Nov 05 2008
Writer Slavoj Zizek described “the desert of the real” as the place where there are no illusions, no alibis, and no more comforting emotions. For all Americans – but especially for those of us who gave our hearts and our time to getting Barack Obama elected – it is time to move from the warmth of election night jubilation and step into the desert of the real.
In the desert of the real, we must end a pointless war in Iraq while winning a just war in Afghanistan.
In the desert of the real, we must take the lead in repairing a global economic meltdown that is the direct result of America’s irresponsibility.
In the desert of the real, we must protect, defend, and repair a Constitution that has been treated as “just a piece of paper” for far too long.
In the desert of the real, there are still far too many Americans who need our best efforts to help them gain the basic human rights that most of us take for granted.
To those who might accuse me of being a wet blanket, to those who just want to kick back and enjoy the glow for a little while, I can only say this: there is no time.
There is hard work ahead, and some of it is dirty work, and some of it is the work of generations that many of us will not live to see completed. But it is work that needs doing, work that we should have been doing all along.
It is cold in the desert of the real; the light is bleak and hurts the eyes. But it is where we have to go, because on the other side of that desert is our shared American future. So let’s go, everyone. Wake up, get a shower, and roll up your sleeves.
Welcome to the desert of the real.
Nov 03 2008
As some of you know, ol’ Crusty lives out in the wilds of rural North Carolina. Though born and bred in and around NYC, this old urban burnout has somehow found his way out to the woods, where the oak grove that surrounds my house pelts the roof and the deck with acorns every year, where an afternoon on the deck lets me see hawks circling patiently, squirrels having throw-down turf fights over piles of acorns, and buzz-bombing by hummingbirds pissed that I’m sitting too close to “their” feeder (hummingbirds are vicious, territorial little critters, don’t kid yourself 😉
Sunday the doorbell rings. Now, you need to understand, doorbell ringing on Sundays out our way means one thing: Christers wanting to come in and read the Bible with me. We’re having none of that at Chez Crusty, and Lurlene The Hell Hound knows it, so she goes into her defensive position at the front door barking like mad.
I peek out as my wife restrains Hell Hound, and I see this sweet white lady of a certain age, with about a half dozen Obama buttons on her chest. She smiled tenatively, obviously feeling anxiety and maybe even some fear. I smiled and shouted to Hell Hound:
“It’s OK, baby! You settle down now — she’s a Democrat!”
Ice broken, she and I shared a laugh.
“I stopped by to encourage you to come out and vote on Tuesday.”
“Been there, done that. We did early voting on Saturday.”
“Oh, OK. Um, did you ….?”
I gestured at my pickup and my wife’s Honda, copiously pasted with Obama stickers. She smiled again.
“Well great, then you’re all set then! Thanks for voting!”
We smiled and waved and sent the little old white lady Obama worker on her way. Out our way, her action — walking down long driveways and knocking on the doors of strangers’ homes — is an act of genuine courage for anyone, but especially for an Obama worker. I don’t know her name, and never will, but I salute her, and hope Obama wins if for no other reason than to reward her simple, unadorned courage.
Oct 31 2008
Happy Celtic New Year! (1) aka Samhain or Oiche Shamhna! A time for
fondly remembering those who have crossed over before us. And here’s a
little secret: if you set an extra place at the table and whisper the
names of your dead loved ones tonight, they’ll come calling and sit
down to dinner with you. So make sure you don’t accidentally whisper
the names of those relatives you hated when they were alive, or
you’re stuck with them for the evening.
Oct 30 2008
Many families have a story about that night.
My grandmother used to describe how my grandfather spent the night on the roof of their tenement building, drunk out of his mind, brandishing his old WWI Navy service revolver. From time to time my grandmother would hang her head out the apartment window and shout out updates.
“Al! Al! They’re coming! God’s sake, they’re by Passaic now!”
“Shut up and get your head back in the house, will you?”
“Oh God, Al! They’re coming up on the Palisades! They starting to wade over to New York!”
“Will you get back inside, god damn it!!!”
“Can you see ’em, Al? God’s sake, can you see ’em???”
A long pause … his eyes would have been squinting, scanning the horizon hard, searching for Martian machines the way he had once scanned for German U-boats … his voice drifted down from up above on the roof … his voice sounded very small, very sober, and very, very scared.
” … yeah … yeah, I see them … they’re coming ….”
He went to his grave insisting that he saw a line of vast Martian machines striding across to Manhattan. You understand: he saw them.
From the Writer’s Almanac:
It was on this day in 1938 that a radio broadcast based on a science fiction novel caused mass hysteria across New England: Orson Welles’s adaptation of War of the Worlds. The first part of the broadcast imitated news bulletins and announced that Martians had invaded New Jersey. There was a disclaimer at the beginning of the program explaining that it was fictional, but many people tuned in late and missed the explanation. So they panicked; some people fled their homes and many were terrified.
War of the Worlds (1898) was a novel by H.G. Wells set in 19th-century England. Orson Welles kept the same plot but updated it and set it in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.
Oct 29 2008
The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.
-George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism
In March 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was captured in Pakistan. Much of the information on his movements and whereabouts is believed to have come from interrogations of his two children, aged six and eight. The children are known to have been held in an adult detention facility for at least four months while they were interrogated. During this time, according to one witness, “the boys were kept in a separate area upstairs, and were denied food and water by other guards. They were also mentally tortured by having ants or other creatures put on their legs to scare them and get them to say where their father was hiding.” After that, they disappeared into the system and nothing more was heard about them. Their current whereabouts and condition are unknown. The United States has sunk to kidnapping, imprisoning, torturing, and then “disappearing” children in order to get at their parents. What were once dark and unlikely rumors have gradually proven to be true: many men, women, and yes, children have been abducted around the world and fed into the maw of the American system.
The extrajudicial prison complex at Guantánamo is nothing much to look at, really: a small collection of steel cages and isolation cells that hold roughly five hundred human beings. In many ways, it is a showpiece, a little Potemkin village, the public face of the system. When people speak of “Guantánamo,” they often refer not to the physical site, but rather to the system as a whole and what that system represents: decisions made, Rubicons crossed, illusions embraced.
French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre devoted enormous energy to analyzing the question of the individual’s remarkable ability to live “as if” certain demonstrably true things were actually nothing of the kind. He gives us the immortal example of the waiter who denies his human freedom-and thus, by implication, his human culpability-by shaping his behavior and demeanor so that he is seen, not as a free human being, but as “a waiter.” As such, he bears no responsibility for any of the consequences of any of his actions. He is, after all, merely “a waiter.” This phenomenon is given the label of mauvais foi-usually translated as “bad faith,” though some translators prefer the more descriptive term “self-deception.” One denies one’s total freedom by choosing to behave as if something was or was not true. We try to convince ourselves that we are compelled (by circumstances, our nature, an external threat) to behave as we do. We simply have no choice, you see. Moreover, thanks to our unswerving fidelity to our own individual bad faith, we are able to some extent to rewrite our histories as our situations evolve.*
*Jean-Paul Sartre, “Being and Nothingness (New York: Washington Square Press, 1993).
