Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Truthiness is Almost as Good...

I think we need to come up with some sort of nationwide V-Chip type of device specifically designed to keep anyone from ever watching Fox News. It’s now pretty obvious that the Pastor Wright controversy was Terri Schiavo-esque in its honesty. For those who have forgotten/don’t remember, I’ll give a quick refresher in the part that’s actually germane to my current topic. Terri Schiavo went in to a persistent vegetative state in 1990. She didn’t have a living will or any instructions, so her family kept her alive and there were many, many court cases on whether or not they had to. Finally, a court ruled that they could pull the plug. Public opinion was whipped to a frothy maelstrom, fueled by a video that kept getting played on the news of her blinking and apparently responding to stimulus. Tom DeLay, a Congressman and apparently a doctor of some sort, diagnosed her based on that clip and said she’d be able to recover. Her autopsy, however, showed that the brain damage was extensive and there was no possible way she’d ever recover. It later came out that the five seconds worth of video footage of her was culled from a significantly longer collection of tapes in which she didn’t respond to anything at all. The entire episode came out as manipulative and there were no winners to speak of. However, the country moved on and we’ve all forgotten about it (well, most of us). The fact is, the strategy of completely misrepresenting the truth worked pretty well during the Terri Schiavo case. That rich, foamy lather to which the public was whipped was both predictable and useful, it just needed another context. Like, say, politics. Maybe if some sort of heretofore Teflon-esque candidate represented a real threat to the conservative elite showed up they could use it as a strategy to defeat said candidate. Possibly someday a candidate would show up who could only be attacked by mocking his middle name or calling him a closet Muslim terrorist and get absolutely nothing out of the voting populace. But maybe, just maybe, there was a moment in that candidate’s life or the life of someone close to that candidate that could be exploited for all its worth. Enter Pastor Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ. I remember writing an email to a friend of mine several months ago when the, “Barack Obama may very well be a Muslim terrorist,” garbage was taking the country by, um, whatever the diametric opposite of storm is. I said something to the general effect of, “This should make Obama look better, because it makes it pretty obvious that they have nothing on him at all and they’re looking desperate.” Little did I know how desperate they would actually become. A couple weeks ago Fox News started pushing a two or three minute long greatest hits loop of video “proving” that Barack Obama’s pastor is some sort of racist jerk. The Obama campaign backpedaled, but when that didn’t work he delivered one of the greatest American political speeches of the last forty years (although, really, Reagan’s, “Mr. Gorbchev, tear down this wall,” is the only thing that can compete since, like, Bobby Kennedy). Obama supporters pointed out (rightly, might I add), that it doesn’t really matter, anyway, since people have been known to have different opinions than their friends, loved ones, mentors, and families. This was the only real defense, though. Obama took flak from both sides. He was attacked by those who thought he needed to tell Wright off and never have anything to do with that horribly racist man again. Then he was attacked by those who said he should have defended Wright to the last. Obama’s very real, human response to say, “I don’t agree with this, but that doesn’t mean I can repudiate him,” seemed to satisfy very few people. Obama’s sudden drop in the polls seemed to show that. Meanwhile, on some level I didn’t understand the controversy at all. I was actually introduced to the, “God damn America,” comment, the one taken as the worst of Wright’s attacks, in context and actually thought it was a fairly good rhetoric and a fairly defensible position.
The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.(ABC News)
This doesn’t actually show Wright to be a racist. It shows him to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist, albeit one who is much more connected to reality than the people who believe the Bavarian Illuminati controls the world through the power of saucer Nazis who live inside the Earth and are powered by the light of a secret, inner sun. He’s working off of a fairly standard conspiracy theory that the CIA gave crack to black people to control the population. There’s an attendant theory that HIV/AIDS was engineered by the government to do much the same thing. It’s a patently absurd theory, but the underlying assumptions are actually grounded in reality. We know about the Tuskegee Study, in which the USPHS intentionally denied treatment to black people infected with syphilis in order to find out how the disease progressed, even after it was discovered that penicillin pretty much cleared the whole thing right up. We also have Jim Crow laws and that whole slavery thing. In the aftermath of Obama’s speech we even got to experience Mike Huckabee saying something I agree with:
...I grew up in a very segregated south. And I think that you have to cut some slack -- and I'm gonna be probably the only Conservative in America who's gonna say something like this, but I'm just tellin' you -- we've gotta cut some slack to people who grew up being called names, being told ‘you have to sit in the balcony when you go to the movie. You have to go to the back door to go into the restaurant. And you can't sit out there with everyone else. There's a separate waiting room in the doctor's office. Here's where you sit on the bus...’ And you know what? Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment. And you have to just say, I probably would too. I probably would too. In fact, I may have had more of a chip on my shoulder had it been me.(Daily Kos)
The fact is, America has spent plenty of time killing innocent people even without paranoid conspiracy theories. We just have a tendency to believe we haven’t, through the magic of “American Exceptionalism,” the theory that everything America does is okay because, well, we’re America, dammit, and we’re the good guys.
We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye... We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost (ABC News)
The funny thing about this quote is that I completely agree with the message and almost entirely disagree with the content. It all depends on how you interpret history. Before I get in to that, however, there’s a slight matter of the “chickens are coming home to roost” part of the message. This sermon came right after 9/11. While everyone else was engaging in a victim mentality and/or trying to figure out who we could kill for revenge, Wright was pointing out that America was not innocent. We have engaged in more than our fair share of wrongdoing in our history and to claim otherwise is stupid. The chickens part, though, was Wright quoting Edward Peck, a white American ambassador, who was, in turn, quoting Malcolm X. As for the content v. message, that’s more complicated to me. For one, I have no real problem with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when weighed against the historical reality of the event and the probabilities of a non-bombing outcome. Russia would have entered the war, the U.S. and Russia would have invaded the Japanese home islands and an awful lot more people would have died. World War III might well have started between the U.S. and Russia in the ruins of Tokyo. Moreover, the plan was to drop one bomb and accept Japan’s surrender. They saw Hiroshima, too, and decided to keep going. In South Africa we eventually adopted a policy of embargo against the Afrikaner elite, opposition to apartheid, and support of Nelson Mandela that was probably instrumental in bringing down apartheid, so I think that some credit should be given there. As for Palestine, um, I’ve got no beef with Wright about that one. The history of Israel since it was re-founded in 1948 is basically one travesty after another, many of which took the form of injustices visited upon the Palestinian people. That said, the United States is guilty of plenty of stuff. Remember Saddam Hussein? He was in power because of us. The United States had a policy of propping up horrible dictators specifically because they were anti-Communist. Since 9/11 we’ve been doing the same exact thing, except replace “anti-Communist” with “anti-Terrorist.” That whole thing with Musharraf in Pakistan is a prime example, with Bush supporting a self-appointed President for life because we’re tight and he’s (theoretically) hunting down Bin Laden. Several of the former Soviet –stan’s are getting the same treatment, but we don’t hear about them because I’m probably one of the few people around who can pull stuff names like Turkmenistan directly out of my nether regions while discussing things like this (by the way, President for Life Niyazov died, so they’ve got that goin’ for ‘em). If we go back farther, we can find other stuff. One hundred eighty-five years ago, President Monroe gave his Doctrine. It can be paraphrased as, “Hey, Europe, butt out.” And was basically a declaration that the America’s were our back yard to deal with as we saw fit. It was actually a high-minded repudiation of colonialism, but that didn’t last long. In the early 1900s it was used as justification for the Marines taking over customs houses in otherwise free nations to make them pay their debts (although in some cases this was actually a good thing, since it forced accountability). During the Cold War it lead to support of any number of anti-Communist dictators, the support of civil rights wastelands like Brazil during the ‘60s and ‘70s and the infamous School of the Americas. Everything else being equal, I think Pastor Wright has been grossly misrepresented. The focus of his post-9/11 message that gave us the chickens soundbyte was that we need to look inside of ourselves and see the ugliness we have caused. This was in the Christian context, with calls for more prayer, repentance, and increased reliance on god, which might turn some people off, but the message itself was one of peace, penitence, and self-reflection, things that were in short supply in the days and weeks following 9/11. I’d actually say that’s pretty inspiring. But it doesn’t make good copy if you just want to throw mud around. EDIT: It's weird, I was just re-reading this one and Blogger had cut several fairly key words out. I'm not sure what happened...

