So Long, Good Night, John Pilger

Photograph Source: Flickr user walnut whippet – CC BY 2.0

Journalist John Pilger, 84, died on December 30, 2023, in London, England.

John Pilger was from Down Under. You could tell from his acerbic worldview, his twang, the hat he wore, and his recreational activity listed on his website: Swimming, sunning, reading and mulling. He was also, like so many of his Down Under mates, a contra. Contra this, contra that, contra the cat in the hat. I don’t believe he ever slipped into cantankerous, like a lot of them do around this place.

Pilger came from a cultural milieu that British writer Howard Jacobson, on an extended tour of the continent in the late ‘80s, once summed up this way:

I gave myself up to continuous discomfort, bad roads, the bullying babble of long-distance Australian bus drivers, the uncertainties of cheap motels, venomous spiders, the monologues of racists, and the difficulty of making sense of a country that was at one and the same time magnanimous and cruel, sophisticated and suspicious, self-righteous and free-spirited.

Indeed, I have resided here more than 25 years, and my take as an American expat is that Oz is what America would have been like had the South won the Civil War. We’d still have slavery. Taylor Swift and her publicist would be picking cotton. And the national anthem would have been “Free Bird” by Rhinehold Skinhead. (And it would be an improvement over that brassy bombast we currently march to.)

Assange and Freedom of Thought

Pilger shared with Julian Assange an anti-Empire modus vivendi, and yet he rarely criticized the Union Jack symbol of Britain’s empire, which takes up so much territory on the Aussie flag. And he lived in England, where he died last December. Instead, like Assange he went after, with his potent journalism, perhaps the greatest of all empire’s — America, which, depending on how you count the matchsticks, has been at almost continuous war somewhere since WW2. Its Military-Industrial-Complex (no myth) stretching its tentacles around the globe by means of neo-liberalism and enforced by neo-conservatism. No real checks or balances. And the public always picks up the tab. Pilger was on top of this.

John Pilger was an early avid supporter of Julian Assange after he was house-arrested, suspected of rape of a lesser degree, unlawful coercion and multiple cases of sexual molestation, according to allegations laid by Swedish officials. Pilger put up the bail for Assange’s release from jail.  When Assange, after clear indications that the Americans were working with the British to have him directly or indirectly extradited (by way of Sweden) to America, Assange sought and received asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in June 2012. Pilger lost the bail money he put up for Assange. But he understood the situation and continued to publicly and privately support the independent, even radical publisher of Empire’s Burlesque. Pilger knew what the democratic world would be losing if Assange was taken down by the Empire — the beginning of the destruction of the Bill of Rights in the US that make Americans born free to express and independently think by law, with protections against corporate and military miscreants who look to erode the guarantees.  450,000,000 guns in circulation around America suggests that folks are going Minuteman again and are ‘getting ready for the show’ (as Dylan would say).

John Pilger knew about this erosive power; he keenly understood the hypocrisy and danger of an Empire spreading its ‘way of life’ around the globe, which seemed to include the same guarantees of freedom to everyone (see Bruce Springstein’s great rendition of Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” in East Berlin just before the fall of the wall there.) Freedom is the product. Distribute the product. Get them hooked and keep them that way. Everywhere. (China went, Oh-oh, here come the parlors again, and resisted with face-saving handsomeness.) But at home the Kochs were sucking the light out of the eyes of children, like black holes in the sky (Pink Floyd), beginning with Citizens United.  Citizens??? Assange knows. Pilger knew.

The War on Democracy

In 2007, Pilger put out a new and ‘important’ documentary, The War on Democracy.  As Pilger explains at his site (where his documentaries can be watched for free), “It explores the current and past relationship of Washington with Latin American countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Chile.”  It was a good case study film, in my humble O. Last year saw Lefties commemorate the coup that took place in Chile on 9/11 1973.  It was partially orchestrated Henry Kissinger and his hoods (Ellsberg feared for his life, with K calling him “the most dangerous man in America who had to be stopped at any cost”), in collusion with corporations like IT&T, to make Chile pay for its socialist evolution that included the nationalization of copper — so important to telephony and the internet of minds.  What came out of this section of the film that was so amazing was the interview with Duane Clarridge, an American senior operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  Clarridge, in a now oft-repeated segment, lays bare the soul of American foreign policy and its purpose in language so brazen that it shocks on the first viewing.

“We’re not gonna put up with nonsense.” Mind control is next. No doubt, Elon Musk’s Neuralink and its promise of “telepathic” delivery of thoughts is the next fascist bootstep.