Sociologist Stanley Cohen’s work offers us a way to bootstrap Sartre’s insight from the realm of the personal into the realms of the social and political through his use of the deceptively simple concept of “denial,” the idea that, like individuals, entire societies “arrive at unwritten agreements about what can be publicly remembered and acknowledged.” An entire society can “pretend to believe information that they know is false or fake their allegiance to meaningless slogans and kitsch ceremonies.” Cohen’s concept of denial enables us to take hold of Sartre’s bad faith and use it as a powerful tool for analyzing how an entire society can suffer from self-induced amnesia about important aspects of its own history.†
† Stanley Cohen, States of Denial (Cambridge: Polity, 1971).
The United States made a moral choice after 9/11, and some day it will have to answer for the choice it made-not to the world, but rather to its own collective conscience and its own collective sense of what “America” means. Cohen explains how nations, like individuals, will manufacture alibis to deal with the reality of their actions, and it is inevitable that someday the United States will try, through various means, to convince itself that it never committed the outrages it has plainly committed since 9/11. Other nations have also struggled to forget their crimes and rewrite their own histories. Turkey with its Armenian genocide, France with its widespread collaboration with the Nazis, Japan with its many horrific acts during the Second World War, Israel with its displacement and slow-motion genocide of the Palestinians-all have manufactured and deployed their own national alibis. Germany, in stepping up to its criminal responsibility, is the rare exception, and one suspects that a large part of the reason for Germany’s openness is that the evidence of its crimes was too widespread and obvious to deny or rewrite.
Modern cognitive theories are deeply Socratic, and as such are deeply flawed. They take as their central premise the idea that if you distort the external world it is because your faculties of information processing and decision making are faulty. In other words, distortion of reality is the result of some more or less mechanical defect or mistake, never the result of a conscious, fundamental decision. As it happens, we know from history that countries choose to deny their own histories all the time, and it is obvious that the United States is in the early stages of manufacturing its own set of national alibis. What does it take for an entire country to lie to itself? And what shape will this bad faith take in the United States? As citizens of a democracy, the U.S. people will submit to the self-deception because of a willing identification with the country’s manufactured history, not because of any fear of “arbitrary imprisonment, commissars or secret police.” The complicit U.S. citizen is no Winston Smith, driven to that level of madness where 1+1=5. We must never forget that, for the last several years, the American people have willingly identified with the Guantánamo project, and with all the implications and consequences of that project. As willing participants, the citizens of the United States can be expected to defend their decision with exceptional ferocity.
Nations, like individuals, “negotiate their realities,” and Washington has already begun the process of utilizing all the usual techniques of bad faith as it wallows deeper and deeper in its manufactured “post-9/11 world.” These techniques for enabling self-deception on a national scale are well known, and would seem almost childishly simple were it not for the fact that they have proven so effective so often.
The first technique of denial is also the most obvious: simple, unadulterated denial. The horrible things that those bad people are alleging are simply not true. They never happened, nor would America ever allow them to happen. The United States does not operate secret CIA-run “black sites” in Eastern Europe. None of the reports of significant civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan are true. Everything is normal, nothing to see here. A variation on this theme is what one might call “denial of injury.” Yes, perhaps some of those so-called “bad” things are happening, but no one is being hurt. The United States of America “does not torture” and the detainees scattered among the system’s secret places are merely being subjected to “vigorous interrogation.” Indeed, the Guantánamo detainees live under conditions much more pleasant than those of the average inmate in a stateside prison. This denial of injury thus demands a radical renaming, a systematic refusal to call things by their real names. After all, real names bring with them real consequences, and can bring with them a real obligation to act.
A technique that has found particularly fertile ground in the United States is to deny the reality of the victim as victim. After all, “they started it on 9/11,” and their actions prove that they are incorrigible evildoers, undeserving of any civilized treatment. This technique requires the total dehumanization of the “evildoers,” the better to enable the jailers and torturers to commit their outrages. Even the most degraded and brutish torturers need this salve for their consciences, because they realize that if this squealing piece of meat they are defiling is actually human, then they themselves must be monsters for doing what they do. But since these evil monsters-who, one must constantly remind oneself, “started it on 9/11”-are obviously something less than human, anything is permitted. The inevitable result of this refusal to acknowledge the reality of the victim as victim was Abu Ghraib, where the naked detainees were not victims, but simply masses of unfeeling meat that could be shaped and posed to satisfy the porn-addled imaginations of their tormenters.
Right-wing elements in the U.S. media and political system have perfected the technique of “accusing the accuser.” The person, organization, or nation that questions any action is either gullible or biased. The accusers are either brainless dupes, or else they are active, malevolent terrorist sympathizers. They cannot be anything else, because to entertain such a possibility would force a confrontation with the idea that the accusers’ claims might actually have some legitimate merit. When John Ashcroft appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in December 2001, he brushed aside any concerns about the erosion of constitutional safeguards, proclaiming that critics who raised such concerns were “aiding the terrorists” and “giving ammunition to America’s enemies.” These critics were, in other words, traitors.
The technique of “denial of responsibility,” so popular in more hierarchical societies, has not really achieved a lot of traction in the ruggedly individualistic mythos of America. While the government has made some pro forma declarations in this area-certain actions were the result of a few “bad apples” or were required by harsh necessity-the simple fact is that the American psyche wants to be proud of doing these things. Rather than denying responsibility, Americans instinctively seek to apply the technique of “justification,” proclaiming that, whatever is being done, there is nothing to fear because it is being done within the law, protected by the Constitution, and most importantly of all, “morally justified.”
When all else fails, a nation can always fall back on one of the most reliable methods of denial: the “appeal to higher loyalties.” Cohen formulates the principle behind this technique succinctly: “your nation is exalted, extraordinary, and possessed of a higher wisdom and morality that permits-even demands-any means towards the higher good.” The fact that the United States perceives itself as the exceptional nation lends itself to an enthusiastic acceptance of this technique of denial. One need only remember its long-running love affair with “Manifest Destiny” to realize how much it will deny about its own behavior when pursuing its unique world-historical mission. But when the alarm is sounded-“The Homeland in Danger!”-the United States embraces the idea of a higher loyalty with a fervor that is blatantly religious. One tries to pretend that people like Harriet Miers and Alberto Gonzales-who placed loyalty to their mission and their leader above their duty to the Constitution-are exceptions, aberrations, “bad apples.” In fact, millions of otherwise ordinary Americans have proven more than willing to put aside everything that makes them Americans in the name of these new, post-9/11 “higher loyalties.”
