Most summers, I manage to decamp for a few weeks to the country where I grew up. Much as I try to avoid them, comparisons between the ancestral place, England, and the adopted one, the USA, do crop up. This year there was a moment of cultural transition when, twenty minutes after leaving Birmingham airport, I stood in the graveyard of a 12th century church which became my parents’ final resting place. A fresh notice had appeared directing visitors not to adorn memorials or graves with artificial flowers. They are not a symbol of the resurrection, it said primly. For a couple of weeks there is much grumbling about Britain: at times it feels like a colonial backwater even if the conceit persists, in some quarters, that it plays Greece to America’s Rome. Inefficiency and rather cavalier attitudes to work are noticeable and I find myself missing the cheerful neighborliness of Americans. The English are fiercely private. Then there is the issue of road manners; those of Americans strike the spouse and me as decidedly superior. Over there the middle finger is always at the ready and imprecations are needlessly hurled.
However, it only takes a few days of exposure to British media – radio, television and newspapers like The Independent and The Guardian – to realize that the country one has just left is in a propaganda straight-jacket, while the United Kingdom is not. Yes, there is a yellow press in London, much of it owned by Rupert Murdoch, which does its damnedest to manufacture consent. But a paper like The Sun is bought by folk more interested in tits and tall stories than the right-wingery urged on its readers. While the Prime Minister, the unctuous Tony Blair (the satirical magazine Private Eye calls him the Rev. Blair) is foolishly satisfied with his new role as a gauleiter in the American imperium, the British media is conducting a no-holds-barred, rigorous analysis of the people and politics behind George W. Bush’s war fever.
On the eve of the commemoration of September 11, the BBC World Service broadcast an interview – unthinkable in this country – with Gore Vidal, the brilliant, skeptical chronicler of US history and politics. Americans, he said, cannot look outside themselves: “they have no windows on the world, surrounded as they are by a corporate wall of propaganda.” He thinks one of the falsehoods underpinning the propaganda is the notion that America is a uniquely virtuous country. To that maudlin question asked ad nauseam since September 11th, “Why do they (meaning Muslims, Arabs) hate us?” Vidal replies, reasonably, that an odious foreign policy in the Middle East is the honest answer. The self-serving nonsense that the hatred derives from envy of a democratic, freedom-loving nation is mendacious. (At the end of the interview, he briskly predicted that all these quasi-fascist trends in the US will be shaken by the global economic depression we are now entering.)
If the British press is exercising the responsibility that we should expect from the Fourth Estate in a democracy, the mainstream media in the US has slipped into the role of purveyor of propaganda for Bush’s proposed war against Iraq. Americans naively assume that they will always recognize propaganda because it will announce itself in Orwellian strategems. In the collective mind, propaganda is still associated with totalitarian regimes, with Nazi Germany, Goebbels’ “Big Lie” and frenzied Nuremberg rallies – so says the spouse’s godson who has just published a book on America’s development of weapons of mass destruction in the context of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. He thinks we urgently need a new vocabulary that would educate citizens to understand how propaganda works in modern, democratic societies. Curious about how the word propaganda entered our lexicon, I checked with the dictionary. Collins places it as 18th century Italian and refers to the Sacra Congregatio Propaganda Fide: Sacred Congregation for Propagating the Faith. Here the word conveys a sense of what is to be believed, of proselytizing. Today in the US, propaganda works more to limit the range of discussion and to exclude from the public arena arguments or evidence challenging the prevailing orthodoxy. Former weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, who knows a thing or two about Saddam Hussein, has been travelling around the country arguing against war in Iraq. This former Marine, who reminds us that he is no pacifist, had this to say: “I think the vast majority of Americans are just tragically ignorant – not just about Iraq, but about the rest of the world. They are susceptible to the kind of propaganda manipulation that’s taking place.”
Recently, I had a brush with the manipulation Ritter was talking about. In early September the Nation magazine published a disturbing article by Jason Vest. This carefully delineated the link between the right-wing Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), the Center for Security Policy (CSP) and the zealous champions of a Likudnik Israel – those Zionist hawks in the Pentagon, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith (known to Washington insiders as “the Kosher Nostra”). These men have been itching for war with Iraq and saw their chance when George W. Bush was appointed President. They hold as an article of faith, says Vest, “that there is no difference between US and Israeli national security interests, and that the only way to assure continued safety and prosperity for both countries is through hegemony in the Middle East.” This of course would pave the way for Israel’s Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to realize his dream of establishing a greater Israel by ethnically cleansing Palestinians from the West Bank – driving them into a destabilized Jordan. For the Bush administration’s oil men, hegemony offers full control of the Middle East’s oil resources. It is a very wicked plan.
A day or two after I had read the piece, Kojo Nnamdi, the host of NPR’s Public Interest, had open phones for the hour to talk about US plans for war. I managed to get a line. As I conveyed the gist of Vest’s Nation article, Nnamdi turned nasty. He railed against the Nation (the oldest political magazine in the country) – a bunch of left-wingers of the kind who conspire in dark cellars, he called them. All very Conradian, Secret Agent stuff. I was hectored for buying into such “conspiracy theories.” It was stunningly clear that he felt it his duty to keep this sort of information off the air and, should it slip through, to aggressively discredit it. Israel, after all, has become the third rail in American politics. Touch it at your peril. Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland who went on to be an imaginative and courageous UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has had to learn this lesson. When she voiced criticism of Israel’s continued refusal to comply with the 1967 UN resolution requiring it to withdraw from the Occupied Territories, and called for Israelis to abide by the Geneva Convention after they committed human rights abuses in Hebron, pressure from Washington ensured Robinson was not re-appointed.
Besides accusations of conspiracy, there is a new tactic for dealing with Israel’s critics: charge them with anti-Semitism. This is the ploy now being used by the President of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, as a small but growing constituency for divestment from Israel has appeared on his campus and others around the country. Summers’ shamelessness is best answered by a fellow Jew, the Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi. Thomas Laqueur, reviewing three new books on Levi, calls him “one of the most resonant witnesses to the greatest human disaster of a disastrous age.” However, Levi did not think the Jewish catastrophe should be used to justify “what he regarded as Israeli tribalist and aggressive actions in the name of a sacred history of unique suffering.” Laqueur, (who is also Jewish) writes that the Israeli invasion (under Ariel Sharon) of Lebanon in 1982 greatly disturbed Primo Levi, “and on the eve of a trip back to Auschwitz, Levi signed a petition, together with other Jewish intellectuals, calling for the withdrawal of Israeli troops and recognition of the rights of all peoples in the region. ‘Everyone is someone’s Jew’ he was quoted as saying in an interview ‘and today the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis.'”
“America is Hobbesian, unilateralist, realist and driven by self-interest,” so wrote Robert Kagan in The National Policy Review. It is an ugly but accurate description of George W. Bush’s ubermensch America. Before we left England, the spouse and I made a pilgrimage to an old Quaker community at Jordans, about thirty miles from Oxford. William Penn is buried there – he had returned to England after his work in Pennsylvania was completed. Penn’s headstone is simple and identical to all the others in this tranquil, unadorned Quaker graveyard. The inscription bears only his name and date of death. Nearly three hundred years later, one couldn’t help but feel that America’s tragedy is that Penn’s civilized and tolerant vision of America has been lost – overtaken by the one Kagan describes.
Ann Pettifer is a freelance writer and the publisher of Common Sense, the alternative newspaper at the University of Notre Dame.