Oliver Stone, Propagandist

I might just as well have gone with a title of “Oliver Stone: anti-Semite,” but you can see I’m loathe to sensationalize. Stone has been rich in crackpot foolishness of late, including now an exposed vein of anti-Semitism. Many, like Ben Cohen at Z Word Blog, have reported from behind the new Times of London firewall (I’m not a subscriber) Stone’s latest conspiratorial conceit, in which, like the working artist he is, he stands, in his case, on the shoulders of Lilliputians and reworks age-old themes.

His next task, the leviathan Secret History of America, tackles received versions of events in the last century, an extension, perhaps, of what he did in 1991’s JFK, when he suggested that the president’s assassination was in fact a high-level conspiracy. The 10-part documentary will address Stalin and Hitler “in context”, he says. “Hitler was a Frankenstein but there was also a Dr Frankenstein. German industrialists, the Americans and the British. He had a lot of support.”

He also seeks to put his atrocities in proportion: “Hitler did far more damage to the Russians than the Jewish people, 25 or 30m.”

Why such a focus on the Holocaust then? “The Jewish domination of the media,” he says. “There’s a major lobby in the United States. They are hard workers. They stay on top of every comment, the most powerful lobby in Washington. Israel has f***** up United States foreign policy for years.”

Cohen correctly offers that no one said it better, more succinctly or penetratingly, than Norm Geras at Normblog.

No one who has taken any close interest in the history of the Second World War could be unfamiliar with the extent of Russian suffering and death under German occupation. So ‘more damage to the Russians than the Jewish people’ is a purely apologetic trope, since at that level of human catastrophe the insistence on maintaining a sense of proportion about five to six million Jewish dead is a plain attempt to diminish. And what follows that is then standard anti-Semitism: the Jews control the media and they work hard at it; and this is what accounts for the focus on the Holocaust (rather than any features of the genocide itself).

As I said, and without regard to Stone’s personal qualities: contemptible and brutish.

Stone has already offered the usual apology in self-correction. One day we will need a consideration of the rhetorical character of apology by press release.

But this is not my focus. This is just for context. Stone really is a stellar example of the nature of far Left conspiratorial crackpottery and how it emerges like potato sprouts from an ideology of systematic expose that has sat on the counter too long. Half-baked ideas fry the brain. The Right goes here too, but is less programmatic. Those on the far Right want to save themselves. The far Left wants to save the world. The anarchists are a briny stew of both. Save us from them all.

Stone’s troubles with Israel and Jews are a familiar leading indicator of a tired anti-Americanism that generally involves a head over heels romance with whoever is the currently available South American demagogue. So, his new film, South of the Border, which got him into a kerfuffle with Larry Rohter of The New York Times, is just one more addition to an expansive library of debased cultural and ideological enthrallment. One might be tempted to trace its roots back in modern history to John Reed, but in Ten Days That Shook the World, Reed, taken in by the Bolsheviks, nonetheless produced real, vivid reporting. No less than George Kennan praised it for its “literary power, its penetration, its command of detail” and saw in it a “blazing honesty and a purity of idealism that did unintended credit to the American society that produced him, the merits of which he himself understood so poorly.” Reed was an honest, true believer. Stone is a rank propagandist.

When Rohter during an interview pointed out such factual inaccuracies as stating that

Mr. Chávez’s main opponent in his initial run for president in 1998 was “a 6-foot-1-inch blond former Miss Universe” named Irene Sáez,

when, in fact,

Mr. Chávez’s main opponent then was not Ms. Sáez, who finished third, with less than 3 percent of the vote [but] Henrique Salas Romer, a bland former state governor who won 40 percent of the vote

Stone apologized and

complained of “nitpicking” and “splitting hairs” and said that it was not his intention to make either a program for C-Span or engage in what he called a cruel and brutal” Mike Wallace-style interrogation of Mr. Chávez that the BBC broadcast this month.

“We are dealing with a big picture, and we don’t stop to go into a lot of the criticism and details of each country,” he said. “It’s a 101 introduction to a situation in South America that most Americans and Europeans don’t know about.”

As someone who has taught many 101 classes, I will say that what you do in such a class – if you are a teacher concerned with honest instruction and the independence of mind of your students – is attempt to lay a foundation that, while it cannot accommodate yet all of the complexities and even antitheses of the subject, does not actively obscure the basis for them. What Stone is describing is a process by which the untutored are denied the information upon which not simply to understand, but to understand, in time, complexly, which is in the end the same thing. This is one of the hallmarks of propaganda.

When people commit themselves in this way, they begin to spout foolish and contradictory rationalizations like Stone’s above about the “cruel and brutal” BBC interview of Chavez. (How sensitive is this Stone!) Watch it here, here, and here. Poor Chavez survives quite well, and one has no doubt Stone would have welcomed such an interview of George W. Bush. This kind of pathetic, almost childish excuse making puts me in mind, once more of a recollection I first recounted here, of

one late night [in the early 80s] listening on the radio to a then very popular New York City counter-culture DJ named Alex Bennett, who explained to a pained and puzzled caller why it was that Black Panther Huey Newton, while leading the struggle on the streets, was living in an Oakland penthouse. Newton had many enemies who wished to harm him, Bennett informed, and needed to live high above street level for his safety.

FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Media – this would be the Left side of “Fair and Balanced”) has been a defender of Chavez, so Peter Hart of FAIR took up the case against Rohter against Stone here and here. Though Hart concluded his second post with a dismissive “I think we’ve seen enough,” it turns out, not quite. Nearly a month after Rohter’s review of the film, Stone, Tariq Ali and Mark Weisbrot, the writers of the film, had published a letter to the editor at the Times, in which they stated,

On our Web site, www.Southoftheborderdoc.com, we deal with each of the points that your article raises: geography, oil imports, the 2002 coup in Venezuela, the 1998 presidential race there, Argentina’s economic recovery and water privatization in Bolivia. We maintain that there are no inaccurate or misleading statements on any of these points in the film.

