World War One and film

Appended is a PowerPoint presentation exploring how movies have sometimes both refleced and fed some myths about the Great War, the “war to end all wars”.

The cause of peace is not helped by bad history. This applies especially to World War One. A crop of anniversaries is reviving interest in the events of 1914-1918 and any ‘lessons’ it might teach.  Care must be taken to avoid the crude stereotypes that circulate about it.

One obvious danger is historical anachronism, projecting back onto the Great War period, not least the political leaders and generals of the time, knowledge and values of the here and now that were not current then. The realities of the war took nearly everyone by surprise at the time and few knew how to respond strategically or tactically. Most things worked out very differently to what key decision-makers intended. There was much miscalculation about the responses others might make. A lot of writing on the Great War makes insufficient allowance for accident and contingency, relying too much on overly deterministic theories about the inevitability of imperialist war.

But we cannot duck the difficult issues of what to do when faced with a brutal and expansionist power as Imperial Germany certainly was. German war crimes in Belgium were not myth while Austria committed terrible atrocities in Serbia, though, for some reason, these are usually overlooked. German ‘scorched earth’ policy during the retreat to the Hindenburg Line was also extraordinarily destructive.

Britain in particular was faced with terrible choices, not least hostile occupation of Belgium and German seizure of large (and economically vital) chunks of France. It is wrong to simplify the options available. It seemed that victory on the western front was the only way forward (the Dardanelles option had proved a disaster) and that defensive operations would leave Germany sitting on her conquests.

Ultimately, of course, it was the sea blockade that broke that back of Germany and Austria on the home front, though it must be said that death by starvation is not much better than death in battle. Indeed, by winter 1917 there were mass strikes in Germany due to the effects of the blockade. But there was not obvious at the time that the blockage alone would suffice. So land campaigns continued.

In a narrow sense the war was not ‘futile’ since the allied side, leaving aside its motivations and goals, scored a resounding victory. Thus in the seocnd half of 1918  the German army suffered a crushing defeat, a reality later shrouded in the self-serving mythology of the ‘stab-in-the-back’ spread by the Nazis and other reactionary forces. Similarly the Versailles Peace Treaty was not especially punitive as such settlements go, though it fatefully failed to translate the big talk about self-determination into consistent practice. In doing so, it created a whole series of powder kegs waiting to explode.

Contrary to another common stereotype, the death rate at the front, though certainly terrible, was no worse than in most wars (it is camouflaged in World War 2 by the far higher % of non-combat troops – that war was sometimes far more lethal than WW1 for those at the ‘cutting edge’). Indeed, the most lethal of all wars were (in comparative population terms) in the hunter-gatherer societies, as Steven Pinker and others have shown, though much of the killing took place not in big battles but in murderous raids and ambushes.

Things must be put in proper perspective. It is not surprising that the first day of the 1916 Somme offensive gets so much attention. Yet the ‘frontier’ battles of autumn 1914 were more lethal while the death rate in 1918 was higher than in 1916, something commonly ignored.

Another stereotype is ‘lions led by donkeys’. A handful of British generals were incompetent, most were average and some were brilliant. It is remarkable than, within two years of the Somme disaster, British generals had fashioned a war-winning machine. Germany was decisively defeated. That could not have been done by ‘donkeys’.

Furthermore, the Somme campaign did break the German army. It never really recovered and only fought on because of the influx of troops released by the Bolshevik withdrawal from the war.  Meanwhile, most British prisoners apparently thought that Britain had won the battle, according to German source material.

Interestingly in the dark days of early 1918, despite all the war-weariness, recruitment and industrial production went up in Britain while the strike rate went down. It might also be remembered that it was the working class poor who most benefited from the war. Many were actually not fit enough to fight but they were able to get what for them were really well paid jobs in the munitions factories. There was, at the same time, strong oppostion in some quarters to the whole war drive, though at time it was intertwined with other issues such as the ‘dilution’ of skilled labour and high rents. In other words there was more diversity of experience and opinion that is sometimes recognised in broad brush pictures of the ‘working class’ or the ‘labour movement’.

