Tuesday, May 08, 2007

PowerPoint Postmodernism

A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.
--Mr. Dryden, Lawrence of Arabia

If you haven't bookmarked George Washington University's National Security Archive you should. The website is dedicated to publishing declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Today's posting on the release of documents outlining pre-invasion plans for the creation of a "rapid reaction media team" to oversee the takeover of Iraqi media, putting them into the service of pacification, by "broadcasting and printing USG (U.S. government) approved information" identifies the strategy for replacing Saddam's propaganda apparatus with our own; among the early post-invasion goals: "identify the media outlets we need left intact, and work with CENTCOM targeteers to find alternative ways to disable key sites." (Note that on April 8, 2003 a U.S. missile hit the Baghdad headquarters of al-Jazeera, killing a reporter; the deliberate targeting of a civilian media outlet is of course a war crime, as was pointed out at the time.*)

To say that this Administration is dishonest is to so understate the case as to be irrelevant. This Administration does not conceal the truth, it disdains it. It rejects the idea of truth, holding perception, narrative, and control above objective reality--and morality.

Governments lie. It's what they do. But we now have something qualitatively different, a new animal. Still, don't be fooled into thinking that it represents a "takeover" of government by forces that have existed outside of it or a paradigmatic shift in governance. The Bush Administration was prefigured long ago, and we have been steadily working our way toward it. This fact is obscured by the unique audacity of the current White House and the accelerating effect of 9/11.

Some aver that the current marriage of neoconservatives with born-again Christian conservatives constitutes a quasi-fascist authoritarian movement. This mis-characterizes the current crisis as an aberration that will be neatly excised by the ascension of a Democratic administration in 2008. That is its purpose. Don’t believe it.

While the effects of the neoconservatives' manipulation of unsophisticated and ill-informed Christian fundamentalist nationalism, enabling an alarming rise in militarism abroad and authoritarianism at home, are cause for alarm and must be opposed, this notion that they represent a durable and unified movement seems nearly as inaccurate as the common confusion of Shi'ite and Sunni militants as a unified whole.

The illusory specter of a grand conservative movement where there is in fact a tiny neoconservative elite manipulating a distracted and ill-informed conservative middle class, is necessitated by the need to defend the status quo for liberal Democrats and others who fear fundamental change in policy and politics, and who would furthermore like to heap this whole mess entirely on the big, bad, racist/xenophobic/elitist/ad nauseum Republicans. But the key to splitting the conservative masses from the neocon elite lies in appealing to the very same conservatism, in domestic and economic policy, for which the neocons and liberals alike hold plain old working white America in disdain.

This is evidenced by the fevered rantings of such as Chris Hedges, who is fond of including xenophobia and the idiotic construct of "Islamophobia" in his long list of sins committed by this imaginary Christian Front. Now we have many who are as falsely liberal as the neocons are falsely conservative; among the things they seek to preserve in the coming political cataclysm is a policy of liberal intervention and an expanding military presence abroad. When they set about bombing "brown people" (said with the sort of misty look in the eye that an Oprah proselyte gets when saying "Barack Obama"), they will have been sacrificed for the best and purest intentions, not for anything as tawdry and practical as oil.

The neoconservative Movement can be thwarted by appealing to Middle America's inherent conservatism on issues such as immigration, globalization, liberal intervention and taxation. Mainstream Democrats are virtually indistinguishable from their Republican counterparts regarding these things and, having invested so much in the demonization of white middle class Americans to form a bloc of minority and urban voters, are ill-equipped to act.

The current crop of Democratic candidates, with the exception of the two with the least likely, that is to say no, chance of winning the nomination, former Alaska senator Mike Gravel and Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich, all favor the expansion of the military, a commitment to the defense of Israel entirely out of proportion to its geo-strategic (but not political) significance, and a familiar policy of liberal intervention abroad that can be found among the direct precursors to the current disastrous militarism of the Bush Administration.
Indeed, Barack Obama’s recent, much awaited foreign policy speech sounded distressingly like President Bush’s delirious second inaugural address; it was nothing less than a reaffirmation of the liberal interventionist model that is a parent of the steroidal Wilsonianism of Bush II. So while the Republican Party may deserve having its hat handed to it in 2008, the disastrous foreign policy of Bush II may not follow it out the door.
The war in Iraq is lost and will force painful changes in U.S. policy, but the interests and political alliances that made it possible (and that have a U.S. carrier group steaming toward the Persian Gulf right now to take up a position against Iran), remain.

