September 9, 2002
"They who put out the people's eyes, reproach them of their blindness."
"Surely, journalists must ask themselves: is it not possible to break away from the pack?" once asked John Pilger. "And," he mused on, "do the media courses turning out the next generation examine and analyse such institutional failure (honourable exceptions aside) to keep the record straight? Are media students warned that true journalists must be sceptical of all authority, and that their job is to push back screens and lift rocks...?" (1)
Well, certainly, certainly...till you get blasted by a bunch of phony human righters and other crusading civilizers, and can't pay your bills as no main publication will ever touch your work with a ten-foot pole!
Pushing back screens and lifting rocks is very much what Gregory Elich did in his August 26 article, Zimbabwe Under Siege, through weekly trips to the library of Ohio State University for over six months, assembling more than 100 references to compose his 12,000-word essay (which took him three weeks to write and edit); a work that, I should add, we were proud and honored to publish. Elich, however, appears to have committed an excommunicable sin when he sided with the Zimbabwean government and received for his recompense a flurry of trashing comments, some long on rhetoric and all diminutively short on substance.
There were a few glaring exceptions. A reader wrote, "Excellent article! I don't know how you have time to keep up on so many areas of the world. It's a great current case study of foreign affairs that effectively ignores so much of the rhetoric to concentrate on the real policy." Another noted that the article was an "intelligent commentary on Zimbabwe after the years of a near daily hate by the corporate media lead by the BBC." And, most pleasantly, Baffour Ankomah, the Editor of the British-based New African, whose own exceptional work we are publishing today: "Many thanks for sending me your wonderful piece on Zimbabwe. Wonderful, wonderful!! So I'm not the only mad one out there after all. Since 1999, I have been reporting Zimbabwe much like you've done in your piece. Our magazine, New African, has been uncompromising in the coverage of Zimbabwe, and I personally have been called various names by the anti-Mugabe brigade. So I was gratified to read your wonderful piece." Parenthetically, I owe the title of this piece to Mr. Ankomah and I am delighted that New African will be publishing parts of Gregory Elich's article in its October issue. Wonderful, indeed!
Here are a few samples of the least aggravating comments:
* Excuse me but most of your so-called study is not true. Where did you find this kind of crap? . . . I can take your story apart, bit by bit. I hope you don't have sleepless nights of the 6 million that are domed [sic] to starve to death because of ONE DICTATOR, just like 3 million died in Cambodia.
Had enough? Smear and slander are old tricks of the trade, I guess... As Elich commented to me, "I suppose any controversial article generates such responses."
The letter of Alex Jay Berman, published here, had the merit to be longer than one or two paragraphs and while undoubtedly argumentative and disapproving was both considerate and polite, thus providing Gregory Elich with the opportunity to respond thoroughly. Mr. Berman, a writer in his own right, who enjoys Science Fiction, Book Reviews, " Cooking for Writers who Forget to Eat" and is a proud member of the alt.misc.writing forum once contributed a piece to Swans. I should point out -- another parenthetical comment -- that Mr. Berman erred when he asserted that Swans was "so very concerned with human rights." I can assure him that it is not the case. Human rights, as evolved in the past two decades, are yet another instrument of Western interventionism all around the world to further western interests. We are not concerned with the business of human rights. We are concerned with the respect for, and rights of, humans.
This, of course, would tend to greatly weaken Mr. Berman's thesis as he based his argument on a false premise. Actually, he considers Elich's views appropriate. He writes, "This may be an appropriate view of the subject to an agricultural economist, but it constitutes a grave sin of omission for a magazine so very concerned with human rights." Well, we aren't concerned much with this kind of human rights except to underline their destructive power everywhere the NGO's caravan plants its tent! Oh well, just a tiny rhetorical bit on my part to gently counter an amicable writer who finds Elich's article "well-researched, well-documented, and well-written" but "NOT well-done" (how an article can be well-researched, well-documented, and well-written but not well-done at the same time is truly befuddling!); an interesting technique which by the way Mr. Berman also used in his first piece over two years ago in response to an article by Alma Hromic ("That said, after reading the aforementioned article, I told her it was a very good piece; very well-written and very moving. Also that it was very wrong."). Amusing...
