This week on CounterSpin: Media are celebrating the participation of girls from Afghanistan in a robotics competition in DC, after being denied entry twice by the State Department for reasons never explained, as somehow a feel-good story about America. No one seems to have pondered the irony of the denials, given that Afghan girls doing science is precisely the sort of PR moment the US pretended the 2001 invasion was about, and thus an opening to talk about what visiting decades of unending war on the country has actually done toward that ostensible goal. CounterSpin discussed the war as feminist storyline with author, activist and radio host Sonali Kolhatkar back in 2010. We’ll hear that conversation on this week’s show.PlayStop pop out
US lawmakers pushing for a new branch of the military focused on “deploying extraterrestrial power” is a real thing that is happening. A recent article on Quartz explained that while the plans are unlikely, they do send a message that the US is concerned about the orbital military aspirations of geopolitical rivals like China and Russia. Dystopian? Yes. Absurdly dangerous? You bet—but new the idea isn’t. In fact, CounterSpin talked with journalism professor and author Karl Grossman about the weaponization of space in May 2005. We’ll hear that this week as well.PlayStop pop out
Finally, it’s no surprise that healthcare continues to be front-page news. It is disheartening, though, how little the conversation has changed, in terms of the limits of what’s considered possible. Corporate media have an outsized role in constraining that conversation. Producer and author T.R. Reid discovered just how resistant to expanding the conversation media can be. He told his story to CounterSpin in April 2009.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson interviewed Maurice Carney about the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo for the July 14, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: The fighting between the coalitions of President Joseph Kabila—who refused to step down December 19 as the constitution mandates—and opposition forces is devastating the Democratic Republic of Congo. The UN has just reported 80,000 people fleeing the latest fighting in Fizi Territory, joining nearly 4 million people already uprooted by violence. In the central Kasai region, the Catholic Church reports more than 3,300 people killed since October. Accounts include two-year-olds with limbs chopped off and babies with machete wounds, as well as whole villages destroyed. And now the fighting is being presented as reason to postpone elections still further.
Like other African nations, Congo is of limited and irregular interest to US media. That isn’t justified by the scale of the crisis the country is enduring: More than 5 million people have died since 1998 from violence and mostly from hunger and disease faced while trying to flee violence.
Nor can US media plausibly claim that the US isn’t implicated in Congo’s hardship, though you’d be hard pressed to understand the US role—past or present—from media accounts.
Here to help us understand what’s happening is Maurice Carney, co-founder and executive director of the group Friends of the Congo. He joins us by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Maurice Carney.
Maurice Carney: Hi, it’s a pleasure to be with you. Thank you for having us.
JJ: The current violence between the government coalition and opposition forces that’s having such a shattering impact on the people—is that connected, or how much is it connected, to Kabila’s refusal to step down last December?
MC: Well, the overall instability in the country is overwhelmingly due to the fact that President Kabila wants to stay in power, and stay in power by any means necessary. This is critical for people to understand, that you have a president whose term is expired, but yet he wants to remain in power against the will of the people, and in contradistinction to the constitution of the country. So that’s really the crux of the instability in the country today.
And when you have this leader that lacks legitimacy, local issues that would normally remain local issues, they’re quickly escalated to be national issues. Thus the disputes that you find that occur locally, the federal government, the national government, usually intervenes on one side or the other, and the question then becomes, are you in support of the president or against the president? And when you have a grouping or formations that are against the interests of the president, then the president and the Kabila regime itself sends in military forces to try and clamp down on any kind of dissension that we may see. And this is what has been the source of the issue in the Kasai, for example, the region that you mentioned at the outset.
JJ: Yes, what happened in Kasai, was that a traditional leader, they tried to remove him and folks protested?
MC: Yes, a traditional leader who was supposed to assume the position of chief. However, this leader was against the Kabila regime and against the way the government had been running things. So the federal government, through the Ministry of Interior, tried to intervene in what was a traditional process, and intervene to the point where they wound up killing the chief.
And this spiraled out of control, to where the followers of the chief then started to resist by any means that they could. They saw that the chief had been killed, and it was done at the behest of the Congolese government, and the people were not going to stand for that.
And in an effort to show that the government was in control, the regime was in control, the Kabila regime sent in military forces that, as you stated at the outset, were killing women and children, babies, and even, many believe, played a role in the assassination of two United Nations investigators, who had gone in to document the crimes that were being committed in the Kasai region. Recently, this week, the United Nations reported that there’s some 80-plus mass graves that have been found in the region as a result of the instability.
JJ: When the Washington Post reported in late June on the reports which came from the Catholic Church, which has been doing this research on the killings in Kasai, they told the story, and then when it was time to give some context, the Washington Post said this:
Wars and explosive ethnic rivalries have riven Congo for decades, reaching a peak in the 1990s and 2000s when conflict in neighboring Rwanda spilled across the border.
That strikes me as incomplete, to say it nicely.
MC: Oh, yeah, totally incomplete. In fact, not only the Washington Post, the BBC and other corporate media, they lead with the ethnic narrative. And at the core, this is a political question. And not solely a political question, but also a geopolitical one. Because you have President Kabila, who has been supported by the West since 2001, when he took over from his father; they stood behind him in 2011 when he cheated in the election, and basically appropriated what was a fraudulent election.
So they backed Kabila for the last 16 years, and now when Kabila wants to stay, he’s developed such a strength that it’s difficult for him to step down, or for the people to remove him from power. So the West has been complicit in the situation that we see today. In fact, we see the West, some of the nations in the West who are trying to impose sanctions on Kabila, and we’re saying, well, they’re the arsonists, how can they be the firefighters today? So that’s really critical for people to understand, that Kabila has benefited, he has been strengthened, by his support from the West over the last decade and a half.
JJ: Yes, there’s a very strange feeling when you read Nikki Haley, our UN representative, saying that the United States is extremely interested in a democratic transfer of power in Congo.
MC: What you’ll see in the media, you often see that it’s said that there hasn’t been a peaceful transfer of power in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and there’s a part that’s left off of that. There hasn’t been a peaceful transfer in the Democratic Republic of Congo since the United States overthrew the first democratically elected leader in the country, and that was Patrice Emery Lumumba in 1960, one of Congo’s independence heroes and first democratically elected prime minister.
And since that time, every leader that has risen to power in the Congo has done so with the backing of the United States. There hasn’t been a leader since Lumumba who’s assumed power without the backing of the United States. So to your listening audience, it’s important for them to understand the role that the West, and the United States in particular, has played in what has transpired in the Congo.
And part of the reason for the destructive role that Western institutions and nations have played is because of Congo’s tremendous wealth. It’s a storehouse of precious and strategic minerals that are vital to major industries in the West. Even today, one of the burgeoning industries is the automotive industry, the green industry, where we’re seeing more electric cars, like Tesla and Prius and others. Well, Congo has a key mineral that’s vital to the functioning of that industry, and that’s cobalt. And Congo’s the largest producer of cobalt, largest reserves of cobalt, and it’s one of the hottest minerals on the market today. So that’s part of the reason why there’s so much interest in what happens in the Congo, from the corporate sector in particular in the West.
JJ: I just wanted to ask you, finally, I know that Friends of the Congo has been taking part in demonstrations there in DC, the Women’s March and the various marches since the inauguration, in which you are bringing together these global concerns and concern with what’s happening in the DRC and local concerns. And you see every reason to see connections there, between the economic and political struggles we have here and what’s happening there. I mean, is that the way forward?
MC: Oh, absolutely. And it’s probably best exemplified by the social justice movement we see unfolding in the Congo today among Congolese youth. The organizing and the mobilizing that we see in the streets of the United States, they’re happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo as well, where young people are standing up. However, and unfortunately, the stakes are much higher in the Congo, because the police, who have been equipped in part by the United States, the Congolese police, they shoot to kill. They jail young people at the drop of a hat.
In fact, as I’m speaking to you today, we have two of our young people, Jean-Marie Kalonji and Sylva Mbikay, who were picked up by the Congolese military and placed into a detention camp, and they’ve been there since June 23, for three weeks now.
And we don’t know why. They haven’t done anything. These are young people who provide services to the local community. Like the Black Lives Matter movement here has the bail project where they bail mothers out of jail, that’s what the youth are doing in the Congo, they go in and they bail mothers and their babies out of jail. They provide services to the handicapped community, and they provide scholarships to young people. They support education and health of their communities. But yet they’ve been picked up and placed into a military detention camp.
