The most recent common ancestor of all humans living today

In order to find the date of the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) of all the people living today, Chang started out by constructing a simple mathematical model of population mixing. (See here for some background to this post.)

He assumed that the population is constant over time at some value N. He assumed that the generations are discrete and non-overlapping (i.e. mating took place only between males and females of the same generation). He also assumed that mating was random. In words, that there was equal probability of any one male in a generation to breed with any female of that same generation.
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Some surprising facts about ancestors

In 1999, Joseph T. Chang published a very interesting paper in the journal Advances in Applied Probability (vol. 31, pages 1002-1026) titled Recent Common Ancestors of all Present-Day Individuals. To understand the paper, it helps to reflect a little on the mathematics of genealogy.

One rock-solid fact of ancestry is that every person has two, and only two, biological parents. They in turn each have two parents so going back two generations gives a person four ancestors. If you go back three generations, you have eight ancestors and so on. Each generation that you go back doubles the number of ancestors in the previous generation.

We all know that this kind of geometric progression results in one reaching very large numbers very soon and by thirty generations, the number of ancestors one has acquired has ballooned to over one billion. In forty generations, we have over one trillion ancestors.

Conservatively allowing for each generation to span 30 years (which is a little large), going back thirty generations takes us back to about 1100 CE where the population was only about 300 million, and forty generations takes us back to 800 CE where the population was less than 200 million. (If we take each generation as averaging 25 years, 30 generations takes us back to 1250 CE when the population was 350 million and in forty generations we reach 1000 CE where the population was 200 million.)

Having more ancestors that the total population leads to the clear conclusion (which is not that surprising once one thinks about it) that all our ancestors cannot have been distinct individuals but were shared. In other words, my great-great-great-grandfather on my father’s side had to be the same person as my great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side, or something like that.

But the interesting point is that each one of us has over a trillion ancestors in just forty generations, which must mean that you, the reader, and I must have some shared ancestors, unless the huge population of your ancestors were entirely isolated from the huge population of my ancestors, with no mixing at all between them. Given the large numbers of ancestors involved, this kind of isolation seems highly unlikely unless there was some major geographical barrier separating the populations. We know that this is not the case, since by 1000 CE, people were able to travel pretty much all over the inhabited world, and all you need is just one person from my group of ancestors mating with one person from your group of ancestors to break the isolation, because then the ancestors of that pair are shared by both of us.

So if you and I (as just two people) share common ancestors, then we can see that if we go back far enough in time, all of us living on the world today should share at least some common ancestors. (See this post for a more rigorous argument for this.) One question that Chang was investigating was that of finding out, from among all the common ancestors, when the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) of all the people living in the world today lived.

The concept of the MRCA is interesting. My siblings and I share all our ancestors so the MRCA is not meaningful. The MRCA of my cousins and I (say) are the one set of grandparents that we have in common. As my current relatives get more distant, the MRCA goes back in time but it is not hard to see that an MRCA must exist for those who are commonly referred to as ‘blood’ relatives.

As another example, for those who take the Bible literally, definite common ancestors would be Noah and his wife. Since everyone except the two of them and their sons and their sons’ wives were killed by god in the flood, all the current inhabitants of the world should have Noah and his wife as common ancestors. But they may not be the MRCA because their sons’ descendants may also have intermarried, creating a more recent MRCA.

For those of us who accept evolution, it is not hard to get our minds around the concept of all of us having an MRCA, and the fact that we must have a shared ancestor in an earlier species has a pretty rigorous proof and is fairly easily accepted. What people thought was that this person probably existed around the time of our ancestor Homo erectus, perhaps a million years ago.

But when analysis was done on the mitochondrial DNA, and its mutation rate was used to triangulate back to the time when all the current mitochondrial DNA converged on a single individual, people were surprised that the calculations revealed that the MRCA deduced from this analysis, (nicknamed Mitochondrial Eve) lived much more recently, only about 140,000 years ago, probably in Africa. All present-day mitochondrial DNA is descended from this single individual. A similar analysis can be done for the Y chromosome to trace back to ‘Y-chromosome Adam’, and that person lived about 60,000 years ago (Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale (2004), pages 52-55).

