Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Jews, News and the Imperial Monologue: In Defense of Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone recently implied the proportion of Jews working in Euro-American news media sufficiently exceeds their incidence in the general population as to require professional journalistic disclosure.

Touchy subject.

Is there any professional context within which this question can properly be asked?

When Mel Gibson rants about Jews in Hollywood, we know what to expect.

When Oliver Stone draws distinctions among Hitler’s victims, albeit "clumsily" (his words), I’m tempted to beg leave from the Jewish community to ask for a more nuanced explanation.

His record of films about other biases in American media warrants more diligence on our part before we cast stones for blatant anti-Semitism.

In fact, Stone’s remarks come amidst increasing diligence among political pundits in the northern hemisphere to examine the concentration of influence and ownership in the media, both European and American.

Sixty-five years after the Holocaust, our awkwardness about this topic actually worsens the risk of anti-Semitism rather than guarding against it. To borrow from Ashis Nandy, the average consumer of Euro-American news media has a civic duty to question whether "the idiom of dissent is increasingly being defined at the centers of conformity".

Would any of us deny each other the right to ask similar questions concerning the Cuban trade embargo, the public Health Insurance option, or Banking reform?

Of course not.

Among professional journalists and academics outside North America, Stone might even derive increased credibility for admitting his empire's most influential news outlets are managed by a discernable minority: CBS by Tish. ABC by Iger. NBC by Zucker. Fox by Rupert Murdoch. US News by Mort Zuckerman. The New York Times by Sulzberger. The Los Angeles Times by Sam Zell. The Washington Post by the Katherine Meyer / Graham family. Facebook by Mark Zuckerberg.

Even the rest of us, the plebian unwashed, might be forgiven for wondering about the cumulative impact of personal preferences among Wolf Blitzer, Howard Kurtz, Larry King, Candy Crowley, Aaron Brown, Andrea Mitchell, Jessica Yellin, Mary Snow, Barbara Starr, Ben Wideman, Jim Bitterman, Alan Chernoff, Elizabeth Cohen, William Cohen, Robert Rubin, Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger, James Rubin, Jeff Greenfield, Andrea Koppel, Gary Tuchman, Bob Franken, or Alan Derschowitz, when reporting on Arab-Israeli politics.

And that’s just CNN.

The equivalent observation was finally heralded in Hollywood years ago when A&E produced "Hollywoodism: An Empire of Their Own - Jews, Movies, and The American Dream" (1998), which chronicled the amazing success of the half-dozen Jewish families who created the movie industry and the studio system that spawned the moguls of Hollywood during its Golden Age.

In a previous Nunaview post, even I explored the general phenomenon of diasporic minorities such as the Chinese in Polynesia, Indians in Africa and Jews in Euro-America, and suggested they should justifiably boast about their accomplishments rather than disguising the celebrity and influence they have garnered.

But Oliver Stone’s remarks are different. Very different. So are Michael Moore’s. So are Noam Chomsky’s.

Each in his colourful non-conformist way suggests there is a journalistic ethic at play here that goes far, far beyond artistic license, or business acuity. It concerns a potentially egregious violation of journalism’s core claim to truth in transparency. It reaches to the very foundations of representative democracy, public dialogue, and electoral politics.

We send UN observers all over the world to determine whether corrupt dictatorships manipulate electoral results after the votes are cast. Stone, Moore and Chomsky are warning us that our opinions are being manipulated before the votes are cast.

Ordinary viewers will have noticed how frequently CNN anchors, most notably Wolf Blitzer, make a fuss about CNN being owned by Time Warner when reporting on a Time Warner related story. They are also downright rude at times in their manner of interrupting a guest to point out that guest's personal connection to stakeholders in the issue being discussed.

That notice is itself entirely proper, but the strident manner of its delivery is designed solely to profer CNN’s claim to neutral reporting. It is part of a self-serving campaign to dub themselves "The Most Trusted Name in News" and we are supposed to conclude that CNN discloses all background relationships that might constitute a risk of bias.

It is therefore CNN's very own insistence on this principle that opens them up to analysis and accountability for their own performance in this regard.

Every sophomore journalism student learns the rationale for this professional code of conduct. They are taught that the viewing public must be cautioned, explicitly, to raise their pre-suppositional antennae against even the appearance of bias. Not just gross prejudice, but for the more subtle, inadvertent and even innocent bias that reporters might miss in themselves, so ingrained is it in their personal history or basic human preferences.

