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Sunday, June 01, 2014

The Disease of Division [2]

Politics by nature is an unfaithful bedfellow. Despite all the theories about democratic governance, tax collection and its distribution, and (most importantly these days) national security, the public policies of politics at its most basic is really about people pursuing power.

Politics has been an extension of times past; empires of all kinds have been about power, about divide and rule, and so have religions. Although a classicist might say that it was the pagan Greco-Romans that embedded in the Western psyche this classical East-West divide - a xenophobic fear of the other as a barbarian - monotheistic religions wanting to unite people under their peaceful ideologies did so violently, coercing conversions rather than inspiring them.

The uncivilised barbarian became the heathen to war against as a threat to their ideologies. Islam and Christianity are twins in this, and it is why their extreme-right ideologies echo each other. Their views on women, religious minorities, human freedoms, and their fear of the "other" and their willingness to use violence to dominate them is eerily similar.

Religion became an extension rather than the exception to what had gone on before; the East-West dichotomy helped foster the Great Schism of 1054, when medieval Christianity split into two branches. Eastern orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism in time would cement the classical dividing lines between the East and West, deep-seated divisions that deteriorated relations across the continent even further. The divide exists to this day.

"Religion separates the sheep from the goats"
- Journalist Christopher Eric Hitchens: Does God Exist? September 8, 2008,
Virginia Commonwealth University (Full transcript)

This doesn't decry religion as the base of all our ills, however. Writing for the BBC, Tom Shakespeare makes a passionate argument for his religious belief, suggesting that simply associating with the modern trend of rejecting religion for a humanist slant lacks the rigour which comes from centuries of religious refinement and debate. And unlike traditional religions, it doesn't have much to say about charity and justice, he claims.

But the main reason Shakespeare, a Quaker, chooses his religion is because he believes it to be the best route to connection with each other. Sociological research shows that involvement in organised religion is good for our health and well being, too.

Although Shakespeare's well-intentioned ideology fails to confront the history that shows us many of religion's best intentions have paved the way to war, I would also feel trepidation in agreeing with the growing consensus and a modern cliché that organised religion has killed by the billions across our history.

There's no doubt it's an arguable thesis, if a little over exaggerated in its accuracy, because it's only relatively recently the global population has gone into the billions. It's believed the global population only reached the one billion mark in 1800, around two hundred or so years ago. But mass murder is not the sole playground of the religious zealot. The biggest mass murderer in modern times was Chairman Mao, who killed 30 million Chinese one way or another. Not religious in the slightest. But he did like having religious people murdered, too.

Yet again, this is an extension; one ideology simply replaced with another. Ultimately the best intentions of both ideologies were poisoned with war and division, not because of the ideologies themselves, but because of the need to have these ideologies dominate.

If these ideologies are "right" then those who don't agree must be in the wrong. Those who refuse to see the light, need to be pushed further into the dark. Empires, religions, the arms race of nations have all been driven by the desire to dominate, believing a majority would give their chosen ideology credence.

This desire to dominate has dragged us to the brink of war, and often dropped us over its precipice. We even fought some wars foolishly believing it would put an end to all war. But no war can end all wars, unless we end our desire to war.

Serving as such a reminder this year are celebrations marking one hundred years of the First World War. It started a bloodletting that didn't stop until 10 million people died, destroyed kings, kaisers, czars and sultans, demolished four empires, introduced chemical weapons, but what did following generations learn in a century if we look at the state of the politics of division today?

Now we associate the Great War with gut-wrenching horror, but even back then chasing the glories of war eventually helped to murder its naive exuberance in the trenches. And it had started like a Game of Thrones script. An act of assassination in a central European city in 1914 would lead to one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history, rooted in a dispute among opposing ethnic groups along the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The squabble escalated quickly into a continental conflict thanks to a consequence of long-standing national alliances, suspicions and rivalries.

Yet those suspicions and rivalries still exist. Divisions deny us peace, because war has its benefits, too, and because the powers we elect have balanced against the loss of life these pros of war - such as medical and technological advances, as well as political dominance. For instance, notwithstanding the unexpected social advances (it brought millions of women into the work force), the full potential of the submarine was not realised until this first world war. Its advent was to transform sea battles in the 20th Century, and open up new avenues to kill each other. Medical advancements came as we tried to heal those who could never be truly healed from the savageries of war.

Nevertheless, it didn't stop World War Two. Again this year, hundreds of the last surviving D-Day veterans gathered on both sides of the English Channel, seventy years on from the momentous mission of that war. It was a key turning point, said to have seen the death of between 2,500 and 4,000 Allied troops that first day, with many as 9,000 Germans also estimated to have lost their lives.

