Patriotism, Progress And A Beautiful Thing
by David Edwards and Media Lens
November 6, 2003
Perseus: “What's the world like?”
Danae: “Not like this.”
Perseus: “What's this, then?”
Danae: “A prison.”
Perseus: “I thought it was the world.”
(The Greek Myths, BBC2, April 23, 2003)
A medieval woodcut shows a traveller who has somehow worked his way to the very edge of the known world with its familiar houses, churches, trees, sun and moon. The traveller is shown poking his head and right arm through a boundary of stars enclosing this everyday world and reaching out to a universe of wonders beyond. The sphere of reality we know the ‘normal’ world is depicted, not as a reassuring haven, but as a barrier to be transcended.
On October 31, BBC and ITV news both presented reports detailing an award ceremony “honouring Britain’s war heroes”. There were interviews with the mother of a teenage soldier who had courageously saved the life of a comrade during a ‘friendly fire’ incident. The soldier gave his account of what happened over dramatic video footage from the war.
The only gesture towards dissent involved passing mention of the fact that an officer awarded an OBE by the Queen had been cleared of war crimes by the Ministry of Defence. Colonel Tim Collins of the Royal Irish Regiment had been accused of mistreating Iraqi civilians and prisoners of war by a US soldier and by Iraqis the case was dismissed.
The news reports were presented in the same way as all coverage of royal events as a time of national pride and solidarity when Britain unites to celebrate something good about the country. Yes, there are issues of balance in all reporting but sometimes it’s only proper that we should make it clear that we’re “Backing Britain”. What was so interesting to us is that it was clear that balance was not only deemed unimportant in these reports, it was unthinkable - from the media’s point of view, patriotism simply is the balanced view. Tolstoy noted the significance as long ago as 1900:
“Patriotism today is the cruel tradition of an outlived period, which exists not merely by its inertia, but because the governments and ruling classes, aware that not their power only, but their very existence, depends upon it, persistently excite and maintain it among the people, both by cunning and violence.” (Tolstoy, Writings On Civil Disobedience and Non-Violence, New Society, 1987, p.100)
Thus there were no mentions of the fact that many people in this country find nothing honourable in a war of aggression against a defenceless Third World minnow. Balance would necessarily have involved coverage of the kind of view expressed so well by Mark Twain:
“I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched and dishonoured from pirate-raids in Kiao-Chou, Manchuria, South Africa and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her the soap and a towel, but hide the looking-glass.” (Mark Twain, quoted, Norman Solomon, ‘The Twain That Most Americans Never Meet’, ZNet Commentary, November 19, 1999)
The point is this - can we honestly imagine the BBC or ITN ever allowing this kind of sentiment to be expressed as part of that kind of news report?
Subjected to the continuous effects of this flat ban on balance, it naturally becomes difficult for viewers to poke their heads through the stifling sphere of everyday ‘reality’ to see the war for what it was. Unchallenged celebrations of honoured heroes, national courage and pride have the effect of obscuring what was actually a major war crime, a massive act of state violence involving a quarter of a million men against an essentially defenceless Third World country.
As viewers and readers we forever receive the subliminal impression that truths of this kind are ‘outrageous’, ‘offensive’, ‘irresponsible’, and so we learn that certain thoughts +are+ ‘outrageous’, and so we learn to reject them no matter how important and reasonable they might be. This is thought control in action.
On October 24 both BBC and ITN devoted large amounts of airtime to the ‘retirement’ of the British Airways fleet of supersonic Concorde airliners. Reporters described how they had shed tears as the planes landed at Heathrow airport for the last time. This occasion, also, was the cause of much patriotic fervour with pilots waving Union flags from their cockpits.
The consensus view across the board in all news reports was that the loss of Concorde was a staggeringly ironic step backwards in this age of “progress” when everything is moving ever faster, not slower. The sentiment was summed up by a letter published in the Daily Telegraph:
“The end of Concorde is a giant step backwards for mankind. Not since the fall of the Roman Empire has such a symbol of technological progress been cast aside.” (Letters, October 24, 2003)
As reporters and members of the public wept, it would surely have been mean-spirited for our media to have provided balance to this version of progress. The idea that travelling ever faster, consuming resources ever more voraciously, might have nothing to do with genuine “progress” on a finite planet is, again, unthinkable to a corporate media steeped in a culture of endlessly rising consumption and profits. Would it be “progress” for individuals to make their hearts beat ever faster?
It is remarkable that, even now, this version of “progress” is able to go completely unchallenged as if the environment movement had never existed. Balance would involve airing the views, for example, of environmentalist Theodore Roszak:
"Work that is built upon false needs or unbecoming appetites is wrong and wasteful. Work that deceives or manipulates, that exploits or degrades is wrong and wasteful. Work that wounds the environment or makes the world ugly is wrong and wasteful." (Theodore Roszak - People/Planet)
In April 1999, a joint session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) approved a report titled: ‘Summary for Policy Makers - Aviation and the Global Atmosphere’. The report made clear that the then proposed development of a fleet of second generation supersonic, high-speed civil transport aircraft to replace Concorde, would have severe consequences on the climate. The IPCC estimated that the global warming effect of such aircraft would be about a factor of five larger than the subsonic aircraft they would replace. These aircraft would also reduce stratospheric ozone and increase levels of ultraviolet radiation reaching the earth’s surface.
The November 1 cover of the Weekend magazine of Britain’s leading liberal newspaper, the Guardian, shows a photo of Tony Blair considered by many at home and abroad to be a war criminal - exposing the left breast of his wife, Cherie, while frolicking in a swimming pool. Except of course it isn’t Blair as the Guardian explains:
“No, this isn’t Tony and Cherie mucking about in a pool Celebrity and fantasy in Alison Jackson’s new lookalike photographs.”
