It seems the whole world is reacting to the spectacle of the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election … well, not really.
What is being missed by both national and alternative media in the US is the fact that right now Asia is churning. Just this past week we saw massive demonstrations against corruption and discrimination in Malaysia, Indonesia and South Korea. Malaysia especially has been hit hard by popular unrest against the regime of Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak. This is but the latest in a string of popular protests against the entrenched oligarchy that saw the arrest, indictment, trial and imprisonment of Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim on false sodomy and corruption charges in 1998 and Anwar’s subsequent campaign for prime minister after his release from prison in 2004. Anwar’s political campaigns in 2008 and 2013 threw the country into a serious crisis as his opposition coalition party – composed of all of the main Malaysian ethnic groups: Malay, Chinese and Indian, an unprecedented phenomenon – claimed election fraud. Anwar was re-imprisoned after the courts upheld his sodomy conviction: a charge that was demonstrably false after his sole accuser gave contradictory testimony in open court with the unabashed collaboration of the bench. Until he was sent back to prison, however, he was an outspoken critic of Najib Abdul Razak. Ironically, during the protests this past week, the man who fired and then ensured that Anwar would stay imprisoned – former Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammad – would join the protests against Najib.
Why should we care about all of this?
Anwar Ibrahim was influential enough in world affairs that when US Vice President Al Gore visited Malaysia during this period he demonstrated that he was an outspoken supporter of Anwar Ibrahim and the “Reformasi” (Reform) movement that Anwar represented by making a pro-Reformasi speech in front of the 1998 APEC summit in Kuala Lumpur. This led, predictably, to a storm of criticism from the Malaysian government and fed into conspiracy theories that the Asian Economic Crisis that year had been arranged by Jewish bankers and American interests to undermine Malaysia’s unprecedented economic growth. Mahathir Muhammad was in the forefront of those claiming it was a world-wide Jewish conspiracy against his (barely) Muslim-majority country.
Which leads us to Indonesia. The Asian Economic Crisis affected Indonesia in its own way. It led to the collapse of President Soeharto: the army general who had replaced Sukarno as leader of the country. Soeharto had been in charge of the Indonesian government since Sukarno’s ouster in the wake of the 1965 “year of living dangerously” episode that saw hundreds of thousands – most say “millions” – of Indonesian citizens slaughtered on suspicion of being Communists or fellow-travelers: a military coup aided and abetted by the American CIA. After almost thirty years of running the country, Soeharto was ousted and Indonesia saw democratic elections for the first time in its history: a proud tradition that has continued to this day.
But the rise of religious fundamentalism around the world has alarmed progressives and moderates in that Muslim-majority country, and this week saw thousands march in Jakarta to oppose bigotry, racial and religious discrimination, and injustice. This, in a country that boasts the largest Muslim population in the world, larger than the populations of Iraq, Egypt and Saudi Arabia combined.
This writer has lived in both of these countries and particularly during the events in question. He is kindly disposed to what both the Malaysians and the Indonesians are fighting for. We too often forget that terms like “progressive” and “liberal” are concepts that other people around the world are willing to fight and die for, and that what they intend by these terms is surprisingly similar to what we in the United States understand by them: a defense (if not a “celebration”) of diversity, equality for all human beings, mutual respect, the protection of civil liberties … those issues that are often lumped together under the rubric of “social” issues or “cultural values,” and thus anathema to those with more conservative tendencies.
Nonetheless it was economics – most notably the Asian Economic Crisis – that jump-started these movements in Malaysia and Indonesia. The powers-that-be (or powers-that-were) in those two countries tried to use the economic crisis as an excuse to clamp down on those same cultural and social values and to re-exert military and political control over their populations. In Indonesia, it didn’t work. Soeharto fell from power and democracy was introduced. In Malaysia, a country with a population only a tenth of the size of Indonesia, Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammad used the draconian measure of the ISA (the dreaded Internal Security Act) to round up and imprison his opposition (including his own, very popular, Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim). This decision has led to the “churning” mentioned above as Malaysians of all ethnicities and religions are demanding reformasi once again. It’s only a matter of time. As they say, Malaysia Boleh. (“Malaysia Can.”)
Korea is a special case, however. This is a country that has lived in the increasingly lethal shadow of North Korea’s pseudo-communist dictatorship since the end of the Korean War more than sixty years ago. There still is a large American military presence in South Korea. There are also the constant test firings of missiles from the North that have kept everyone in North Asia (from China to Japan) on edge. Add to this the recent Wikileaks scandal, in which a document came to light showing the degree of influence that a strange religious leader had over the current President Park Geun-hye.
Choi Tae-min has been called a Korean “Rasputin.” Although he has been dead since 1994, his daughter remains a close friend of President Park. The leaked document revealed the extent of corruption that existed between Choi’s Church of Eternal Life and Park. Even the Korean Central Intelligence Agency became aware of the degree to which Choi had control over Park’s day-to-day affairs; a control that critics claim still exists to this day through Choi’s daughter who has received enormous financial benefits from the relationship.
Koreans this week have been marching in Seoul, demanding that Park resign and asking who really is the President of their country: Park, or the daughter of Choi Tae-min … or maybe the ghost of Choi himself?
Some years ago this writer was in Seoul. It was on his birthday, which coincided precisely with the anniversary of the start of Operation Bluebird in October, 1950. It was the Korean War which gave rise to the phenomenon of “brainwashing” and “mind control”, and I decided to go there and feel the vibe for myself. Korea has had a sad history in the twentieth century, beginning with the Japanese invasion of their country prior to World War Two and the consequent enslavement of its population and extending through the Korean War. Japanese medical experimentation on human prisoners took place there as well as (it is said) Japanese atomic testing in the last year of the Second World War. Prior to the twentieth century Korea had a long and impressive history, an important literary and cultural tradition, and still boasts a unique cuisine. It is also the source of Reverend Sun Myung-Moon’s Unification Church (which tried to recruit me in New York City in the 1970s) and, by extension, the Washington Times. Moon even had pronounced himself the Messiah, neither the first nor the last to do so.