While this is possibly the last decennial anniversary involving troops who took part in the landings, most aged in their 80s and 90s, as these real heroes who remember the horror of war leave us with their memories, the politics that dragged us to war will continue to speak on.

Politicians of every generation will continue to gather to make noise on killing fields now fallen silent to give empty, if moving, speeches; dignitaries will speak of ever-grateful remembrances of service and sacrifice, and yet the disease of our divisions shall still hold us apart as strongly today as they did yesterday, because we won't have learned a thing. Our policies are still based on the rule of power, and the need to divide and conquer - and then we wonder at the increasing pockets of isolation growing in our communities.

We look to the media for transparency over this, but too often we have seen minority views become the pillory of a partisan press. Biased editorialising will often have readers take a side, dependant on the political leanings of the paper or writer, rather than taking a look at all sides to give readers a fuller picture.

The Rise and Rise of Partisan Journalism

Figures show that partisan polarisation has surged in the years George W. Bush was president. American values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines now than at any point in the past two decades - and its press has had a hand in its rise.

The theory is that journalists don't make the news, they just report it, but what happens when their reporting becomes the news? When the important issues gets mixed up with sensationalism, and with selling a few more copies of whatever daily, or more ad space between their columns? What, then, if they use sensationalism to push their own ideologies or perspectives, or the ideologies of others to rein in a majority?

The worst kind of correspondent here will be little more than a dubious fact-checker with enough literary skill to twist a story to their opinion. Or one who is less concerned with facts than a certain point of view, and who will only print or present "facts" that confirm their own biases, sprinkled with a sensationalist headline or two.

The Sandy Hook school tragedy is one such example. The families of the victims just wanted the affair to be over with, but the Associated Press were so hungry for the police recordings of the incident that they completely ignored the pleas of the families to allow them to grieve in private. After the Virginia Tech massacre, it was clear stations were only interested in the ratings associated with the tragedy.

This lack of dignity shown to real people treated as collateral to a breaking story in their own country is naturally going to extend pass their borders. The further away that country, the more the rules seem to be thrown out of the window. CNN's coverage of Malaysian Airline flight 370 is another example where a disaster quickly deteriorated to a show of ratings. And when reporters call a democratically elected government a regime during the heated moments of an internal crisis, there will be a reason past it being incendiary.

Most disturbing of all is when the media uses mass killings as some kind of polemical ploy to get people on side, or to demonise an opponent as part of a negative PR campaign. It happens nationally and internationally. One example is the exploitation of Rwanda by the American liberal media and academic "frauds" like Samantha Power, who try to distinguish themselves as somewhere loftily above their nation's conservative fringe. But scratch the political liberal, and you find the conservative within - especially when it comes to what they believe to be "right".

In the case of Rwanda, it's a disgrace to the victims as well as to genuine peacekeepers and humanitarians that actually tried their best to prevent the atrocity from occurring. It's disappointing that a movie such as Hotel Rwanda probably wouldn't have had enough funding to get off the ground if it wasn't for the fact Western political power can manipulate such a tragedy to justify further "humanitarian" aggression and intervention in foreign affairs.

The actual horror of the genocide should have been enough justification to make a movie to raise awareness of the horrors all humans are capable of, not to use it as a vehicle to push anti-sentiments linked to the political sensitivities of the day - or for liberal America to use it as an attack against the failures of the United Nations.

Hollywood has always played hypocrisy at its best, however. It has a chilling history of helping Nazis (Hollywood films were wildly popular in Nazi Germany right up until the war) and perpetuating racist ideals of the day. The genocides committed by the pillaging pioneers of America against its native populations is a matter of pride for white Americans, it created a whole genre of Hollywood film-making that whitewashed their history for decades. From the wagons of the wild Westerns that trampled across the conscience of America, to the golden age of Jim Crow movies - their myths roamed across the land of the free-for-all, playing out to the masses.

It's for this main reason that these historical horrors are still pertinent today. We may not be historically responsible, but we are at fault if we revise history (just as much as if we apologetically moralise over it) and let the injustices continue. Americans may pat themselves (publicly) on the back for having voted in a mixed-race President, but it polarised them as a nation even further - with the divides between the partisan press growing.

In the mean streets (and between the media pages) of 21st Century America racial profiling is alive and well, and very deadly, and I can't see a president from an indigenous tribe being voted in any time soon. For a growing number of white Americans, the continent's indigenous populations should still be enclosed in reserves, while their imported slaves remain out in the field picking cotton.

