May 21 2010

Helena Cobban on Iran, Mike Epitropoulos on Greece


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This week on CounterSpin: When Brazil and Turkey brokered a deal to get Iran to ship much of its Uranium abroad for enriching, much of the world saw it as a positive step. But not so U.S. officials, who saw it as a threat to their efforts to impose UN sanctions on Iran—though perhaps not that much of a threat as the day after the Iran deal, the U.S. announced it had gotten China and Russia to support Iran sanctions. How has the U.S. media distinguished itself in covering all this Iran news? We’ll be joined by Helena Cobban of to talk about that.

Also on CounterSpin today, the media’s lessons about the Greece financial meltdown are pretty clear: overspending governments must tighten their belts, and what’s happening there can happen here if we don’t make drastic changes of our own—which usually translates into tax hikes, benefit cuts and other types of “shared sacrifice.” But is that the only lesson we’re being taught about Greece? Mike Epitropoulos thinks the crisis in Greece is being used to send a different message—about what happens when citizens rise up to challenge entrenched power. He’ll join us to explain.

All that’s coming up, but first we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.

—Much of the mainstream media wanted to draw big lessons from the elections in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Kentucky on May 18. Ahead of the voting, there was a stream of commentary about their importance. “A bellwether for November,” according to one Washington Post headline. Another Post story told us that “an angry electorate, which already has delivered a series of shocks to the political system, will render a fresh verdict.” Well maybe. But it’s important to remember that these are generally low turnout, closed primaries.

The race that got much of the media attention was the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, where Republican-until-last-year Arlen Specter lost to Democratic Congressmember Joe Sestak. USA Today reported that this “represented the political backlash sweeping across the country.” That’s not so clear; Specter was attempting to convince Democratic voters that he was one of them, and they apparently didn’t buy it. Other coverage suggested that the results dealt a crippling blow to centrism, the media’s preferred political ideology—though, again, it’s hard to see how this is true, or why it would even matter all that much. The news website Politico had a dramatic take, with an article headlined “Activists seize control of politics” that used terms like disgorging, retching, fevers, spasms and muscle-flexing.

For some, the lesson was simple: Democrats are in trouble. The New York Daily News claimed that Specter’s loss “continues bad 2010 for President Obama, Democrats.” That’s a stretch; Specter was supported by the White House, but from a distance. An arguably more important race—in the 12th district of Pennsylvania, for Jack Murtha’s congressional seat—saw the Democrats prevail.

The real lesson might be that there might be no big lesson here at all. But don’t tell that to the pundits who spend hours telling you what to believe about a few relatively minor elections.

—With a headline like “Elena Kagan Is Miles Away From Mainstream America,” you had to think that Kathleen Parker’s May 12 Washington Post column would be a doozy. And it was. Parker’s point is that Kagan grew up in New York City; this matters because Kagan spent her youth ‘”walking past the infamously crime-ridden Murder Hotel en route to school instead of “walking past the First Baptist church to ballet class.”

So unlike mainstream America, New York City doesn’t have ballet classes or Baptist churches? We don’t know if Kagan ever took dance lessons, but if she did, she may have walked by the First Baptist Church on her way—it was four blocks from her home.

But Parker’s argument isn’t really about dance class, or even about New York City. If that were the case, New Yorker Antonin Scalia would not meet Parker’s criteria as “mainstream.” So what is it about Kagan? Parker offers another clue:

More than half the country also happens to be Protestant, yet with Kagan, the court will feature three Jews, six Catholics and nary a Protestant. Fewer than one-fourth of Americans are Catholic, and 1.7 percent are Jewish.

But elsewhere in her column Parker holds up Catholic Justices Scalia and Samuel Alito as exemplars of the mainstream, so it isn’t their religion that puts them beyond the pale.

Many conservatives deride “San Francisco values” to link political opponents to the country’s most gay-identified city. When we hear some conservatives going on about New York City, it’s the same thing—only it’s about Jews instead of gays.

