by rahnuma ahmed
Wouldn’t she have been able to handle halfway decent questions?
I can’t help but wonder and you can’t blame me, for I’ve viewed the so-called adda, I’ve pored over the transcript — available on the Facebook page of the US embassy and American Centre in Dhaka, and the US department of state’s website respectively — I’ve considered it from this angle and that, all in all, I’ve devoted loads of time.
Except for having misspelt Munni Saha’s name, “Mooni Saha”, and an inordinate number of “inaudible”s, the transcript seems okay.
The American side insists on terming the programme a “townterview”, a word I hadn’t come across earlier, and the Bangladeshis, adda — but that was about all they seemed to disagree upon.
If they’d called the programme “Yes, Minister” instead — a la the British comedy series of the 1980s — it’d have made things simpler. It’d have gotten rid of the silly disagreement over terminology, made it 101% accurate.
Interestingly enough, even though the State Department website calls it a “townterview” — a town hall meeting where the town interviews her(?) — in the so-called adda itself, while Hillary insists early on that she wants it to be “a real conversation,” she ends up hogging nearly 80 percent of talk time. A pointer to the gap between what political elites say, and do. A crucial one which the captive/captivated audience, unsurprisingly so, failed to notice.
“Celebrity culture” and “junk politics,” writes Chris Hedges, creates a world of illusion which invisibilises the signs of impending disasters: the physical degradation of the planet, the cruelty of global capitalism, the looming oil crisis, the collapse of financial markets, misguided imperial wars etc., etc. (Empire of Illusion, 2009).
Television creates in us a false sense of intimacy with our elite. It enables the skilful and ruthless control and manipulation of the content of information. Propaganda becomes a substitute for ideas and ideology. The culture of illusion, he says, thrives by robbing us of the intellectual and linguistic tools to separate illusion from truth. It reduces us to the level and dependency of children. It impoverishes language. We become captivated by slogans, a smile, perceived sincerity and attractiveness, alongwith personal narratives — all carefully crafted by the puppet masters. By the agents, publicists, marketing departments, promoters, script writers, television and movie producers, advertisers, video technicians, photographers, bodyguards, wardrobe consultants, fitness trainers, pollsters, public announcers and television news personalities.
Having viewed Hillary’s so-called adda, I’d add youth leaders to the list.
It is style and story, not content and fact, that inform mass politics, says Hedges. All created through artful theatrical staging and scripting by political spin machines.
Borrowing Benjamin DeMott’s coinage, he writes, celebrity culture bequeaths “junk politics.” Junk politics does not demand justice or the reparation of rights. It personalizes and moralizes issues rather than clarifying them. The result? Nothing changes, “meaning zero interruption in the processes and practices that strengthen existing, interlocking systems of socioeconomic advantage. “It seeks at every turn to obliterate voters’ consciousness of socioeconomic and other differences in their midst” (DeMott). Those captivated by the cult of celebrity do not examine voting records or compare verbal claims with written and published facts and reports. The reality of the world is whatever political leaders say is reality.
Studio participants of staged American wrestling matches which we have the fortune to watch on cable television, chant, yell, intone, boo, scream.
The responses here, as was only to be expected, were civil. They applauded, while the local onstage puppet masters (puppets themselves?) bowed and scraped, Yes. Sure. Wow. Right. Okay. Absolutely. Yeah. Thank you.
Cue-ing home viewers to applaud as well. To be taken in equally by the smile. The perceived sincerity. The attractiveness.
Cue-ing us to ignore the staging. The spinning. The propaganda.
The questions? How does it feel to be in Bangladesh after your first visit 17 years ago as First Lady of the United States? How did your meeting with Sir Abed and Dr Yunus go? (these were asked beseechingly by “Mooni” with clasped hands). What is the US administration’s stand on the Grameen Bank? Do you consider Bangladesh an emerging soft power? What are the main obstacles to peace in this region? Why do we seek US advice when we talk of internal politics? (followed by leading words sugarred in by Munni), so it’s totally a friendly advice, there is no pressure…
What intitiatives will the US administration take at the upcoming Rio+20 conference to help Bangladesh, one of the lowest contributors to carbon emissions but worst-affected by climate change? You champion the use of social media, but how do you manage? What is your response to the common perception among many young people that the US is anti-Muslim? Do you have any plans to resume the DV programme so that common people can go to the US and contribute there?
You’ve got a very beautiful smile, followed by the question, Being a woman, what advantages or disadvantages did you face in getting to where you are now? You are an inspiration, a leader for us, a loving mother, a great soul — where lies the magic? You are pressing the issue of young leaders, but what about senior, more experienced ones?
Can we now be hopeful of seeing long-term strategic and stable US-Bangla relations since a partnership agreement was signed between the two countries last night? What role do you expect us to play in this region? Can we expect duty free access to the US market?
A labour leader was recently murdered very brutally, in such a situation how can we work to advance workers rights when police, goons, thugs and false allegations in court obstruct us? How can US and Bangladesh cooperate on the energy and power sector, what about US investments…? What are you taking back from Bangladesh on this trip?
Each question tailor-made to evoke lectures, homilies and outright denials. Even lies, since Hillary’s claims were not compared with contrary evidence available in solidly-researched reports.
For after all, the aim of townterview/adda was to provide Ms Clinton with a platform to tell Bangladeshis that reality is what she says it is.
No fact-checking. No counter-questions. No disagreement. No other perspective. In effect, there was no real conversation, no adda (culturally, a practice in sociability). A monologue, instead. A skilful and ruthless control and manipulation of information. Political spinning. In short, junk politics.
