Thursday, October 28, 2004

American Beheaders or How a Publicly-Financed Franco-German “Cultural” Channel Creates Moral Equivalence between America and its Enemies

The French-German “cultural” channel Arte is not much known in the States. It should be, however. Arte is a strange beast. Co-financed by the French and German governments, with France officially being the major contributor, it also receives substantial indirect subsidies from Germany inasmuch as the greater part of the German-language programming it broadcasts is originally produced by and for inner-German public television. The role played by the channel in the two countries is also very different. To say that in Germany virtually no one watches Arte would be just a slight exaggeration. The channel is only available on cable or satellite and struggles to achieve a 1% market share. The disinterest is hardly surprising when one considers that so much of the programming consists of rebroadcasts of material that has already been shown on the more prominent public networks, ARD and ZDF. Whereas the audience for Arte in France is also limited, hovering in the 3-4% range, its influence is disproportionate to its modest market share. This is, above all, a function of the fact that in France, Arte figures among the five “national” channels that are available without cable or special subscription. (More precisely, Arte shares a spot on the dial with France5, an educational channel that broadcasts during the day and yields to Arte in prime time.) Given how little developed cable television is in France, comprising less than 20% of households according to statistics from 2001, a place among the “national” channels constitutes a substantial advantage. Moreover, standard nightly fare on the other networks ranges from game shows to reality television to dubbed American series or their (dubbed) German or French knock-offs. On most nights and in most timeslots, anyone seeking ostensibly more edifying entertainment on network television – bearing, for instance, on questions of European or international politics – is virtually obliged to turn to Arte. Thus, Arte plays a major and unique role in forming would-be sophisticated, would-be politically-engaged opinion in France.

Those Americans inclined to react to every apparent expression of French rage at America by posing the proverbial and doleful question “Why do they hate us?” might consider Arte and then realize that perhaps “they” don’t know us. The problem with Arte in this connection is not that there is a lack of material on American society and politics in its programming, but rather that there is a wildly excessive offering of such material, almost all of it, however, being selected and spun in such a way as to caste the US in the most negative imaginable light and some of it consisting of outright disinformation. Yesterday’s line-up was typical. The prime-time slot was devoted to a ZDF-produced documentary entitled “Martin Luther King, a Crime of State” suggesting King’s murder was the product of a US government “conspiracy”. This was followed by the weekly news magazine “Arte Report”, with 3 of the 4 subjects concerning the US, including a story on the mother of a fallen American soldier in Iraq who “cries out her pain to the entire world” and another on two deserters from the American army who “in line with a long tradition” have fled to Canada. It can hardly be doubted that the choice of these subjects in particular is designed to put in question the legitimacy of the American-led intervention in Iraq. In the same spirit, Arte’s nightly news program, “Arte Info”, does not hesitate to describe the Islamist militants operating out of Fallujah as simply “the resistance to the occupier” (Arte Info, 25 September 2004).

It is extremely revealing of the nature and quality of Arte’s sources on American matters, that its website recommends the work of Eric Laurent. Laurent is a French conspiracy theorist and author of "La face cachée du 11 septembre" [The Hidden Face of September 11], who, among other things, continues to disseminate the long debunked rumor about the Saudi dignitaries who are supposed to have flown out of the US in the days after 9/11 when American airspace was officially still closed and persistently insinuates an Israeli/Mossad connection to the 9/11 attacks. He also insinuates that the US government was connected to or at least had foreknowledge of the attacks. Thus, he cites the fact that a high-ranking CIA official was until “just before” the attacks an executive at the investment bank A.B. Brown, a Deutsche Bank subsidiary that in the days prior to 9/11 took a large volume of “put options” – in effect, bets that a share price will fall – on United Airlines stock. This “scoop” has long circulated on the Internet, since indeed the very first weeks after 9/11, and concerns, more precisely, CIA Executive Director A.B. “Buzzy” Krongard. But in fact Mr. Krongard left A.B. Brown already in 1998, before its takeover (via the Bankers Trust purchase) by Deutsche Bank and more than three years before the 9/11 attacks. In a non-fevered condition, it is hard to follow what is supposed to be sinister about such a circumstantial “connection”.

George W. Bush is, of course, a favorite object of derision and scorn on Arte, and in the run-up to the American elections hardly a day has passed without Arte devoting at least a report, if not a full-length documentary or even an entire “thematic evening”, to some alleged failing or failings of the current American president. A typically scurrilous example is provided by a documentary aired on October 5 and titled “The Bush Dynasty”. Among other things, it insinuates that President Bush married his wife Laura for political gain (he needed a native Texan wife for the purpose of a local congressional campaign), devotes several pathetic minutes to the story of a used-car dealer who claims to have been expelled from his home – seemingly by George W. Bush in person rather than perhaps, and as would seem more plausible, by the state under the doctrine of eminent domain – to make way for the construction of the Texas Rangers baseball stadium, and concludes with a stirring tribute to George H. W. Bush (with whom throughout the film George W. is unfavorably contrasted) and his seemingly exalted decision in 1991 not to send American troops to Baghdad. No mention is made of the fact that this decision was taken in the context of a cease-fire agreement with the Iraqi regime and that it is precisely the terms of this agreement which the regime would blatantly violate for the next 12 years and hence which, in effect, provided the legal basis for the more recent Iraq intervention. The documentary also manages to interject that George W. Bush’s popularity was “in free fall” before 9/11: a claim which (a) is not borne out by the relevant public opinion data (which merely shows a slight fall off in Bush’s job approval rating and in some polls [Zogby] even an uptick) and (b) provides obvious fuel for the fire of the most outlandish conspiracy theories.

