While the propaganda of plutocracy meets with occasional resistance from a populace that understands threats to the pocket-book on an instinctive level, the closely related propaganda of imperialism generally escapes scrutiny from a citizenry that is largely immunized from its costs. For most of the elderly readers of America’s remaining newspapers, the notion that America’s colossal firepower might be used for malicious, corrupt, and evil purposes can not be squared with the deeply rooted belief that the United States is the world’s protector. For them, the country that defeated Hitler and Tojo (with a little help, but let’s not dwell on that) did the world a comparable favor in dispatching Saddam Hussein, and if any similar threats to peace should emerge in the future, America is the only country that can be counted on to repel them. One might have thought that the pointless brutality of the Vietnam War, or its latter-day equivalents in Iraq and Afghanistan, would have shaken those convictions, but the American people are singularly gifted (or cursed) in their capacity to ignore cognitively awkward data points. (While popular opinion on the Iraq War has gradually declined to a point of even division, a clear majority of Americans oppose cuts to defense spending even while agreeing that overall government spending is too high.) It is against this backdrop of unthinking support for militarism that the salesmen of death ply their trade.
Before, After, and Deja Vu
Before the Boston bombing, the Leesburg Daily Commercial – a newspaper read overwhelmingly by an audience of seniors, though not necessarily a friend thereto – twice published an article by Clifford May designed to incite fear of today’s chosen villain, radical Islam. Appearing first under May’s own byline, and then later as an anonymous Scripps Howard editorial, as if to lend it the added weight of impartiality, this hawk’s nest of broken olive branches recited a litany of intramural conflicts within the Muslim world, seeking to reinforce the premise that “Muslim-on-Muslim conflicts matter.” The role of American action – direct, indirect, and persisting over many decades – in fomenting those conflicts was carefully elided. And the reasons why those conflicts matter is of far greater interest than May is willing to admit.
After the Boston bombing, May was joined by Cal Thomas, one of the plutocracy’s most dependable and aggressive pundits, in a shameless exploitation of popular anger. May attempted to whip up mass hysteria by claiming that terrorists will inevitably obtain a nuclear bomb from the Iranians. Cal Thomas, the perfect dance partner, called for an all-out domestic war against “sleeper cells” lurking within our borders.1 For an audience that likes simple ideas almost as much as it likes simple carbohydrates, this is powerful stuff, stirring up some high-octane tribal juices. A call for violent reprisals, couched in terms of justice, is always going to be an easier sell than a demand for the country to finally come to terms with the concept of blowback. Americans do not want to be told that they have needlessly inflicted far more death and suffering on the people of the Middle East than a few terrorists have inflicted on them. Americans do not want to see pictures of Afghan children pulverized by predator drones before they watch Wheel of Fortune. American tourists in the heavily-subsidized Holy Land do not think of inspecting its de facto concentration camp for native Palestinians. There is no sense of perspective here; no feeling of guilt or shame; no wondering what happened to Christian principles that forbid killing. That’s all too complicated. Just find the bad guys and pull the trigger. Yee Haw!
That worked really well after 9/11/01, didn’t it? Are we really going to be that stupid again? Are we really going to buy the sales pitch for more death and destruction? Should we not pause to consider why that pitch is being made?
The Nefarious Art of Selective Outrage
Conspicuously absent from the media organs that tell Americans what to think has been any sense of outrage at the other deaths and injuries that occurred around the time of the Boston bombing. While Cal Thomas has accused the Tsarnaev brothers of treason and demanded that their crimes be punished, he has not had one word to say about the corporate crimes of exploding fertilizer plants and collapsing clothing factories. Of course, the hundreds of victims of the tragedy in Bangladesh, who suffered agonizing deaths similar to those of the World Trade Center victims, are funny little brown people. We don’t give a damn about them anyway; some other brown people will pick up the slack in production and keep Wal-Mart’s shelves fully stocked. We won’t waste any time thinking that we might be complicit in their deaths by allowing our retailers to source their products from such appalling sweatshops; capitalism is all good all the time. But the victims of the West Fertilizer Plant explosion – 14 dead, 160 injured, numerous buildings destroyed – were Americans right here at home. Why aren’t we talking about them? After all, the number of victims was higher than in Boston, and the people responsible were criminally negligent… corporations. Oh, right.