So the kind of resistance that you see here in the US also exists there. And that’s really critical for people who are here in the movement to understand, that the issues are not fundamentally different. And that what Dr. King said is so true, when he stated that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And it’s the injustices that the youth in the Congo are fighting, and they’re not fundamentally different from the injustices that are being fought here in the United States.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Maurice Carney of Friends of the Congo. You can find their work online at FriendsOfTheCongo.org, and they’re on Twitter at @congofriends. Thank you so much, Maurice Carney, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
MC: Thank you. It’s been my pleasure.
Earlier this week, human rights group Amnesty International issued a lengthy report accusing US-backed forces of “repeated violations of international humanitarian law, some of which may amount to war crimes,” in Mosul, Iraq, causing the deaths of at least 3,700 civilians. Neither this report, nor the broader issue of the civilian toll in the US war against ISIS, has come close to penetrating US corporate media.
The only major radio or television outlet to report on Amnesty’s claims was NPR (7/12/17). While traditional print outlets, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, did run Reuters (7/11/17) and AP (7/12/17) articles, respectively, on the report, neither covered it themselves. Neither Amnesty’s charges, nor the broader issue of civilian deaths in Mosul, garnered any coverage in television news, with no mention on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN or MSNBC.
The expulsion of ISIS from Mosul by the US-led coalition did receive coverage, but the US role in killing civilians was uniformly ignored.
CBS News’ reports (6/25/17, 7/4/17, 7/9/17) made no mention of US responsibility for civilian deaths, referring only vaguely to “a rising civilian death toll” and “whole neighborhoods” that “cease to exist.” The role of US bombing role in that rising death toll or those no-longer-existing neighborhoods was never mentioned.
In one report (6/23/17), correspondent Charlie D’Agata, standing over a pile of rubble, said to the camera, “Whole buildings, whole neighborhoods have been wiped out, this is what it cost to get rid of ISIS.” Who helped “wiped out” the buildings and neighborhoods is left a mystery.
One slight exception was ABC Nightline (7/14/17), which reported on summary executions and torture by Iraqi special forces, but made no mention of direct US responsibility for the bombing of Mosul. It did, however, accuse the US of “turning a blind eye” to crimes committed by others. The remaining ABC News reports (7/5/17, 7/12/17), like the others, overlooked US-caused civilian casualties.
One 10-minute report for Nightline (7/12/17) made reference to “thousands killed,” but pinned the blame for those deaths squarely on ISIS. After hearing an airstrike in the distance, correspondent Ian Pannell sang the praises of bombing raids, insisting, “It’s hard to imagine that [Iraqi fighters] would have got this far forward—despite their brave fighting—without their support.” He then profiled two victims of US-led airstrikes and Iraqi army gunfire, but said they were “forced to help [ISIS], they were used as human shields. ISIS fighters made them run into the line of fire of the advancing Iraqi army.”
(To be clear, as Amnesty pointed out, ISIS certainly is using civilians as human shields, but this doesn’t nearly account for all casualties: The US and its allies “continued to rely upon imprecise, explosive weapons, ignoring the ever-growing toll of civilian death and injuries.” Similarly, civilians in Aleppo were not allowed to leave by jihadist groups like Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, according to the UN, but Russia and Syria still bombed heavily for years.)
NBC/MSNBC stuck to a similar line. In one nine-minute segment (MSNBC, 7/14/17), Andrea Mitchell didn’t mention Iraqi civilians once, much less their massive death toll—and incidentally painted Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, which killed an estimated half million people, as an unfortunate error, insisting it was full of “tragic miscalculations.”
A separate segment by Richard Engel (MSNBC, 7/14/17) on Pete Reed, an ex-Marine who is treating civilians in Mosul, made no mention of deaths caused by US bombing, instead—as with ABC’s Ian Pannell—framing all the deaths as the sole responsibility of ISIS. After showing a 12-year-old girl blinded by shrapnel, Engel opaquely refers to “an airstrike” that caused the injury, but curiously doesn’t say whose airstrike it was. He then insists the doctor treating her wouldn’t be able to do so under the Islamic State, because she is female—thus turning the treatment of a victim of a US airstrike into evidence of why that airstrike was justified. Everything is reframed as pro–US bombing, even when highlighting the victims of said bombing.
Can one imagine this frame in reporting on Russia’s siege of Aleppo? Can one imagine highlighting Syrian and Russian doctors, treating the very civilians their governments just bombed, in such an uncritical manner? Can one imagine the US media blaming all the deaths caused by Russian bombing as the sole fault of those occupying the city? Unlike reporting on Aleppo (FAIR.org, 1/4/17), Engel makes no mention of civilian deaths caused by US bombs, no figures, no mention of war crimes, no mention of Trump’s open disregard for civilian casualties. It’s a breathless Pentagon press release that never questions the motives or effect of Trump’s bombing campaign.
Obviously, the two instances aren’t exactly the same, but the stark 180-degree difference in how the Russian and US sieges were covered is an object lesson in nationalistic ethos. Because ISIS is seen as an unmitigated evil, and the US as an unmitigated good, no death toll is too high. Indeed—no death toll is even worth mentioning. The Americans rode in, the baddies got theirs, and any costs to human life US bombing may have caused are incidental and unworthy of mention.
Janine Jackson interviewed Mara Verheyden-Hilliard about the right to protest for the July 14, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: A recent popular op-ed called on those engaged in resisting the Trump administration to stop counting so much on lawyers. “The fate of the nation cannot be left in the hands of the courts,” the piece, written by a lawyer, argued, and that’s solid advice. Popular action is what historically has moved the country forward.
But when people do go into the street and are arrested, what then? When they put their bodies on the line and the state creates a new law to criminalize that resistance, what then? Like it or not, the law is still one of the bigger tools in the box for Americans. So what does and doesn’t it do for us in the present moment?
Mara Verheyden-Hilliard is an activist and attorney. She’s co-founder and executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund. She joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard.
Mara Verheyden-Hilliard: Thank you for having me.
JJ: Well, I’d like to start, if we could, with an update on the J-20, those arrested in inauguration protests in DC, who are facing what I’ve heard called unprecedented charges for demonstrators, felony charges that could lead to 75, 80 years in prison. One of those still facing charges is journalist Aaron Cantú, now at the Santa Fe Reporter, who has written for FAIR. We talked about the case in January. What should we know now about this ongoing story?
MVH: This case is really of extraordinary proportions, when you look at what the government is doing to people who are engaged in protests on the first day that Trump took office. And it’s really in its own context significant, too, because of the major shift in policing in Washington, DC, which we believe is intended to send a signal.
What’s happened now is more than 200 people were swept up in a dragnet arrest by the police, and this occurred after the police had followed the demonstration for, by their own account, approximately half an hour, while there were some people who broke windows, only a handful of people. And rather than going in and arresting the people for whom they had probable cause to arrest, the police waited that arbitrary time, tracked and detained 200 people. And so they swept up demonstrators, passers-by, journalists, anyone who’s in proximity, anyone who is chanting and protesting.
And then they undertook this mass prosecution with the United States Attorney’s Office here in the District of Columbia, in which people are being threatened with, as you’ve mentioned, jail time that is decades and decades long, really a lifetime of jail time, with these felony charges. They are charging people en masse with crimes that may have happened, in terms of property damage, but charging everyone with crimes without particularized probable cause, without being able to point to a person and say, you committed this act and so we’re charging you for this act. They’re charging everyone in the vicinity for being in proximity.
This is extremely dangerous; it sets the stage that for any demonstration, if anyone commits a criminal act, an act of property damage, whether that be a protestor or, frankly, a police agent provocateur, the police can now use this as license, or they wish to, to sweep up everyone else around them.
JJ: This is what we talked about before. It’s not a crime, now, is it, to be in proximity to other people who break the law in conjunction with First Amendment activities?
MVH: Of course it’s not, and it cannot be. And the First Amendment has always stood for that, in fact, you cannot criminalize a person for the acts of another. And particularly in the context of the First Amendment, when it’s an issue where the connection is that there may be a sympathy of political views, one cannot do that. There are cases dating back, NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware and others, the courts said you have to act with precision. You cannot say that just because people have a similar point of view, or may have similar political goals, that those who carry out illegal acts or acts of violence in pursuit of those goals, that those acts can be attributed to the others who do not.