Are allegations that CNN distorts staff biographies accurate? Did Wolf Blitzer really work for radically pro-Jewish and activist pro-Israel publications and lobbies for much of his career prior to joining CNN? If that allegation is accurate, then CNN is egregiously derelict in its duty to the American democracy when omitting those facts from their online backgrounders and biographies of Wolf Blitzer.

In the context of its coverage of stories that involve stakeholders in the Middle East, in Palestinian activism, or in reports of anti-Semitism in American society, Mr. Blitzer’s personal history is itself a factor that should be addressed with sufficient frequency and transparency as to discharge that journalistic stricture and obligation to the global audience. Oliver Stone has only had the nerve to suggest the same applies to the alleged disproportion of Jews and converts among CNN's editors, anchors, pundits, reporters and invited guests compared to their numbers in American society in general.

CNN claims not to be Fox. The standard, if they aspire to that level of trust, is higher.

If you have any doubt about the legitimacy of this tenet of professional journalism, I dare you to spend a week, just one single week, watching America's mass media as if you were Chinese, Venezuelan, Muslim, Cuban, Pakistani, Arab-Israeli, Palestinian, or just a truly independent American elector.

How ironic that so reserved a professional as US Defence Secretary Robert Gates regularly feels the need to refer to the "people in between" when speaking of those skilled at manufacturing conformity of opinion by way of deception.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Conservatives: Fiscal, Social, or Foreign

Arianna Huffington recently penned a eulogy for left-right dialectics, declaring them to be inadequate - going on useless - as a tool for political analysis in the 21st Century. Conversely, one of the better status reports on the US Republican party made pretty good use of it to send Sarah Palin and Pit Bull Romney to the penitential corner of our democratic classroom for an overdue time out.

Truth is, most of us have no trouble at all deciding whether a politician is a fiscal or social conservative. We are even pretty good at mixing the two. "Oh he's a (lower-taxes-no-matter-what) fiscal conservative, but he's an (innocent-children-of-immigrant-abortionists-might-need-welfare-for-a-while) social prograssive

The one that keeps us all stumped, however, is foreign policy.

Arianna Huffington's hunch from the middle is nearly correct, but she's still holding onto the fence a little.

You see, the further East we go, we find people are more protective of their privacy. Europeans might live next door to each other for three generations and never see the inside of their neighbour's living room or kitchen. Centuries of war and invasion have left them thinking that sovereignty is epitomy of peace and respect. They were so reluctant to internvene in Kosovo.

But as you travel further West, especially into George Bush and Dick Cheney's wild West where survival more recently depended on blurring those boundaries a bit, people don't need an invitation to charge into a neighbour's house to help extinguish a fire, or rescue an invalid, or punch a bully in the mouth for beating up his children. A certain amount of vigilante collective action has been more acceptable in the wild West as a way of dealing with both tyranny and tragedy.

If George W. Bush had stuck to those cowboy roots of his and simply belted Saddam Hussein one right in the kisser and walked away instead of proliferating such weapons of mass distrust, how differently might the world feel right now?

In fact, I bet Europeans and North Americans would be having a much more intelligent discussion about whether our species on this planet can succeed in dealing with global issues on a purely bilateral basis rooted in concepts of national sovereignty. Might we not agree that there are some issues facing the planet right now that warrant the occasional Neighborhood Watch type action where free people might nonetheless sometimes impose a minimun standard of decency when rogues threaten our children's right to a little peace and quiet?

That is where the confusion comes from, between left and right, between east and west, between Republicans and the Tea Party, and between Muslims and modernity.

The American Empire made a terrible mistake when they allowed their admirable penchant for wild west generosity to be co-opted and misused. Rather than keeping Neighborhood Watch strictly en garde, to be used solely on occasions of universally recognized brutality or disaster, they have twisted the meaning of 'freedom' and premptive deterrence into a missionary mandate to dictate self-serving terms for global commerce.

We keep hearing claims that a rogue minority have hijacked global Islam. Ok. What of global Christianity?

And there you have it. Collossal Weapons of Mass Distrust. (C-WMD)

Just when the world most desperately needs a trusted kind of global Neighbourhood Watch to lend a hand with environment, energy, female genital mutilation, and usurious international bond bandits... nobody trusts anybody.

That is the real legacy of the recent American Empire. Insufficient trust for humanity to collaborate on issues that simply cannot be resolved unilaterally or bilaterally.

Gawd forbid I should have to quote Hillary Rodham Clinton, but dammit, it does take at least a village!

