Friday, October 28, 2005

George Clooney’s film Good Night, and Good Luck stars David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow, the legendary radio/TV journalist, who is portrayed as a respected voice of reason and truth faced off with Senator McCarthy’s inquisition in clearing America of red warlocks and witches. The title of Clooney’s picture is the line with which Murrow signed off broadcasts, “good luck” taking on a uniquely visceral aspect as Murrow (Strathairn) is wedged within the structural pressures of “state power and the profit motive,” as New York Times film critic A.O. Scott condenses it. A question raised in my mind is whether that influence, which is much more prevalent and effective now, has relegated the role of news media moreso to the level of government propagators.

The state is represented by two military officials who arrive at CBS headquarters to express their disapproval with the network’s programming, which took a decidedly anti-McCarthy turn — though in a narrow scope. On the question of bias, particularly in a scene in which the higher-ups, especially network chief William Paley (Frank Langella), try to lecture Murrow on objectivity, he dispenses with the issue by saying that an argument does not necessarily have two equal sides to it. That is an example, fairly representative, of the quest for ‘balance’ within the mainstream media today, in which equal time is to be given for both sides, regardless of burden of proof and assuming the validity of all perspectives — an inherently unfair method.

Murrow is shown to exemplify journalism’s proper role in our society, combatting the demagoguery and exploitation of fear so embodied in McCarthy that led to such “unreason” in the name of feeling safe and secure. In an October 15, 1958, speech at the Radio-Television News Directors Association Convention dinner, he speaks of the infantile medium of television as both a tool to “distract, delude, amuse, and insulate” us and to honestly (if not ‘objectively’) inform us about issues that affect our very lives, our responsibility as democratic citizens. How accurate is this picture?

Slate magazine “editor at large” Jack Shafer critiqued the historical truthfulness of the film, specifically the role of CBS under Murrow in taking down McCarthy. “As the Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson wrote in 1996,” says Shafer, “ ‘McCarthy had been hanging himself quite efficiently in the several months before Murrow offered him more rope.’ ” He adds that the CBS “See It Now” telecast, ‘A Report on Joseph R. McCarthy,’ was not at all as pioneering as the film mythologizes. Shafer continues: “Murrow confessed his tardiness in taking on McCarthy, according to an interview [Times reporter Jack] Gould gave to Edwin R. Bayley for his 1981 book, Joe McCarthy and the Press. ‘My God,’ he recalls Murrow saying. ‘I didn't do anything. …’ He added that it was largely the work of journalists in print media, for instance, like the Times, which can be said to have led the charge against McCarthy’s tactics. Watching the scenes of phones ringing off the hook from the Pentagon or the State Department, or when the Cols. Anderson and Jenkins (Glenn Morshower and Don Creech, respectively) have a talk with production associate Fred Friendly (George Clooney), I wondered how it could be. That is, without infringing on press freedom. Shafer reminds us that unlike print journalists, radio and TV “[b]roadcasters … lacked First Amendment parity … [and] existed at the sufferance of the federal government …” He concludes that although one “could argue Murrow only risked his livelihood” while “networks struggl[ed] for a foothold” during “the early years of television”, Paley (Langella) “risked his broadcast empire.” According to Shafer, Murrow let McCarthy speak for himself though did not “attempt to determine … any substance to McCarthy’s charges,” but instead with “manipulative and partisan techniques” bordering on ‘character assassination’. CBS gave generous airtime to allow McCarthy a rebuttal, though Shafer notes that McCarthy’s “wasted” response “ratified Murrow’s portrayal of him as a loon,” which for some reason is an indictment on CBS.

But the film focuses on the climate of suspicion and distrust engendered by ‘the junior Senator’ and the impact in the newsroom from which Americans, through the advent of television, were informed of the state of affairs in the country. The culture proves too much for one journalist, Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), whose past ties with a communist organization and the ‘red-baiting’ to which he is subjected twenty years afterward leads him to suicide. Despite the pressures of McCarthy and CBS chief Paley, who is at very best a reluctant supporter of Murrow, his team and their ethos does not surrender. And in a particularly powerful telecast, Murrow declares, “Dissent is not disloyalty.” Clooney’s film has real resonance, though a few caveats ought to be noted. There is no longer a congressional committee on ‘un-American activities.’ There is no more loyalty oath. Yet the ghost of McCarthyism, the legacy of statist repression in the name of freedom, lingers in some degree still, though a psychopathic propagandist like Ann Coulter, for instance, honestly believed it never happened. This is obvious: no lives were destroyed nor did Americans “walk in fear of one another,” trying to uncover the next pinko rat, because there were no victims.

