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Crash Course on Incommunications

"History is also nourished by paradox. The Pentagon never suspected that the Internet, born to program the world as a great battlefield, would be used to spread the words of pacifist movements usually condemned to near silence..."
This essay was adapted from the book "Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World" by Eduardo Galeano (1998, trans.2000).
OP-ED | Upside Down
HOME November 22, 2000
Crash Course On Incommunications

By Eduardo Galeano

The Cold War has been left behind. Without it, the so-called free world has lost its magical justification for a holy crusade against the totalitarianism that until a short while ago ruled the countries of the East. Yet it grows more evident every day that communications manipulated by a handful of giants can be just as totalitarian as communications monopolized by the state. We are all obliged to accept freedom of expression as freedom of business. Culture is reduced to entertainment, and entertainment is a brilliant global enterprise. Life is reduced to spectacle, and spectacle is a source of economic and political power. News is reduced to advertising, and advertising rules.

Two out of three human beings live in the so-called Third World, but two out of three correspondents of the biggest news agencies work in Europe and the United States. What happened to the free flow of information and the respect for diversity enshrined in international treaties and praised in the speeches of political leaders? Most of the news the world receives comes from and is directed at a minority of humanity understandably so from the point of view of the commercial operations that sell news and collect the lion's share of their revenue in Europe and the United States. It's a monologue by the North. Other regions and countries get little or no attention, except in the case of war or catastrophe, and then the journalists covering the story often don't speak the language or have the least idea of local history or culture. News tends to be dubious and sometimes plainly, simply wrong. The South is condemned to look at itself through the eyes of those who scorn it.

In the early eighties, UNESCO proposed an initiative based on the truth that news is not a simple commodity but a social right and that the communications media should bear responsibilities commensurate with the educational purpose they serve. UNESCO set out to create an independent international news agency working from the countries that suffer the indifference of the factories of information and opinion. Even though the proposal was framed in ambiguous and cautious terms, the U.S. government thundered furiously against such an attack on freedom of information. What business did UNESCO have sticking its nose into matters pertaining to the living forces of the market? The United States walked out of UNESCO, slamming the door, as did Great Britain, which tends to act as if it were a colony of the country that was once its colony. At that point the idea of promoting international news unhampered by political or commercial interests was shelved. Any attempt to gain independence, timid as it may be, threatens the international division of labor by which a handful of people actively produce news and opinion and the rest of us passively consume it.

Little is said about the South, and never or almost never from the South's point of view. In general, mass media news of the South reflects the prejudices of an outsider looking on from above and beyond. Between ads, television tends to stick to images of hunger and war. These horrors, these "fatalities," occur in a hellish underworld and serve only to emphasize the paradise of consumer society, which offers cars to suppress distance, facial creams to suppress wrinkles, dyes to suppress gray hair, and pills to suppress pain, among its many suppressive marvels. Frequently, those images of the "other" world come from Africa. African hunger is portrayed as a natural catastrophe, and African wars are strictly "a black thing," bloody rituals of "tribes" who have a savage habit of cutting one another to pieces. Images of hunger never allude, not even in passing, to colonial pillage. Never do they mention the responsibility of Western powers that yesterday bled Africa through the slave trade and single-crop plantations and that today perpetuate the hemorrhage through hunger wages and ruinous prices. The same is true of news about wars; there is always the same silence about the colonial legacy, always the same impunity for the white boss who mortgaged Africa's independence, leaving in his wake corrupt bureaucracies, despotic military officers, artificial borders, and mutual hatred. And always the same omission of any reference to the northern industry of death that sells the weapons that so encourage the South to go on killing itself.

At first view, as the writer Wole Soyinka once said, the map of Africa looks like the creation of a demented weaver who paid no attention to the texture, color, or design of the cloth he was making. Many of the borders that splintered black Africa into over forty pieces can only be explained by a desire for military or commercial control; they have nothing at all to do with historical roots or nature. The colonial powers who drew up the borders were also good at manipulating ethnic contradictions. Divide et impera: one fine day the king of Belgium decided that Tutsis were those who had more than eight cows and Hutus were those who had fewer in the territory today occupied by Rwanda and Burundi. Although the Tutsis, shepherds, and the Hutus, farmers, had different origins, they shared several centuries of common history in the same physical space, spoke the same language, and lived together in peace. They did not know they were enemies but ended up believing it with such fervor that in 1994 massacres between Hutus and Tutsis cost close to a million lives. In the news coverage of this butchery, we never once heard, even by chance and only rarely did we read any acknowledgment of Germany's or Belgium's colonial assaults on the tradition of peaceful coexistence between two sister peoples or of France's later contribution of weapons and military aid to facilitate mutual extermination.

What happens to poor countries is what happens to the poor of every country: the mass media only deign to glance at them when they suffer some spectacular misfortune that will be a hit in the viewers market. How many people must be slain by war or earthquake or drowned in floods for their countries to become news and show up on the map of the world? How many ghosts must someone dying of hunger accumulate before the cameras focus on him for once in his life? The world is like a stage for a gigantic reality show. The poor, the ones who always get overlooked, only appear on TV as some hidden camera's object of ridicule or as actors in their own cruelties. Those unknown need to be known, the invisible to become visible, the uprooted to have roots. If something doesn't exist on television, does it exist in reality? Pariahs dream of glory on the small screen, where any sow's ear can turn into a silk purse. To get to the Olympus where the telegods reside, one poor soul on a variety show even shot himself on camera.