Unlike Malaysia and Indonesia, Korea is a cold country. Far to the north of Southeast Asia, the culture is quite different as the climate is quite different. Seoul, in a sense, is a twenty-first century survival of West Berlin: it is a city that has known war, and especially the very real threat of war, for decades. There is a wall outside Seoul, over which can be seen soldiers of the North patrolling up and down. There is the constant reminder that an invasion can take place at any time. One would think that, under those circumstances, the Koreans would bow to pressure and not rock the boat where their elected officials are concerned as that would show weakness in front of their enemies to the north and invite military action.
Or that the Malaysians and Indonesians – with China an increasing presence and influence in their countries and their lives – would be wary of creating any internal schisms that might make it easier for outside forces to have their way.
But … no. They are coming down on the side of what is right rather than what is expedient or even pragmatic. Malaysians want an end to corruption and cronyism in their country, and they want equal protection under the law for all their fellow citizens. Indonesians are very familiar with what can happen when one side discriminates against another to the extent of fomenting conspiracy theories, raising arms, and summoning the dogs of war. They fought and suffered long and hard to get where they are now, and they are not about to give up, “Islamic fundamentalism” or not.
As for the Koreans, they know – at least now, at least at this moment in their history – that something important is at stake, something worth taking a stand and marching in the streets even as Kim Jong-Un is striding up and down his balcony in Pyong-yang wondering which of his friends to execute next.
Our media has ignored what is happening in Asia because it has been too busy meditating on its navel: the self-absorption of so many Americans that perhaps is best exemplified by that scene in Dr. Strangelove, at the end of the film, when Peter Sellers (as the Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove) gets up from his wheelchair and shouts “Mein Fuehrer, I can walk!” even as the Doomsday Device explodes and the world is destroyed.
And it’s not just Asia. It’s Latin America, Africa … even the Middle East about which we all claim we already know too much and which in reality we don’t understand at all. Even with the Internet, with Google searches and social media sites, with all the vast capacity at our fingertips, we are on track to becoming the most uninformed generation in a century. We don’t trust the “mainstream media”; fair enough. Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, Huntley and Brinkley … they’re all gone. But trust in an alternative media site just because it is alternative is equally misguided. At least with the mainstream media there is a pretense towards journalistic integrity. With so many alt-media sites, there is none. Rumors are presented as facts, facts are cherry-picked to support one or another bias or agenda. There is no corroboration of a story by multiple sources. No fact-checking. No respect for information. Both media are dominated by the desire to make money, it is true. And for that reason, foreign news desks have all but disappeared. After all, Americans don’t care about foreign news so foreign news operations have become cost centers rather than profit centers, and the stockholders don’t want to see that. Add to that the uncomfortable realization that most media in the United States is in the hands of fewer than a dozen corporations that own newspapers, radio stations, television stations, and publishing houses, and you have a perfect storm of managed reality. So, sure, interested citizens go outside the bubble of mainstream media to the alternative news sites, believing (naively) that they will get the real dope that way.
And are bamboozled once again. They choose their sites to align with their prejudices: what is called “confirmation bias.” The echo chamber. Ironically, they actually become self-censoring. They don’t learn anything, because the “news” they get is un-vetted, uncorroborated, and in many cases simply “made-up.”
In totalitarian states information is subject to government censorship. In purely capitalistic states, information is subject to corporate interests. Yet in the world of alternative media the concept of information itself has become devalued. There is still information out there, but the work (and the responsibility) of the consumer of information has increased exponentially. The consumer must now practice the fine art of “discernment” if actual data is desired, if information is truly the goal and not a Greek chorus of assent. The problem is: we don’t teach rhetoric or logic anymore in our classrooms. We don’t teach how to think, how to discern, how to weigh both sides of an issue.
Hitler once wrote that his oratorical method was to appeal directly to the hearts of the masses, bypassing the intellect. The intellect – like the university to which he was refused admission, like the cities he detested because of the proliferation of other races (of “diversity”), like the Jews as he perceived them – was the enemy. He imagined a different space, one in which there was no questioning, no dialogue. He liked to think of himself as a man of action, not thought. This space – situated either in a geographic location like a country, or an ideal location like the mind – had to be cleansed of deleterious influences. If the citizenship was homogenous, then homogenous thought was sure to follow. There would be no need for discussion, no possibility of disagreement. Anyone who thought differently, who argued logically or at least intelligently, would be shouted down, characterized as a reactionary or worse: as “sheeple” (another demonization of our fellow citizens). It was necessary to acknowledge the existence of these individuals because scapegoats are as important to a demagogue’s rhetorical style as hyperbole. Scapegoats provide a kind of short-hand for those too lazy to do any thinking of their own.
Not to say that these flaws do not exist in the countries we have been discussing. They exist everywhere. But in a country where access to information is hard-fought, and where censorship is resisted by those who can be arrested and thrown in prison – or worse – for disseminating real information, real data, we should have come to appreciate and value the absolute worth of information. We pay lip-service to the idea of freedom; but real freedom depends on access to real information. That is why the idea of a free press is enshrined in our Constitution. But we have been lulled into a false sense of security where information is concerned because we have television, the Internet, smartphones and tablets, Facebook and Twitter, so of course we have information. No matter how wrong it is. We have confused quantity with quality and, anyway, isn’t that the American way? Obesity rocks.
Meanwhile, journalists in other countries are being killed by their governments.
“Why?” ask our fellow citizens. “Why don’t they just google?”