci followed suit at the 1976 Montreal Olympics with her famous forward somersault release from top bar to top bar and her dismount.

As in other episodes of this series, interviews with various US-based gymnasts and ex-gymnasts drive the episode’s themes which encompass not only the uneven bars’ evolution and the demands it makes on gymnasts’ bodies but also the issue of eating disorders in gymnasts and how the gymnastics culture has encouraged, at times even demanded unhealthy eating, with disastrous effects for individual gymnasts. Former gymnast Vanessa Atler’s personal story in battling her bulimia and personal hoodoo with the uneven bars, and the unsympathetic treatment she received from gymnastics coaches (not necessarily her own) and officials, is shocking; likewise Cathy Rigby, a former gymnast herself before becoming an actor, recounts her experiences with eating disorders. Kathy Johnson correctly identifies the toxic culture surrounding gymnastics as a leading if not the main contributor to gymnasts’ eating disorders though she could have gone further (she probably did but the harsher criticism might have been edited) in condemning international and national gymnastics organisations and their officials for doing very little about the issue and closing their eyes to individual girls’ suffering.

Curiously the tragic story of Christy Henrich, who died from anorexia nervosa at the age of 22 years in 1994, is not mentioned. One result of the publicity around her death was that Johnson, Rigby and others came out publicly about their struggles, TV stations in the US and outside stopped commenting on gymnasts’ weight and educational programs on proper eating and nutrition for gymnasts were launched. The episode also does not mention these changes which I consider quite a serious oversight.

The rest of the episode focuses on current US gymnasts Olivia Greaves and Riley McCusker on their personal journeys in the sport and their particular relationships with the uneven bars. Other famous athletes like Comaneci, her husband Bart Conner, Laurie Hernandez and Olga Korbut add their own insights and perspectives on uneven bars and the issue of eating disorders. As in the other episodes I have seen, there’s a lot to take in (the use of archival film footage to illustrate interviews helps) and directors Kargman and Walker do a good job of segueing smoothly from one topic to the next … almost like a bars routine!

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 1: How Gymnasts Find Their Voice on the Floor) – a riveting introduction to a world of intriguing personalities and human stories

Bess Kargman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 1: How Gymnasts Find Their Voice on the Floor)” (September 2020)

As the first in a six-part documentary series on women’s artistic gymnastics, you’d think this episode would present an overview of the current state of the sport, its history and its most outstanding champions and personalities. Maybe the episode would have time to dig deeper into the sport, explore how the different apparatus used first developed (and what the original reasons for their development were) and their evolution into something far beyond what their creators had intended. The episode would introduce the major international and national bodies governing the sport and explain a bit about what the major competitions are, what they consist of and what gymnasts are required to do in their routines. The Code of Points used to judge and score routines would be explained somewhat so that viewers can see how controversial it has been in pushing women’s gymnastics in a particular direction that not everyone in the sport (and outside) agrees with.

Instead what we get is a series of interviews with well-known US and international gymnasts like Nadia Comaneci, Morgan Hurd, Olga Korbut, Katelyn Ohashi, Carly Patterson, Aly Raisman and Laurie Hernandez talking about why and how they fell in love with the sport, their experiences in competition including international competition, and the pressures that come with winning and becoming famous. Ohashi especially details her precocity as a talented young gymnast with the result that she burned out young and came to resent the sport and the pressure that others’ expectations and her own desire to please people put on her. Eventually back pain and a potentially serious spinal problem forced her to give up elite gymnastics – while also affording her the opportunity to rest and gain a new perspective on the sport that allowed her to return to it on her own terms. Comaneci, Hurd, Raisman and Hernandez speak of their respective introductions into the sport, what motivated them to push themselves to elite level, and the challenges, disappointments and (in Raisman’s case) the heartache they had to battle through.

