More Nuggets From the Nuthouse

I’ve long been intrigued by the ways in which neo-liberal class warfare is normalized and even made to seem an advance in social welfare. An important verbal device in this process is the designation of these regressive changes as “reforms,” a purr word that in earlier times was used to refer to changes that benefited ordinary citizens, like the introduction of the progressive income tax, the Social Security system, Medicare, and the extension of the franchise with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

With the triumph of neo-liberalism, however, “reform” has been turned on its head and attacks on the welfare state are called reforms: cuts in social security are allegedly necessary to save the system down the road; attacks on voting rights are claimed to be needed to combat fraud; and testing regimes, charter schools, and related forms of attack on the public school system are allegedly designed solely in the interest of children’s education. A word occasionally used in the regressive-reform lexicon is “experiment.”

It is asserted, for example, that the right-wing Kansas program of business and 1 percenters’ tax cuts and social welfare program reductions are an “experiment” to see if they bring about the expansion claimed in the Laffer curve and supply side economics. Governor Sam Brownbeck called it a “real live experiment” (see Chris Suellentrop, “The Kansas Experiment,” New York Times Magazine, August 6, 2015). Paul Krugman has made it a hobby to point out how this right-wing policy and ideological claim has been repeatedly confuted by experience, but without interfering with its return to service in policy proposals and action. It is obvious that it is revived because the upper class and business interests want to grab more and need supportive arguments that point to broad benefits that many among the elites, surely, privately recognize to be non-existent. They play dumb, and they and their agents will often and cynically say it is an “experiment” being tried out with public benefits in mind. And with the help of the mainstream media, which treats its resurrection lightly, they get away with this.

Word bias in the media is omnipresent, so much so that we hardly notice it and it probably has an unconscious effect on our own understanding. New York Times headlines read “From Crimea Putin Trumpets Mother Russia” (May 8, 2015) and he “shows off” his arms (“Russia Shows Off Ordnance in Victory Day Parade,” May 10, 2015). U.S. and UK leaders never “trumpet” anything or “show off” their military forces. Putin also makes “gestures,” “blusters,” and “lashes out” at the West, words not applied to U.S. leaders who do however try to “rein in” Russia’s new aggressiveness (“Amid Tensions, a Gesture from Putin,” ed., May 8, 2015; “Pressures to Respond Forcibly Mount as Obama Works to Rein In Russia,” March 3, 2014). China also is “flexing its muscles” and unreasonably trying to assert its rights in the adjacent South China seas against the U.S. navy’s “freedom of navigation” (Peter Symonds, “US Ramps Up Anti-China ‘Pivot to Asia,” Global Research, March 14, 2015).  Again, the United States does not “flex its muscles,” it quietly responds to threats produced by aggressive others.

The use of such arbitrary put-down and self-lauding purr words, and the double standard in usage, could be multiplied and they have effects on demonization and support of violence in opposing the demons.

The word “massacre” has long been an important one in the selective treatment of targets and self (and allies). The word is used freely to apply to killings by targets. The Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris in January 2015 were given a New York Times editorial “The Massacre in Paris” (January 8, 2015). But the vastly more deadly slaughters in Gaza in Israel’s Operation Cast Lead and Protective Edge (2008, 2014), and the U.S. destruction of Fallujah in January 2004 were never designated “massacres” as we and our number one client carried them out.

The Racak massacre of January 15, 1999 in Kosovo is a classic case of a well-publicized “massacre” that was, in fact, mythical. There were dead bodies in that KLA-supportive village in Kosovo, but they were almost all bodies of KLA fighters killed in a previous day fire-fight with the Serb army, but pulled together and lined up for the edification of U.S. and UN officials (this episode is discussed in detail in Herman and Peterson, The Politics of Genocide, 2010, under the heading “Mythical Bloodbaths”). An interesting contrast is provided by the recent U.S. bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, with more than twice the number of casualties suffered in the Charlie Hebdo case.