In terms of the fighting  itself, the key problem for the generals was lack of direct communication with the front line and their unfamiliarity with new technologies such as the tank and the aeroplane. The high death rate amongst senior officers undermines the stereotype of armchair generals sipping wine back at the chateau and callously sacrificing their troops. The average life expectancy of a British lieutenant was in fact around 6 weeks, far shorter than that of any other social group (most of these officers were ex-public school boys). In any case, other armies had far more ‘donkeys’. Look at the ‘kindermord’ at Ypres in 1914. However few ‘excelled’ the disastrous Italian campaigns on the Isonzo front. Yet a lot of ‘pop’ history seems to slag off only British generals (‘Oh What a Lovely War’, etc)

It might also be remembered that pro-war poetry quantitatively exceeded that from anti-war poets (Owen etc). Indeed such famous critics of the war as Owen and Sassoon voluntarily went back to the front, the latter well known for his enthusiasm for killing Germans (“mad Jack” was his nickname). Censored letters overwhelmingly reveal an attitude of ‘we’ve got to see it through’. Deep disllusionment really spread when hopes for the post-war period turned to dust.

In terms of films themselves, pro-war ones, and not just straight propaganda products, outnumber anti-war ones, most of which came later when the disappointments and frustrations of the 1920s decisively turned opinion against the war (futile sacrifice etc.). Until then, now reviled figures such as General Haig had actually been very popular public figures. There are plenty of other stereotypes e.g. the ones in the film ‘Gallipoli’ which ignores the role of UK troops and treats ANZAC soldiers as the same (New Zealander soldiers were quite different to Australian ones).

Similarly the ‘German’ army was very diverse. Allied troops were keenly aware that units from some parts of the then comparatively new Germany were far less combative than others. The Italian army was so diverse that many soldiers went to their deaths not knowing what orders had just been given such were the language barriers within ‘Italy’.

Overall, we need to avoid the crude (if very funny) stereotypes of, say, ‘Blackadder’.

The real lessons of WW1 are

  1. do not create tinder boxes,
  2. do not throw around matches and
  3. build institutions for conflict-resolution and peace-building

It might also be argued that though ‘Balkanisation’ has its risks and that small wars can be very vicious, it is the existence of big political units that really threatens the common good whern they start threatening each other. It is not so much that small is inevitably beautiful but, rather, than big will be a lot worse when it turns ugly.

WW1 in film

 

Advertisements

Eco-heroes in India

On June 6th, 2016, ‘The Guardian’ led on its first page with a big picture of Muhammad Ali. It was accompanied by 2 page spread inside and a 12 page special supplement on his life. Yesterday, its sister paper ‘The Observer’ devoted the first 5 pages of its main section plus an 8 page special supplement to the same story.
This was all about someone largely famous for punching people. True, he had a way with words too and his life reflected much that is significant in our times, most of all, of course, on-going racism in the USA and elsewhere.
Yet such coverage is surely way over the top. The press and broadcast news do focus on events rather than processes, colourful individuals not anonymous groups, and surface effects over underlying causes. Most of the ‘consumers’ clearly see things in similar terms or else media audiences would simply evaporate.
But truly significant issues and developments remain so, regardless of popular preferences. Climate change is a civilisation-changing phenomenon, of truly momentous proportions. The so-called ‘sixth extinction’ is unraveling the very web of life, as biodiversity collapses. War clouds are spreading in several areas. A new global recession seems all too likely. Yet the death of a boxer garners far, far more attention.
Still if news must focus on individuals, how about this for a story that combines real courage and inherent significance:

Women are leading protests in Tamil Nadu state against a power plant – yet few people in India know the village they’re from, let alone support their cause
THEGUARDIAN.COM|BY VIDHI DOSHI

Media matter: a green view

The reputation of the media has seldom been lower thanks to revelations about press intrusion, phone hacking, phone-in rip-offs, trivialisation, systemic bias and so forth, even turning a blind eye to sex crimes within their own industry. Such things reveal an industry that is deeply sick. Yet a healthy media are central to the health of democracy.

