War offers us an intense if perverse spiritual experience with its myth-making drama of life lived at the extremes of human experience. America has always been susceptible to this kind of religious fervor particularly when we need to forget all of our deep internal divisions and our failure to address even the most elementary social problems. We have pushed the uneasy knowledge of our own wars and war crimes deep into the recesses of our souls but we still long for absolution. There is nothing like a really nasty enemy to restore a sense of our own high moral character. Of course, the thrill of this spiritual revival is usually experienced from the comforts of home far from the blood, guts, and gore. ~Richard Moser
I’ve seen this movie before and it sucks.
The first time was 1979. I was ten years old, in Omaha, Nebraska, which was an intolerant, ignorant place, and insolent about it, to boot.
It was called, “Hostage Crisis.” In Iran, some students took over the US embassy and held a bunch of Americans captive for 444 days. The bad guy was the Ayatollah Khomeini. Everybody hated him. Everybody hated “Eye-Ran.” It was popular, this hatred. It was a bandwagon you were supposed to jump on.
I didn’t get it. It felt faked. I mean, people were really into it—very enthusiastic with their stupid jokes and name-calling and all that—but the way it was suddenly everywhere, like flipping a switch, seemed artificial. How could everyone despise someone so much who they’d just heard of for the first time?
I was smart enough to keep these doubts to myself, or rather, intimidated enough. I could tell that asking questions could get me into trouble, and maybe beaten up.
Over the years, there were more movies and more villains. The biggest stars were Brezhnev, Gaddafi, Milošević, Hussein, and in Laden. More minor ones included Castro, Arafat, Noriega, and Chávez. These were men whose names you were supposed to spit out, men you were supposed to curse, men you were supposed to want dead.
Yes, some of these men committed truly vile acts, even war crimes, and some accomplished sincerely beneficial things for their people. But their actual records were irrelevant. They were targets to pummel when needed, for the drama, for the movie. It was never really about human rights or law breaking or justice, like the US claimed. If it was, we would’ve also gone after South Africa, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, or hell, the UK, Germany, and France.
For any one of these despicable figures, years might go by with the animosity only set to a low simmer. It was like a preview playing constantly in the background. The pot was never taken off the burner, and when the time was right, the establishment cranked up the flame and it was movie time again, with lurid tales and grotesque caricatures and loud calls for war. The audience always knew what to do: jeer the bad guy and cheer for us.
It’s not that the media doesn’t report any facts. They do, but only in the service of fashioning a narrative. Fashion in the sense of something that’s designed to come and go after making a flashy impression. Fashion in the sense of spectacle.
The first Gulf War in 1991 was a big movie, and so was Yugoslavia in the late ’90s, and the Iraq invasion in 2003. But the huge blockbuster was 9/11 and the War on Terror. In all these cases—and all the little ones in between—I didn’t buy what they were selling because it never felt right to me. I’d also educate myself, and read up on everything, but even before I had all the information, I could spot the misinformation and the disinformation right away. Propaganda has its own unmistakable odor, or tenor, or shade, or however you want to put it.
The current movie is Ukraine and the villain is Putin. Once again, there are facts and there is narrative, and it’s the narrative that’s driving the cultural response, which is emotional. Once again, I feel like I’m on the outside looking in. Once again, I’m disappointed that people who seemed well-balanced up til now are suddenly spouting invective.
Once again, I’m not on board.
It’s not because I’m politically naive. I don’t lack knowledge of history, or of geopolitics, or of what’s going on over there. I’m not going to change my mind because it’s a different cast of characters and a new setting.
Here’s the thing:
When a military recruiter called me in high school, I told him I’d never go kill someone in a war overseas. He was taken aback, and pissed off, and demanded to know: “What if we were invaded and someone was after your family?”
