Through the tears, I see an opportunity George W. Bush, September 14, 2001
One thing I remember about 9/11 is that they stopped all the commercials for four or five days. It struck me as a remarkable confession of sorts at the top of the American power structure.
It was an admission that the nationâ€™s corporate-imposed culture of infantilizing mass consumption was a terrible embarrassment in the face of grave public events that called for solemn reflection on the part of a serious and adult citizenry. That culture made America look weak, cheap, and absurd when the policymakers needed it to look strong, noble, and significant.
It was one thing to keep commercials blaring while Israeli tanks bulldozed Palestinian homes and as U.S.-imposed economic sanctions killed hundreds of Iraqi children each week or, for that matter, while nearly three fourths of a million black U.S. children lived at less than half the federal governmentâ€™s notoriously inadequate poverty level. Relatively few Americans knew or cared about those ongoing tragedies and crimes.
It was another thing, however, to broadcast cynical beer, SUV, and cosmetic surgery ads between clips and discussions of a spectacular mass calamity that had been criminally inflicted on predominantly white Americans by officially evil Arab enemies.
For roughly two weeks, those terrible images and somber discussions crowded out the standard television diet of vapid soap operas, game shows, situation-comedies, talk-shows/freak shows (e.g. the late-imperial Jerry Springer and Maury Povich circuses) and ideologically manipulative â€œreality showsâ€ like â€œSurvivor.â€
The gross commercialized pandering of the [Aldous]Huxlean mass advertising and amusement culture had to stand down. Dedicated to the endless creation of false needs within a degraded half-citizenry, the commercials didnâ€™t fit the [George] Orwellian requirements of the moment.
The architects of U.S. policy and opinion decided that we couldnâ€™t reflect in properly nationalistic fashion on the demonically assaulted superiority of the American Way of Life â€“ we couldnâ€™t muster the appropriately livid sense of the need to unite behind our muscular leaders in exacting white imperial revenge â€“ with such evidence of our inner capitalized nothingness blaring across our ubiquitous telescreens.
Double standards aside, it was curiously refreshing to see the intermittent mind-assaulting advertisements vanish even for a short period. It was interesting to see public events momentarily push the mass-propagated fetishism of commodities off the stage. It was intriguing to imagine an electronic mass culture without constant institutionalized hucksterism.
The television commercial ban lasted for four (4) days. It took less than half a week for the corporate networks to reinstate the soulless regime of mass advertising.
It took them longer to fully reinstate the at once conservative and diversionary entertainment culture. But the most intense period of the Orwellian hate spectacle passed fairly quickly. The regular Huxlean amusement and consumption spectacle was back in full force by the end of the year.
The oppressive U.S. nationalism that prevailed after 9/11 was a distinctly reactionary, regressive, and militarist exercise in internal power consolidation and subtly racist imperial attack preparation. The American rabble/citizenry was powerfully if deviously directed to cower under the pseudo-protective umbrella of the permanent Nation Security State. It was subtly encouraged to accept escalated top-down attacks on domestic social protections and civil liberties in the name of fear and something the president called â€œfreedom.â€
Open opposition to regressive tax cuts for the wealthy few (in what was already the industrialized worldâ€™s most unequal country by far), to the ongoing corporate-state assault on environmental and welfare protections, and/or to the rollback of democratic and personal liberties was painted out as unpatriotic and dangerously divisive. Such inappropriate dissent was said to aid and abet the terrorist enemies of â€œfreedom,â€ who attacked New York and Washington simply because of their loathing of liberty.
Responsible American citizenship was equated with unquestioning support for the secret corporate-imperial agenda and with eager engagement in the atomizing rituals of mass consumption. The president encouraged all good Americans to fight the terrorists and support the cause of â€œfreedomâ€ by refusing to be scared away from the shopping mall and the car dealership. It was our patriotic duty to resume our roles as cheerful spectators and consumers.
And so the commercials returned, along with â€œFear Factor,â€ â€œSurvivor,â€ Pamela Anderson, and an endless succession of celebrity scandals and child abductions.
We had been given our required post-traumatic nationalist fairly tale about America the Good and its Endless Battle With Evil. It was time to return to commercialized normalcy with a proper suspicion of dangerous domestic dissenters while the Masters of National Defense and Forward Global Force Projection greased the wheels of the rolling imperial slaughterhouse prepared to show the world who really knew how to pile up civilian death tolls.
