By Stephen Gowans
Before discussion on Myanmar becomes another demonizing ritual led by the White House, and actively subscribed to by the respectable left, it would be prudent to consider recent mass protests in the country in the context of surrounding events and independent of the frame set the US government.
In his address to the UN General Assembly, US President George Bush denounced Myanmar as a “brutal regime” (along with Belarus, Cuba, Iran, Syria, north Korea and Zimbabwe), an echo of the 2006 National Security Directive, which called the same countries “outposts of tyranny”.
While media accounts – in step with the US state — have fostered the impression that the mass marches in Myanmar are “pro-democracy” protests against political tyranny, they have, on the contrary, been provoked by bread and butter issues. As the New York Times explained in the concluding paragraphs of a September 24 report, the protests began “August 19 in response to sharp, unannounced fuel price increases of up to 500 percent, immediately raising the prices of goods and transportation.”
The protests were initially led by students, and only recently by monks, after the police beat some monks at a small demonstration.
The monks have denounced the government for “impoverishing and pauperizing” the people — language devoid of the references to freedom and democracy much favored by the US state and firmly rooted in day-to-day economic concerns.
Washington’s real beef with Myanmar isn’t that it is a “brutal regime” or “outpost of tyranny.” Such US allies as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Ethiopia and Israel are brutal regimes, but they’re showered with US aid and given diplomatic protection. The real problem with Myanmar is that its markets, land, resources and labor aren’t completely open to exploitation by US corporations and investors.
Myanmar practices protectionism. The government owns enterprises, rather than letting private capital (especially US capital) totally run the show. Like Cuba, north Korea and other US designated “outposts of tyranny”, it is not the kind of place the investment bankers, CEOs and corporate lawyers who dominate the US state can cozy up to — or make a buck in.
The US Department of Commerce complains that Myanmar has restrictive trade policies and sets the prices of staples below market value, including gasoline. Ironically, it appears Myanmar’s efforts to bring gasoline prices up to market value – something the US government would applaud – sparked the protests.
“The state totally dominates some sectors, including mining and power, and state-owned firms have an important role in transport, trade and manufacturing,” according to the Economist’s Intelligence Unit.
What’s worst from Washington’s point of view is that the country restricts foreign investment. Worst still, it fails to protect private property.
Those who are ready to jump on the demonize-Myanmar-bandwagon should understand whose agenda they’re advancing — and what its goals really are.
CBS correspondent Scott Pelley uses interview of Iran’s president to make case for war
By Stephen Gowans
There are, in major capitalist societies, tight little communities of interconnected families whose members intermarry, live in the same neighborhoods, and sit on corporate boards. They practice corporate law and investment banking and own the lion’s share of the society’s income–producing property. They are the capitalist class.
In the United States, secretaries, under-secretaries and deputy secretaries of the departments of State, Defense, Treasury and Commerce, are drawn overwhelmingly from this class. US foreign, defense, and economic policies reflect the interests of this tight little community, partly as a result of key positions of the US state being dominated by its members and partly because the imperatives of the capitalist economy define the bounds within which policy can be implemented without provoking serious economic and political crises. For example, a decision to raise the minimum wage five-fold and cut the working week to 30 hours would force businesses to cancel new investment, either as a conscious act of economic sabotage or as the inevitable result of trying to maximize profits. The ensuing flight or strike of capital or both would lead to businesses cutting staff, some shutting their doors altogether, and others moving elsewhere. The result would be soaring unemployment and enormous pressure on the government to reverse its business-unfriendly policies. A government that persisted in this folly would soon find itself in the midst of a political crisis with no prospect of re-election.
Accordingly, governments avoid straying beyond the limits imposed by the logic of capitalism and its imperative of profit-making. For this reason, socialist and labor parties that come to power on reformist programs almost invariably abandon their programs and act as good capitalists. Those that do not, fail to win re-election or are overthrown by military coups d’etat, toppled by foreign military intervention or menaced by foreign sponsorship of internal subversion.
In addition to dominating the state, the capitalist class dominates the media: first, through its ownership of newspaper chains, TV networks, movie studios, publishing companies and the like; second, by controlling a network of public relations firms and think tanks that suggest and plant stories in the media and make available experts the media routinely consults; and third, through the power its members in key government positions have to shape the public agenda.
