Jackson, Truth and crummy imitations

“…Believe in me, I’m with the High Command….”
Mike and the Mechanics, Silent Running

Authoritarian versus democratic information: knowledge and its simulation

by Eric Jackson

So what do THEY know? So what do YOU know? And what are the true motives of those who would define and limit what others NEED to know?

Always ask the questions, but beware that the answers proffered to you or the conclusions you reach may be wrong. Sometimes DEAD wrong, as in people getting killed over misinformation or disinformation, or foolish blunders based on too little information. It happens to individuals, to institutions and to nations. As many people have warned for many centuries in many languages, truth becomes a precious commodity and a target for destruction in times of war.

As a blogger reading, and sometimes passing on with or without my own comments, other people’s reporting or opinions from other places near or far, I constantly run into such conundra.

Some Colombian gang is said to be running an old drug route through Panama these days, with ties to our political caste? Read more before passing along reports founded upon what the DEA says, or what the PRD says. All journalists and generally speaking all publications have their inherently biased points of view, and that also applies to all sources. Skepticism becomes an essential tool of the intelligent and ethical blogger.

The Israeli government censors the news, or tries to do so, in every place where the Israeli Defense Forces fight or control. A global network of operatives and boosters attempts to extend that censorship, or to implant reports that may or may not be true.

Sometimes their efforts are so old and discredited, and such contrived plays to ignorance, as to be downright corny. I turn on my MSN news feed and see these stories about how Israel took a barren desert and made it grow green. Here or there they might have done some worthy irrigation work since he modern State of Israel was founded, but that area of the Levant was a mostly agricultural place, mostly farmed by Arab Palestinians, who have been dispossessed of and expelled from their farms in successive waves. There are many olive trees planted long ago and tended by Palestinians for generations, now being felled by Israeli settlers, or just seized and now tended by Isralis, sometimes with the fruit of the stolen trees exported from the occupied Palestinian lands with labels saying that the olives are products of Israel.

Do not presume that all war stories from Israeli sources are lies, but don’t accept them at face value as true, either. Basically the same caveats apply to what Palestinian sources say, too. Check your biases and beware the tendency to believe what supports what you already believed.

Israeli advisors, veterans of the Shin Bet occupation police force, instruct Panamanian presidential guards in racism. Photo by the Presidencia during Ricardo Martinelli’s time in office.

Keep an open mind and don’t rush to judgment. Don’t be bullied about what to believe, either.

The one Palestinian-American in the US Congress, Rashida Tlaib, took a Palestinian story at face value. A rocket hit next to a hospital in Gaza, causing deaths, injuries and many sorts of suffering. Don’t buy that stuff about how someone who lived through that explosion without bodily injury was “unharmed.” Modern medical science knows too much about the effects of traumatic stress to accept that easy dismissal. But the Palestinian account omitted the important fact that it was a “dud” missile fired from Gaza that landed near the hospital, that the deaths and injuries were “friendly fire” casualties. Tlaib, knowing how the Israeli government censors and lies, presumed that was the case and repeated the wrong information until she was shown independently gathered US military information correcting her first impression. She spoke too quickly about that incident but that doesn’t make her takes on the ongoing massacre of Palestinian civilians by Israeli forces a pack of lies.

Follies toward which nations get led

Look at Uncle Sam’s lost wars since The Big War. Look at them not through some fanciful notion about keeping scores, but in the way that history judges,the political result after the armies disengage – however they do – at the end of the fighting.

The Korean War was a tie. You can read the conflicting accounts of who did what and when to provoke the fighting, but essentially Kim Il Sung’s regime in the north, armed by the Soviet Union and China, sent its troops south and overran almost all of he Korean Peninsula until the United States sent its troops into the fray, pushing the North Korean forces almost to the border with China and making noises about crossing that line and overthrowing the then only recently proclaimed Peoples Republic of China. Chairman Mao sent in the Peoples Liberation Army, which hurled the Americans back. Fighting went up and down the peninsula, with tremendous losses on both sides, until finally if was agreed to stop the fighting, draw a ceasefire line with a demilitarized zone on each side, and just carry on a de facto truce without anyone declaring victory, admitting defeat or formally ending the war. Is somebody going to count the dead and wounded and assign victory to somebody on that basis? The personwho does that is a fool.

However, China was battered, divided and exhausted by decades of civil warfare when Mao intervened in Korea, but Chinese forces fought the superpower USA to a standstill. Since then China has rebuilt itself as a world industrial, technological, economic, diplomatic and military power. Is some neoconservative arguing that the United States ought to fight China because it can do so and win? That’s reckless. That’s insane. That notion finds some support in both major US political parties. However, I would estimate – as I am not privy to the classified findings and advice – that the word coming from the Pentagon and from the intelligence agencies to the US politicians is that war with China would be reckless and insane.

