Watching Shut Up and Sing took me right back to the national dementia of 2003, when the Bush administration worked the country with into war frenzy with lies, innuendos, and delusional images of mushroom clouds ascending from the ruins of American cities. BushCo was so confident, the propaganda was so overwhelming, that even people who knew better had occasional spasms of doubt.
The corporate media were nothing less than reverent as Colin Powell, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, and Donald Rumsfeld did whatever it took to sell the war. And it worked.
New York City restaurants poured expensive French wines into the sewer, while the congressional cafeteria started serving “freedom fries.” UN weapons inspector Hans Blix was a spineless fool who didn’t know what he was talking about. Scott Ritter was accused of being a spy. The UN was a bunch of timid old ladies whose time had passed. Diplomacy itself was reviled as nothing but a euphemism for appeasement.
Even when the war propaganda failed to convince, it intimidated. In my own little village on Long Island, I saw a bumper sticker that said “War Protesters Makes Great Speed Bumps,” and a diner with a sign in the window that said “No War Protesters Welcome.”
Enter the Dixie Chicks. The great pleasure of the movie was seeing these three young women grit their teeth and get through a radio blackout, CD bonfires, the over-the-top invective of the rightwing attack machine, an anti-Chicks song by Toby Keith, and even death threats. Four years down the road, their honesty and courage come across, while the pro-war fanatics look ... foolish. And not in a good way.
It brings to mind Hannah Arendt’s comments on the banality of evil. Viewing the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, Arendt saw not a monster but a horrifying clown. A conformist, a true believer. Someone who would feel guilty for being late to work, but not guilty for the work he did -- supervising the transport of countless Jews to the death camps.
In Arendt’s view, Eichmann -- and the millions of other Germans who acted as human cogs in the Nazi war machine -- were triumphs of propaganda. Propaganda’s purpose is to replace rational thought with slogans and clichés. It works steadily to grind down the individual conscience and replace it with loyalty to a group -- which Eichmann called duty. Only failing to do his duty could make him to feel guilty.
In that he sounds suspiciously like Joel Surnow, co-creator and executive producer of the hit show 24 -- and, as it happens, a good friend of Rush Limbaugh.
According to a recent article by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker, a delegation of experts from West Point, the US Army, and the FBI went to Hollywood recently to complain that the way torture is portrayed on 24 is undermining their ability to train troops and agents in professional interrogation techniques. Trainees simply refuse to believe that torture doesn’t work.
Not only does torture not generate actionable intelligence, but according to FBI interrogation expert Joe Navarro, torture is especially ineffective in the case of the ticking time bomb -- the favorite scenario of torture apologists and the main plot device on 24 -- because the person being tortured knows he only has to hang on for a limited amount of time.
They also made it clear to writers and producers that in real life no one can torture and remain rational and reliable the way Jack Bauer does. Says Navarro, “Only a psychopath can torture and be unaffected. You don’t want people like that in your organization. They are untrustworthy, and tend to have grotesque other problems.”
Both points are pretty obvious, once you think about it -- which shows how seldom we do. A brilliantly crafted, suspenseful program like 24 is damaging precisely because it preempts rational thought, making reason seem somehow unworthy of the values at stake.
That’s certainly the position taken by Surnow, who says, Eichmann-esque, “If someone had one of my children, or my wife, I would hope I’d do it. There is nothing -- nothing -- I wouldn’t do.” Nothing, apparently, except listen to the warnings of people who actually know what they’re talking about.
Kiefer Sutherland, who plays Jack Bauer, does not defend the show’s representation of torture. Instead, he hopes that people are able to distinguish fantasy from reality. Talk about wishful thinking. Clearly, people are not able to make that distinction, particularly in an environment where there is no consensus on what constitutes a fact.
We Americans like to think we’re somehow morally superior, not just to other nations but to something like propaganda, which, to a lot of people, sounds like some kind of lame excuse. We have such complete faith in our grounding in right and wrong that we think we’re immune to evil. We put our faith in fundamentalist religious leaders who tell us that good and evil are unchanging, eternal verities -- unlike mere facts.
But looking back, it’s clear that what divided the country so deeply before and during the early stages of our unprovoked attack on Iraq was a simple question of fact: were George W. Bush and his minions telling the truth or not?
A connection between al Qaeda and Iraq; WMDs; yellow cake from Niger; bringing freedom and democracy to the country and the whole region: it was all a pack of lies.
And if we have such a totally immovable sense of right and wrong, one wonders why we’ve so blandly swallowed the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. If torture isn’t absolutely evil, at all times and in all places, then what is?
Or do we play with words to fool our consciences, and, like Alberto Gonzales, simply define torture out of existence? Gonzales’ updated definition, replacing that of US law and the Geneva Conventions, is that torture is inflicting pain equivalent to major organ failure or death. Sounds more like attempted murder to me.
The fact is most people in most places tend to go along with conventional wisdom and comply with authority. It’s not generally a bad thing. It predisposes us to be law-abiding and makes peace possible. But when the same powerful interests control both government and the media, then we are all vulnerable to propaganda, and under the influence of propaganda, ordinary people are capable of doing very great evil without even feeling guilty.
Patricia Goldsmith is a member of Long Island Media Watch, a grassroots free media and democracy watchdog group. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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