23 Oct 2016 Media manipulation and the battleground of memory
Hiroshima Peace Memorial (commonly called the Atomic Bomb Dome or Genbaku Dōmu, A-Bomb Dome), in Hiroshima, Japan, is part of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. The ruin commemorates the people who were killed in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6 1945. Over 70,000 people were killed instantly, and another 70,000 suffered fatal injuries from the radiation. Photo: Wikipedia.
The Italian daily newspaper Il Giornale runs a front page article with the headline “The Fourth Reich”, warning that the “Germans are returning, not with guns but with the euro.”1 An ISIS soldier films a bulldozer pushing down a rampart of sand on the Syria-Iraq border and then pans down to a handwritten poster, announcing “The End of Sykes-Picot.”2 The U.S. House of Representatives votes to ban the display of the Confederate flag at Veterans’ Administration ceremonies.3 Bolivian President Evo Morales proposes that his country abandon the Gregorian calendar and “reclaim its ancestral calendar as part of the rebuilding of our identity.”4
In various ways, people around the world are challenging the legacy of the past. Living memory is bursting through the cracks of the disintegrating neoliberal order and demanding to be heard. Alternative political visions are pushing their way into mainstream discourse and practice; at their core is a refusal to accept the standard narrative about how we got into the mess we’re in.
This refusal is what Alain Badiou calls the “Rebirth of History”, which he describes as “the emergence of a capacity, at once destructive and creative, whose aim is to make a genuine exit from the established order.”5 At their most basic level, the political, economic and cultural struggles that are taking place throughout the world are being fought on the battleground of memory. In reinterpreting the past with an eye towards the future, the belligerents of these battles are exerting a powerful retroactive force. This force is loud, hopeful, and dangerous. It harbours great promises and poses immense risks.
A catalyst of this challenge to established historical narratives is the proliferation of non-Western media networks with global aspirations. Among the most high-profile networks of these “new global media” are Qatar’s Al Jazeera, Russia’s RT, Iran’s PressTV and Venezuela’s Telesur, all of which launched their English-language networks within the last decade. They represent a shift in the balance of global media that parallels a broader geopolitical transition from a unipolar, U.S.-dominated world to a multipolar world.
This transition is symbolized by the determination of the Syrian people and their allies to resist the Western forces that have in the last few decades wrought destruction on countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. In Syria’s struggle, and in countless others like it, “boots on the ground” are complemented by voices on the radio, faces on the screen, and words on the page.
Obama in Hiroshima
The effect of these burgeoning media networks is felt most acutely on days like May 27, 2016, when Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to visit Hiroshima since August 1945. More than seven decades prior, American B-29 bombers dropped 10,000 pound atomic bombs on this city and nearby Nagasaki, instantly incinerating 140,000 human beings and leaving deadly radiation that would kill tens of thousands more in the years to come. Today, the planes that dropped these bombs, the Enola Gay and the Bockscar, are proudly on display in national museums in Washington, D.C.6 and Dayton, Ohio,7 respectively.
As he stood in front of the assembled crowd at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, Obama spoke of the bombings as though they had been acts of divine intervention rather than of human aggression. Out of nowhere, it would seem, “death came from the sky and the world was changed”.8 Rather than attributing them to the cruel and deliberate actions of the U.S. military, Obama told the world that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki emanated from deep within “humanity’s core contradiction”, the ability of our greatest inventions to wreak the greatest destruction.9
Seeking to downplay the unparalleled horror of the atomic bomb that his country had dropped on Japanese civilians, Obama reminded his listeners that, “On every continent, the history of civilization is filled with war”.10 In other words, no one in particular was responsible for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and besides, they weren’t that unusual anyway.
Obama, who received the Nobel Peace Prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples [and his] vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons,”11 did not take the opportunity presented by Hiroshima’s history to explain why he has implemented a $1-trillion plan to upgrade and strengthen the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Nor did he discuss the tens of billions of dollars he has given to nuclear-armed Israel,12 his 2014 nuclear arms deal with the UK,13 or the new US missile defense system in Eastern Europe that has provoked Russia into upgrading its own nuclear arsenal.14
Obama was equally silent about the continuing legacy of the U.S. presence in Japan. He did not discuss the recent crimes committed by American soldiers based in Okinawa,15 in which Justin Castellano raped a Japanese tourist and Kenneth Franklin Gadson strangled a local woman to death after beating her with a stick. These crimes are part of a consistent pattern of violence that surrounds the U.S. bases in Japan, and they evoke painful memories of the U.S. occupation.
