On Reading Propaganda. (I)

The Creator often complains that most of what we read or hear via the media is propaganda. Usually this is dull-witted repetition of received ideas and authorised vocabulary meant to discourage thought and debate. However, where propaganda is presented to prevent people from development new ones, or to head off a real danger that people might start thinking, it may be usefully read. Using simple interpretive techniques and fact-checking on these tracts, one may see what the goal of the propaganda is and thus, very probably, what the ruling class want the rest of us to think.

The danger of doing this is that one becomes obsessed with the wrongness of the propaganda. If one says “The New York Times does not truly reflect conditions in Iraq!”, or “The SABC does not faithfully expose mismanagement in the Johannesburg Water!” and stops there, one is not achieving much. It is not really odd that the ruling class’s propaganda organs falsify reality. What is interesting is how they do this, and what reality they want us to adapt ourselves to.

If any South Africans read this they may not be familiar with Mr. Christopher Hitchens, a former left-winger who became increasingly hostile to the left because of its universalism and its support for human rights; he joined the right-wing forces attacking Clinton’s Presidency (writing an extremely mendacious book called No One Left To Lie To) and subsequently became an important apologist for the Bush administration.

Christopher Hitchens was familiar with the jargon and methodology of the left and thus could couch reactionary and imperialist propaganda in a form which could undermine liberals and left-wingers. (He often writes for the ostensibly liberal New York Times.) Both in the United States and in Britain, the extreme right depends heavily on former leftists for its ideologues. These “neo-conservatives” are so called because they have recently discovered conservatism, and because the ideology which they represent is a return to an extreme conservatism which in its radicalism approaches soft Fascism.

Hitchens begins his article in the Sunday Times with a burst of praise for the South African unionists who refused to offload the Zimbabwean ammunition at Durban harbour. The Creator does not know whether the Zimbabwean government wanted to import ammunition to oppress its own people, to enhance its self-defense capacity, or simply to replace time-expired material. It is, however, obvious that if the Zimbabwean government has such trouble funding and acquiring a paltry military cargo, then its mismanagement of the country is endangering either internal or external security, so it should accept the verdict of the recent elections and hand over power either to a transitional authority or directly to the opposition. So much is clear, and yet what a strange spin Hitchens puts on it!

He says that this event reaffirms his faith in socialism. It is a moot point whether these unionists, or the Zimbabwean unionists whose rights they support, are actually socialists. Perhaps Hitchens’ definition of socialism is “workers doing things that I like”. Significantly, the COSATU campaigns against the iron dictatorship in Swaziland, where (unlike Zimbabwe) no union activity is permitted, have not received Hitchens’ praise, here or elsewhere. Perhaps Hitchens has not heard of these.

But he must have heard that Western workers, some of them unionised and politically conscious, have loaded weaponry, both in his adopted United States and his birthplace Britain, bound for vicious totalitarian states for use against the populace — Colombia, Israel, Haiti, Turkey, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, to cite a few. If he is impressed by the contrast between the principled stand of the South Africans, he does not mention the craven submission of the Britons and Americans. Probably he is not so impressed, for Hitchens supports oppression in all of those countries and applauds when more weapons are profitably shipped there to help full the bloodbaths. (To be fair, in Britain or the United States, workers taking such actions would be fired, whereas in South Africa workers have rights.)

Hitchens’ attitude towards socialism is extremely odd. He claims that socialism began when Marx organised a boycott of Confederate cotton. Hitchens must have heard of the Communist Manifesto, written twelve years before the American Civil War began and directed not in support of American big business, but in revolt against capitalism and its tools. So he is lying about the origins of Marxian socialism, and also lying about a boycott of Confederate cotton during the American civil war.

During that war the North blockaded the South and prevented the export of cotton to Britain. Britain had violently destabilised the Egyptian government to prevent them from farming cotton and thus gaining something of the status enjoyed by Saudi Arabia today. Britain preferred cotton produced by whites through black slave labour in the United States. This vicious policy proved disastrous when North American cotton was cut off, causing much unemployment and hardship in Britain.

However, the Western European oligarchy saw the United States as a threat to their imperialist designs in the Caribbean, and also because of its democracy, which they feared as a bad example. Britain and France plotted to provoke a “humanitarian intervention” to end the war and keep the United States permanently split, and thus weak. Marx and the dismissed cotton workers responded by saying that, despite the fact that the blockade made them suffer, they believed that it was in their interest to have a strong and democratic United States on the other side of the Atlantic, and not in their interest to promote European armed aggression. This did not mean that they liked Northern capitalism, but they disliked both Southern slavery, and their own oligarchy’s fondness for Southern slavery.

Hitchens is thus appropriating socialism for the purposes of American political mythology. In official doctrine, in the war, North good, South bad. Therefore the socialists were supposedly doing a good thing by boycotting Southern cotton, and only much later (in 1917) did they start doing things which did not serve American political goals, and therefore had to be destroyed. As with the workers, socialists are all right so long as they do what the American elite want.

