Silencing War Criticism

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Grisly photos that show war as it is, in this case a dead Iraqi from Desert Storm, are not shown by the U.S. media

Silencing War Criticism: The Iraq Invasion of 2003

W.J. Astore

Update (7/19/17): I posted this article at HuffPost, and the site added a video that shows the mainstream media gushing over Trump’s strike against Syria.  The video is well worth watching.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/596df7a3e4b07f87578e6bd7 or follow this link.

Jesse Ventura, former governor of Minnesota (1999-2003), was a hot media commodity as the Bush/Cheney administration was preparing for its invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Ventura, a U.S. Navy veteran who gained notoriety as a professional wrestler before he entered politics, was both popular and outspoken.  MSNBC won the bidding war for his services in 2003, signing him to a lucrative three-year contract to create his own show – until, that is, the network learned he was against the Iraq war.  Ventura’s show quickly went away, even as the network paid him for three years to do nothing.

I heard this revealing story from a new podcast, the TARFU Report, hosted by Matt Taibbi and Alex Pareene.  By his own account, Jesse Ventura was bought off by the network, which back then was owned by General Electric, a major defense contractor that was due to make billions of dollars off the war.

Of course, Ventura was hardly the only war critic to run afoul of GE/NBC.  Phil Donahue, the famous talk show host, saw his highly rated show cancelled when he gave dissenters and anti-war voices a fair hearing.  Ashleigh Banfield, a reporter who covered the Iraq war, gave a speech in late April 2003 that criticized the antiseptic coverage of the war (extracts to follow below).  For her perceptiveness and her honesty, she was reassigned and marginalized, demoted and silenced.

So much for freedom of speech, as well as the press.

As Phil Donahue said, his show “wasn’t good for business.”  NBC didn’t want to lose ratings by being associated with “unpatriotic” elements when the other networks were waving the flag in support of the Iraq war.  In sidelining Ventura and Donahue, NBC acted to squelch any serious dissent from the push for war, and punished Ashleigh Banfield in the immediate aftermath of the war for her honesty in criticizing the coverage shown (and constructed) by the mainstream media, coverage that was facilitated by the U.S. military and rubber-stamped by corporate ownership.

Speaking of Banfield’s critique, here are some excerpts from her speech on Iraq war coverage in April 2003.  Note that her critique remains telling for all U.S. media war coverage since then:

That said, what didn’t you see [in U.S. media coverage of the Iraq war]? You didn’t see where those bullets landed. You didn’t see what happened when the mortar landed. A puff of smoke is not what a mortar looks like when it explodes, believe me. There are horrors that were completely left out of this war. So was this journalism or was this coverage? There is a grand difference between journalism and coverage, and getting access does not mean you’re getting the story, it just means you’re getting one more arm or leg of the story. And that’s what we got, and it was a glorious, wonderful picture that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers excited about cable news. But it wasn’t journalism, because I’m not so sure that we in America are hesitant to do this again, to fight another war, because it looked like a glorious and courageous and so successful terrific endeavor, and we got rid of a horrible leader: We got rid of a dictator, we got rid of a monster, but we didn’t see what it took to do that.

I can’t tell you how bad the civilian casualties were. I saw a couple of pictures. I saw French television pictures, I saw a few things here and there, but to truly understand what war is all about you’ve got to be on both sides.

….

Some of the soldiers, according to our embeds had never seen a dead body throughout the entire three-week campaign. It was like Game Boy. I think that’s amazing in two different ways. It makes you a far more successful warrior because you can just barrel right along but it takes away a lot of what war is all about, which is what I mentioned earlier. The TV technology took that away too. We couldn’t see where the bullets landed. Nobody could see the horrors of this so that we seriously revisit the concept of warfare the next time we have to deal with it.

I think there were a lot of dissenting voices before this war about the horrors of war, but I’m very concerned about this three-week TV show and how it may have changed people’s opinions. It was very sanitized. [emphasis added]

….

This TV show [Iraq invasion coverage] that we just gave you was extraordinarily entertaining, and I really hope that the legacy that it leaves behind is not one that shows war as glorious, because there’s nothing more dangerous than a democracy that thinks this is a glorious thing to do. [emphasis added]

War is ugly and it’s dangerous, and in this world the way we are discussed on the Arab street, it feeds and fuels their hatred and their desire to kill themselves to take out Americans. It’s a dangerous thing to propagate.

….

I’m hoping that I will have a future in news in cable, but not the way some cable news operators wrap themselves in the American flag and patriotism and go after a certain target demographic, which is very lucrative. You can already see the effects, you can already see the big hires on other networks, right wing hires to chase after this effect, and you can already see that flag waving in the corners of those cable news stations where they have exciting American music to go along with their war coverage.