Sarah Kovner, a Senior Research Scholar at Columbia University, describes this history of abuse in her article “The Soundproofed Superpower”:
“Once censorship ended, the Japanese press regularly reported on rapes, murders, and robberies committed by American servicemen. After the Japanese jurisdiction clause went into effect in October 1953, American servicemen were charged with hundreds of serious offenses […]. But Japanese authorities waived jurisdiction in the vast majority of cases, instead turning the culprits over to their commanders. Victims could not sue anyone during the Occupation, and when the peace treaty was signed, Japan abandoned the right to ask for compensation.”16
That a President intent on polishing his legacy would fail to mention such inconsistencies comes as no surprise. After all, Obama was not in Hiroshima to mourn the dead, nor to express any sort of compassion for the Japanese people. He was there to reassert U.S. hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region amid rising Chinese influence and to remind Japan that its national sovereignty was secondary to Washington’s interests.
The media reaction
How did the mainstream Western media react to Obama’s visit? The New York Times offered a patronizing article with the headline “Hiroshima Survivor Cries, Obama Gives Him a Hug” that depicted a helpless Japan being embraced by its U.S. protector.17 The Economist reported that, “Given the moral and emotional complexity, the American president was his sonorous self,” noting with praise that he “acknowledged historical nuances”.18 Canada’s The Globe and Mail was perhaps the most obsequious, calling Obama’s speech in Hiroshima “an unflinching look back at a painful history”.19 In the lens through which the majority of Western citizens see the world, there was scarcely any criticism of Obama’s dissimulation.
Such a complacent response has a long pedigree. Mainstream Western media networks have a history of attempting to downplay the war crimes committed by the U.S. and its imperialist allies. They do this so that the memory of the average citizen can be aligned with the current interests of the ruling elite. This motivation was well understood by a pioneer of modern mass media, Edward Bernays, in his classic book Propaganda:
“Formerly the rulers were the leaders. They laid out the course of history, by the simple process of doing what they wanted. And if nowadays the successors of the rulers, those whose position or ability gives them power, can no longer do what they want without the approval of the masses, they find in propaganda a tool which is increasingly powerful in gaining that approval. Therefore, propaganda is here to stay.”20
But the story does not end there. The new generation of global non-Western media networks presented much less complacent perspectives on Obama’s visit to Hiroshima. Telesur reported on the protests against Obama’s visit.21 John Wight wrote in RT International that “There could be no greater insult to the victims of Hiroshima than this cynical attempt by the president to deflect the guilt which the US and US alone carries for this crime.”22 Yujiro Taniyama, a Japanese filmmaker and guest on Al Jazeera’s daily TV programme The Stream, said that “I don’t seek an apology. However, I want the American public to know that the bombing of Hiroshima was unnecessary and it is morally indefensible.”23 These alternative accounts of Obama’s visit were written and broadcast in English and directed to Western audiences.
This reaction demonstrates that mainstream Western media outlets cannot try to shape the collective memory of its citizens without resistance. But this resistance is little more than propaganda of a different variety. Although the rising media networks based in cities like Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and Doha offer legitimate criticism of Western policies, their coverage of events involving their own state backers are noticeably skewed. For example, as Canadian anti-war activist Ken Stone explains, Al Jazeera has cynically portrayed the barbaric invasion of Syria as a laudable “revolution”:
“In 2011, when the foreign-backed mercenaries invaded Homs, besides executing all those whom they considered government supporters or followers of faith repugnant to them, besides kidnapping hundreds more to use as human shields in other parts of the country, and besides pillaging anything of value they could lay their hands on, they held several mass meetings in the square in front of the clock tower. For this reason, Al Jazeera, the TV voice of the Emir of Qatar, one of the principal funders of the covert war of aggression against Syria, labelled the Homs clock tower as ‘the symbol of the Syrian revolution.’”24
Thus Al Jazeera and other rising state media outlets are just as manipulative as their corporate Western counterparts. The return to a multipolar world will not put an end to propaganda. However, by creating multiple conflicting narratives, it does open up new room for popular resistance. The seeds of this resistance have long lain dormant. Against the attempts to place memory within the limits of authoritarian control, the wretched of the earth remain as living and irrefutable testaments to past abuses. The possibility of freedom rests on the ability of these memories to be not only expressed, but also heard.