While the episode supposedly focuses on the floor exercise, its demands as well as the opportunity for gymnasts to express their personalities and individual style in dance and acrobatics – there’s even a small part in the documentary about how the equipment for the floor changed over the years and the effect the changes (such as the addition of extra foam layers and the use of springs) had on increasing the acrobatic and technical aspects of the floor exercise – it’s even more about what gymnasts need to excel as all-round gymnasts on all four major apparatus and the prestige that is attached to being the all-round champion.

The coaches of some of these gymnasts and former choreographer Geza Pozsar (who worked with Comaneci’s coach Bela Karolyi) are interviewed as well if only briefly. Disappointingly perhaps the gymnasts’ parents are not interviewed – Aly Raisman’s mother Lynn, who declares after seeing Carly Patterson winning the all-round competition at the 2004 Olympic Games: “I’m so glad I’m never gonna have to experience that. I can’t imagine what it would be like to watch your kid compete at the Olympics” (and then later watches her daughter compete in the 2016 Olympic Games!) provides the episode’s funniest moments – and an opportunity to see how gymnasts’ families are affected by their daughters’ sport, and might feel pride or resentment in their daughters’ achievements, is lost.

By using interviews with gymnasts to explain what their sport is about and what it means to them, this episode ends up exploring women’s artistic gymnastics in much more depth than it would have done using a narrator churning through its history and reeling off a list of its champions and their achievements. It draws in viewers and immerses them in the finer, deeper points of the sport straight away. You almost live and breathe gymnastics the way these gymnasts do and have done. When the episode is over and done with, you just can’t wait to see the next five parts in the series.

Well done to Kargman and Walker for such a breath-taking introduction to a sport featuring very human individuals with intriguing histories and motivations, and a passion for what they do!

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 3: The Aggressive Mentality of Balance Beam) – an insight into the psychology and history of gymnastics

Bess Kargman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 3: The Aggressive Mentality of Balance Beam)” (September 2020)

In spite of the popularity of gymnastics and women’s gymnastics in particular with the general public (at least in Australia), there haven’t been very many documentaries made about the sport or the individuals involved so when a documentary series like “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics” comes by, my interest is piqued straight away. Even though this episode’s focus is on the balance beam – one of the four apparatuses used in the women’s sport – and the demands it makes on gymnasts and their coaches (and the consequences of those demands that arise), it ends up being as much about the individual stories of the gymnasts themselves as they relate to the balance beam itself.

The major individual stories featured in the episode are those of Sunisa Lee, a current member of the United States national team, and former US team member Kathy Johnson who competed for her country at the World Championships in 1978 and 1983, and the Olympic Games in 1984. Lee and Johnson talk about how they became attracted to the sport as young girls and Lee in particular tells of how she was encouraged by her father John to excel and compete in the sport. Old photographs and videos of Lee and Johnson as children and teenagers show their dedication and the quality of their work. The episode also portrays the difficulties and obstacles both Lee and Johnson had to overcome: Johnson’s career was affected by geopolitical events of the early 1980s that led to the US boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the USSR and various other Communist nations boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics; and Lee’s father suffered a fall that paralysed him from the waist down in 2019 just before the US national championships. Both Lee and Johnson are visibly emotional as they bravely recount the turmoil they must have experienced and how they overcame their fear and upset, and achieved their childhood dreams of being the best in their sport.

Interviews with Lee, Johnson and other gymnasts in the US, including former world and Olympic champions like Svetlana Boginskaya, Nadia Comaneci, Phoebe Mills, Dominique Moceanu, Betty Okino and Jordyn Wieber not only demonstrate what mental qualities gymnasts need to succeed on the balance beam in spite of the often ridiculous pressures their coaches, the judges, the administration of the sport itself, the media and the public exert on them but also the psychological abuse they have had to endure from coaches like Bela and Marta Karolyi. Archival film footage illustrate how the Karolyis manipulated their pupils into intense competition against one another and their own psyches, to the point where the girls would train and compete even with major injuries and internal fractures, in what seems like an insane goal to turn them into super-athletes. Significantly, former choreographer Geza Pozsar (who worked with the Karolyis in Romania and then in the United States) refers to Bela Karolyi’s former training in sport as a hammer thrower.