“Well then I might think about picking up a rifle,” I said. And I told him to never call me back again and hung up. Now I can look at that and identify it as non-interventionism but not pacifism per se because the possibility of self-defense is not ruled out. But my stance was not intellectual, or even overtly ethical. It was just what I felt, and what I still feel: I’ve got no right to go over there somewhere and shoot people, and neither does the government. That doesn’t mean that people over there didn’t do bad things. That’s beside the point. The point is not going over there to kill.
“War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again.” ~Edwin Starr [video]
That’s just where I’m at with that. Maybe I was born that way. I don’t know, but I might as well have been because I don’t remember ever choosing to feel that way. It’s built-in and I’m not going to try to rip it out.
So I strongly resent the media propaganda pushing for war, whether that’s sanctions or air strikes or boots on the ground. We know who wins every time: the military industrial complex and the elite. We know who loses: regular people, both here and there.
Just as much, I resent the peer propaganda from regular people, repeating the media talking points as if they were their own words, and pressuring me to join their team. The blue-voting people have a different vocabulary than the red-voting people, but it’s all the same crap, trying to make me hate somebody somewhere and join the call for their head.
But I’m telling y’all now: I’m not signing up, no matter what you say. So if you can’t talk about anything else right now, go away and leave me alone until you’re done. I don’t want to hear it.
It’s 2022, but online it’s really no different than being in Nebraska in 1979, surrounded by intolerant, ignorant people, being insolent about it.
I’ve seen this movie before. And it sucks.
* * *
Edward Bernays. Learn that name. He was truly one of the most influential and evil men of the 20th Century. He’s called the “father of public relations” and indeed, he insisted that the term, “public relations” replace “propaganda” for… public relations reasons. Bernays has blood on his hands for his work with cigarette companies pushing their deadly products, and with the United Fruit Company instigating a coup in Guatemala. He was Freud’s nephew and he applied his uncle’s theories to manipulating people. When WWI was raging, but before the US was involved, Bernays worked for the Wilson administration to convince the isolationist American public—which wanted to stay out of the conflict—to start hating Germans and to support US entry. It worked. Within a year, people were refusing to east sauerkraut. This was the founding of the modern propaganda / public relations machine, and it’s only gotten more sophisticated over time. We live in the Age of Bernays.
You will understand the world we live in much better when you know more about Edward Bernays.
* * *
The most successful piece of US propaganda is the myth that we are all free-thinking individuals making up our own minds unaffected by propaganda.
* * *
They say “the map is not the territory” and I might add that “the media coverage is not the event.”
Maps are limited by their scale, age, level of detail, intended purpose, and who made them. You wouldn’t take a road atlas on a hike. We can learn useful things from maps but to truly know the territory, we have to go there. I think we all know that.
Media coverage can be judged by similar factors: degree of context, date, level of detail, intended audience, and who paid to produce it. We won’t learn about socialism from the capitalist business press. We can learn useful things from media coverage but to truly know what’s going on, we’d have to be there. I think we forget this.
If you’ve ever been to a protest and then checked the local corporate news stories afterwards, you’ll be forgiven for wondering if the reporters were at the same event. Frequently, they misrepresent the message, slander the participants, undercount the crowd, dramatize conflict, and side with the cops. Sometimes they’ll just make shit up. Then, there’s the editing, which can completely change the meaning of a visual.
That’s on the factual side of things, but there’s more: If you’ve ever seen a place or a person who you know very well on TV, you might have noticed how “different” they look on screen; somewhat alien. The camera only shows you what it sees, but it doesn’t see everything, or even most of it. It only records visuals and sound, and both at a lower fidelity than real life. When you’re there, you experience a far wider sensory range, including the emotions generated by the events. The camera leaves most of the scene out and flattens the rest.
There can even be physiological effects from media. Blood pressure can rise, adrenaline can surge. We can lose appetite or sleep.
Media is by nature manipulative. It is literally “in the middle,” between us and the event. It cannot help but to shape what it presents to us; that’s how it functions: as a molder, a limiter, an extruder. It is incapable of doing anything else, just at the map can never be the territory.