As we enter the magazine, we travel on a surreal journey past full-page, full-colour adverts for Tiffany diamond rings and Vacheron Constantin watches (“Royal Eagle Chronograph in pink gold”), before arriving at Julie Burchill’s by now familiar mocking of the anti-war movement:
“You positively wriggle with delight when King Hipocrite Sean Penn gives yet another interview talking up his greatest role yet - that of anti-Bush, anti-Iraq-war peacenik. In October last year, Penn spent $56,000 publishing an open letter to President Bush in the Washington Post, putting the case against the war, before flying to Iraq and meeting the foreign minister of the genocidal, parasitical, murdering junta then ruling this unfortunate country.” (Burchill, ‘Mind the gap’, November 1, 2003)
Penn is declared a hypocrite for courageously opposing the US assault on Iraq -- so risking endless invective of this kind and even physical attack -- because, Burchill writes, “In the 1980s, this glorious heir to Gandhi spent a month in jail after a glorious attack on a harmless extra.”
Moving on, we pass a full-page advert for DFS sofas to read Alexander Chancellor’s column. Chancellor writes that “puppy-training is a highly contentious issue. There is a wide gulf between those who favour stern discipline and those who think that extreme sensitivity is the key”. (‘Man bites dog’, November 1, 2003)
On we go past more full-page adverts for Sony cameras, Chanel perfumes, Mercedes-Benz cars, Hugo Boss eau de cologne, Omega watches... and we come to the lookalike pictures of the Blairs by the pool. Past another full-page advert for Samsung mobile phones, we see a cigar-toting lookalike Saddam Hussein reading a British government dossier on weapons of mass destruction.
A full-page advert for BT Mobile separates the counterfeit Saddam from a faked photograph of the Duke of Edinburgh admiring a series of pictures of a woman masturbating. The next page has a picture of a naked Elton John lookalike receiving ‘colonic irrigation’ opposite a full-page advert for Intel PCs. Full-page adverts for Siemens washing machines, Gore-Tex shoes, Tesco, De Vere Hotels, Suzuki cars, Cornwall Breaks, Kenya Safaris, Olympus cameras, Averys wine merchants, all follow.
And then we reach a four-page spread: ‘Fashion spirit’. Here the country’s leading liberal newspaper advises: “Metropolitan chic isn’t all combat trousers and trainers. True urban warriors add a touch of class to their street wear.” And “class” it is the “double-breasted coat” retails at £1,235, the “rollneck sash dress” at £615, and the “A-line miniskirt” at £398. An address and phone number in Paris where these items can be acquired by “true urban warriors” are provided. Below, we learn that “silver trousers” are available at £1,080 from Selfridge’s.
We move on past full-page adverts for Epson computers, more ‘Fashion spirit’ ads, Multibionta vitamins, The Images of Borneo, Kitchen Magic, Sofa Workshop, three pages of Hotpoint adverts, Epson printers. Then we hit another section, ‘Home Space’, and essentially an endless series of adverts...
High in the Swiss Alps, Hans Castorp is lost and alone in a lethal snowstorm. Delirious from the cold, Castorp - the hero of Thomas Mann’s novel, The Magic Mountain suddenly finds himself engulfed by a hallucination of startling intensity and clarity. All around him he sees deep blue southern seas, a bay enclosed by mountains, and white houses scattered among palm trees and cypress groves. The sublime beauty of it all, Mann tells us, is “too much, too blest for sinful mortals”. (Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, p.490, Penguin, 1988)
The people populating this world are equally beautiful:
“How joyous and winning they are, how fresh and healthy, happy and clever they look!”
Their souls, too, appear completely unblemished to the enchanted Castorp:
“They seem to be wise and gentle through and through.”
But this is the dream world of illusion, of patriotism, of the adverts the world as it is +supposed+ to be. Ken Adelman of the US Defence Policy Board said recently of the invasion of Iraq:
“It bothers me that people in Britain don't see it as people in America see it. We did a beautiful thing." (Quoted, ‘How Blair Lost by Winning’, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, The New York Times, October 8, 2003)
Suddenly Castorp catches the eye of someone different, a sombre looking boy who looks directly at Castorp and then, pointedly, past him. Following the boy’s gaze, Castorp spies a large, forbidding temple. Responding to an inner compulsion, Castorp walks over to the temple and enters.
And here, far from the appearance of order, beauty and benevolence outside, is the awful truth on which this dream world is somehow based. Thomas Mann explains:
“Two grey old women, witchlike... were busy there, between flaming braziers, most horribly. They were dismembering a child. In dreadful silence they tore it apart with their bare hands - Hans Castorp saw the bright hair blood-smeared - and cracked the tender bones between their jaws, their dreadful lips dripped blood. An icy coldness held him. He would have covered his eyes and fled, but could not.”
With these symbols Mann had brilliantly depicted the catastrophic gulf between the benevolent appearance and violent reality of modern Western society our society. And Castorp was tempted to cover his eyes and run from this truth, as so many of us do. Erich Fromm wrote:
"To be naive and easily deceived is impermissible, today more than ever, when the prevailing untruths may lead to a catastrophe because they blind people to real dangers and real possibilities." (Fromm, The Art Of Being, Continuum, 1992, p.19)
David Edwards is the editor of Media Lens, and the author of Burning All Illusions: A Guide to Personal and Political Freedom (South End Press, 1996). Email: email@example.com. Visit the Media Lens website: http://www.MediaLens.org
Other Recent Articles by David Edwards and Media Lens