Who gets remembered, who gets forgotten
The insufficiency of freedom of expression in our digital age was best described by Aaron Swartz, an American programmer and activist who committed suicide in 2013 at the age of 26 after being indicted by federal prosecutors. In the documentary Steal This Film II, Swartz observes that “In the old system of broadcasting, you were fundamentally limited by the amount of space in the airwaves. You could only send out 10 channels over the airwaves for television, right? Or even with cable, you had 500 channels. On the internet everybody can have a channel. […] Now everyone has a license to speak. It’s a question of who gets heard.”25
Growing social and political unrest around the world is a sign that those who have long been ignored want to be heard. Much of what they want to say concerns the past; the official narratives have lost their sway and must be replaced. The new global media cannot meet this demand. Although they challenge Western influence, networks like Al Jazeera and RT are funded and operated by states that silence internal dissent and obstruct honest debate. They represent a change in rulers and not a revolution of the ruled.
Democracy is not just a question of who gets heard, but also of who gets remembered and who gets forgotten. If history is to serve as a force of liberation, rather than of oppression, it must be built on the memory of everyday people. Genuine progress in the construction of emancipatory historical narratives will depend in large part on the proliferation and strengthening of independent, grassroots journalism that offers an alternative to corporate and state press. Victors will always write history: so let the people win.
1. As cited in note 81 on page 92 of: Streeck, Wolfgang, Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism. London: Verso, 2014.
2. Fisk, Robert. “Isis: In a Borderless World, the Days When We Could Fight Foreign Wars and Be Safe at Home May Be Long Gone.” The Independent, 19 Nov. 2015. Web. 23 Aug. 2016.
3. Kelley, Nora. “The Permanence of the Confederate Flag.” The Atlantic, 19 May 2016. Web. 23 Aug. 2016.
4. “Bolivia Leader Morales Wants to Ditch Gregorian Calendar.” BBC News. N.p., 22 June 2016. Web. 23 Aug. 2016.
5. Badiou, Alain, and Gregory Elliott. The Rebirth of History. London: Verso, 2012.
6. “Boeing B-29 Superfortress “Enola Gay”“ National Air and Space Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Aug. 2016.
7. “Boeing B-29 Superfortress.” National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. N.p., 14 Apr. 2015. Web. 31 Aug. 2016.
11. “The Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 to President Barack Obama – Press Release”. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 30 Aug 2016. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2009/press.html
12. “Obama Administration Proposes Up to $40 Billion in Military Aid to Israel.” Democracy Now!, 29 Apr. 2016. Web. 31 Aug. 2016.
13. Norton-Taylor, Richard. “UK-US Sign Secret New Deal on Nuclear Weapons.” The Guardian, 29 July 2014. Web. 31 Aug. 2016.
14. Kramer, Andrew E. “Russia Calls New U.S. Missile Defense System a ‘Direct Threat’.” The New York Times, 12 May 2016. Web. 31 Aug. 2016.
15. “US Marine Confesses to Raping Japanese Tourist in Okinawa.” RT International. N.p., 27 May 2016. Web. 26 Aug. 2016.
16. Kovner, Sarah. “The Soundproofed Superpower: American Bases and Japanese Communities, 1945–1972.”The Journal of Asian Studies, 75.01 (2016): 94. Web. 22 Aug. 2016.
17. Soble, Jonathan. “Hiroshima Survivor Cries, and Obama Gives Him a Hug.” The New York Times, 27 May 2016. Web. 26 Aug. 2016.
20. Bernays, Edward L. Propaganda. New York: H. Liveright, 1928. 27.
21. “Japanese Protest Ahead of Obama’s Visit to Hiroshima.” TeleSUR. N.p., 26 May 2016. Web. 26 Aug. 2016.
22. Wight, John. “Obama Offers Hiroshima Victims Cynicism Instead of Justice.” RT International. N.p., 30 May 2016. Web. 26 Aug. 2016.
23. Al Jazeera English. “The Stream – Obama’s Hiroshima Visit.” Online video clip. Youtube, May 26 2016. August 12 2016.
24. Stone, Ken. Defiant Syria: Dispatches from the Second International Tour of Peace to Syria. Hamilton: Kenneth Everett Stone, 2016. 18.
25. Hill, Bob. “Aaron Swartz on Controlling The Means of Information In The Digital Age.” IFearBrooklyncom. N.p., 2 July 2014. Web. 26 Aug. 2016.