The autumn started with a huge national jolt of shock, fear, grief and anger. Winter has begun with many worries here at home and grim satisfaction about warfare abroad. A line from “King Lear,” early in Act 4, is hauntingly appropriate:
“‘Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.”
Shakespeare’s observation fits the current era, and not only with reference to the murderous qualities of Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda network. Few media outlets — and certainly none of the major national brands — are willing to scrutinize the unhinged aspects of the adulated leadership in the White House.
Deep introspection for any society is difficult. Precious little danger of that, in the here and now. After more than 100 days of big-type rhetorical questions, the media answers are largely self-satisfied. “Why do they hate us?” Because we’re great, though sometimes clumsy on the world stage. “How can the violence in the Middle East be stopped?” By continuing to back Israel, no matter what.
Since Sept. 11, many journalists have commented that the United States is unaccustomed to the role of victim. Left unsaid is how accustomed we are to being victimizers while preening ourselves as a nation of worldly do-gooders. The 3,000 human beings who lost their lives at the World Trade Center are casting an enormous shadow — as they should. But what about the uncounted people killed, one way or another, by U.S. policies?
The list of countries that the Pentagon has attacked in recent decades is long. The list of governments using American-supplied weapons to repress and massacre is even longer.
And there’s quieter slaughter, on a grand scale. During every hour, more than 1,000 children in the world die from preventable diseases. Basic nutrition, medical care and sanitation would save their lives. A fraction of the Pentagon budget would suffice.
But we still live in a society with the kind of priorities that Martin Luther King Jr. described a third of a century ago — spending “military funds with alacrity and generosity” but providing anti-poverty funds “with miserliness.” If he were alive now, his voice would still cry out against “the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”
King would have good reason to reiterate words from his speech on April 4, 1967, when he denounced “capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries.”
Today, advocates for humanitarian causes might see the United States as a place where “madmen lead the blind.” But that’s kind of a harsh way to describe the situation. Our lack of vision is in the context of a media system that mostly keeps us in the dark.
In American media’s echo chamber, much of the genuine anguish from Sept. 11 has segued into a lot of braying about national greatness. Like many other pundits now in their glory days on cable TV networks, Chris Matthews knows how to dodge difficult truths. “Patriotism is more important than politics,” he proclaimed the other day. What “unites us” is “democracy, freedom, human rights, the right to pursue happiness.”
And what about the “right to pursue happiness” for the kids dying from lack of food or clean water or medicine, while Matthews and thousands of other journalists fawn over the U.S. military?
Anyone watching TV news since early October has seen lots of idolatry lavished on the latest Pentagon weapons. Uncle Sam’s immense military power and Washington’s role as the number-one arms dealer on the planet add up to a colossal drain of resources — and a powerful means of enforcing the bonds between the U.S. government and scores of regimes that combine repression with oligarchy, amid rampant poverty.
Winners get to write history, and that starts with the news. While victory in Afghanistan gets presented as ample justification for going to war in the first place, the message that overwhelming might makes right is ever-present, even if no one quite says so out loud. And when human flesh goes up in flames and human bodies shatter — but not on our TV screens — did it ever really happen?
Several decades ago, peace activist A.J. Muste observed: “The problem after a war is with the victor. He thinks he has just proved that war and violence pay. Who will now teach him a lesson?”
Norman Solomon’s latest book is “The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.” His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.