After all this hard work-and make no mistake, self-deception on a national scale is very hard work indeed-what is it in aid of? What is to be accomplished? Nothing less than the normalization of criminality. Horrors and atrocities are to be ignored, or made to seem normal-even beneficial. Normalization is achieved when the citizens demonstrate their embrace of the national alibis in a number of ways.
Accommodation, committing the many small daily compromises and betrayals that allow one to accept the situation as “the new normal.”
Routinization, rendering the horrors mundane and banal, thus draining them of their emotional content.
Tolerance, understood in the same sense of the word that is used to describe an addict’s capacity for more and more of the drug without experiencing any noticeable effect.
Collusion, the active participation by more and more of the population in the criminal activities.
Cover-up, the active participation by more and more of the population in hiding the evidence and consequences of the criminal activities.
The rhetoric of normalization is institutionalized and made public, both formally (through press briefings) and informally, through the constant background hum of precisely shaped news as well as the more strident rants emanating from hate radio. With these tools for propagandizing and educating, it is almost too easy to convince an entire society to be complicit in crimes and atrocities.
The neighbor who looks the other way when an immigrant is harassed is culpable in the normalization of criminality. The lawyer who buries evidence because it would cause too much extra work and generate too much controversy is culpable in the normalization of criminality. The journalist who avoids writing certain stories, and the editor who avoids running such stories, are culpable in the normalization of criminality. And to the extent that they know but persuade themselves that they do not know, the people of the United States as a whole are culpable in the normalization of criminality.
Denial, dehumanization, normalization: given these three, I could turn your maiden Aunt Estelle into an enthusiastic torturer and she would have no problem sleeping like a baby at night.
Sartre tells us that we can never escape total responsibility for our actions. Any alibi we manufacture is itself a choice that we make and thus endorse, and for which we must accept full responsibility. If we allow the present American reality to be denied, then we will surely allow it to be forgotten. The United States will-it must-try to forget Guantánamo, because to face up to everything that Guantánamo means would reveal to all Americans what they have become. Guantánamo is rapidly becoming not the repudiation but the product of the American soul, in the same way that the Holocaust was the product of the German soul and the tormenting of the Palestinians is the product of the souls of those who survived the Holocaust. To pretend otherwise is to make oneself complicit in their bad faith.
Those of us who still possess a rational conscience-and our numbers are dwindling, make no mistake-must bear witness so that the United States will never be able to look back on its past (our present) and pretend it was something other than what it was. We U.S. public intellectuals-if such a phrase can even be used unironically any more-must step up to our one remaining unambiguous duty: to testify plainly. We cannot allow the United States of America to deny Guantánamo, because to deny Guantánamo is to forget Guantánamo and then eventually to write Guantánamo out of U.S. history. As Cohen warns us, “the passivity of those who watch, know and close their eyes becomes a form of complicity.”
Oct 28 2008
“He awakened me from my dogmatic slumbers.”
Immanual Kant (speaking of David Hume)
It was the lead-up to Iraq that did it. Iraq, and that lying smirk.
In late 2002 through the summer of 2003, I was on a software-development project far from home. I had to drive 1.5 hours to the site in the morning, and then 1.5 hours back home every evening. The route was through some of the least-inhabited parts of eastern North Carolina. Not much radio out that way, and what little there is just screams “short-wave loony-tune.” I had time to think, then, time I hadn’t had for decades. And I started thinking about the world, and I started thinking about that man with the lying smirk.
I didn’t vote in 2000. In fact, I hadn’t voted since 1980, when I voted for Reagan — not out of any political conviction, but because I detested that grinning imbecile Jimmy Carter. I used to be different. Once I was young, I was engaged, I wrote philosophy, I wrote plays. I’m sure most of what I wrote was utter dreck, but it was the passion and the desire to make a difference that was important. Me and my friends were going to change the world, or at least change a few lives. We lived like we meant it, and we loved the struggle with ideas and words and causes.
Well, you know the story. Life did what it so often did. Life got in the way, and I went off on another path. Don’t get me wrong: after a decade-long rough patch (drugs) I was mostly happy in a bovine, unthinking way, happy for decades. And so the years drifted by – the operative word being drifting – and I found myself in late 2002 driving down that long empty road in the dark every morning and every night, thinking about Iraq and thinking about that god damned lying smirk.
And one day, shortly after the invasion began, I understood the scope of what had happened, and I said to myself aloud in my car, so loud that I actually startled myself: “Jesus Christ, we let the bastards do it to us again!” And so I rediscovered my rage, that blessed rage, that sweet emotion that has so many negative associations these days but that was so honored in simpler times that Homer was able to weave the entire fabric of his greatest epic around the rage of Achilles.
And so I started writing again.
There’s no way for me to avoid the inevitable conclusion: viewed from my own purely selfish perspective, George W. Bush was the best thing that ever happened to me. This idea horrifies me. If I could wave a magic wand and have it all play out another way – if I could have a world without W, at the cost of never awakening from my decades-long dogmatic slumbers – would I? Would I? I have to believe that I would.
My sanity depends on it.
Oct 22 2008
Crossposted to The Crusty Polemicist
“Two thousand years of Judeo-Christianity have not obscured the fact that pagan thought has not yet disappeared, even though it has often been blurred, stifled or persecuted by monotheistic religions and their secular offshoots.”
Alain De Benoist
People here in the US don’t speak much about “culture” anymore, not in any real sense. To speak these days about things like “a culture” or “a people,” and to demand that such things be taken seriously, is to invite smirks at best, anxious frowns at worst. I believe that the new century will contain certain centrifugal forces that will enable us – force us – to take these things seriously again.
The US has always comforted itself with the myth of the “melting pot.” What we actually have – what we have always had, if the truth is to be told – is more like the southern French dish called “Cassoulet.” A large, bubbling pot full of chunks of disparate, bizarrely matched ingredients. When people speak of “an” American culture, they are willfully insisting on the myth of the smoothly mixed “melting pot” rather than the uncomfortable reality of the American cassoulet. American culture as such does not exist. In place of the culture is the shared assertion that “We are all Americans!” From the perspective of authentic cultures, this is a non-statement. It simply says, “We believe in the same ideas.” So saying, “I am an American” means nothing more than “I accept the same propositions that you do.” In a nation where even the illusion of such unity of beliefs and values lies shattered on the ground, this entire model collapses – and the US has nothing authentic with which to replace it.
