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July 14, 2011

The Strange Silencing of Liberal America

By John Pilger

How does political censorship work in liberal societies? When my film, 'Year
Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia', was banned in the United States in 1980,
the broadcaster PBS cut all contact. Negotiations were ended abruptly;
phone calls were not returned. Something had happened. But what? 'Year
Zero' had already alerted much of the world to the horrors of Pol Pot, but it
also investigated the critical role of the Nixon administration in the tyrant’s
rise to power and the devastation of Cambodia.

Six months later, a PBS official told me, “This wasn’t censorship. We’re into
difficult political days in Washington. Your film would have given us
problems with the Reagan administration. Sorry.”

In Britain, the long war in Northern Ireland spawned a similar, deniable
censorship. The journalist Liz Curtis compiled a list of more than 50
television films in Britain that were never shown or indefinitely delayed. The
word “ban” was rarely used, and those responsible would invariably insist
they believed in free speech.  

The Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, believes in free speech.
The foundation’s website says it is “dedicated to cultural freedom, diversity
and creativity”. Authors, film-makers, poets make their way to a sanctum of
liberalism bankrolled by the billionaire Patrick Lannan in the tradition of
Rockefeller and Ford.

Lannan also awards “grants” to America’s liberal media, such as Free Speech
TV, the Foundation for National Progress (publisher of the magazine Mother
Jones), the Nation Institute and the TV and radio programme Democracy Now!
In Britain, Lannan has been a supporter of the Martha Gellhorn Prize for
Journalism, of which I am one of the judges. In 2008, Patrick Lannan
personally supported the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. According
to the Santa Fe New Mexican, he is “devoted” to Obama.

On 15 June, I was due in Santa Fe, having been invited to share a platform
with the distinguished American journalist David Barsamian. The foundation
was also to host the US premiere of my new film, 'The War You Don’t See',
which investigates the false image-making of war-makers, especially Obama.

I was about to leave for Santa Fe when I received an email from the Lannan
official organising my visit. The tone was incredulous. “Something has come
up,” she wrote. Patrick Lannan had called her and ordered all my events to
be cancelled. “I have no idea what this is all about,”  she wrote.

Baffled, I asked that the premiere of my film be allowed to go ahead as the US
distribution largely depended on it. She repeated that “all” my events were
cancelled, “and this includes the screening of your film”. On the Lannan
website “cancelled” appeared across a picture of me. There was no
explanation. None of my phone calls were returned, nor subsequent emails
answered. A Kafka world of not-knowing descended.

The silence lasted a week until, under pressure from local media, the
Foundation put out a brief statement that too few tickets had been sold to
make my visit “viable” and that “the Foundation regrets that the reason for
the cancellation was not explained to Mr. Pilger or to the public at the time
the decision was made”. Doubts were cast by a robust editorial in the Santa
Fe New Mexican. The paper, which has long played a prominent role in
promoting Lannan events, disclosed that my visit had been cancelled before
the main advertising and previews were published. A full-page interview
with me had to be hurriedly pulled. “Pilger and Barsamian could have
expected closer to a packed 820-seat Lensic [arts centre].”  

The manager of The Screen, the Santa Fe cinema that had been rented for
the premiere, was called late at night and told to kill all his online promotion
for my film, but took it upon himself to re-schedule the film for 23 June. It was
a sell-out, with many people turned away. The idea that there was no public
interest was demonstrably not true.

Theories? There are many, but nothing is proven. For me, it is all reminiscent
of the long shadows cast during the Cold War. “Something is going to
surface,” said Barsamian. “They can’t keep the lid on this.”

My talk on 15 June was to have been about the collusion of American
liberalism in a permanent state of war and the demise of cherished
freedoms, such as the right to call government to account. In the United
States, as in Britain, serious dissent - free speech - has been substantially
criminalised. Obama, the black liberal, the PC exemplar, the marketing dream
is as much a warmonger as George W. Bush. His score is six wars. Never in
US history has a president prosecuted as many whistle-blowers; yet this
truth-telling, this exercise of true citizenship, is at the heart of America’s
constitutional first amendment. Obama’s greatest achievement is having
seduced, co-opted and silenced much of liberal opinion in the United States,
including the anti-war movement.

The reaction to the Lannan ban has been illuminating. The brave, like the
great whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, were appalled and said so. Similarly,
many ordinary Americans called into radio stations and have written to me,
recognising a symptom of far greater suppression. But some exalted liberal
voices have been affronted that I dared whisper the word, censorship, about
such a beacon of “cultural freedom”. The embarrassment of those who wish
to point both ways is palpable. Others have pulled down the shutters and
said nothing. Given their patron’s ruthless show of power, it is
understandable. For them, the Russian dissident poet Yevgeny
Yevtushenko once wrote, “When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a