The consensus now is that communism as a monolith was mythical. Will history record the same about terrorism, the new hat fear-monger? But to qualify, the respective threat is real, though in a narrower, more amorphic sense than what we want to believe. What I mean to say, in light of the very real existential threat that radical Islamist jihadi terror poses, is that the charge of terrorism is being exploited toward ends of domestic repression much like the term communism. At one time or another, I supposed whether terrorism has become the new communism, by which I meant that the word — not the reality behind it — has perhaps became a same sort of instrument with which to split Americans apart from and against each other. The communist threat was the nuclear arsenal of the Soviet Union pointed at us; the terrorist threat is an underground network of armed, lawless criminals. Yet the McCarthyist purge did nothing to fight the real threat, but was rather a campaign of terror against Americans and the principles we cherish. In short, I left the theater with two things in my mind: whether it can happen again, and how civil society throughout the world is going to get through this latest round of nonsense. And if we want to remain free people, good luck indeed.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Trial of Saddam Hussein

At last, the fallen tyrant has been brought to trial to hear the first of many charges against his former regime, the first of which being massacres he ordered in 1983 that killed around 140 people. Atrocities like that, however, are quite minor in comparison to his greatest crimes: the Anfal campaign that slaughtered 5,000 Kurds and his invasion of Kuwait in 1990. When will those charges be heard?

The question that is being repeatedly brought up is whether Hussein will, or even ought to, receive a fair trial. I certainly hope not, unless we are willing to call former friends like Donald Rumsfeld, the first George Bush and Dick Cheney to the stand, as has been noted for what such a trial would logically "entail".

Some good information can be found at Case Western Reserve University's School of Law page covering several of the issues concerning the ongoing trial, billed as the next "Grotian Moment" that will set new norms for international politics as did the trials at Nuremberg. More on this story later as I make sense of it all, time permitting.

For now, I say this: No doubt that Hussein is a monster. So why in God's name did we ever support such a man?

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The vote count for the Iraqi referendum is underway, the New York Times reporting an “insufficient” number of Sunni dissatisfaction to shoot down the draft constitution. (Above: Officials surveying transparent ballot boxes.) The final result is yet to be determined. The Times noted that “scattered attacks on polling sites and troops around the country.” As opposed to the January elections, reports the BBC, the vote inspired “little of the bustle and excitement” among the Kurds.

openDemocracy contributor Zaid Al-Ali expressed skepticism, asking: “After all the Iraqi people have been through … will the constitution bring peace, prosperity and basic services, or a further disintegration of the state coupled with more pain and misery?”

Citing a story in the Washington Post, Al-Ali fears Sunni opposition to the idea of cantoning Iraq into oil-rich Kurd and Shi'a regions and, moreover, Iraqis disenfranchisement from the constitutional convention process within the Green Zone while largely being denied “basic services” without, could all lead to the suffering of all.

“A Baghdad radio commentator recently asked an Iraqi caller whether he intended to vote in the 15 October referendum on the draft constitution for the country,” he writes. “The caller answered: ‘if I do, will I get some electricity?’”

British journalist George Monbiot also weighed in. Referring to the text of the draft constitution (available both here and here), he writes that the Zone “deliberations were back-to-front. First the members of the constitutional committee … argue over every dot and comma, then they present the whole thing (25 pages in English translation) to the people for a yes or no answer.”

“The question and the answer are meaningless,” he adds, because it would be impossible to make a real choice on an entire document without considering the parts of it one agrees with and those that are disagreed with. “What then does yes or no mean?”

More recently, Slate commentator Fred Kaplan, who had suggested that a “no” vote on the constitution would be for the best, now sees “a sliver of a hope” that it may “mark a small step toward a stable, somewhat democratic government after all.” Here's the consensus: Though there may be a significant chance that the referendum may eventually lead toward disintegration and civil war, at least it will have the proper vestiges of a democratic state.