Would she have been able to handle halfway decent questions? For instance, like the questions posed by Pakistani women journalists and participants in October 30, 2009 in a townterview held in the National Art Gallery, Islamabad:
— We are fighting a war that is imposed on us, it is not our war, are you satisfied with what is going on? You had one 9/11, we are having 9/11s daily in Pakistan.
— You spoke of diplomatic immunity, two American private security companies have diplomatic immunity, including Blackwater. What’s your response to that?
— You speak of investing in the people of Pakistan, but the perception is that you are micro-managing everything, Pakistani politics, the energy sector, you are doing everything. Is there any truth to the perception?
— A lot of US aid money is coming into Pakistan but most of the money, taxpayer money, goes back to America. Quite a lot of the money goes to foreign contractors, why is that?
— According to a United Nations committee report, drone attacks may constitute a violation of international law, it constitutes the execution of people without a trial, Pakistani people associate it with US policy towards Pakistan as a whole.
— Drone attacks have been relentless under the Obama administration, does the Obama administration feel that the loss of life and how people feel about them in Pakistan is worth it, given the minimal successes you get?
And, lastly, this one from a law student,
— What is actually terrorism in U.S. eyes? Is the killing of innocent victims in drone attacks terrorism or is the killing of people in a marketplace in Peshawar, is that terrorism? In the United States – do you perceive both victims as victims of terrorism?
To which, Madam Secretary — a graduate from Yale Law School, with nearly four decades in public service as a lawyer — had replied, “No, I do not. I do not.” In other words, the US has exclusive rights to defining terrorism. What the US does, is not terrorism, it can never be terrorism. (The Islamabad townterview had been moderated by five female news anchors, some of them, including the host Saima Mohsin had later been subjected to public criticism when photographs of them at a US Embassy party, had been posted on Facebook by an American diplomat, probably not realising that it would go viral. The state-run PTV had suspended two journalists since government employees can attend private gatherings at foreign diplomatic missions only if they have prior permission, and only if their job description permits them to do so).
To return to the question of Hillary Clinton’s ability to handle half-decent questions, I advise readers to watch the townterview on YouTube (in five-parts), to see her wriggle, a very different body language and demeanour as compared to her so-called adda in Dhaka. You’ll understand why I think, no.
Many of the female activists, academics, lawyers, journalists, parliamentarians and businesswomen who’d attended the Islamabad townterview — described in the Pakistan media as Hillary’s “charm offensive” — had been unimpressed. It was “a waste of my time,” said a university teacher. Hillary wasn’t interested in hearing about the “reality of our daily lives” (The Christian Science Monitor, October 30, 2009).
As a matter of fact, denying their reality and creating the illusion that her administration’s was real, was the objective.
Women who attended the Islamabad townterview had not been interested in Hillary’s “personal-level diplomacy,” in talk of families and schools inculcating “habits of the heart” — tolerance, compromise etc., — in young children. Nor in her reminiscences, or jokes either. They’d wanted to talk about security matters instead. Questions on drones, on India-Pakistan relations, Kashmir etc., had won the biggest round of applause.
“[Hillary’s] responses were as expected,” said Ameena Saiyid, the managing director of Oxford University Press. Her answers were too “reserved,” complained another participant. While another, a resident of the South Waziristan Tribal Agency, had asked “Why were we here? What did they want us to ask? What did they want to convey to us?”
“This meeting was as micromanaged as our country’s internal affairs,” quipped a university teacher. “[The Americans] were trying to retain the upper-hand in the conversation.”
If the Islamabad townterview was micro-managed, how does Dhaka’s International School one fare? Micro-micro-managed?
No questions raised about the presence of US Special Forces in Bangladesh as revealed recently at a Congressional hearing (March 1, 2012), watery ones instead about soft power, vague ones about obstacles to peace in the region. No questions about WikiLeaks revelations either: about former US ambassador James F Moriarty urging Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, the prime minister’s energy advisor, to authorise coal mining in Phulbari. “Open-pit mining seem[s] the best way forward.” Seeking assurances that US-based Conoco Phillips be awarded two of the uncontested blocks in the Bay of Bengal. That Chevron be permitted to improve the flow in Bangladesh’s main gas pipeline. The present government, as we know, had complied. Not only were no questions raised, Munni Saha’s ‘why do we seek US advice when we talk of internal politics?’ followed by ‘so it’s totally a friendly advice, there is no pressure…’ had forestalled such questions.
While it is true, as Hillary had pointed out in answer to labour activist Aminul Islam’s brutal killing, that Colombia had killed thousands of labor organisers (according to HRW, since 1986, 2,880 labour leaders have been murdered), she eclipsed the fact that it is one of the leading recipients of US military aid and training. That Congress has ratified a trade pact with Colombia despite American labor unions who argued that the murders provided grounds for blocking trade deals. That, despite the Colombian military’s atrocious human rights record, Pentagon is planning to establish a new military facility in Colombia, to give the U.S. increased capacity for military intervention throughout most of Latin America.
Addressing the so-called adda audience, Hillary had said, “And each of you who is a young leader has so much at stake in making your country what it can be in your lifetime.”
Munni had described her co-moderator Ejaj Ahmad, founder and president of Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center (BYLC), a graduate of Harvard University, as a “leader of leaders.” As I watched all the bowing and scraping, I couldn’t help but think, if this is what a Harvard education inculcates in its students, if it only serves to colonise/re-colonise the mind, well, then….maybe, Jahangirnagar is better?
Admittedly, there are interruptions to the academic calendar, but even most first year undergrads have a far more grounded grasp of reality!
Published in New Age, Monday, May 14, 2012