What held these forces in check before 9/11? Before the terror of that day opened a breach that Dick Cheney and his hapless minions leapt into, there remained something of a reality and ethics based political debate in America. But advances in the marketing and advertising of political communications had already been steadily eroding that for a long time. Narrative and imagery, enshrined in cinema and vulgarized on television, having drastically altered the way we view the world and process information, also became the primary means for the state and elites to manipulate the public.

The Bush Administration is merely the culmination of various trends in political communication that have been at work since Teddy Roosevelt thought it would be a good idea to have himself filmed tossing a medicine ball back and forth on the White House lawn. While we have found our way to something fundamentally new, it's wrong to view it as a sort of counter-movement working against or in reaction to American history. Radical change need not come as a radical break with history; it seems far more likely that it comes as the logical, even foreseeable product of it, as a critical mass is reached in one or more contributing factors and a transformation occurs. What we have is less aberration than logical result. While 9/11 may have unleashed it, remember that Cheney and Rumsfeld had Iraq in their sights long before 9/11.

(Perhaps the most damning proof of George Bush's now historic lack of fitness for office is found in that fact; campaigning on a more "modest" foreign policy, he was quietly assembling its polar opposite. He was either lying outright or, and this is perhaps more unsettling, he really didn't know who he was hiring, the debates they were immersed in, or the foreign policy concepts that were relevant to the process. This is not as unlikely as it should be; recall that candidate Bush was receiving embarrassingly rudimentary foreign policy "primers" well into his candidacy. God help us.)

Likewise, its goals abroad are nothing new. The real prize in Iraq remains in the ground; it is the same thing that's necessitated and complicated our relations with the Middle East since about the time Jack Philby recommended to Ibn Saud that he commission a survey exploring the oil potential of his vast, barren land.

The bold aggression of the Bush Administration can be seen as a gambit to double down on our current military preeminence, placing America atop an unassailable global hegemony. They miscalculated. That they have failed should not be mourned by any of us who actually value the republican ideal we still hope to realize one day. The fight over the true nature of America is on, and that may be a good thing. The calls for ever greater authoritarian measures grow louder as the neoconservative movement flounders. Otherwise sensible folk start to sound deranged; see Harvey Mansfield's cavalier dismissal of republican concerns, Thomas Sowell's longing for a military coup. It's hard to be melodramatic in insane times (undermining my own oeuvre).

The Administration utilizes the latest in all relevant communication disciplines and politico-marketing innovations to consolidate its hold on power and advance foreign policy goals that would be indefensible in a political system such as that envisioned by the founders. Its goals are not new but its aggressive nature and audacity in attempting to make a one-party state of America and a one-power world of the Earth are unprecedented. Still, these will not pass with the current beast, and no future U.S government can be trusted not to reap for itself the vastly expanded powers sown by the current administration. One can imagine opponents of the current regime anticipating the spoils of its efforts.

The abuses and crimes of this government need to be addressed by legislative action, starting with the reclamation of congressional authority over war powers. This is not happening, as the Democrats oppose the current administration just enough to help their own cause. Their supporters in the activist class demonstrate their mendacity as well, cheering on Senators Clinton and Obama, either of whom propose to continue the expansion of the imperium, under the tawdry banner of liberal intervention.

With the Bush Administration long term trends in advertising, marketing, politics, technology, and culture have coalesced under an overarching, perverse sort of corporate mentality that meticulously extracts value to produce product; the value is belief, the product is control. It seeks to render veracity obsolete as it concedes nothing until a position becomes thoroughly untenable, and then returns to previous positions long ago discredited--but lost in the miasma of our measured-in-months popular memory. Opponents are forever restating positions, arguing points that should be settled, etc; they are continually kept off balance, arguing from the outmoded and slow-footed milieu of reason, logic, and consequence. Call it triumph of the will. The genius of the Bush Administration lies in the fact that it simply refuses to address the truth. It therefore will not be bound by it.

But thank God for the sweet subversion of the Internet. There is reason to be encouraged; here Bush's propaganda "catapult" in Iraq was as ineffective in the current media environment, with blogs, the proliferation of cameras in the hands of soldiers and civilians alike and their access to the Internet, and alternatives to the cloistered mainstream media in the U.S., as a real catapult would be against modern weapons. The Administration's plans for controlling reality in the "new Iraq" proved as fantastical as everything else they attempted there. Here is one instance for which we can be glad of their delusional incompetence.

*update: Jim Lobe has an article in today's Asia Times online, mostly just highlighting the original Nat'l Security Archive posting, but reminding us of this unsettling fact:
In April 2004, during an extended battle covered by Al-Jazeera - for Fallujah, Iraq - President George W Bush suggested attacking the network's headquarters in Qatar during a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, according to leaked notes of the talks.

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