Nothing has changed since Banfield’s powerful critique.  Indeed, the networks have only hired more retired generals and admirals to give “unbiased” coverage of America’s military actions.  And reporters and “journalists” like Brian Williams have learned too.  Recall how Williams cheered the “beautiful” U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles as they were launched against Syria earlier this year.

It’s not just that U.S. media coverage actively suppresses dissent of America’s wars: it passively does so as well, which is arguably more insidious.  Any young journalist with smarts recognizes the way to get ahead is to be a cheerleader for U.S. military action, a stenographer to the powerful.  Being a critic leads to getting fired (like Donahue); demoted and exiled (like Banfield); and, in Ventura’s case, if you can’t be fired or demoted or otherwise punished, you can simply be denied air time.

When you consider that billions and billions of dollars are at stake, whether in weapons sales or in advertising revenue tied to ratings, none of this is that surprising.  What’s surprising is that so few Americans know about how pro-authority and uncritical U.S. media coverage of war and its makers is.  If anything, the narrative is often that the U.S. media is too critical of the military to the detriment of the generals.  Talk about false narratives and alternative facts!

America’s greed-wars persist for many reasons, but certainly a big one is the lack of critical voices in the mainstream media.  Today’s journalists, thinking about their career prospects and their salaries (and who is ultimately their boss at corporate HQ), learn to censor themselves, assuming they have any radical thoughts to begin with. Some, like Brian Williams, even learn how to stop worrying and love the beautiful bombs.

And so it goes …

War as Art and Advertising

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Kandinsky, abstract watercolor, 1910.

W.J. Astore

Consider this article a work of speculation; a jumble of ideas thrown at a blank canvas.

A lot of art depicts war scenes, and why not?  War is incredibly exciting, dynamic, destructive, and otherwise captivating, if often in a horrific way.  But I want to consider war and art in a different manner, in an impressionistic one.  War, by its nature, is often spectacle; it is also often chaotic; complex; beyond comprehension.  Perhaps art theory, and art styles, have something to teach us about war.  Ways of representing it and capturing its meaning as well as its horrors.  But also ways of misrepresenting it; of fracturing its meaning.  Of manipulating it.

For example, America’s overseas wars today are both abstractions and distractions. They’re also somewhat surreal to most Americans, living as we do in comparative safety and material luxury (when compared to most other peoples of the world).  Abstraction and surrealism: two art styles that may say something vital about America’s wars.

If some aspects of America’s wars are surreal and others abstract, if reports of those wars are often impressionistic and often blurred beyond recognition, this points to, I think, the highly stylized representations of war that are submitted for our consideration.  What we don’t get very often is realism.  Recall how the Bush/Cheney administration forbade photos of flag-draped coffins returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.  Think of all the war reporting you’ve seen on U.S. TV and Cable networks, and ask how many times you saw severed American limbs and dead bodies on a battlefield.  (On occasion, dead bodies of the enemy are shown, usually briefly and abstractly, with no human backstory.)

Of course, there’s no “real” way to showcase the brutal reality of war, short of bringing a person to the front and having them face fire in combat — a level of “participatory” art that sane people would likely seek to avoid.  What we get, as spectators (which is what we’re told to remain in America), is an impression of combat.  Here and there, a surreal report.  An abstract news clip.  Blown up buildings become exercises in neo-Cubism; melted buildings and weapons become Daliesque displays.  Severed limbs (of the enemy) are exercises in the grotesque.  For the vast majority of Americans, what’s lacking is raw immediacy and gut-wrenching reality.

Again, we are spectators, not participants.  And our responses are often as stylized and limited as the representations are.  As Rebecca Gordon put it from a different angle at TomDispatch.com, when it comes to America’s wars, are we participating in reality or merely watching reality TV?  And why are so many so prone to confuse or conflate the two?

Art, of course, isn’t the only lens through which we can see and interpret America’s wars. Advertising, especially hyperbole, is also quite revealing.  Thus the U.S. military has been sold, whether by George W. Bush or Barack Obama, as “the world’s finest military in history” or WFMH, an acronym I just made up, and which should perhaps come with a copyright or trademark symbol after it.  It’s classic advertising hyperbole.  It’s salesmanship in place of reality.

So, when other peoples beat our WFMH, we should do what Americans do best: sue them for copyright infringement.  Our legions of lawyers will most certainly beat their cadres of counsels.  After all, under Bush/Cheney, our lawyers tortured logic and the law to support torture itself.  Talk about surrealism!