Certainly developments such as adverse climate change are more serious and more urgent than the wrong-doing of Murdoch and his minions such as Rebekah Brooks. Even in terms of that scandal itself, the track record of the Metropolitan police is far more worrying than that of gutter journalists and editors. [It might be noted here that, though the police now claim that they were too preoccupied by the threat from al-Qaeda to address the issue of phone hacking, they still found the political will and resources to hound ‘climate’ activists and the like]

Yet the News Corporation affair does matter: healthy media are critical to the flow of information and serious debate necessary if the various threats to our collective future are to be properly addressed. A comparison of, say, the Sunday Times in the days when it led the crusade over thalidomide and the paper it became under Murdoch’s subsequent ownership demonstrates the malign effect his ilk have had on the media.

Defend the BBC!

Worse, the war waged by Murdoch and especially his son, the now widely discredited James, against the BBC has threatened a further dumbing down. For all its failings, public service TV and radio in Britain since the founding of the BBC back in the 1920s have set remarkably high standards, widely recognised across the globe. This was certainly true during World War 2 and remains largely the case today.

The advent of commercial TV in the UK, then radio, did initiate a race downwards, with more and more American imports and imitations such as loudmouth ‘shock jocks’. So-called ‘reality TV’ plumbed new depths but, generally, the BBC services maintained an unrivalled blend of choice, quality and reliability (spend a night in an American motel zapping channels and you will visit a multi-channel hell, HBO’s better offerings decidedly the exception to the vulgar and stupefying rule).

So the BBC has to be defended against threats posed by News Corporation and other such conglomerates. Indeed there is an overwhelming case for breaking up such empires. The furore over Murdoch’s hacks and their misdeeds should not take attention away from the poisonous outpourings of groups like the Daily Mail and General Trust or Northern and Shell (Daily Express, OK!, Television X and other trash). The expansion of such organisation in the event of further crises within the Murdoch empire would scarcely improve the breadth, depth and integrity of the media in Britain.

Miscommunication

There has been widespread condemnation of the phone hackers in particular and, more generally, of over-mighty media barons like Murdoch. Very, very belatedly, the Labour leadership has begun to make noises about the matter. Radical media critics like Noam Chomsky have long been indicting the bias of Fox TV and similar appendages of media conglomerates such as News Corporation. This begs the question of what stance the Greens might take in the broader debate about the media in society.

For a start, Greens would join with ‘libertarians’ in the defence of free debate, which, in part, depends on a diversity of opinion. It is very alarming that whilst the Murdoch affair was hogging the headlines, a dangerous development took place. It was the proposal from Professor Steve Jones that the BBC should exclude certain ‘unscientific’ points of view.

Jones included climate change ‘denialists’. They might indeed be talking nonsense. Both common sense and the scientific consensus suggest that adverse changes are underway and that they are largely human-driven. Yet, in such tremendously complex processes, there is always the possibility that some sceptics might just have a point. Certainly the notion that a ‘low carbon economy’ is the solution is very misleading since it would not stop and indeed, if pursued in isolation, might even aggravate other ecological threats. In any case it is better to deal with their objections openly rather than drive them underground, something that might actually boost their appeal in some quarters.

Jones also included opposition to genetic engineering especially with regards to genetically modified crops, held out by some as the solution for food shortages. In fact there are substantial objections to this technology. Moreover the ‘scientific consensus’ has been wrong at many moments in history (see, for example, Barbara Ehrenreich’s 150 Years of Expert Medical Advice to Women)

Scientists are not always free from tunnel vision and there is no guarantee that they are taking into proper account possible connections and interactions beyond that fragment of reality they may be studying. Only on-going debate can limit the dangers of reductionist thinking. It might be remembered that many ‘intelligent’ people thought that individuals like Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin had lost their senses. So it is vital to keep the debate open, even if dissidents from the dominant view seem utterly mistaken.

Unearthly Consensus

There is, however, deeper ideological agreement right across print and broadcast media. Take, for example, discussion in the news about the UK economy and specifically its growth rate. There is almost unanimous reportage across the media that growth is far too low and what is needed was a stimulus to ‘get the economy going’. Yet such growth would accelerate the descent into climate chaos and aggravate every other ecological ill, with the inevitable result that human economy would collapse.