Our own thoughts and emotions are shaped by media—especially by its visual and audio forms—and we end up believing we know more than we actually do. Like having a memory of visiting a place when all you really did was look at the map. If someone said it was the same, we’d rightly call them delusional, but that’s kind of what we all do when we repeat what we saw on media as if we “know” it.
Then we have the audacity to argue about it and insult each other, as if our impressions are knowledge. Our impressions aren’t nothing—we can learn from maps—but they’re not worth as much as we think.
This has been going on for over a century at this point. Historians of media can talk about how perception of reality changed with the introduction of movies, then radio, then television. All those things chipped away at our handle on real life in some sense. The internet and now portable devices have taken it to an all new level. Social media provides a delivery mechanism that’s bona fide addictive and very easy to manipulate, in terms of what people see and what they don’t. I find it dystopian, frankly. Orwell talked about “two minutes hate,” but with cable news and the internet, we have “twenty-four hours hate.”
In turbulent times like the current moment, when cool heads are needed, our media is stirring us up, inflaming emotions, and making a bad situation worse. This is certainly due to choices made by the people who control the media, but it’s also because of the nature of media itself.
Most of us would do well for ourselves right now to limit the amount of media we are consuming.
How you do that is up to you. Some people use apps on their phones to set how much time they can be on social media. As the current crisis has been intensifying, I’ve been staying away from scrolling, and I only check in with a small number of trusted news sites and podcasts. Nothing corporate. I just can’t take the jingoism. I’ve been less stressed, I’m happy to report.
The media will always be waiting there for you, if you want to go back. (Unless the bombs fall.) So give yourself a break from the drama and the propaganda, and also from the flattened, superficial version of life that media inevitably gives you because it is functionally incapable of doing more. Take a walk, pet a cat. Anything really, that will cut down on screen time.
* * *
If you’re in the west, your first priority probably shouldn’t be lobbying for more western arms to be sent into an already heavily militarised war zone. It should be disrupting western propaganda narratives. Before you can see, you have to clear away the fog. ~Jonathan Cook (3/4/21)
* * *
I don’t know who needs to hear this, but there’s no “perfect view,” on Ukraine or any other geopolitical issue. No matter what information you find, someone is going to tell you it’s wrong. And since this is the internet, there’s a good chance they’ll be snarky about it. Every writer/reporter/commentator has their strengths and weaknesses no matter what—no matter where they’re from, no matter how much schooling they have, and no matter how confident they act, etc. So: a) don’t expect any one person to tell you the whole story, because they can’t, and b) just because they’re right about one thing doesn’t mean they’re right about everything else (as their fans might believe), and c) just because they’re wrong about one thing doesn’t mean they’re wrong about everything else (as their detractors might insist).
I’m totally not in the mood to criticize anybody who’s anti-war or anti-imperialist during this crisis in Ukraine. It’s enough to be on board with the double demand of “Russian Troops Out” and “No to NATO Expansion.” If somebody’s not “perfect” besides those two things, I don’t care right now. For me, the potentially catastrophic consequences we are facing don’t leave room for purity tests. Things that feel like big fights right now might seem like nitpicking in the shadow of a mushroom cloud.
* * *
“Once you open the Pandora’s box of war, you lose control. War controls you, you don’t control it.” ~Chris Hedges (3/4/22)
* * *
The media covers war like it’s a sporting event, getting people to cheer for one side or another, but—it should go without saying—war is not like a sporting event. First, obviously, because the stakes are not even remotely alike. Death is rare in sport, but common in war. For this reason alone, talking about them the same way is perverse.
Secondly, a sporting event is confined to a discrete area—a field, a court, a rink, etc.—with clearly defined rules and takes place before witnesses—the audience. Everybody there can more or less see what is happening, and if a team misses a goal, a sports announcer can’t credibly claim that they made it. If a sports announcer started making false statements like that, they’d have their mike cut, get yanked from the press box, and most likely be fired.
