(45) — The Insidious Power of Propaganda (02 Sept 2014)

     To study the effects of political propaganda in what used to be called the ‘free world’ there could hardly be a better time than now. We are living through an instance of insidious propaganda that has clean contours. It fills a common need. In a period of large-scale slaughter and other man-made disaster the morally conscious person can do with some clear categories of good and bad, desirable and despicable. Political certainty, in other words. You can even sell wars using ‘moral clarity’ as a sales pitch, as happened with Iraq and Afghanistan. 
     Good-evil classification is easy enough when we have imprisoned journalists decapitated by jihadis. Those who “will do something about that” are automatically placed in the ‘good guys’ category. But there is a problem of murkiness in this sample. Syria’s Assad has been listed for years at the top of the bad guy list, and yet he appears to be changing into something of an ally of those who are intent now on setting things straight. On top of which, the fact that the radical islamists out of which ISIS emerged were funded and encouraged by the United States and its Arab allies is not a deep secret, and the fact that none of this mayhem would now exist were it not for the sorcerer’s apprentice effect of the decapitation of the Iraqi state in 2003 has been pretty much agreed on. 
     The Ukraine sample is more clear-cut. Here we have fighters for democracy and other Western values in Kiev vs a character who is throwing a spanner in the works, who does not respect the sovereignty of neighbors, and whose intransigence does not lessen, no matter what sanctions you throw at him. 
     The story of the downed plane with 298 dead people is no longer news, and the investigation as to who shot it down? Don’t hold your breath. Last week Dutch viewers of a TV news program were informed about something that had been doing the rounds on internet samizdat: the countries participating in the MH17 investigation have signed a nondisclosure agreement. Any of the participants (which include Kiev) has the right to veto publication of the results without explanation. The truth about the cause of the horrifying fate of the 298 appears to have been already settled by propaganda. That means that although there has been no shred of evidence that the official story of the ‘rebels’ shooting down the plane with Russian involvement, it remains a justification for sanctions against Russia. 

(44) The Ukraine, Corrupted Journalism, and the Atlanticist Faith (9Aug 2014)

The European Union is not (anymore) guided by politicians with a grasp of history, a sober assesment of global reality, or simple common sense connected with the longterm interests of what they are guiding. If any more evidence was needed, it has certainly been supplied by the sanctions they have agreed on last week aimed at punishing Russia.
     One way to fathom their foolishness is to start with the media, since whatever understanding or concern these politicians may have personally they must be seen to be doing the right thing, which is taken care of by TV and newspapers.
     In much of the European Union the general understanding of global reality since the horrible fate of the people on board the Malaysian Airliner comes from mainstream newspapers and TV which have copied the approach of Anglo-American mainstream media, and have presented ‘news’ in which insinuation and villification substitute for proper reporting. Respected publications, like the Financial Times or the once respected NRC Handelsblad of The Netherlands for which I worked sixteen years as East Asia Correspondent, not only joined in with this corrupted journalism but helped guide it to mad conclusions. The punditry and editorials that have grown out of this have gone further than anything among earlier examples of sustained media hysteria stoked for political purposes that I can remember. The most flagrant example I have come across, an anti-Putin leader in the (July 26) Economist Magazine, had the tone of Shakespeare’s Henry V exhorting his troops before the battle of Agincourt as he invaded France.



(43) – Europe’s Subservience to the United States and Neoliberalism (25 Oct 2013)

     The Montesquieu Institute in The Hague gave me an opportunity, last Friday October 25th, to draw attention in The Netherlands to the dreadful European subservience to the United States. In this perhaps most Atlanticist country of Europe, remarks of the kind I make in this context are normally labelled in Dutch as “swearing in church”. But as it happened, in fact in a real church packed with over 600 listeners, the reception was surprisingly welcoming. 
     Former South African president Frederik Willem de Klerk, who was the other speaker for the “Europe Lecture”, is an engaging person whose demonstrated great political courage is matched with a political intelligence of the kind that allows him quickly to diagnose the state of health of political institutions and their relationships. It was an honour to share the stage with him.

* * *

     What does the world think of Europe? It does not much dwell on it, I am afraid. 
     Our continent is not doing much that makes it an entity about which one should have an opinion at all, except for its undeniable significance as an enormous market. Diplomatically it is virtually invisible; it is not a powerbroker, and it does not offer ideas about good international living that reverberate in other continents. 
     When Japanese, Chinese, Americans, and I suppose people from Africa and South America think about it at all, they do so as an area they may want to visit because of its sublime concentration of tourist attractions; in that respect there is no place quite like it.
When serious observers of international affairs think of Europe they most likely regard it as a realm of unrealized promise. 
     In the earlier stages of European unification, the unifiers and their supporters conceived of their union as something that could and would become nothing less than a good example, something to look up to and for the rest of the world to emulate. There was talk of a “new European century”; of Europe as a paragon of international virtues. One of Europe’s foremost philosophers, Jürgen Habermas, wrote that after solving the problems of welfare systems and government beyond the nation-state, Europe was in a position to defend and promote a cosmopolitan order on the basis of international law.

     This kind of optimism used to be fairly widespread, and some of the assumptions that went into it are still taken for granted, as I discovered at the University of Amsterdam. The claim to superior political virtue and other self-congratulation have, in fact, produced rather supercilious attitudes even now, which understandably irritate non-Europeans.