But it would be wrong to think that Arte seeks “merely” to encourage contempt for the American president and not also for America and Americans as such. A particularly egregious case in point is provided by a story broadcast on the October 6 edition of “Arte Report” and titled “Vietnam: The Death-Squad”. The title refers to the American Army’s elite “Tiger Force” unit and its activities in the Vietnamese Central Highlands in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War. The basis for the “Arte Report” story is identified as a Pulitzer-Prize-winning report published in an Ohio paper, and indeed in October 2003 the Toledo Blade published a long multi-part investigative report, for which it would win a Pulitzer Prize the following year, on alleged war crimes committed by Tiger Force members in the Central Highlands. Curiously, however, none of the Toledo Blade journalists is interviewed for the Arte program. Amidst all the myriad and gruesome details recounted in the Toledo Blade series, one especially grisly and astonishing item seems to have caught the attention of the Arte producers: namely, the fact that American soldiers are accused in the report of having decapitated Vietnamese civilians. Two such alleged episodes are mentioned in the Toledo Blade series: one just in passing, without a perpetrator being named, and as based on the Blade’s own interviews with former soldiers; and a second, more highly corroborated, episode in connection with the central figure in the Army’s own official investigation into alleged war crimes by Tiger Force members. Indeed, allegations regarding the latter episode are what sparked the Army's investigation. The individual in question seems to have been nearly universally regarded by his fellow soldiers and his commanders as exceptionally deranged and is accused by them – n.B., by other members of the force – of having committed any number of cruel and barbaric acts, the details of which, for reasons of decency, I prefer not to relate here. While still in the force he would be court-martialed three times, before being dishonorably discharged in 1971, and he is in the meanwhile deceased.

The Arte report neither further investigates these charges, nor does it provide any of the specific context for them available in the Toledo Blade series. Rather, it reproduces the accusations. In the space of the relatively brief segment, two separate Vietnamese peasants can be heard – at least per the rendering given in the Arte translation – claiming to have witnessed Vietnamese being beheaded by American troops. Given the brevity of the report and the lack of context, the repetition of the claim creates the strong impression that this must have been a regular practice. If this sudden discovery by Arte of American beheaders seems oddly fortuitous in light of the recent series of beheadings of American and other hostages in Iraq by the al-Zarqawi group, the details of the second of the two testimonials give particular cause to pause. For after referring to the alleged beheadings, the second supposed peasant witness, an elderly gentleman, immediately launches into a denunciation of …the American intervention in Iraq, and then, in an even more surprising turn, seemingly spontaneously offers his endorsement of John Kerry for the American presidency. Noting that Kerry had fought in Vietnam, he reasons that at least he knows what war is like. Some moments later the voice-over for the segment adds that Americans “tortured hundreds to death” in Vietnam – a claim for which no source is given.

The segment ends with interviews of young Vietnamese, seemingly students, and in a changed, now apparently urban setting. One young woman - sounding suspiciously like a French student of a similar age who might garner her views on world affairs from Arte - comments, “The Americans always find some reason to go to war: in Vietnam, it was Communism; in Iraq, it’s oil.” The allusions to the Iraq intervention pervade the short segment and lest the point has not been gotten, following its conclusion the host of “Arte Report” notes ominously that the “Tiger Force” unit is active in Iraq today – as if the present members of the force have anything to do with the crimes committed or not committed by some of their predecessors nearly forty years ago.

The overall effect of the report is most certainly not to educate viewers about the Vietnam War or even about the circumstances of war crimes committed by some American soldiers in the context of it. Rather, given the report's lack of specificity and the constant drawing of analogies with the American intervention in Iraq, the effect is to convey an image of Americans as somehow inherently savage – with the apparent exception of John Kerry. The beheading motif, moreover, insidiously permits the drawing of a moral equivalence between "the Americans"and the Islamist extremists with which the US is presently at war. The depraved acts allegedly committed by some American soldiers and which were denounced as such by other American soldiers - indeed the record suggests it might be a matter of a depraved act commited by a single American soldier - are thus stylized by Arte in such a way as seemingly to annul the depraved acts ritualistically performed by organized groups of Islamist fanatics in the name of their God and filmed and broadcast by these same groups for all the world to see.