See, notwithstanding the popular songs of yesteryear about military madness, and the classic satires – “You can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!” – most of the professional soldiers and civil servant spooks know better. They tend to be sober men and women, but sworn to uphold the orders handed down by civilian politicians, some of them absolute scoundrels who play to political fan bases surely akin to some of the crowds who went down to the Colosseum to watch lions eat the Christians back during Imperial Rome’s long decline. In an American redux, would there be foxy cheerleaders urging the lions on to victory?

But that’s speculation, and that’s back then. Since Dr. Strangelove first played on the silver screens, the United States lost in Vietnam and neighboring countries, lost in Afghanistan, lost in Iraq and is now losing a lot of respect from democratic-minded people around the world for its supporting role in the Gaza Massacre. Notwithstanding the delusions of those who think that it really doesn’t matter because Biblical End Times are upon us anyway, there are limits to what a US heavy hand can do in today’s world.

And yet you have Republicans in Congress, and the State of Israel, more or less demanding a US war with Iran. As obnoxious at that Islamic state can be at times, understand that they are bigger, better armed and stronger than the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, much more so than Iraq when the United States went to war with that country, far more so that the Assad regime that the United States would have overthrown in Syria but which lives on. Plus, in the USA the responsible bean counters will say that war with Iran would be a ruinous expenditure.

Surely there would be cynical ad writers and dizzy influencers to say otherwise. Plus people with far more political power than brains to hire them and then believe their stuff.

I don’t have access to those classified reports. However, from reading what those who do are generally saying, I would expect that the spymasters and generals are warning against the United Stated being dragged into a war with Iran. I could be wrong, and I would also not be surprised by divided opinions among the military and intelligence elites.

Who should be in on such discussions? Who should be allowed to be informed about the issues at stake?

It’s a big problem when a supposedly democratic nation can’t discuss life-and-death issues. The United States has the problem. Panama has it too.

Some of Panama’s problems have their bureaucratic roots in the old US administration of the Panama Canal and the former Canal Zone, in the US State Department and its missions here, and in the US Southern Command. Those things should be acknowledged but it hurts Panama to blame it all on the gringos. That sort of brushoff ignores and perpetuates our own problems. To the detriment of Panamanians it avoids important questions about the roles of this nation’s bad actors and the conditions from which they arose. It probably makes things worse if we leave it up to the United States to solve these problems, because that tends to maintain a less competent and dependent Panama.

Does a US government whose warrants keep Julian Assange behind bars in England, with a threat of extradition and spending the rest of his life in prison in the USA, have much moral standing to lecture Panama or anybody else about transparency and freedom of the press? At the White House, the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom and Langley they will draw lawyerly distinctions, and draft extraordinary claims for which even ordinary proof is never offered. Relatively few who are not predisposed to believe anything that the CIA or the Pentagon tells them believe in the Assange prosecution. He’s held in prison because in the first instance he published a leaked video of an American helicopter gunship deliberately shooting a Reuters news crew, and killing children while they were at it. As the dispute unfolded the “crime” expanded, via the publication of previously secret State Department cablegrams, to expose a long history of a US foreign policy laced with many lies. As WikiLeaks got into the US domestic it published leaked emails about the shallow and amoral politics of Hillary Clinton’s inner circle and its supporting cast in the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 US presidential campaign. It was probably a Russian leak based on intercepts by Putin’s people, in the end damaging to the United States because it helped to bring on Donald Trump’s disastrous presidency, but it was newsworthy stuff. The greater offense was the behavior in the Hillary camp, not its exposure by Julian Assange.

The Assange case was and is a huge and damaging scandal for America’s credibility in the world. It fits right in with what we have seen for a long time in this part of the world.

When The Panama News started out in 1994, we rather immediately received a missive from a management lady at the US agency known as the Panama Canal Commission. In those years it had Panamanians in top management positions, a heritage of US policies and practices from the days of the old Panama Canal Company, and plans for a “seamless transition” to a fully Panamanian Panama Canal Authority. And what we got was an American notice – a demand, really – that we should not use the services of a brilliant photographer, the now late Carlos Guardia. The note from this American canal middle management lady pointed out that Guardia had applied to work for the PCC but had been rejected on the grounds that he didn’t have a Panamanian driver’s license. However, the big gripe was that he had studied photography in Poland, at a time when it was a part of the old Soviet bloc. Panama was neutral, but the United States insisted on a Cold War blacklist of who could or could not work in journalism here.

Old timers with both the canal and in the press corps backed that up, telling tales of how between the US canal administration and the American Embassy, they could and did bar people from working in the Panamanian news media for many years. Eventually, it came to be a matter of such games played against me.

