Fool Me Twice: The Iranian Crisis and the Evil of Popular Passivity

Coverage of the mounting tension with Iran, in the Leesburg Daily Commercial as elsewhere in the mainstream media, continues to portray Iran as bellicose, irrational, and threatening. The United States, we are told, stands ready to protect the world – and its vulnerable ally, Israel – against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. One might have hoped that, after the spectacular failure of the media to arrest George W. Bush’s colossal blunder in Iraq, the noble Fourth Estate would exhibit a healthy skepticism toward Administration claims that another Middle East country presents a clear and present danger to American interests. Bizarrely, however, our putative watchdogs seem to be leading the cries for war, positively salivating at the prospect of enhanced viewership figures. Instead of learning from their mistake – barely a decade old – the media have taken their slavish obedience to the state to the next level, replacing passive acceptance of imperial prerogatives with an active attempt to anticipate and satisfy the desires of the potentates to whom they so obviously crave access. Those of us looking for meaningful consideration of weighty issues had better look elsewhere.

Apart from its disturbingly Orwellian character, the current national discourse about Iran is frighteningly inadequate from a purely cognitive perspective. Instead of being told that the U.S.’s own intelligence services themselves admit (for what their opinion is worth) that Iran does not possess a nuclear weapon Iranian Countrysideand is not likely to do so anytime soon, we are shown deliberately provocative pictures of alleged Iranian missile tests and endless shots of President Ahmadinejad touring laboratories with white-coated, evil scientists (presumably the ones who have survived our campaign of assassination within the borders of another sovereign country). We are not told that the international inspections to which Iran has been subjected are among the most rigorous ever conducted. We are not told that the entire region is in favor of  an agreement to ban nuclear weapons in the Middle East, but the United States has quashed the proposal to protect its friend, Israel. We are not told about the impact that harsh economic sanctions will have on the ordinary people of Iran (any more than we were told about this during the Clinton Administration’s relentless pressure against Iraq). And we are most certainly not told how Iranians themselves feel about being essentially surrounded by a hostile military superpower that has recently demonstrated a propensity to bomb its neighbors back into the Middle Ages.

Why would American news consumers be interested in anything like that, for heaven’s sake? You can’t sell advertising space with human-interest stories when no one is interested in those people! They’re the wrong color; they worship the wrong God; and they’re all the way over there, somewhere…. Clearly, there is a problem here which extends far deeper than the cowardice and cupidity of the press. Americans themselves have not learned from their own mistakes. Having been deliberately lied to by one Administration, they re-elected the liars in 2004. Having been lied to again by an ambitious hustler in 2008, they stood idly by while this supposedly different leader – a Nobel peace laureate, no less – actually intensified the “War on Terror” and effectively placed the country in a state of perpetual war, shredding the Constitution just as effectively as he shredded the bodies of distant human beings, innocent children and U.S. citizens alike. It appears that no travesty on the international scene is awful enough to wake the populace from their naive dream in which their country can do no wrong. And, brainwashed from birth to focus on the prime directive of consumerism, there seems to be little prospect of a Great Awakening.

As the left-wing blogosphere erupts with tales of billionaires bankrolling the Super PACs behind the various Republican presidential candidates (or, perhaps we should say, puppets) one wonders what might be accomplished if all that money and all that airtime were used for something besides advancing the material interests of the ruling 0.1% of society. The following ad by Ron Paul provides an interesting glimmer of hope:

Unique among his peers in the modern Republican Party, and equally distinct from the oligarchy’s alternative faction, more commonly known as the Democrats, Ron Paul actually lives by the foreign policy maxims of the founding generation. Washington famously advised against “entangling alliances”; America’s warped liaison with Israel is repeatedly exposed by Paul as a disastrous association that has been undermining our national interest for decades. Ignoring the enormous political clout of AIPAC and the temptation to pander to evangelicals who identify with the Holy Land (a temptation to which Michele Bachmann et al willingly succumbed), Paul has been a lonely voice of reason in a room fool of imperial courtiers. While courageous positions such as this – combined with some less sensible domestic policies – consign him to perpetual fringe status, the kind of thinking stimulated by the ad above could be Ron Paul’s greatest contribution to American public life. For the consistent failure of the American people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes for a change is the central cognitive deficit that allows the imperial war machine to thrive and prosper.

Of course the scale of the American homeland and the historical paucity of attacks thereon by marauding foreigners work against such mental gymnastics, but let’s at least try to imagine how the Iraqi people might feel right now. Imagine a future world in which a bankrupt America has given up its military empire and retreated within its own borders to concentrate, for a change, on domestic production and renewal. A new alliance between China and Russia has risen to global dominance, and extracts natural resources from the earth with reckless abandon. But the new power has a problem: it can’t feed its own people. Russia has vast lands, but climate change has been unkind, making its winters no warmer but its summers unbearably hot and dry. America, despite its many failures and embarrassments, remains the breadbasket of the world; food has become the new oil. The Canadians, selling the output of their tar sands to the Chinese market, are happy to allow Chinese military bases on their soil, just as the Saudis once hosted American forces. Mexico, tired of being treated as a joke by the gringos, is equally willing to oblige. And so the United States finds itself beleaguered, coming under constant pressure to play by the other fellows’ rules or suffer the consequences. If we didn’t have what they wanted, they would leave us alone, but they are coming to get what they think they’re entitled to by divine right.

This example, like Ron Paul’s video, is perhaps counter-productive because it is just as likely to promote xenophobia as empathy, playing as it does on the rising fear of China, which is only slightly more rational than the fear of Iran. And, unfortunately, it seems no more likely to make an impression on the national mind than Noam Chomsky’s biting analogy between the assassination of Osama bin Laden and an imagined dumping of George W. Bush into the Atlantic Ocean by Iraqi commandos. We know that such scenarios are not realistic. We don’t need to trouble ourselves with problems of moral equivalence or questions of hypocrisy. We’re Number One, and we make our own morality.

Sadly, for all our narcissistic self-congratulation and utterly unverifiable assertions that God is on our side, we have forgotten a basic lesson: As ye sow, so shall ye reap. Far from being a glorious defender of liberty, the United States has become a purveyor of death, destruction, and misery. The fact that these realities fail to penetrate into the consciousness of American news consumers in no way mitigates the severity of our sins or the punishment we deserve for committing them.

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