This has been shown in numerous studies (e.g. Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth and Richard Heinberg’s End of Growth; see also: http://steadystate.org/). Indeed John Stuart Mill outlined the need for a ‘steady-state economy’ back in 1848. Yet reporters and commentators (Will Hutton, Robert Peston etc) steadfastly stick to manifestly bankrupt thinking about the economy and its ecological underpinnings.

Media disconnection from Earthly reality is even more pronounced when it comes to overpopulation. There is a deathly silence about the matter. Indeed there is often a marked pro-natalism. Thus British tabloid newspapers greeted the birth of the 20th child in early 1999 to a Mrs Pridham, Britain’s current record holder as a matter of great joy. The Guardian gave a story about the Turner family of Oxfordshire (13 children) the headline of “the more the merrier”.

Obituaries of celebrity population boomers normally talk in terms of “lust for life” (the quote is taken from a piece on late actor Anthony Quinn, who fathered his 11th child at the age of 78). Conversely lack of children is bemoaned. So when the Euro crisis moved to Italy in July 2011, the country’s economic woes were widely blamed on a “birth dearth”.

To some extent, such ecological blinkers stem from the fact that the media share a failure across society to think ecologically. However there are also intrinsic biases in the very nature of mass communication technologies that also cause such distorted coverage in both factual and entertainment media. It is something that only a handful of really radical thinkers like Jerry Mander and Neil Postman have explored (to be fair it is worth studying the fake populism in contemporary media, to which Tory MP George Walden’s The New Elites is a surprisingly stimulating guide).

There is an inherent tendency, especially in daily media such as newspapers, radio and TV news, to focus on discrete events, rather than underlying processes. Spectacular accidents like oil spills match media production routines and news flows much more than the slow drip of environmental degradation (most oil pollution actually being from routine drips and dumping). One result is that the ecological crisis is widely perceived in a narrow and one-sided way, as a problem of pollution, ignoring the many other ways in which the Earth’s life-support systems are being eroded.

Furthermore, to fill airtime and column inches, the media not only build up issues in exaggerated ways but then, to get a second bite of ‘the apple’, knock them back down again, perhaps by spotlighting some dissenting voice, again out of all proportion to the merits of the case.

Many ecological issues, especially at the level of values and intrinsic importance, translate badly, especially to media dominated by images and simple sound bites. Pictures of, say, an undisturbed seashore make for less than gripping TV and film compared to dramatic shots of beach buggies and surf boarders. A huge dam tends to look better on screen than a quiet river scene, its costs not that immediately obvious.

Impacts

The effects of the media on their readers, viewers and listeners, however, need more careful consideration than is common. Certainly they should not be ignored. The media not only influence what issues count as society’s ‘agenda’ but also frame the way items on it are discussed. They play a part in defining what is ‘normal’ (e.g. consumerism) and what is ‘deviant’ (e.g. ‘Luddite’ opponents of some new technology). They can shape fashion, diet and the very language we speak (“oh my god” being but one such media ‘gift’ to everyday English thanks to you-know-what, not to forget the polluted ‘language’ of Gangsta Rap).

Media effects should not, however, be exaggerated. On balance, the media tend to reflect rather than shape public opinion. Common sense also suggests that press barons, film producers, TV managers and the like will deliver what appeals to potential audiences simply to boost sales and rating figures. Sadly, large sections of the public prefer to read salacious gossip about celebrities or watch Top Gear. They don’t want reports about ecology, economics or serious social and cultural matters. Indeed the media routinely receive lots of complaints about too much ‘bad’ news, instead of more cheerful matter.

This begs the question why businesses spend so much on advertising if the media have only limited impacts. Part of the reason is defensive, with adverts commissioned because rivals are splashing out. Normally, it is more a matter of persuading consumers to change brands than a manufacturing of new ‘needs’ out of thin air. Plenty of advertising campaigns, not least the marketing of new movies, flop or are even counter-productive (most famously the ‘Strand’ cigarette marketing).

