Deleting Irony and Hiding Truth: Recent Reflections on the New York Times and the Narrow Spectrum of Debate

It’s like Noam Chomsky says: if you want to see how shockingly narrow the spectrum of acceptable political debate and ideological contestation is in the U.S., read the “liberal” New York Times. It’s in the “leftmost” sections of dominant corporate media that you best discern where the business community sets the outer parameters of permissible discourse.


It’s often as much about what the Times and other such “leftmost” outlets (Newsweek, for example) DO NOT say and delete as it is about what they include. I am repeatedly amazed by the remarkable lengths to which power-worshipping “liberal” reporters, columnists, and/or their editors go to NOT to observe –  to ignore – graphically obvious contradictions between elite rhetoric and elite behavior. 


A recently published ZNet Sustainer Commentary of mine (to purchase commentaries go to www.zmag.org/Commentaries/donorform.htm) bears the ominous title “The Times speaks on “Petroleum-Related Criminal Activity.”  It shows the Times’ editorial board recently applauding the U.S. Army for moving away from the curiously obsolete (for the Times) question of the criminal Iraq War’s legitimacy and genesis. The Army was getting down to what the Times calls “a useful project: figuring out why the Bush administration’s plans worked out so badly” and “incorporat[ing] the hard lessons learned in Iraq into future military plans,” so “that the size and composition of [a future] American intervention force” is “based on…what is needed” not just to “defeat the organized armed forces of an enemy government” (on its own oil/soil) but also to prevent “insurgency before it [takes] root and spread[s]” (“Learning From Iraq,” New York Times, 26 November 2006, sec. 4, p. 9).


Yes, three cheers for more effective, competent implementation of future illegal imperial “interventions” (invasions and occupations) on the supposedly sovereign soil of “enemy” states!  How’s that for liberal leftism over at the Times?! The same ZNet commentary in question quotes the Times recently relaying without any hint of irony an angry Bush administration report on how Iraqi “insurgents” are funding their resistance with money gained from “petroleum-related criminal activity.” If the U.S. occupation of Iraq isn’t an example of “petroleum-related criminal activity” on a monumental scale, I’ll drink my next gallon of gas.  It is preposterous, of course, to imagine the Times noting the evident absurdity of the administration’s anger.


This little bit of missing irony reminds me of the time that the Times dutifully reported U.S. National Intelligence chief and war criminal John Negroponte’s criticism of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez for “spending considerable sums involving himself in the political and economic life of other countries in Latin America and elsewhere.”  Chavez was doing this, Negroponte said, “despite the very real economic development and social needs of his own country.  It’s clear,” Negroponte told a Congressional hearing last March, that Chavez “is spending hundreds of millions, if note more, for his very extravagant foreign policy.”


Negroponte’s tone of concern over Chavez’s “extravagance” was repeated in a  Times’ article bearing the alarming title “CHAVEZ SEEKING FOREIGN ALLIES, SPENDING BILLIONS: Oil Used in Rivalry With U.S. for Influence in the Americas” (New York Times, 4 April , 2006, A1).  The story was written without the slightest hint of irony or derision – a notable accomplishment in the annals of journalistic self-restraint.  Forget for a moment, as the Times dutifully did, that the Chavez government had been putting oil revenues to use for the public good” by providing for basic social and economic needs of the Venezuelan poor.  Forget also that Chavez’s supposedly “extravagant” foreign policy worked to alleviate and counter economic and social problems and abroad and thus stood in sharp contrast to the viciously regressive dictates and outcomes of neoliberal U.S. foreign policy.


Put all that aside and reflect further upon the curious fact, naturally not mentioned by the Times, that the U.S. is a great perpetrator when it comes to the crime of sacrificing domestic social and economic health and development to the pursuit of an “extravagant foreign policy” involving massive interference in the internal affairs of other nations. U.S. imperial “extravagance” includes s[ending more than $500 billion each year on an imperial defense budget that maintains more than720 military bases located in nearly every country on the planet, including many in Central and Southern America.


This is only one way in which Uncle Sam “involv[es] himself in the political and economic life of other countries in Latin America and elsewhere.”  Other forms of such involvement include the powerful and regressive neoliberal economic interventions of the U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund and World Bank, the vast reach of American corporate media and consumer culture, the ubiquitous political pressure of U.S. “diplomacy,” the placement of explicitly propagandistic “news” stories in foreign newspaper and television,  and the flooding of Central American markets with highly subsidized U.S. agricultural exports. The U.S. government has even been known to invade and occupy other, formerly sovereign nations, smashing their existing state and societal structures and insisting that the occupied develop in accord with imperial politico-economic dictates.