Once the chimera of “shared ideas and values” is seen for what it is, we are confronted with a Bizarro World free-jazz interpretation of an authentic culture. By the time Americans’ ancestral cultures have been fed into the maw of the great American degradation machine and shat out the other end, they are nothing more than a collection of Disney Land “small world” artifacts bearing no more resemblance to authentic cultures than “Saint Patty’s Day” bears a resemblance to my ancestral Gaelic culture that it purports to “celebrate.” The idea that a nation can simply manufacture a culture at will is not only the height of hubris, it also misses the point.
With the idea of “an” American culture exposed for the myth that it has always been, perhaps it is time to rediscover and renew our faith in the authentic cultures of the ancestors we left behind. Not so that we can “celebrate our heritage” in some typically shallow, mercantile little ritual of consumption. But rather so that we can have a true understanding of who we are and where we are from. As the “American idea” vanishes into smoke and faerie dust, this may be the only thing we have to hang on to, the only firm ground on which we can stand.
When I drive along the shore of the Mediterranean from Barolo to Monaco to Nice to Provence to the scrublands of Languedoc to the small rocky beach at Banyuls-sur-Mer, regions where the locals are once again demanding that their homelands be called by their true names – Catalonia, Occitania, Savoy – I rejoice in the multitude of alive, vital, authentic cultures. When I drive from mad King Ludwig’s castle across the Rhine and into the heart of wine country in regions that the locals are once again proud to call Bayern and Alsace and Bourgogne, I rejoice. Any place where an authentic culture grounded in an authentic people survives and even occasionally thrives in this flat, dull, monotonous, pasteurized, globalized, Disneyfied world, I rejoice in them. And I salute them.
Oct 15 2008
Crossposted at The Crusty Polemicist
At the age of 14, I sat in the cavernous balcony of the Stanley Theatre in Jersey City, waiting for the science fiction movie with the odd title to begin. The house lights went down and I settled deeper into my seat, ready to begin the familiar, beloved ritual.
The screen was completely dark. Slowly I became aware of a strange, deep bass rumble coming from the enormous Dolby speakers on the walls. The floor itself, the seats, were vibrating. On the screen, the camera was panning up over the dark side of the moon. Three brass notes sounded, rising; the music suggested infinite distance and enormous possibility. On the screen, Earth broke above the curve of the moon, and an enormous orchestral outburst slammed me back into my seat. As the fanfare continued, I experienced something I’ve never experienced since: the hair on the back of my neck and my arms stood up. I had to know what this music was, what it meant. The subject was not open for discussion. It was an obsession, you understand.
Oct 11 2008
Originally published in Free Inquiry
Every society has the criminals it deserves.
-Albert Camus, “Reflections on the Guillotine”
My sister must have been terrified the night that her junkie boyfriend beat her to death in that filthy motel room. Terrified and disoriented, she would have been struggling to understand what was happening to her. Beating a human being to death is apparently not an easy thing to do. According to the coroner’s testimony, it took about five minutes for her to die. What was she thinking, in those five minutes? At what point in that five-minute period did she suspect she might die in that squalid room? At what point did she know she would die there and then?
I would lay awake at night, for months after her death, unable to turn off the endless broken loop playing in my brain that kept repeating these questions. More than answers, I wanted revenge: hard, bloody-fisted revenge, bitter and uncompromising Old Testament revenge. More, I wanted to stand before those in power, point my finger at all the world’s death rows, and scream at the top of my lungs, “Kill them all, and let God sort them out!” I was slowly going mad with my ache for revenge.
But-but-revenge is not justice.
Oct 05 2008
My oldest son and his fiancee came down for a visit, so we took them on a winery-crawl through what’s called the “Yadkin Valley Wine Region”, an area in the heart of North Carolina with a lot of up-and-coming wineries. We must have drove over 200 miles on various back roads finding our way to various wineries. On hundreds of lawns, we saw McCain/Palin lawn signs. Hundreds. Nowhere on any of these back roads did we see a single bit of Obama signage. Not a single Obama sign or bumper sticker to be seen. I made some crack about “southern crackers”, but my son said “No, we were driving from Philly to Harrisburg the other week and we took the scenic route, and that’s all we saw up there too.”
And this got me to wondering. We think North vs South; old vs young; white vs black; progressive vs traditional. Maybe it all boils to to something as simple as: urban vs rural. Maybe this is a battle of rural values vs urban values, a battle of the utter and inflexible resistance to change vs an environment where change is embraced because it is the rule, rather than the exception. Maybe it’s as simple as: rural people want things to stay exactly the way they were for their parents and grandparents, while urban people have seen so much change that they crave it compulsively.
Just a brief, caffeine-fueled Sunday morning reverie.
Oct 03 2008
Crossposted at The Crusty Polemicist
Prince of War: Billy Graham’s Crusade for a Wholly Christian Empire, by Cecil Bothwell, Asheville: Brave Ulysses Books, 2007, 213 pp. softcover
“Billy Graham represents a basic kind of patriotism in this country – an unquestioning, obeying patriotism, a loyalty to the authority of the President. Billy was always uncritical, unchallenging, unquestioning.” — Bill Moyers
“I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A, B and C. Just who do they think they are? — Barry Goldwater
A power-hungry moral coward. A vicious racist and Jew-baiter. A man with an almost uncanny ability to always be on the wrong side of history. A craven climber and groveller at the feet of power. An “unabashed nationalist and advocate for American empire.” If Cecil Bothwell is right – and he marshals a lot of evidence in support of his thesis – then “America’s most beloved pastor” is all these things, and more. Bothwell gives us the opportunity to see the other side of Billy Graham, the man who was seventh on a recent Gallup poll’s list of the most admired people of the 20th century. Graham is a man with a history, a man who must be called to account. Bothwell lays out his bill of particulars with subtlety and skill.
The first leitmotif in Graham’s life story is his obsessive scrounging after power. From the very beginning, he has sought access to the corridors of power with an almost touching desperation. Graham was the first evangelist to conduct a religious service on the steps of the Capitol building, and the first to conduct a full-blown crusade inside the walls of the Pentagon. But Graham has always known that the real center of power in America was the White House, and has proven to be a “constant suppliant seeking presidential attention.” The more intelligent and responsible presidents (Truman, Kennedy, Carter) kept Graham at arm’s length, while other, lesser men utilized Graham for whatever they could gain from the association.
Truman apparently despised Graham from the get-go, describing him to a close friend as “one of those counterfeits I was telling you about,” the sort of man who is only interested in “getting his name in the paper.” But in a bit of pure luck, Graham suddenly found himself being groomed as the darling of the Hearst media empire, which built up the persona of the “simple preacher” and turned him loose to rage against godless Communism to crowds of up to 350,000 rapt believers. Graham was becoming an influential player in the toxic politics of 1950s America – and he was learning to love it.