Audiences tend to pay attention to what they want and interpret what they receive in terms of the own mindset. So, apparently, a majority of readers of that infamous Sun front page attacking Labour leader Neil Kinnock (above) actually went and, contrary to the paper’s ‘instructions’, voted… Labour. During the Falklands War, some 25-33% of the public continued to oppose the campaign despite near unanimity across the media in its favour. In totalitarian regimes like the USSR and Nazi Germany, large numbers persisted in disbelieving what intense and pervasive government propaganda was telling them.

The media, not least advertising, tend to be most influential when they are connecting to existing hopes, fears and general attitudes within their audiences. So they tend to reinforce rather than create beliefs and specific opinions.

The news can certainly be very selective. Yet there are many factors, other than bias and malice, at work: time constraints, a perceived need for balance between different kinds of news stories, availability of suitable photos/film footage, competition from other stories, suitable fit with the news production cycle of a station/newspaper… Certainly Greens should not rubbish the average reporter and other media personnel: it is often unfair and indeed rather counter-productive

It is a fact of life that conflict is more interesting than absence of strife. So days lost to strikes will be over-reported at the expense of days of normal working. Similarly, easily explained one-off stories about things that affect a lot of people will drive out ones lacking such qualities. So a rail strike will be reported rather than years of mismanagement of the railways. There is not necessarily an anti-union conspiracy here.

In any case, for all the (justified) accusations of ownership over-concentration, partiality and indeed downright censorship, there is still a surprising degree of diversity in the media. After all, it is easy to buy books by media critics such as Noam Chomsky or see ‘oppositional’ films by the likes of Michael Moore. Tony Benn has regularly appeared on TV and radio. The Mirror gave much space to both Paul Foot and John Pilger. Yes there are plenty of counter-examples but crude black-and-white stereotypes discredit our overall arguments.

Too much, too fast

There are a much deeper and more serious problems inherent in contemporary media technology, ones independent of actual ownership, to which Marshall McLuhan famously referred when he said that the “medium is the message” (i.e. not its content). These flaws will still be there even if conglomerates like News Corporation were to be broken up (certainly causes nonetheless worth fighting!).

For a start, the sheer quantity of airtime to be filled in round the clock broadcasting leads to a loss of quality, with endless repeats, cheap quiz and chat shows as well as yet more imports from the USA. Even a well-funded public broadcasting system would find it hard to fill such lengthy schedules with high quality programming.

A more serious concern is a decrease in average attention spans, a problem which can be laid at the door of both TV and computers, with their relentless barrage of fast-changing screen shots, shifting camera angles and special effects. [See the work of Baroness Greenfield]. It creates real problems for anyone with complex and lengthy ‘messages’ like the Greens.

At the same time, development like ‘rolling news’ TV, emails and blogging encourage knee-jerk reactions, at the expense of proper investigation and reflection. The anonymity of much ‘new media’ also seems to be inciting often vicious rudeness. Across the so-called ‘blogosphere’ and postings on the Facebook ‘wall’, the utterly inane competes with the innately stupid. Social networking is perhaps more a case of social nitwitting. There is indeed much unjustified hype about the progressive potential about such ‘new media’.[i]

The media regulator Ofcom suggests that the average person in the UK spends 7 hours a day watching TV, surfing the net and using their mobile phones. Actually the total usage is more since often they are ‘multi-tasking’, which, in effect, means they are not really paying that much attention to particular things. How often does one see people in company fiddling with their mobile phones when they are supposedly ’socialising’?

True, the media may spotlight issues such as famine and stimulate flurries of concern. Yet even the best coverage seems to produce few long-lasting changes amongst its audiences. Couch potatoes are perhaps not the stuff of real social change. As McLuhan realised, if people are glued to a TV box or computer console, they are effectively immobilised, more a recipe for inaction than active involvement in real struggle in the outside world. Perhaps it is symptomatic of such problems that the outrage of the British public over scandals like bankers’ bonuses and the like has seemed so short-lived.

Finally, outrage at Murdoch and co should never be allowed to disguise the fact that millions actually like what News Corporation and its ilk offer. No-one is forced to consume their products. Too often radical movements blame their lack of progress on the media, not honestly facing the fact that many people – at present – simply don’t want what Greens and other radical critics of society offer. It is a harsh reality that cannot be ducked.