These historical incidents were the result of politics and the need to control resources and money, and what was de rigueur back then still applies today. In the United Kingdom, the government of Scotland is seeking for a majority on the issue of independence from the union, when it had previously sold itself into the partnership because it nearly bankrupted itself after a failed attempt to exert its international dominance in the 1600s. Despite the centuries of animosity felt for the English over the mistreatment of their peoples, because of their failure to do the same elsewhere, they signed up to a "united kingdom".

Today, as the historical animosity continues, even the English feel the brunt of nationalism from neighbouring tribes they overpowered down the ages in Britain and across the sea - the Irish, the Cornish, the Scottish and the Welsh. And as the Scottish campaign for independence comes to its conclusion, the ugly head of nationalism has reared itself up through the body of the press.

But historical, or modern, the worst part of a prejudiced press is how the people working in the news (especially in the North American media) constantly discuss the "sadness", "horror" and "tragedy" of war, without actually experiencing any of these feelings themselves until it happens on their own soil.

The Karmic Kick-back of Division?

As we've seen with the reporting of mass shootings or bombings in their own nation, sensationalism seems to beat empathy at almost every gut-wrenching turn, but reporters seem to have a special insincere version of empathy they reserve for the cultural barbarians beyond their shores. It's almost like some American and British journalists enjoy repackaging international human suffering for resale.

During the Western reporting of the Soma mine disaster, I felt decidedly uncomfortable reading some articles from the Washington Post, Newsweek, the Times and Der Spiegel by their Western correspondents based in Turkey, using the deaths of the miners as a battering ram to beat the Turkish government with - only days after the tragedy when nothing was certain yet. No mention of aid, or the arrests made; a few meagre human stories, but mostly just sensationalist quotes ripped out of context from people in pain, suffering loss and anguish, and who would have cried out anything at a time like that.

I also felt ashamed of these so-called journalists from Europe and America (coloured by the very real incursions of human freedoms at Gezi) who wholeheartedly believed in their own credibility. Naturally, the Turkish government gave them some tasty ingredients with which to bake their home-made pies, but consumption of this output was carefully crafted to bring political indigestion. For theirs, too, is a thing about power. I'm aware, as those correspondents are, that language has its own image, and its own persuasion.

It's for this reason I believe more than ever we cannot take people at their word, we must take people with their word. If you're pushing some hidden agenda, then your story will be more about how much of the majority you can get on side with the case you present, rather than wishing to enlighten people on what you believe to be the truth, as you've observed it to be.

In my case, I prefer to read the opinion of people who actively check-in with their biases - enough to deal with them in their articles at any rate, or who are willing to focus on the human element of an issue in preference to their politics. But I also prefer to read the other side, however glaringly obvious their bias might be, because they are on my side, too.

They are human, just like me, and I can't ignore them. I need to understand them. I need to understand why intelligent, enlightened and non-violent Western journalists would suddenly throw their home ethics out of the window and willingly use the deaths of people as editorial fodder - even if it's against a political ideology they believe is an anathema to their way of life.

The increasing conservative and authoritarian (and personal anti-Semitic) views of a prime minister and his sheepish government are completely opposed to everything I believe, as well, but we tend to forget that the rise of nationalism is a very Western trend. Turkish politics once again is not an exception, but an extension of the continent it has neighboured for hundreds of years.

It's a mantra I use often - this isn't an argument of two wrongs making both right. It's believing that two wrongs make neither right. The moral high ground is a difficult one for any of us to take easily when it comes to the follies of power and greed.

Greed knows no class boundaries, and has probably convicted as many journalists and politicians (liberal or otherwise) of selling their stories or their influence, as criminals whose primary business it is to pamper to vice. But rather than rounding out our biases with this rationality, we prefer to entrench ourselves in the psychology of the zealot and subverted logic of a conservative mindset that always leans towards war with the "heathen" other.

So-called liberals fall into this trap, too, revealing the conservative they have maligned for so long to be lying under their own skin all along. Journalists, therefore, being human, are not an exception to any regime, but the extension of it, and should not treat themselves (or their ideals) as above it. Be it in journalism, politics or any other publicly polluted provided service, an abuse of their talents to persuade will mean the use of it to divide.

Like politics, it's a drive for the mind of the majority to give a basis for the existence of a select few, who brandish an ideology that hides their real drives of greed and power.

Main | Part one | End of Part two | Part three | Part four | Part five | Part six

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