My point (and I think I have one) is that America’s wars are in some sense elaborate productions and representations, at least in the ways in which the government constructs and sells them to the American people.  To understand these representations — the ways in which they are both more than real war and less than it — art theory, as well as advertising, may have a lot to teach us.

As I said, this is me throwing ideas at the canvas of my computer screen.  Do they make any sense to you?  Feel free to pick up your own brush and compose away in the comments section.

P.S. Danger, Will Robinson.  I’ve never taken an art theory class or studied advertising closely.

Diversion by Aspersion: Trump’s Latest Tweet

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Donald Trump’s twitter image

W,J. Astore

Give the hobgoblin with the bad comb-over his due: He knows how to divide and distract, to divert attention by casting aspersions on others.

The latest Trump tweet that showcased this tactic came today at the G-20 Summit when Trump tweeted the following:

“Everyone here is talking about why John Podesta refused to give the DNC server to the FBI and the CIA. Disgraceful!”

The Washington Post analyzes why this tweet is so wrongheaded and misleading, but a factual analysis won’t matter to Trump’s legion of followers.

There’s a method to Trump’s madness.  By continuing to vilify Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and smaller fish like John Podesta, he’s distracting Americans from his own problems with the FBI.  He’s saying the real crooks, the true inept leaders, are Democrats. Somehow, he thinks this “look over there!” misdirection ploy will work.  And he may well be right.  Trump learned a lot from “reality” TV and wrestling shows, including how to entertain people even as he exploits them.

When I think about Trump, I come back to one of my father’s favorite sayings: the empty barrel makes the most noise.  Trump always makes a lot of noise, but there’s nothing there.  There’s no substance.  The noise, because it’s so loud and annoying, briefly grabs your attention, then it’s gone.

Yet the damage it does isn’t gone.  Even as we become accustomed to the thunder of Trump’s tweet storms, we’re slowly losing our hearing.  By hearing, I mean our ability to discern truth, or at least to block out the thunderous distraction of big lies.

When the president is a walking (or golf cart-riding), tweeting, fabricating, drum-beating clown, democracy can’t help but suffer.

More and more under Trump, discourse in America is being degraded. But the bigger problem may be that so few Americans seem to care.

The Disco Ball of Trump-Comey

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Not them again.

W.J. Astore

An astute Bracing Views reader described the Trump-Comey-Russia hearings as “the audio version of a glittering disco ball,” which captures the moment.  Sure, there’s lots of flash there, but the real problems of the USA are being very much ignored.  Put differently, it’s hard to hear any real news when the thump-thump-thump of Trump-Comey-Russia drowns out all other voices.

I’ve already said my piece (at TomDispatch.com) about some of the big problems that face our country, so indulge me for a moment as I consider the disco inferno of Trump-Comey.

My take: Trump wanted loyalty, Comey didn’t promise that, nor should he have. Trump, it seems, also felt upstaged by Comey (not only because the former FBI Director is taller than Trump and more vigorous). Comey, in short, was uncooperative, not one of Trump’s guys, so he fired him.  As president, Trump has that power.

Was it a smart move?  No.  Does it look bad?  Yes, especially the timing. Is it obstruction of justice?  Apparently not, since the various Russia-Trump investigations are progressing.  (To my knowledge, there are at least three of them ongoing.)

More than anything, Comey’s testimony makes Trump look like a dick (to use a technical term). But we already knew that.  Trump’s been posing (it didn’t require acting) as a dick for years on TV, taking great relish in saying, “You’re fired!” to a range of has-been celebrities. Should we really be surprised that Trump is acting like a dick as president? Even his followers knew he was a dick; they just thought he was their dick.

Did Trump collude with Russia?  Of course he did!  He admitted it himself. Remember when Trump called for the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton — to find her “thirty thousand” missing emails, ha ha!  That may not be the legal definition of collusion, but if you heard that and refused to consider that Candidate Trump’s encouragement of hacking by a foreign power in an election for his benefit was wrongful, well, so be it. Those Americans who voted for Trump were apparently untroubled by it.

I’m not defending Trump.  The man is a menace to the world, with his denial of global warming/climate change, his embrace of nuclear weapons, his cocksureness fed by his ignorance, the list goes on.  But, based on the evidence that’s been presented so far, he’s done nothing that reaches an impeachable offense.  Major league dick status, yes. Impeachment?  Not yet.  Or Nyet.