But as Dawkins cautions (page 54):

[I]t is important to understand that Eve and Adam are only two out of a multitude of MRCAs that we could reach if we traced our way back through different lines. They are the special-case common ancestors that we reach if we travel up the family tree from mother to mother to mother, or father to father to father respectively. But there are many, many other ways of going up the family tree: mother to father to father to mother, mother to mother to father to father, and so forth. Each of these pathways will have a different MRCA.

Our normal concept of genealogy traces back through both sexes and thus the web of ancestral pathways becomes increases tangled and complex as you go back in time. As a result there is a greater chance of my ancestral pathways intersecting with the ancestral pathways of other people. It is thus reasonable to suppose that if we look at all these pathways, we will find a more recent MRCA than Mitochondrial Eve or Y-chromosome Adam. But this kind of calculation using mutation rates is not easy to do for things other than sex-specific chromosomes like mitochondrial DNA.

In order to try and fix the date of existence of the MRCA of everyone living today using the lines through both sexes, Chang used the tools of mathematics and statistics rather than genealogical charts or DNA mutations. And he found something very surprising, to be discussed in the next posting.

POST SCRIPT: If you live in fear, the terrorists have won

Tom Tomorrow points out the absurdity of people terrorizing themselves.

My ancestor Narmer, the first Pharaoh of Egypt

While doing some research on my ancestors last month, I made the surprising discovery that I am the direct descendent of Narmer, who was the first Pharaoh of Egypt and lived around 3,100 BCE. Narmer (thought by some to be the same person as Menes) was not your run-of-the-mill pharaoh. He is a bona fide Pharaoh Hall of Famer, credited with unifying the land that became Egypt and founding the very first dynasty. Of course, given the poor nature of record keeping back in those days one can never be absolutely certain of such things, but I am 80 percent certain that he is my direct ancestor.

How do I know this? I did not do an actual genealogy chart of my ancestors. It is a curious thing but people in Sri Lanka are nowhere near as enthusiastic about tracing their ancestral roots as the people in the US. I know who my grandparents are and I know some of their siblings but that is about it. I think that may be true for most Sri Lankans. I do not recall ever having discussions with anyone in Sri Lanka where people talked about ancestors farther back than three or four generations. It was not a topic of much interest.

Contrast this with America where people are fascinated with their ancestry and go to great lengths to trace back as far as they can, even hundreds of years. It is not unusual to have a conversation in America and for people to spontaneously raise the topic of where their ancestors came from and how far back they have tracked them. And people here are very excited when they find someone in their past who is famous (or even infamous) or had a role in some major historical event or is even just mentioned in some historical document.

Since thinking about my ancestors last month, I have been pondering why there is such a marked difference in interest in the two countries and have come up with some hypotheses, although I have no idea if these explanations are valid.

One possible explanation is that tracing one’s ancestors in Sri Lanka is likely to be a fairly boring exercise with little expectation of anything exciting turning up. After all, it is a small island nation that has a recorded history of about 3,000 years. I know the village where my paternal grandfather, for example, was born and raised. If you trace back farther you will likely arrive at another person in that same village or a neighboring village. If you go back yet further, it will probably be another person in that same village or region, and so on for generation after generation. The likelihood of finding something really surprising or interesting is small. Pretty boring stuff, hardly worth putting a lot of effort into.

In the US, it is quite different. As one goes back in time, one will fairly soon reach ancestors who came from another continent or came over with the early settlers or were members of a Native American tribe. All of these are sufficiently novel and interesting facts that may make worthwhile the hard work necessary in finding one’s roots.

Another factor is the quality of the recordkeeping as you go back in time. The structure of American and European societies was such that maintaining records was desirable. The fairly early adoption of a mercantilist society, capitalism, and private property ownership meant that you had to know who owned what and, most importantly, who inherited the property when someone died. This required that careful records of births and death be kept. This record keeping was also facilitated by church records. Since churches were institutions that also performed civil functions and married people, baptized their children, and buried them when they died, church records are rich sources of genealogical information.

