Reagan: Visions of the
Damned (Part One)
Media Modes - 1 and 2
Mainstream media performance alternates between two distinct modes of reporting: the first, “fig leaf,” mode presents a view of the world that is overwhelmingly biased in favour of the powerful interests that control, own and support the media, and of which it is a part. Within this bias, room is made for powerful nods and gestures in the direction of honesty and balance.
The second, “full propaganda,” mode involves straight forward, no holds barred bias. This is seen in time of war, on royal occasions, on the anniversary of great military victories, and at times when leaders pass away.
On these occasions, balance and impartiality are deemed unnecessary, disrespectful, unpatriotic, irresponsible, even treacherous. Because this mode 2 propaganda is regularly disseminated without criticism it creates a benchmark against which all other media performance is judged. Thus, by comparison, mode 1 reporting involving instances of genuine dissent seems impressively open and honest, convincing many people that we live in a free and open society. Mode 2 reporting, then, sets an essentially totalitarian standard against which public and journalists alike judge media performance.
The most powerful weapons in support of mode 2 performance are patriotism and shame. Questioning the morality and legality of ongoing wars, mentioning the crimes of dead presidents, questioning the absurdity of royal events, is attacked as a wretched betrayal of all that is “noble and good” about “our country,” or our allies’ countries. This, arguably, is why patriotism is so important it is a foundation stone of thought control.
Thus, last year, it rapidly became understood in the media that it was wrong to continue challenging the Iraq war once the shooting had started. The invasion had become no less immoral, illegal or murderous when it was actually being fought, but we owed it to “our boys” - risking life and limb in service to our country - to “back them.” All challenges to this argument were dismissed out of hand the idea that we could best protect “our boys” by bringing them home, for example, was considered mere sophistry.
This month, we have seen essentially the same mode 2 bias in the astonishing and relentless campaign of patriotic propaganda, lasting weeks, over the 60th D-Day anniversary.
Endless revisiting of the second world war is important, not least because it fixes firmly in the public mind the notion of the “just war”; of good, brave ‘people like us’ fighting it; and of good, brave Western leaders running it. This is an indispensable propaganda resource that can be accessed any time our leaders decide to target a defenseless Third World country for destruction. It is the reason why official enemies like Ho Chi Minh, Castro, Ortega, Qadaffi, Saddam Hussein, Milosevic and bin Laden are reflexively compared to Hitler and the Nazis. A steady diet of nostalgic patriotism means we are primed to see our leaders as “just war” warriors - if we can be persuaded to believe a new Hitler has emerged, we can then work out for ourselves that we must once again “fight the good fight.”
The intensity of the patriotic focus surrounding D-Day, and also the death of Ronald Reagan, suggests a state-corporate system desperately trying to reassert its credibility after a catastrophic failure of propaganda over Iraq. Apart from tiny glimmers of mode 1 functioning, the media has been in full tilt propaganda mode 2 over Reagan.
Loved Even By His Opponents
On BBC’s flagship Newsnight programme, Gavin Esler opined on Reagan:
“Many people believe that he restored faith in American military action after Vietnam through his willingness to use force, if necessary, in defence of American interests.” (Newsnight, June 9, 2004)
Reagan was, Esler insisted, “a man who was loved even by his political opponents in this country [America] and abroad”. At times Esler portrayed Reagan almost as an enlightened being, quoting Nancy Reagan to the effect that her husband “had absolutely no ego”.
Writing in the Daily Mail, Esler went further, presenting the egoless Reagan as a self-help guru: “above all, Ronald Wilson Reagan embodied the best of the American spirit - the optimistic belief that problems can and will be solved, that tomorrow will be better than today, and that our children will be wealthier and happier than we are.” (Esler, ‘The Great Communicator’, Daily Mail, June 7, 2004)
Last December, the Guardian reported that senior BBC journalists and presenters had been banned from commenting on "current affairs and contentious issues" in newspaper and magazine columns. Journalists would be able to pen “non-contentious articles and food, film and music reviews”, Jason Deans noted. (Deans, “BBC confirms ban on columnists,” The Guardian, December 16, 2003)
Reporters surmised that Andrew Marr would be allowed to keep his Daily Telegraph diary column so long as he stuck to “cultural matters”. (Matt Wells, “Arts reporter Rosie Millard quits BBC for Fleet Street,” The Guardian, December 18, 2003)
The real meaning of the BBC ban becomes clear enough when we consider Esler’s comments propaganda promoting a delusive, patriotic view of the world is deemed “non-contentious”. Eyebrows might have been raised if Esler had included some of what will appear below in his Daily Mail article.
Esler did manage to mention the Iran-Contra affair: “The scandal blighted the last two years of an otherwise extraordinarily successful presidency...”, he noted in the Mail.