The biggest problem with Trump is not that he’s a Russian stooge. It’s that he’s not presidential.  He doesn’t understand public service.  It’s utterly foreign to him, not just because he has no experience of it but because it’s contrary to his egocentric personality.

Look at his priorities as president.  (They are the same as they were when he was a real estate developer.) #1 for Trump is Trump. #2 for Trump is his immediate family, joined by a few trusted lackeys, toadies, and sycophants. #3 for Trump is his money, his position in society, and his reputation among his peers and fellow billionaires, those “masters of the universe,” to use Tom Wolfe’s phrase.

Make America great again?  That’s never been Trump’s priority.  Make Trump greater and greater?  That’s more like it.

Trump is fulfilling his version of the American dream.  Too bad it’s a nightmare for America.

Trump and the Rewriting of History

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W.J. Astore

George Orwell’s 1984 is filled with wisdom.  Perhaps my favorite saying from that book is Orwell’s statement about history and its importance. He said, he who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.

If you have the power, in the present, to rewrite history, to redefine the past, enshrining your version of history as fact while consigning all the bits you don’t like to oblivion (“down the memory hole”), you can define people’s sense of reality as well as what they believe is possible. You can limit what they see, their horizons.  You can limit how and what they think.  You can, in a major way, control the future.  Add the control of language to the restriction and re-definition of history and you have a powerful means to dominate meaning, discourse, and politics in society.

Donald Trump and Company are brazen in their rewriting of history, notes Rebecca Gordon in her latest post at TomDispatch.com.  They make no apologies and take no prisoners.  They simply claim lies to be true, repeating them over and over until some people come to accept them as truth.  The examples she cites include the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd (“Bigly!”), the reality of global warming (“Chinese lie!”), and why Trump fired FBI Director James Comey (“He hurt Hillary!”).

Another example of the big lie is the whole concept of “Trumpcare,” the recent revision to Obamacare as passed by the House.  They sell this as a health care plan instead of what it really is: a health coverage denial plan and tax cut for the rich.

As the Congressional Budget Office reported:

The GOP health care bill would insure 23 million fewer people than current law after a decade, while potentially impacting many with pre-existing conditions, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

The bill would spend $1.1 trillion less on health care and use the savings primarily to finance large tax cuts for high-income earners and medical companies. Overall, it would reduce deficits by $119 billion over ten years.

I know one thing: that’s not a health care plan.

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George Orwell

Returning to language, a big theme of Orwell’s 1984 is how language will be simplified, or dumbed down, stripping away meaning and subtlety and substituting unreflective obedience and coarseness in their place.  Think here about how Donald Trump speaks. Orwellian expressions like “doubleplusgood” are not foreign to a man who speaks in glittering generalities to sell his ideas and hyperbolic superlatives to extol his own virtues.

In his introduction today to Rebecca Gordon’s article, Tom Engelhardt quotes Trump’s recent graduation speech at the Coast Guard Academy, during which Trump did what he does best — sell himself with lies (“alternative facts!”):

I’ve accomplished a tremendous amount in a very short time as president. Jobs pouring back into our country… We’ve saved the Second Amendment, expanded service for our veterans… I’ve loosened up the strangling environmental chains wrapped around our country and our economy, chains so tight that you couldn’t do anything — that jobs were going down… We’ve begun plans and preparations for the border wall, which is going along very, very well. We’re working on major tax cuts for all… And we’re also getting closer and closer, day by day, to great healthcare for our citizens.

One thing Trump does know is how to manipulate language — in short, to lie — to his own benefit.

In this age of Trump, a sense of history has rarely been more important. We have to fight for the richness, the complexity, as well as the accuracy of our history and our language. The very existence of the American republic depends on it.

American TV and Movies: Superheroes, Cops, and the Military

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A still from the new CBS Series, “SEAL Team”

W.J. Astore

Americans are being taught powerful lessons when they watch TV and go to the movies.  Place your faith in superheroes, (mostly) men of action, those who operate outside the boundaries of rules and laws, whether natural or human.  Defer to the police and their amazing investigative powers (witness all those CSI shows).  Trust the military and revel in their dedication and their clever technologies.  Mister, we could use a show like “All in the Family” again.

On HBO this week, Bill Maher had a compelling segment on the proliferation of superhero shows and movies, including a takedown of Donald Trump as “Orange Sphincter.”  The takedown was warranted in the sense that Trump often boasts he is the only man capable of doing something, like reforming health care or solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or bringing back great manufacturing jobs to America (apparently by selling $110 billion in weaponry to the Saudis).  Cop shows have been around forever, of course, but they’ve experienced a revival in these times of homegrown terrorism and Homeland Security, even as violent crime itself is mostly on the decline.