Graham’s increasingly high profile brought him to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy, eventually “becoming one of his most loyal and enduring allies.” Documents reveal that Graham was eager to out-do McCarthy in his rabid commitment to exposing “the pinks, the lavenders, and the reds who have sought refuge between the wings of the American eagle.” As McCarthy ratcheted up the rhetoric with his demand that suspected Communists be stripped of their Fifth Amendment protections, Graham was right there with him, proclaiming, “Let’s do it!” Never one to hitch his wagon to a single star, Graham was simultaneously voicing his strident support for “the red-scare tactics of Senator Lyndon Johnson and a young congressman named Richard Milhouse Nixon.” Give the man credit: he had a knack for spotting talent early on and currying favor with the people who would run the country for the rest of the century, and beyond.
While Graham’s most infamous association was of course with Nixon, he nevertheless racked up a pretty good track record with subsequent tenants at the White House. It is a tribute to Jimmy Carter’s canny instincts that he wanted nothing to do with the man and kept him out of the White House during his term, but most of Carter’s successors warmly embraced Graham and his values. He wooed Reagan and George H.W. Bush with great success. He had somewhat less success with Bill Clinton, but he was there to give solace to Hillary Clinton (whose religious associations in Washington were uniformly “conservative and fundamentalist”) during the Lewinsky scandal.
I was continually amazed at Graham’s ability to insinuate himself into the centers of power, given some of his more unsavory views. For if Bothwell is to be believed, Graham is a life-long racist and the worst sort of bigot. It is tempting to fall back on the old, old alibi and say that Graham was a “product of his environment.” As a very young many, Graham fell under the influence of “holy roller Mordecai Ham,” a man notorious as “one of his era’s most gaudy and livid anti-Semites,” a man who fulminated against “apostate Jewry and the wicked Jews who killed Jesus.” While it was not unusual for a youngster coming of age in the Jim Crow south to be bombarded with this sort of vicious rhetoric, it is notable that Graham never shook off these baleful influences. We would hear echoes of Mordecai Ham’s rants in Graham’s infamous “off the record” conversation in the Oval Office with Richard Nixon.
This conversation, which was captured on one of the legendary White House tapes, was not the momentary lapse or attempt to curry favor, as the Graham apologists attempted to claim. On the contrary, the conversation lasted an hour and a half, had rarely strayed from the denunciation of the Jews, and had sometimes been led by Graham. “The Bible says there are Satanic Jews, and that’s where our problem arises,” Graham pontificates at one point, to mumbled agreement by Nixon. Amazingly, twenty additional minutes of this conversation had been redacted before being released to the Watergate committee. What could possibly have been in those redacted twenty minutes that was worse than what wound up being released? Many years later, when the tape was released to public shock and dismay, Graham would do what he has always done when confronted with evidence of his own failings: he would claim that his clear, unambiguous words simply did not reflect his actual views. Inevitably, whenever Graham used this alibi, the big implication remained discreetly unspoken: Graham was either a liar or a moral coward.
Another aspect of Graham’s history is his unequivocal record of racism. Like many from the South (and not a few from the North), Graham inherited a significant bigotry against African-Americans. When a friend suggested to the young Graham that they stop off and get a haircut at a “colored barbershop” where a haircut could be gotten cheap, Graham declared, “Long as there’s a white barbershop in Charlotte, I’ll never have my hair cut at a nigger barbershop! Never!” Many people inherit this sort of vicious thinking, and many people eventually grow up to shed such primitive, mean-spirited attitudes. I kept looking for some point in Graham’s history where he had grown beyond this sort of thinking, but I kept coming up empty handed. The public record demonstrates that Graham was always on the wrong side on the racial issue. Always.
Over the years, there have been a number of attempts to portray Graham as being on the “progressive” side of the civil rights struggle that began in earnest in the 1950s. In fact, as Bothwell documents at length, this “progressive” history has been manufactured out of whole cloth. This is a man who, as late as the 1960s, was holding “separate but equal” crusades for black audiences. Graham would claim, “It wasn’t his decision but that of the organization.” And whenever segregationists would slam him for showing even an inkling of a progressive idea, he would immediately backpedal, claiming he was only there to preach the Bible, not to “enter into any local issues.” While the whole world was watching the battle for human rights in Selma, Graham was vacationing on the beach in Hawaii. Indeed, Graham was notable by his absence from every decisive moment in the civil rights struggle. When M.L. King was gunned down, Graham pointedly failed to attend the funeral, an event attended by over 200,000 people. On those rare occasions when Graham would even acknowledge that something called “the civil rights struggle” was taking place, he would limit his pronouncements to cautioning others to “put on the brakes a bit,” opining that “only when Christ comes again will all the little white children of Abraham walk hand in hand with little black children.” He seemed genuinely puzzled by the unwillingness of black Americans to wait for the Second Coming to claim their rights as human beings.
One might suggest, in Graham’s defense, “that was then, this is now.” Sadly, he does not appear to have grown over the years. As late as 1991, Graham was a member of the whites-only Biltmore Country Club. When called on this by local activists, Graham’s spokesman trotted out the old standby: Graham “didn’t have time to involve himself in local issues.” And in 1993, Graham publicly asked the rhetorical question, “Is AIDS a judgment of God?” His answer: “I could not say for sure, but I think so.” Needless to say, Graham’s remarks brought down a torrent of outrage, in the face of which Graham promptly did what he always did: “I remember saying it, and I immediately regretted it and almost went back and clarified the statement.” He “almost” went back and clarified the statement. Almost. Graham’s entire life, it would seem, is one long chain of moments of truth in which he “almost” did the right thing.
As an elder statesman whose mental and rhetorical powers are rapidly fading, Graham did not play his usual role as panderer to the powerful in the George W. Bush administration. While one should be grateful for this small mercy, Graham’s son Franklin delivered the inaugural sermon at Bush’s 2000 inauguration, and went on to become a close Bush confidant. And so the torch was passed, and so the disease was propagated. Billy Graham’s uniquely intolerant form of fundamentalist rhetoric, centered on the twin messages of fear and hate, continue to worm their way deep into the fabric of American discourse. It is to Bothwell’s enormous credit that he forces the reader to confront Billy Graham raw, unfiltered, as he really is. To the droves of Graham apologists and “clarifiers,” Bothwell offers a simple challenge: “Perhaps we should pay heed to what Graham has actually said.”
Sep 16 2008
Originally posted at http://CrustyPolemicist.blogsp…
“You’d have to be really —king dumb to get lost on that road.”
