Wednesday, May 21, 2014

My Log 426 May 21 2014: Superb biography of Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish Communist widely regarded as the greatest reporter of modern times

Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007), Polish writer...
Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007), Polish writer and journalist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Ryszard Kapuscinski
Ryszard Kapuscinski (Photo credit: teachandlearn)
I have just read a fascinating biography of the remarkable Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, a book first published in Polish in 2010, three years after the journalist’s death, and in English last year. The book by Artur Domoslawski, received rapturous reviews in English, but was the subject of a law suit issued by Kapuscinski’s widow, who claimed it defamed the writer and invaded his privacy, and as a result of which the book was withdrawn from circulation by its publisher  Verso, a left-wing publisher of New York and London.
This is a shame because although the book does investigate, among other aspects of the journalist’s character, certain aspects of his attitude to precise truth, it is written in such a sympathetic way as to leave no doubt that the author Domoslawski was an admirer --- one might say, a fervid admirer, like so many others who knew him --- of the journalist and his works.
An especially fascinating aspect of the book is the detailed description of the relationship between the free-wheeling foreign reporter exercising his genius on the problems of modern Africa, Asia and Latin America --- to the eventual admiration of the entire world --- and the Communist party functionaries to whom every word he wrote had to be acceptable..
Kapuscinski was born in 1932 in a small town that is now part of Belarus, the son of primary school teachers who, during the war, moved from place to place to avoid the possibility that they might be deported to the East. The child had a standard education, showed some talent at writing poetry at an early age, and at the age of 16, before he had graduated from high school, joined the recently-founded official Communist youth organization, the ZMP. Two years later he began working for a Youth newspaper, a job he suspended for five years while he studied at university. When he was 20 he married a girl who later became a doctor and was his wife for the rest of his life, and who had to live through his long absences from home as he toured the world.  
He became a member of the Polish United Workers’ Party, the governing Communist party, and by this time was a firm believer in Communism as the hope for a better, more equal Poland.
He was only 24 when he was sent on the first of many foreign assignments. At first he worked for a succession of journals, or newspapers, and later for the Polish News Agency. All of these fell under the control of the Central Committee (of the Party) press office, whose official line fairly rigorously followed the official line set in Moscow. Therefore every variation from the official line had to be debated by the apparatchiks of head office, and from the first Kapuscinski’s writings raised  severe questions for  these bureaucrats.
From the first, equally, he had been careful to make friendly contacts with well-placed people in the party regime, and equally from the first he supplemented his emotionally accurate reportage with bulletins intended not for publication but for the eyes only of  people who needed to know what was going on in the area he was covering. In one of his earliest years, he wrote 15 of these bulletins, which were apparently well received, and fended off the very lively possibility that his brilliant reportage might have opened him to accusations of disloyalty to the ideals of Communism.
He never had an easy time of it as a foreign correspondent, because two or three publications for which he wrote and the news agency were always short of money, and in any case paid extremely low wages. He was paid $300 a month, which was, as the author says, “peanuts” for a roving reporter expected to cover the whole continent. This was so more particularly because from the first Kapuscinski was fascinated by the unique qualities of African life, appalled by the colonial history Africans had had to suffer over many decades, and temperamentally sided always with the underdog. So he fell in love, as the author describes it, with the idea of revolution, and wrote in support even of revolutions --- Che Guevara’s efforts in Bolivia were a prime example --- that were regarded as almost anti-party foolishness by the big shots in Moscow, and even by his immediate bosses in Warsaw.
He soon became renowned in Poland for his unusual detailed reporting, which concentrated on the people at the grassroots level of anything he was describing, but his world fame did not come until his remarkable book on Haile Selassie was published in an edition of 5000 copies in New York. It was received with unanimous acclaim by critics, but even that on such a remote subject of little intrinsic interest to Americans did not guarantee sales of more than a few thousand of the second printing. Nevertheless, this was the beginning of Kapuscinski’s global fame, which escalated with the publication of each of his books. His basic subject was the ending of colonialism in Africa Latin America, Central America, right up to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Domoslawski goes into some detail about what critics have felt was Kapuscinski’s free and easy way with basic facts. He argues, first, that he created himself as a principle character, inventing a busy military career for his father for instance, and later carefully creating an image of himself as a correspondent who was present at some revolutions that he actually wrote about only after the event. And also, he says, the journalist, an imaginative fellow, invented some of the details that he reported; for example, he reported that a small dog owned by the Ethiopian emperor was allowed to piss on people’s shoes, for which a special courtier was retained to follow the great man everywhere and wipe clean the misdemenors of this dog. That courtier apparently never existed.
This is why Kapuscinski called his style of reporting “creative reportage”, a method of recording what was happening before his eyes that placed him in a category something like that of Hunter S. Thompson, who had a tendency to invent false information about politicians he disapproved of.
I don’t think Kapuscinsi did that quite so blatantly, but he was regarded as something of a fantasist, and regarded people like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, inventor of “magic realism” who became one of his most fervent admirers, as an important influence.
After his death, some diligent researchers in the period known as “lustration” --- that is, revealing from the archives the crimes committed by prominent people  during the years of authoritarian governments --- accused Kapuscinski of having worked for the intelligence services. Domoslawski deals with this accusation in detail: his examination of the archives shows that, indeed, Kapuscinski was recorded as a willing informant for the security services, but in fact he never reported anything to them that was not already easily available to everybody. His position in this regard was equivalent, as the author points out, to some 400 American reporters and their governing agencies, who are known to have collaborated with the CIA. So, it is safe to say that all efforts to besmirch the name of this exceptional reporter and literary artist have failed miserably, and he continues to be viewed with something approaching adoration around the world. In his lifetime --- he died in 2007, at the age of 74 --- his books were published in the languages of countless countries,  he was an invited lecturer in at least 13 universities and received countless awards and was spoken of as a likely future recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature, something he never lived to see.
Another interesting section of this biography is where the author attempts to isolate from Kapuscnski’s voluminous writings exactly what were his attitudes towards the modern world.  This shows that his basic approach was that 20 per cent of the world’s population are privileged, and 80 per cent are not. Therefore it is evident that in the future these 80 per cent will be demanding their share of the fruits of the earth. He was proud of having given to these 80 per cent a voice that previously --- and indeed, in most places, until this moment --- they have not had.
I want to add a personal note to this. Without wanting to make any comparison between my own lifetime in the media of the Western world and the dazzling career of this great reporter, I was interested because I could identify with much that he went through.  I appreciated how he managed to find a method of describing reality that would not offend his bureaucratic bosses. That was a much tougher situation than anything I had to confront during my own career: but the fact is, for anyone like me who did not agree with the politics of the newspapers and agencies for which I worked, many stratagems similar to those used by Kapuscinski were necessary. As I have written elsewhere, I had to become skilful in suggesting things that I did not have the freedom to write directly. My attitude to my colleagues and their belief that they were exercising freedom of expression is that I felt they were self-deluded. The most abject followers of the capitalist programme of their newspapers or agencies would have been amazed if they had at any moment tried to write something in favor of, for example, socialism, or the trade union movement, as distinct from the party-line capitalism, whose parameters they knew and observed meticulously.
I identified with Kapuscinski’s attitudes when he arrived among the people of the colonial regimes in Africa. At around the same time as he was discovering them, so was I on various trips I made. And the description given  of one of his friends arriving among the the white populations of Africa closely agree with my own observations:

