Serving Power

Downplaying Dissent

USA TODAY calls itself “The National Newspaper.” America does not in fact possess a single national paper, thankfully, but anyone who travels regularly in the United States can tell you that USA TODAY has certainly become the official newspaper of the nation’s airports and hotels. All of the nation’s big hotel chains, it seems, have been persuaded to slip the supposedly folksy, people-friendly paper, known for its short articles and easy-to-read graphics, under their guests’ doors each workday morning.

Having just returned from a trip to the West Coast, I have been almost unavoidably exposed to its authoritarian and pseudo-populist spin on current events and can only conclude that USA TODAY takes “national” to mean White House. Look, for example, at the paper’s Friday (February 28th) story titled “Poll: Support for War is Strong.” The article’s basic theme is that USA TODAY’s recent survey (carried out with Gallup and CNN) of 1,003 people shows that “nearly six in ten Americans favor sending US troops to Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein from power.” Take that, “war” protesters.

Later in the article, however, we learn that “the [American] public is wary of taking unilateral action” and 62 percent of Americans oppose “war” (the gross power asymmetry of the “combatant” states require quotation marks) without United Nations approval. The story concludes by quoting Syracuse professor Robert Maxwell on how Americans are “conflicted,” “uncertain” and cautious regarding George W. Bush’s plans. In abbreviated (everything is abbreviated in USA TODAY) excerpts from its Thursday interview with Bush, moreover, USA TODAY acknowledges, “there are some indications that not all Americans are convinced of the need for this war [emphasis added].” Quite an understatement! The point deserving primary emphasis is the significant majority opposed to unilateral American “war.” That 62 percent is the big story, given the fundamentally unilateral nature of the “war” plans in question and the full-court press the White House has made to sell people on the supposed urgent necessity of attacking Iraq with or without UN approval. The “go it alone” nature of the Bush agenda is reflected accurately in USA TODAY’s front-page Friday article (” ‘We will Disarm Him,’”), which notes that “the president expresses little concern” over UN Security Council opposition to American “war” plans.

Given the fact that most Americans have opposed the White House’s essentially unilateral “war” plans for some time, it would have been more truthful if the paper had titled its article “Polls: Public’s Criticism of Bush ‘War’ Plans Steady.’”

Pseudo-Populist Celebrity-Bashing: Leave “the War” to the Warriors

That unduly downplayed criticism is considerably more relevant than the collateral survey findings USA TODAY reported in its Friday “Weekend” section. Titled “When Celebrities Speak, Do We Listen?,” this article noted that 87 percent of the survey respondents refuse to be influenced for or against the “war” by a celebrity. The basic theme, supported with a number of evocative quotations, was that ordinary hard-working Americans feel democratic “scorn” for the “elitist” antiwar positions of “limousine [Hollywood] liberals” like Susan Sarandon and Martin Sheen. USA TODAY quoted an “anti-celebrity activist” who accuses famous people of “using their celebrity to interfere with the defense of our country,” and a well-known cellist who thinks that celebrities “should leave [the war] to the politicians.”

The best quotes came from Martie Carter and Jason Zengerle. According to Carter, her marriage to a US solider makes her “more qualified to comment on the war” than actors, who “spend most of their adult lives pretending to be someone they are not.” Zengerle is a writer for the neo-conservative New Republic – a true Main Street American, no doubt. “When it comes to assessing the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction,” he asks, “who are you going to trust? The real president or the guy who plays the president (Martin Sheen) on Wednesday nights?”

