By Robert J. Burrowes
I have just read Andre Vltchek’s new book ‘Exposing Lies of the Empire’. Let me tell you something about this book of 800 pages.
Vltchek writes with passion and poetry, describing the true horror experienced by the world at large, living at the gunpoint of the imperial powers, while also describing and drawing you into a world of progress, culture and refinement that exists in some places and, so we are tantalised, might exist elsewhere too and even, perhaps, one day for us all.
If you want to begin to understand Vltchek himself, you should start with the chapter headed ‘Solitude of an Internationalist: Our Leningrad’. With a racial heritage that boasts Russian, Chinese and European blood, a religious heritage that includes Christianity and Islam, a childhood spent living in Prague and Leningrad (as he prefers to call St Petersburg) and having since lived in many countries, including Chile, Samoa, the United States and Vietnam, while travelling in 150, it is beyond me to dispute his claim that he is an ‘internationalist’.
In this book, we follow his personal journey to document, film, photograph and philosophise about the violence, the impoverishment, the corruption and the destruction inflicted by the (European and North American) Empire: the book contains many great (and not so great) stories about human beings whether great thinkers, mass murderers, ‘servants and butlers of the Empire’, slumdwellers, corrupt officials, battalion commanders… He offers no conclusions or strategy of resistance but he does offer great hope and evidence that ‘ordinary’ people are struggling against the Empire and will continue to do so.
He shows, again and again, that the one recurring legacy of violence is more violence. Time after time, he shows that even when the war ended, ‘the violence never stopped’. He also illustrates how those secondary beneficiaries of Empire – those of us in western countries who benefit from the violence and plunder of ‘our’ elites and who are too afraid to challenge, let alone confront, these elites – make it all possible.
We might be victims of the endless elite propaganda (distributed via the tightly owned and controlled corporate media as ‘news’ and by ‘cultural works’ of art, literature, photography, film and music devoid of criticism and penetrating questions) that keeps us ignorant and submissive, but it is really our fear that stops us seeking the truth. And I agree with him. The knowledge of what has happened and is happening is there for anyone who seeks it.
Throughout this book, he describes what he has witnessed in one country after another and, often enough, provides some historical context as well.
For example, he briefly describes one of the ‘human zoos’ – the Jardin Zoologique d’Acclimatation in Paris – that exhibited various indigenous peoples in the 19th and 20th centuries to show ‘uncivilized’ customs and lifestyles to their ‘civilized’ European spectators. But he was unable to find any monument, memorial or even artwork of repentance for the ongoing massacres, rapes, genocides and plundering committed by European powers against the peoples of Africa, the Middle East, the Carribean, the Americas, Australia, Oceania and Asia over the past thousand years which paid for Europe’s cathedrals, churches, palaces and schools, hospitals and theatres.
Of course, there are statues for some of the most racist and genocidal figures in history, such as King Leopold II of Belgium and Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom, but France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain also still exhibit the gains from their imperial slaughter and plunder without sign of self-consciousness or regret. A long time ago, in response to a reporter’s question ‘What do you think of Western civilization?’ Gandhi replied: ‘I think it would be a good idea.’ I suspect Vltchek would agree, particularly given the Empire’s ongoing efforts to destroy the cradle of civilization in the Middle East, which he also describes from the (dangerous) frontline in several countries.
And since World War II, do you know about the despots which Europe’s ‘constitutional monarchies’ and ‘multi-party democracies’, along with the United States, sponsored in Iran, Egypt, the Gulf, the Middle East, South Vietnam, Cambodia, South Korea, Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Kenya, South Africa and so many other ‘unfortunate’ countries where millions died? According to Vltchek’s estimate, which he regards as conservative, 55 million lives have been lost since World War II as a result of western colonialism, neo-colonialism, direct invasions, sponsored coups and other acts of international terror. This figure does not include those lives lost to famines, mismanagement and outright misery triggered and maintained by western imperialism.
Do you know about the genocides committed by Indonesian elites, with imperial blessing, against their own people, the people of Timor-Leste, and now in West Papua and even Indonesian zoos while the nation’s infrastructure has effectively collapsed and the economy survives by plundering natural resources including vanishing rainforests?
And do you know about the ongoing genocide in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where their visionary leader Patrice Lumumba was assassinated in 1961? Intent on using the newly independent country’s wealth – including its prodigious quantities of coltan, diamonds, gold and uranium – to benefit Africans, Lumumba was killed in a plot sponsored by the United States. Do you think Vltchek is exaggerating? For another account with more corroborating evidence, see ‘Patrice Lumumba: the most important assassination of the 20th century’. Since then, up to ten million Congolese have been murdered, most of them by the client regimes in Rwanda and Uganda which have fought the proxy war for the United States and other imperial powers since the mid-1990s.
Vltchek clearly identifies the insanity of the elites who control the Empire. ‘Any society or ideology that dares to put people first is demonized and ridiculed. It is ideologically attacked. If it refuses to succumb, it gets attacked militarily, it gets bombed, and eventually, it ends up being thoroughly destroyed.’ Think Iraq and Libya but there are many, less visible, countries besides, including the Congo.
Given their history in providing cover for the European/North American empire, Vltchek is a trenchant critic of Christianity, western ‘culture’ (art, literature, cinema, theatre and music) as well as the corporate media.
He documents, with chillingly violent detail, the sins of Christianity which has wanted converts (at the point of a gun if necessary) and does not tolerate, let alone ‘love thy neighbour’, when the neighbour is of a different faith. He would like to know more about the embezzlements and rapes by priests, about the Vatican Bank, about Pentecostal Protestant sects, and about Christianity’s long history of collaboration with royalty, aristocracy, slavery, banks and business interests, fascists and Nazis. ‘God hates poor people and that is why they are poor. God loves those who are rich, and that is why they are rich’, he heard at one Church service in South East Asia.