Although the episode is 37 minutes, it goes very quickly: it’s full of interesting information about the balance beam, a bit of its history and how the equipment has evolved over the past 50 years, what is required of gymnasts competing on the apparatus and how gymnasts and their coaches mentally as well as physically approach and deal with it. Along the way viewers learn something of how the balance beam and its demands help mould a gymnast’s character and either strengthen or weaken her relationship with her coach / coaches, her parents and other significant people in her life. We get some insight into the psychology and strength of character the balance beam demands of gymnasts if they are to succeed on the beam and away from it.

This episode is a fine example of how sports documentaries should be made: they should be as much about the individuals (athletes, coaches, officials and those who support them – or maybe oppose them – and other significant people involved), the experiences and stories they bring, and perhaps also teach a lesson that can be carried over into other areas of endeavour, not just in gymnastics or even other sports.

Since the documentary was made, Sunisa Lee has become the all-round Olympic champion at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. A dream has been fulfilled – but at the same time, Lee and her family face new challenges, expectations and pressures.

Becoming Bond: an affable light comedy biography of one-time James Bond actor

Josh Greenbaum, “Becoming Bond” (2017)

Part-fictional comedy re-enactment, part-biography, this is a very affable review of Australian actor George Lazenby’s early life up to and including the period when he played James Bond in the film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, one of the most beloved and esteemed films in the entire James Bond series of spy movies. It takes the structure of an extended interview with Lazenby himself in which he talks about his childhood, his relationships with girlfriends from early in his adolescence onwards, and his early career as a car salesman, paralleled by re-enactments of significant moments of his life when opportunities out of the blue fall into his lap and he seizes them because they seem like fun and promise adventure. The film moves leisurely – perhaps a bit too leisurely, because the main reason I imagine people would watch this film is to find out how a former car salesman manages to land the movie role of the century with no acting experience or qualifications, and what qualities he must have had to land such a role – with an air of bemused bedazzlement which one imagines Lazenby carried with him during those heady days in the 1960s when he moved to London in pursuit of a girlfriend, took up modelling and through sheer accident met a movie agent who put him in contact with the producer and director of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”.

Split into thirteen chapters, each one with a title that spoofs a James Bond film, the film rolls its way through Lazenby’s various escapades, all illustrated with Lazenby’s droll reminiscences which may be true or not. While the film doesn’t drill deep down into Lazenby’s psychology and motivations for doing the things he does, the impression that for Lazenby, life is a big adventure that you roll with is strong. Of course the big moment when Lazenby explains why he walked away from the Bond films after completing “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” eventually comes and Lazenby’s reason, which may be self-justification on his part, seems quite reasonable given the way his early life has unfolded so far: he’s a man who’ll try anything once but never more than once, a man who can’t and won’t be tied down to meeting others’ expectations. After a fitful acting career, Lazenby returns to Australia, becomes involved in real estate investment and goes through two marriages (the second of which was to famous US tennis player Pam Shriver) with two sets of children.

The hokey re-enactment of Lazenby’s early years in Australia and London, in which Australia in the 1940s-50s appears as romanticised kitsch and people in London drive cars with the steering wheel mounted on the left-hand side of the vehicle, is marred by awkward and inconsistent acting from Josh Lawson playing Lazenby. Jane Seymour as the movie agent is the stand-out of the cast in the re-enactment scenes.

The film might have worked better if the narrative were more streamlined and less meandering, at the cost perhaps of one of its themes: that of its protagonist’s life as a Great Australian Yarn of tall stories, opportunities that fall out of the sky into his lap and how, through all the adventures he has, he manages to remain a simple and basically well-meaning character with simple, down-to-earth values. Lazenby may not be particularly profound, his early ignorance can be jaw-dropping and his treatment of his girlfriends leaves much to be desired. Yet he appears to have intuited when people are trying to exploit him and own him, and to walk away from what could have been his ruin despite the fame and wealth that beckoned. Of course the reality was different: his agent convinced him that the Bond films had run their course and were becoming outdated.

