This is a wonderful book – alternately gripping, humorous, inspiring, painful, and most importantly, enlightening. One of Pilger’s criticisms of the mainstream media is its failure to look behind obvious facts, for larger context and meaning. Pilger meets his own standard well, as he consistently puts facts into historical and critical context. To cite only one example: he recalls the Irish famine, during which British Lord Trevelyan ended Irish relief ostensibly “to prevent the people from becoming habitually dependent on government,” and he places Trevelyan’s remarks next to Tony Blair’s (and his minister Frank Field’s) effusions against welfare dependency and the need for “hard choices.” The historical juxtaposition reflects the shift from nineteenth-century economic liberalism to contemporary neoliberalism.
Pilger’s book also enlightens by showing how economic, political, and media forces work together in explaining social outcomes. Globalization has strengthened the forces of capital, which (with the help of the mainstream media) have taken greater command of politics, ideology, and policy. These forces have given neoliberalism a full head of steam, with No Other Options available – whatever the desires of ordinary citizens. Despite nominal democracies, ordinary citizens are “unpeople,” and Pilger demonstrates that the system is well adapted to ignoring and even crushing them. He provides case after case showing that what capital wants, the political system will pursue, and the media will rationalize. His studies of Indonesia and Burma describe how the economic interests benefiting from these murderous regimes have caused British, Australian, U.S., and other “Free World” politicians to lie, rationalize, and cover up serious crimes, as well as their own connivance with the killers. The victims are officially “unpeople” – Noam Chomsky and I have called them “unworthy victims,” in contrast with the “worthy” victims of enemy powers, like the Cambodians under Pol Pot or currently, the Kosovo Albanians. The mainstream media regularly fail to give unpeople intense publicity, or express great indignation over their victimization. This permits the dominant interests to do their dirty work unimpeded, with attention and indignation reserved for “worthy” victims.
Pilger has crushing accounts of the sellout of the labor parties in Australia and Great Britain in their dealings with Indonesia and Burma. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, and more grossly Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, and Gareth Evans, supported Indonesian aggression in East Timor without stint, and with a steady stream of lies and rationalizations. Their constant finding of “improvements” in Indonesian occupation policy, and Keating’s pride in being patronized by the Indonesian mass murderer Suharto – “something of a father figure” – are humorous, even if at the same time sickening. Similarly, the turnabout of Tony Blair and Robin Cook from their pre-election positions on arms sales to Indonesia to their in-power “realism” is funny in its gross opportunism, dishonesty, and hypocrisy. But the humor must also be qualified by its deadly costs to the “unpeople.”
On Burma, also, Pilger has an excellent account of the immense system of forced labor imposed by the rapacious military bullies in power, the large gains they make available to oil companies and other businesses prepared to share the loot, and the connivance of Australian, British, U.S. and other freedom-loving powers (and their exceedingly compliant mainstream media) in helping the looters. Pilger’s interview with the U.S. tourist entrepreneur, James Sherwood, whom he pushes to justify lavish tourist operations in a country of terrorized and exploited people, is once again simultaneously hilarious and sickening. But it also enlightens the reader, by demonstrating the ruling elite’s mindset and facile powers of rationalization.
Pilger provides particular depth in his commentary because he not only uses relevant documentary sources – he has been there. He has talked to both the people and unpeople, and often made his own documentaries (Cambodia, Burma, East Timor). First-hand experience also strengthens his analysis of the British media: his description of Robert Maxwell and his operations is outstanding. So is his devastating account of the rise and triumphs of Rupert Murdoch, Murdoch’s relations with both Thatcher and Blair, and the Thatcher-Blair devotion to the “defense” establishment.
Pilger’s book deals often with people and movements of resistance: the Liverpool dockworkers, Dita Sari and other Indonesian and East Timorese students and activists, the Seeds of Hope direct action group in Britain, Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters in Burma, and individual journalists and activists everywhere, many pushed into resistance by the huge injustices being institutionalized in the New World Order. These resisters have not yet turned the tide, but Pilger takes heart from their courage and resilience. His magnificent book will surely help them fight back.
Edward Herman is an economist and media analyst. His most recent books are Triumph of the Market (1995) and The Global Media (with Robert McChesney, 1997).