I couldn’t help but overhear the young man in the retail chain store last week. He was the fellow wearing the T-shirt with the word “security” emblazoned in large block letters. He was talking to a young couple as they browsed the store’s music section.
At first I thought the young man, who looked like he was in his early 20s, worked for the store. But a closer look at his T-shirt revealed in smaller letters the word “eternal” above “security,” and below that a biblical reference to John 3:16. It was not an unusual message in this part of the Midwest. But what really caught my attention was what the young man was saying. Apparently, the other man was planning to enlist in the army in a few months. The man in the Jesus shirt was telling the couple about his military tour of duty in Iraq. How they shouldn’t believe all the media reports about how terrible it is in Iraq.
“I mean, when you’re over there and you hear that a million people got electricity last week, it’s awesome, man,” declared our evangelist for Jesus and foreign occupations. “Some of these people live in mud homes.” The young couple he was addressing smiled and nodded their heads agreeably. “You’ll see, it’s not like they’re saying. There are amazing things happening,” the young man assured the future soldier.
Listening, I was also amazed. I wondered what this fellow knew about the modern history of Iraq. Did he know about the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report from 1990 that discussed methods at the outset of the first Gulf War for sabotaging Iraq’s water treatment system? Did he know about the U.S. bombing raids then on Iraq’s dams, pumping stations, municipal water and sewage facilities? Or how the post-war economic sanctions against Iraq included a ban on the chemicals and equipment needed to repair water and sanitation treatment facilities? Did he know about the approximately 500,000 children estimated to have died during the sanction years, deaths caused in significant number by disease related to the deterioration of the sanitation system?
Ironically, Iraq actually began exporting electricity to Turkey in 1987. In those days the country’s electrical system had been modernizing for a couple decades. In those days the Reagan Administration was also an ally of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Then Saddam’s world of helicopter gunships, chemical weapons, torture and dictatorship were not a problem for the Republican White House. In those days Iraq was at war with Iran. Then Iran’s nationalist revolution was considered the major threat to U.S. oil interests. If you’re a torturer with oil, Washington has a way of rationalizing unpleasantries when they happen to dovetail with the year’s policy agenda.
But despite the encouragement (and arranging shipments of arms and money) from glad-handing Reagan envoy Donald Rumsfeld, Saddam’s war with Iran exacted a heavy price not only in lives lost, but also in a shrinking gross domestic product. Thirteen years of economic sanctions and two wars later, Iraq is a country where prospects for a better life look about as bright as a distant star on a smoggy Los Angeles evening.
The Land of Sound Bites and Sycophants
While the young veteran in the store may believe the U.S. mission in Iraq is a noble enterprise, you just have to wonder how anyone can continue to support a war that has been so discredited? It may be because the right-wing media warriors who whipped up pro-war sentiment four years ago are still at it. Indeed, despite the shattered reality of life in Iraq, you will be hard pressed to find any genuinely critical accounting of the war’s course from its many talk media boosters.
At a time when an old-line right-winger like William F. Buckley bluntly admits the U.S. mission in Iraq has failed, when even professional reprobate Henry Kissinger says a military victory is impossible, talk radio stars like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, and others remain intrepid defenders of the heroic rightness of the President’s war. In the brave new world of the media warrior, the only challenge remains â€œfinishing the job.â€
These are folks who once predicted candy and flowers for our troops (hey, Dick Cheney told them this!) and got instead a nation where polls show 61 percent of Iraq’s population now supports attacks on U.S. and British troops. They also made the mistake of taking seriously the not-so-sage wisdom of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, who in the weeks following the invasion could not imagine resistance to the occupation lasting more than six months.
Of course, Rumsfeld’s grotesque misreading of Iraqi reality was only an early clue to what was coming. No Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) found. No textbook lessons in helping a grateful nation learn the ABCs of building a fledgling democracy. No end to terrorism. No peace. No security. A war with no end in sight.
In the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, the mainstream news networks and press largely gave a pass to all the duplicitous nonsense emanating from the White House about Iraq’s secret cache of weapons. But it was the talk media industry especially that played a critical role in turning the White House’s recipe for disaster into a dish palatable enough for the public to swallow. Yet as the public grows ever more disillusioned with the war, the more the media warriors sound like some crude Stalinist propaganda machine, all self-righteous bluster in the name of the beleaguered theory of America as the world’s only moral force for good. But beneath the bombast, the media warriors travel increasingly in desperation and delusion.