The message was clear: â€œgo back to sleep little children. The nationâ€™s newly legitimized rulers know what to do to protect you and the freedoms you enjoy” here in what U.S. Senator (R-Texas)Kay Bailey Hutchinson actually called — in a speech supporting the granting of unlimited war powers to George W. Bush — “America, the Beacon to the World of How Life Should Be.â€
Five years out, many of us know what our rulers did with 9/11, their surreptitiously cherished â€œnew Pearl Harbor,â€ while we slept and cowered. With their greedy eyes fixed from the beginning on how to use the great national tragedy as an opportunity to deepen U.S. control of the oil-rich Middle East. As New York Times columnist Frank Rich (no radical) noted last Sunday:
â€œBushâ€™s war cabinet was already [in the first days after 9/11] busily hyping nonexistent links between Iraq and the Qaeda attacks. The presidential press secretary, Ari Fleischer, condemned Bill Maherâ€™s irreverent comic response to 9/11 by reminding â€˜all Americans to watch what they say, watch what they do.â€™ Fear . . . was already being wielded against Americans by their own government. Less than a month after 9/11, the president was making good on his promise of â€˜no sacrifice whatsoever.â€™ Speaking in Washington about how it was â€˜the time to be wiseâ€™ and â€˜the time to act,â€™ he declared â€˜We need there to be more tax cuts.â€™
Before long the G.O.P. would be selling 9/11 photos of the president on Air force one to campaign donors and the White House would be featuring flag-draped remains of the 9/11 dead in campaign ads. And so, here we are five years later. Fear-mongering remains unceasing. So do tax cuts [for the wealthy, P.S]. So does the war against a country that did not attack us on 9/11. We have moved on, but on one can argue we have moved ahead” (Frank Rich, “Whatever Happened to the America of 9/12?,” New York Times, 10 September, 2006, section 4, p. 12)
As Rich might have added, the U.S. death toll in the criminal occupation of Iraq (2,645 as of September 2, 2006) is approaching the 9/ll death toll (2,973). The number of Iraqis killed by the illegal and immoral occupation of their country likely runs into the hundreds of thousands.
That terrible Iraqi price has joined with the continuing oppression of the Palestinians and the recent U.S.-sponsored assault on Lebanese civilians to stoke the fires of Arab, Persian, Pashtun, and Muslim rage like never before even as the Bush administrationâ€™s plutocratic tax cuts have disabled serious efforts to prevent and prepare for the seemingly inevitable next 9/11.
Those tax cuts and the administrationâ€™s extravagant imperial obsessions and related hostility to socially positive and democratic government functions were key factors in the Katrina travesty. They have drastically escalated domestic disparity, transferring the lost Clinton era budget surplus to the wealthy few and pushing the number of deeply poor children and families to Reagan era heights.
The United Statesâ€™ stature in the world has fallen to an all-time low and the traditional distinction that the world outside has tended to make between the U.S. government (generally viewed with disdain) and the U.S. populace (generally admired) is fading like never before.
There are encouraging political signs at home. The messianic militarist war party in power faces increasing majority disapproval on the eve of important but dangerously gerrymandered mid-term elections — this despite the abject near irrelevance of the alleged opposition party the Demcorats. The majority of the population now rejects the White Houseâ€™s â€œstay the courseâ€ Iraq policy and repudiates the administrationâ€™s revolting insistence on linking the terrorist occupation of Mesopotamia with 9/11 and the â€œwar on terrorism.â€
An antiwar electoral rebellion in Connecticut has put foward a Democratic candidate for the U.S Senate who feels compelled to make the connections between the cost of the war on Iraq and the under-funding of schools and social programs in the U.S.
The dangerously overworked American citizenry is starting to wake up from dangerous, Orwellian fairly tales and increasingly ready, perhaps, to shed Huxlean and other childish amusements. Maybe it is ready to win back some respect from the rest of the human species by carving out time and space to put some risk back in the American democratic tradition. Something tells me that it is a matter of life and death for the species and for the democratic ideal that it discovers the will and capacity to act in such a fashion.
It is one thing to privately express your disapproval with current policies and the regime in power to like-minded grumblers at a dinner party or over phone to an opinion pollster. It is another, more courageous and significant thing altogether to act publicly and collectively to punish the homegrown right-authoritarian bastards who exploited the national tragedy of 9/11 and to work to build the sort of democratic and participatory society and polity where such vile actors could never return to such terrible power and influence.
Paul Street ([email protected]) is an independent social policy researcher and writer in Iowa City, IA. His
publications include Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (www.paradigmpublishers.com, 2004) and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005)