JJ: Right. These charges, at the level they’re at, it feels new, but we know that the effort to repress First Amendment expression is not new. The Supreme Court last month rejected a First Amendment case that dates from years back, Garcia v. Bloomberg. Can you tell us about that and how it relates?
MVH: The Garcia v. Bloomberg case comes from the Occupy demonstration of 2011, when 700 people were peacefully marching, compliant with police orders, there was no violence, and as people marched, the police escorted the march. The police themselves closed the Brooklyn Bridge roadway to vehicular traffic. The police and police commanders themselves opened up the roadway to pedestrian traffic. It is the police and police commanders who led the demonstrators onto the roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge, and once those demonstrators had flowed and followed behind the lead of the police, the police stopped the march, trapped them from behind, mass-arrested 700 people.
When we litigated this case, we won at the District Court level, we won at the Second Circuit, in fact. And then Mayor de Blasio, who had taken office, frankly, running on an Occupy ticket, had the court reevaluate the ruling, and the court, in an extraordinary measure, reversed itself. And we took this case up to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court just last month determined that they would not hear it.
JJ: Obviously, lots of folks are taking their lead from this, and kind of joining on this bandwagon. We have a spate of anti-protest legislation around the country, even UN experts are issuing alarmed statements now. Some 20 states have passed or tried to pass laws allowing protesters to be charged with conspiracy, increasing penalties for blocking streets, even protecting drivers who run protesters over, banning masks and hoodies…. I mean, is anyone really confused that the intent of these rules is to quash dissent, and doesn’t that thinly veiled intent matter?
MVH: It’s clear that there is an effort around the country to try, through legal means—although we would consider illegal means—to curtail people’s fundamental First Amendment rights to gather together in the streets, to be able to speak out in unified action.
I do think, as much as we’re seeing these kinds of restrictions imposed and these rulings, that at the same time it can obviously have a chilling effect on people, the reality is that people do always come out and people will continue to come out. And while this may be intended to have a chilling effect, it is really crucial that people stand up and speak out for what they believe in. And I do think the reason that we’re seeing these is because there is a growing recognition that there really is this fire of people, these embers burning, where we keep seeing people come up and demonstrating for what they believe in. We’re seeing so many more people entering political life, even since the election of Donald Trump. People are taking to the streets, protesting, who never protested before.
So while we’re faced with what is I think overt repression, both in terms of these felony prosecutions, these state laws, these court rulings, we also are faced with the fact that there are millions of people who are engaging in political protest and political organizing who have never done so before, and that’s a force that really can’t be stopped.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund. Find them online at JusticeOnline.org. Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, thank you very much for joining us today on CounterSpin.
MVH: Thank you for having me.
“US Missile Defense Plans to Zap North Korean Threats” was the headline of a USA Today story (7/17/17)—or “US Racing to Quash N. Korean Nuke Threat,” in the print edition.
Strikingly, the piece contains no sources at all substantiating the “N. Korean nuke threat”: “North Korea’s rapid march to develop a nuclear-armed ballistic missile capable of striking the United States” is simply asserted in the lead, and later on the claim that “North Korea may be only a year or so away” from having missiles that “can hit anywhere in the world with a nuclear warhead” is backed up only by “according to US estimates.”
On the “US missile defense plans,” USA Today does have sources—mostly sources with a direct financial connection to the US missile defense program.
There’s Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Security and International Studies (CSIS), who tells USA Today‘s Oren Dorell that “Missile defense buys you time and opens windows.”
That’s not all missile defense buys: Three of the biggest military contractors who shared in a $3 billion contract from the Department of Defense to develop missile defense systems (UPI, 2/10/17) are contributors to CSIS’s national security program, which includes the Aerospace Security Project: Northrop Grumman, which has given more than $200,000 (according to CSIS’s website); Raytheon, which has donated between $100,000 and $199,999; and BAE Systems (formerly British Aerospace and Marconi), which chipped in $35,000–$64,999. (As the New York Times has documented, with CSIS as a prime example, think tank scholars “often push donors’ agendas, amplifying a culture of corporate influence in Washington.”)
There’s also “retired Lt. Gen. Henry ‘Trey’ Obering III, a former head of the Missile Defense Agency who is now executive vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton”; later it’s clarified that Obering “heads the directed energy team at Booz Allen Hamilton”—in other words, his business is to sell to the Pentagon the kind of “smaller, more powerful and lighter” laser-based weapons that he tells USA Today are necessary to protect the United States from the North Korean threat. How quickly that protection will be in place is “based on how much money we’re putting into that program,” Obering says to the paper, sounding rather like a sports car dealer assuring a customer that you get what you pay for.
That’s all the quoted sources that the article has, aside from five words from Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association, who says that building a missile interception system could create “increased risk of arms racing” with Russia and China. It’s the only note in the article that isn’t completely gung ho about missile defense—and it comes, uncoincidentally, from the only source in the article whose paycheck doesn’t at least partially depend upon missile defense contractors.
The recent acute humanitarian crisis in Gaza—on top of the routine humanitarian crisis that defines everyday existence there—has gotten sparse coverage in US media over the past three weeks.
Israeli officials have cut off electricity to almost 2 million Gazans for all but three or four hours a day—in conjunction with nominal Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who has cut funding for Gaza’s electricity in an effort to punish his political rivals in Hamas. The Gaza Strip, which remains under effective Israeli control despite the 2005 withdrawal of Israeli troops, requires 450 megawatts daily, but since June has received only around 150 megawatts per day. The power cuts, according to UN humanitarian coordinator Robert Piper, severely undermine “critical functions in the health, water and sanitation sectors,” and have created a “looming humanitarian catastrophe.”
The vast majority of US media also ignored a devastating UN report published Tuesday, documenting the humanitarian conditions in Gaza over the past ten years.
Neither the electrical crisis nor the UN report has been covered by the New York Times, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC or Fox News—though the Times and ABC did run AP reports on the former.
The Washington Post (6/22/17) reported on the electricity cuts just over three weeks ago, but made sure to note in their headline “it’s not all Israel’s fault.” The Post (7/12/17) also mentioned the Gaza electricity cuts in a broader piece, told from Israel’s perspective, about that country’s fears that “Hamas will go to war.” NPR did not report on the electricity crisis, but unlike the Post, it did have a piece (7/11/17) on the UN report.
In stark contrast, an attack on two Israeli police officers in Jerusalem Thursday was reported by all the above outlets except MSNBC. The New York Times (7/14/17), ABC News (7/14/17), CBS News (7/14/17), NBC News (7/14/17), CNN (7/14/17), Fox News (7/14/17), all dedicated airtime and/or column inches to the shooting in the Old City.
Attacks on Israeli forces—even ones that occur, like this week’s strike, in illegally occupied territory—are framed as random acts of hate with no political context. None of the above reports on the Jerusalem attack made any mention of the increasingly dire situation in Gaza. Nor, even more conspicuously, was there any mention of Israel’s killing of two Palestinians in a West Bank refugee camp less than a day before.
The routine, “factored-in” suffering of Palestinians—even when ramped up to hellish levels—is barely worth a mention by US media. It just is. And when it is touched on, it’s generally framed as Hamas or the Palestinian Authority’s fault, with the broader role played by Israel’s devastating, 50-year-occupation downplayed or omitted.
This week on CounterSpin: The Democratic Republic of Congo is embroiled in economic crisis as well as the humanitarian disaster of violence between the government of Joseph Kabila and opposition forces. Elite US media give you a tired tale of a perennially war-torn African nation, with benevolent outsiders like the US looking to help. You’re right to suspect that reality is something different. Maurice Carney, co-founder and executive director of the group Friends of the Congo, will join us to talk about what’s going on.PlayStop pop out
Also on the show: A July Washington Post poll finds one out of every three DC residents say they’ve taken part in a protest against the president since his inauguration. The number includes half of the district’s white residents, half of people making more than $100,000 a year and a fifth of respondents over the age of 65. As more people go out in the street, states are rushing to criminalize that resistance. We’ll talk about the right to protest and the role of law in a time of widespread dissent with activist attorney Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund.PlayStop pop out
Plus a quick look back at recent press, including the “free market” healthcare mix, the opioid epidemic and a remembrance of anti-racism advocate Jack Shaheen.
