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Deep in the Troubled Heart of Texas

John Jirik How the military and the media join forces to promote war in American public life

Here in the United States, the liberal-Left and progressive opposition to war suffered a serious setback with the Republican sweep of the 5 November elections. The voter turnout of 78.5 million, or 39 per cent of the enfranchised population, should not be mistaken for apathy. But it was the Right that mobilised. Across the board, campaign expenditure reached US$617 million, with candidates paying almost $8 per vote. As the wealthy move increasingly to secure their interests by colonising every available political space — Mayor Michael Bloomberg paid $96 per vote to buy New York the previous November — the millionaires’ club in Congress continues to expand. If left-liberals felt let down by a party unable to articulate any coherent opposition to Republican domestic policy without appearing to be unpatriotic on foreign policy, the Centre and Right had no such problem. Meanwhile, within the Democratic Party, the traditional concerns of the Left — lack of job security and a failing social welfare system as poverty edges up to almost 12 per cent nationwide and the middle classes continue to shrink — were ignored. The Democrats opted for a confused appeal to the middle ground that fell on deaf ears. George W. Bush’s rhetoric, however garbled, appealed in its promise of simple and direct solutions. As a result, the strong-man image Bush has projected since 9/11 won the day, with a swing in the middle towards a more conservative and frightened America, circling the wagons against imagined enemies on every front.

A national lampoon before 9/11, Bush is perceived to have handled himself well since then. Although the elections did not involve the presidency, the president campaigned hard for the Republicans and remained the centre of voter attention, reflecting the increased security concerns of Americans at home, and increasing US isolationism abroad. Conservatives are now firmly in control of Capitol Hill. Hawks are entrenched in the White House and poised to tilt further the right-wing list of the Supreme Court. As a result, the will to war on the extreme Right is becoming desperate as the initial thirst for vengeance following 9/11 slowly dissipates in the absence of further spectacular attacks.

The 9/11 effect

Though ill-served by a mainstream media system that in times of crisis serves as the mouthpiece of the party in government, the American public is less supportive of a pre-emptive strike against Baghdad than they were of a mission to destroy Osama bin Laden’s bases. Despite a media campaign to whitewash the attack on Afghanistan, the suffering of the Afghani people did not go altogether unnoticed. Reflecting the eye-for-an-eye mentality that dominates public discourse, the desire for retribution as justice was sufficiently sated by the slaughter in Afghanistan to undermine uncritical support for further attacks.

This is not to suggest that the military industrial entertainment complex will not prosecute an attack and attempt to manufacture public support for it ex-post facto. But Bush has yet to build enough of a consensus to pursue this strategy, given the lack of a simple and direct connection between al Qaeda and Baghdad, similar to the connection, tenuous at best, linking the Taliban to al Qaeda, which justified a blanket assault on Afghanistan.

The Media effect

The mainstream media, somewhat right of centre on the networks, extremely right of centre on cable, amplify the administration’s call for war. In the wake of 9/11, news media openly touted their unstinting support for whatever measures the administration took in retaliation. Days of 24/7 coverage left the populace emotionally spent and angry. However, like any strong direct media effect, the 9/11 effect was short-lived. The mood for violence was slower in developing. That firmed on 20 September, when Bush addressed Congress and laid out a plan for attacking America’s enemies in terms of an imagined foreign hatred for the United States, its people and values. The media’s uncritical response to Bush’s diatribe marked a new low in compliance and docility. Today, given the overall consensus in favour of a War Against Terrorism, the media are less concerned with channelling hysteria for an attack on Afghanistan than with supplying a rationale for an assault on Iraq. They use a discourse that conflates Saddam Hussein’s domestic terrorism against his own people with Osama bin Laden’s personal crusade against his former benefactors from a time when US-backed Mujahideen were fighting the Soviet-backed Najibullah regime in Kabul.

The mediatised image missing is the connection, often overlooked here, between the military, industrial and entertainment complexes. Rambo III, which starred Sylvester Stallone as a US operative aiding the Mujahideen against the Soviet oppressors, was a hit when it played in Pakistan. Young men flocked to the movie houses to see Sly do his thing. Twenty years later, the amateur videos that al Qaeda make of themselves in training draw more on their enthusiasm for the testosterone-driven machismo and histrionics of American popular culture than any deep-seated commitment to Islamic fundamentalism.

If the Taliban rejected globalisation by shutting down Afghanistan’s media infrastructure and denying the people even basic access to the information economy, al Qaeda embraces globalisation and the information age in a particularly perverse form of opposition to the reshaping of global culture according to the dynamics of the core by adopting the core’s instruments while rejecting its values. Utilising the Internet, videos, and public relations in the form of the free ride al-Jazeera gives Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda mobilises a low-tech mirror of the high-tech American war and entertainment machine.

The idea that war is fun is central to its current appeal in the United States. Baudrillard’s mediatised reality finds its homology in the advertisements for an Army of One enticing young people to join the US military in the ad-breaks during the weekend’s college football. The Air Force invites X-gamers to swap their skateboards for an F-22 Raptor. And Marines tout their appeal as a band of ‘legendary warriors’. Over a decade now of video-game imagery of ‘smart bombs’ blowing up the bad guys in whichever country is under attack have made the realities of war unimaginable to young Americans.