Finally, glitzy military shows are hitting their stride this season (no shows critical of the military, even comedies such as MASH, are allowed).  As the New York Times recently noted:

One of the most pressing questions for TV executives after President Trump’s election: How would the occupant of the White House affect what showed up on the air? One trend that has emerged is the rise of shows with military themes. NBC is betting big on a drama called “The Brave,” which is getting the coveted 10 p.m. time slot after “The Voice” on Mondays. The show will center on a group of undercover military specialists. The CW will introduce a drama this fall called “Valor,” about a group of highly trained helicopter pilots. They will go on missions and apparently get mixed up in messy intraunit romances.  CBS will debut a drama called “SEAL Team.” Executives at the network feel this show has the best chance of being a hit. It stars David Boreanaz, who had leading roles in “Angel” and “Bones.”

Just what we need: More military shows featuring SEALs and helicopter pilots and covert operatives, killing various bad guys in the name of democracy and righteousness.

Popular culture holds a mirror up to society, reflecting how we see ourselves.  But it’s more than that: It also shapes how we think.  It suggests what is possible and what isn’t.   By showcasing superheroes and cops and troops, it drives home the idea that these are the people and constructs with agency in our society.  The little people, ordinary Americans like you and me, are demoted in such constructs as bystanders, as supernumeraries.  Our main role is to acquiesce, to cheer the “heroes” as they go about their business.

I know that TV and movie executives typically play it safe.  They’d say they’re giving the people what they want in the name of making money.  They’d say it’s not their job to challenge the powerful in the name of the powerless.  The people want superheroes and heroic cops and heroic troops, so that’s what we’ll give them.  And because that’s what we can easily sell to corporations as advertising time.

But, again, it’s more complicated than that.  The networks themselves are owned by corporations, some of which also own military contractors.  Movies about superheroes and the military often lean heavily on the Pentagon for hardware and advice.  Again, it’s not that TV and movies are distorted reflections of society (though they are that).  They also establish boundaries.  To use fancy academic talk, they are hegemonic.  They empower one reality while diminishing or denying the possibility of other realities.

Any chance we’ll be seeing lots of blockbuster movies and high-budget TV series about peacemakers, whistle blowers, dissidents, activists, and other crusaders for justice and equity?  How about a movie featuring “Disarmament Man” as a hero: he eliminates weapons of mass destruction!  Starting in the USA!  Or a TV show featuring a bad-ass Mother Nature: she administers stern discipline to corporate polluters and frackers, while teaching her children the perils of global warming.  Or a “justice league” of pissed-off Native Americans, who band together to evict all the illegal immigrants to their lands over the last 500 years.

Readers, what movie or TV series would you most like to see?  Have some fun in the comments section, and thanks.

Trump Shares Classified Material with Russia — Duck and Cover!

W.J. Astore

U.S. media outlets have been consumed by the story today that President Trump improperly or unwisely shared classified material on ISIS with the Russians, material that apparently came from Israel.  For its part, the Trump administration denies the charge that information was improperly or unwisely shared.

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Today, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster defends Trump’s decision to share classified information with the Russians

A couple of comments.  First, the president has broad powers of declassification and the discretion to share sensitive secrets with others.  Sharing classified information with the Russians, an ally of a sort in the struggle against ISIS, is not necessarily a bad idea. Trump seems to have decided it was a way to strengthen relations and build trust at high levels with the Russian government, a defensible position, in my view.

Second, I’ll repeat here what I said about classification and the Hillary Clinton email scandal: Far too much information is classified by the U.S. government.  Classification is vastly overused by our government to conceal many sins, blunders, nefarious designs, and who knows what else.  There’s nothing sacred about secrecy; indeed, a democracy should prefer transparency, rather than stamping everything “secret” or “top secret” and thereby keeping nearly all Americans in the dark.

Obviously, I’m not privy to the exact nature of the intelligence shared, the sensitivity and vulnerability of the source(s) and collection methods, and so on.  I’m not an intelligence trade-craft expert.  So far, Israeli operatives seem unconcerned, but whether their blase attitude is feigned or not is unknown.

Americans elected Trump because he promised to do things differently.  He campaigned on the idea of being unorthodox; indeed, he is unorthodox.  Surely no one should be surprised when he decides to speak in the clear to Russian government officials on matters concerning ISIS and terrorism.

Repeat after me, America: Secrecy is not sacred.  Transparency is desirable.  So too is building trust with rivals as well as friends.  Trump has his faults, major ones I believe, but this current controversy is a tempest in a teapot.