What's Left

February 26, 2003

The ruling view is the view of those who run the show

By Stephen Gowans

History, it is understood wrongly, is a chronicle of battles and wars and statecraft and diplomacy. A parade of  kings, dictators, princes, generals, captains of industry, and emperors march across the pages of history books -- the "great men" of history who led armies, performed great deeds, and conquered nations.

Rare is a history told from the other side, from the perspectives of peasants and factory workers, slaves and the conquered, conscripts and servants.

When Howard Zinn wrote "A People's History of the United States," he turned history on its head, telling "the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees...of the postwar American empire as seen by the peons in Latin America." It was, remarked reviewers, an inversion of history as it's normally recounted.

But for every people's history, there a thousands of histories told from the viewpoint of those on top.

The news, or what is sometimes called "history on the run," is much the same. It too is presented from the standpoint of leaders and generals, conquerors and victors, and their indispensable servants -- experts. Rare are inversions, where stories are told from the eyes of the conquered, the exploited, the poor.

Last week I read a story of how affluent Venezuelans are arming themselves, fearful that the poor from the barrios will spill into their comfortable enclaves and dispossess them of their comforts. Indeed, much of what I read of Venezuela is presented from the standpoint of those at the top: the business leaders, the owners of the media, the leaders of labor unions (whose unions receive funding from the US.)

But there's another story, untold, of the nameless, faceless poor of Venezuela, who live in squalor. These are the people the comfortable have taken to arming themselves against. We don't hear from them, or of how widespread poverty exists alongside incredible oil wealth, and why this is so.

And there's much else we hear too little of: Of ordinary Zimbabweans, and how their hopes for land reform have been dashed by a London that is trying to resurrect the idea of colonialism. Instead, we hear of Mugabe, and white farmers, the latter of whom we're led to believe run small, single-family farms, that grow produce for domestic consumption. They are operators of vast farms, that employ hundreds, and produce cash crops for export.

We hear too little of the lives of Palestinians, and how brutal the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territory is. Instead, we hear of Sharon, and how he says he's willing to make painful concessions. We hear of suicide bombers and their Israeli victims, but not of what drives young men and women to detonate bombs strapped to their bodies. We're led to believe religious fanaticism and the irrational hatred of Jews is at the root of these atrocities. But it's dispossession, the encroachment of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, the brutality of the Israeli army, Tel Aviv's intransigence, and a thousand and one daily humiliations that make people lash bombs to their chests.

We heard too little of the Afghans who were terrorized by American bombs. The media has exercised care not to go too far. A peevish edict was issued at CNN: Scenes of suffering in Afghanistan were to be accompanied by a reminder: 3,000 died on September 11. The edict seemed to say that an atrocity suffered is a license to commit atrocities against the innocent.

We hear too little of what becomes of countries after they are "liberated" by the United States, and delivered into the hands of the IMF and the World Bank and governments whose members are hand-picked by Washington.

So too will we hear too little of Iraqis and the sheer terror, and unspeakable suffering, the United States, Britain, and a coterie of pusillanimous tag alongs will inflict upon them in the weeks to come. Instead, the deaths will be noted, and then blamed on Saddam. He could have disarmed. He could have gone into exile. He used his own people as human shields. This will be said because the White House and the State Department and the Pentagon will say it, and newspaper columnists will repeat it, because the White House and the State Department and the Pentagon said it.

MediaLens, a group that scrutinizes the British media, asked various newspapers why their coverage of Iraq is dominated by the views of the Prime Minister and his cabinet, while dissenting voices are marginalized. The answer: the government is running the show; the dissenters aren't.

By this reasoning, the role of the media is to act as an instrument for disseminating the views of those in charge, (because they are the views of those in charge), while giving scant coverage to the dissenting views of those who aren't in charge, (because they aren't in charge.) Newsworthiness is to be decided by the extent to which one is exploiter versus exploited, oppressor versus oppressed, conqueror versus conquered. That this guarantees the media will be indistinguishable from the state-run media of Communist countries that the misnamed "free" press used to complain about freely, should be obvious to any intelligent 13-year old, but will be lost upon editors and media owners. But dumbness, if it serves the interests of those in charge, has a certain survival value.

By comparison, the voices of the exploited, the enslaved, the conquered have no survival value in an evolutionary system driven by a single test: Does it serve the interests of those who run the show? And so their voices aren't heard.

This is not entirely lost on the media. An editorial cartoon, clipped from my local newspaper, evinces a rare self-insight. A large, overfed man -- "media" is written across his back -- leans over an emaciated child, dressed in filthy rags. "Listen kid," he says, "if you want to me to report what appears to be a famine crisis here in Ethiopia, you're going to have to convince George Bush to declare hunger as part of the axis of evil."


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