With war, on the other hand, the area of conflict is wide, often encompassing entire regions or even nations. What few rules exists are routinely ignored. And there’s no crowd, closely watching every move of the participants, because the action is remote, and often purposely obscured. News reporters are rarely personal witnesses, and they rely on second- and third-hand reports from people who are shell-shocked or who have political agendas they’re pushing.
Simply put, a sporting event is very straightforward to report, and a war is quite the opposite. So, reporting a war in the style of reporting a sporting event misleads the viewer into believing they what they’re being told is comparably accurate—which it totally isn’t. Further, just as the outcome of a sporting event really doesn’t matter, the impression is given that war also lacks consequences.
While the cost of sports fandom is not that great—other than the time and money that could be better invested elsewhere—the price of war is incalculably high, in lives lost and disrupted, cultural heritage destroyed, and resources squandered—as in, literally blown up.
Lastly, while sports announcers are also sports fans, with their own favorite teams and athletes, they don’t have much influence on the preferences of fans. News reporters, on the other hand, routinely and measurably sway public opinion, especially in war time. In this role, they are propagandists for the government, which depends on the consent of the governed. Unlike in sports, where fans have little effect on the outcome, with war, an inspired and active citizenry can force the government to change its policy. That’s why the government spends so much energy trying to keep us on its side. It needs us. Someday, maybe, we will take that power, but not while the media has us so tamed.
* * *
“This is a nation on the brink. Of what, I would not dare to say. The best lack all integrity, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity, and the lies get halfway around the world on social media before the truth can tie its shoes. The people are in a fearful crouch, waiting for the 17th damn shoe to drop, they are angry, they are frightened, and nobody thinks clearly toting that volume of emotional baggage.” ~William Rivers Pitt (3/1/22)
* * *
The fear of nuclear war has been reawakened, and for good reason. I’ve heard a few commentators refer to the idea that such an event could kill “all life on earth.” While that’s an exaggeration (at the very least some microfauna would survive even in a worst case), a major exchange could certainly kill all humans, many immediately, and the rest the aftermath from fallout. I grew up in Omaha, which was on the target list because of the Strategic Air Command was based nearby, and we were told we’d be vaporized.
Destruction at this massive scale, much of it instantaneous, is certainly a horrific possibility, but its completeness is somehow perversely reassuring. Like, it would be over quick. But a “limited exchange” would be nightmarish in their own way, and could cause long-term suffering and social breakdown without the “relief” of extinction.
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2020 modeled a scenario in which India and Pakistan fight a regional nuclear war and blow up just 50 bombs. They estimated that the particulates kicked up into the atmosphere by the blasts and the firestorms would cause a limited “nuclear winter” situation bad enough to significantly reduce food harvests and lead to starvation. The crisis would go on for years, and would be worst for those countries that import much of their food.
In a limited exchange between the US and Russia in which most cities were left intact, and some rural areas were hit (like where ICBMs are housed), we could still expect widespread disruption of gas, electricity, water treatment, shipping, etc., such that people wouldn’t be able to drive anywhere, there would be massive blackouts, lack of potable water, and stores would go empty. The economy would crash, and domestic violence would probably erupt. Radiation sickness would overburden an already struggling health system. The casualties from secondary effects could far exceed the number killed in the initial strikes.
So just imagine if, tomorrow, you were suddenly stuck where you are. The last thing you heard before the internet went down was that a few dozen missiles had been launched. It was an hour after sunset and you see a few distant flashes in the sky. The power blacks out.
The next day there’s a run on gas so nobody can leave. The stores are only accepting cash. Within a few days, the stores are empty. Even though its spring, the temperature drops and then drops some more. It’s hard to stay warm and dry and you feel a little nauseous. Is it stress or radiation poisoning? You wish you had researched this more before the internet went down.
The uncertainty is the most maddening part, and people start panicking. The sounds of gunshots become more frequent. Somehow the cops are still able to drive around, and the sirens are almost constant. You don’t feel comfortable going anywhere by yourself anymore.
The consolation prize: the sunsets are crazy colorful from all the particulates.