Back in the 80s, before I moved back to Panama, I used the Freedom of Information Act order my CIA file. As an activist and a journalist, on both the US federal and Michigan state levels, I used freedom of information laws a lot back in the day. (add link to case)

A lot of what I got from the CIA was blacked out. They apparently made much of my arrests as a juvenile and misdemeanor convictions as an adult when I was a teenager, apparently redacting things that might identify their sources. I ran with the WeatherPeople when I was 16, and although my politics went into more democratic directions post-Nixon, I never turned against those folks. Nor against folks from the Black Panther Party nor the League of Revolutionary Black Workers crowds in the Detroit area.

Lots of blackouts there, but in that file the CIA mistook me for a reverend in another county with a name similar to mine, a peace and racial justice activist. To me that said two things – first that the company from Langley saw the suppression of peace and human rights movements in general as a part of their job, and second that they got into lazy, sloppy research because they were the big bad CIA and they could.

(Let me not malign the many honest, intelligent and hard-working men and women of the CIA. Every big, rich country, with or without a warlike culture, needs a good intelligence service. But when an agency combines Murder Incorporated activities with information gathering, when the overthrow of foreign governments is considered a normal pursuit, then exposure becomes an existential threat to the institution – not really to the nation that it’s supposed to serve – and the veil of secrecy that comes down serves to hide all sorts of shoddy work by those working in the institution who aren’t too proud to put out bad work products. Bad work products, and MISSING work products, like Uncle Sam getting blindsided by transformative world events, of agents reporting what they think that the commander-in-chief wants to hear rather than the hard truths that need to be known and confronted. It has been a long time since Congress turned a light on spy follies and right after Frank Church’s US Senate committee did that in the late 1970s, he was thrown out by the voters in the next elections. Nor is it unique to the USA. The humanities are full of satires of authoritarian regimes – Potemkin villages, the Lieutenant Kidze sagas, the legends of the Sheriff of Nottingham’s machinations, the more creative report of members of some of the more notorious US police forces about driving while black traffic stops and so on. The usual effective solutions to such abuses are two-fold – that there is a management that doesn’t put up with such stuff and that there are honest external arbiters for when it happens or is alleged to have happened.)

Back to me. Visiting Cuba in 1979? Visiting the Cuban Embassy here in the 90s? Being Facebook friends with Puerto Rican independence activists and others who had served time for some violent crimes against the state? Passing on the Dutch Pax Christi chapter’s report on the El Aro Massacre via The Panama News?

In that latter case AUC paramilitary thugs, some arriving in a helicopter assigned to the governor of Antioquia province, rounded up the people in a village and made them watch the beheading of 15 people who were said to have ties to the leftist FARC guerrillas. Then the paramilitaries burned houses, rustled cattle and raped women. Who were these thugs? Informally allied with the Colombian military and police forces and part of “Plan Colombia,” the US offense against rebel forces who had been in the field since the late 1940s and who were given the epithet “narco-terrorists.” The AUC? They morphed into the Clan Úsuga, the Gaitanist Self-Defense Units and more notoriously in recent years the Cartel del Golfo, a drug smuggling and human trafficking gang with a presence in Panama and ties in this country’s political caste. Those guys are on the US enemies list these days, big-time.

This past year in Colombia’s news, there was the remote testimony of the former AUC commander in that region, a Mr. Mancuso, now in a US prison on drug running charges after having been extradited from Colombia and tried in the United States. Mancuso said that the AUC did, in fact, use the governor’s helicopter in that assault, with said governor’s knowledge, consent and eager support. And that governor, Alvaro Uribe, went on to be president of Colombia and a key US ally in the region. All the while the State Department was denying the allegation about Uribe’s involvement in the massacre. Now there is some pretty strong confirmation but back then it was considered a national security threat to publish such stuff.

A threat to the security of WHICH nation? A threat to Panama, which over several decades has been repeatedly attacked by this crowd? A threat to Colombia, which might have unraveled had people known about the governor-turned-president-turned-power-broker? A threat to the United States, where a number of politicians who hailed Plan Colombia as this huge victory for democracy or something might have been embarrassed?

Mostly it was a threat to small-minded bureaucrats, fronting for politicians, who consider information control to be the natural order of things and moreover among their duties as government employees. There is no need to get into “deep state” conspiracy dogma to understand that there are people and institutions like this.

An important set of considerations has to do with WHICH nations are entitled to know about matters affecting the personal security of their citizens and whether self-described democracies are entitled to informed debates about what their governments do.

For a more complex example, wasn’t it a matter about which Panamanians had a right to know when a former US Air Force base, supposedly devolved to Panama in 1999, was used in an assault, via Colombia, under the guise of humanitarian aid, on Venezuela over the bridge spanning the international border at Cucuta? Did the American Embassy have any reason to consider this reporter a disloyal American for reporting that to a readership both in Panama and abroad? Did the government of Panama have any solid ground from which to object when The Panama News published a drone photo of this operation that was leaked to us? Was this information that placed Panama’s existence as a sovereign republic at risk, or just something that put some Panamanian politicians’ nationalist credentials in question?