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Major media’s relative lack of interest in the mass arrests by Metro DC police on Inauguration Day is a fact noted by activists and journalists since the incident almost six months ago. One way to measure the dearth of coverage is to compare the attention paid to comparable protester arrests in Russia last month.
On June 12, over 1,700 Russians throughout the country were arrested for “unauthorized protests” in opposition to President Vladimir Putin and government corruption. “Dozens”—including opposition leader Alexei Navalny—were kept in jail longer than a day, but the vast majority were let go immediately. (Navalny, as well as some others, got between 15–30 days in jail.)
More than 200 Americans were arrested on January 20 after “rioting” broke out in downtown Washington, DC, in the hours leading up to and after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Some were let go over the next few weeks, but the bulk of the 200+ still face 10–80 years in federal prison for “felony rioting.”
It’s important to note at least two major differences between the two events: At the Moscow protests, there was no apparent property damage or assaults on police; the protesters’ “crime” was protesting in sections of the city that were not “authorized.” It should be remembered, though, that there’s no public evidence that the vast majority of those arrested in DC—who included journalists, medics and legal observers—had been responsible for any of the vandalism or the objects thrown at police that did occur that day. As Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, told FAIR in January (1/31/17):
In their charging papers, [DC prosecutors] are acknowledging that the people that broke the law, that form the basis for their actions against the larger group, are not the people that they then have arrested in the larger group. They even, in some of the charging papers, appear to be holding people who were arrested responsible for actions that occurred after they were in custody, which I don’t believe people have the, you know, time-travel capacity to be doing this. And it really shows the indiscriminate nature of the police arrests.
The other major difference is the penalty faced by those arrested in Moscow and other cities in Russia is far less severe than the 10–80 years in federal prison faced by the 200+ awaiting trial in US federal court. For the purposes of comparison, this article assumes these two pieces of context (the lack of “rioting” in Russia vs. the decades-long prison sentences in the US) render these two instances of mass arrests, at the very least, comparable in terms of news value.
Below is the number of stories in various outlets primarily focused on each set of mass arrests in the subsequent month:
The ratio is almost 4-to-1, with Reuters and CNN being the outliers. Take those two out, and the ratio is closer to 5-to-2. (You can review the data here.)
Aside from the quantitative difference in coverage, there’s a stark qualitative one as well. Initial reports from the Washington Post (which was excluded from the quantitative comparison, since for the Post it was a local “public safety” story in the metro section) simply ran with the government’s narrative without question: “Protesters Who Destroyed Property on Inauguration Day Were Part of Well-Organized Group” was the headline of its next-day report (1/21/17). How many of the 217 detained were part of this “well-organized group”? The Post didn’t say, exactly (“scores” is how it chose to define the scope), giving the reader the distinct impression it was all of them.
When it wasn’t repeating government claims unquestioned, the Post was sympathizing with the government’s difficulties in leveling punishment. “Inauguration Day’s Mass Arrests Are Challenging for Prosecutors,” worried the Post (2/4/17). What about the challenges for those facing life-wrecking decades-long prison sentences? Less important.
Other major corporate outlets similarly adopted a sensational, pro-government framing of the DC arrests. “At Least 217 Arrested, Limo Torched Amid Trump Inauguration Day Protests in Washington” reported ABC News (1/20/17). “Washington Faces More Anti-Trump Protests After Day of Rage” was NBC News’ spin (1/20/17). Both networks played video on loop of a handful of garbage cans and a limo set on fire, giving the appearance of mass bedlam and suggesting that all 217 people arrested took part in an orgy of violence.
When Russian protesters were arrested about five months later, the news led the three most prestigious US newspapers’ front pages the following day (6/13/17):
Neither the New York Times or Wall Street Journal carried front-page photos—or even front-page mentions—the day after the DC mass arrests (1/21/17). The Post did mention the local arrests, without a picture, at the bottom of its front page.
Additionally, virtually all the coverage of the Inauguration Day arrests were accompanied by photos of the now-infamous burning limo. The rub is, the limo was burned after those arrested for felony rioting were detained by police. While there was minor damage to the limo before they were rounded up and fenced in, the primary image giving the impression of mass rioting had nothing to do at all with the arrestees. (I was there, and took a photo of an unburned limo after the protesters were detained, minutes before Trump’s swearing in.)
American readers were given the distinct impression, time and again, that those arrested in DC on Inauguration Day were Black Bloc anarchists hell-bent on violence and mayhem—visually linking the arrests to the post-roundup limo arson:
To the extent there was coverage, it almost never mentioned that seven journalists were among those jailed by police. In the couple of days after the mass arrests, neither the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS or NBC mentioned that journalists had been detained. While some were subsequently released, others, such as Santa Fe Reporter writer and New Inquiry editor Aaron Cantú, still face significant prison time. (Disclosure: Cantú has written for FAIR.org.) Indeed, charges against Cantú recently increased to up to 75 years in prison—despite the lack of any public evidence that he was doing anything other than covering the protests.
In stark contrast, the Moscow protesters were depicted as defiant heroes confronting jack-booted thugs. A New York Times op-ed (6/12/17) painted the image:
What they left behind showed the brute force of their adversary: a single black shoe, a snapped pair of glasses, a shiny hair clip.
Thousands of people, many in their teens and twenties, poured into the center of Moscow on Monday to protest against the corruption they say eats away at their livelihoods and future….
One by one, hundreds were picked off by riot police, who dragged and pulled them by their arms and legs, some by their hair. I watched as police sucker-punched gangly adolescents and hit them with batons before tossing them into paddy wagons. The crowds were resilient, hissing and booing at police officers as their fellow protesters were manhandled. Several youths beside me held up a handwritten placard: “Only revolution will defeat corruption.”
Others chanted, “Make Russia free!” The demonstrators waved smartphones and GoPros in the air, trying to capture the injustices.
No harrowing tale of idealists standing up to an oppressive, dystopian state could be found by any #J20 witness or supporter in the opinion section of any major US paper. Those arrested on January 20 were, to the person, violent rioters begging to be taken in; the government they were protesting, justified in pursuing decades-long prison sentences.
There are obvious differences in these mass arrests, in both directions, but the eagerness of US media to disproportionately cover and empathize with those in Russia, while either ignoring or toeing the government’s line when it comes to mass arrests stateside, speaks to the nationalistic blinders at work. Some 200 Americans face decades in federal prison for what amounted to little more than property damage, the most visually potent example of which occurred after everyone charged had already been detained. This would no doubt be a scandal if it took place in another country—especially one deemed an enemy of the US—but here the arrestees are at best overlooked, and at worst uniformly criminalized.
Jonah Goldberg is the founding editor of the National Review Online, a fellow at the right-wing American Enterprise think tank, and a widely distributed conservative columnist. He first gained the spotlight, and began writing for National Review, in 1998, when his mother Lucianne Goldberg helped promote the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
To give you an idea of how he built his career as a “provocative” conservative thinker, he opened a 2001 column thus (Jewish World Review, 10/15/01):
Suddenly, serious people are rethinking an old idea that’s time has come again: colonialism. For years, colonialism has been discredited. It was considered racist on the left to point out that many people lived better and more productive lives under, say, British rule than they have without it.
The core theme of his punditry has always been complaining about “liberals”: His two books, from 2008 and 2012, are titled Liberal Fascism and The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas.
Why has he appeared as a guest on National Public Radio’s most widely distributed news hours (primarily Morning Edition) 25 times since April 2016—making him one of the network’s most regularly consulted commentators?
A number of NPR’s listeners have written in to complain about Goldberg’s prevalence on the airwaves. NPR ombud Elizabeth Jensen acknowledged in a response column (NPR.org, 4/11/17) that “no liberal commentator has had such a recurring platform, and Goldberg is not always identified by his political views, leaving listeners to guess.” She also defended their frequent use of Goldberg: “I appreciate Goldberg’s commentary and rarely find it following predictable talking points.”
Based on FAIR’s review of all of Goldberg’s NPR appearances since 2015, it is easy to see his value as a pundit to NPR’s editors and producers. He is always an easy interview; he never contradicts NPR hosts and usually confines his commentary to mundane observations on the political horserace between Democrats and Republicans. He is willing to critique Republican strategy and lawmakers. Most significantly, he refused to endorse (or vote for) Donald Trump, sharing what we may assume is most NPR staffers’ distaste for Trump’s style and rhetoric. (NPR’s other most frequent conservative commentator, David Brooks, is also a well-known “Never Trumper.”)