In return, Rohter is back, at the History News Network, with some damning details. I’ll report just one, on the issue of U.S. support for the April 2002 coup attempt against Chavez.  (Of course, one should always recall that Chavez himself attempted a coup against a democratically elected Venezuelan government in 1992.)

In their letter to HNN and other websites, Stone and company complain that “Rohter was presented with detailed and documentary evidence of the United States’ involvement in the 2002 coup” against Chavez, which they describe as “a major point of the film” that has gone unreported in the mainstream press.  They complain that I “simply dismissed all of this evidence out of hand, and nothing about it appears in the article.”  This is false.  In reality, I examined their “evidence” thoroughly, and discovered that the document Stone, Weisbrot and Ali cite as the main proof of their argument actually contradicts and undermines what they have to say. Their claim is thus specious and disingenuous, at least on the basis of the “evidence” they provide, which is why no mention was made of this subject in my original article.

But I’m perfectly willing to have that debate now, because it says something about how Stone, and especially Weisbrot, continually attempt to hoodwink the unwary viewer. In the movie, the image of the cover of a U.S. government document appears briefly on the screen as the April 2002 coup is being discussed.  When I asked Weisbrot about that, he said that it was a State Department study in which State acknowledged its “involvement” in the coup.  Specifically, he pointed to this passage: “NED (the National Endowment for Democracy), Department of Defense (DOD), and other U.S. assistance programs provided training, institution building and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster of the Chavez government.”

On closer examination, though, it becomes clear that Weisbrot is quoting selectively, simply cherry-picking parts of the document to make them conform to his otherwise-unsupported theory and leaving out those sections that do not fit. Here is the entirety of the statement from the State Department review of policy toward Venezuela during the period Nov. 2001-Apr. 2002 that Weisbrot quotes from:  The Office of the Inspector General “found nothing to indicate that U.S. assistance programs to Venezuela, including those funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), were inconsistent with U.S. law or policy.  While it is clear that NED, Department of Defense (DOD), and other U.S. assistance programs provided training, institution building and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster of the Chavez government, we found no evidence that this support directly contributed, or was intended to contribute, to that event.” [Emphasis added]

Note how Weisbrot’s citation from the State Department’s OIG report omitted this final clause.

At another point, the same State Department policy review also explicitly addresses the Stone-Weisbrot argument that the United States government was “involved” in the coup and rejects it outright.  Stone and Weisbrot, however, fail to cite any part of this section of the document, and I think I know why.  They are engaged in the age-old practice that Latin Americans call “vendiendo gato por liebre,” or “selling a cat as a hare,” and it simply won’t do to introduce any evidence that would reveal their theory to be based on a manipulation of the facts.  But here is what the same State Department study that Weisbrot cites as the foundation for this “major point of the film” actually has to say:

4. “Did opponents of the Chávez government, if any, who met with embassy or Department officials request or seek the support of the U.S. government for actions aimed at removing or undermining that government?  If so, what was the response of embassy or Department officials to such requests?  How were any such responses conveyed, orally or in writing?”

Taking the question to be whether, in any such meetings, Chávez opponents sought help from the embassy or the Department for removing or undermining the Chávez government through undemocratic or unconstitutional means, the answer is no.

Chávez opponents would instead inform their U.S. interlocutors of their (or, more frequently, others’) aims, intentions, and/or plans.  United States officials consistently responded to such declarations with statements opposing any effort to remove or undermine the Chávez government through undemocratic and unconstitutional means.  These responses were conveyed orally. [Emphasis added]

Let’s be clear. There is much contradictory evidence about the U.S. role and position at the time of the coup, including statements by U.S. government officials that suggested quick acceptance of its results when it appeared successful. It is obvious to any clear-eyed observer that the Bush administration would have been happy to see Chavez gone, and it should be just as obvious that the moral indignation by Chavez or his supporters on his behalf regarding coup d’états is completely hypocritical. Ideological predisposition governs nearly everyone’s analysis of events, everyone’s assessment of naiveté in the reading of motives and acts, all observers’ faith in their own penetration of the truth. The shame is that the tendencies of the Right and far Left, in Latin America and elsewhere, have for decades frozen the roles of the various actors and produced an ebb and flow of habitual responses. The worst tendencies of U.S. capitalism have exploited Latin America for a century, with little regard for democracy and the economic welfare of the Latin populations. Because the Right has never acknowledged this history, reformist elements in Central and South American nations have usually adopted anti-American, socialist, if not Marxist and undemocratic programs that produce a predictable counter-response from the U.S. In some instances, the illiberal and cynical policies of such as Castro, the Sandinistas, and Chavez have warranted the U.S. reaction. In other instances, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Lula da Silva in Brazil, whom Stone lumps together with Chavez and who have reason, rhetorically, to challenge the U.S., the situation is more liberal and complex and precisely indicative of the challenge to a re-envisioned U.S. policy in Latin America.

The Right drives the far Left to excess, the far Left excess reaffirms the U.S. Right in its unyielding disavowal of the legacy of imperialism, and the Right’s intransigence justifies the likes of Stone in descending into old, dark conspiratorial labyrinths and propagating distortions and manipulations as the deliverance of truth. There are variations on this dynamic, some far less kind to the Left, but it is what we have been caught up in since the end of the Second World War, and no one has found the way out of it yet.



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