JOHN PILGER'S film, The War on Democracy, broadcast on UTV on Monday, was a real throwback. Those of us who survived the '80s, and remember campaigning feebly . . . in the fashion of privileged western undergraduates . . . against the Latin American foreign policies of Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush, will have felt the blood coursing through our veins.
It was a throwback because, as Pilger claims, Latin America appears to be again attempting to crawl from the wreckage of American neocolonialism, as it did in the '80s, when it became a cherished cause of the left. But more poignantly, the film harked back to the days of crusading journalism, before a new generation of besuited reporters began taking the side of the establishment. It was a nostalgia trip.
"Since 1945, " Pilger said, "the United States has attempted to overthrow 50 governments, many of them democracies; 30 of them have been bombed in the process."
He is heartfelt and strident on the subject of Latin America, and the continuing efforts of the US to oust 'unfriendly' governments. The film goes through that story: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Chile and most recently Venezuela, where the US is bent on casting the president, Hugo Chavez, as a tyrant. The coup that briefly overthrew Chavez in 2002, Pilger claims, was orchestrated and backed by the US.
He pointed to the noticeable, insidious change in US practice. Now, instead of installing a puppet dictatorship, the greatest power on earth installs a puppet democratic state, by means of the sinister National Endowment for Democracy. As Pilger said: "This breed of democracy meant that, whoever you voted for, the policies would be broadly the same, and your country's economy would be in step with the US, and Washington would be your closest friend, or else." These states will then comply with the American way of doing things, selling off and privatising state assets so as to benefit big business. Sound familiar?
Philip Agee, a CIA agent in the 1950s and '60s, put it candidly: "In the CIA we didn't give a hoot about democracy. I mean it was fine if a government was elected and would cooperate with the US, but if it didn't, then democracy didn't mean a thing to us, and I don't think it means a thing today."
The War on Democracy is a powerful and necessary film, but while it answers many questions about aggressive American foreign policy in what the US regards as its 'backyard', it asks many more about the purpose and perceived merit of journalistic objectivity. The worst condemnation Pilger's critics generally throw at him is that he is manifestly biased. Few can quarrel with the evidence he presents . . . unless, like former CIA man Duane Clarridge in Pilger's film, they persist in seeing only 200 murders by Pinochet's forces where others see thousands . . . but they do, always, take issue with the conclusions he draws from his evidence.
Yes, Pilger appears to see the world in simplistic terms of good versus evil and yes, he seems capable of suspending disbelief at the sound of a South American president talking like a Miss World contestant. But more often than not he is derided by people who themselves make not the smallest effort to establish nonpartisan credentials. And let's face it, global market capitalism has more than enough media mouthpieces as it is: it doesn't have to throw rotten tomatoes at those maverick journalists who have to shift for themselves without the benefit of corporate patronage.
In any case, the campaign to disown Pilger has been successful. Pilger's is now a voice in the wilderness. Witness the 11pm screening time of his film (though possibly it's a surprise it was shown on television at all). This marginalisation may be the work of a right-wing media conspiracy; on the other hand, it may simply be because Pilger is not complying with the media's new, self-appointed role as consensus-builder:
he is not guiding everyone towards an easy-listening centrist harmony. Either way, his name and the kind of work he has been trying to do for four decades now has become associated with a small cadre of bolshevik diehards stinking of patchouli and refusing to face facts.
If it weren't for the internet, in fact, a new generation of young people with their own ideas about social justice would now be missing out on the chance to learn the lessons of history from people like Pilger. Many of them came of age after the collapse of communism in Europe and will be scarcely on nodding terms with Marx. What conclusions can they draw from the progress of American imperialism, now the Red Menace has been dispatched? What is this new thing called socialism in Latin America?
According to 2005 data, 5% of all Venezuelan landowners owned 75% to 80% of private land.
Pilger points clearly to a wealthy, business elite that has long been pulling the strings politically (and I think we're all well-acquainted with how that arrangement works). He visits rich, frustrated people in the posh suburbs of Caracas, who, like white South Africans before them, are now thinking of quitting Venezuela because those "bleddy natives" don't know how to run a country. At the same time, he meets desperately poor but . . . take note . . . literate people in the barrios, who have their own big plans for achieving social justice, with or without their president. As Chavez put it, quoting Victor Hugo, "There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come."
This is not about the return of communism, after all, or an east-versus-west global polarity, but about the emergence of a new global split between north and south. We saw it coming decades ago. And at least with the help of partisan reporters like John Pilger, we can decide for ourselves which side we're on.