Offering the anti-Trump Goldberg a platform is NPR’s way of providing a “counterbalance” to its widely perceived liberal worldview, while also drawing a distinction between good right-wingers (establishment conservatives) and bad right-wingers (Trump). But promoting Goldberg is a misguided move: The liberal/conservative balancing act has always been a misleading quest for a false “center,” and Goldberg’s brand of conservatism is not an antidote to Trumpism, but rather its close relative and natural precursor.
‘A Conservative Voice’ and the False Center
When Jensen praises Goldberg for “rarely…following predictable talking points,” it is clear that the apparent unconventionality of Goldberg’s commentary is what appeals to NPR. She writes further about political commentary (NPR.org, 10/6/16): “My sense is that the vast majority of listeners are hoping to hear a commentary perspective that makes them consider an issue from a different angle.”
But Goldberg’s unconventionality is superficial. It consists primarily of irreverence towards politicians and the occasional stale pop culture reference (Morning Edition, 5/22/17):
You know, Mitch McConnell, who’s got a gift for understatement, said we could all use a little less drama. That’s code for, dear God, please cut it out. I have these visions of Reince Priebus doing a sort of Jerry Maguire with Trump—you know, help-me-help-you kind of thing.
Meanwhile, Goldberg’s views on policy are conventionally right-wing. His take on Rep. Steve Scalise’s shooting (National Review, 6/16/17), which included his trademark “I can see both sides” posture, concluded that the shooting teaches us…that we need to reduce the size and scope of government. (A glance at Goldberg’s past writings—e.g., Townhall, 3/7/13—on the necessity of cutting “entitlement” programs like Social Security provides a clue as to how he envisions shrinking the government.)
His writings in the past month include an essay on how PC-culture “snowflakes” pose a threat to free speech (Commentary, 6/19/17). He entered the AHCA debate (Townhall, 5/31/17) with the edgy idea that people don’t really need health insurance, parroting a Ted Cruz and Rick Perry talking point from 2015 that’s long been debunked (Factcheck.org, 7/10/15). Elsewhere (Baltimore Sun, 5/5/17), he asks the question: Is empathy a distraction in the healthcare debate?
Goldberg’s views on Israel/Palestine, and US Mideast policy more broadly, can be gleaned from a 2007 column (Townhall, 6/20/07) that complains that “the assumption behind the push for democracy in Gaza and in Iraq is that Arabs can be trusted to handle political freedom.”
It’s tough to see what precious spice Goldberg adds to the mix on NPR; his contributions range from the absurdly equivocal (Morning Edition, 7/20/16):
Oh, Roger Ailes is a colossal figure. And he—the list of people who owe their careers to Roger Ailes is very, very long, including many politicians. And this is a thunder clap, and we don’t know where it’s going to go, but it’s complicated.
…to the hopelessly slanted (Morning Edition, 4/10/17):
There are some people, including some of my colleagues at National Review, that basically see Syria as just a hot mess. It’s basically like the Spanish Civil War, where you had two bad guys fighting each other.
Goldberg, the author of Liberal Fascism, sees the democratically elected left-wing Spanish government and the Hitler-backed fascist coup as “two bad guys.”
His views would only be unconventional if racism, celebration of US militarism and a constant drone of warnings about budget deficits—where the solution is always to cut programs that support poor and marginalized US Americans—were unconventional among right-wing pundits. They’re not; this is the same conservative cocktail that has been served to the Republican base for years, scapegoating immigrant populations, people of color and the poor to provide cover for policies that do little but further concentrate wealth and power upward. It is in the shadow of such policies—the brand of conservatism endorsed by Goldberg—that the white nationalist and proto-fascist tendencies encouraged by Trump have established their foothold, as a population encouraged to blame scapegoats for economic and social problems looks for ever more extreme solutions.
It is strange to think that promoting such a conservative voice—which he will continue to use in service of the same deceptive and exploitative project—would provide clarity or even a clarifying “balance.” From their vantage point amid the Washington, DC, political class, Morning Edition decision-makers may feel that hosting an acknowledged “conservative ideologue” (Morning Edition, 3/24/17) provides the needed balance for a news organization often maligned as “liberal” (ABC News, 2/15/11).
Meanwhile, the inherent conservatism of that same DC milieu would make it extremely uncomfortable for Morning Edition to regularly host a left-wing ideologue of any kind—so they don’t. Conservative ideologues, more often than not, are “balanced” by the voices of Democratic Party loyalists and centrist liberals. In 2016, Goldberg was often paired with former NPR reporter Cokie Roberts as a commentator—someone who claims that she has an ideology that “does not exist” (NPR.org, 10/5/16), but who for decades has consistently been warning the Democratic Party that it needs to move to the right (Extra!, 7–8/98).
The foreign policy realm offers instructive examples of how this balancing act often plays out at NPR. When President Trump ordered an airstrike on a Syrian airbase in March, Morning Edition hosted a series of guests to air their reactions. Among these were Goldberg (4/10/17) along with other conservative supporters and opponents of the strike (Will Hurd, 4/10/17, Chris Buskirk, 4/7/17, Cory Gardner, 4/10/17), plus two ostensibly liberal voices—Democratic senators Tim Kaine (4/7/17) and Adam Schiff (4/7/17)—both of whom approved of the strike, but wished the president had asked congressional permission first.
Any distinctly left-wing guest could have questioned the motives of the United States government and its military’s interventions in the Middle East; at the very least, such a guest could have provided a basic principled anti-war argument against the punitive strike. Somehow, such common sense perspectives were not among the “different angles” that Morning Edition wished its listeners to consider.
Seeing through Goldberg’s surface-level willingness to part with GOP orthodoxy, we perceive Morning Edition reaching to a sometimes extreme right-wing voice in order to balance out a left-wing voice that doesn’t, in fact, exist.
The 2016 election results belied the predictive punditry of NPR and most other mainstream outlets, where Clinton’s win had seemed a near certainty. This misstep forced a moment of reflection; David Folkenflik, NPR’s media correspondent, wrote:
Cenk Uygur, the leftist host of the Young Turks and a supporter of Bernie Sanders, predicted in July that Trump would beat Clinton, based on a populist appeal tapping into voter anger against the establishment. He looks pretty good in retrospect. But he has for years been considered outside the acceptable norm of media voices….
The conservative political columnist Salena Zito…has been writing for months about the depths of Trump’s support. One such column in August was titled: “Stumped by Trump’s Success? Take a Drive Outside US Cities.”
This can be a period of great reconsideration by the press of how it operates, even as the stories arise all around us.… It is a time for humility and taking stock. It is a time for listening to voters who unexpectedly turned to Trump and those who envision a very different form of America.
Christopher Turpin, NPR’s vice president of news programming, told Jensen (11/15/16):
NPR was “a little slow to spot the two mass movements in this campaign,” the ones behind Trump and Sanders. He added, “As an organization, if the election has taught us one thing it is to really think about how broad the political spectrum is in this country.”
It was clear to some at NPR that ping-pong reporting that bounced between establishment liberal and conservative voices was failing NPR’s listeners, in much the same way that the political establishment was failing the whole country. The powerlessness, suffering and struggle of multitudes of US Americans had been ignored, in favor of the competition constructed between powerful political factions.
The mass movements “behind Trump and Sanders” that NPR was “slow to spot” were both partly built around economic populism. Jonah Goldberg is an establishment conservative voice whose problem with Trump, in part, was the latter’s occasional rhetorical flirtation with traditionally left-wing economic and social policies (Morning Edition, 3/2/16):
A lot of people on the right believe that he will be actually a huge victory for liberalism if he wins the presidency, because he’s in favor of all sorts of ideological heresies on the right—you know, on sort of single-payer healthcare, on trade protectionism…. And you hear him last night talking—singing praises about Planned Parenthood.
Now that Trump, in power in making policy, has ditched his lip-service to, for example, single-payer healthcare, Goldberg has softened towards him, and calls for us to “give him a fresh start” (Morning Edition, 11/09/16).