What we have here is a classic case of one corporate hand washing the other. America’s corporate-owned media is not going to spend any time exposing the criminality of other corporations, even when there is a hell of a story to be told:
The plant had 1,350 times the legally allowed amount of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, yet hadn’t informed the Department of Homeland Security of the danger. Likewise, the fertilizer plant did not have sprinklers, shut-off valves, fire alarms or legally required blast walls, all of which could have prevented the catastrophic damage done. And there was little chance that regulators would learn about the problems without the company reporting them: Not only had the Occupational Safety and Health Administration not inspected the plant since 1985 but also, because of underfunding, OSHA can inspect plants like the one in West on average only once every 129 years….
[D]eath in the workplace is a much more real possibility for almost all Americans than is death at the hands of a terrorist. In 2011, 4,609 Americans were killed in workplace accidents while only 17 Americans died at the hands of terrorists — about the same number as were crushed to death by their televisions or furniture….
As Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette, who has covered the Upper Big Branch mine explosion more than any other reporter, tweeted, “Terrorists want media attention, so we give it to them. Unsafe industries don’t want media attention — so we give that to them.”
The Boston bombing was exquisitely fortuitous for the propagandists of empire. Not only did it provide a perfect pretext – a tailor-made ratchet, if you will – for stepped-up war-mongering against their bete noire du jour, Iran; it also distracted attention from a corporate crime that is likely to be repeated in a nation that is organized around the profit principle. (The casual reader is reminded that corporate profits, surprisingly counter to the right’s rhetoric about Barack Obama’s socialist inclinations, are at all-time after-tax highs. But we’re broke, remember?)
Similarly, the heads of the major banks who almost destroyed the economy (and will do again if current behavior continues) and the politicians who enabled Wall Street’s epic heist were not pilloried by Cal Thomas or his cohorts in the commentariat as traitors to their country. Nor are the oil-company or coal-mining executives who reap enormous profits at the expense of the global atmosphere. If we’re going to demonize someone, it’s not going to be the people who own the country, is it? The more flagrantly plutocratic the Land of the Free becomes, the more critical the need to channel popular passions away from the machinery of wealth-concentration.
Cornering the Market for Protection Services
While imperial propaganda serves an important domestic purpose, there is also an international audience to be manipulated. Just as American militarism benefits from the child-like faith of its own citizens in the benevolence of its military power, it also requires the rest of the world to believe that only American military proficiency can keep the world safe for business as usual. If the international community, which now features several blocs that rival the U.S. in economic importance (the EU, China, and the rest of the BRICS), come to see the U.S. as just another trading partner instead of as the prevailing superpower, then the American party will be over. Why? Because the dollar will no longer be the world’s reserve currency.
In that respect, we live in exceedingly interesting times. For the current attempt, led largely by the Federal Reserve, to restore the masters of our universe to the happy stations they enjoyed prior to the contretemps of 2008 involves profound risks to our currency. Massive purchases of toxic financial assets to strengthen the banks’ balance sheets, and parallel purchases of government bonds to enable our endless fiscal stimulus to keep the real economy on life support, combine to present a spectacular inflationary potential. So far, that potential has been realized primarily in various financial markets, chiefly stocks, with little effect on consumer prices. That has been great news, in the short term at least, for the people and institutions who own stocks, who have seen much of their former paper wealth restored. The fact that living standards for ordinary Americans have not recovered is irrelevant; that is manifestly not the goal of our institutions. So far, the Fed, aided and abetted by its many suckling pigs throughout the international banking sector, has been able to keep this sham recovery going, carefully manipulating the market for gold that threatens to signal that all is not well with the greenback.
