By Richard Mynick
Rummage through your memory banks. Reach down to that dusty
bin where you store old mental footage of all the "B" grade
sci-fi films you've ever seen. Somewhere in that area you
should find a plot-line that runs something like this: there's
a remorseless killer on the loose. He's brilliant, he's deadly,
and the secret of his evil genius is that he has no conscience,
no sense that what he's doing is wrong. Perhaps he's a robot
like The Terminator, built to resemble a human being,
but lacking a "conscience chip." Perhaps he's human, but psychologically
programmed like the Laurence Harvey character in The Manchurian
Candidate. In any case, he kills, he kills well - and
he wastes no time with philosophical questions about the justice
of his actions.
The United States is winding up a deadly operation in Afghanistan.
It is loudly proclaiming its intent to commence similar operations
in a number of other countries, lasting possibly for many
years. The details of what actually happened in Afghanistan
were tightly controlled by the Pentagon. This is another way
of saying that most of the story - particularly visual images
of the destruction wrought, and clarity regarding civilian
casualties - was kept hidden from the American people. There
were virtually no dissenting voices heard in the mainstream
media, here, regarding the justness of the war. No information
or discussion was presented that might have prompted TV news
viewers to doubt, or even question, that this war was just
and necessary. Some future historian may reach into his dusty
archives, one day, to study the Afghan war of 2001. He might
judge that as a society, we killed well, we killed efficiently,
and we killed remorselessly.
Nine days after the September terrorist attacks, the president
raised the question on national TV: Why do they hate us? He
answered, they hate us, because of our freedom, and our democracy.
In the days that followed, some commentators tried to suggest
that a more complete answer might have considered the very
aspects of American foreign policy that bin Laden himself
has pointed to (US support for the Saudi monarchy and for
Israel, and the harsh US sanctions that have caused hundreds
of thousands of civilian deaths in Iraq since the Gulf
War). It is striking how promptly such voices were silenced.
The American right-wing devised a talking point to denounce
as "unpatriotic" any critical mention of these aspects of
US policy. Thus, any suggestion that US policy played the
slightest role in bringing about the terrorist actions was
met with sarcastic jeering: "Yeah, sure - blame America first."
This tactic was very effective. A future historian studying
this period will see that in the America of 2001, dissent
was silenced. It became hazardous to one's social standing
to even hint that US policy or actions had ever been other
than wise and just.
The American people comprise 5 percent of the world's population,
but consume a third of its resources and 27 percent of its
oil. The very phrase "The American way of life" is held in
this country to be a self-evident virtue. Many would say it's
worth dying for. Yet what the phrase today implies is the
right of 5 percent of the world's people to continue consuming
a disproportionate share of the world's limited bounty. Political
leaders who dare suggest that we explore ways to consume less
- say, via developing more efficient vehicles - are met with
scorn and derision. They are portrayed as near-traitors, who
would tamper with our sacred "way of life." A future historian
studying this feature of American public thought in 2002 may
spend a lot of time sadly shaking his head.
It is now verboten to even speak of consuming less
as a society, because such thoughts implicitly challenge "The
American way of life." It is now verboten to even speak
of logical reasons why others might have attacked us, because
one may then be accused of "attempting to justify" the terrorists'
actions. This is the quality of public discourse in the political
climate of our times.
There are obvious links between America's thirst for oil
and the open-ended war on which it's now embarked. Yet mainstream
coverage of the war carefully steps around acknowledgment
of these links. Instead, discussion is framed in moral terms
- "freedom," "justice," and "good-vs-evil." Hovering overhead
is the fearful specter of a rampaging American war machine.
Permeating the media is a discourse that dares not speak the
name of the forces driving the machine. This disconnect between
the lofty moral tone of the discourse, and the underlying
oil interest that is there for all to see, would draw approving
nods from the writers of sci-fi classics. They know the cold
secret of devising hellish Killing Machines: keep the lethal
hardware insulated from the delicate mechanism where thought
and conscience reside.
Is our war truly being waged for ideals of "freedom" and
"justice?" If so, let us promise in advance that American
oil companies will not accept a penny of profit from any future
pipelines across Afghanistan, or from any new regime to be
installed in Iraq. Let us promise not to make permanent the
new US military bases ringing the rich oil and gas fields
of the Caspian Basin. (We wouldn't want anyone to get the
wrong idea about our motives.)
