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ISSUE #125
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Millions of Americans Indifferent

by Steve Gordon

“There is another philosophy that is better suited for political action, that takes its cue, adapts itself to the drama in hand, and acts its part neatly and well. This is the philosophy for you to use. When a comedy of Plautus is being played, and the households of slaves are cracking trivial jokes together, you propose to come on stage in the garb of a philosopher, and repeat Seneca’s speech to Nero from the Octavia. Wouldn’t it be better to take a silent role than to say something wholly inappropriate, and thus turn the play into a tragicomedy? You pervert and ruin a play when you add irrelevant speeches, even if they are better than the original. So go through with the drama in hand as best you can, and don’t spoil it all simply because you happen to think another one to be better.”

-Saint Sir Thomas More, 1516, tr. R.M. Adams

War Programming

If you haven’t already recycled it, I’m going to ask you to get out your copy of Sociological Quarterly, vol. 46(4), and check out the Atheide & Grimes article one more time. I understand if you’ve recycled it—it’d gotten a few years old, and if you’re anything like me, you’ve already reprinted 90% of the material in your own essays anyway.

In the article, “War Programming: The Propaganda Project and the Iraq War,” Atheide & Grimes make an exceptional case that a compliant American news media facilitated the rush to war in Iraq. There were, according to the authors, a number of reasons for this.

First, two decades of corporate deregulation and rapid media conglomeration force-evolved news rooms into lean, action-grabbing loss-leaders for their new commercial owners. Newspapers and stations cut expenses drastically, fired lots of reporters, and swayed away from being investigative (and costly) democratic power-checks to being painless narrators of a culture that has softly dissociated itself from distressing information. Editors and reporters were encouraged to follow generalized story themes rather than in-depth analysis. As a result, it was just good business sense to spend the time between September 11th and the Iraq invasion embedding reporters with the military and designing flashy “Blow ‘Em The Fuck Up” graphics for the newscast. The war was inevitable, after all, and no one wanted to be left out in the rain once the shit storm started.

Secondly, and concurrently, the media was able to garner support for the war—which it had invested time, interest and money into—by taking the administration’s cue in redefining the term “terrorism.” Terrorism had for decades referred to a political tactic used on airplanes and in ass-kicking movies. Now, it was shifting towards referring to a “condition” or “global affliction” that an altruistic United States would have to cure.

Finally, the news media marginalized dissent. Raise your hand if you knew at the time that the administration was full of shit when it came to Iraq’s WMDs. Well, you were right, and you knew it at the time, so what you did was you and 100,000 friends went to Washington, D.C. and did this big protest thingie. It made it on the news—in the bottom corner, underneath a huge story on how sweet our new missiles were going to be. And it wasn’t until well after the war was underway that news organizations came to terms with some kind of obligatory, vacuous admission that they “had been misled” like “everyone else.” But look, Britney’s fat now, can you fucking believe it?


Though it is a thorough and much-needed critique of the new news media, there is something missing in Atheide & Grimes.

In Thomas More’s 16th century book Utopia, a traveler returns from the New World and recounts to the narrator his observations of the cooperative and functioning society he encountered across the sea. Upon hearing of the ingenious methods employed by the Utopians to achieve a, well, utopian society, the narrator urges the traveler to enter the world of politics. After all, it seems the traveler has enough insight to solve even the most absurd and institutionalized maladies of Europe at the time. The traveler declines, knowing that there is no place for idealism in practical politics.

That was in a book. In real life, we really did go to the New World, and it turned out that most of the societies there were somewhat utopian. But that wasn’t going to work for us, so we got the fuck rid of them and opened a few European franchises. After a while, this one place, the United States, had really good things for you to buy, and since they shipped slaves over to make the things, ordinary customers didn’t have to worry about how much sweat it took to turn dirt into food and clothes.

After a while, the United States developed ways to travel and communicate over vast distances, so they didn’t need to have slaves shipped there anymore. They could just slave away from their own homes in Asia and Africa. And so the people in the United States got used to having nice things that were cheap, and they got really good at not knowing—or caring—how much sweat it took to turn dirt into HD TVs.

Here is what the Atheide & Grimes article seems to miss: in condemning the news media for not fulfilling its obligation to inform the public, the authors fail to notice that this obligation has dissolved. The news has no purpose anymore than to don the tired garb of Upton Sinclair and say, straight-faced, “man, Britney one crazy bitch!” The new news is there to assuage, not to inform, and here come Atheide & Grimes, reciting ‘Seneca’s speech to Nero,’ to no one in particular.

Dissent is a pain in the ass; of course it would be marginalized. When 100,000 dissenters met up in Washington on a cold January morning in 2003 to tell the president they knew he was full of shit, you saw it on television for a split second. Changing the channel, you said to yourself, “Outdoors. That’s so last century.” You didn’t need a bunch of smart-asses telling you ugly-feeling things, turning your play into a tragedy.

Because, with enough trivial jokes here and there, it wasn’t one to begin with. Right?

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