Countries like Sri Lanka remained feudal until later and in many such societies land was either owned by the local feudal lord or held in common by the villagers, so questions of property inheritance were not major issues. Furthermore, Buddhist and Hindu religions (which are the main religions in Sri Lanka) are much less hierarchical in organizational structure than Christianity, and I believe their clergy do not have the same dual civil/religious role that Christian clergy have when it comes to marriages. So Buddhist and Hindu temples are not repositories of marriage, birth, and death records the way that Christian churches are.

A comprehensive mercantilist and capitalist economy came much later in Sri Lanka than in (say) Europe so one is likely to run up against a genealogical blank wall much sooner there, making the search for one’s ancestors a much more frustrating task. Coupled with the fact that the long history and relatively little migratory behavior, and it is easy to see why tracking one’s ancestors is not a particularly popular endeavor.

Even with good record keeping, tracing one’s ancestors is a time-consuming task, requiring that one spend enormous amounts of time and effort in libraries and other archival institutions, poring over old records, and following many false trails.

In tracing my own ancestors, I did not do any of that laborious detective work. So how is it that by merely sitting lazily at my desk in the US in front of a computer, I could state that I am 80% confident that I, a person of Sri Lankan origin, am in a direct line from the very first pharaoh of Egypt?

That’s the story for the next posting.

POST SCRIPT: Russell’s teapot cartoon

Here is another cartoon from the creator of the blog Russell’s Teapot. His cartoons are also a weekly feature on MachinesLikeUs.


Our common ancestors

Darwin’s theory of natural selection implies that we are all descended from common ancestors. Most people who have doubts about the theory tend to think that this is a proposition that we can either choose to accept or deny. After all, no one was around to see it, were they?

But Richard Dawkins’ excellent book The Ancestor’s Tale (2004) gives a surprisingly rigorous argument (on page 39) that back in the distant past, we must have all had common ancestors. He is such a good writer, both stylish and concise, that paraphrasing him would be a waste of time and I will give you an extended quote:

If we go sufficiently far back, everybody’s ancestors are shared. All your ancestors are mine, whoever you are, and all mine are yours. Not just approximately, but literally. This is one of those truths that turns out, on reflection, to need no new evidence. We prove it by pure reason, using the mathematician’s trick of reductio ad absurdum. Take our imaginary time machine absurdly far back, say 100 million years, to an age when our ancestors resembled shrews or possums. Somewhere in the world at that ancient date, at least one of my personal ancestors must have been living, or I wouldn’t be here. Let us call this particular little mammal Henry (it happens to be a family name). We seek to prove that if Henry is my ancestor he must be yours too. Imagine, for a moment, the contrary: I am descended from Henry and you are not. For this to be so, your lineage and mine would have to have marched, side by side yet never touching, through 100 million years of evolution to the present, never interbreeding yet ending up at the same evolutionary destination – so alike that your relatives are still capable of interbreeding with mine. This reductio is clearly absurd. If Henry is my ancestor, he must be yours too. If not mine, he cannot be yours.

Without specifying how ancient is ‘sufficiently’, we have just proved that a sufficiently ancient individual with any human descendants at all must be an ancestor of the entire human race. Long-distance ancestry, of a particular group of descendants such as the human species, is an all-or-nothing affair. Moreover, it is perfectly possible that Henry is my ancestor (and necessarily yours, given that you are human enough to be reading this book) while his brother Eric is the ancestor of, say, all the surviving aadvarks. Not only is it possible. It is a remarkable fact that there must be a moment in history when there were two animals in the same species, one of whom became the ancestor of all humans and no aardvarks, while the other became the ancestor of all aardvarks and no humans. They may well have met, and may even have been brothers. You can cross out aardvark and substitute any other modern species you like, and the statement must still be true. Think it through, and you will find that it follows from the fact that all species are cousins of one another. Bear in mind when you do so that the ‘ancestor of all aardvarks’ will also be the ancestor of lots of very different things beside aardvarks[.]

There is one aspect of this argument that is crucial and that is that our common shared ancestor Henry that Dawkins is talking about has to have lived at a time when he was of a different species from us, since the reductio argument he is using depends crucially on the unlikelihood of species evolution following separate but parallel tracks to arrive at the same species end point. Since all humans are descendants of this single animal Henry, we conclude that all the early humans must be the ancestors of all of us. So when Dawkins talks of us all sharing the same ancestors at some point, he means human ancestors, since all humans evolved from Henry’s line.