Younger readers would have had no idea what he was writing about, and almost no one understands the full significance for the people who paid the price for Iran-Contra in Nicaragua. But then it is not important to make sense in the media; it is important only to be able to bandy the jargon of media discourse in a way that suggests in-depth knowledge: Iran-Contra, IMF, G8, the “roadmap to peace,” Security Council resolutions, and so on. Media analyst Robert McChesney comments:
“We are bombarded with information, although if you look closely, most of it has a similar grammar, a similar focus and similar sources, all revolving around institutions and topics that most viewers admit in survey after survey they don’t really understand.” (Robert McChesney, foreword to Danny Schechter, The More You Watch, The Less You Know, Seven Stories, 1997, p.43)
Iran-Contra whatever it might mean has been given passing mention throughout the media. Thus, “One of the low-points of the presidency was the Iran-Contra scandal,” Peter Hitchens writes in the Sunday Express. Hitchens explains that this involved a “disastrous attempt to trade arms for hostages with Iran, linked with arms supplies to the right-wing Contra rebels in Nicaragua”, which explains precisely nothing. (Hitchens, “The Man Who Knocked Down The Berlin Wall,” Sunday Express, June 6, 2004)
Other commentators provide glimpses of a larger picture:
“His [Reagan’s] hatred of Communism meant he bent over backwards to support anti-communist insurgencies in Central America, Asia and Africa.” (Chris Mclaughlin Political Editor, ‘Ronald Reagan 1911-2004: Reagone; Star of Bedtime For Bonzo, leader of the free world, Alzheimer’s’’, Sunday Mirror, June 6, 2004)
At least a hint of some larger involvement in Central America is provided but once again it is impossible to understand what this meant for people in the region. The Sunday Times provides more clues:
“In Central America he [Reagan] proved incapable of curbing Nicaragua's left-wing Sandinista regime, although he had more success in the fight against leftist guerrillas in El Salvador... His get-tough policy on terrorism and the ‘enemies of America’ proved little more than rhetoric.” (Tony Allen-Mills, Sunday Times, June 6, 2004)
Doubtless, then, the support for “anti-communist insurgencies in Central America” didn’t come to much presumably nothing very nasty happened to the “enemies of America.”
In the Guardian, David Aaronovitch promised much with his title, “The terrible legacy of the Reagan years,” before burying the truth in standard apologetics:
“What isn't so easy to forgive is the Reagan Doctrine, sometimes known as Third World Rollback. Rollback was the American end of the proxy war fought between the two superpowers for power and influence in the developing world. The basis was childishly simple: my enemy's enemy is my friend... In Central America the doctrine required supporting the “contra” rebels in Nicaragua, and backing for the Guatemalan government which - during the Reagan era - may have killed more than 100,000 Mayan Indians. Reagan described the contras as being like America's “founding fathers” and Guatemala's hard man, Rios Montt, as “a man of great personal integrity.” (Aaronovitch, ‘The terrible legacy of the Reagan years’, The Guardian, June 8, 2004)
Finally, a Guardian editorial:
“What is beyond doubt is that Mr Reagan made America feel good about itself again. He was, to quote Mr Wills again, ‘the first truly cheerful conservative’. He gave American conservatism a humanity and hope that it never had in the Goldwater or Nixon eras, but which endures today because of him, to the frustration of many more ideological conservatives. Unlike them, Mr Reagan was a congenital optimist, ‘hardwired for courtesy’, as his former speechwriter Peggy Noonan puts it.” (Leader, “A rose-tinted president,” The Guardian, 7 June, 2004)
Establishment propaganda from the country’s “leading liberal newspaper.”
Let us now consider what this “first truly cheerful conservative” actually did to Central America.
Dying Badly - It Is Not Enough To Kill
Forget the smiles, the great communicating, the talk of fighting Communism - the basic policy goals of US power in Central America are clearly spelled out in government documents. In 1954, the National Security Council produced a Top Secret Memorandum titled “US Policy Toward Latin America” (NSC 5432).
The document describes how the biggest regional threat to US interests was “the trend in Latin America toward nationalistic regimes” that responded to "popular demand for immediate improvement in the low living standards of the masses" and for production geared to domestic needs. This trend was in direct collision with US policy, the report noted, which was committed to “encouraging a climate conducive to private investment,” and had to “encourage” the Latin American countries “to base their economies on a system of private enterprise, and, as essential thereto, to create a political and economic climate conducive to private investment of both domestic and foreign capital,” including guarantees for the “opportunity to earn and in the case of foreign capital to repatriate a reasonable return.”
US internal documents have since restated these principles many times. The documents make clear that it was necessary for the US to control the Latin American military, which were explicitly assigned responsibility for overthrowing civilian governments that obstructed US interests. It was also necessary to block “subversion” and to prevent any challenge to US domination.
In other words, US policy in Central America had nothing to do with anti-Communism; it had to do with controlling Third World natural and human resources for the benefit of Western corporations at the expense of local peoples.
Reagan’s eight years in office (1981-89) resulted in a vast bloodbath as Washington funneled money, weapons and other supplies to client dictators and right wing death squads across Central America. The death toll was staggering: more than 70,000 political killings in El Salvador, more than 100,000 in Guatemala, and 30,000 killed in the US Contra war waged against Nicaragua. Journalist Allan Nairn describes it as “One of the most intensive campaigns of mass murder in recent history.” (Democracy Now, June 8, 2004)
Analyst Chalmers Johnson notes that “the Reagan years [were] the worst decade for Central America since the Spanish conquest.” (Quoted, Milan Rai, War Plan Iraq, Verso, 2002, p.29)
Consider the fate of El Salvador.