Lately, talk shows have become even more popular than soap operas in some Latin American countries. When the girl who was raped is interviewed, she sobs as if the man were raping her all over again ... This monster is the new Elephant Man. Look, ladies and gentlemen, don't miss this incredible sight ... The bearded lady wants a boyfriend ... A fat man says he's pregnant. Thirty or so years ago in Brazil, freak shows brought scores of candidates out of the woodwork and garnered huge TV audiences. Who is the shortest dwarf in the country? Who has a schnoz so long his feet stay dry in the shower? Who is the wretchedest wretch of all? A parade of miracles passed through the studios: a girl with ears eaten by rats; an idiot chained to a bedpost for thirty years; a woman who was the daughter, sister-in-law, mother-in-law, and wife of the drunk who made her a cripple. And every wretch had fans who screamed from the balconies in a chorus: "The winner! The winner!"

The poor nearly always get top billing in crime stories. Any suspect who's poor can be freely filmed, photographed, and put on display when the police arrest him. That way he's sentenced by TV and the press before the trial begins. The media declare the pernicious poor guilty from the word go, the same way they condemn pernicious countries, and there is no appeal.

At the end of the eighties, Saddam Hussein was demonized by the same mass media that had previously idolized him. When he became the Satan of Baghdad, Hussein shone as a star of evil in the galaxy of world politics, and the media's lie machine took care of convincing the world that Iraq was a threat to humanity. At the beginning of 1991, the United States launched Operation Desert Storm with the backing of twenty-eight countries and broad public support. The United States, having just invaded Panama, invaded Iraq because Iraq had invaded Kuwait. With a million extras and at a cost of $1 billion a day, the big show, which writer Tom Engelhardt called the greatest megaproduction in the history of television, was a winner in the stadium of international TV, earning high ratings in every country and on the New York Stock Exchange, which reached record heights.

The art of war, cannibalism as gastronomy: the Gulf War was an interminable, obscene spectacle that paid homage to high-tech weapons and disparaged human life. In that war of machines led by satellites, radars, and computers, TV screens showcased beautiful missiles and marvelous rockets, extraordinary airplanes and smart bombs that with admirable precision turned people into dust. The venture killed a total of 115 North Americans. Nobody bothered to count the Iraqis, though estimates put the figure as high as a hundred thousand. They never appeared on camera; the only victim shown on TV was an oil-slicked duck. Later on, it came out that the image was a fake; the duck was from another war. Retired U.S. Navy Admiral Gene LaRocque commented to Studs Terkel: "We now kill people without ever seeing them. Now you push a button thousands of miles away. ... Since it's all done by remote control, there's no feeling of remorse. ... Then we come home in triumph."

A few years later, at the beginning of 1998, the United States tried to repeat this feat. The immense communications apparatus geared up once again to serve the immense military apparatus by convincing the world that Iraq was, again, a threat to humanity. This time, the excuse was chemical and bacteriological weapons. Years before, Hussein had used U.S.-made poison gas against Iran and then had used the same gas to crush the Kurds, and nobody's hair got the least bit mussed. But panic descended suddenly with the news that Iraq possessed an arsenal of bacteriological weapons: anthrax, bubonic plague, botulism, cancer cells, and other lethal pathogenic agents that any lab in the United States can purchase over the phone or by mail from a company called American Type Culture Collection (ATCC), located just outside Washington. United Nations inspectors, however, found nothing in the palaces of a thousand and one nights, and war was postponed until the next pretext.

Manipulation of world news by the military isn't the least bit surprising if you consider the modern history of communications technology. The Pentagon has always been the principal funder of and the principal client for all new developments. The first electronic computer was created to fill a Pentagon purchase order. Communications satellites grew out of military projects, and it was the Pentagon that first set up the Internet to coordinate its operations across the globe. The multimillion-dollar investments made by the armed forces simplified and accelerated the development of communications technology and made it possible to promote their criminal acts worldwide as if they were contributions to world peace.

Fortunately, history is also nourished by paradox. The Pentagon never suspected that the Internet, born to program the world as a great battlefield, would be used to spread the words of pacifist movements usually condemned to near silence. That said, the primary effect of the spectacular development of communications technology and information systems has been to radiate violence as a way of life and as the dominant culture. The communications media, reaching ever more people in more places, accustom us to the inevitability of violence and train us for it from childhood.


Eduardo Galeano is one of Latin America's most distinguished writers, journalists and historians. He is the author of the "Memory of Fire" trilogy, "Open Veins of Latin America," "Soccer in Sun and Shadow," and many other works. He is the recipient of the 1999 Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom. (Read his acceptance speech here.)

This essay was adapted from the book "Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World" by Eduardo Galeano. Translated by Mark Fried. Copyright 1998 by Eduardo Galeano. Translation @ 2000 by Mark Fried. Reprinted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt & Company, LLC.



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Clowns for the Market Circus, a speech by Galeano.

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