– unnamed Florida National Guardsman on duty in Iraq, expressing astonishment that Pfc. Jennifer Lynch and her team got lost and taken prisoner
PFC Jessica Lynch came home to a small town in West Virginia that was bursting at the seams with flags, bunting, and the inevitable yellow ribbons. The local residents who lined the town’s main street to wave on Jessica’s triumphal parade were outnumbered by the media, who were in a virtual swoon over the absolute perfection of this slice of pure, uncut Americana.
Speaking to the crowd after her hometown victory parade, Lynch said she was “thankful to several Iraqi citizens who helped save my life while I was in their hospital.” A very class act, a very beau geste – and quite possibly her last utterance as a real, live human being.
What the media gave us on television was not the homecoming of a banged-up soldier. Rather, it was the latest episode in a national spectacle, manufactured by the U.S. government, deployed by a compliant media, and devoured by the public with the same slack-jawed credulity with which they tended to suck up the latest story line in professional wrestling.
Lynch’s story was the story of a terrified young soldier in a bad situation. It was the story of an Iraqi hospital, and the staff that did what they could with what they had to care for the wounded supply clerk. It was the story of how to generate a pure simulacrum, a perfect copy of an original that never existed. It was the story of how a person becomes a small node in the simulation. How very convenient, then, that “she basically has amnesia and has mentally blocked out the horrible things we strongly believe she went through.”
“What we have witnessed is the greatest work of art there has ever been!”
Karlheinz Stockhausen, speaking of the events of 9/11
The attacks of September 11, 2001, will prove to be as significant in America as the events of Algeria or May ’68 were in France. A generation of American discourse and action will have to be filtered and strained through the funhouse prism of 9/11. The attacks have succeeded, as Baudrillard noted, in turning America into a vengeful police state hell-bent on a project to dominate the world through sheer brute force. To be precise, through the spectacle of sheer brute force. Because it is critically important to understand that what one is dealing with in America now is precisely the visual spectacle. Reality has not been devalued; it has simply been rendered irrelevant.
A new, hard truth has been missed – possibly ignored, possibly deliberately – by both the American public and the American media. Quite simply, the administration of George W. Bush is the first in American history to use manufactured propaganda and spectacle as the sole means of communication. I believe that to think of it in terms of “deception” is to dangerously miss the point. The Bush administration is, quite simply, unmatched experts of the world of simulation, masters of supplanting the “merely real” with the wholesale deployment of the manufactured hyperreal spectacle.
The star of the show, George W. Bush, replaces the real world with a sort of “sketch”, a simplistic visual suggestion, drawn with a palette of loud, primary colors. He eliminates complexity and disperses ambiguity. Both the press and the people love him for this. But he would be a bumbling, ineffectual fool were it not for his team of experts in the art of the simulation.
These are no lucky amateurs. The White House communications staff is packed with people from network television background, people with ready-for-prime-time expertise in lighting, camera angles, story line, and the importance of backdrops. They understand, in short, the concept of deploying the spectacle. One pundit commented, “They know how to build a set”, which is very much to the point. The entire war, and the entire world, is their theatre, the symbolism without the content, a pure simulacrum.
The “war” on terror, as manufactured and deployed by the Bush team, bears the same relation to the “merely real” war as a pornographic video does to “merely real” sex. But – and this is the key point – the Bush wars generate high quality porno.
“They used me as a way to symbolize all this stuff.”
– PFC Jessica Lynch
The terrorists on 9/11 produced what is, in fact, arguably the most stunning visual spectacle in recent centuries. It would not be enough for America to respond only in the realm of the real. As Baudrillard pointed out, “A symbolic challenge” was thrown down and accepted by America, but this war could not be fought in the realm of the real. It could only be fought inside the simulation. It is only winnable in the realm of the hyperreal.
The thing that strikes the outside observer is the manic, giddy, self-consciously “heartfelt” nature of the American simulation. Everyone behaves as if the cameras are always rolling. In June 2003, we read an apparently unironic news story about a regiment of US armored troops psyching themselves up for a strike against Iraqi defenders by blasting Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries through loudspeakers. We have here a truly telling example of the self-referential, recursive nature of a war that manufactures itself out of a deep well of uniquely American mythic images. It is necessary to give the Bush team credit: they are the first administration to consciously, exuberantly, and completely cut loose the mooring lines between their propaganda and the real world. No longer needing to create any ties, however tenuous, to anything in the real world, their simulation is free to manufacture itself out of pure mythos and faerie dust. In Baudrillard’s formulation, “the whole system becomes weightless, it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum—not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.” If the simulation no longer needs to close the loop by referring back to the merely real, then the simulation can be used to manufacture anything – including meaning itself.
A story was told in the wake of 9/11 about a young man who watched the towers start to fall down from his Manhattan rooftop. As they were in mid-collapse, he left the roof to go inside to turn on his TV, hoping it would make him “understand.” The public finally gets the message: the spectacle is what makes sense; the mere reality of the towers collapsing outside the young man’s window is simply a datum; it needs to be fed whole into the simulation in order for it to mean anything.
This manufactured meaning is constantly feeding into the manufacturing apparatus. The America that never was, the America of John Ford westerns and Frank Capra’s heartwarming slices of Americana, are a bottomless well of meaning from which the raw material of the simulacra can be drawn. Think, for instance, of all those homespun articles and pictures of George W. Bush “at home on the ranch” in Crawford, TX. The simulacrum stars Bush as just another sun-hardened ranch hand, comfortable and happy on the family spread but called to reluctant duty in the “big city” to save America from Evildoers. The only thing wrong with this picture is that it’s completely manufactured. The Crawford ranch is nothing more than an elaborate stage-set. Built in 2000, it serves the purpose for which it had been constructed by serving as a quintessentially American backdrop for Bush’s 2000 election bid. Most of the time, the “ranch” sits there, empty, like a set awaiting the arrival of the cast. Indeed, the town of Crawford was itself essentially manufactured as a backdrop for the Bush presidency. Before 2000, only about 400 people lived in the town. The Crawford Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture wasn’t even formed until after the “ranch” was finished. The people in the town are extras in an infrequent but recurring set piece: “The President escapes the burdens of his War On Terror by relaxing briefly at the family ranch.”
At a speech promoting his economic plan, White House communications staff experts even went so far as to ask people in the crowd behind Bush to take off their ties, so they would look more like ordinary working stiffs who would purportedly benefit from the Bush tax cut. These high-powered businessmen (and they were, overwhelmingly, men – white men, to be precise) also understood their roles as “extras” in a “scene”, and they were happy to play along.
One can trot out episode after episode, presenting them all with an increasing sense of predictable monotony. One has seen every one of these spectacles before. In the movies. On TV. The stagecraft is evocative, surprisingly subtle, but not so subtle that even the least among the audience won’t recognize the (mythic) original in the simulacrum.