The film also weighed in on the regional phenomenon that Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez represented. As with Chile and its wealth distribution, Chavez opted to nationalize oil; essentially, as with Salvador Allende in Chile, signing his own death warrant, as the narcissistic hit men like to put it. (You’ve seen the movie.) As Pilger puts it, the film describes “a world not as American presidents like to see it as useful or expendable; they describe the power of courage and humanity among people with next to nothing. They reclaim noble words like democracy, freedom, liberation, justice, and in doing so they are defending the most basic human rights of all of us in a war being waged against all of us.” Venezuela immediately got on the US MIC elites shitlist with the nationalization and saw themselves hit with ‘economic sanctions,’ the softshoe version of declared war. In Orgy of Thieves, Jeffrey St. Clair briefly tackles this bellicosity in his essay, “Venezuela and the Imperial Script.”  He begins by pointing out that ‘Chavez was the best thing to happen to Venezuela’s poor in a very long time.’ He brought health care, education and literacy programs, and school meals to the poor. Writes St. Clair,

[T]he economy grew at close to 12 percent soon after, and with world oil prices near $40 a barrel at the time, the government had extra billions that it put into social programs. So naturally the United States wanted him out, just as the rich in Venezuela did. Chavez was re-elected in 2000 for a six-year term. A US-backed coup against him was badly botched in 2002.

It is not unexplained, or even hostile to the US, to see Venezuela then turn and sell their oil to China, America’s principal global economic rival.  And it’s no surprise to see the US heavily support Ukraine, with weapons and money, in its defense of Russia’s rejection of the plan for Ukraine to join NATO. And Russia has faced ‘economic sanctions’ (and, according to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, an actual act of war by seeing that the newly Nordstrom II pipeline was destroyed underwater by demolitionists), and, not surprisingly, has partnered up with China in resisting the imperial pressure.  The background that Pilger provides in The War Against Democracy is a helpful reminder of the stakes and the games being played by folks who probably inspired the series Black List, starring James Spader.

Palestine: The Other Holocaust

At his blog, Pilger starts a 9/11 2014 article about Palestine — “Breaking the last taboo – Gaza and the threat of world war” — with a strong quote from the ‘visionary’ Edward Said:

There is a taboo on telling the truth about Palestine and the great destructive force behind Israel. Only when this truth is out can any of us be free.

Said reminds the reader (and witness thereby) that “us” means “I am he as you are he as you are me / And we are all together.” (Lennon). That’s what the United Nations is supposed to represent — a congress of rational minds seeking to avoid war and conflict and to solve pressing global issues, such as nukes, climate change, and the erosion of democracy (Chomsky).  Pilger observed after the 2014 Gaza War:

The attack on Gaza was an attack on all of us. The siege of Gaza is a siege of all of us. The denial of justice to Palestinians is a symptom of much of humanity under siege and a warning that the threat of a new world war is growing by the day.

It didn’t happen then, but it sure seems more inevitable than ever.

But the UN has been a depressing failure — its latest being the withdrawal of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) from assistance to Palestinian refugees that includes up to two million people, including perhaps a million children. The US did not veto or intervene in this ‘economic sanction’ move. Perhaps they think its effects will be worth it (Albright). One wonders why ‘economic sanctions’ are not regarded as war crimes, since they are declarations and their known result is the death of innumerable children.

Former South African president Nelson Mandela expressed his support for a two-state solution between Palestians and Israelis. Pilger quotes Mandela, in his 2014 article, expressing the urgency of the cause:  It is “the greatest moral issue of our time.” Mandela suggests a solution should be worked out peacefully, but that if the process is foiled by political intransigence then Palestinians are justified in using violence:

Mandela is not advocating violence, but suggesting like Malcolm X that vital corrective changes to a society’s ethos need to be driven with pressure, by any means necessary, including violence, if the intolerable situation cannot be settled politically. It may be a casus belli.

In a September 2022 piece on propaganda that included reporting on events between Palestinians and Israelis, Pilger remarks on the “hypnotic” numbness that mainstream media places the average reader in, likening the acceptance of government indifference to the spell Germans fell under during the Nazi and captured so startlingly by Leni Riefenstahl’s films. Although Pilger has criticized the craven political inadequacies of the Five Eyes — six if you count Israel — in countering the growing global fascistic turn of events, heaps the most blame on the US. Pilger quotes from Harold Pinter’s attack on American policy delivered during his acceptance speech for Nobel Prize in Literature (2005). Pinter said:

US foreign policy is best defined as follows: kiss my arse or I’ll kick your head in. It is as simple and as crude as that. What is interesting about it is that it’s so incredibly successful. It possesses the structures of disinformation, use of rhetoric, distortion of language, which are very persuasive, but are actually a pack of lies. It is very successful propaganda. They have the money, they have the technology, they have all the means to get away with it, and they do.

Like The Birthday Party which ends with a non-conforming Stan being taken away from his home by thugs who take him off to blow out his fuckin candles.