USA TODAY provided no evidence of significant popular “scorn” for celebrities who speak out against the “war.” This is hardly surprising, given the fact that most Americans tend to share anti-”war” celebrities’ opposition to Bush’s plans. Insofar as ordinary Americans do in fact feel such “scorn” (there is little reason to doubt the accuracy of a recent Fox News survey showing that two-thirds of 900 registered voters would prefer that celebrities keep their political opinions to themselves), the paper failed to distinguish between general popular resentment of the “rich and famous” and specific popular disagreement with the anti-”war” positions of some celebrities. During the 1960s and 1970s, many poor and working-class Americans combined distaste for what they perceived to be the self-interested and narcissistic anti-[Vietnam] war activism of affluent protestors with disapproval of US foreign policy. Indeed, contrary to the conventional cultural wisdom epitomized by the comedic television character “Archie Bunker,” the American working-class was actually more opposed to the Vietnam War than the middle and upper classes. Blue-collar Americans were capable of resenting “Hanoi Jane” Fonda and opposing US policy in Southeast Asia at one and the same time.

Free Pass

One thing we can expect USA TODAY not to reflect on is the authoritarian essence of the notion that the judgments of military personnel, policymakers and the president are somehow more legitimate and trustworthy than those of people in the performing arts. A genuinely democratic society does not simply assign greater shares of veracity and potency to the views of political and policy elites and military staff (or military spouses for that matter) than to actors, musicians, poets or any other non-policymaking civilians. If anything, in such a society, our assumptions would move in precisely the opposite direction, reflecting concern with the consistently demonstrated tendency of public officials, both elected and appointed and including even (in fact especially) presidents, to, well… lie and to manipulate mass opinion.

In the United States and elsewhere, politicians and policymakers have a long history of exaggerating and inventing foreign threats (Gulf of Tonkin, the supposed unwillingness of the Japanese to surrender on the eve of Hiroshima, etc.) to advance imperial and related authoritarian domestic agendas. US policymakers have a related and equally venerable and disturbing record of using the “private’ media to shape the public mind in accordance with their domestic and related overseas objectives. In one of history’s most dangerous ironies, indeed, the “power elite’s” impulse towards mass thought control is especially pronounced precisely in outwardly democratic polities, where the relative de-legitimization of pure state repression makes it all the more imperative for the privileged few to invest their considerable economic and organization resources into the manufacture of mass consent.

How disturbing, then, to see “The National Newspaper” relegate citizen dissent and opposition to the margins in an obsequious interview with the commander-in-chief. How interesting to see USA TODAY interviewers give the president an un-challenged free pass to make numerous false and widely disproved assertions, including the following:

? Saddam Hussein is a serious threat to the people of the United States and a greater current threat to world peace than the nuclear activities of North Korea. ? Saddam is significantly and verifiably linked to al Qaeda and other extremist Islamic terror networks. ? The White House’s commitment to the ideas of unilateral and pre-emptive “war” and to the related campaign against Iraq dates essentially from the jetliner attacks of September 11th, 2001. ? Bush is deeply apprehensive about using troops against Iraq and has come to embrace the “military option” only after long and exhaustive deliberations leading to the inescapable conclusion that force is the only way to protect Americans. ? The only real US options now are (1) to attack, invade and occupy Iraq or (2) “do nothing.” ? The White House is deeply concerned about the existence of “brutal, torturous dictators” who oppress “their own people.” It is committed to eliminating state terrorism and seriously concerned about the rights of Iraqi citizens and the cause of democracy at home and abroad. ? “We have put together a very solid, strong domestic agenda,” that is “based on a common sense approach to problems we face” – one that requires harshly regressive tax cuts “aimed at stimulating economic growth and vitality.”

“Why Not Ask for Something From Us?”

How disturbing to read USA TODAY’s interviewers ask Bush if he has “considered asking Americans to help with this war effort. Some people wonder, why give us a tax cut? Why not ask for something from us?” USA TODAY’s writers are apparently incapable of differentiating Americans by wealth or analyzing policy proposals in light of their relative impact on different socioeconomic groups. The pseudo-populist corporate authoritarianism of “the nation’s newspaper” could not be revealed in greater clarity. The real story, the truth, is that Bush’s agenda shifts the burden of sacrifice yet further from the privileged elite and on to the rest of “us” in what is already the industrialized world’s most unequal, wealth-top-heavy society. The real point is that a real “war” against serious threats to national security and world peace would, like World War II, increase, not cut, taxes on those most able to pay, invoking “Equality of Sacrifice” as a basic principle. It is actually left to Bush to remind USA TODAY that “Americans” are in fact “paying the bill,” deleting, of course, his efforts to shrink the bill for his fellow corporate plutocrats.