In place of edifying political thought, we instead get people like CNN host Glen Beck, a glib talker who thinks torture in the name of the red, white, and blue is highly commendable. Or the bluster of Hannity, who prattles loudly on radio and TV about things like â€œmoral characterâ€ while explaining away the blood-drenched streets of Falluja under U.S. siege. Then there’s Bill O’Reilly, whose national platform on Fox News allows him to advocate things like incarcerating â€œall those clownsâ€ at Air America for treason. At least O’Reilly is opposed to the death penalty, unlike radio host Michael Savage. The latter believes former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright should be tried for treason and hanged for not preventing North Korea from buying two nuclear reactors during the Clinton era. No word from Savage on whether he would also march exiting Defense Secretary Rumsfeld up the gallows steps, since he was on the board of the engineering firm ABB when it was hired by North Korea to build those nuclear reactors.
In place of productive discussion, we instead get anger, packaged in self-righteousness and delivered as cheap entertainment. There’s syndicated radio host Mark Levin, a Republican lawyer and frequent guest on Hannity’s program, who regularly delivers some of radio’s nastiest name-calling rants against liberal â€œappeasersâ€ of evil (meaning basically anyone who disagrees with Levin). Levin’s radio moniker is â€œThe Great Oneâ€ and he’s a case study in the crassness that pervades talk media. Levin is the kind of guy who in a radio exchange with actor Alec Baldwin, a Bush critic, attacked Baldwin with mocking taunts about his weight and divorce proceedings. During the recent military conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, Levin more notably incited his listeners with high-decibel declarations on the need to â€œcrush the barbariansâ€ in Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria, to â€œrain hell on them so they’ll know what hell is like before they get there.â€ If you happen to think otherwise, prepare to have a payload of outrage dumped on you. It’s all apparently designed to appeal to Levin’s perpetually aggrieved fan base. It also just gets worse. If hell is other people, as Sartre once said, then the Mark Levin Show is the show those people listen to.
They also might read the thuggish columns of Ann Coulter. On almost any topic this talk media fixture offers a grab bag of predictably disgraceful thought. To the news that a former spokesperson for the Taliban government in Afghanistan is now attending Yale University, for example, Coulter in her May 10 column asked why the man hasn’t been â€œbeaten more senseless than he already is?â€ Where is â€œan angry, club-and torch wielding mob when you need one?â€ asked our word-processing vigilante?
But the times are not only crass; they’re ironic. To the suggestion that the trial of Saddam Hussein is flawed since the defendant’s lawyers are routinely killed, Tony Blankley, editorial page editor of the Washington Times, declared on Santa Monica’s KCRW radio’s â€œLeft, Right, and Centerâ€ on June 23 that he’s never been a big fan of the â€œNuremburg precedent.â€ In the true spirit of civilized life, Blankley admitted he’s always thought it better for the winning side to just shoot the leaders of the losing side. Leave it to a former policy analyst for President Reagan to want to obliterate the concept of surrender for the justice that comes up against a wall.
It’s all typical of the type of extremist thinking now prevailing in the conservative cauldrons of American politics. Indeed, in any major market scan the radio dial on any given day and you’re likely to hear some media warrior going on about how insurgent Iraq and the rise of global anti-U.S. sentiment is explainable only as the product of crazed enemies who â€œhate our freedoms.â€ Better to stick with that cartoon analysis than strive to actually understand the deeper roots of global conflict. The latter is in fact a suspect activity in today’s right-wing culture, where interest in understanding the phenomenon of terrorism is equated with condoning terrorism. This is derivative of the line of philosophical argument that evil is basically inexplicable. So instead we hear opinions such as those of actor James Woods, who in a recent Tonight Show appearance explained that unlike previous wars, we Americans now face a barbarian enemy unlike no other, who has no demands but the crazed desire to kill us.
Unfortunately, defining barbarism for the media warriors has become more an expression of partisan political loyalties than political integrity. Responding to criticism of Israel for air raids that killed hundreds of Lebanese civilians, Chicago WLS radio host, Eileen Byrne, for example, declared in her July 28 website blog that â€œan ambulance or a school bus is the first place I’d look for Hamas or Hezbollah.â€ The word â€œlookâ€ we assume is Byrne’s euphemism for air strikes by jetfighters and helicopter gunships. â€œOh, How could Israel hit an ambulance? Oh the humanity!â€ mocked Byrne, unaware or unconcerned that in her sarcasm she endorses acts constituting potential war crimes.â€ In a similar vein, Limbaugh explained in an Aug. 15 broadcast critical of the U.N.-sponsored cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, that the West is in fact in a religious war, one that allows not for negotiation or compromise, but only total victory! Brave General Limbaugh is apparently otherwise quite content with an outcome that left a large area of south Lebanon unlivable because of unexploded cluster bombs.
