Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Must See TV for Bush and McCain

As the right-wing continues to portray American universities as dominated by a snobbish left-wing elite, Niall Ferguson continues to make his way through America's elite universities, becoming ever more a celebrity scholar selling the 19th century in the 21st in the form of the the positive achievements of empires (particularly the British) the blessings of free markets and free trade, and the evils of the movements that rose to oppose these forces of civilization and progress.

Now Ferguson is at Harvard, having left NYU (in the nineteenth century the would be rich and famous were much more likely to leave Boston for New York, not vice versa) and has gone on TV as the narrator of a three part series, "The War of the World," dealing with WWI and its aftermath (part one) WWII (part two) and the Cold War (part three). I saw part one yesterday, or most of it on PBS and would recommend it only for those who are interested both in contemporary trends in very recent right-wing political analysis of the twentieth century and also in the techniques of the traditional techniques of right-wing analysis and propaganda, sweeping generalizations, glittering generalities, negative transfer, the techniques that Sociologists like the late Alfred McClung Lee and others began to examine in the 1930s.

The visuals are good, the newsreels interesting, and the staged scenes clever as Ferguson wanders around the world, but the history isn't so good for both non conservatives. Ferguson, as he has in the past, speaks loftily about "empire" but imperialism as a system, which came into common usage at the end of the 19th century, doesn't exist for him. Also, there is little distinction between empires, the advanced ones like Germany, England and France (and the U.S. and Japan for that matter) middle ones like Austria Hungary and Russia, the backward ones like China and Turkey. The alliance systems and long "cold war" and arms race that eventually produced the war is largely absent, particularly the rivalries in Asia and Africa.

That didn't surprise me too much, knowing Ferguson's work, but his handling of the actual outbreak of the war did surprise me a bit. I guess the market that he is playing to is more pro German and anti-any kind of Russian than was true through the 20th century, because the Germans are portrayed a bit differently than in even traditional Anglo-American sources. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand "by a Serb" is mentioned, and the Austrians (who made impossible demands on Serbia with the support of the Germans) are called reasonable, while the Czarist Russians support of the Serbians is portrayed negatively. Then German policy leading up to the war is called defensive in response to reckless policies by the Russians.

The traditional and descriptively accurate narrative of an aggressive Germany seeking to gain dominance on the European continent against France and willing only to ally itself with those who would do its bidding (like Austria-Hungary) largely disappears, as does the bumbling Czarist empire, increasingly penetrated by European capital, seeking to compete with the modern empire and keep from being absorbed by them. Russia is if anything more responsible for the war (a coming attraction, perhaps, for the cold war).

But Ferguson is true to form by making the point that the war (which was really a European rather than a world war) needed the "biggest empire" the Brits to get involved to make it a "real" World war.

When the Russian revolution takes place, Ferguson, who in the past had not struck me as that much of a red-baiter, reverts to an analysis reminiscent of the Hearst press in 1919, or those apologists for fascism in the past and the present (and I am not based on this episode putting Ferguson in that category) who saw Hitler as a "defensive response" to the Bolshevik terror.

The Bolsheviks bring a regime of terror and murder, the regime of the Jacobins in 1793, motivated by sinister aims, betraying the people whom they manipulate (the God that failed, except Ferguson doesn't see even the glimpse of a socialist God but a terroristic devil incarnate. With this fixed idea as his narrative guide, Ferguson deals with the ethnic uprisings, the Civil War (although not really the extensive foreign intervention) and portrays Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, and everybody else in the most negative light.

That there was a complex revolutionary process that brought about changes that helped to define the 20th century isn't present at all in War of the World, although the imperialist powers understood that very well at Versailles as they sought to build a "cordon sanitaire (quarantine) against the Soviets and, as Winston Church said at the time "kill the infant" (the Russian revolution) in its crib.

Although I missed the some minutes in the documentary , when I returned Ferguson was dealing the 1930s and with Japanese imperialism, portraying the Japanese pretty in WWII Why We Fight propaganda terms as fanatics indoctrinated with emperor worship and the samurai warrior ethos, Bushido (along with the desire to control more and more raw materials for their arms industry).

Ferguson also portrays the Japanese as arch-racists (as against national chauvinists) and deals generally and accurately with their enormous crimes against the Chinese people (China's present role in the world market may, to my cynical mind, have something to do with his sympathies). But there is nothing about the role of the Chinese Communist party and its struggles, or the Japanese use of anti-Communism as an explanation for their interventions in China;the 1936 KMT-CCP United Front which played a direct role in the Japanese invasion of 1937; or the role of the British empire in allying itself with Japan against Russia until the 1920s, when it abandoned that alliance, thanks to the rise of the U.S as the leading creditor nation in the world (indeed, the U.S. was not too important in the War of the postwar settlement in the documentary I saw).

There are two other installments, the next one on PBS in New York on Monday, and based on episode one I can only expect the worst. In the second installment, I doubt that the Soviet contribution to the victory over fascism will be given any serious mention, although I expect that the Soviets will end up being portrayed as Nazis of the left, raping and plundering the territories they liberated. China may be treated somewhat differently (it would be hard for Ferguson with a straight face to put in good words for Chiang, but I doubt that Gandhi will be around--he wasn't in episode one, or Ho, and I would guess WWII will be continued in the cold war, episode three.

I guess Bush and McCain staff people will be watching to pick up sound bites about "terrorism," appeasement, etc, the sort of thing Bush says in his trips to Eastern Europe. Maybe they will even get some ideas for visuals, McCain for example running around former Soviet Republics giving out NAT0 buttons, a scene of McCain looking on as giant chess pieces cover the Middle East. For the peoples of the world, including the majority who lived directly or indirectly under colonialist and imperialist control until the post WWII period, the series will probably tell them nothing their former rulers told them about revolution, civilization, freedom and progress.

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