Sticking with Goldberg is evidence that NPR is resistant to really acting on the lessons of 2016. It shows every sign that it will continue to be “slow” to leave behind the traditional gatekeepers of the left and right, and cling to a particularly conservative notion of the “center.” When Jensen addressed Goldberg’s presence in her ombud column in April, she spoke to Sarah Gilbert, Morning Edition’s executive producer:
Gilbert said the show is “careful to make sure we have a varied mix of perspectives on our air, of course,” and that it will include a more complete identification of Goldberg’s views in the future.
Goldberg has been a commentator on the show four times since then, and only once (4/28/17) did the hosts identify him as a right-winger. And that “varied mix of perspectives” has failed to include any commentator who advocates for progressive populism the way that Goldberg speaks up for establishment conservatism.
Janine Jackson interviewed Vijay Prashad about displaced people for the July 7, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: In scale and complexity, the crisis of the world’s displaced—65.9 million people, according to the UN Refugee Agency—is difficult to grasp. The need for a public reckoning, a working through of a societal response to this unprecedented circumstance, is clear.
And there’s little doubt that a roomful of media producers would agree that the issue was newsworthy. Pressed, they might say something about how they wished they had more time to devote to such important fare. Except that there seems to be room for several stories saying, for example, there are no new developments on White House/Russia ties, but here’s a rehash of previous reports.
The serious reporting that does exist often presents refugees as the problem, rather than displacement and its drivers, leaving you to wonder how much media help, not just in the fight to ensure that people’s humanity is respected, whatever their status, but in the effort to understand the roots of this global phenomenon and address it in a humane way.
Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Connecticut. His most recent book is The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution. He’s author of many others, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter and The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. His columns appear on AlterNet every Wednesday. He joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Vijay Prashad.
Vijay Prashad: Yeah, thanks, Janine.
JJ: The scale of displacement around the world, including within countries, is at new levels, and you’ve just written about this. Can you give us, first, just some sense of the scope of things today, and then what you’ve learned about the No. 1 driver behind displacement?
VP: The UN Refugee Agency has said that the number of the world’s displaced—those who are both internally displaced and displaced out of their countries—is about 66 million. This is a very high number, but it should come with a caveat, namely, that this is also an approximation. It is my feeling that the number is quite deflated; very large numbers of people don’t come into the statistics that the UN Refugee Agency collects. But nonetheless, this is a very illustrative number.
When I looked at it, I decided to see how this number compares with populations. And it turns out that the 66 million refugees in the world would comprise the 21st largest state among the 190-odd states we have in the world. It’s a very large number of people, so this scandal should awaken the humanity of people.
I’d just like to say that, before we talk about the No. 1 driver of refugees, it might be interesting to think about how refugees are reported in the media. And it’s my sense that, you know, if refugees inconvenience people in the West, if they come to Western countries seeking asylum or seeking refugee protection, then there are stories written about them. But even that is not often about why people leave their homeland, it’s more about the inconvenience caused by them to people in the West.
Which is why the question of Syria is so important here. Syrian refugees have been coming into Europe, and that flood of refugees has indeed raised the question of refugees in the Western imagination. But from Libya, there have been fewer refugees. This doesn’t mean that the war against Libya was any less destructive than the war in Syria. But the density of population in Syria is far greater than the density of population in Libya, which means that when a war strikes a city or a town in Syria, people live much more densely, and therefore the impact of the war is felt by civilians, so they flee. In Libya, where the density of population is much lower, people have been moving inside the country, protecting themselves as best as they can, but they haven’t been fleeing from Libya, as Libyans, into Europe, and so Libya is off the agenda. So, too, South Sudan, from where refugees have been fleeing into Uganda, not to the United States and not to Europe.
There’s a way in which the refugee crisis gets portrayed in the Western media that I think is an additional source of concern, which is that it is driven by the inconvenience of Western citizens rather than the actual story of the refugees themselves, and this is something that I think people need to be aware of. We don’t get to hear the stories of why people leave, because it seems as if the public in the West is more invested in how to deal with the refugees than what their lives are about.
JJ: That’s an excellent point. To the extent that the story is presented as an interconnected, as a global story, it’s presented as, how will certain countries be able to absorb refugees. And there’s also a kind of a distancing from the humanity of the people who are refugees that I think interferes with people’s understanding. You know, we’re encouraged to think, well, I would never make that choice to put my family in that kind of danger. We’re encouraged by a kind of individualistic focus, when we really need to be looking at bigger pictures.
And so I want to ask you specifically about Libya, because the interconnectedness of things is not something that media encourage us to see. So here is the Los Angeles Times with an explainer on the problems of displacement, and they say:
Why are migrants headed to Italy? Italy has long been a destination for those hoping to reach European shores because of its proximity to North Africa, specifically the lawless nation of Libya, which in recent years has become a launch pad for Mediterranean crossings.
So this is media’s explanation for why migrations are following this particular flow, and it’s because Libya is lawless. Well, there’s an opportunity to teach readers in the US something there, but the history is missing.
VP: Yes. There are two things here that are very important. One is, yes, Libya is lawless, but why? And that is something that not only the Los Angeles Times, but Western media in general, vacate; they don’t enter that question. Libya is lawless because NATO intervention destroyed the state, and in a sense put Libyan society at great peril.
But Libyans—and this is the second point—Libyans themselves are not crossing the Mediterranean in large numbers. Libya has quite correctly become a launch pad, but Libyans are not crossing. And the reason they are not crossing is what I mentioned, in other words, the density of population question, and that they’ve been able to find, at great social cost to Libyan society, they’ve been able to find a way to protect themselves. You know, Libya is in great peril, but Libyans have found a way to at least manage this crisis for themselves personally.
For a very long period, the economies of Western Africa and Central Africa have been racked by war, and by economic policies that have undercut people’s ability to make their lives. These are economic policies related to mining, allowing large companies—many of them Western companies, some of them Chinese companies, that have been allowed to open up large mines and displace people. Secondly, there have been agricultural policies, cotton subsidies, for instance, in the United States and Europe, that have impoverished many West African countries and destroyed cotton farming, so they have been displaced. And thirdly, people have had their climate seized from them. As climate change comes into great focus in West Africa, every culture has been damaged, and so people have been displaced by that.
They have been moving from their countries in West Africa through Gao in Mali, and Agadez in Niger, up into Libya, and this crossing across the Sahara is very dangerous. People are dying every day crossing the Sahara before they get to Libya. But then they are, of course, dying in the Mediterranean. And I’m interested, again, to just point a little finger here. It’s come to the media’s attention that people are dying in the Mediterranean, but there’s virtually no reporting about how dangerous the Sahara is to cross. This suggests again, to repeat the point, that when something is right before the eyes of Europe or the United States, it becomes a matter of great interest. When it is slightly far away, it’s less a matter of interest.
Similarly, with migration into the United States, the Rio Grande is something that people in the United States pay attention to. What they’re not paying attention to is the southern Mexican border, where there are also virtually concentration camps, set up at the behest of the United States, to hold Central American refugees, who are also climate and agriculture policy refugees, trying to move somewhere where they can make a livelihood. And those camps are not being reported on. What’s reported on is President Trump’s statements about building a wall. So, somehow, there is a kind of myopia in the Western media covering the refugee crisis.
JJ: And certainly an unwillingness to explore the role of major powers, and particularly the US, in creating these circumstances and driving the wars and driving the climate disruption and the extractive policies and the austerity prescriptions that grow misery and that are such powerful forces behind the movement of peoples.
Well, I want to talk about response now. You spoke to Paul Spiegel, who’s formerly of the UN Refugee Agency, or have a quote from him in your piece, in which he said, “The current humanitarian system is not simply overstretched, it is no longer fit for purpose,” which you aptly describe as “shattering words.” What does it mean; what was Paul Spiegel saying?
VP: The current system, namely the UN system and nongovernmental organization system, is set up to deal with a crisis. And by “crisis,” what is understood is a short-term issue. Let’s say there is a war; people flee war, so the UN system and the ancillary nongovernment organization system kicks in to help people who have fled a war. The understanding is that the war is going to end, and then people can return to their lives.
The example of Palestine, of course, is there, that for 60-odd years, people have been displaced. There is no resolution to the conflict, and people have been living as refugees in camps for generations now. So earlier there were one or two incidents where there were refugee crises that seemed to go on forever.