—A Senate “compromise” climate bill was unveiled by John Kerry and Joe Lieberman on May 12. If you wanted to know what environmentalists thought of it, though, you weren’t likely to get that answer in the corporate media. Take the New York Times, where reporter John Broder quoted Kerry, Barack Obama (who’s a supporter of the bill) and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (formerly a somewhat iffy supporter). He also references two main industry groups—the Edison Electric Institute and the American Petroleum Institute—as well as BP, ConocoPhillips and the United States Chamber of Commerce.

Finally, in the second-to-last graph, we learn that some environmental groups are supportive, while “other environmentalists said the bill did not go far enough and offered too many concessions to win industry support.” No groups are named, no concessions mentioned.

It’s not that this information is hard to come by. A press release from Public Citizen, for example, was headlined: “It’s a Nuclear Energy-Promoting, Oil Drilling-Championing, Coal Mining-Boosting Gift.” Some explanation of that view would have been helpful for readers who might want to know what’s actually in the bill—and not merely what politicians and oil companies think of it.

—The May 19 Washington Post had a story headlined, “Democrats Queasy About Deficit Spending.” And reporter Lori Montgomery quotes some Democratic politicians who say as much. The problem is with the explanation the Post provides for the qualms. The story opens like this:

With voters up in arms over the mounting federal debt, congressional Democrats are growing increasingly queasy about adding to the nation’s tab, with some arguing that additional spending to prop up the economy and help the unemployed should be paid for or abandoned.

But are voters really “up in arms” over the debt? That’s not what voters say. If you look at recent surveys at the Polling Report website, for example, the “debt” or “deficit” ranks well behind jobs and the economy when people are asked to rank the top problems facing the country.

Some of the spending that apparently makes some Democrats “queasy” is focused, the Post reports, on jobs. It would have been a very different article if it pointed out that dealing with that problem is actually voters’ chief concern.

—And finally, Under the not-too-promising headline “Afghans’ Distrust Threatens U.S. War Strategy,” the New York Times on May 13 reported that the U.S. success in the Afghan war “may well depend on whether Afghans can overcome their corrosive distrust of President Hamid Karzai’s government.”

Why that lack of trust would be deemed “corrosive,” or why they should trust someone many think stole the recent election, is not clear.

The article goes on:

Despite the commitment of more troops by Mr. Obama and a new strategy that has emphasized the protection of Afghan civilians, few in Afghanistan believe that a functional government that holds the country together can be created on the timetable outlined.

The new U.S. strategy of… protecting civilians?

Would that be the one that the Times covered the previous week? That piece was headlined “Shootings of Afghans on Rise at Checkpoints,” and it reported that NATO shootings of civilians has “spiked sharply” this year. The Times added: “These shootings are a major reason civilian casualties in Afghanistan are soaring after a much-publicized period of decline.”

That article also tells us that the military recently polled Afghans in Kandahar Province, and discovered that people there think U.S./NATO forces pose a similar danger as roadside bombs, and that U.S. checkpoints are more dangerous than those manned by the Taliban.

It sounds like Afghans might have a “corrosive distrust” of someone else too—no matter what the New York Times might try to tell us about how U.S. military actions are intended to protect Afghans.


CounterSpin: In a deal negotiated by Brazil and Turkey, Iran has agreed to ship roughly half its somewhat-enriched uranium out of the country to be further enriched in Turkey and returned for medical and research use to Iran. While many in the international community see this development as positive, U.S. officials and media seem to see it differently. Instead, the deal is framed as a threat to U.S.-spearheaded UN sanctions against Iran, a maneuver by Iran to stave off those sanction. For instance, a New York Times Web headline about the Iran deal read “Iran Offers to Ship Uranium, Complicating Sanctions Talks” while a Wall Street Journal report was titled, “Iranian Nuclear Deal Raises Fears.” But the Iran deal didn’t seem to slow progress on sanctions that much. The day after it was announced, the U.S. announced that it had finally gotten Russia and China to join other U.N. Security Council members in supporting Iran sanctions.

