By John Pilger
Vintage, 1994, 625 pp., $14.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon
In Distant Voices, John Pilger is once again on a mission to "rescue from media oblivion uncomfortable facts" about our human and political world. The approved truth of our world according to the establishment media is that liberal capitalism is "the system that works". It works, says Pilger, but "against the majority of humanity".
This majority includes coal miners, trapped under tons of rubbish about their human expendability. The old and sick in the "war zone" of the fund-starved British National Health Service are other economic casualties re-humanised by Pilger, as are the unwealthy of the Third World.
These foreign famine and flood victims are, to the mass media, "not news, merely mute and incompetent stick figures that flit across the TV screen". They are kept in the shadow of media neglect by news values which privilege their oppressors with the spotlight of publicity and importance.
Television is a prime shaper of such news values. TV news is a "moving belt of headlines, caricatures and buzzwords". It unenlightens. "Total television" provides wall-to-wall and meal-to-meal information white-out. "Vast amounts of repetitive information," says Pilger, "are confined to a narrow spectrum of 'thinkable thought'." So Labor and Liberal, Republicans and Democrats, might hurl imprecations at one another but they do so as a tactical dispute amongst political managers within a framework that accepts capitalist profitability as the natural goal of civilisation.
Pilger's anger with the media as the ideological transmission belt of a world run for profit, is matched by his readiness to name as villains those suited gentlemen and women of "apparently impeccable respectability" who implement or cover-up the behaviour of the profit-takers. Career diplomats, foreign affairs ministers and others "whose measured demeanour and 'greyness' contain not a hint of totalitarianism" are yet responsible, albeit "at great remove in physical and cultural distance" for the execution and maiming of masses of people.
His essays on the Gulf War in 1991 (still on-going through sanctions against Iraq) demonstrate Pilger's humanity and his outrage at a capitalist system that exists on bloodshed and lies. Pilger calls the US-led slaughter in Iraq an old-fashioned imperialist war "whose aim was never to 'liberate' anyone but to weaken Iraq's position in relation to other US clients in the Gulf ... and to demonstrate America's unchallenged military power".
Bush's "greatest moral crusade since WWII" deserves the clinical use of quotation marks because it describes what was "a one-sided bloodfest, won at a distance with the power of money and superior technology against a small Third World nation". The "official truth" that "it had been a good war and a clean war" is held up to ridicule.
Pilger explains the apparent puzzle of why the US and its other partners in geo-political crime oppose some and support other tyrants. What matters is not the nastiness of the tyrant but the usefulness of the tyrant to capitalist powers.
"Power and naked self-interest" rules amongst the wealthy, argues Pilger in his essays which are a political version of Occam's Razor where he dispels the hypocritical sophistry and strained logic of official rhetoric and silences the politically deafening bells and whistles of the "Schwarzkopf video game show" which drowned the human cries of the murdered Iraqis.
He decodes from Orwellian doublespeak concepts such as "humanitarian intervention" (Operation Restore Hope in Somalia) to its real meaning of raw imperialist lust. So, too, the "hard-liners" opposed to the "democrat" Yeltsin is arse-about but serves to disguise Yeltsin as other than "the dictator who could deliver the Russian hinterland to foreign capital".
The 200,000 killed in East Timor by the Indonesian military, in an invasion and occupation backed by Whitlam, Fraser, Keating and their counterparts elsewhere, "says much about how the modern world is ordered".
With controlled sarcasm, Pilger recounts the disgraceful support given by Gareth Evans and Keating to the "moderate" Suharto who came to power over the butchered bodies of half a million Indonesians in a coup in 1965 and who has overseen the genocide of a third of East Timor's population.
In tow to the politicians are the investors excited by the wage rates in Indonesia (50 cents an hour for the better-paid workers) and the likes of BHP who have favourable access to the oil fields in the sea-bed off East Timor (worth "zillions" of dollars, as Evans enthused, whilst lamenting that for the East Timorese victims "the world is a pretty unfair place").
Of course, soldiers are not always necessary to maintain a political climate friendly to massive profit-making. Pilger documents how "unrepayable interest has become the means of controlling much of humanity, its natural resources, commodities and labour, without sending in a single marine".
The IMF and World Bank kill half a million children a year in the poor countries as a "direct result of the burdens of debt repayment". American war and blockade on Vietnam, for example, has opened the door to the economic plunderers through the international financial institutions — "after half a century of repelling invaders, the Vietnamese now advertise themselves as 'the cheapest labour in Asia'".
Pilger's essays are a rousing witness to injustice and capitalist barbarism, illuminated by his powerful portraits of individuals who pay the price in flesh and blood. We learn who the enemy is and he reminds us that the victories in Eritrea, Namibia and South Africa, won with the "defiance and courage" of the people, demonstrate the "fallibility of brute power". Distant Voices will touch and move any reader not incapacitated by the capitalist virus of profit-worship.