This was of course carried out by the U.S. Air Force, so there was zero likelihood that there would be a New York Times (or any other mainstream Western media) headline and editorial on “The Massacre at Kunduz.” There was also zero likelihood that the mainstream media would discuss the history of U.S. hospital bombings, which is long and sordid.

During the Vietnam war U.S. officials placed no restrictions on the bombing of hospitals, and the August 9, 1973 Newsday coverage of congressional hearings on U.S. activities in Laos and Cambodia was headlined “Bombing of Hospitals Called Routine.” One witness, a former Army intelligence specialist, said that while in Quang Tri province in 1969, he routinely listed hospitals among targets to be struck by American fighter planes. Former Air Force captain Gerald Greven said he personally ordered bombing raids against hospitals: it was policy, he said, to “look for hospitals as targets.” The Vietnemese found that putting Red Cross insignia on hospital roofs was a bad idea as it provided this country with a handy target (Greg Grandin, “Look for Hospitals as Targets,” the Nation, October 5, 2015).

The current media treatment of the Kunduz hospital bombing is in a great tradition of apologetics for both hospital bombings and war crimes in general (by us). The common practice of ignoring them or giving them passing reference, merely mentioning errant bombs and tragic errors, was not easy in this case as Doctors Without Borders is a well-regarded Western-based organization, whose officials’ angry outcries forced themselves on the media (see Glenn Greenwald, “From Mistake to Justification: The Radically Changing Story of the U.S. Airstrike on Afghan Hospital,” The Intercept, October 5, 2015).

But the media still did their best, giving the Pentagon’s account priority and letting it frame the issues. The New York Times had an amusing sequence, first swallowing the Pentagon claim that it was “collateral damage…while firing on insurgents [operating] nearby” the hospital (“Air Strike Hits Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Afghanistan,” October 3). The title of this article fails to mention the country delivering those deadly air strikes (whereas, in contrast, virtually every Times article on the destruction of MH-17 in Ukraine mentions it being hit by a “Russian missile,” misleadingly implying that it must have been shot by Russia or its rebel clients).

The October 3 article also fails to mention that Doctors Without Borders had repeatedly delivered details on the exact GPS coordinates of the hospital to both Afghan and U.S. officials and was frantically repeating these throughout the bombing episode. The article also fails to mention that bombing hospitals is a war crime.

An October 4 Times article cites the Pentagon claim that it “may have inadvertently” struck the hospital during a military operation that called for air support. Still no mention of the repeated transmission of GPS details from Doctors Without Borders (DWB) to U.S. officials. On October 5 the Times featured “U.S. General Says Afghanis Requested Air Support.” No mention of the repeated claims of DWB that there were no insurgents in the hospital, or mention of what international law says about bombing hospitals. On October 6 the Times article is entitled “General Is Said to Think Afghan Hospital Air Strike Broke US Rules.” The poor Pentagon was feeling the pressure and saw the need to take some action to relieve it, so the paper helps make this transition manageable. On October 20, the Times added a fresh apologetic line: “Hospital Attack Fueled by Units New to Kunduz,” so a bit forgivable with another tragic error by well-meaning folks who wouldn’t do such a thing deliberately. On October 24, the paper features General John Campbell’s decision to bring in high officers from another command to investigate the incident. This account does mention in paragraph 6 that DWB “rates this episode as a possible war crime” and calls for an independent investigation under the Geneva Convention .”

If this had been the Russians bombing this hospital I think it is safe to say that the UN, media, and politicos would be indignantly calling for international action. They wouldn’t be featuring a series of incompatible explanations of the incident and they would laugh at Russian proposals to have the matter investigated solely by Russian military officials. But the massacre here was carried out by the exceptional country, for whom moral rules and international law do not apply, so the Free Press treats it accordingly.



Edward S. Herman is an economist, media critic, and author.