the Disillusioned kid: The unimportance of "The importance of not being earnest"
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Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The unimportance of "The importance of not being earnest"

I was directed to this review of John Pilger's recent documentary on the Chagos Islanders from the Times. Although it's now almost a week old I thought a few comments might be in order.

The biases of the writer, Joe Joseph (surely not his real name), are not difficult to discern and I should stress that in my opinion this is a good thing. We all have prejudices, beliefs, preconceptions and ingrained ideas, however we might seek to hide them. I generally think that it's far better to make these explicit and leave the reader to draw their own conclusions on what you are saying with that knowledge in mind. This is a belief which has always informed my writing, but it is less common in the dominant media with its exalted rhetoric about "impartiality" which all to often obscures vested interests. My problem with the article then, is not the style, but what it has to say.

The treatment of the Chagossians is so disgraceful that no-one with any shred of decency could really put forward a credible defence of the policies pursued by the British and American governments. For this reason Joseph doesn't seek to defend the policy, instead he largely ignores it and focuses his attention on Pilger, and his style in particular, as if being a little didactic somehow detracts from the entire argument. As I noted in my commentary on the programme, criticism of Pilger's style is not without justification and the straight-to-camera moments (the opening example of which Joseph describes as "address-cum-sermon") are largely unnecessary, but it does not detract from the documentary as a whole, nor from its central message.

Joseph argues that the fact "that the vacated island was used as an American base, or a theme park, or a beach resort" is irrelevant to Pilger's argument and has nothing to do with the immorality (or otherwise) of the treatment of the islanders, but a documentary which didn't look at why the islanders were removed would be seriously lacking. He also contends that "Pilger?s slipping into his commentary that Diego Garcia was the take-off point for some of the US Air Force jets that bombed Afghanistan and Iraq was irrelevant, wasn?t it? Or does that compound Britain?s guilt in what Pilger called an ?unrecognised crime? against the islanders?" The same argument applies and it could be pointed out that even if it doesn't compound the injustice done to the Chagossians it does reinforce the immorality of the Iraq War (which Joseph presumably wouldn't accept). The two incidents in concert also serve to undermine the widely held misconception that British foreign policy is largely benevolent, a misconception the likes of Joseph would no doubt like to see continue.

This argument about Pilger's use of irrelevant facts reflects a theme which runs through the article, whereby Joseph seeks to insinuate that Pilger is anti-American and so, presumably, should be dismissed out of hand, although he is never crude enough to express this openly. Instead he opines, "
To Pilger the world is a vortex of conspiracies, most of them involving Americans throwing their weight around." If he is suggesting that Pilger believes that institutions in the world often do bad things, in many cases in secret, than he is clearly correct, but this seems a strange criticism as it is a widely held view and arguably a perfectly reasonable way of viewing the world. This is certainly the case as regards Chagos, as that is exactly what happened, a fact Pilger details with extensive documentary evidence. That the US, as the world's most powerful nation, is involved in many such "conspiracies" goes without saying and anyone claiming otherwise would be someone genuinely worthy of the scrutiny Joseph seems to feel is required for Pilger.

At times Joseph's criticism seems not only pointless, but ridiculous. Consider his comments on the killing of the islanders' dogs.
Another typical Pilger aside infects his report of how, as part of Diego Garcia?s clear out, almost a thousand of the islanders? pet dogs ?were rounded up and gassed, using the exhaust fumes from American military vehicles?. Amid the tragedy of this episode you can nonetheless imagine Pilger?s heart skipping when he learnt that the dogs were killed not only by American vehicles, but by American military vehicles.
Who exactly imagines Pilger's heart skipping at this?! I certainly didn't.

To his credit Joseph does acknowledge that the expulsion was an "ugly injustice," but later suggests that it was a "smallish, footnote of mistreatment and injustice". Hardly "smallish" if you were one of the victims forced from your home, or one of those who would later lose family members, whether as a result of suicide, drink or drug addiction or simply "sadness". As to the incident being a footnote, this is only the case because the whole affair has been largely been expunged from history by the powers-that-be. To be sure the expulsion only affected 2,000 people or so, but does this make it any less wrong? Was the murder of Kenneth Bigley alright because he was only an individual? The argument is hardly credible.

Counting column inches is a crude way of establishing anything, but in this case it provides a very telling picture. At my count the article stretches to 71 lines (on-line at least) of this only 7 lines can be said to deal with the treatment of the Chagossian and that's being generous. The rest are dedicated to a largely personal attack on Pilger. The only conclusion which can be drawn from this is that Joseph considers Pilger's stylistic excesses and supposed anti-Americanism more serious than the expulsion of 2,000 people and their subsequent contemptible treatment. In short, the article tells you more about the writer than it does about Pilger.

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