More seriously, discretionary outrage can become quite tiring after a while, almost boring. To see people shed crocodile tears on some of the "poor" Zimbabwean farming families, those who happen to be white (many of whom hold British passports...), to defend landowners and their farms, the biggest ones being controlled by non-Zimbabwean interests, to lay the blame as always on the Zimbabwean government and to demonize its leader is getting old very fast.
Not that the human stories should be dismissed out of hand. To lose one's land is a personal tragedy, always poignant and heart breaking, especially when it's your own (2) family land (I could expand on my own experience about this). That people empathize with the plight of these families is a legitimate, humane sentiment, and quite respectable at that. However, I don't recall much empathy, if any, when 40,000 members of the Barabaig tribe in Tanzania were dispossessed of their land in the Batsotu Plains a decade ago, compliments of a Canadian project. And this I know: no one is shedding tears over the forthcoming United Kingdom project in the state of Andhra Pradesh, India, where some 20 million people will be dispossessed. (3) Did any one of Greg Elich's critics ever hear about these "atrocities"? And did they care about the actual ethnic cleansing of about one million Serbs (but of course, they were the "bad guys;" so who cares, right?)? Or, what about the Turkish farmers who have seen their land -- and entire villages -- taken away from them for the ambitious water projects along the Euphrates that Turkey embarked upon years ago? Crocodile tears, anyone?
I can already hear the usual whine; the fact that there is no public outrage in some cases does not mean that there should be no outrage in all cases. How many times have I heard this specious, moralizing stance? Too often for not becoming ill at ease and wanting to throw up! Not only is the outrage taking place in the context of the rich and poor divide, as the Guardian columnist George Monbiot notes, but the rich world's media only focus on what the rich world wants -- resources, resources, resources -- and the "International Community" (makes me shiver just to write these two words), sends out the human rights bandwagons, launches PR campaigns demonizing the local leader, finances (bribes?) the opposition, applies stiff sanctions to further destabilize the economy, walks away from past agreements, and, if necessary intervenes militarily, either directly or through a regional proxy. And the ball keeps rolling in a series of inescapable patterns for those who care to look, the fast becoming extinct non-ostrich-like crowd.
Monbiot again: "Robert Mugabe is portrayed as the prince of darkness, but when whites expel black people from their lands, nobody gives a damn." And when non-white people are dispossessed, "[t]hese are dark-skinned people being expelled by whites, rather than whites being expelled by black people. They are, as such, assuming their rightful place, as invisible obstacles to the rich world's projects. Mugabe is a monster because he has usurped the natural order." And so, "[t]he most evil man on earth, besides Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, is Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe. That, at least, is the view of most of the western world's press." (4)
As Decca Aitkenhead wrote in a gem of an article originally published in the Guardian, and a copy of which I found on a Web site worth visiting, Race and History, "[b]ad things should obviously not happen to white people. How else to explain the indignation? The knowledge of unspeakable horrors inflicted on black Africans is seldom allowed to interfere with our peace of mind, as if they were in the natural order of things. Over there it is hot, zebras live in the wild, and bad things happen to blacks. But when white families are dispossessed, it is another matter altogether."