Australian Aboriginals

Pilger also was a strong chronicler of the violence and neglect meted out to Australian Aboriginals over the years.  Last October, Australian voters held a referendum that would have symbolically allowed Aboriginals to participate in legislative decisions about their affairs.  Australia, which has sat on the committee that advanced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, wanted to show what tokenism really meant by allowing Aboriginal elders an opportunity to sit in on mighty whities deciding on their affairs.  For lucky elders, it was a chance to go to the Big Smoke, hotel and meals paid for (including grog), and be honored before the meeting began by having a speaker acknowledge Aboriginal ownership of the land the meeting was taking place on.  But the referendum failed.  The white Aussies had already apologized, for fuck’s sake, and real representation might have been uncomfortably close to pow-wows about reparations.

John Pilger’s documentary Utopia (2013) was his last of several films he released on Aboriginal conditions and politics.  The film is described this way:

This Australian Tale of Two Cities contrasts the material comfort of the majority with the First Australians who die from Dickensian diseases in their 40s and are imprisoned at a rate six times that of blacks in apartheid South Africa. The state of Western Australia, the richest in the nation, has the highest incarceration rate of juveniles in the world – most of them Indigenous.

That’s about the size of it.

Western Australia is where I reside, at the moment.  To me, the most significant symbol of the Divide is represented by the history and use of nearby Rottnest Island.  Settled by the Dutch, the name comes from the fact that when they trekked about the small island they came across teeming hordes of what they thought were feral and crazy-looking but friendly fuckin rats, which turned out to be what they call quokkas, marsupials native to the island. The island was called Wadjemup by the Noongar peoples, which means “place across the water where the spirits are.”

I have come to think of the furry little critters on the island as the embodiment of those Aboriginal spirits. (Maybe I’ve watched Caddyshack (1980) too many times, hepped up on dope mistaking the bong for my saxophone.) The island had been used to imprison and hard-labor wayward ‘blackfellas’ from 1838 to 1931. Military purposes took over from there. Now it’s settled with 300 white people living there year round with all the bells and whistles of mainland civilization — supermarket, post office, coffee shop, bars, hotels, a packie, and a place where you can rent bicycles. Every year, white people have a swim from Cottesloe Beach to Rottnest to mostly piss off the local sharks (who must settle for stragglers, usually Yanks) and demonstrate their grace under fire.

In an April 13 piece for Guardian, Pilger likes to contrast the way Rottnest experience is felt by whites versus Noongar.  He writes,

This is Rottnest Island, whose scabrous wild beauty and isolation evoked, for me, Robben Island in South Africa. Empires are never short of devil’s islands; what makes Rottnest different – indeed, what makes Australia different – is silence and denial on an epic scale.

While whites prepare for a day or perhaps a weekend of “family fun” on the island, kids chasing each to see who can be first to the lighthouse that faces the Indian Ocean, local Aboriginals “are preparing for the pain.”  Pilger goes on:

What was done was the starving, torture, humiliation and murder of the first Australians. Wrenched from their communities in an act of genocide that divided and emasculated the indigenous nations, shackled men and boys as young as eight endured the perilous nine-hour journey in an open longboat. Terrified prisoners were jammed into a windowless “holding cell”, like an oversized kennel. Today, a historical plaque refers to it as “the Boathouse”. The suppression is breathtaking.

Ten years later it is still not necessarily cool to talk openly in white Western Australia about such matters. Some of these people are the kind that would seriously argue as a valid point (were it true) that it was only 5 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust (they roll their eyes) not 6.

China Syndrome

One theme that haunted Pilger toward the end of his life was a worry that a war with China would break out.  He voiced his reasons for this concern in his next to last documentary film, The Coming War with China (2016). Again, he points to the US empire as a precipitating agent in any future martial confrontation, Pilger largely arguing that the US doesn’t want the economic competition that the rise of China brings as a great economic producer. (One remembers similar fears of a Japanese rise.) He writes in a May 2023 piece, “There Is A War Coming Shrouded in Propaganda,”

In literature, the likes of John Steinbeck, Carson McCullers, George Orwell are obsolete. Postmodernism is in charge now. Liberalism has pulled up its political ladder. A once somnolent social democracy, Australia, has enacted a web of new laws protecting secretive, authoritarian power and preventing the right to know. Whistleblowers are outlaws, to be tried in secret. An especially sinister law bans ‘foreign interference’ by those who work for foreign companies. What does this mean? Democracy is notional now; there is the all-powerful elite of the corporation merged with the state and the demands of ‘identity’.

It’s a bit of a rant, with lots of Down Under twang, but spot-on.

This month will probably be the month that Julian Assange is brought in chains to America to undergo the ordeal of a political trial under the Espionage Act of 1917, which he almost certainly will not win — as it is based not on criminal or justice activities but political. It would have been appropriate and potentially ‘woking’ to have had John Pilger in America during the show trial, on camera, scathing the Empire’s agenda and the mainstream media, which has so much to lose, for its lack of fire in the belly.

The reader is invited to check out Pilger’s collection of writings and documentary films (free to view) on his website:

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.