Perhaps the headline PROPAGANDIST FOR AMERICAN RIGHT WING PROPAGANDISES FOR AMERICAN RIGHT WING would not sell many newspapers, but it is important not to allow this steady hum of bullshit (as P J O’Rourke called it) to become the natural background noise of the mind.

Later, Hitchens misrepresents the Zimbabwean war of liberation and its aftermath, noting that the victor in that war was Chinese-supported and hence backed the PAC and therefore did not actively support the ANC in the struggle for South African liberation. This is partly true; it is hardly unique, since every country in Southern Africa betrayed the ANC at some stage in the liberation war. More to the point, Zimbabwe proved that indigenous white oligarchies could be defeated, and the Zimbabwean government saved the Mozambican government from South African aggression, battling RENAMO in the Beira Corridor. So, political partisanship aside, South Africans had reason to be grateful for the stand taken by ZANU (PF). One may say that such gratitude can be taken too far, and that perhaps it has been, although the Creator does not think there is any evidence for this.

However, Hitchens follows this a fascinating and curious question: in the light of this, “knowing what they knew about his primitive politics and even more primitive methods, why did the leaders of the ANC continue to tolerate Mugabe”?

Firstly, “primitive politics” means in this case leftism, which gives us a further idea of where Hitchens stands. While Mugabe’sZANU overthrew the white racist state, ZAPU sat out the struggle building up a conventional army in Zambia through which it hoped to seize power after liberation. When ZAPU mutinied against ZANU’s justified victory in the first election, Mugabe and ZANU crushed it, despite the support ZAPU enjoyed from the white racist state which was destabilising Zimbabwe by funding guerrillas and sending troops to destroy the Zimbabwean Air Force. These are things which Hitchens leaves out, because if he left them in, even the mass-murdering activities of the Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland become comprehensible (though inexcusible).

If this is “primitive”, recall how Britain treated the foreign-backed rebellions of James in Ireland in the 17th century, and Charles in Scotland in the 18th century. For that matter, how the United States treated its “Indians” when they rebelled against its rule (when they were lucky enough to survive conquest in the first place). The treatment was universal butchery followed by tyranny — a model for the slaughter-festivals organised by America abroad, from the Philippines onward. This gives one a hint of how relatively “primitive” the milder brutalities of Mugabe appear in reality, as opposed to Hitchens’ propaganda. Granted, Hitchens has called for Henry Kissinger to be treated as a war criminal, but he makes no such call for similar treatment for Bush, Rice, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz et al.

In Hitchens’ terms, the leaders of weak countries — are “tolerated”. Such “toleration” should be withdrawn if those leaders do not offer powerful countries uncritical support — including backing the wrong parties at the wrong times. Withdrawal of such tolerance is means one has the right to do whatever seems convenient to overthrow a foreign government doing you no harm and install another government which is more to your liking. Hitchens is arguing in favour of this — although it may be that he is in favour of it happening only when the United States approves and will benefit. The United States has done this in a very large number of countries, sometimes via puppet proxies.

Failure to do this, even though it may cost tens of thousands of lives and ruin the quality of life for the people supposedly “liberated”, is defined, by Hitchens, as “cowardice”. It is, in contrast, brave to sit in Washington and wreck small countries at no cost to yourself, using mercenaries wherever convenient. Hitchens is here establishing a moral brief for unquestioned world domination by a power without responsibility. It is interesting to see the Nazi reality breaking through the faux-socialist rhetoric.

But fakery there must be, like marzipan icing covering a cake baked with powdered arsenic instead of flour. For instance, he concludes (after a welter of nonsense about Mugabe’s alleged insanity and sadism, based on no evidence whatsoever) that Mugabe’s motivation must be envy of Mandela’s adulation.

Mandela was admired among Southern African blacks for his refusal to compromise with apartheid. While he did permit some compromises in the run-up to the elections, but in the main he continued to be respected. Meanwhile, white South Africans were persuaded by their white government that negotiations (which they previously opposed) were justified because of Mandela’s obedience — supposedly, he was at heart a “good kaffir”, unlike Chris Hani or Thabo Mbeki. This was taken up internationally by propagandists wishing to promote the lie that the West had backed the liberation of South Africa. The international adulation for Mandela was used for this purpose — “because we say nice things about Mandela, this shows that we have always admired the struggle he led”.

Hitchens here deploys this lie to depict Mugabe as the counter-Mandela, the man who will not do what we tell him to. Tacitly, he is also using it against Mbeki, who fails to do what we tell him to do on Zimbabwe. In consequence, Hitchens defines the actions of South African trade unions, which happen to be what the West wants, as in the best traditions of the anti-apartheid struggle — that is, the Western fantasy of what that struggle was. Now, it seems, South Africa is emerging from the dark days of disobedience, and returning to obedience to Western white authority — in the best traditions of (the Western fantasy of) Nelson Mandela!

The frightening thing about Hitchens is not that he is a liar or a hypocrite; the frightening thing is that the forces which he represents seem to be winning.

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