Our country's populace is famously provincial, and demonstrably
uninformed of conditions and relationships beyond our borders.
For most Americans, knowledge of the outside world comes mainly
from television soundbites and newspaper headlines. Almost
all our print and broadcast news comes, in turn, from a few
giant media companies. This unhealthy situation is due largely
to the deregulation of the media industry in recent years,
championed by the Republican Party. It is a set-up for vast
The giant media companies, like all industries with lobbies
in Washington, have learned that there is just no investment
quite like a well-chosen group of congressmen. Congress has
magic powers. It can reach into the Federal till and scoop
out billions of dollars and give them to you - no strings
attached, as it did for the airlines in mid-September. It
can repeal vexing regulations originally adopted to protect
the public from predatory business practices - as it did repeatedly
for Enron. Or it can rescind rules that hitherto have been
barriers to unlimited media company growth - rules originally
put in place to protect our democracy from the danger posed
when a handful of companies control all the news.
Is it really possible that these few remaining media giants
would abuse their position as virtual news monopolies? Isn't
it sheer paranoia, you might wonder, to imagine that these
companies would ever shape, shade, or slant the news to benefit
their own interests, rather than carrying on in the noble
public-service tradition of, say, Edward R. Murrow? One way
of answering this question is to ask yourself a few others:
how many informative documentaries have you seen lately, that
explained the pros and cons of media-industry concentration?
Have you seen any lucid accounts of the outright gift of several
hundred billion dollars' worth of public property - a chunk
of digital broadcast spectrum - that Congress bestowed upon
TV station owners via the Telecommunications Act of 1996?
How likely is it - since General Electric owns NBC and is
also a leading arms contractor - that NBC would air documentaries
critical of defense spending? Consideration of such questions
drives home the point that what is presented as "the news"
is only the news as large corporations want you to see it.
It is news shaped, framed, and filtered by the financial and
political interests of the companies providing it.
The elements of a futuristic sci-fi movie of nightmarish
toxicity are with us already. We have a na´ve and poorly-informed
people, dependent on media news for their glimmer of knowledge
of the world beyond our shores. The people are angry and frightened.
The country is said to be "at war" with an unspecified number
of enemies for an indefinite number of years. If ever a nation
needed a fair objective understanding of the world, this is
But all our news flows from the few media giants - which
are corporations first, and "public servants" (a distant)
second. They want from government what all corporations want:
tax breaks, subsidies and exemption from oversight. They helped
put in place the current right-wing government, precisely
to obtain such favors. At the same time, they are in a position
to set the tone for how the justness and wisdom of the current
"war" is presented to the public. They are no more likely
to provide the trusting public with views critical of the
war, than NBC is to broadcast documentaries exposing wasteful
defense spending. Frightening power is now in the hands of
this military-industrial-media complex: it can mobilize emotional
public support for a war, even while disguising its true motivations.
The societal mechanism is in place to wage aggressive wars
aimed at controlling resources all over the globe, while the
American people are told that the wars are "self-defense"
against weapons of mass destruction, or part of the "war on
terrorism." This is a public with little means of knowing
any better - and the media they depend on for "information"
has no incentive to tell them otherwise. The military arm
of our society will act to further the aims of giant oil and
defense interests; while the media arm issues soothing messages,
all the anchors wear little flags in their lapels, and the
public is urged to go shopping.
What sort of image will a future historian have of American
society in the year 2002? Will history remember us as the
rich society unable to even speak of consuming less than a
disproportionate share of the earth's resources? As a society
that, when attacked, refused to even speak of possible reasons
why others might want to attack it - preferring instead the
simple theory that the attackers were "evil?" A society with
the planet's most powerful military, that attacked the poorest
most defenseless nations - but squeamishly concealed the bombing's
human consequences from television? A society that launched
air strikes while urging its citizens to keep consuming, consuming
without questioning, consuming without limit, consuming even
as it killed, and killed remorselessly?
Now, about that scary sci-fi movie - have you seen the one
about the machine that destroys everything in its path? Its
mad creators built it without the circuitry to know when something
it was doing was wrong.