1 comment:

Fiat Lex said...

Good post and good thoughts. I think the Fox News "All The News Your Oligarchs Want You To Hear" point is the scariest of all.

I like the treatment of this issue on: http://www.youaredumb.net/archive/2008/03/17
You Are Dumb.net, the only political blogger I really follow. He took a couple of McCain's spiritual advisors and put a few inflammatory quotes by them up for comparison purposes. Obama's pastor stacks up looking like a paragon of reason and dispassion.

Watching Canadian Bacon with Dave over the weekend was an interesting experience. Good, very funny movie--but it's scary how prescient it turned out to be. Everything treated lightly in that movie happened in dead earnest over the past seven or eight years, with real military engagements and real human deaths instead of John Candy et al capering about waving guns they never actually fire at anyone.

But what relates to the Fox News issue is that media campaign about the Canadian Menace. Every media outlet to which the bad guys had access was singing the same tune, all from slightly different angles so as to terrify and enflame the maximum number of citizens. Fox News, I'm saying, is just the loudspeaker perched on top of the Spin Machine.

Hell of it is, I wouldn't even call it a conspiracy. It's a matter of influence morese than control. Producers and directors have a keen sense of what their financial backers will and won't tolerate, so nothing has to be explicitly ordered. An eyebrow here, a word over a cellphone there, and newscasters and makers of documentaries and producers of consumer advisory shows all start singing in bizarre harmony.

There is so much to hate about the information age. I love it!