Real Anger, No Solutions
The right-wing media trades on the grudges, resentments, and frustrations of a section of the popular culture defined by almost endless disgruntlement. It’s a world of faux populism where an unjust war is painted in red, white, and blue hypocrisy, while issues such as unaffordable health care or a pension system under attack fade before the burning evils of gay marriage or stem cell research. In this media world, evolutionary biology is bad news, but political evolution toward a more just, compassionate, and progressive society is just some laughable Hollywood fairy tale.
The trouble is the media warriors exploit the public’s various frustrations and fears and offers nothing in the way of real solutions. This is a milieu that thinks it’s having a serious discussion when it solicits callers’ comments on the topic of whether the minimum wage should ever be raised, or even exist! Their product is especially toxic when what’s for sale is a belligerent brand of patriotism, the kind that equates â€œsupporting the troopsâ€ with unquestioned support for an administration whose fogged vision has meant death for nearly 3000 troops.
In the end, right-wing talk media is less some bellwether of democratic discussion than just sordid. It’s a corporate propaganda system whose gauge for what is considered â€œresponsibleâ€ debate is set to stiflingly narrow parameters. In this media system the global drama of human struggle and conflict exists only in relation to its significance to U.S. foreign policy interests, as interpreted by a domestic(ated) press corps and the sludge of retired military generals and professional terrorism â€œexpertsâ€ who now moonlight as network consultants. This is a world whose center of gravity is defined by all things corporate and all things American, beyond which exists only a global community less to be understood than contained
With the exception of Air America, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, and a few other hosts, the talk media industry largely reflects the rise to prominence of the far right. No longer is the loopy agenda of those who equate government social programs with â€œnanny stateâ€ socialism limited to monthly John Birch Society newsletters. But with the rise of talk media has also come an increasing coarseness in the culture. Never before has boorish incivility been so valued on a radio host’s resume.
Listening to one of Hannity’s recent typically strident discourses on Iraq, I couldn’t help but note that the war’s duration has brought no run of media warriors leaving their radio and TV hosting responsibilities to enlist in the military. That job they rather comfortably leave to the mostly working-class young men and women who are fighting and dying in Iraq. Listening to Hannity, I thought about my recent overheard chain store conversation, wondering what would be the fate of the fellow with plans to enlist. Where would he be a year from now? In Iraq, possibly? Alive? Dead? Would he become one of those young faces on the local television news, his formal military portrait haunting the screen while the announcer gives details of his upcoming memorial service?
Later, I gave a friend’s high school-aged daughter a ride to a sports practice. She told me in the car about how one of her girlfriend’s plans includes joining the Marines after college because she wants to fight in Iraq. Being a sophomore now, this means her stint in Iraq would be scheduled for exactly seven years from now. My friend’s daughter had objected that we don’t belong in Iraq now, but we will certainly not belong in Iraq seven years from now! The other girl explained that our government wants to leave, but can’t as long as the â€œterrorists in Iraq keep blowing up bombs against us.â€ To those who have opposed the U.S. war in Iraq from the beginning, such ideas might seem frustratingly, dangerously naÃ¯ve. But they are also indicative of the corrosive effects on American life of the right-wing extremism that has emerged on the main stage of both American politics and media.
The architects of the Iraq war are people without humane vision, as inured to death as they are attuned to the profits and geopolitics of the region’s oil and gas reserves. With control over the largest military force the world has ever seen, they confuse their power with being right. The media warriors only confuse their access to cables and satellites with genuine power, the kind that comes from critical thinking, searching self-reflection, and the capacity to form opinions that are not for sale.
The news talk floats through American culture now like a drone of white noise. It’s all a kind of detached backdrop to the real America where the fragmented reality of private life prevails. In this America everyone’s â€œinformed,â€ few are involved, and the live network feed from Baghdad on the latest roadside bombings has the effect of a chronic IV drip of anesthetic on the public spirit.
This is a democracy in decline.
Mark T. Harris is the author of â€œWelcome to ‘Whole-Mart’â€”Rotten Apples in the Social Responsibility Industry,â€ which was published earlier this year in Dissent magazine. You can write to him at Mark@Mark-T-Harris.com, or visit his website at www.Mark-T-Harris.com.