Now we’ve reached the situation where there are multiple crises that seem to have no solution. So whether it is, as you say, the austerity crisis, the climate crisis, or wars that seem not to come to resolution, tens of millions of people have become permanent refugees. And it is in the context of this condition of being a permanent refugee, that the UN system and the ancillary NGO agencies are simply not capable of dealing with it. They don’t have the resources and they don’t have the policies in place to deal with the condition where very large numbers of people have become permanent refugees. And I think that’s what Spiegel was referring to, and I think it’s about time we have a public international conversation about this permanent condition of refugee that looks to be without resolution.
JJ: And then, speaking to the media piece of it, you’ve talked about it being also long past time to shift from this security frame, from this idea that if we police people harder, they won’t move, to a humanity frame, to a different way, a fundamentally different way of looking at this phenomenon. First of all, not just that it’s not temporary, and we have to look at that, but also that it’s not about security; it shouldn’t be seen through the prism of danger and fear.
VP: It’s a basic rational issue that if somebody is doing something, you want to know why are they doing it. If somebody says, I want to come into Country X from Country Y, I think it’s a fairly rational thing to ask, why would you like to do that? And most people would say, look, I don’t want to come to this country, but it’s too difficult to live where I’m living. I think that’s a very fair conversation to have. If it’s too difficult to live where I’m living, that means the solution to the problem is either to make the conditions of flight different—in other words, to make it easier to live where I’m living—or to figure out how to rearrange populations if areas of the world are becoming impossible to live in.
If islands are disappearing, then we need to have a concept of climate change refugees. If islands are not disappearing, and there’s war or there’s starvation or, you know, it’s becoming harder to grow cotton, then perhaps it’s a good idea to think about, well, how should the global cotton market work, how should cotton farmers be recompensed? These are, it seems to me, rational conversations to have.
Instead of having these conversations, the discussion that is there on the table is how best to prevent migrants from entering countries. So the world leadership at the G7, presidents and prime ministers of countries in the West, merely talk about the question of security, terrorism or building fences, building walls, policing the Mediterranean. In fact, one columnist quite spectacularly in Britain wrote a column saying that it’s perhaps useful to shoot refugees to deter them from making the crossing in the Mediterranean.
So this framework of security has become normal, and the framework of humanity has been seen, not only as idealistic, but as ridiculous in a way. And I think people need to reconsider that. Is it quite ridiculous to ask people why they want to move? I think it’s far more ridiculous to have a conversation about shooting boats in the Mediterranean. But, of course, that’s not the way things are right now.
JJ: Yeah—in the case of Syria, which is beyond the beyond, the United States displaces 200,000 Syrians with military action, and then Trump says they should be barred as refugees because they’re Trojan horses. And it’s not just illogical, it’s perverse. You, of course, teach international studies, and so are accustomed to a global prism in which you see things on a broader system. I do feel that media are so locked into this nationalistic frame, but that doesn’t mean that people are. In a way, there’s a different conversation going on among human beings than perhaps among powerful folks.
VP: Oh, certainly. I mean, the question that somebody asks somebody who is in distress is, how can I help you? One would hope that that’s the way that scholarship functions, that’s the way that governments function. But I’m sorry to say that even in the field of international relations, security studies, of a very narrow way, is beginning to dominate the thinking.
But security for whom? I would say that the regime of borders and policing actually makes the condition for a great deal of abuse to take place. Because the Mediterranean crossing is so fundamentally difficult, and because the Sahara crossing is so difficult, the migrants have to put themselves in the hands of professional human traffickers. And here we see evidence of a great deal of abuse, where somebody puts themselves in the hands of a human trafficker and then becomes trafficked themselves—sex work, young people sent to labor camps in Libya—and a great deal of abuse has been documented.
So the question is, security for whom? The security frame, again, is security for the wealthy, it’s security for the West, not security for the migrants. Nobody is thinking about what are the rights of a migrant, what is the security of the migrant. I think that has disappeared from our public conversation.
So occasionally there’s a scandal, people are scandalized by the fact that somebody who’s a refugee is mistreated. But the question isn’t that this refugee is mistreated in a one-off way. The entire system is constructed in such a way that abuse is normal. I think that’s how we need to understand this: The question of security is not about security in general, but it’s security in a very particular way, for those who are powerful and those who have means.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Connecticut’s Trinity College, and author of Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today, and the award-winning The Darker Nation: A People’s History of the Third World. You can find his weekly columns on AlterNet.org. Vijay Prashad, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
VP: Thanks a lot, Janine.
Media depictions of Arabs and Muslims as backward and violent pollute the minds of many and help fuel continuing militarism in the Mideast by the US government.
The critical importance of those denigrating images and stereotypes was what made Jack Shaheen’s work so vital. A longtime FAIR friend, Jack died on Monday. A humanist to the core, he warned about the creation of
the character whom we hate and we detest, who is subhuman, who is different from you and me. That’s vilification.
His books include The TV Arab (1984), Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2001—and made into a 2006 documentary) and Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11 (2008). They offered a parallel critique of popular culture to Edward Said’s work in books like Orientalism, which focused on Western literature’s frequent depiction of “the East” as “the Other.”
Following FAIR’s 1992 expose, “Can You Believe What CBS Says About Arabs?“—which revealed network personnel sitting by as former diplomat Henry Kissinger slurred Arab people—CBS hired Jack, a professor of media studies, as a consultant. In time, he consulted for Hollywood films, including Three Kings and Syriana. At a recent talk at a conference on pro-Israel lobbying, he said that the original scripts for those movies were extraordinarily problematic, but, especially with him on the set, he was able to get 90 percent of what he asked for.
In his speech earlier this year, Jack stressed the damage done following 9/11 by TV shows like 24, as they filled the void created by the virtual invisibility of Arabs and Muslims in mass entertainment media. He also stressed the importance of academics and activists engaging media producers early on in the creative process—something he practiced with a unique gentle tenacity. In addition, he highlighted how crucial it is for there to be more presence and participation of Arabs, Muslims and others unfairly depicted—that they should be creating film and other media.
Jack’s interest in Arab stereotypes was sparked by his outrage at seeing his children talking about “bad Arabs” after watching Saturday morning cartoons (Angry Arab, 7/11/17). Prior to focusing on depictions of Arabs, he had done academic work on media, especially about children’s programing, and co-edited a book, Nuclear War Films.
His work broke new ground, and he often cited the support of his wife, Bernice. His love of films was fostered as a child, when his mother, a Lebanese immigrant, worked as a cashier at a movie house in Pittsburgh. His collection of thousands of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim depictions is now housed at New York University. FAIR offers condolences to Jack’s friends and family.
The New York Times is again spreading the absurd myth that House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republicans want a free market in healthcare. While it is very helpful to the Republicans to imply that they are trying to advance some grand principle, as opposed to just giving money to rich people, it is a lie on a par with climate denialism.
There are no government-granted patent monopolies in a free market. As a result of these government-granted monopolies, we will pay more than $440 billion for prescription drugs this year. These drugs would likely cost less than $80 billion in a free market. The difference of more than $360 billion a year is a bit less than 2 percent of GDP, more than seven times as much money as is at stake in the Republicans’ proposed Medicaid cuts. (Those cuts cover a decade, this is a single-year figure.)
The same story applies to medical equipment. MRIs are cheap without patent protection.
It is possible to argue for the merits of government granted monopolies (I argue against them in chapter 5 of my book Rigged—it’s free!), but it is not possible to deny that these monopolies are a government policy, not the free market. Paul Ryan has never indicated any opposition to government-granted patent monopolies.
Similarly, we pay our doctors twice as much as their counterparts in other rich countries, costing us more than $80 billion a year in higher healthcare costs. This is due to the protectionist barriers enjoyed by our doctors, which protect them from both foreign and domestic competition. (This is covered in chapter 7 of Rigged.) Paul Ryan has never indicated a desire to remove the protectionist barriers that allow many doctors to reach the top 1 percent of income earners.
The government also privileges insurance contracts in many ways, compared with other contracts. For example, with insurance contracts, not disclosing relevant information can often void the contract. By contrast, with most contracts, the parties to the contract are responsible for learning relevant information themselves. Ryan has not indicated any desire to reverse this privileged position for insurance contracts.
