In the aftermath of 9/11, two factions looked upon the mass graves in New York and Washington with barely-contained glee: Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, and the anti-imperialist Western Left. A long-standing member of the latter cult is John Pilger, who wondered why this attack on civilisation had taken so long. He praised the Islamists for their patience, and then remarked: “Their distant voices of rage are now heard; the daily horrors in faraway brutalised places have at last come home.”
In 2004, Green Left Weekly asked Pilger if the Left should support the insurgency in Iraq, the movement of Saddamists and jihadists whose project was sectarian war and the rule of Sharia. Pilger replied: “Yes . . We cannot afford to be choosy.” Later, when asked to elaborate, he added that Australian soldiers were legitimate targets for murder.
I disinter these arguments from the distant past for two reasons. First, the reminder is often necessary. Time may blunt the memory and I trust that any forgetful readers have now found their contempt for Pilger very much intact. Second, there is a puzzle to be solved here. Calling for solidarity with Islamists and fascists ought to make one unsuitable for inclusion in civilised company. And yet, this is hardly the case. The Pilger worldview would be welcome, if not compulsory, in most left-wing magazines, a future Jeremy Corbyn cabinet, and Sydney University, where Pilger recently gave a speech ludicrously titled: A World War Has Begun.
The invitation makes a great deal of sense, when you think about it. Like his audience, Pilger is a man of uncomplicated, rather meagre ideas. Wait, that’s much too charitable. Pilger has a single idea: it’s the West’s fault, no matter what. His life’s work reads like the tutorial rantings of a mediocre second-year Politics student, the one who never did the assigned weekly readings because his mind was made up.
Further, Pilger ought to feel right at home in the humanities departments of the modern university, where expressing any admiration for the Western cultural tradition is something like bad manners, and a cultivated distaste for one’s own society is usually a condition of employment.
Anyhow, back to the speech. Pilger’s latest scoop had a familiar tinge: the US is a “rapacious superpower that is today more dangerous than ever” and, unbeknown to the sane people, World War Three has begun. Granted, it is currently a war of media propaganda and political mendacity, but it’s about to escalate any moment now. Such a claim has been the backbone of Pilger’s career, and he is still waiting to be right, so a certain scepticism is in order. Not that the audience wanted any. They ‘oohed’, ‘ahhed’, nodded and clapped in all the wrong places and never thought to object to anything at all.
Pilger gave a brief summary of US foreign policy and wrongdoing and asserted: “No country can equal this systemic record of violence.” No country? Does nothing come to mind? No mention of the efforts of Stalin or Mao or the mad Kim family? What comradely restraint!
This is a characteristic omission, though. Pilger continued to rail against the US and its bullying of, well, everyone. Apparently, authoritarianism in China and the recrudescence of Russian nationalism under Putin pose no threat at all. Most strange was his account of events in 2014, when protestors ousted the nasty and corrupt government of Victor Yanukovych. Pilger had a more conspiratorial reading: “Ukraine . . . has become a CIA theme park. Having orchestrated a coup in Kiev, Washington effectively controls a regime that is next door and hostile to Russia.” Indeed, Russia and Ukraine are adjacent. Pilger is right on geography, but wrong on everything else.
Further, the violence in the Middle East is the exclusive fault of arms companies and, of course, the Israel lobby. The Islamist fanatics speak endlessly of their goals, including the erasure of civil society and the extirpation of infidels. Is this not an explanatory variable? I guess Pilger has been inattentive.
Turning to the US presidential election, Pilger argued that Hillary Clinton is a greater menace than Donald Trump, because she “embodies the resilience and violence of a system whose vaunted “exceptionalism” is totalitarian with an occasional liberal face.” To be fair, though, in 2003 he also thought the George W. Bush administration was “the Third Reich of our times”, so at least he’s consistently potty.
There are many on the Left who criticise the US in these terms, and it’s always striking that they exempt the real totalitarians from any charge at all, and in Pilger’s case, he usually dispenses his solidarity. And yet, for his numerous campus groupies, nothing will bring him into disrepute. The speech was swiftly republished by the outlets of the unthinking Left, where aspiring Pilgers fill the column spaces.
Pilger delivered his Sydney University address on March 22, and two days later a United Nations Tribunal convicted Radovan Karadzic of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. A tremendous and overdue achievement, for the victims, for the Bosnians, and for those of us who think that international justice is a real thing. Here, then, was a reminder of real fascism, and it’s no surprise that Pilger failed to recognise it, back then and now. Pilger has played a supporting role in an intellectual cartel of the hard-Left that also includes Noam Chomsky, Edward S. Herman, Diana Johnstone, and others. They argued against Western military intervention in the Balkans, and still believe it was a bad idea. For them, Milosevic and the Serbs were the victims of imperial propaganda, the Bosnians were the real perpetrators, and the graves in Srebrenica were a fabrication.
Everything was wrong with this, and the mountains of documentation and testimony in the Hague have begun to make things right. But how many in Pilger’s obsequious audience that night know or care about any of this? Everything the Left loves about this moral cretin is based upon a misunderstanding. Pilger is invariably praised for being anti-war, but he is about as vicious a warmonger as one could find: he simply favours the side opposed to the West. It is alleged that he is a fearless journalist, but his aversion to self-evident truths and record of genocide denial should bring his job title into question. He often seems like a writer of rather artless fiction, with little authorial or plot development, I might add. The term “documentary-maker” is misleading, too. Propagandist seems more apt.
The reverence for John Pilger is one indicator of the Left’s intellectual exhaustion, as well as its moral callousness. Here, any enemy of the West is a friendly comrade, no matter how theocratic or nihilistic or grotesque. If the Left can save itself and become decent and anti-totalitarian once again, it will first have to cast out from its ranks some dead weight. Or, at the very least, it could offer John Pilger fewer speaking engagements.
Timothy Cootes completed a Master of International Relations at Macquarie University in 2013. He is now teaching in South Korea