With us to sort through this story and the coverage is Helena Cobban, of the website Cobban’s latest book is Re-Engage! American and the World After Bush.

Helena Cobban, thanks for joining us today on CounterSpin!

Helena Cobban: Good to be with you.

CS: Well, let’s begin with Iran’s agreement. Was it a cynical attempt by Iran to forestall sanctions? Or was it progress? Or could it be both at the same time?

HC: It could obviously be both. The content of the deal is exactly the same as something that the U.S. offered to Iran last October or November. At that time, Iran was not ready to sign on and perhaps was not ready to give that concession to the United States. After that happened, obviously, Turkey and Brazil, which are members of the Security Council, currently (non-permanent members) and very substantial states in their own right and emerging mid-size powers in international affairs, their leaders both got very engaged—and it’s significant to me that they got engaged at the leadership level—and they negotiated with Ahmadinejad. President Lula da Silva actually joined Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan going to Tehran to negotiate directly with Ahmadinejad and with Khamenei on this deal, which is essentially, it is substantially in substance the same as what the U.S. supported last fall. So it’s very strange that Hillary Clinton came out so strongly against it this time.

CS: Well, following the announcement of the Iran agreement, the U.S. promptly announced that Russia and China were on board for UN Security Council sanctions against Iran. Moreover, the U.S. directly responded to the Iran concession by saying the swap wasn’t enough, Iran needed to cease all enrichment activities forthwith. What is odd here is that nearly everyone seems to agree that sanctions will not have the effect of softening up Iran for further concessions, but may harden them against talks, and may even undermine domestic human rights and democracy activists in Iran by unifying the country against sanctions. Do you think that is so, and if so, why on earth would the U.S. insist on sanctions?

HC: [Laughs] Well, Steve, you know I’ve been a citizen of this country for more than 20 years now, and it never ceases to amaze me the depth of desire that so many people in the American political elite have, this urge to punish both domestically, you know with our high incarceration rate, and internationally. I mean there’s this kind of very—I don’t know, is it a Puritan thing? What is it?—but just inflicting punishment on people you don’t like, regardless of whether it has the policy outcome that you want. You know we’ve seen it so many times. I think that’s one of the big things that’s happening here. You know, Iran has been so much demonized in the popular culture, particularly in the political elite—and here we have to look at the role of the pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC—that just sanctions, sanctions, sanctions, that’s the focus. And although we are told that the sanctions have a further purpose, which is actually to resolve the questions around Iran’s nuclear program. Iran, of course, denies that it’s a nuclear military program altogether, and that it’s just a peaceful program as is allowed under the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Well, there are questions, there are questions that need to be resolved about that program. And we are told that the sanctions are aimed at getting that clarity, getting those inspections, getting the nuclear questions resolved. But in fact the sanctions seem to have taken on a life of their own in American politics. And so many people are just jumping on the bandwagon—sanctions, sanctions, sanctions—you know, without looking at what they’re supposed to be achieving. And I think that’s very worrying, and I noticed it, for example, if you read the transcripts of the press conferences, the media conferences in the White House or in the state department. All the representatives of the mainstream media who are there, that’s what they’re focusing on—you know, sanctions, not: How are we going to actually succeed in clearing up these questions about Iran’s nuclear program? How are we going to proceed in actually making progress toward the non-nuclear world that President Obama has said he wants to bring about? They’ve lost sight of that policy context, and they’re just focused on the punishment and the sanctions. There is another sub-theme here, of course, which is that going back to 1993, when President Clinton came into office, his primary Middle East advisor, Martin Indyk, who was later ambassador to Israel, instituted the idea of crippling sanctions, and you will find this in a lot of the AIPAC literature today, the AIPAC press releases and so on and so forth, and even, I think, in some of these AIPAC-sponsored congressional resolutions—that they want to see crippling sanctions that really damage and harm the Iranian people, the Iranian regime, and we all know that when there are sanctions they hurt the citizens more than they hurt the regime. So it seems very disfunctional, but I think that there’s just a lot of kind of weight of American punitive culture behind this.