….the whites they meet in Tanganyika are “ghastly, even in terms of facial appearance,” whatever the nationality: Germans, Britons, Belgians, Poles…. Abominable types, losers who flocked to Africa because things hadn’t worked out for them anywhere else, upstarts, exploiters of the local population, and, without exception, racists. They run bars and hotels --- they are ‘petty businessmen’. One of the people they encounter goes about with a monkey, because ‘he’d rather drink with a chimp than a black.’  These are the typical remnants of the colonial class whom Kapuscinski encountered in Africa: the face of Europe, which came to Africa to ‘spread civilization among the savages.’

I had much the same feeling when I visited Southern Rhodesia in the 1960s. And in a later book Kapuscinski writes:
The philosophy that inspired the construction of Kolyma and Auschwitz, one of obsessive contempt and hatred, vileness and brutality, was formulated and set down centuries earlier by the captains of the Martha and the Progresso, and the Mary Ann and the Rainbow, as they sat in their cabins glaring out the portholes at groves of palm trees and sun-warmed beaches, waiting aboard their ships anchored off the island of Zanzibar, for the next batch of black slaves to be loaded.

Overall, Domoslawski gives full recognition to Kapuscinski’s charm, his gentle manners, the fact that he was a magnet for tens of thousands of eager young people anxious to learn more about the world, people not afraid to confront “the other” ---one of Kapuscinski’s  favorite subjects, learning to get along with everybody, which, he said, lies at the basis of any possibility for a successful future.