The third point deserves elaboration. In the US, the president and his cabinet shape the media’s agenda simply by the fact that all of their public statements are reported. They can draw the media’s attention toward certain issues by mentioning them (the humanitarian crisis in Sudan, the religious obscurantism of the Taliban, the alleged human rights abuses in Zimbabwe) and away from other issues by saying nothing about them (the humanitarian crises in Iraq, Congo and Somalia, the religious obscurantism of the Saudi regime, the serious human rights abuses of Egypt.)
If the president says, “There are mass graves littering Kosovo filled with the corpses of 10,000 ethnic Albanians” the assertion becomes widely accepted as true, even if, in the back pages of newspapers years later, the assertion is shown to have been a deliberate fabrication. By then, the original accusation has been transformed into an accepted truth that a few disconfirming bits of information tucked away in the back pages of newspapers will be unable to dislodge from their firm place in the public mind. Despite reams of evidence to show that NATO exaggerated the number of deaths in Kosovo to justify its bombing campaign, it’s still possible to read newspaper articles today that accept NATO’s earlier war propaganda as the truth. Likewise, the president, vice-president, and secretaries of state and defense could be assured, in the lead up to the war on Iraq, that any time they said Saddam Hussein was hiding banned weapons their accusations would be widely reported and accepted as credible.
The reality that the capitalist class dominates both the state and media should, then, lead us to predict that the media will act in concert with the state, playing the role of the state’s unofficial propaganda arm. While its members will profess to be completely neutral and independent, thereby lending legitimacy and weight to the news they report, they will nevertheless act in ways that shape public opinion to the interests of the state as representative of capitalist class interests.
A good example of the media playing the role of the US state’s unofficial propaganda arm is a CBS 60 Minutes interview of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, conducted on September 23 in Tehran by correspondent Scott Pelley. The interview is shocking in the extent to which Pelley abjures any pretense of impartiality to act as a pitchman for US foreign policy positions, sounding to someone unimmersed in US jingoism, more like a State Department spokesman than an ostensibly neutral journalist. So blatant was Pelley’s use of the interview as a platform to advance State Department spin that Ahmadinejad wondered aloud whether he was talking to a journalist or a US politician. The truth of the matter is that the dichotomy between journalist and politician is false. They are not separate, non-overlapping categories. Owing to the common domination of the US state and media by the capitalist class, members of the government and members of the media share common goals and behave in common ways in pursuit of those goals. That Pelley conducts himself as a politician is no accident.
Pelley began by asking Ahmadinejad what he was thinking when he asked to visit Ground Zero. A visit to Ground Zero, Pelley pointed out, would “be insulting to many, many Americans.” Baffled, Ahmadinejad asks why, and Pelley responds, “Well, sir, you are the head of the government of an Islamist state that the United States government says is a major exporter of terrorism around the world.” This was the first of a number of statements Pelley would make to present US government allegations as fact.
The germane questions here are, What is meant by terrorism and has the terrorism Iran is accused of, anything to do with 9/11? The terrorism the US government says Iran sponsors refers to the violence of Hezbollah and Hamas to resist domination by the US and its proxies in the Middle East. We could just as easily accuse the US of carrying out terrorism in Iraq, or of sponsoring terrorist groups that operate within Iran. Significantly, terrorism in the words of US state officials, and the mimetic US media, amounts to any use of force to resist domination by the US or its proxies. We should ask, Is the use of force to resist domination by an outside power or to throw off an occupation legitimate? If so – and the aims of Hezbollah and Hamas are precisely this – then Iran’s support of these groups is legitimate. That these groups act to defend their people against the predations of the US state and its allies does not make them, ipso facto, terrorists.
The connection Pelley makes between Ahmadinejad and 9/11 is contrived. There is nothing to indicate Iran had anything to do with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but Pelley helps those making a case for escalating confrontation with Iran by slyly suggesting there is (in much the same manner the US state suggested Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11.) At the close of the interview, he returns to the theme, telling Ahmadinejad that many Americans believe that when Ahmadinejad’s plane flies over Manhattan he looks at Ground Zero and says, “Good. Somebody got ‘em.’” It’s difficult to imagine that before Pelley broached the subject many Americans wondered about Ahmadinejad’s views on 9/11, much less on anything else (except perhaps the Holocaust.) Pelley’s description of what he claims to be existing public opinion is really a means of creating new public opinion, of instilling in Americans the belief that if Ahmadinejad wasn’t connected in some way to 9/11, he certainly welcomed it.
