Written in July 2002, after an Independent article by a so-called 'Science Correspondent'.
The Independent and its columnists often rail against the practitioners of ‘hate speech’ - usually meaning those who make any negative remarks about ethnic minorities or homosexuals. Yet the Indie, a significant minority of its columnists and a large proportion of its shrinking readership are happy to incite hatred of one particular national group - Americans. From columnists such as Robert Fisk and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, through the letters page and the bulletin board postings, anti-US vitriol has been dripping ever since those long-ago days when the Indie stopped being a serious newspaper and repositioned itself in that fertile readership territory between the Guardian and Socialist Worker. (You certainly couldn’t call the Indie a socialist paper though - nationalisation is seen more as a way of upsetting capitalists than of building a New Jerusalem, and the political attitudes have more in common with Kevin the Teenager than Karl Marx.)
If only I’d been given a fiver for every time the word ‘redneck’ or ‘cowboy’ has been used in a debate about US policy !
A paper which seems to be terribly against the stereotyping of its favoured sub-groups is happy to caricature a nation which is far more free and democratic than we are, where ethnic minorities rise to high office without the aid of quotas, and whose economy is the envy of the world, as a nation of brain-dead ‘good old boys’, forever driving their gas-guzzling autos, six-pack wedged on the shotgun rack, down an endless highway, through a landscape littered with burning crosses and lynch-mob victims, past prisons full of innocent death-row inmates (all of whom have low mental ages and blood-sugar disorders), and churches packed with hypocritical scoundrels just itching to chain women back to the sink and shoot an abortionist or three.
This tendency seems to have spread to their science ‘correspondent’, one Charles Arthur. Thursday’s Indie features a headline which ‘were it true, would indeed be sad’, to quote William McGonagall.
“REVEALED: HOW THE SMOKE STACKS OF AMERICA HAVE BROUGHT THE WORLD'S WORST DROUGHT TO AFRICA”
The first three paragraphs are, if you like, the point of the article - the reader can know all he needs to know from them
Para 1 - ‘to those who live there, it is as if the rich have stolen the rain. For more than 30 years, the Sahel region of Africa has suffered the longest sustained droughts in the world’. So we know who to blame - ‘the rich’. I can just hear them now in Mali - ‘the rich have stolen the rain !’
Para 2 - crops are failing (between 1972 and 1975, and 1984 and 1985) and a million people have starved to death. You haven’t forgotten who to blame, have you now ?
Para 3 - George Bush doesn’t like the idea that the developed world might be to blame. At last - evil has a face and a name !
Pity that if rumour is correct, in 1975 he was dancing naked on Mexican bar tables, off his head on coke, as many of us might have been tempted to do had we millionaire fathers. And in 1985 he was in front of a telly watching Live Aid - as most of us did.
And the headline - how does Charles Arthur know that either the drought in Southern Africa (which will create interesting dilemmas as we’re asked to send money to Zimbabwe) or the previous droughts of 72-75 and 84-85 are ‘the world’s worst’ ?
I’d have thought the ongoing situation in the Sahara, Gobi or Atacama deserts (where in some areas it rains every 300 years or so) might potentially be worse. The dry valleys of Antarctica don’t get much rain or snow either. This ‘world’s worst’ tag has just been invented to highlight the evil being wrought by the US.
You have to read further to find out that
a) two people have created a computer model which suggests that sulphur dioxide emissions are moving the sub-Saharan rain belt south, and that this effect caused the famines in Ethiopia and Mali which some of us will remember. Of course there have been many computer models of climate created by scientists - all of which have so far proved hopeless when it comes to predicting the future.
b) ‘Researchers have little doubt that the two are connected’ says the article.
But the only scientist they quote says he is "cautious" about taking the interpretation of the link between aerosols in the northern hemisphere and the weather in the Sahel as gospel.
c) “According to the researchers themselves, droughts have become less severe over the last few years”.
But Mr. Arthur, advancing no evidence, then says that the current food crisis in, not Sub-Saharan, but SOUTHERN Africa is caused by the effect ! So apparently the Saharan rain-belt has moved south of Zimbabwe ! I suppose en-route it caused the floods in Mozambique a year or two back. Stand by for Cape Town to be washed away.
d) The researchers actually blame pollution from power stations and factories in Europe and America.
So the headline should also castigate Europeans - like Indie readers. And presumably Mrs. Thatcher, who closed so many sulphur-dioxide producing coal-fired stations (quoting environmental reasons - no, I didn’t believe her either) and shut down so much of British industry, must be hailed as a far-sighted environmental heroine. Perhaps the headline could have read “Thatcher Was Right, Say Climate Researchers”. But that wouldn’t have fitted the story the Indie wanted to tell. Easier to blame the Toxic Texan.
The whole article is a remarkable mix of anti-US bile and bad science. Of course, the Saharan rain-belt has moved south before with no help from the US. Thousands of years ago the desert bloomed - it wasn’t always a sandy waste.
Perhaps next week Charles Arthur will show how George Bush’s distant forebears, on the first stage of the long voyage from the Kenyan Rift Valley, cradle of mankind, to Midland, Texas, chopped down every tree in the Sahara to make a fleet of ocean-going rafts !
The same Indie issue contains a leader attacking New Labour for its obsession with presentation and spin at the expense of truth and honesty. Yet the whole point of Charles Arthur’s article is not to tell the truth, but to spin the facts in order to smear a nation and its leader.