She further reported, "'[p]lease don't write all the usual old clichés about swimming pools, servants and gin and tonics,' Zimbabwean whites told the journalist Ian Jack in 1977. That is what he found, though, and that is what many of the whites moved there for. Few families arrived 100 years ago, as it is claimed; most were postwar arrivals looking for sunshine and a higher standard of living than they could possibly hope for at home. They say they have been 'good' for Zimbabwe, and indeed they have. If you own rich land and pay your workers a pittance, how could you not be productive?" (5)
The criticism is easy, the art difficult (6)
I am reminded of a long time ago -- it was in 1966 if memory serves -- when I spent two wintry weeks of holidays in sunny Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast. My father was an executive of a French airlines that serviced Africa and the Pacific. I stayed with the family of the airlines' local director. The house was huge; it had more servants (maids, cooks, gardeners) than the family of four they attended to. I had lots of fun boating along the lagoons, relaxing aside the pool of the main hotel, in the company of the French ambassador's daughter and other friendly expatriates, in a swimming suit, sipping gin fizzes served by black waiters dressed in black pants and white jackets. Very dignified, very civil and civilizing indeed... I had a swell time! My brother, for his part, on another occasion, went to South Africa. He came back enthused by the lifestyle there, in a walled-in estate guarded by a couple of Dobermans and guns in sight. There too, he had a super time, a life to which he could aspire. And there too, the hosts were providing work to these nègres ("negroes") within the now famous generosity and civilizing context of Apartheid. It would truly be laughable were it not so pitiful...
One only needs to read Baffour Ankomah's article to understand the situation. A simple example demonstrates the humiliation and the inhumane treatment the black population has received under white rule. Ankomah writes that "[o]n one farm in the Raffingora area in the north of the country, the white farmers' big house on the hill has electricity. The crocodiles that are farmed beneath the hill have electricity. The butchery, about 80 metres away from the crocodile pens, has electricity. The general store, owned by the white farmer situated about 50 metres from the butchery, has electricity. But the farm manager (a black Zimbabwean) has no electricity in his "quarters", which is barely 20 metres away from the general store. And the black workers have no electricity in their flimsy rectangular dwellings abutting on the manager's accommodation."
It says it all.
To attempt to grasp the Zimbabwean predicament without falling for, or being naïvely suckered by, the well orchestrated and demonizing propaganda of the rapacious western interests -- those predators who roam the globe to enrich themselves and their cronies and supply our guzzling economies with the goodies that fatten us and end up wasted in overflowing landfills -- one must not ignore history, particularly that of colonialism and the subsequent but rarely fully implemented decolonization; the savagery of the former and the messy and painful process of the latter.
To understand does not mean to justify or condone all the actions taken by the Mugabe government; but it may help if one cares to ask this simple question: How does a social structure change from one situation to another, from, if you will, one paradigm to a new one? There is no easy answer to such a question. For sure, to demonize Mugabe (soon, he will be accused of having created the torrid drought that affects swaths of southern Africa!), to continually tighten the slipknot around Zimbabwe's economy through debilitating sanctions, and to advocate policies that further destabilize the country can only exacerbate the situation. (We see this kind of situation get repeated time and again. Action, reaction, till we send the Marines and the B52s or their British counterparts.) But it won't help the farmers one bit, just delay their predicament....at best.
Notice that Mr. Berman was long on undocumented criticisms of Elich's work but rather short on solutions. Actually, he made not one proposal to alleviate the crisis or find a positive outcome. Should Mugabe be "put against a wall" as the more strident critics advocate? Should he be construed as a Maoist, a Marxist, bent into "in time-honored Socialist fashion starving his country to consolidate his power" (here again applying clichés and showing a lamentably poor knowledge of the historical context...as though Socialists are inherently nefarious, e.g. Allende or Castro starving their constituents!)? Remember, Nelson Mandela was once branded a communist terrorist by the civilizers... Come on! (7)
Forty years ago, in 1962, when an exhausted France reluctantly granted independence to Algeria, the colonizers -- they were called Pieds Noirs (Black Feet) -- left in mass. It was not a pretty sight. (8) They did not have to, but I guess they knew how nice the French Army had conducted itself with the FLN (National Liberation Front. They were called "fellaghas," "les terroristes"...nothing new under the sky...) and the Algerian population -- about one million casualties between November 1954 and April 1962, and countless tortures. So, they all left, over one million of them. The French government helped them resettle in France (mostly in its southern part and Corsica) with huge financial aid...to the point that it created real resentment from the local farmers. They could not compete anymore with the Pieds Noirs who every time they whined were getting more financial aid (loans without interest or very low interest, etc.). There were a lot of sad stories. Families had been in Algeria, which was considered a part of France, for generations (132 years to be precise); sad stories compounded by, of course, as it goes, and is repeated today by the human righters, the lament that they had built roads, hospitals, schools, bridges, etc., etc., etc. Nation-building, anyone? (Arabs and "negroes" can't build roads, hospitals, schools, bridges...they are inferior beings, you see; only good in sports...in other words, the Bell Curve...). The colonizers had brought "civilization" to the indigenous population. (And these humanitarian philanthropes were living quite well thank you, and the locals were either laborers or living in abject poverty or both...)