     The thinking of outsiders contrasting reality with earlier expectations is not much different, then, to what a vast number of people inside the Union think. With Europeans themselves the reality comes across as consisting more sharply of broken promises with respect to everyday matters, when they see welfare provisions dwindle, job security eroded, and proliferating nonsensical rules coming out of Brussels. The central technocracy, moreover, has helped create a smoke-screen behind which national governments may hide, and escape accountability. 
     In the Southen nations and Ireland, things are of course much worse. 
     Which brings us right away to what the euro crisis demonstrates: a basic failure at the root of most of Europe’s other failures.

(42) – Obama’s Nobel Prize Speech Revisited (4 Dec 2012)

     Washington has a problem with Europeans. They do not do enough. Notwithstanding the help it gets from European NATO officials concerned with their position in the scheme of things, they only very reluctantly send soldiers to Afghanistan. They are frequently upbraided for being deficient in their attitude toward war making in general, as if wars were not sometimes necessary. In his widely sold Paradise and Power, Robert Kagan chided the European Union for its failure to acknowledge that it could only live in its beautiful and peaceful ‘postmodern’ garden because the US was patrolling the street outside and making sure that robbers did not break in. The neocons started this line of thinking, but along with other neocon assumptions it has spread through America’s journalistic bloodstream.
     Something else nags at the more articulate American minds: Europeans acting morally superior ever since their clumsy previous president made them feel ashamed of their own country. The fact that Europeans “love Obama”, a frequently repeated observation in his first term, was reason in rightwing circles to be suspicious of both Obama and the Europeans. A sentiment that spilled over into the mainstream media. Anyone of their own – leave alone their own president – ‘apologizing’ for the United States was about the last thing Americans, even liberals, wished to witness.
     True enough, a great sigh of relief went through Europe when Obama became president; I can still hear it. What was felt to be a deliverance prompted the Nobel Peace Prize committee to give him their prize in advance, an honor he earned by not being George W. Bush. At the private dinner after the award ceremony, one of the four Norwegian women on the committee (there was one man on it) effused that the women of the world adored Obama and that “women know best”. But when Obama accepted the prize he came up with the same nonsensical fiction of a necessary war as had been authored by Bush.
     At the beginning of his second term, with drone warfare having so far killed some two and a half thousand people and his new presidential ‘kill lists’ on top of the ravaging that Bush left behind, it is useful to read Obama’s Nobel speech again to grasp what is continuous in the reasoning behind America’s belligerency. 

(41) – Down with ‘Western Values’ (30 Nov 2012)

While China remains the great potential adversary in the eyes of a Washington that says it is pivoting toward East Asia as it considers policies for healthy international relations, and while West Asia continues to be wracked by strife, you may expect world news to be littered with references to ‘Western values’ as a legitimizing excuse for all manner of initiatives and interference.
     The term should be thrown out of political analysis and discussion. Its absence will improve political hygiene for the entire world. As a source of confusion, hostility and even hatred, its use is by itself a harmful complication. It is used for priming the emotions with easy indignation. And in daily usage it means almost nothing.
     ‘Values’ in its current common usage, has always been something vague. It was popularized by sociologists in the middle of the twentieth century, who needed a standard unit of account as they believed they were introducing scientific method to what they were doing. It simplified a huge complexity. The ‘values’ concept is a repository for all manner of things – principles, beliefs, likes, dislikes, prejudice, sentiments, distaste, hobbies, morals, ethics, and more – that may direct our conduct. Using these defined terms instead, would render commentary about social affairs and politics much clearer and thus more useful. 

40 – Where Political Fallacies Begin (22 Oct 2012)

The two subjects that hold European policymakers and the more serious part of the American electorate currently in suspense offer perfect and dismal examples of delusion because accompanying stories – where the euro crisis came from and President Obama's track record – have been given the wrong beginning.
     For North Europeans relying on mainstream media, the story of the euro crisis never had a beginning anywhere close to where it should have been. This deficiency was mostly due to another political phenomenon deserving more scrutiny than it receives: When governments or other institutions with authority are faced with an unpalatable subject, prompting questions that may spell deep trouble for them, they change the subject hoping that no one will notice. That is what Angela Merkel did when the credit crisis of 2008 revealed that German banks had swallowed so much of the toxic assets created by their American counterparts that this had in effect killed them. But in Merkel’s story the crisis began with a lazy Greek population, consisting of lots of tax evaders and overpaid officials who took too many holidays. The French and the Dutch authorities were similarly embarrassed with the factual bankruptcy of their banks, and gratefully endorsed the story that Merkel was allowed to dominate with in the headlines.
     This helped stoke strong indignation that spread over the northern euro countries; why should we, well-behaved taxpayers, have to bail them out? By the time the German broadsheet Das Bild had created a commonly accepted picture portraying hard-working Germans versus irresponsible Greeks there was no going back for the Chancellor. That tabloid, along with the domestic financial interests and their allies, blocked a return to rational analysis of the bank crisis, preoccupied as she was with minimizing threats to her staying on as chancellor in a new coalition after next year’s elections. 
     There were other possible beginnings that would have allowed a sound approach to the controversy from a different direction. Such as low German domestic demand compensated for by years of voluminous German exports to peripheral Europe, including Greece, which required funds for buying that German stuff; funds happily being pumped into southern Europe by German banks. As these were raking in premiums and interest, their credit risk analysts slept soundly because the credit rating agencies had given their blessings with blanket triple A ratings for all the euro countries. Is Greek governmental irresponsibility then only a figment of people’s imagination? Who cares? Merkel changed the subject. Whatever Greek conduct or motives, these did not cause the euro crisis.