The film works as light entertainment rather than as a straight biography or documentary and viewers must not expect to take it seriously.

The American Empire in Asia in the 1800s: an enthralling if disturbing story of US imperialism in east Asia and the western Pacific

Carlton Meyer, “The American Empire in Asia in the 1800s” (Tales of the American Empire, 9 July 2021)

This short history documentary is an excellent entry in Carlton Meyer’s Tales of the American Empire series and a great introduction to the history of American foreign policy during the 19th century for the general public. Meyer quickly dispels the notion that American imperialism began with US victory over the Spanish in the Spanish-American War in 1898 that led to US colonisation of Cuba and the Philippines, as is accepted by most US historians. Indeed the first US President George Washington is known to have referred to the new United States in the early 1780s as a “nascent empire” and even as early as 1778, David Ramsay, South Carolina’s delegate to the Continental Congress, wrote that the North American continent would be the foundation of an empire that would make the Roman empire and the Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great “sink into insignificance“. The early US empire got under way in the 1830s when US warships, on the pretext of protecting US merchant and whaling ships, attacked islands in eastern and southeast Asia whose inhabitants (Malays, Dayaks) had threatened such ships and killed some of their sailors. US warships became regular visitors to eastern Asia and China in particular, working with the British to protect British interests and later American opium interests in southern China. The visits of US warships under Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan in the 1850s, forcing the Japanese to westernise later in the 1870s, should be seen in the context of growing US imperial influence in the eastern Asian region.

Capitalising on local political disputes in the Samoan islands, the US Navy established a naval station in those islands, an action that brought the US into conflict with the German navy there. Disputes with the Germans and local Samoan political factions eventually led to the islands being parcelled among Germany and the US: those islands that came under American rule remain so to this day as American Samoa, the German part later passing through New Zealand rule and becoming independent Western Samoa in 1962, renamed Samoa in 1997.

These details plus others Meyer mentions show that the US acquired its various colonies not by accident or because of other nations’ predatory actions but deliberately to enable US elites to profit from seizing and exploiting other people’s lands and resources. This empire of direct US colonies may no longer exist in the form created in the late 19th / early 20th centuries but it continues in the global outreach and ambitions of the US Navy, as succinctly demonstrated in the US Navy advertisement that ends the short documentary.

Fascinating archival maps, photographs and film shorts illustrate the documentary and the riveting if disturbing tale it tells.

What the Media Won’t Tell You About Venezuela: mini-documentary won’t tell you much more either

What the Media Won’t Tell You About Venezuela” (ReallyGraceful, 3 June 2017)

Viewers of this very short mini-documentary on Venezuelan politics won’t learn very much about why Venezuela’s current socialist government under President Nicolas Maduro continues to survive despite the country’s poverty and food shortages – nor will they learn anything about what’s actually fuelling the food shortages there. The thrust of ReallyGraceful’s video is to show that the people of Venezuela – and by implication, people in other middle and lower income nations around the world – are caught between two camps of evil, or what ReallyGraceful herself perceives as evil, and that the Western mainstream news media will push their audiences to choose one of these camps (usually the US and its allies) as the good guys. In the film, former President Hugo Chavez and the socialist ideology and structures he implemented in Venezuela are viewed by ReallyGraceful as part of Venezuela’s ongoing problems; at the same time ReallyGraceful correctly identifies Venezuela being under siege by the US and forces allied with it (among them, Israel and the global finance industry including the Bank of International Settlements) as part and parcel of the problem as well.

While ReallyGraceful does well in fingering the dominance of the oil industry in Venezuela’s economy over past decades as the underlying foundation of Venezuela’s recent past and current problems, she fails to note that this dominance is the result of policies made by past politically conservative governments in the country working together with US political and corporate interests to the detriment of Venezuelan people. Such policies privileged foreign oil interests (to the extent that other industries in the country suffered from lack of support and declined) and ignored the healthcare, educational and other social needs of the Venezuelan people. When Chavez became President in 1999, he sought to rectify the dire economic straits of the majority of Venezuelan people by using oil revenues to fund social services and other programs. To his credit also, Chavez tried to diversify Venezuelan industry and support programs aimed at reviving agriculture though with mixed success.