Such a glorious spectacle required a top-down, damn-the-costs commitment from the Bush team to provide nothing but high-quality porno for the proles. The designers who built the $250,000 set in Qatar from which CENTCOM General “Tommy” Franks gave his daily explanation of the current state of the world also built sets for Disney, MSNBC, and “Good Morning America”.
Given such expertly executed spectacle, and given the American public’s essentially pubescent love affair with war as such, it is to be expected that it would be in war where the Bush spectacle would find its most willing spectators.
And nowhere is this stagecraft more artfully deployed than on that ultimate stage set.
In Afghanistan, one saw images of Special Forces troops on horseback with unmanned drones flying cover overhead. Those of us who still read will find the imagery evocative of Dune. Others will think of the Star Wars battle on the ice world. The hyperreal is big enough to encapsulate all contradictions and render them beautiful. Still, Afghanistan was somehow unsatisfying as a spectacle. It lacked scale and epic sweep, it did not resonate deeply enough. It was not until Iraq that the manufacturers of the simulation found a story line worthy of deploying their spectacle on a massive scale.
“The U.S. government wasn’t alone in their actions. They were co-conspirators with the media …”
For a speech delivered at Mount Rushmore, Bush’s media staff positioned the platform so that the cameras caught Bush in profile, his face perfectly aligned with the four presidents carved in stone. Perfectly aligned. One can almost hear the words of poor mad Colonel Kurtz: ” …and I thought to myself, My God! The genius of that!” This is why the media and the public love this guy. The spectacle provides endless reams of usable footage. The spectacle keeps a lot of talking heads employed. As far as the media is concerned, Bush’s simulation is simply great for business.
The new, explicit partnership between the government and the media has evolved very quickly, and has had surprisingly few startup glitches. Listening to the “embedded” reporting during the Iraq war, one could not help but be struck by the fact that the reporters sounded like soldiers, not reporters. They constantly used “we” when referring to the military unit in which they were embedded. These reporters had jumped on the team, and their bosses – and their viewing public – were completely OK with that. A post-war analysis of output generated by the “embeds” showed that 90% of their reporting was either positive or neutral.
From the government’s point of view, this ability to control the single most important aspect of their spectacle was a win of enormous magnitude (one wonders if the anonymous Pentagon bureaucrat who cooked up the “embedding” idea got a medal, or a promotion). Control of the downstream feed from the complicit media to the supine public was imperative if the parameters of the simulation were to be prevented from spinning out of control in some random, disastrous fashion.
The major vector for random disruption of the seamless hyperreality of the spectacle was those media outlets that were not on board, that were not on the team, that were not 101% committed to The Big Win. “Degrading” this steady drip-drip-drip bleeding of reality into the simulation became a full-time obsession for the American government. This obsession quickly expanded from known-hostile media (al-Jazeera is, in its own way, every bit as biased as Fox News) and soon took as its target any media that were not on the same page as the government. According to retired US Army Col. Sam Gardiner, “we will even go after friends if they are against what we are doing or want to do.”
Almost as soon as the shooting started, American proconsul L. Paul Bremer began to try and lock down the Iraqi media, along with any foreign media on the ground in Iraq. It is to the undying credit of these reporters that they, unlike the American media, resisted this pressure to get on board – often successfully. The inane claim that negative reporting would give “aid and comfort to the enemy” may have worked on the American press (who needed damned little convincing, in any case), but it was wasted on members of the Iraqi, Middle Eastern, and European press, the majority of whom saw enough of the reality on the ground to find the whole concept of “the enemy” highly problematic, at best.
America’s vaunted “free press” shamed itself in the period from 9/11 to the present. They saw the incredible potential, the visual goldmine, the opportunity to “win share” – all they had to do in return was to report what they were told to report, and not ask any questions. This the American media did, with breathtaking enthusiasm and without exception.
“A stupid despot may constrain his slaves with iron chains, but a true politician binds them even more strongly by the chain of their own ideas.”
I was eating my lunch in the break room during the war in Iraq. A co-worker, watching the big-screen TV in the corner, called over: “Coalition forces have crossed the Euphrates.” I responded, puzzled: “You mean American forces?”
He looked at me sadly and shook his head. It was obvious that I was beyond hope. To this otherwise intelligent man, the fiction of a “Coalition” was more real than the reality that the Iraq War was a US operation (with a smattering of Brits). The hyperreal is always more real, because it is more familiar. It is referential, pointing to items in America’s visual mythos in a way that the random mess of “real war” could not possibly approach.
Since 9/11, the American public has traded crusty skepticism for credulous ingestion of whatever spectacle the government deploys at any given moment – not because they particularly believe it, but because, like professional wrestling, it’s just a lot more fun if you play along.
The great and terrible beauty of the bloody shirt of 9/11 has inspired most Americans to line up in front of the tube to soak up the spectacle. In his speech to Congress shortly after 9/11, Bush announced that it was his plan to wage a war of ideas. This has not happened. He is ill equipped to wage a war of ideas.
However, it is naïve to think this was ever about ideas. Bush’s one, overarching genius is his ability to use American symbolism, the elements of the American mythos, to give Americans an alibi. If the greatest country on Earth is engaged in a battle to the death with Pure Evil, then all constraints are lifted. Anything is permitted.
In a country where 46% of the citizens are self-described ‘evangelicals’, the dizzying array of American freedoms – and the consequences of those freedoms – is often horrifying to many Americans. Profanity and nudity on TV, gay marriage and adoption, “Feces Madonna” and Mapplethorpe, on and on and on. They look at American society, at America’s ‘freedoms’, and they hate what they see. These Americans have more in common with their purported enemy than they can ever admit to themselves. This is the secret heart of darkness in post-9/11 America. But it is a secret that all but a few of the most extreme Americans must hide, even from themselves. The beauty of the simulation – complete, coherent, inspiring, heartwarming, glorious – is that it stupefies, it helps Americans to forget. Better to think about the spectacle of “our American heroes at war” than to wallow in the contingent and doubt-provoking realm of the real.
Which lures us, not surprisingly, back to where we began, to that exciting and archetypal American war drama, the stirring tale of The Lady Rambo, the episode known as “Saving Private Lynch”. We owe it to ourselves to give this tale a close look. The process by which this spectacle was manufactured and deployed has much to teach us.
“I couldn’t get a job at Wal-Mart in Palestine, West Virginia. I joined the Army to get out of my home town.”
PFC Jessica Lynch
The reporters covering the Coalition Media Center in Qatar were rousted out of their beds in the wee hours of April 2, 2003. General Vincent Brooks had an exciting story to tell:
“Coalition forces have conducted a successful rescue mission of a US Army prisoner of war held captive in Iraq,” Brooks told the sleepy reporters. He paused, as if waiting for something. As if on cue, one of the extras in the scene (in the person of CNN correspondent Tom Mintier) chimed in helpfully: ” We understand that there is video taken by a combat camera team. Can you show us that video?”