Of course, as time progresses, the human species descended fro Henry produced more descendants who then produced yet more descendants and so on, and there must come a time when the lines diverged so that not everyone living at later times is the ancestor of all of us, but only some. That transition time is called the identical ancestors (IA) time. i.e., Earlier than that, every human was the ancestor of all of us or none of us (i.e., their line went extinct). After the IA time, people share only some ancestors.

It is not hard to see that as time progresses even further, there will come a time when we all share just one common human ancestor, referred to as the most recent common ancestor or MRCA. After that time, everyone living today no longer shares a common ancestor.

I don’t know about you, but to me there is something extraordinarily beautiful about this idea that at one point in time we all shared the same single ancestor, and that some time further back, everyone who lived at that time was the ancestor of all of us. It seems to be such a decisive argument against tribalism. It is hard to maintain the idea that some groups of people are ‘special’ in some way, when we not only all descended from a single animal Henry, but that at a later time we all shared the same set of human ancestors. Not only that, but we are also cousins of all the species that currently exist.

No wonder some religious extremists are afraid to have their children learn this theory. It is so captivating one can see how it would fascinate and draw in anybody who begins to think seriously about it.

Having established that we have both an MRCA and a time where all our human ancestors were identical (the IA time), this raises the question of when these dates occurred.

And therein lies another surprise, to be discussed in an upcoming post in this series.

POST SCRIPT: We’re number 1?

Comedian Lewis Black tries to help Americans to see themselves as others see them.

Evolution and atheism

It is commonly charged by some religious people that acceptance of the theory of evolution by natural selection implies acceptance of atheism. Co-discovered by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace and brought to widespread public attention with the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859, this theory immediately gained opposition in Europe, primarily from clergy, with the conflict showcased by the famous debate between Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley in 1860.
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The coming war with Iran

It should be clear to everyone by now that the Bush administration and the neoconservative clique that is egging him on are pushing for military action against Iran. To my mind, the decision has already been made and what is being sought now are ways to drum up national and international support.

Just as they used the nuclear weapons scare to gin up support for the illegal, immoral and, as it turned out, ill-fated invasion of Iraq, they are returning to that same plan to see if it can work its magic again. Once again, the mainstream media is falling into its role of letting the range of debate be restricted to those narrow areas of strategy chosen by the White House and the members of the pro-war/pro-business party and its think tanks, and not giving wide publicity to the kinds of fundamental questions and information being offered by people like Gordon Prather and Charley Reese.

The task for the Bush White House is harder than it is with Iraq. Despite the repeated claims that Bush is receiving a “bounce” in the polls from the 9/11 anniversary or this or that speech, the fact is that Bush’s approval numbers seem to quickly settle into the range the range between the mid 30’s and the very low 40’s depending on who is doing the polling.

The war in Iraq has dragged on for three and a half years with no end in sight. It has resulted in huge numbers of civilians (estimated in the hundreds of thousands) there being killed either by US military action or as a result of the lawlessness and sectarian strife that is raging. Then there is the steady drip of US troop deaths, averaging around two a day, that now totals over 2,500.

The US and its allies have clearly lost control of large segments of the country such as Anbar province and are now reduced to digging trenches around Baghdad to provide at least a semblance of stability to the part of the country most visible to the international world. Despite that, the rate of killings in Iraq in the last two months have reached an average of over a hundred per day.

This is similar to Afghanistan where the resurgence of the Taliban and warlords have reduced the US-backed President Karzai to being effectively just the mayor of the capital Kabul. It is always a bad sign when a governing authority is struggling to merely maintain security in the capital city of a country.

Given that the US military is stretched so thin in Iraq and Afghanistan, you would think that the prudent course would be for the US to reject out of hand any fresh military ventures such as invading Iran, and instead hunker down and see how to salvage at least some kind of face-saving withdrawal out of Iraq and Afghanistan to avoid the ignominy of defeat in both those countries. Otherwise it will be faced with what looks to be increasingly like a pullout reminiscent of the helicopter evacuations from the roof of the Saigon embassy in the last days of the Vietnam war, images that lasted for a long time after the end of that debacle.