Vietnam was before their time, and the numerous interventions and proxy wars before and after barely register in the public consciousness, let alone on the public record. Revisionist histories of Vietnam celebrate the military’s role as heroic, and pour scorn on the ‘liberal media’ for undermining domestic support for the war. The few liberals in the media still willing to speak out against the conservative logic of mainstream media institutions learned their lesson well. Today journalists such as CBS anchor Dan Rather admit that their whole-hearted support for US military actions in part stems from fear of appearing unpatriotic.

The opposition

But if US mainstream media are notable for their cowardice, given First Amendment protection of their constitutional right to speak, other voices here are not so timid. Take, for example, Robert Jensen, a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. Jensen is a vocal opponent of US state-sponsored terror abroad and domestic attacks on civil rights. Following 9/11, he publicly criticised Washington for denying the American people the right to grieve and for rushing the nation into an undeclared war against a barely defined enemy. For his actions, Jensen was publicly censured by the University’s president, and privately he has had to deal with everything from insults to threats. Jensen’s own department all but shunned him. A group of students in the neighboring Radio-Television-Film (RTF) department organised a petition supporting Jensen’s right to free speech. Of the six organisers of the petition, only one was an American national.

Jensen is not alone. Activists across the country spoke out against the war in Afghanistan, and continue to oppose the War Against Terrorism, the undermining of civil liberties at home, attacks on minorities, the poor and the dispossessed, the crumbling of the American dream. Here in Austin, a small but vocal anti-war lobby works hard to explain to the public that alternatives do exist to bombing Baghdad, adding to the collateral damage accumulated in Afghanistan, and making life even more intolerable for the people of Iraq. Nowar is connected to similar nodes of resistance across the country. Despite their low profile in mainstream media, the strength of opposition is visible in other ways. When Noam Chomsky visited Austin ahead of the congressional elections, two thousand people packed the auditorium to hear him speak out against US policy.

In measuring the opposition to Bush, one must keep in mind how narrow the interests are that purport to speak in the general interest and see instead the diversity and pluralism of the majority that remain America’s best strength. Nevertheless, the fragmentation of the opposition, and its marginalisation within the mediatised public sphere make it extremely difficult to link up their dissent with the deafening silence of this majority who, in the impossibility of articulating a single united position, are assumed to have given their consent to the War Against Terrorism. Since 9/11, which if we are to believe the hype was the day everything changed, passage of the Patriot Act, arbitrary detentions and FBI bulletins warning of further attacks have all contributed to a media-driven sense that the United States, undivided, is under siege.

Austin

But turn off the television and go outside and the country appears remarkably unchanged. In many ways, the Austin I live in now is the same Austin I arrived in over two years ago. I still go for a walk by the Colorado River most evenings. The Latin and black families in the working-class neighborhood where I live still barbecue on the weekend. The bars downtown come alive on Friday night. Alongside the music industry in this self-declared ‘music capital of the world’, Austin is a centre for independent film production. Richard Linklater’s Waking Life was shot on streets I recognise, and featured local luminaries. Robert Rodriquez of Spy Kids fame is an alumnus of the RTF department. Its documentary unit, an extremely politicised group of film-makers, is considered one of the best in the country.

Like Linklater’s film, Austin is a dreamy city. The state capital, Austin paradoxically evolved as a haven for people who would prefer not to live in Texas. One of my friends here is the cousin of John Walker Lindh, the ‘American Taliban’. Also a Muslim, he grew up in an intensely religious family, studied philosophy as an undergraduate, and is a sports nut. A gentle giant who plays a mean game of pick-up basketball, he keeps his identity quiet to protect his family. But he refuses to be cowed by the vigilante attacks on Muslims and local mosques since 9/11, and the racial and religious profiling that the state and federal authorities have legislated as part of the War Against Terrorism. It is this Austin, and not the one shown on the nightly news, that is mobilising here, in the very heart of Bush territory, against the few but powerful voices setting the national agenda.

Conclusion

Following the Bali bombings, and reflecting on the Australian Left’s reaction to 9/11, Clive James rightly warned of the danger of blaming the victims in connecting the United States to 9/11. To ignore the obvious, that hatred is always a response to a sense of being wronged, whether real or imagined, is also dangerous. At the same time, we should not be seduced by the blandishments of the media, bullied into the destruction of basic freedoms or complacent in the face of an increasingly polarised world where the US and its allies’ access to resources, namely oil, takes precedence over basic humanitarian considerations. To seek an analysis of the rise of al Qaeda in terms that ignore the evolving dynamics of global political economy over the previous three decades would be a mistake.

The actions of the current US administration are so banal that to label them evil would give them a moral dimension they sadly lack. Thus, one is hard pressed to distinguish between the Bush administration and its enemies. I noted above that in many ways Austin is still the same. But in some ways it has changed. The election has boosted Homeland Security. Already the university is registering all foreign students on a national database. The FBI is in the process of questioning students from countries considered unfriendly to American interests. For fear of censure, few of the foreign students seem willing to discuss with Americans their concerns over the direction in which the Bush administration is taking the country. I keep to myself a lot more than I did in my first couple of years here. I don’t know whether the United States, or even a US-led UN coalition, will attack Iraq in the name of the War Against Terrorism. The rhetoric of the right wing frightens me. Against this, the manner in which the people around me shut out the increasingly strident calls for war, and get on with their lives as if 9/11 never happened, should give me confidence that, contrary to the hype, nothing much changed after all. For some reason, this thought frightens me even more.

John Jirik is a film-maker and journalist based in Austin, Texas