He describes the vacuity of western culture with its knack for not seeing the victims of imperial violence: those who are exploited, brutalised, raped, tortured, mutilated, killed so that we can consume more at less cost. Where is the great western art that describes this violence? Not in its art galleries, books, cinemas, theatres and music, with extremely rare exceptions. And not in its corporate newspapers or on its mainstream radios and televisions. Elites do not sponsor the exposure of their brutality.
He describes the ruthless capitalist ethic that values profit over people and uses military violence to impose the ‘free market’. He deplores ‘multi-party democracy’: a term used to obscure the elite dictatorships that govern western nations and their submissive clients in Africa, Asia and elsewhere (such as Kenya, India and Turkey).
Mostly, however, he deplores the fear of those westerners who studiously ignore what is happening. Those whose fear has let the Brave New World of 1984 imprison them while they delude themselves that they are ‘free’. And it’s on this point that I would like to give something to Vltchek although he clearly has some sense of it when he refers to ‘Fascist family structures and cultures’.
Most human beings are not just frightened, they are (unconsciously) utterly terrified and self-hating. This is the inevitable outcome of what humans benignly refer to as ‘socialization’ but which I call ‘terrorization’. Yes, western humans might inflict enormous violence on others, but this is an outcome of the phenomenal violence – visible, invisible and utterly invisible – that these same human adults suffered during childhood and now (unconsciously) inflict on their own children.
Bizarre though it might seem, this produces victims who become perpetrators, but also victims who become collaborators, and victims who remain victims. It depends on the precise configuration of violence to which any particular individual is subjected as a child. See ‘Why Violence?’ and ‘Fearless Psychology and Fearful Psychology: Principles and Practice’.
Unfortunately too, it is this violence against children which has also ensured that so many people in so many cultures have been, and are still, unable to effectively resist imperial violence (although I am not suggesting that this is easy to do, given the staggering level of violence that is often inflicted).
On a positive note, Vltchek discusses the tremendous progress being made in countries often demonised by the Empire. Are you aware of the phenomenal contribution of Cuba to international well-being, for example, by sending its doctors to far-flung places?
Or of Eritrea’s tremendous record of achievement in the years since its 30-year liberation war? Devoid of significant corruption, it is secular, refuses support for extremist groups of all religions, has virtually free healthcare and impressive adult literacy programs, is one of the few African nations expected to meet the Millennium Development Goals, is rated second in the world for per capita use of solar energy, refuses to host foreign military forces and bases, and seeks to develop self-reliantly using its own substantial natural resources. It is consistently demonised by the Empire.
Vltchek discusses other countries like Bolivia, South Africa and Venezuela that have also made impressive progress, sometimes with the support of countries like Russia, while resisting (and being demonised by) imperial elites.
I have three other observations about this book. In his effort to restore some balance to the demonised reporting of those countries that resist the Empire, I think Vltchek is sometimes insufficiently critical of their governments even while he is quite candid in admitting they are not perfect. For example, China might have many significant achievements, including a much better record of support for development efforts in Africa, but it does occupy Tibet and East Turkestan (Uyghurstan) and its 1989 massacre of those nonviolent citizens involved in the pro-democracy movement should not be ignored nor should its violent treatment of members of the Falun Gong now. Perhaps Vltchek has dealt with such issues elsewhere.
Vltchek is also critical that despite the readily available information ‘about the horrors of imperialism and market fundamentalism…nothing is happening’. But there is an important reason why the response is inadequate. As mentioned above, most people are (unconsciously) terrified and feel utterly powerless. And there is a straightforward psychological explanation for this, given the nature of modern societies. See ‘Why Are Most Human Beings So Powerless?’ So any effective strategy to resist imperial horror must take these factors into account.
And thirdly, Vltchek pays virtually no attention to the effectiveness of nonviolent strategy in resisting empire. While he clearly identifies and values the role of knowledge and the arts in resisting imperial violence, and he perceives this as an act of love, he does not consider the effectiveness of this when it is done within the context of a coherent nonviolent strategy.
I accept his point that ‘opposition movements’ are often the creation of the Empire in its efforts to bring down socialist or socially progressive governments (that resist imperial violence). However, given that the Empire has a vast military (including nuclear) arsenal at its disposal and uses it without any consideration for its victims, my own commitment is to delegitimize the use of violence and resist it with strategic nonviolence in all contexts.
Of course, nonviolent strategies have been used extensively and very successfully throughout the past hundred years to remove many of the Empire’s client dictators if not, yet, the imperial circle itself. See ‘Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict’. Moreover, if people want to resist strategically and nonviolently, they can learn how to do so. See ‘The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach’.
Apart from these issues, I have one word to describe this book: Great. Superb. Excellent. Brilliant. Take your pick. If you want to look at the history of the world through the eyes of those who have been denied a voice in white, western, Christian history books, I sincerely recommend that you check out ‘Exposing Lies of the Empire’. It is written by a man who cares deeply about humanity.
If you want to see more of Andre’s superb work, including some of his photographs, you can do so on his website. Just make sure you’ve got plenty of time when you do. And, if you are so inclined, you might consider financially supporting his work, for which he has no institutional backing. In my view, given the loneliness and fear entailed in doing his work, the unreliability of some people with whom he must work and, particularly, the dangerous situations he risks to bring us accurate accounts from the frontlines of human suffering, he richly deserves it.
A final word of warning: If your heart already aches for humanity, after reading Vltchek’s book, it will bleed profusely. Or you haven’t got one. But the book will also give you hope as you read some inspiring stories of people who defied imperial violence and changed the course of history. And, if you haven’t done so already, you can join them.