We get down to the differences between democratic journalism and authoritarian propaganda. Who has a right to sort out the inevitable mixes of those things coming over the wire and through the air? Who has the DUTY to the readers to do that?

Was I an enemy spy for publishing this drone shot of the former Howard Air Force Base being used as a staging area for a Trump administration operation against Venezuela? An enemy of Panama? An enemy of the United States?

The rights and obligations of individuals and nations

The US Declaration of Independence is perhaps the most famous of many documents that declares that all men are created equal. These days many women would find something exclusionary and offensive about that, with cause. It’s also not as if the words that Thomas Jefferson wrote in that declaration were immediately – or ever –put into full practical effect.

Meanwhile, with the march of human progress a somewhat related thought that has come to humanity’s mind is that while individuals might justly be punished for their bad acts, collective punishment for being a member of a group, a minority of one or more individuals in which have done something wrong, is both immoral and illegal.

There are philosophical arguments that run from 1980s declarations by figures of the Reagan and Thatcher camps that deny even the concept of society.

The dispute between individualizing everything and recognizing society and groups within it touches upon cases about the application of the felony murder rule to persons who neither killed anybody nor intended to kill anybody.

The argument reaches, in its larger and more severe applications, to war crimes. A young Jew killed a Nazi official, so Hitler unleashed his rowdy mobs and his disciplined stormtroopers on a pogrom known as The Kristallnacht in which Jews in general were assaulted, robbed, murdered, rounded up to be sent to concentration camps and otherwise swept up in an ensuing holocaust.

Part of the judgment at Nuremberg was a stern denunciation of the concept of collective punishment for crimes. However, part of the process of postwar measures was the dispossession and deportation of ethnic Germans from the Sudetenland and other areas of Central and Eastern Europe. Hitler’s reich lasted 13 years instead of the advertised thousand, and instead of expanding Germany’s “living space” that notion and that set of geographical facts contracted. The German nation collectively paid reparations to other nations that it had harmed – even German pacifists who as a matter of principle had nothing to do with the war crimes and may have actually been punished for their refusal to participate.

All of that history and philosophy set a backdrop for the horrors of the Gaza War. From these ancient and modern norms and precedents arise bases for ethical journalism. The ancient scriptures and legends of contending religions, from Old Testament tales of how him that pisseth on a wall gets smote to Muhammad’s injunction to his warriors to do molest women, children or old folks, nor to mutilate the bodies of slain enemies, from Jewish teachings about not oppressing foreigners to the fate of the Bani Nadr tribe that rose up against Muhammad the king, the zealots of either side can find ample authority for the most decent or indecent things. “Just the facts” reporting that just ignores all of the historical baggage rings hollow, because part of journalism is a determination of which facts are important. It’s the essence of what an editor does.

But as a noteworthy Chinese-American journalist, echoing earlier declarations by a famous and ruthless Chinese politician, told us in their own ways, there is no such thing as “objective journalism.” Everybody working in every mass communications medium, and every publication, is coming from somewhere. From the language used, to the formal and informal education of the person telling the story, from his or her nationality, political and social affiliations, economic interests and belief system, there arise points of view that are inevitably parts of the story. Joie Chen told us that. So did Chairman Mao. Sort out the honest observations from the manipulative propaganda, and the fact that everyone telling a story has a point of view still rings true.

The best thing that a journalist can do, it would seem to me, is to be forthright about having a point of view and what that is to let the readers be more informed about the information conveyed. If that incites the MAGAs to furious rejection of The Panama News and its editor, so be it.

And if it incites Bibi Netanyahu and his supporters to accuse this reporter of being a vicious racist, specifically an antisemite, so be that. Netanyahu is a war criminal and a more ordinary corrupt politician, who chose to provoke intercommunal violence and an atrocious and expanding war to save himself from a legal scandal of his own making.

‘That’s YOUR OPINION!’ many might protest, and true enough. But it’s an informed opinion, instructed by much more than old tales about The Land of Milk and Honey. It’s a point of view informed by archaeology that proves Jerusalem to be older than its Jewish and Arab communities. It’s informed by the geography of an underground river that made Jerusalem resistant to ancient sieges. It’s a news judgment based on some knowledge of international law, and comparative secular and religious law.

People have a right to know these about these things and to argue about them based on good information. Wise people diversify their sources of information, and learn to identify and largely discount unreliable sources and media. And moral individuals will apply their belief systems to the plain facts, to reach judgments. Sometimes those judgments will be painful. This is the nature of the news, as distinguished from stereotypical fiction.

The death toll on colleagues has few precedents, but a brave press corps, both Arabs and Jews, is telling the world unpleasant truths about the carnage in Gaza and those who are behind it.

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