CS: I mentioned that while Iran’s concession has gained international praise—for instance from France’s Nicholas Sarkozy—the U.S. press has really seen it differently. One of the recurring tropes in this coverage is that Brazil and Turkey are threatening what would otherwise be “international unity” on Iran sanctions, because, as the Washington Post put it, the two, “junior Security Council members” had ” swooped in with their own deal with Iran to forestall new penalties on the Islamic republic.” But what do the Post and other media really mean when they say there is an international unity or consensus on Iran?

HC: Well, you’re right to identify this trope, Steve, and sometimes it’s just put in the shorthand of the international community, like Iran is defying the international community, but you know their definition of an international community is an incredibly sort of inside-the-Beltway Washington consensus, Washington-dominated definition that really doesn’t wash anywhere else in the world, and remember we are just like 5 percent or less of the world’s population. So I think the administration got completely blindsided by the success that Brazil and Turkey had in brokering this deal, which remember was a U.S.-originated offer back there in the fall. And that’s my reading of how Hillary Clinton on Monday when the news that they had completed the deal, she just seemed to go ballistic and rushed around saying, well we’ve got agreement from China and Russia and therefore the UN sanctions will go ahead. And a lot of this also gets reflected in a very, let’s say, stenographic kind of way by the mainstream media that just is so eager to maintain access with the secretary of state that the way their whole mindset seems to reflect hers and to reinforce hers. I don’t know exactly where the national security adviser, General Jim Jones, and the rest of the people at the White House were on this issue. It seemed very much that it was Hillary taking the lead, but with acolytes throughout the U.S. press corps just kind of mimicking her way of looking at the world, as you said looking at Brazil, which has a population of 196 million and Turkey, with its population of 72 million, as being kind of upstarts who are junior members, as you said. [laughs] It’s a very parochial worldview.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Helena Cobban, her latest book is Re-Engage! American and the World After Bush. You can read her work on

Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin Helena Cobban!

HC: Good being with you, Steve.


CounterSpin: The financial crisis in Greece has produced two main storylines in the U.S. media: there are the street protests against pending and wage cuts that the government and international community insist are necessary to solve Greece’s budget problems, and then there’s the idea that what’s happening in Greece could happen here too. There are reasons why this latter fear is overblown—New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has written very clearly about this. But the political point that the it-could-happen-to-us crowd is trying to make is a familiar one in the media: so-called entitlements like Social Security and Medicare are going to bankrupt the country, so such spending must be curtailed if we wish to avoid a Greek problem of our own. So on the one level, the Greece story is a handy prop for corporate media.

In an article for Dollars and Sense magazine, Mike Epitropoulos explains what the lessons of Greece are, and what they should be. He teaches sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. He joins us now by telephone.

Welcome to CounterSpin, Mike Epitropoulos.

Mike Epitropoulos: Thank you very much.

CS: Well, the headline of your piece is “Greece as a Demonstration Project,” so clearly there’s a lesson being pushed on this story. Much of the commentary and coverage in the U.S. tells us that Greece has this bloated public sector, where workers are overpaid, and so forth, and now the bills come due. So when you see street protests, you are supposed to consider these the revolts of an entitled class who, as one ABC reporter put it, wants to have their cake and eat it too. You argue that there’s a sliver of truth in this, even though it sort of misses the big point.

ME: Yes, I think you hit the nail on the head there. It is true that there is a bloated, or very disproportionately large, public sector, compared to other Western European countries, in Greece. But I think it, as you also indicated, is a misrepresentation to say that this is what the meaning of the protests that we’re seeing on the streets. I think it’s a reflection of the Greek public’s class consciousness and awareness of their material interests, and also the fact that the corruption, stealing, and economic abuse from both within and without are so naked and are going unpunished that the people are taking it out in whatever way they can—and of course that oftentimes is, in the Greek case, as it is in France or Italy or other Western European countries, in the form of civil disobedience and street violence.