Repeatedly, Pelley claims to know what the American people think, saying they believe Iran to be an enemy of the US, that Iran is exporting terrorism around the world, and that Iran is on the path to war (Iran’s refusing to kowtow to demands to surrender its independence being seen in US media circles as anti-American bellicosity.) It would be disingenuous to pretend that the opinions of the American people on most foreign policy matters are not, in the main, shaped by what high government officials tell them. But it remains the case, nevertheless, that the views Pelley attributes to the American people, are the views of the US state. His questions, constructed to echo official propaganda, are not so much sincere questions as an exercise in reinforcing the US state’s regime change agenda. Ahmadinejad’s amazement that a “representative of the media” should repeat “the untrue accusations leveled by [his] government” is understandable.
Among the most astonishing, not to say war-mongering, of Pelley’s statements is that Ahmadinejad has American blood on his hands. This accepts at face value the claim by the US state, a notoriously unreliable source, that the Iraqi resistance is using Iranian manufactured weapons. It also makes a leap of logic, inferring, from this premise alone, that the Iranian government is arming the resistance. This leap of logic is equivalent to concluding Boeing has American blood on its hands because the 9/11 hijackers flew Boeing aircraft into the World Trade Centre, or that all guerillas who use Kalashnikovs are armed by Moscow. Arms manufactured in Iran readily circulate throughout the region, just as arms manufactured in the US and elsewhere do. There is no basis to make the claim that the Iranian government is arming the resistance, which isn’t to say it isn’t. But we can ask if Tehran is indeed arming the resistance, would this be defensible? Since the US and British forces were clearly not invited into Iraq and are not wanted, but nevertheless refuse to leave, the arming of the resistance by Tehran would indeed be legitimate – an act equivalent to the US arming the French resistance to drive out the Nazis. A journalist who was truly impartial (an impossible ideal) would accept this dispassionately. A journalist who is acting as a propagandist for the US state would rail against it as monstrous. One needs little imagination to know how Pelley would react.
While telling Ahmadinejad he has American blood on his hands and then asking why, has the character of asking “when did you stop beating your wife?” the most objectionable part of Pelley’s performance lies in his telling Ahmadinejad “You owe President Bush” (for invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein.) Since Saddam Hussein attacked Iran as a client of the United States with Washington’s full backing and support, telling Ahmadinejad he owes Bush is tantamount to telling Chileans they owe Augusto Pinochet for restoring democracy to Chile (something Margaret Thatcher, a Pinochet-supporter, was once bold enough to do.) All those who felt the need to declare publicly in the run up to the US-British war on Iraq that they too believed Saddam Hussein was a monumental shit – an assertion that while true had nothing whatever to do with why the US planned to attack Iraq and therefore should never have been raised in the context of discussions on the impending war – must bear some responsibility for the fact that monumental shits like Pelley can justify the war on Iraq by reference to the toppling of Saddam Hussein and know that what he says will resonate with public opinion.
It’s tempting to complain bitterly about Pelley’s departures from what’s understood to be journalistic rectitude, and to think that pressing journalists to live up to their ideals is a useful investment of one’s time. But the reality is that journalists, like everyone else, serve somebody (to invoke an old Bob Dylan song.) Pelley serves his employers. As members of the US capitalist class, his employers are committed to shaping public opinion to facilitate the carrying out of the foreign policy of the United States. That policy, as it respects Iran, has as its goal the toppling of the current economically nationalist regime and its replacement by one that will accommodate US exports and investment and military deployments. These are goals whose principal beneficiary is the same community of corporate board members and Social Register members who dominate both the government and the media and stand to accumulate more capital in Iranian energy investments and exports to the country if Ahmadinejad and Iran’s revolutionaries are chased from power. Pelley, in playing the hoary game of individualizing a country and investing the individual with hateful qualities to justify war, is serving the interests of this tight little community.