Humans are not built for nuance, we are trained to think in polarities. But the world is not black-and-white. And in an age of ‘fake news’, there are no good guys, and no bad guys, only tough choices.
In almost every political uprising from the US, to Venezuela, to Syria, people are faced with decisions that are more informed by propaganda than they are by fact. When it comes to making the right choice, the devil is in the details. Editor-in-chief, Claire Connelly examines the greys.
We humans are taught from an early age to think in polarities. Good vs evil. Healthy vs unhealthy. Capitalism vs socialism.
The problem with thinking in polarities is it leaves almost no room for nuance.
In almost every political uprising from the US, to Venezuela, to Syria, people are faced with tough choices that are more informed by propaganda than they are by fact. When it comes to making the right choice, the devil is in the details.
Take Venezuela for example:
It is hard to know what to make of President Nicolas Maduro. The most flattering thing we can say about him is he doesn’t hold a candle to Hugo Chavez. While he retains popular support, it is nowhere near the levels Chavez enjoyed. He also seems… well… less competent, and certainly not without authoritarian leanings. At least Chavez held a referendum on the National Constituency in 1999, Maduro did no such thing, using legal loopholes to abolish institutional checks and balances along the way.
Maduro may or may not be a tyrant. It is particularly hard to assess his intentions with so much propaganda from opposition and western media sympathisers who have done a bang-up job of painting him as a dictator. Claims of election tampering remain wholly unverified. I have no doubt violence and political control has been deployed by both sides. Certainly attempts at economic intervention – fixing the exchange rate, implementing price controls, raising the minimum wage – for example, seem to be well intentioned but unsuccessful.
Fixing the exchange rate worked well when oil prices were high. The Venezuelan economy grew at a rate of 10% a year between 2004-2008, but then the Global Financial Crisis struck, oil prices took a nosedive and the economy went to the dogs. But Maduro clung to fixed exchange rate far longer than was tenable, and in doing so gave the opposition twice the ammunition to claim economic devastation.
Both Maduro and Chavez before him tried to reorganise economic policy, threatening the profit centres of the elite and for this reason alone became targets of western ire.
But it is important to remember a number of things:
The 2003 coup was executed by Venezuelan opposition leaders with the backing and training of the US state department:
Opposition leaders, Leopoldo Lopez and Henrique Capriles were central participants of the 2003 failed military coup which was backed by the US, resulting in 40 deaths and hundreds of injuries. Members of the government were kidnapped at the behest of trade-union leader, Pedro Carmona, who was briefly installed as President during the coup.
As Eva Golinger rightly points out: The US State Department continued to issue funds to anti-government organisations via National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to help continue efforts to overthrow Chavez:
“USAID set up an Office for Transition Initiatives (OTI) in Caracas, subcontracting U.S. defense contractor Development Alternatives Inc,” she writes. (DAI) to oversee Venezuela operations and distribute millions of dollars to anti-government groups. The result was the “national strike” launched in December 2002 that brought the oil industry to the ground and devastated the economy. It lasted 64 days and caused more than $20 billion in damages. Nonetheless, the efforts failed to destabilize the Chavez government.”
Thankfully order was restored and production kickstarted after Venezuelan workers took over the plants, restarting production to ensure the government wouldn’t fail.
The Constitutional Assembly was called because the opposition wouldn’t negotiate
A Peace and Dialogue Table was facilitated earlier this year by two former Latin American Presidents and one former Spanish President, in response to demands from the opposition that the government negotiate. But the opposition in turn refused to negotiate, even demanding the presence of the Vatican. And even after the Nuncio arrived, it still refused to make good on its promise.
With no chance of negotiations, President Maduro concluded the government’s only option would be to negotiate directly with the population and called for a Constitutional Assembly to amend the Constitution.
In the meantime, opposition protesters burned down the Supreme Court after it took over the National Assembly after it discovered three of its legislators from Amazonas were being investigated for electoral fraud. The opposition went ahead and swore them in anyway, leaving the Supreme Court no choice but to take over.
It would be naive to say that the hands of President Nicolas Maduro’s are squeaky clean. The situation he finds himself in has been compared to that of Chile’s Allende (who, incidentally, was assassinated with the help of the CIA after he refused to buckle to neoliberal demands, one of America’s first regime change experiments). Hardly a perfect leader but like Pinochet, the opposition would be a catastrophe for the working class.
It would be foolish to paint Maduro either as a tyrant or a hero, but rather a victim of almost 30-years of economic strife following the 1989 Caracazo, an explosive reaction to the most dramatic neoliberal economic restructuring and IMF austerity the country had ever seen.
Ten years later Chavez was elected, kicked the IMF out of the country and introduced oil and land reform, targeting the two most profitable resource sectors of the aristocratic class. He died and now Maduro has inherited his problems.
