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Choosing the John Pilger talk as his annual trip to FODI last weekend, Lachlan R Dale left with a bitter taste in his mouth and not much respect for Pilger himself.
Last weekend I attended the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI).
It’s become something of a habit to spend a day or two lazing in the sun alongside Sydney Harbour to attend a few talks. The quality varies wildly. Some talks fall short, but there is usually at least one session that justifies my attendance (that was John Safran Foer in 2011, and Sam Harris in 2012).
This year I gambled on John Pilger’s session. Entitled “Breaking Australia’s Silence”, the talk promised a discussion on elevating the profile of important issues affecting Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia – commendable stuff.
I knew a little about Pilger. I’d read The Secret Country a few years back and listened to Pilger’s Sydney Peace Prize Lecture with interest. While I appreciated his passion for digging up our sordid treatment of Australia’s First Peoples, I had reservations about his meta-analysis.
The talk was straight forward enough. Pilger did what he usually does: grand-standing and making bold, dramatic pronouncements while sidelining all nuance. He’s a polarising figure, and his rhetoric tends to be rather extreme.
He returned multiple times to the theme of the “Political Class” preparing us for another war in Iraq, tying it into his overarching theme of “The People vs The Political Establishment” (featuring “The Evil Murdoch Empire”). He championed citizen media, urging us to think for ourselves, and to actively participate in the political process. Sound advice, to be sure.
Still, I had reservations. My impression was that he sounded more like a populist politician than a straight-shooting journalist. Something rang hollow.
Then came question time.
The first came from a young man, who challenged Pilger’s black-and-white analysis of the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq.
It went something like:
“I appreciate that the last Iraq war was a mistake, and what you say about the West causing a lot of chaos in the Middle East. Still, don’t we have a moral duty to stop the Islamic State committing genocide?”
A sound question, and one that penetrated to the core of the conflict between ideology and practical action.
Pilger’s response was sickening. He immediately went on the attack:
“What do you know of the beheadings of Aboriginal people here in Australia?”
It seems beside the point really. The crowd stirred uneasily. A few people murmured in acknowledgement of such a poignant statement.
“Seven hundred thousand dead in Iraq. And you call that ‘a mistake’?”
The questioner tried to reply that Pilger was kind of missing the point (and that he was against the last Iraq war), but the host quickly moved onto another question.
A few minutes later a young woman thankfully called Pilger out for his contemptuous deflection, requesting he actually answer the question and noting that he sounded “more like a politician” than a journalist. A few in the audience applauded.
Pilger became very visibly aggressive towards the young woman. He inarticulately outlined that if the West wants to regain any credibility it must cease its destabilising secret operations and work with the international community to provide whatever humanitarian aid it can across the world. I take his point, but I expect it would be received pretty coldly by Yazidi facing the prospect of a massacre at the hands of the brutal Islamic State.
This is the yawning void between theory and reality.
More importantly, the aggressive disrespect he showed these two questioners left a bitter taste in my mouth. How can this man grandly advocate for free speech, independent thought, free inquiry and the challenging of those in power if he cannot even front some simple, direct and non-leading questions from his own audience?
Those that listen to him speak are not idiots, and he should not behave like a petulant child when they challenge his world view.
John Pilger – for your performance on Sunday you should be ashamed.
You do yourself, and the causes you champion an injustice.