How interesting to read USA TODAY report, without comment, that Bush has relied on “prayer to the Comforter” to make his decisions. How unsettling to read, without comment, that, “like his father” (Bush “41,” not God or Jesus), Dubya “scorns introspection” and refuses to “explore how he finds the strength” to plan the destruction of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians.

According to power-worshipping USA TODAY reporter Judy Keen, “as he spoke in the Oval Office, Bush leaned back in his chair behind the desk once used by President Kennedy.” The historical Oval Office reference that struck me as most appropriate for this interview, however, involved Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

Daddy, What Did You Do in the Propaganda Wars?

Friday’s fawning USA TODAY interview quotes Bush to the effect that he doesn’t want future Americans looking back and asking why he didn’t act to protect their security. There’s a different scenario, however, for USA TODAY’s staff and other members of America’s “mainstream” (really global and state-corporate) media to contemplate. It involves Americans looking back to a time when an un-elected president brutally murdered half a million Iraqis and initiated a monumentally expensive and unsuccessful imperial occupation, prompting a wave of devastating terror attacks, drastically de-stabilizing a dangerous world region and deepening economic crisis at home. Among the many retrospective questions that might be asked by the US citizenry in such a scenario: why didn’t “our” “free press” aggressively tell us the truth about US policy at home and abroad? Why didn’t “our” “democratic” print and electronic media make it their top priority, essential for a functioning democracy, to equip us with the knowledge required to make intelligent, fully informed decisions in accordance with basic requirements of public safety and moral decency? Why did it so often function as the de facto propaganda arm of a reckless, plutocratic, arch-imperialist and Fundamentalist cabal? Why did we have to go outside the “mainstream” media to get the real story, too late, as we struggled to get through our busy, overworked lives? And by the way, how come that media never told us the real story on the racist electoral practices and the related judicial coup that installed Bush in the White House in the first place?

“To Make the USA Truly One Nation”

For “mainstream” editors and reporters who would like to pre-empt this possible scenario, the road to a different fate might begin with some of the “introspection” that Bush and his father abhor. At USA TODAY, it might start with a careful look the paper’s mission statement, located on “the national newspaper’ masthead,” where we learn that the paper “hopes to serve as a forum for better understanding and unity to help make the USA truly one nation.” We are all for “better understanding,” but the rest of that mission statement expresses a rather fascist ideal. You don’t have to be a professional actor to spend a big part of your daily life acting out externally assigned roles – “pretending to be someone you are not.” Such role-playing is a dominant requirement of the American workplace – pretty much the essence of the modern employer-employee relationship.

As far as I can tell, the role being played by USA TODAY reporters and by many others in America’s corporate communications empire is precisely to manufacture consent. It is to promote the sort of flawed misunderstanding that promotes a dangerous, authoritarian “unity” based more on the totalitarian groupthink model of the Third Reich than on the republican ideals of America’s founders.

As for the rest of us, the “rabble” whose majority opposition is declared irrelevant by the planners of the “inevitable” and “imminent” “war,” “mainstream” media complicity in the apparently forthcoming assault on Iraq contains a number of lessons. One of the most obvious is our desperate need for democratic media reform. The goal behind such reform would be to make the USA truly a democratic nation, one in which media claims of egalitarian people-friendliness are not disingenuous and coverage reflects the whole truth, not the inherently flawed version propounded by masters of hierarchy at home and abroad.

Paul Street ([email protected]) will speak against the White House agenda at Columbia College, 731 S. Plymouth Court, Chicago Illinois, on Wednesday, March 5th at noon.

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