In the eighteen-month period leading up elections in El Salvador in March 1982, twenty-six journalists were murdered. In December 1981 the Salvadoran Communal Union reported that eighty-three of its members had been murdered by government security forces and death squads. The entire six-person top leadership of the main opposition party, the FDR, was seized by US-backed government security forces in 1980, tortured, murdered and mutilated. More generally, any left-wing political leader or organizer who gained any kind of prominence in El Salvador in the years 1980-83 was liable to be murdered. Between October 1979 and March 1982, killings of ordinary citizens occurred at the average rate of over 800 per month, on conservative estimates.
To put this level of violence in perspective, Edward Herman and Frank Brodhead converted the figures to a country with the population size of the United States. Doing so, they report, “allows us to imagine an election in the United States preceded by the murder of a thousand-odd officials of the Democratic Party; 5,000 labour leaders; 1,200 journalists; and a million ordinary citizens. Internal and external refugee numbers in El Salvador would correspond to a US equivalent of over 30 million refugees.” (Herman and Brodhead, Demonstration Elections, South End Press, 1984, p.124)
Between 1980 and 1983, Amnesty International “received regular, often daily, reports identifying El Salvador’s regular security and military units as responsible for the torture, ‘disappearance’ and killing of noncombatant civilians from all sectors of society.” Moreover, “the vast majority of the victims” were “characterised by their association or alleged association with peasant, labour or religious organisations, with human rights monitoring groups, with the trade union movement, with refugee or relief organisations, or with political parties.” (Quoted, Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, p.161)
This was at a time when the US was directing vast amounts of military aid into the country.
The terror continued throughout the decade. In November 1989, six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter, were murdered by the army. That same week, at least 28 other Salvadoran civilians were murdered, including the head of a major union, the leader of the organization of university women, nine members of an Indian farming cooperative and ten university students.
The Jesuits were murdered by the Atlacatl Battalion, created, trained and equipped by the United States. It was formed in March 1981, when fifteen specialists in counterinsurgency were sent to El Salvador from the US Army School of Special Forces. The Battalion was consistently engaged in mass killing. A US trainer described its soldiers as “particularly ferocious... We've always had a hard time getting them to take prisoners instead of ears.” (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants, Odonian Press, 1993)
In December 1981, the Battalion killed a thousand civilians in a massacre that involved murder, rape and burning. Later, it was involved in the bombing of villages and the murder of hundreds of civilians by shooting, drowning and other horrors. The majority of its victims were women, children and the elderly.
The results of Salvadoran military training were graphically described in the Jesuit journal, America, by Daniel Santiago, a Catholic priest working in El Salvador. Santiago told of a peasant woman who came home one day to find her three children, her mother and her sister sitting around a table, each with its own decapitated head placed carefully on the table in front of the body, the hands arranged on top “as if each body was stroking its own head.”
The killers, from the Salvadoran National Guard, had struggled to keep the head of an 18-month-old baby in place, so its hands were nailed onto it. A large plastic bowl filled with blood stood in the centre of the table. Noam Chomsky comments:
“According to Rev. Santiago, macabre scenes of this kind aren't uncommon. People are not just killed by death squads in El Salvador-they are decapitated and then their heads are placed on pikes and used to dot the landscape. Men are not just disembowelled by the Salvadoran Treasury Police; their severed genitalia are stuffed into their mouths. Salvadoran women are not just raped by the National Guard; their wombs are cut from their bodies and used to cover their faces. It is not enough to kill children; they are dragged over barbed wire until the flesh falls from their bones, while parents are forced to watch.” (Ibid)
Raising a classic “red scare,” Secretary of State Alexander Haig asserted in 1982 that he had “overwhelming and irrefutable” evidence that the guerrillas were controlled from outside El Salvador. (Quoted, William Blum, Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, Common Courage Press, 1995, p.363)
However, a New York Times reporter asked former Salvadoran leader, Jose Napoleon Duarte why there were guerrillas in the hills. The reason, Duarte said, was:
“Fifty years of lies, fifty years of injustice, fifty years of frustration. This is a history of people starving to death, living in misery. For fifty years the same people had all the power, all the money, all the jobs, all the education, all the opportunities.” (Ibid., p.353)
As elsewhere in the Third World, desperate poverty and crude exploitation, not Soviet designs, were at the heart of the conflict, a view confirmed even by the US Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White:
“The revolution situation came about in El Salvador because you had what was one of the most selfish oligarchies the world has ever seen, combined with a corrupt security force... (Ibid, pp.364-5)
This was an example of the “Communism” that US-backed insurgents were fighting, according to the Sunday Mirror. As Piero Gleijeses wrote:
“Just as the Indian was branded a savage beast to justify his exploitation, so those who sought social reform were branded communists to justify their persecution.” (Gleijeses, Politics and Culture in Guatemala, Michigan, 1988, p.392)
Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. Visit the Media Lens website (www.medialens.org) and consider supporting their invaluable work (www.medialens.org/donate.html).
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