It is very generous of the New York Times to pretend that the Republicans are motivated by some sort of principle in their efforts to repeal the ACA, but the claim is absurd on its face. It does not deserve to be treated seriously; the repeal is about giving more money to rich people, end of story.
A version of this post originally appeared on CEPR’s blog Beat the Press (7/10/17).
Janine Jackson interviewed Dan Zukowski about climate disruption for the June 30, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: Enough with the stranded polar bears! A recent letter writer to the Boston Globe took issue with the use of the iconic image of a polar bear stranded on floating ice to accompany a story on climate change. Besides being lazy, said Frederick Hewett of Cambridge, the image just sends an inaccurate message about climate disruption, which is happening everywhere—not just in the faraway Arctic—and the effects of which take myriad forms.
Getting reporters to pay attention to all of the stories of climate change is an urgent and ongoing effort. Our next guest is a contributor to that work. Dan Zukowski is an environmental writer. His work appears in EnviroNews as well as other outlets. He joins us now by phone from Maine. Welcome to CounterSpin, Dan Zukowski.
Dan Zukowski: Thank you, Janine. I’m happy to be here.
JJ: For a recent article, you pulled together a number of studies that had to do with species’ response to climate disruption, and polar bears are in there, but it’s about a great deal else as well. I guess I would ask you to start with this work, out of the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, about songbirds. What are they finding there?
DZ: Yeah, that was a really interesting study. They looked at 48 species of songbirds, and these are birds that migrate primarily from Central and South America up to places in North America, in the US and Canada, for their summer migration, spring and summer. And because of the changes in climate patterns—and those changes are somewhat different in different parts of North America; they can be different from the west to the east—it’s kind of throwing these birds off as to when they should leave their winter homes in Central and South America, and when they should arrive here in their summer homes in North America.
They found, for example, that in Vermont, winter has been shortening by four days per decade for the last several decades. So the trees are blooming and the grass is coming out, and maybe the birds aren’t even here yet. So it’s an issue: If these birds arrive too early, it will be cold and they may not be able to find a place to nest; they may not find a mate, because their mate hasn’t arrived yet. On the other hand, if they arrive too late, it’s the opposite: All the best nesting places may be taken, all the best mates may be taken, and those sorts of things. So there’s a real impact. And it’s kind of funny, because one of the researchers there in that article said you would think that birds who know how to migrate over thousands of miles would be the easiest to adapt.
DZ: But they have hundreds of thousands of generations of cues, such as the length of daylight, that haven’t changed, OK? And they use those things to determine when to leave and when to arrive, and when they get to their summer homes, things are not what they expect. These birds may adapt over years and generations going forward—as, for example, the earlier birds will survive better than the birds who arrive later. But that’s sort of the workings of evolution that happen much more slowly.
JJ: Right. Well, the work on birds is just a piece of this article, because it’s about various species’ response to climate destabilization. And folks might think it’s interesting that it includes trees, but trees are moving—if you will—too, and that also has implications. What’s the research saying there?
DZ: Yeah, trees are moving. Of course, it’s not an individual tree that gets up and walks, but it’s where certain concentrations of trees—they call it the “center of abundance” for a particular tree species, whether it’s the oaks or certain forms of conifers and so forth. What they’re finding is that trees are basically moving north and west. They’re moving a bit more, in the study that was done, to the west, about 50 feet per decade west and about 36 feet per decade north. And these are due to both precipitation changes and temperature changes.
Other researchers have also seen trees moving further up mountains. This has been seen in Colorado and California and other places, where, as the global temperatures warm, tree species that couldn’t survive previously at higher elevations now can. The implications of this is that it changes the entire ecosystem, and it changes the food supply for the animals, whether it be birds or other terrestrial animals, that depend on this vegetation to survive.
DZ: It’s funny that you started off with the polar bear issue. Well, the polar bears, of course, have no place further to go; there is no more north for them. But another piece I’m working on now is looking at how grizzly bears are now being seen in polar bear habitat, where they’ve either never been seen before or they’ve only been seen very rarely.
I’ve been to the Canadian tundra; it’s a very inhospitable place. There’s not a lot growing there. And polar bears don’t care, because they’re not eating vegetation, they’re just waiting to get out and hunt for seals. But grizzly bears, as the vegetation changes and it becomes more something that they can actually eat, well, it’s going to draw them further north.
So we’re seeing some conflicts, we’re even seeing some interbreeding among grizzly bears and polar bears. When you change one thing in the ecosystem, lots of things ripple out from there.
JJ: Absolutely. Well, I can hear some folks thinking, well, so the world is changing. You know, there’ll be different birds in different places, and different trees in different places. And, of course, in your work you point out, well, yeah, and also, you know, mosquitoes being a threat in places where they weren’t before. And obviously the implications are really almost dizzying.
But it’s not just — it seems silly to say it’s not just a nature story, nature is everything, but I mean for reporters who are looking to bring it home, of course these changes are going to have implications for our lives and what we eat, and our jobs as well. So I just ask you to kind of tell folks, you’re up in Maine, what have you learned lately about the impacts on the industry, in terms of the seafood industry, of climate disruption?
DZ: Well, all throughout what is called the Northeast Shelf, off of the northeast part of our continent, so off of New England, basically, where there’s a tremendous amount of commercial fishing—New Bedford, Massachusetts, is the most valuable fishing port in the US—fish species have been moving to colder waters and deeper waters, because the Gulf of Maine has warmed faster than 99 percent of the global ocean in the past ten years. That’s a huge change.
So where the lobster industry used to be all throughout New England—down into Connecticut, Rhode Island, Long Island Sound—that southern New England portion of the lobster fishery is now gone; it’s no longer commercially viable. All those lobsters have migrated north. So Maine had a record catch of lobster last year, but in the future, that could move further north from there.
So it is impacting, clearly—there’s 124,000 jobs in fishing, just Americans doing commercial fishing, from Maine down to Virginia, the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions, that’s responsible for $10 billion in economic activity. And as all of these species are moving in different directions, it changes what those fishermen can catch, how much it costs, because if they’re moving further out or moving into deeper waters, it could cost more just to go out and get those fish. But all these changes do affect jobs and affect people.
When we report climate change issues for the public, it’s hard for people to perhaps grasp, and I’ve literally had people tell me that when they keep reading these headlines about polar bears and climate and all those things, they’re overwhelmed with bad news and they just want to throw up their hands.
DZ: But I think if we understand how these things relate to us individually—the fact that there’s an explosion of Lyme disease because ticks now are in 41 states, they’ve just really become an issue because of shorter winters, longer warm seasons that are favorable to the deer ticks and blackleg ticks. So we’re personally feeling this, but we don’t often hear those stories.
JJ: I wanted actually to draw you out on that, because when I looked for write-ups of the research that you wrote about, I found vanishingly little, although there was some, mostly columns. But I did find stories about people doing things, you know, scientists in Minnesota who are looking for a kind of pine tree that could survive the shifts that are coming to the region.
The reason we want to direct media coverage to these issues is not to make people throw up their hands, of course. It’s to drive action, not inaction. And so I would add to the positive note—although it is a depressing story—I did find people not waiting for a green light from the government, for example, but getting themselves involved in things like research on trees. And I know that you found, in fact, the songbird work even had a lot to do with citizen volunteer research.
DZ: Absolutely. There is a website that anyone can go to called eBird where citizens can enter the birds they see in their backyard, or when they go out on a hike, or if you’re a real birder, then maybe you’re out there all the time. And that information now is so voluminous that it is helping researchers and helping scientists understand where the movement of birds is, and that’s a lot of the data that came into play in some of those studies we referred to earlier.
But there’s a lot of great citizen science projects that are out there that people can get involved in, perhaps with Audubon or with the Sierra Club or with other wildlife organizations. It doesn’t have to be about politics, it doesn’t have to be about protests and things like that, but it can be just helping to do some of the citizen science work that is really enormously important.
You know, climate change represents the first time in human history that we’ve had, as all of humanity, one problem that we need to face together, because it affects everyone on Earth. So we don’t have a precedent for this; we’re figuring it out as we go along. But there’s a lot of good stories out there, and it’s both on a global level with the UN and other organizations, but it’s also right down on the front lines.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with environmental writer Dan Zukowski. You can find his work in EnviroNews and elsewhere, and you can find his work online at DBZphoto.com. Dan Zukowski, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
DZ: Thank you, Janine.