The Pieds Noirs eventually went on with their lives, able to show their scars and tell their stories to the world. I hope Mr. Berman will empathize and his nay-sayer acolytes will opine. They may also realize that the Zimbabwean tiny minority is not facing the human tragedy that the Pieds Noirs had to experience, at least currently (who knows the potential consequences of further demonizing the Zimbabwean government and strangulating the country's economy?). Actually, a case can easily be made that this so-called tyrant, Robert Mugabe, has been far more conscious of the human rights of the country's minority than the former colonizers ever were with the majority. Here too, Nelson Mandela comes to mind... Possibly, the same nay sayers could entertain the idea that the rich nations help to financially compensate for the farmers' loss of land (again, these farmers will still have land to farm, only smaller properties).
Such an outcome is quite unlikely, I am afraid. The suckers will keep being suckered. The weak will get weaker. Force and violence will prevail. And John Milton will, once more, be proven right.
But we will take the criticism head on and we will keep putting facts out there. To answer John Pilger's question, yes, it is possible to break away from the pack, denigration and demonization notwithstanding... I am used to them. I grew up with them. I shall not succumb to them!
As said, criticism is easier than the art. The trashing e-mails that Gregory Elich received, the wishy-washy, moralizing tone of Mr. Berman's "condemnation" of Elich's article, will take little away from the formidable work he performed. As Elich wrote to me, "Readers may not like my conclusions or my research or anything else, but I did spend a lot of effort on research because I was digging to get as close to the truth as I could. I've learned that one cannot just accept what the media tell us, no matter how many times a claim is repeated without being backed up by evidence." I wish his critics had his stamina... (9)
And I wish the human ostriches would get their heads out of the sand!
· · · · · ·
References and Notes
1. John Pilger, "Here we are again: the same old footage of planes against the sunrise, the same military jargon used by reporters;" The New Statesman; September 28, 2001; http://pilger.carlton.com/print/80081 (back)
2. Ah, the notion of "ownership," the concept of property rights, so much valued in our culture... In other cultures exists the notion of communal land; and more, some people do think that the land does not belong to us but that we belong to the land. (back)
3. George Monbiot, "Our Racist Demonology;" The Guardian; August 13, 2002; http://www.monbiot.com/dsp_article.cfm?article_id=525 (back)
4. Ibid. (back)
5. Decca Aitkenhead, "Remnants of Empire: Pity the poor Zimbabwean farmer, deprived of his swimming pool, servants and gin and tonic;" The Guardian; August 23, 2001; republished at http://www.raceandhistory.com/Zimbabwe/23082001.htm (back)
6. French proverb: La critiques est facile, l'art difficile. It means that to criticize something or someone is an easy task. However, to come up with an alternative or a solution is a different story; a point I often make. (back)
7. Though largely unreported by the US main media, something interesting occurred at the Earth Summit in South Africa. To see Sam Nujoma and Robert Mugabe literally demolish the condescending British PM, Tony Blair, and to watch the mighty Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, be booed and jeered when he addressed the Summit trashing Mugabe, was a liberating experience for many and a form of poetic justice for this author. (back)
8. After 132 years of French presence in Algeria, the French were leaving out of fear for their lives. The fear was real. In early July 1962, about 3,000 French were massacred in Oran. Fleeing families were lining up, six to twelve miles along the roads leading to the airports and the maritime ports. They left everything they had ever owned but for a few suitcases and, for the lucky ones, some furniture. As I've said, it was not a pleasant sight. (back)
9. Dear Greg, Could you take a few minutes and let me know how many trips you made to your library (I think you mentioned the University's library....which university?), what other research you made (Net, etc.) and how long did you work on your August 26 Zimbabwe piece? Thanks. Best, Gilles
Dear Gilles, I make a trip to the OSU library generally once a week (usually during the weekend). I had been planning on writing a piece on Zimbabwe since last December, so during all this time I had been doing research on Zimbabwe along with my other research. It was only now that I felt I had collected enough research. So, once a week at OSU since December.