It has been most fortunate for the United States that Europe’s banks engaged in the same reckless practices as ours. Had European plutocrats resisted the allure of speculative riches, the sellers of petroleum might have expressed a preference for payment in real money – Euros, thank you very much – instead of depreciated dollars. But whether by happenstance or clever strategic design (all those trips to Davos by the Maestro2, spreading the Gospel of the New Economy, paid off, eh?), the United States came to be seen as the safest place to put one’s money after the crash, opening the door to fiscal and monetary largesse on an unprecedented scale. The six-million-dollar question – or should we say, the thirteen-trillion-dollar question, for that is how much money the Fed has created to bail out the banks – is how the rest of the world will react when – not if – the next crash occurs. But in a world that still runs on (liquified) dead dinosaurs, all that America needs is for Saudi Arabia and its OPEC cohorts to continue to accept payment in dollars. The challenge, then, is how to keep the Saudis in the desired frame of mind.
This, of course, is the ultimate reason why “Muslim-on-Muslim” conflicts matter. The more dangerous the Middle East appears to be, the more nervous the Saudis are and the more they need American military protection. There is nothing new about this arrangement – we would date it at least as far back as Eisenhower’s CIA-orchestrated overthrow of the democratically elected Mohammad Mossadeq in Iran – but one senses that its importance has now become pivotal. Perhaps it was another happy coincidence, but George Bush’s unprovoked war against Iraq drove oil prices to what appears to be a permanently higher plateau, boosting the profits of oil companies back home and the coffers of the sheiks of the Arabian Peninsula.3 If the Saudis are nervous about holding dollar-denominated assets, at least they can console themselves with the fact that they have lots of them. (Well, at least the Saudi ruling class does. We shall not trouble ourselves with the promotion of democracy in that corner of the Middle East.)
But the Iraq War also accomplished something else that receives far too little attention, even from alternative news sources. It removed the long-time counterweight to Iran. For years, the United States had supported Saddam Hussein in his incessant conflicts with his neighbor (including supplying biological weapons that were later used against American troops in the Gulf War), thereby maintaining a balance of power in the region without having to get its own hands excessively dirty. The decision to lop off the head of the erstwhile puppet has forced the United States to enter the arena directly and, most likely, permanently. The task of controlling Iran is no longer to be handled on the cheap by sub-contractors, but requires a massive expenditure and sprawling support network. Apart from the Keynesian stimulus that delivered to the military-industrial complex – bipartisan big government at its most pernicious – a decision has clearly been made to ensure that no other would-be suitors have any chance to insert themselves into America’s playground in the way they have entered the former African colonies of the Europeans. The Chinese may gain control of some heavy metals and rare earth elements, but they will not be allowed to get their hands on the oil. With regional security services now provided exclusively by the United States, and the region looking more explosive than ever, the Saudis won’t be kissing anyone with yellow skin.
Lest we jump to the false conclusion that it is only Republicans who push this evil paradigm of fear, it is worth citing a passage from Clifford May’s most recent syndicated article. His utterly predictable (and laughably false) accusation that the current Administration has been weak on terror was qualified with the following observation:
Just before she stepped down as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton spoke with rare candor. “We now face a spreading jihadist threat,” she said, adding, “we have to recognize this is a global movement.”
That woman might just have a future in American politics.
- Without missing a beat, he used the British Daily Mirror for a source of intelligence, relying on his American readers’ ignorance of the fact that the Mirror is not just a part of the notorious “gutter press” but a Labour Party (left-wing) bastion. ↩
- Alan Greenspan, as described by a hagiographer writing well before 2008. We prefer the post-crash designation penned by Matt Taibbi: the biggest asshole in the world. ↩
- Russ Sloan’s recent partisan rant that President Obama was to blame for high oil prices, along with all the cases of toe fungi and venereal disease, demonstrated a risible failure of both memory and analysis. ↩