But in thinking this way, you would be like the colleagues of Sledge Hammer, urging rational and thoughtful actions to someone who is bent on using force and violence as the first option.

In this case, Sledge Hammer Bush is being urged to go for broke by the neoconservative clique around him and who have access to the media through the grandiosely titled Project for the New American Century. They made no secret of their plans to create the modern day equivalent of a new Roman Empire with far-flung American bases controlling every important strategic interest, and the Middle East with its vast oil reserves was a prime target for intervention. All they needed were excuses to go to war, which were trumped up against Iraq and are now being similarly manufactured against Iran. They needed national support for these imperial ambitions, and the strong emotions unleashed by the events of 9/11 were conveniently hijacked for that purpose.

The plan called for overthrowing the governments of Iraq, and then Iran, with Syria in the sights as well. Of course, Saudi Arabia, with the world’s largest oil reserves was always the biggest prize but its government was already friendly and compliant to the US, and having equally friendly governments in the other countries would ensure that it continued to be so.

That warmongering group is getting increasingly frustrated with how their grand plans have ganged agley. It must have seemed so easy on paper. First you invade Afghanistan, then you invade Iraq, and then Iran (nicely sandwiched between those two countries) would fall like a ripe fruit to a kind of pincer action. The planners seemed to be confident that the overwhelming US military might would easily overthrow the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq (which was a correct prediction) and that the people of those countries would be so delighted with the overthrow of their despotic governments (a mixed but fairly correct prediction) that they would eagerly accept US suzerainty over their countries, which was the one prediction that went disastrously wrong.

It turns out that people in general tend to not like being ruled by other countries. Having a foreign troop presence on a seemingly permanent basis inevitably leads, over time, to a resistance movement that will seek to expel it. This would not come as a surprise to anyone who has had any experience or knowledge of the history of colonial rule, but seems to be a lesson that powers with imperial ambitions have to learn from direct experience.

The danger is that the Bush/neoconservative axis is running out of time and options to achieve the next objective of overthrowing the government of Iran. Not only does the Bush administration have little more than two years left in office, the congressional elections of November run the real risk of the Republicans losing their dominance in the House of Representatives or the Senate or both. What that would mean is that the opposing faction of the pro-war/pro-business party would have the majorities and take over the chairs of some key committees. While the Democratic Party is also pro-war, and some of its leaders (like Hillary Clinton) are barely distinguishable from the neoconservatives, there are a few people in key committees who might use their increased clout to slow down and even stop the rush to war.
This is why I am somewhat fearful of the period between now and the elections. If the neoconservatives around Bush feel that time is running out and their plans to invade Iran could be thwarted as a result of the elections, we might see some bad decisions being made between now and then. Of course, it seems clear that the US does not have the troops to invade Iran the way it was done in Iraq, and other countries are not likely to supply them. Furthermore, even if such a decision were made, it would take time to set up a ground war. The Time magazine report that minesweepers are being prepared to be sent to the Straits of Hormuz is a disturbing sign that preparations may be already underway.

The current weakness of the US military’s position, with its conventional forces being bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, raises the possibility that the temptation might arise to use so-called tactical nuclear weapons, horrifying as that possibility is.

Sometimes I can reassure myself that nobody could be that insane to seriously contemplate invading Iran, let alone use nuclear weapons for that purpose. But then I realize that we have Sledge Hammer Bush in the White House, for whom the most violent and reckless option always seems to be the most attractive. It must be clear even to him that if Iraq is what defines his presdency, he will go down as one of the worst presidents in US history. The temptation will be strong to throw the dice once more, to make “success” in Iran (whatever that is) make up for his blatant failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

No reasonable person would contemplate something so stupid, of course. But we must remember that we are dealing with the determination of the neoconservatives imposing their will on a weak President. It was not for nothing that former CIA agent Ray McGovern said that during the time of former President George H. W. Bush (for whom he used to provide the daily CIA briefing) these people were called “the crazies” and were kept at arm’s length.

With Sledge Hammer Bush, the crazies have found their soul mate.

