The piece below was written in January 2006. I have decided to publish it on this blog after listening to Pilger speaking with Philip Adams this week on Late Night Live about Bobby Kennedy. In a few simple sentences Pilger managed to despatch all American Presidents including and since Eisenhower to a hell of ethical ignominy.
The question I was hoping for from Adams was "Is America unique in its capacity to churn out the worst possible leaders? Do other countries (apart from US allies of course) ever produce leaders of equivalent moral depravity as the United States or is it a special US gene? Has there ever been a relatively good leader in the US or anywhere else?
Pilger's angles on so many issues are absurd. He is one of the few progressive writers who fits the ideological template so over played on by Henderson, Devine and others.
Perhaps the most adsurd outburst from Pilger was an effort to place Clinton and Bush in similar camps in terms of creating international chaos and destruction. This is patently ridiculous and shows the simplistic untextured views that provide Pilger his platform.
Anyway, here is the piece from early 2006.
John Pilger’s new book is called Tell Me No Lies. It’s a collection of some of the most important investigative journalism of the past six decades. I have only read some of the book but with familiar names like Wilfred Burchett, Seymour Hersh, Greg Palast and Eric Schlosser aboard it is sure to be an excellent read.
Here in Sydney, the book’s release coincides with the John Pilger Film Festival and I attended last night to view two of Pilger’s Vietnam documentaries – The Quiet Mutiny (1970) and Last Battle (1995) and to hear the man speak in person.
Pilger is a man revered by some, hated by many. I’m really not sure how to place him. I sympathise with so much of what he has to say. Yet, I feel very uncomfortable with his approach and analysis.
In my first few years of living in Vietnam, I made a point of reading many of Pilger’s books including Heroes and later Distant Voices. I have also read A Secret Country and The New Rulers of the World. I had a great regard for Pilger and his morally charged crusading style. He had a big impact on my twenty something world view. My worshipping of the campaigner has subsided in recent years and I have struggled to make sense of my ambivalence.
Last night’s films crystalised my dilemma.
Pilger forces his positions on the reader or viewer and often uses either dubious techniques or thin and questionable arguments to make his case. A favourite Pilger subject matter and one about which I have some knowledge is Vietnam – during the war and after. A viewing of Pilger’s film on post war Vietnam (1995) provides few insights into the reality of the country and would likely be viewed as offensive and patronising to Vietnamese of all political colours. Pilger cannot transcend his pre 1975 Vietnam War era headspace. He can view the Vietnamese only as victims – mostly of American misdeeds.
Massive as these misdeeds were, Vietnam’s story, like so many of those that Pilger reduces to morality tales drained of all complexity, is one of more grey than Pilger is able to acknowledge. Americans and South Vietnamese tarred with one brush = evil imperialist / corrupt traitors. Vietnamese and Vietnamese villagers = practitioners of high morality and justice. Pilger does not state these things. His presentation of the “facts” and his glaring omissions paint the picture for him.
It’s hard to pick Pilger’s most grievous distortion. Two howlers do spring to mind (I’m finishing this piece some weeks later now). At one point in the film, Pilger laments the Vietnamese government’s abandonment of collectivised agriculture in the 1980s. You would have to search very hard through the villages of Vietnam and through to the most hard core Communist cadres to find someone to support Pilger’s position on this. Rural and city dwelling Vietnamese have vivid memories of the total breakdown in the food supply that followed collectivisation (there was plenty of corrupt distribution also). Starvation was rampant and even those in there mid to late twenties in modern Vietnam remember!
The other grievous distortion is Pilger’s obliviousness to the extraordinary positive energy of Vietnam. Vietnam’s story is one of tragedy and determined recovery. The recovery is imperfect of course. But to spend time in contemporary Vietnam and not be swept up in the positive energy of the place requires the most dogged war correspondent nostalgia. I have seen it frequently in Vietnam with war correspondents.
Pilger’s approach to the world has won him a legion of admirers in Australia and abroad. I still agree with a good many of the positions he puts on many issues. The problem is that his approach can only reinforce existing entrenched opinion. His style and discipline will never open any closed minds. He’s like an aged rock star belting out the tunes that made him famous to his old fans – but unable to reach out to a different audience. And surely the different audience is the one that really matters?