David Barsamian: American Justice Robert Jackson was the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. He made an opening statement to the Tribunal on November 21, 1945, because there was some concern at the time that it would be an example of victor’s justice. He said this: “If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down the rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”
Norman Solomon: It goes to the point that, unless we have a single standard of human rights, a single standard of international conduct and war, we end up with an Orwellian exercise at which government leaders are always quite adept but one that’s still intellectually, morally, and spiritually corrupt. Here we are, so long after the Nuremberg trials, and the supreme crime of aggression, the launching of a war, is not only widespread but has been sanitized, even glorified. We’ve had this experience in one decade after another in which the United States has attacked a country in violation of international law, committing (according to the Nuremberg Tribunal) “the supreme international crime,” and yet not only has there been a lack of remorse, but such acts have continued to be glorified.
The very first quote in my book War Made Invisible is from Aldous Huxley who, 10 years before the Nuremberg trials, said, “The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.” Here we are in 2023 and it’s still a challenge to analyze, illuminate, and push back against that essential purpose of propagandists around the world and especially in our own country where, in an ostensible democracy, we should have the most capacity to change policy.
Right now, we’re in a situation where, unfortunately, across a lot of the political spectrum, including some of the left, folks think that you have to choose between aligning yourself with U.S. foreign policy and its acts of aggression or Russian foreign policy and its acts of aggression. Personally, I think it’s both appropriate and necessary to condemn war on Ukraine, and Washington’s hypocrisy doesn’t in any way let Russia off the hook. By the same token, Russia’s aggression shouldn’t let the United States off the hook for the tremendous carnage we’ve created in this century. I mean, if you add up the numbers, in the last nearly twenty-five years, the country by far the most responsible for slaughtering more people in more lands through wars of aggression is… yes, the United States of America.
What’s your assessment of the war coverage of PBS and NPR? You know, a rarified, polite media where people speak in complete sentences without any shouting. But have they presented dissident voices to challenge the hegemonic assumptions you just cited when it comes to American war policies?
The style there is different, of course, but consider it just a long form of the very same propaganda framework. So, you can listen to a 10-minute segment on All Things Considered or a panel discussion on the PBS NewsHour and the style and civility, the length of the sentences, as you say, may be refreshing to the ear, but it also normalizes the same attitudes, the same status-quo assumptions about American foreign policy. I won’t say never, but in my experience, it’s extremely rare for an NPR or PBS journalist to assertively question the underlying prerogatives of the U.S. government to attack other countries, even if it’s said with a more erudite ambiance.
You’ve got NPR and PBS unwilling to challenge, but all too willing to propagate and perpetuate the assumption that, yes, the United States might make mistakes, it might even commit blunders — a popular word for the U.S. invasion of Iraq that resulted in literally hundreds of thousands of deaths. Still, the underlying message is invariably that yes, we can (and should) at times argue over when, whether, and how to attack certain countries with the firepower of the Pentagon, but those decisions do need to be made and the U.S. has the right to do so if that’s the best judgment of the wise people in the upper reaches of policy in Washington.
Jeff Cohen, the founder of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), has talked about the guest list on such PBS and NPR programs. There’s a golden Rolodex of what he calls “formers” — former undersecretaries of state, former lieutenant colonels, retired generals, et al. But what about dissident voices like Medea Benjamin, yourself, or Noam Chomsky?
Over the years, FAIR has done a number of studies ranging from commercial networks to NPR and the PBS NewsHour, and found that, particularly when issues of war and peace are on the table, it’s extremely rare to have opponents of U.S. military action on the air, sometimes below one percent of the interviewees. And this is considered “objective journalism” and goes hand in hand with a deeper precept, usually unspoken but certainly in play in the real world: that if an American journalist is in favor of our wars, that’s objectivity, but if opposed, that’s bias.
I’m sometimes asked: Why do journalists so often stay in line? They’re not, as in some other countries, going to be hauled off to prison. So, what makes them feel compelled to be as conformist as they are? And a lot of the explanation has to do with mortgages and the like — hey, I want to pay for my children’s college education, I need financial security, so on and so forth.
To my mind, it’s a tremendous irony that we have so many examples of very brave journalists for American media outlets going into war zones, sometimes being wounded, occasionally even losing their lives, and then the ones who get back home, back to the newsrooms, turn out to be afraid of the boss. They don’t want to lose their syndicated columns, their front-page access. This dangerous dynamic regiments the journalism we get.
And keep in mind that, living in the United States, we have, with very few exceptions, no firsthand experience of the wars this country has engaged in and continues to be engaged in. So, we depend on the news media, a dependence that’s very dangerous in a democracy where the precept is that we need the informed consent of the governed, while what we’re getting is their uninformed pseudo-consent. Consider that a formula for the warfare state we have.
At the White House Correspondents’ dinner President Biden said, “Journalism is not a crime. The free press is a pillar, maybe the pillar of a free society.” Great words from the White House.
President Biden, like his predecessors in the Oval Office, loves to speak about the glories of the free press and say that journalism is a wonderful aspect of our society — until the journalists do something he and the government he runs really don’t like. A prime example is Julian Assange. He’s a journalist, a publisher, an editor, and he’s sitting in prison in Great Britain being hot-wired for transportation to the United States. I sat through the two-week trial in the federal district of northern Virginia of CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling and I can tell you it was a kangaroo court. That’s the court Julian Assange has a ticket to if his extradition continues.