POST SCRIPT: Another episode of Religious People Behaving Badly

Jon Stewart explains the controversy over the Pope’s recent remarks that inflamed some Muslims.

Sledge Hammer Bush

In the mid-1980s there was a very funny comedy show on TV called Sledge Hammer which, alas, lasted for only two seasons. (I hear that it is now available on DVD.) The title character was a police detective who was an over-the-top parody of all the hard-boiled, tough detectives ever portrayed, taking particular aim at the iconic Dirty Harry, the character portrayed by Clint Eastwood in a series of highly popular films of that period

Dirty Harry made his own judgments about who was guilty and innocent and acted accordingly. He did not think much of the slow legal processes of justice. If he thought someone was guilty, then he felt justified in using any methods to extract justice, even if it meant dealing it out in summary and violent form. He had little use for legal niceties such as “innocent until proven guilty”, Miranda rights, right to a lawyer, and other constitutional protections, seeing them as the mollycoddling behavior of wimpy do-gooders that allowed the guilty to go free.

Sledge Hammer took this attitude to a wacky extreme. Of all the options available to him to deal with any situation, he would choose the most violent. Doors were meant to be kicked down, guns were meant to be fired, noses to be broken, violence to be used whenever possible. He had little use for the rules of evidence. If he felt in his gut that someone was guilty, that was enough for him to use any means he saw fit to deal with that person. He saw things as stark contrasts and had a deep hatred of Communists (the enemy of that time). He loved violence so much that he slept with his gun by his pillow and would speak lovingly to it.

Sledge Hammer’s signature line was uttered whenever he was about to embark on any action that was going to result in massive amounts of mayhem and destruction. To those around him who expressed doubt and dismay about his reckless plans and tried to dissuade him, he would say reassuringly “Trust me, I know what I’m doing” before he went and proved exactly the opposite.

George W. Bush reminds me a lot of Sledge Hammer except that he, and what he does, is not funny. We have already seen with Iraq and Afghanistan that although he had many options, he chose those that were the most violent and reckless, and that violated the most norms of behavior. As a result, the US is now mired in increasingly hopeless situations in both those countries. We see Bush’s contempt for “legal niceties” with the way detainees are being treated, the justifications for the use of torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, illegal and secret prisons in other countries, trying to redefine Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions to provide legal cover for torture, and his cavalier disregard for the serious consequences of such actions.

We find him doing the same thing now with Iran that he did with Iraq, ratcheting up alarmist rhetoric, trying to mislead the people on the facts of Iran’s nuclear program, and setting up the public debate in such a way that the country is almost inexorably being drawn into another war.

Bush likes to portray things in black and white, good and evil, and once he has made that determination, he has little patience with those who question his summary judgments. He patronizingly and condescendingly keeps saying that his job is to “protect the American people” and to those who doubt him, the only thing he offers as reassurance are practically the same words as Sledge Hammer: “Trust me, I know what I’m doing.”

Frankly, I have no trust in his judgment. If the record of him and his administration shows anything clearly, it is that you cannot trust them on anything, either their motives or their competence in executing their plans. With his awful record plainly apparent, thinking that he is reassuring people by saying that he is the one who will “protect the American people” indicates how seriously out of touch he is.
The conventions of TV sitcoms are such that one has to have a happy ending at the end of each half hour episode and Sledge Hammer was no exception. Thanks to the efforts of his sensible and long-suffering partner, or his police chief, or simply due to dumb luck, events would turn out well in the end and Sledge Hammer’s disastrous actions cause no permanent harm.

But real life is not a sitcom. We have no guarantees that the actions of Sledge Hammer Bush currently occupying the White House will have a happy ending. Real life problems are complicated and you cannot address them adequately if the only tools at your disposal are gut instinct in making judgments and steely resolve in implementing your decisions, which are the only things that Bush, like Sledge Hammer, has. It does not help that the administration’s allies in Congress and the media seem to behave more like a laugh track rather than in providing the critical oversight that is so essential for good government.

In fact, if Iraq and Afghanistan are any indication, we are in for another calamitous episode, this time with Iran cast as the villain. Sledge Hammer Bush is probably already preparing his speech to the nation to be delivered when he begins that war. And the speech will begin: “Trust me, I know what I’m doing.”