This global “extravagance” transpires while more than 37 million (United States of) Americans (residents of what US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson [R-Texas] has called “the beacon to the world of the way life should be”) languish beneath the federal government’s notoriously low poverty level ($15,219 for a family of three in 2004) and more than 13 million or 18 percent of US children live below that sorry measure. The US child poverty rate is substantially higher than that of all other industrialized nations.


Speaking of missing irony, the Times’ liberal columnist Nicolas Kristof recently penned a column in which in which he noted “a fatigue in the West with an Arab world that sometimes seems to put its creative juices mostly into building better bombs.”  Kristof usefully criticized the “bigoted” (he’s right) view of Islam as “intrinsically backward, misogynistic and violent” (N.Kristof, “The Muslim Stereotype,” New York Times, 10 December 2006, sec. 4, p. 13).


His column predictably says nothing, however, about the West’s and especially the United States’ destructive and violent tendency to elevate the building of “better bombs” (and missiles and artillery shells and bullets and military lasers and helicopter gun-ships and bombers and torpedoes and submarines and fighter jets and grenades and drones and the like) over the higher and more just things in life!  On April 4, 1967 (39 years to the day before the above Times article on Chavez’s “extravagant” foreign policy), the United States was correctly identified by its citizen Martin Luther King, Jr. as “the leading purveyor of violence in the world.”  One year later to the day, King lay dead – the victim of racist (and possibly high-state) violence within his own country. Thirty-eight years and more than two million U.S.-caused deaths later (I dare to include the toll of U.S.-led economic sanctions), the label still fits and includes a long record of torture and detainee abuse – raising unpleasant questions about where bloody and “backwards” aggression finds its leading headquarters.


Also naturally deleted from Kristof’s column is any appropriate acknowledgement that such Arab propensity as exists for “building better bombs” owes no small part of its existence to murderous and illegal occupations conducted by the U.S. and its partners England and Israel.


Appropriately enough, the liberal Kristof’s column appears on the same Times page in which you can read the following snippet of brilliant commentary on the Iraq Study Group Report from the neoconservative Hoover Institution’s Larry Diamond: “Among the 79 recommendations of the report is one addressed explicitly to President Bush: He ‘should state that the United States does not seek permanent military bases in Iraq.’ Why is this so important?  Since May 2003, a growing number of Iraqis and most of the Sunni minority have felt their country is under American occupation.  This has been one of two factors driving the vicious Sunni insurgency” (Diamond, “Close the Bases,” New York Times, 10 December 2006, sec. 4, p. 13).


Yes, you read that correctly: “have FELT (!) their country is under U.S. occupation.”  As if their country wasn’t actually…well…”under U.S. occupation”…and understood by Iraqis (of different religious and philosophical backgrounds, including Shiites and secularists) to have been “under U.S. occupation” from the very beginning! 


Kristof is also on record calling for the White House to renounce permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq (N. Kristof, “Take it From the Iraqis,” New York Times, 8 October, 2006, sec. 4. p. 13). What neither he nor Diamond not anyone else in the “responsible” and “realistic” political class and at the Times will acknowledge I print is that the American Empire is strongly committed to the presence of such bases in Iraq – they may have to be facetiously called “temporary” and said to exist only at (following Recommendation/Catch-22 of the Iraq Study Group Report) the “request” of the Iraqi government – because Washington invaded Iraq to deepen strategic U.S. control of Iraqi and Middle Eastern oil and thereby over the world imperial system.


You have to look far beyond the Times, to places like Z Magazine, International Socialist Review, New Left Review, Socialist Worker, and Monthly Review to find honest discussion of the cold imperial ambitions driving “Operation Iraqi Liberation” (O.I.L.). 


You also have to go beyond the Times to see candid and sustained treatment of the officially unworthy victims of O.I.L.: the hundreds of thousands of faceless Iraq civilians who have perished because of the criminal, imperialist U.S. invasion, surely a remarkable example of murderous foreign policy “extravagance” that has been executed at no small cost to “the very real economic development and social needs of [the White House’s] own country.”   Don’t look for the Times to ever include Iraqis in the little boxed-in biographies it embeds deep in its newsprint under the title “Names of the Dead.”




Paul Street ([email protected]) is an independent left historian, journalist, policy researcher, speaker, and activist in Iowa City, IA.  He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005), and Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, and Policy in Chicago (Chicago, 2005) and a semi-weekly newsletter titled “The Empire and Inequality Report.”  Street’s next book is Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York, 2007).



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