And what’s his so-called crime? It’s journalism. WikiLeaks committed journalism. It exposed the war crimes of the United States in Iraq through documents it released, through the now-notorious video that came to be called “Collateral Murder,” showing the wanton killing of a number of people on the ground in Iraq by a U.S. military helicopter. It provided a compendium of evidence that the United States had systemically engaged in war crimes under the rubric of the so-called War on Terror. So, naturally, the stance of the U.S. government remains: this man Assange is dangerous; he must be imprisoned.
The attitude of the corporate media, Congress, and the White House has traditionally been and continues to be that the U.S. stance in the world can be: do as we say, not as we do. So, the USA is good at pointing fingers at Russia or countries that invade some other nation, but when the U.S. does it, it’s another thing entirely. Such dynamics, while pernicious, especially among a nuclear-armed set of nations, are reflexes people in power have had for a long time.
More than a century ago, William Dean Howells wrote a short story called “Editha.” Keep in mind that this was after the United States had been slaughtering hundreds of thousands of people in the Philippines. In it, a character says, “What a thing it is to have a country that can’t be wrong, but if it is, is right, anyway!”
Now, here we are in 2023 and it’s not that different, except when it comes to the scale of communications, of a media that’s so much more pervasive. If you read the op-ed pages and editorial sections of the New York Times, Washington Post, and other outlets of the liberal media, you’ll find such doublethink well in place. Vladimir Putin, of course, is a war criminal. Well, I happen to think he is a war criminal. I also happen to think that George W. Bush is a war criminal, and we could go on to all too many other examples of high U.S. government officials where that description applies no less than to Vladimir Putin.
Can you find a single major newspaper that’s been willing to editorialize that George W. Bush — having ordered the invasion of Iraq, costing hundreds of thousands of lives based on a set of lies — was a war criminal? It just ain’t gonna happen. In fact, one of the things I was particularly pleased (in a grim sort of way) to explore in my book was the rehabilitation of that war criminal, providing a paradigm for the presidents who followed him and letting them off the hook, too.
I quote, for instance, President Obama speaking to troops in Afghanistan. You could take one sentence after another from his speeches there and find almost identical ones that President Lyndon Johnson used in speaking to American troops in Vietnam in 1966. They both talked about how U.S. soldiers were so compassionate, cared so much about human life, and were trying to help the suffering people of Vietnam or Afghanistan. That pernicious theme seems to accompany almost any U.S. war: that, with the best of intentions, the U.S. is seeking to help those in other countries. It’s a way of making the victims at the other end of U.S. firepower — to use a word from my book title — invisible.
This is something I was able to do some thinking and writing about in my book. There are two tiers of grief in our media and our politics from Congress to the White House — ours and theirs. Our grief (including that of honorary semi-Americans like the Ukrainians) is focused on those who are killed by official enemy governments of the United States. That’s the real tier of grief and so when the media covers, as it should, the suffering of people in Ukraine thanks to Russia’s war of aggression, their suffering is made as real as can be. And yet, when it’s the U.S. slaughtering people in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, that’s something else entirely. When it comes to the people at the other end of U.S. weaponry, the civilians, hundreds of thousands of them directly slaughtered, and millions indirectly killed by U.S. warfare, their tier of grief isn’t, with rare exceptions, on the media map. Those human beings just don’t matter.
Here in the USA, people find this unpleasant to hear or even think about. But our own humanity has been besmirched, damaged, undermined by such silences, which, in many ways, represent the most powerful propaganda of all. We need to break that silence.
The media landscape is radically changing from podcasts to blogs to all kinds of new media. Will that help?
Technology’s never going to save us. Robert McChesney, the scholar of media history, has written eloquently about this. Every advance in technology was accompanied by these outsized promises that therefore we will have democracy. That’s going back to the first telegraphs, then radio, then broadcast TV, then cable television. At every step, people were told, hey, this technology means that no longer do we have a top-down relationship to power, we can make the changes happen ourselves. And yet as we’ve seen with all of those technologies, and this includes the Internet, technology never freed anybody.
What’s to be done? What practical steps would you recommend?
I believe in organizing as the key element in turning around such dire circumstances, including corporate power, class war waged from the top down, and the militarization of our society and our foreign policy. That means a shift in mindset to see that we’re not consuming history off the shelf like Wonder Bread. As the saying goes, whatever your first major concern may be, your second should be the media. We need to build media organizations and support the ones that are doing progressive work, support them financially, support them in terms of spreading the word and also of learning more about how to — and actually implementing how to — organize both people we know and those we don’t. And I think that’s pretty antithetical to the messages the media regularly sends us, because really, the main messages from, say, television involve urging us to go out and buy things (and maybe vote once in a while). Well, we do need to go out and buy things and we certainly should vote, but the real changes are going to come when we find ways to work together to create political power both inside and outside the electoral arena.
When you look at the corruption of the Federal Communications Commission, for instance, that’s not going to change until different people are in office — and we’re not going to get different people in office until we elect them to overcome the power of Big Money. And there’s also the real history that we need to be reminded of: that everything we have to be proud of in this country was a result of people organizing from the bottom up and generating social movements. That’s truly where our best future lies.
You conclude War Made Invisible with a quote from James Baldwin.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
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