As for my beloved Canada, we do have conservative politicians, mostly wed to the Bond and Data Bandits. Bad enough that they want to stop collecting census data lest that expose their weak policy arguments, now we learn they have knowingly shredded the final report on the Tar Sands?

In whom do we trust?


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Popping the Fiscal Balloon


It was one of the most electrifying moments in modern political television... for those who had ears!

"Should we lower the debt or flood the world with trillions of dollars in cash?" asked Fareed Zakaria.

In the red corner, Nobel sanctioned economist Paul Krugman was advocating more money, lots of it, now. In the blue corner, word-merchant historian Niall Ferguson countered for immediately reducing the debt.

In case you missed it... and many did 'miss it' even though they watched it on CNN's GPS, here's the layman's translation.

Imagine your brain sprung a leak to the outside of your skull, you would die if the hole weren't plugged. On the other hand if only one artery developed a bubble inside your skull putting pressure on the surrounding tissue, you would poke a hole in the bubble, relieve the pressure, then strengthen the artery so it wouldn't happen again. That's called an embolism. The rest of the brain would be fine. Embolisms can be fixed.

In economic terms, Ferguson is warning us that rampant debt is a financial leak threatening the entire system.

Krugman, on the other hand, counters that debt is just part of the economy. The real threat is cumulative charges, interest and profit on the debt, an expanding embolism, susceptible to regulatory popping and remedial cauterization.

But Krugman goes farther. Much farther! He calls it the "phantom in the room".

Brrr, feel the chill of fear?

The financial community is loath to talk about this ghost because we ordinary mortals might actually begin to understand. The high priests dare not give it a simple name, like profit, for fear we masses will lose faith.

Like a magician who slips and nearly reveals how a trick is done, Ferguson almost blew it. He euphemized so accurately, so close to the truth, you could almost feel the collective fiduciary scrota shrinking around the globe. Millions of high finance testes running for pubic cover, wincing in anticipation of this catastrophic blow to their semantic groin.

"Fiscal Credibility", Ferguson intoned. "Nasty Fiscal Arithmetic". "Domestic appeasement of local interest (lobby) groups". "Once you find interest rates rising..."

The phantom stirred.

Then Zakaria rescued him. "So what's the solution?"

Caught in his own dangerous rant, Ferguson scrambled for cover. "Radical fiscal reform". "Flat tax". "Cut entitlement programs". Gawd forbid we should reduce our profit. A flurry of semantic transformations to re-bury the deep structures of the daemon he had nearly exposed.

The world's banks must have heaved a huge sigh of relief. Krugman wasn't in the studio at the same time to pounce on the gaff, to expose the lie, to dress the naked emperor.

An embolism of what ... greed? Good grief!

What might Krugman have said?

Except for natural disasters like the recent one in Haiti, countries rarely fail to repay their real debt, the actual amount they initially borrowed. Every other instance of fiscal collapse in the history of the world has stemmed from an inability to keep pace with ballooning compound interest on the debt, not the debt itself.

Insatiable greed.

Krugman had been brutal in anticipation. He whisked so close to naming the beast himself. "Bond Vigilantes" he called them at one point. The viscerally corrupt curia of collusion among the banks and the insurance companies who are siphoning the wealth of humanity into gated backwaters of privilege and impunity.

Of course, there are legitimate costs incurred by those who lend and those who insure us against unforeseen misfortune. They are also entitled to make an income. However, those costs should be calculated transparently based on the true actuarial risk of default or accident. Far from such a fair return, the current banking and insurance industries, no matter how low interest rates appear to be right now, continue make obscene profits from the cumulative effect of compound interest. Interest upon interest, upon interest... ad infinitum.

That is the phantom in the room!

It is the omnipresent and never-to-be named threat, not from the borrowers, not from the actuarial risk of capital default, but from the arbitrary whim of exponential greed that cranks the interest rate up to whatever the market will bear in good times, or simply threatens to do so in bad times.

Krugman's "Phantom in the Room".

Decades of political advocacy and activism haven't a fraction of the power and influence of thirty seconds of reversing an embedded pre-supposition.

Fareed, I dare you. Just one minute a week. Have an impartial and professional semanticist analyze a single utterance from the week's news coverage. Maybe just before your closing soliloquy and book recommendation. You might go down in history as having single handedly rescued democratic dialogue, and governance..

It's time someone stuck a linguistic finger down our throat and induced a little purge to clear the bullcrap.