Alright, then. But is it fair to ask whether any of this will mean anything for literally powerless Iraqis to assert control over their country if a constitutional regime will only result in sectarian chaos with 140,000 Americans in the crossfire?

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

I write for the Wooster Voice, sometimes news and, as of late, opinion. The following is what I'd to see published this Friday, but the final product may not at all resemble the piece I had originally written, so here it is in full, grammatical errata and all typos untouched.

Last Friday, October 7, commemorated four years of the wonderful War on Terror, which was recently renamed the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism (GSAVE) so as to make it officially unwinnable. And we're making it clear that we have no idea what we're doing.

Did you hear that we have a ‘public diplomat’ for the Arab Street? It's Karen Hughes, formerly in charge of ‘communications’ at the Bush White House, which means being in charge of campaign PR. A proper candidate, then, for propagating half-truths and innuendo to our target audience, which can only be defined by what it isn't: potential jihadis to whom it might be useful for us to dissuade from violence. If there's no negotiating with terrorists, what about those who may be soon suckered into it?

But there's nothing like dispatching a respected loyalist (read: crony) skilled in the art of fine dissembling to send out a marketing brand hoped to improve our image. The New York Times framed the picture askewly but in a way that is mostly accurate. (Steven R. Weisman, "On Mideast 'Listening Tour,' the Question Is Who's Hearing," 30 September 2005, A3) We read of Hughes, a “relentlessly upbeat” lackey, working “to mold public opinion abroad” by, for example, “hugging a child” in the Turkish capital of Istanbul.[*]

Here's the snag, big enough to derail all of the noble intentions we have for the Middle East: we're not even trying. Weisman's story cites “retired diplomat” Edward Djerejian, who “said recently that 80 percent of the hostility derived from American policies” in the Mideast. It takes a fucking genius. So we're going to hit up the other 20 percent with “a sophisticated media strategy that Ms. Hughes should be able to provide.” As long as we're taking care of one out of five needles from the haystack, I sure feel safe. Don't you?

Hughes did “address several policies,” but “in concise sound bites”. Later, allegedly listening to “a Turkish official” from whom we can hear “the perspective of ‘the common Turk.” That's as true as hearing the words of, say, a Pentagon bureaucrat and concluding it to be the voice of “the common American,” who by any account of public opinion polls, for example, is solidly opposed to such high military spending.

Hughes has also proved to be painfully ignorant for the job she's been assigned, a shame considering the ancient dictum to ‘know thy enemy’ — or know who may become thy enemy, if you keep at it with your famed confidence. While in Egypt, Hughes was landed with heavy criticism from journalists there “for not meeting with enough genuine opposition figures.” En route, a reporter asked Hughes if she was planning on meeting with the largest opposition group in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Cairo regime has banned. According to a Los Angeles Times editorial ("Policy before PR," 3 October 2005, B10), the question elicited puzzlement and she “replied simply, ‘We are respectful of Egypt's laws.’”

“Put the shoe on the other foot,” writes Slate magazine contributor Fred Kaplan. “Let’s say some Muslim leader wanted to improve Americans’ image of Islam. It’s doubtful that he would send as his emissary a woman in a black chador who had spent no time in the United States, possessed no knowledge of our history or movies or pop music, and spoke no English beyond a heavily accented ‘Good morning.’”

This is laziness because in no way do we intend to actually change policies that have done so much damage to the American people and the future of the United States in the world. But we're now willing to listen. Care for a brochure?

*In retrospect, that’s not the capital. I believe it’s Ankara.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Cold Nature

At a bare minimum, 18,000 people were killed near the Kashmir during a 7.6 earthquake and the series of aftershocks that followed over the weekend. About 40,000 more are wounded.

I remember the 50,000 who perished from the Iranian quake a couple of years ago, and I think about the lethal impersonality of nature and what we may see as its "wrathful" tendencies. It's only comforting to put a face on it, no matter how ugly.

But what is more disturbing is that it simply just is, in this instance the random slipping and breaking along slabs of rock beneath us. Moreover, that there is nothing we can do but help the people affected and wait for the next one to roll down.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Shanah tovah - Happy new year, 5766