POST SCRIPT: More media monopoly on the way?

Robert McChesney describes how the administration and its compliant Federal Communication Commission (FCC) are trying to allow even greater monopolistic control of the media by the media conglomerates who are supporters of the Bush administration (Tribune, Sinclair, News Corp., Clear Channel, Gannett, Belo and Media General), and suppressing research that shows the negative effects of media consolidation.

Asking the right questions about Iran

Over a year ago, I wrote a couple of posts pointing out that in important political issues, one should pay close attention to not what is being discussed or argued over, but to the questions that are not asked. (See here and here for those posts.)

The success of the media propaganda model (see here, here and here) is not in how it answers particular questions but in how it frames the debate. The real service that the media serves in advancing the interests of the pro-war/pro-business party is in narrowing the boundaries of the discussion, so that important but awkward questions are not asked and thus the official narrative is not seriously challenged.
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Film: The Road to Guantanamo

Last Sunday, I saw the powerful film The Road to Guantanamo (directed by Michael Winterbottom) at the Cleveland Cinematheque, that precious jewel in University Circle which screens films that one cannot see anywhere else.

The description of the film says that it is a “harrowing mix of documentary and reenactment. It traces how three British Muslim men who flew to a wedding in Pakistan in late 2001 ended up in Afghanistan, where they were arrested by Northern Alliance soldiers and accused of being Al Qaeda fighters. Though never charged with any crime, they spent two years in the American military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, before being released. Their testimony anchors this sobering film that won the Best Director prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.”

The film differs from the normal documentary format, which usually consists of news footage mixed with talking heads, with a “voice of god” voiceover narration. Since the film deals with the treatment these people received in prison camps in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, which the Bush administration has gone to great lengths to keep reporters, lawyers, and human rights groups out of, there was no way that the filmmakers could have obtained any actual video news footage of their treatment in captivity.

So they went instead for the dramatic re-enactment, with actors and sets used to provide a visual representation of what the three young men (all in their early twenties) said they had experienced. And what the film revealed was the various forms of torture that the men experienced while in US custody.

There was no attempt by the filmmakers to claim that the film was anything more than what it clearly showed on the screen, which was the story as told by the three men. But Joanna Connors, the Plain Dealer Cultural Critic, clearly took offense at the film, using surprisingly harsh language in her February 15, 2006 review to denounce it. I say “surprising” because Connors is, if her previous film criticisms and columns are any indication, somewhat “liberal” in her outlook, and thus her reaction sheds an interesting light on how journalistic professionals see their role, which was the topic of last week’s series of posts on the media.

Connors’ review said the following:

[I]n the last few years, the multiplex has become the new Op-Ed page, a place for blunt, straight-up polemics on war, the environment, elections and other divisive subjects. Where films labeled documentaries once signaled “factual,” they now abandon all pretense to following journalistic methods and leave audiences in the dark, so to speak, about what is true and what is opinion.
. . .
Winterbottom’s film tells [the young men’s] version of what happened. Take note: It is their version, without any supporting evidence from neutral observers — say, human rights groups or journalists — or rebuttals from the British or Americans.

But Winterbottom doesn’t make that clear, or clear enough, given that he shows U.S. soldiers, and others, administering torture so brutal it makes the photos from Abu Ghraib look like fun and games
. . .
Winterbottom blurs the line between propaganda and truth by using several documentary techniques: The shaky hand-held camera, the extensive on-camera interviews with the three men, the location shooting (except for the scenes at Gitmo, which were shot in Iran) — all signal “news” to audiences. He mixes these with “dramatic reenactments” of the events using actors, a cheesy technique straight out of “Crime Stoppers.”

Then Connors reveals how far she has bought into the administration’s arguments that in this “war on terror”, anything goes and normal legal safeguards, let along human rights, be damned.

Are the men telling the truth? Who knows? Their story has enough holes to justify their capture, imprisonment and interrogation. On the other hand, the refusal of the United States to allow lawyers into Guantanamo on behalf of the prisoners and news accounts about Abu Ghraib, secret CIA prisons and violations of international law weigh heavily on the other side.