Perfectly staged, perfectly executed. Within hours, news organizations across America were running with the story of a “daring raid” in “hostile territory.” The Los Angeles Times report informed their rapt readers that the Special Forces rescuers endured a “blaze of gunfire” at the hospital. The New York Times’ first story was somewhat more sedate, but by the time it unveiled its second report on the story, they were reporting that “the rescue team took fire from buildings within the compound, but the troops fired back and quickly made their way into the hospital.” The perfectly manufactured, gritty, green-lit footage of Lynch being rushed out of the hospital and onto a waiting chopper was played over and over again, with the mindless repetitiveness of a porno loop. It would quickly become one of the major defining images of the war – which was precisely the point.
By the second day of the deployment, all the major news outlets were reporting that the Virginia supply clerk had fought fiercely against her captors, citing anonymous government sources who were saying that Lynch “fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers” after Iraqi soldiers ambushed her supply convoy, “firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition.” The story soon was getting endless “News Alert” television and radio play. On NBC, Forrest Sawyer reported that “Lynch continued firing at Iraqi troops even after she was wounded,” while Robin Roberts on ABC’s Good Morning America announced that Lynch “fought fiercely,” “shooting several Iraqis” and “emptying her weapon before being stabbed and finally taken prisoner.”
One must give credit to the foreign press (most especially the European and British media) for maintaining a sane degree of distance and skepticism about the substance of this story. It soon became apparent to any viewer or reader not living in America that the reports of Lynch’s capture and the “daring rescue” had no basis in reality. She did not fire her weapon, and she was neither shot nor stabbed. Most significantly, news outlets such as the BBC and Associated Press took the trouble to actually visit the hospital from which Lynch was “rescued” to find out the reality on the ground. Iraqi doctors at the hospital reported that Iraqi soldiers had fled the scene days before the “rescue”, and hospital personnel had in fact tried to return Lynch to American lines more than once, only to be turned back. It was “like a Hollywood film,” Dr. Harith al-Houssona, a physician at the hospital, told the BBC on May 18. “They shout, ‘Go, go, go!’, with guns and blanks…and the sound of explosions. They make a show…action moves like Sylvester Stallone or Jackie Chan…with jumping and shouting, breaking the door.” He probably did not realize the significance of his insight: “they make a show.”
Jessica Lynch, a blue-collar West Virginian who joined the Army because she could not get a job at her local Wal-Mart, got a Bronze medal, a book deal, and a made-for-TV movie because she got knocked out. She never fired her weapon. She never dived into the midst of a horde of Elite Republican Guards, screaming a wild Amazonian battle cry. She never threw herself against a gang of Fedayeen Evildoers, a Bowie knife clenched in her teeth and a live grenade in each hand. What really happened was this: she rolled her vehicle, and got knocked out.
Of course, we understand by now that “what really happened” totally misses the point. Itwas obvious to the media that this glorious simulation was selling like crack. Fox News, which threw off even the merest pretense of objectivity during the war, was pulling bigger market share by far than any other station. When ABC attempted to go back over the ground and do some objective reporting based on how the “rescue” looked to Iraqi hospital staff, they got hundreds of called complaining that ABC was “undercutting the military.”
It was clear to the American media that the American public wanted the simulation, not the reality. The spectacle “meant” more (in every sense of the word) to the American public than did the mere reality. The American press, with its highly attuned nose, quickly sensed which way the wind was blowing and enthusiastically adjusted their reporting.
Jessica Lynch as simulacrum “works”, for everyone in the loop. The media is consciously complicit in the deployment of the government-manufactured simulation. The American public is complicit in the unthinking consumption of the simulation. No one is innocent.
Jessica Lynch has been seized and extradited to a place outside of the world. Jessica Lynch is a Rorschach test of what Americans want to believe about war, and about themselves. She is an empty vessel upon which Americans can project their own fantasies, whether they be flag-waving patriotic, pro-war, anti-war, feminist, anti-feminist, anything. She is a protean simulacrum, many copies, none of them referring back to any original. How much more interesting, how much more useful, they all find Jessica Lynch the simulacrum compared to the dirt-poor supply clerk who couldn’t get a job at the local Wal-Mart.
“It no longer matters in America whether something is true or false. The population has been conditioned to accept anything: sentimental stories, lies, atomic bomb threats.”
John MacArthur, Harper’s Magazine
As I sit here hammering away on my keyboard, a television talking head comforts America, explaining that despite the gassy plume of black smoke rising from the latest truck bomb site, things are going just fine in Iraq. Despite the endless violence, he assures the American public that “the show” will go on. He reveals more than he knows. It is, indeed, a show. And it will, indeed, go on. Life is so much more enjoyable and so much more meaningful when the simulation is playing on the TV.
A colleague asked me a question yesterday: “Do you really believe that Bush, Cheney, Powell, and all them would actually lie so much and so often to the American people?” One is unable to simply answer, “Yes”. They are not lying, they are manufacturing the hyperreal. “The real is not only what can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced: that is the hyperreal… which is entirely in simulation.” Baudrillard is probably sitting in his flat in Paris nodding his head as he watches the realization of his insight from Amerique, that in America “there are no lies, there is only simulation.”
The “war on terror” is not a war in any conventional sense, armies clashing in combat, cities falling, refugees on the road. It is really about the mining of a rich mythos in order to manufacture public opinion. The war is not about defending civilization, it is about engineering attitudes and manufacturing consent. Even more: it is about manufacturing discourse, manufacturing the permissible way of speaking about the simulation. We see the manufacturing of neologisms that reflect a degree of subtlety and direction that cannot fail to impress.
To pick one example among the many sweet treats in this manufactured discourse, let’s pluck the word “degrade”. One constantly heard that “Coalition forces are degrading the Republican Guard divisions.” This discourse of the new simulation lacks the vocabulary to do proper justice to a trench on the side of a road leading towards Baghdad, stacked high with unburied, stinking bodies. Body parts, to be precise. “Degrading their capability” is how one translates that into the language that is spoken inside the simulation.
An anonymous Army officer on the ground (no doubt in an unguarded moment) gave us a small, succinct Rosetta Stone for mapping discourse from the simulation into words that are meaningful in the real world:
“It’s slaughter. It’s murder. It’s clubbing baby harp seals.”
By one estimate, over 10,000 Iraqi soldiers died in the war in Iraq. Yet we never got to see those stacks of body parts, sweltering in that ditch. They existed in the real world, but never bled through to into the simulacrum. Where did all those burned, stinking bodies go?