ReallyGraceful notes that food shortages have been severe in Venezuela but fails to realise that, again, the favouring of the oil industry and US oil interests by conservative governments before Chavez led to the decline of agriculture in Venezuela to the point where the country became overly dependent on imports of food, even food staples. For some reason, or perhaps because his time as President was cut short, Chavez never tried to wrest control of food imports away from companies owned by wealthy families and individuals opposed to his government and socialist ideology, and current President Maduro and his government are perhaps too preoccupied in dealing with more urgent issues to be able to address this issue of food imports. The result is that food importers can use classic-economics demand and supply phenomena as blackmail over the general public and create social and economic chaos for the Maduro government.

ReallyGraceful’s anti-socialist stance blinds her to the possibility of Venezuelans as individuals and in groups, communities and non-profit organisations confronting the food shortage issue by growing their own food and organising their own food markets to sell, barter or otherwise distribute food to those who need it most.

I note though that ReallyGraceful ends her film by observing that Venezuela is under pressure from the US and the global finance industry to yield its natural resources to foreign ownership and control. As she always does, she invites viewers to comment on her mini-documentaries, which is her way of admitting that she is open to criticism and counter-opinions.

The Empire enters the Cocaine Trade: an introduction to US involvement in a sordid trade

Carlton Meyer, “The Empire enters the Cocaine Trade” (Tales of the American Empire, 25 June 2021)

For a nation committed to neo-capitalist ideology – under which any and all activities with the potential to generate considerable profits (at minimal cost to those undertaking them) are more than just desirable, they are legitimate no matter how unethical they are or how much suffering to others they might cause – it should come as no surprise to fans of Tales of the American Empire series that the US military and intelligence agencies are involved in trafficking in illegal drugs such as opioid narcotics and cocaine, and profiting from that trafficking. This episode is the first in an ongoing investigation of the involvement of the US government and its agencies in the illegal drug trade among other topics that the series returns to from time to time. It also considers the role that US mainstream news media has played and continues to play in either ignoring, condoning or denying US government complicity in the global trade (usually in collusion with other criminal organisations) to the extent that vast numbers of Americans and others around the world who consider the US to be an important ally and friend are completely unaware that the US even engages in illicit drug trafficking, let alone know how deeply entwined in criminal activity the US government is.

The episode consists mainly of interviews going back nearly 50 years in which US government officials admit their government’s participation in drug trafficking and even protection of drug dealers, supposedly in the name of fighting Communism. In many cases, as detailed by individual US Drug Enforcement Administration agents, former Nazi war criminals were helped and given safe haven in South America by CIA agents among others through profitable drug trafficking rings. Many rogue CIA agents made large amounts of money doing so. Other interviewees describe in considerable detail what their roles were in sending planes packed with illegal drugs from South America to the US, all of which could have been intercepted by border patrols, and their cargo seized and impounded. One interviewee considers the damage that such trafficking does to US democracy, especially when such activities are part and parcel of US collusion with fascist forces in other countries (particularly countries in Latin America) to overthrow democratic governments, crush democratic opposition and deny those countries’ citizens their freedoms and rights.

There’s not much actually said about when and how the US became involved in the global cocaine trade – no actual year or incident that can be said to signify the start of an unlovely addiction on the part of the US government and its agencies to the illegal drug trade -but then the whole sordid history of how the US became involved in such trade, and how its politics became corrupted due to the massive profits that were made and how much of those profits went into politicians’ pockets or election campaigns, would take many, many episodes to cover. The episode under review aims mainly to introduce audiences to an aspect of US geopolitics that they have never been informed of. I’m sure sequels to this episode will be very informative and more specific on details of how far and how deeply US complicity in the illegal drug trade goes.