The idea that people can be kept in jail for three and a half years, not allowed to see families or lawyers, and subjected to torture (what she coyly refers to as “interrogation”) just because their story has “holes” is an amazing testimony of the power of this administration’s rhetoric of the “war on terror” to cow even “liberals” to go along with them. Are the three men telling the truth? Maybe, maybe not. The point is that they were not charged with anything for the entire time of their long captivity, and then when they were sent back to Britain they were released immediately by British police who could not find any reason to charge them. So the presumption has to be that the men were telling the truth. Does the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” not mean anything to Connors? And even if they were guilty of something, does she feel that it would that justify the treatment they received?

This kind of call for a fake balance is the result of the media propaganda model. While the suffering endured by the prisoners is very real, there is no evidence whatsoever that these concerns “weigh heavily on the other side” as Connors asserts. The administration seems quite gleeful and unconcerned about violating all the norms of behavior and is pushing for even more leeway to use torture.

Connors sums up: “Whatever one’s views on the war or one’s political views, the enflamed, out-of-control situation in the Middle East makes releasing this movie deeply, almost unforgivably irresponsible.”

Unforgivably irresponsible? Really? It is interesting that the administration has permanent license to make repeated unrebutted and unsubstantiated statements (which the media dutifully repeats) that claim that everyone they catch is an ‘evildoer’ or ‘bad guy’ or ‘terrorist’. These are staples of the current news and the lack of balance is not denounced as “irresponsible.” This is because the administration is always given the presumption of credibility, despite their shameful record of lies and deception. And yet, one person makes a film telling the story from the point of view of the prisoners, and suddenly there are demands for ‘balance’. This is a good example of how journalists internalize certain attitudes and do not realize they are serving in a propaganda system.

Given the state of the news media, it may be that this kind of documentary is the way of the future. One can see why mainstream journalists are worried by these developments and oppose them. The director of the film Michael Winterbottom has created successful commercial films (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, 24 Hour Party People, Welcome to Sarajevo are among his credits) and uses his skills at dramatization to bring the events to vivid life. He knows how to create a dramatic impact. Since he is not a professional journalist (at least as far as I am aware) he may not have internalized the need to provide the kind of phony ‘balance’, which in actual practice means tilting the story heavily in favor of the government’s version of events in order to garner the approval of mainstream journalists.

The visual power of film is probably what arouses the concern and ire of those who support the government. Paul Krugman describes (September 18, 2006 in the New York Times – sorry, no link available) the torture that prisoners of this administration undergo. He writes:

According to an ABC News report from last fall, procedures used by C.I.A. interrogators have included forcing prisoners to ”stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours”; the ”cold cell,” in which prisoners are forced ”to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees,” while being doused with cold water; and, of course, water boarding, in which ”the prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet,” then ”cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him,” inducing ”a terrifying fear of drowning.”

And bear in mind that the ”few bad apples” excuse doesn’t apply; these were officially approved tactics — and Mr. Bush wants at least some of these tactics to remain in use.

I’m ashamed that my government does this sort of thing. I’d be ashamed even if I were sure that only genuine terrorists were being tortured — and I’m not. Remember that the Bush administration has imprisoned a number of innocent men at Guantanamo, and in some cases continues to imprison them even though it knows they are innocent. (my emphasis)

These are strong words. His description of the methods or torture are disturbing but lack the kind of emotional punch that a visual representation can provide. When you see some of the very things described by Krugman on the screen, you are filled with revulsion. You wonder how any human being can treat any other human being like that.

This is why these kinds of documentaries are powerful. And dangerous. And why they will be opposed and denigrated by some members who see themselves as the guardians of the “objective” media.

See The Road to Guantanamo if you can. And see our tax dollars at work in the service of barbarism.

Propaganda for war against Iran begins

It should be plain to everyone that the Bush White House and its neoconservative inner clique are pushing hard for a war with Iran. They have gone on a relentless offensive, trying to convince the American people that Iran is a rogue state, secretly pushing a nuclear weapons program and that their leader is some kind of mad man who seeks world domination. Predictably, comparisons with Hitler are being invoked again, just as he was with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
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