Similarly, every day I did research on the Internet, and again, since I had been planning on writing about Zimbabwe since December, this would mean every day some research was done. The exception was that from January through mid-March as I was traveling, and so during that time I could only do Internet research 3 days a week rather than the usual 7. Even during that time I continued OSU research at the library.
And in addition to all that, I have a friend in Toronto who knew I intended to write on Zimbabwe; so he regularly did research and sent me material via e-mail. Generally, I received at least 5 items a week from him, and oftentimes much more.
I did not keep track of how long it took me to work on the article itself. I will say that this was the most demanding article I've ever written. It seemed to me that it took 3 solid weeks, but perhaps my perception is wrong. Perhaps it was only 2 weeks but seemed more. Whatever the period, I spent literally every single moment of free time working on it. I dropped everything else to work on this article. Oftentimes I stayed up until midnight or 1:00 AM even though I had to go to work the next day. There were also a few days when I took off work early in order to have extra time to work on this.
I also spent about 3 weeks just re-reading all my research, thinking about it, making connections, and doing additional research to fill in details that I discovered were needed.
The entire experience was exhausting.
Basically I approached each aspect of the subject with the question: is it true? For example, the claim that land reform was causing starvation. Is it true? I did additional research to try to sort out to what extent land reform was a cause, what extent weather was, and what extent sanctions. Then I tried as best I could to consider the different factors, while knowing that one cannot say exactly how much of this and that, but that perhaps I could come up with a general impression.
Of the claim that land reform would result in permanently lower food production. Is it true? What was the record of previous land redistribution I asked myself? That should give an indication. Surely there is some record. Someone should have looked at this. What exactly is the yield for subsistence farmers in communal areas compared to commercial farmers? What other factors should be considered? Along that line of research, I discovered the different rate of land usage for small farm owners compared to commercial farmers. Also, the difference in crops planted: commercial farm owners geared more toward export-oriented crops such as tobacco and small farm owners toward food for domestic use.
What is the effect of land redistribution over time? Is there improvement for small farm owners? To what extent? What does it depend on? How are those factors affected by sanctions?
These and many other questions I considered. I wanted to get as close as I could to looking at this with a fresh mind and not accepting anyone's claims, pro or con, at face value.
I hope this gives you an idea of how much work I put into this. It was not something I just tossed off without much research or thought or work. Readers may not like my conclusions or my research or anything else, but I did spend a lot of effort on research because I was digging to get as close to the truth as I could. I've learned that one cannot just accept what the media tell us, no matter how many times a claim is repeated without being backed up by evidence. Mere repetition does not make something true, although most people believe it does. Repetition is not proof, in my book.
Best regards, Greg (back)
Zimbabwe: Life After The Election - by Baffour Ankomah
Zimbabwe Under Siege - by Gregory Elich
Gilles d'Aymery is Swans' publisher and co-editor.
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