It’s really easy to paint Maduro as good and the opposition as bad. And vice-versa. The truth is a lot more complicated than that. Venezuela does not have a choice between good and evil. It has only the option of trying to make the best of a bad situation. Against the backdrop of 30 years of global austerity measures, Maduro does appear to be the more attractive option. Though I would posit his days as leader are numbered. But don’t think for one second that another coup or an opposition election victory next year is going to restore prosperity to the region.
Syrian President Bashaar al Assad has split international consensus. Rising to power with the promise of reform, there was hope that there might be a chance of a semi-secular government in the Middle East region, but then he started cracking down on protesters with violence and his authoritarian colours began to show.
Except that those protesters were not peaceful, nor were the protests about liberal democracy, but rather a US proxy war, supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, trained and armed by the CIA and other allied intelligence agencies, designed to unseat Assad, (and his father before him), and wipe Ba’ath Arab Socialism from the face of the Earth. They have not yet been successful in this task, at least not in Syria. The same cannot be said of Iraq and Iran whose leaders were appointed by US intelligence services, but still the allies persist.
In each instance, ’73, ’82 and today, the Syrian military has stepped in with brutal force to quell uprisings. Is Assad a tyrant, or the only thing standing between the country and ISIS rule?
Syrians are caught in the crossfire between a regressive, medieval terror group backed by the US and its allies, and an alleged tyrant.
Of course the situation in Syria is far from simple.
Claims of the use of chemical weapons have been lobbed at Asaad, with little concrete evidence, but repeated ad infinitum to the extent that the allegations have become fact. The best we can say, given the evidence, is that chemical weapons were probably used by both sides: anti-government rebels backed by the US, and Syrian military forces. Both sides also lied, and the US inflated the number of deaths to justify a military attack on Syria.
The US and its allies have invested a lot in recasting the war on Syria as a humanitarian invasion.
The Washington Post reported last year that Saudia Arabia was spending millions of dollars on US lobbyists and PR firms, including running a Twitter account for the Syrian Opposition Coalition. Likewise, The Guardian revealed that the British government had been running a propaganda campaign of its own on Syria and funding media operations for some rebel fighting groups.
According to the Guardian, this propaganda campaign began after Prime Minister David Cameron “failed to persuade Parliament to support military action against the Assad regime. In autumn 2013, the UK embarked on behind-the-scenes work to influence the course of the war by shaping perceptions of opposition fighters.”
These propaganda campaigns have painted a ‘good-guys vs bad guy’ dichotomy that is almost entirely fictional.
Asaad’s hands may not be entirely clean, in fact they might be pretty grubby. But so are Trump’s, Obama’s and Bush before them.
The devil is in the details.
Last November, America was forced to choose between two Wall Street darlings. It chose, for one reason or another, the more honest of the two crooks (and that is saying something).
What would have been the better choice – an orange megalomaniac that has probably never paid a cent of tax in his life and his cabinet of religious loons – or Hillary Clinton, a woman who would have preserved the status-quo and the right of every Wall Street tycoon to keep their riches, and hide their tax burden. How would that help women? Let alone repairing the damage done to the African American community under Obama’s tenure. Obama may have given people hope, but he also oversaw an almost reversal in the economic gains of African American communities.
I loathe President Trump and everything that he stands for, but he has nonetheless heralded in a new era of blatant honesty the likes of which we have never seen before. For the first time in history we know what we are getting, and our dirty laundry is out in public for everyone to see.
Trump has made no guarantees. He has no plan. The emperor has no clothes and he doesn’t care. No more empty promises. Now we know we are on our own.
What do you do when you’re caught between a phyrric victory and an honest defeat?
In each of these instances, there are no easy choices facing civilian populations. Now more than ever, it is essential to understand what is going on in the grey, beneath the ulterior motives and state-sponsored propaganda.
Humanity is caught between a rock and a hard place, and it is becoming harder to distinguish between what is true and what is false, what are good choices and what are bad choices, who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, who we should trust and who is our enemy.
In 2017, nuance has never been more important. And the only thing we can hope for is not a good choice but the right choice, made by a well-informed populace. But impartial information is becoming harder to come by. In Venezuela, like the US and Syria, the establishment is winning its propaganda war. We only hope that in an age of ‘fake news’ people are starting to catch on to the fact that we can’t believe everything we read.
But it is going to take more time and research to understand what is going on right beneath our noses. There has never been a more important time for independent journalism, devoid of the pressures of share-holders, intelligence agencies and the allure of power-adjacent relationships.
Specialising in economics, technology and policy, Connelly is working on her first book due out in 2018.
With more than a decade of experience under her belt, Claire has written for leading publications including The Australian Financial Review, The Saturday Paper, ABC, SBS, Crikey, New Matilda, VICE & others. She is the co-host of The Week In Start-Ups Australia, and features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio shows including Radio National's Download This Show, ABC's The Drum, Ten's The Project, and more.