So when the dust has died down on ‘Hackergate’, Greens need to pose a lot more questions about the role of the mass communication in society and look to a really radical reform of not just ownership of the media. We ought to be asking whether, there is a media surfeit – frequency, speed and volume – and whether ‘less’ might really be more.

[i] for a corrective view, see: http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=722 as well as Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Illusion and Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur

Newcastle’s new giant street screens

Sandy Irvine's photo.Above is what Newcastle City Council seems to think is progress It is the new giant double sided advertising screen at the top of Northumberland Street. As reported in the ‘Evening Chronicle’, the city’s Outdoor’s Chief Executive, Steve Smith, is over the moon: “We are delighted to have won the right to build and operate these screens in this highly desirable city and location.” When our local Labour rulers talk of ” ReNewcastle: Renewal and Regeneration”, the end result seems to be degradation or demolition or both, be it more urban sprawl or little monstrosities in the city centre. WreckNewcastle more likely!

The new live digital screens belong to UK-based City Outdoor Media. It operates a further seven screens across cities in the UK, including a further four full motion screens in Manchester city centre.

The ‘Chronicle’ also reported that Stephen Patterson, of the Business Improvement District Company, NE1, thinks that this screen, in addition to those at Swan House and Central Motorway have added to the “visual animation of the region’s capital city, especially after dark”, creating “a vibrant shopping experience… another positive step”.

City Screen above A167

Actually it adds to the oppressive volume of advertising that bombards us daily. It is ugly and intrusive. It is symptomatic of a mentality that cannot see beyond a society based on spend, spend, spend. If advertisers are looking for outlets and the cash-strapped council looking for new income streams they should focus on desirable things such as paid sponsorship of litter collection, street cleaning and recycling.

In the meantime, however, they are taking us to a world that resembles the city streets seen in the opening sequences of the film Blade Runner, though, when switched off, it is reminiscent of the alien obelisk in Kubrick’s ‘2001’. Perhaps soon there will be airships floating over our heads with advertising too. Instead we should be following the lead of cities such as Grenoble and banning billboards, screens and so forth.

We might also wind up NE1. Companies like that are too rooted in an unsustainable model of urban development.

Sandy Irvine's photo.
Sandy Irvine's photo.

Newcastle’s Giant Advertising Screens

Look below at what Newcastle City Council seems to think is progress It is the new giant double sided advertising screen at the top of Northumberland Street. As reported in the ‘Evening Chronicle’, the city’s Outdoor’s Chief Executive, Steve Smith, is over the moon: “We are delighted to have won the right to build and operate these screens in this highly desirable city and location.” When our local Labour rulers talk of ” ReNewcastle: Renewal and Regeneration”, the end result seems to be degradation or demolition or both, be it more urban sprawl or little monstrosities in the city centre. WreckNewcastle more likely!

The new live digital screens belong to UK-based City Outdoor Media. It operates a further seven screens across cities in the UK, including a further four full motion screens in Manchester city centre.
The ‘Chronicle’ also reported that Stephen Patterson, of the Business Improvement District Company, NE1, thinks that this screen, in addition to those at Swan House and Central Motorway have added to the “visual animation of the region’s capital city, especially after dark”, creating “a vibrant shopping experience… another positive step”.
Actually it adds to the oppressive volume of advertising that bombards us daily. It is ugly and intrusive. It is symptomatic of a mentality that cannot see beyond a society based on spend, spend, spend. If advertisers are looking for outlets and the cash-strapped council looking for new income streams they should focus on desirable things such as paid sponsorship of litter collection, street cleaning and recycling.
In the meantime, however, they are taking us to a world that resembles the city streets seen in the opening sequences of the film Blade Runner, though, when switched off, it is reminiscent of the alien obelisk in Kubrick’s ‘2001’. Perhaps soon there will be airships floating over our heads with advertising too. Instead we should be following the lead of cities such as Grenoble and banning billboards, screens and so forth.
We might also wind up NE1. Companies like that are too rooted in an unsustainable model of urban development.