Circle in the Darkness: Memoir of a World Watcher
2020, 436 pages, ISBN 978-1-949762-13-6
I have been travelling in Newfoundland with Diana Johnstone. Not the flesh-and-blood Diana Johnstone, whom I have never met, and who I presume is spending her days in Paris, not Newfoundland. But her memoir, Circle in the Darkness: Memoir of a World Watcher, has given me much to think about these evenings on the road, when I settle down to read after the sun has set.
Diana Johnstone is an American, a native of Minnesota, who has spent most of her life in Europe, working as a journalist and political observer. She started her journalistic career with Agence France Presse, and then became the European correspondent for In These Times, a left-wing American newspaper. She also taught at a university for a while (she has a Phd in French literature), was active in the anti-war movement, and did a stint as press officer for the Green Group in the European Parliament.
Johnstone is clearly on the left, and politically engaged, but she is not affiliated with any particular political current. Her independence and courage, as a thinker and as a journalist, lie at the heart of her work. They have also cost her: media employers don’t appreciate journalists who think for themselves, and the left is notoriously hostile to anyone who deviates from the current party line, as Johnstone has repeatedly done.
Johnstone landed in Bonn, then the capital of West Germany, in the days when major European cities still had a large permanent press corps, before, as she says, “foreign news came to be covered mainly by itinerant television teams crashing in to cover a crisis.” The most insular members of the press corps, Johnstone relates, were the Americans, who “all stuck together, along with their British counterparts, faithfully impregnated with the official Anglo-American attitude reinforced by encounters with information officers at the British and American embassies.” The Americans and British were then, and still are, the least likely to know any language except English, and therefore most dependent on a handful of sources able to helpfully ‘explain’ what was happening. Those explanations, as Johnstone relates, almost invariably align with the approved framing: something that remains as true today as it did in the 1960s.
In 1970, Johnstone was back in the United States, teaching French literature at the University of Minnesota, and increasingly finding herself at odds with the new mainstream in the humanities and social sciences. French departments, she writes, “were largely transformed into centers of post-modern theorizing, which was obscure enough to appear profound or at least ‘original’ (the ways of being original are infinite) and to allow ex-rebels to feel revolutionary without having the slightest effect on the existing capitalist order or war economy.” Her own approach, she says, “was rather to ask two basic questions: what is the author trying to say, and to what extent does he/she succeed? Intention was an important factor and looking for intention is useful in every aspect of verbal life, notably in politics, where ‘What is he up to?’ should be a constant interrogation.”
Asking basic questions, and actually looking at the text or evidence became the hallmark of Johnstone’s work as a journalist, which began when, after her academic job vanished, she moved to France and started working, first for Agence France Presse, and then for In These Times. As a journalist and writer Johnstone followed many of the biggest international stories of the following decades: political upheavals in France, Germany, and Italy, the revolution in Iran, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the U.S. response of encouraging and funding Islamic jihadist groups which later became the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Circle in the Darkness is in fact not only a personal memoir, but a critical and well-informed analysis of the history of the last half-century.
Among the most compelling – and depressing – aspects of the book is Johnstone’s account of the deterioration and decline of the left. This took place partly on the level of theory. Influential thinkers like Michel Foucault – “one of the most unpleasant people I have ever met” – summarily rejected concepts such as truth and a sense of justice which, he claimed, were “bourgeois virtues.” For Foucault, all of human history can be reduced to a struggle for power. Johnstone acerbically remarks that Foucault himself was certainly an illustration of his theories: extremely authoritarian, with no regard for the “bourgeois virtue” of truth. She notes that his ‘historical’ works are full of fabrications: invented ‘facts’ that have no basis in reality.
On the level of the practical politics, Johnstone witnessed the decline of the European left as a resident of France and as press officer for the Green group in the European Parliament. In a few years, the left moved from being anti-imperialist to becoming cheerleaders for US-NATO wars and interventions, newly repackaged as ‘humanitarian interventions.’
This was personified in the Greens by Joschka Fischer and Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Fischer, a former anarchist militant, rose to be foreign minister in Germany’s SPD-Green coalition; in this position, he defended NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia. When the issue came up for heated debate in Germany’s Green Party, Fischer flatly stated that he would ignore any resolution against the war. In the European Parliament (or “Non-Parliament” as Johnstone calls it, since the body has no power) Daniel Cohn-Bendit, an anarchist best known for his fiery speeches in the May 1968 revolt in France, who had been elected as a Green MEP, similarly proclaimed, while running to be the Green’s official spokesperson, that he would only follow Party policy if he agreed with it. He was nonetheless elected as spokesperson, an event that Johnstone sees as symbolically marking the end of the Green Party as a radical movement.
Johnstone paints a bleak picture both of the direction the world is headed in, and of the virtual collapse of what used to be called the “left.” She questions whether “left” is even a useful term anymore.
She sums up her experiences by saying “In many ways, the world as I have observed it has gotten worse over the decades. I am encouraged by two things. One is the presence of a new generation of truth seekers. The truth is alive, however marginalized. The other is a simple fact learned from experience. Life is full of surprises. Things never turn out exactly as planned or foreseen. The future looks grim, but we haven’t seen it. It is surely full of surprises, and they can’t all be bad.”
“If I must claim a label,” she says, “it would be that of an independent truth-seeker.”
Circle in the Darkness is an outstanding summary of her decades as a truth-seeker.
September 6, 2021.
Keywords: Academic Fads & Fashions – Anti-War Movement – European Politics – European Union – Foucault, Michel – Green Parties – Humanitarian Interventions – Intervention – Journalism – Journalism Ethics – Kosovo – Left, The – Liberal Left – Media Analysis & Criticism – Media Bias – NATO – Post-Modernism – Serbia – Truth – Yugoslavia