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Monday, May 19, 2014

My Log 425 May 19 2014: A brilliant, moving TV investigation of the Israel/Palestinian issue by a young American Jew

I have now seen both episodes of a superb documentary made by a young American Jew, Matthew Cassel, and broadcast on Al Jazeera, the Qatari TV channel that these days specializes in brilliant in-depth documentary investigations of troubling world problems.
Young Cassel grew up in a Jewish family with the customary beliefs in relation to the establishment of Israel. But, troubled by certain aspects of the official story, he travelled to the Middle East, became a resident of Beirut for four years, and befriended many people who, after the Jewish takeover of Palestine in 1948, left their country to escape the war, believing that they would be returning in a few days.
For this documentary account of his doubts about the official story Cassel interviewed young people living in Israel today including those from both sides of the argument. One story he was told is that they were brought up in their schools to believe that Palestine was a land without people, for a people without land, a convenient  idea that I could not help comparing with the ignorant attitudes of Europeans who arrived in the New World more than 500 years ago equipped with the belief that they were entering an empty, unoccupied land, an idea they formalized into a legal concept called Terra Nullius, which they used as the  underpinning for their claim to have become owners of the land by virtue of their (so-called) discovery.
Cassel put his questions about the rights of the original owners of Palestine, the Palestinian inhabitants,  to young Israelis, both those born there and others more recently arrived, and got from many of them a casual shrug, and a “So what?”
In one unforgettable sequence in the first part of his investigation he follows a bus-load of Israelis taken to the West Bank by a dissident group established for that purpose. They are taken to a small city half an hour or an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv. This small  city was welded shut by the Israeli army years ago, and has stood there totally empty, ever since. One of the visitors stood in the middle of the deserted street and recalled how he had visited this place when it had been a busy, engaged and vibrant town. He looked around him and said he was staggered to see what had happened to it. He said that he had read of terrible tragedies that had overcome ethnic groups around the world, and added: “Now I find something every bit as bad has happened within a short drive of my own home. It is something I never knew about.”
In the second episode, Cassel recalls his close friendship with a Palestinian man who had been forced from his village in 1948, had lived in Lebanon since, always dreaming of visiting his home village, bringing up his children to know the sights and smells of this lost homeland that his family had been prevented from visiting for more than 60 years.  On his first visit Cassel, while friendly to the man, had not told him he was Jewish “because I thought it might be awkward for you if it was known you were friendly with a Jew.” Now he determined to tell him the truth. To prepare the occasion he went to a sports shop and bought a gift: a fishing rod for his friend whom he knew to be a keen fisherman. Then he told him that he had omitted to mention before that he had a Jewish mother who was unhappy about his activities in support of the Palestinian cause.  His friend replied immediately: “I do not care what you are. I care who you are. To me, you are a wholehearted supporter of the Palestinian cause. You are still my friend.”
In contrast, Cassel interviewed a recent arrival from the United States who had taken up residence in the village, claiming it as his ancestral right. A pleasant enough man, the arriving Jewish settler, when the question was put to him about the people whom he was replacing, said, “to me, I do not accept these arguments that they have been replaced and are longing to return. They left in 1948, and have no right to return to take over our land.”
Cassel invited his mother to express her feelings about the issue but she would not appear in the film, for fear of a negative reaction towards her from American Jews. But she wrote a letter explaining that in her youth the Holocaust was a more lively issue than it had since become to the generation of her son. To her it had carried the concept of shame. Her son commented: “I had not realized that aspect of shame,” but he added that to his mother Israel was right and must be supported whatever they did.
She added that they would simply have to agree to disagree, but that she still loved him as her son. And Matthew Cassel, reading the letter on camera, smiled and said, “I am her son again. That’s good.”
Still, he found her refusal to even discuss the issue indefensible. And in the last few minutes of the film that attitude was underlined by an attack mounted on water cannon by the Israeli army against protesting Palestinians, and by the explanation given by an official of how the Israelis were gradually, little by little, destroying Palestinian means of subsistence --- for example, a Jewish settlement of several dozen houses had been built on a hill overlooking a Palestinian farm whose water supply they had commandeered, by authority of the Israeli state.
This is a remarkable statement, this film --- calm, reasoned, impassioned and at the same time anguished, made by this young man, Matthew Cassel, who deserves the highest praise.

Contiguous with this investigation, AlJazeera has been showing a devastating inquiry called The Lost Cities of Palestine, an historical look at the state of Palestinian cities  up until 1948, cities like any other with their industries, infrastructure, governments, culture --- theatres, movies and the like --- fully functioning cities that were deliberately undermined, step by step, in fact, ruined, by the actions of the Israeli authorities. Another superb contribution to understanding of the dilemma that has exercised this area for almost the last century.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Link of the Day: May 15 2014: IMF finds Canada subsidizing the fossil fuel industry the staggering sum of $34 billion a year, hitherto unrecorded in the mainstream media!