CS: We do know that, you mentioned the bloated public sector, we do know, for example, that military spending in Greece is quite high. Though that never seems to get much attention in the U.S. conversation about Greece. And you mentioned corruption, and we hear a little bit about tax evasion, but we don’t hear as much about who is evading taxes in Greece.

ME: I think it should be noted that some of the more progressive or left parties in Greece have called on the European Union as part of the bailout, if you will, of the Greek economy to guarantee the security of Greece vis-a-vis Turkey and allow Greece to, if you will, cut military spending drastically or completely for the next few years as part of its saving money. Most of the Greek military spending is couched in Greek-Turkish tensions. And again the irony in all of this is that Turkey has now long been a candidate for European Union membership. How can this be if they use the Turkish threat as the rationale for their disproportionately large military spending? And again, I think that, as I wrote in the article, the Bank of Greece recently—and again this comes from their own publications and pronouncements—admitted that the lion’s share of tax money collected comes from working and middle class Greeks. I will say that there is a culture of corruption in Greece. I don’t think it’s going to be easily eradicated even though they’re trying to call on—the Papandreou government is trying to call on Greeks to return to hardworking, traditional ways of Greece, and again even utilizing the slogan hope and change like Barack Obama did. I think this culture of corruption includes all economic strata. There is a culture of tax evasion, for example, but certainly it is disproportionately at the upper end of the socioeconomic class ladder. Most of the tax evasion, as again was also portrayed in an ABC news clip where they were showing swimming pools in the northern suburbs, where there were 300 registered pools but their satellites were able to identify 16,000 or some outrageous number. That’s unfortunately very common.

CS: The images from the street protests give the story a little more play over here, especially on U.S. television. Your piece recalls that there were protests in 2008 in Greece that are probably still very much on people’s minds there, and might provide some context for understanding what’s going on now, or at least some of the passion.

ME: Absolutely. Those protests that began in December of 2008 are very much related, certainly to today’s protests, and today’s protests are very much a continuation of those, and of course thosef began when the high school student Alexit was killed by police in Athens in the Exarcheia district of Athens, which is know as an area where political dissidents, anarchists, anti-authoritarian groups gather and certainly dominate the neighborhood. Out of this killing, where the police claimed that the officer in question fired into the air—eyewitnesses certainly discredited this officer—and people from all political parties, all strata, took to the streets. The response of the government was to back the police, as is typically the case in most countries. Also the media was portraying, wrongly, oftentimes what was going on in these riots. And as I wrote in the piece, when the stories that were presented in the mainstream media did not match the stories that were being brought home by regular Greeks and Athenians, there was a backlash against the mainstream media, and they were forced to retract many of their stories, as was the government. And again we do see in this case that there were very clearly provocateurs of the government infiltrating some of the protest groups to discredit the protests. And I think this is also part of the demonstration effect that I think is at the heart of why Greece, among all of the PIIGS—Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain—is at the center of our globalized attention. It’s because of this reason I believe.

CS: To underline that, we have about a minute left, you think the demonstration then is that citizens rising up and pushing back is what needs to be kind of stamped out here then.

ME:Exactly. I believe that if the idea is that if the authorities can put down a traditionally militant public that fights for its class interests, as is the case with Greece, then through this demonstration effect, the task will be much easier, as it will occur in other subsequent countries, like the PIIGS, like the United States.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Mike Epitropoulos. He teaches sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. You can read his article, “Greece as a Demonstration Project” at

Mike Epitropoulos, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

ME: Thank you both.


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—”Greece as a Demonstration Project,” by Mike Epitropoulos (Dollars and Sense, 4/14/10)