International Monetary Fund
International Monetary Fund (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Mitchell Anderson, a freelance reporter in Vancouver, has come up with a killer story in The Tyee, the West Coast radical journal.Quoting the super-conservative International Monetary Fund, he reveals that Canada is subsidizing fossil fuel use to the extent of $34 billion a year. This is in the form of externalized costs pursuant to using transportation fuels; direct financial support to producer oil companies (these two items alone amounting to 20 times the budget of Environment Canada); similar remissions to natural gas companies (amounting to 44 per cent more than Canada’s annual international aid) and so on, making these subsidies higher as a proportion of government revenue than in any country except Luxembourg and the United States.

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Monday, May 12, 2014

My Log 424 May 12 2014 Albert Finney impersonating Winston Churchill: two larger-than- life figures I remember well from my years in England

English: Toronto: Winston Churchill statue at ...
 Toronto: Winston Churchill statue at City Hall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Cover of "The Gathering Storm"
Cover of The Gathering Storm
Today I just happened upon the last few minutes of the film “The Gathering Storm”, in which Winston Churchill was portrayed by Albert Finney. I have seen it twice before, and it reminded me of what an extraordinarily brilliant actor Finney was, just those last few minutes of the film. He arrives outside the Navy Department in London in a cab with his wife, played by the peerless Vanessa Redgrave.
He makes a pretty little speech to her, thanking her for he says, “loving me as I never expected to be loved,” such a speech as would melt the heart of the toughest among us.
Then he entered the department, strode in, muttered as he passsed to the attendant, “I am the new First Lord.” 
“Yes, I know, sir.”
Winston stops, inquires, “How do you know?”
Because, says the functionary, they received a notice of the appointment.
“And what did the notice say?” Winston asks.
“Winston is back, sir,” said the attendant.
Finney stops at the head of the steps, turns around, takes a puff of the cigar he had carefully lit while sitting in the cab, especially to prepare for his entrance.
“Winston is back,” he said, and then, pumping both fists in the air and shouting,  “Yes, and so he bloody well is!” What an ending for any film!
For someone who like me, as a young kid in the furthest of British dominions had heard those amazing speeches on the radio, those few minutes were enough to evoke the whole heroism of Churchill’s stepping forward to fulfil what he always knew would be his destiny, to lead his people to victory. One needn’t be a died-in-the-wool Tory  to appreciate the emotions surrounding this old man.
Many years after hearing the speeches I was in the House of Commons in London on the occasion of his 87th or 88th birthday, not long before he died in 1965, when he was paid fulsome tributes by members on all sides of the House. I had already watched on numerous occasions when he had appeared at the doors to the Commons. Arrogant and self-confident to the last, after the doors were thrown open for him, he would wobble on his stick to his seat in the front row of the government side of the House, turn his back laboriously to the seat, and flop down into it, never to move again until, after Question Period, he would stir into action, force himself to his feet, and totter out. Only once did I hear him speak when, in response to the birthday wishes offered him he rose and said, “the House is very kind,” and sat down again. It was known at that time that it would have been worth anyone’s life who tried to help him.
I have never been an admirer of Churchill the politician --- he was small-minded and vindictive in his attitudes to the many races who populated the Empire of which he was so proud ----  and I think the British people were at their absolute best when, the war over, they turned their back on him and elected the Labour party to power. But no one can denigrate the role he played during the war when taking over Britain in the worst days of its trauma, he rallied the people to believe their victory was inevitable. Years later, when I was working on a conveyer belt in a factory in London with members of the working class, I found echoes among them of the spirit Churchill had inculcated into them: they had considered themselves unbeatable, and now that the war was over they kept assuring me it was impossible for anyone like me who had not lived through it to understand  how they had felt, and why they had won.
It may be true that the victory would never have been won without American arms, and the gallant defence of the Russian homeland by the Soviet Army. But if anyone deserves credit for making those things possible it is probably Churchill.
Anyway, those few minutes of seeing Finney as Churchill blew me away again: it was an impersonation so exact as to seem almost like a reincarnation of the man. Only Finney could have pulled off something so daring.
I have never forgotten his performance in the John .arden play, “Armstrong’s Last Goodnight,” in which he played the role of a Scottish leader accustomed to staging cattle raids across the border into England in the 1530s, irritating Henry VIII. To play the role --- it was written at the time when tribal leaders were rising to prominence in the Congo --- he needed to be able to project the sense that he was a leader of men, and Finney, although a young actor of 28 in 1964 when he played the part, managed this extraordinary feat with unforgettable  aplomb. I can testify to that, because it is 50 years since I saw it, and it remains for me one of the outstanding performances I saw in London during the many years I frequented the theatre.
So, Finney and Churchill, two quintessentially English figures, each of them larger than life, who provided me with some of the most memorable experiences from the 11 years I spent living and working in England.

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