Can You Spare Some Qatar, Me Brother?
A year ago, I launched this column with a few observations about the state of this nation, using as a point-of-departure the microcosm of the Academy Award ceremonies. Then, a lot of people were offering the twin triumphs of Denzel Washington and Halle Berry as proof positive that African Americans were finally getting their due in our society. If you really want to read my thoughts on the subject then, just go to our back issues and check it out for yourself.
I'm hoping to make a tradition of using the Oscars to say something about the media and our society in the years to come. Let's just hope that there are still some years to come.
A lot of folks have criticized "Hollywood" for not postponing or suspending the Oscars this year, in light of the gravity of world events. I can't fault them for holding the ceremonies. Think about it: A lot of very, very busy people set aside that day, and a very expensive hall had been booked and decorated. To try to re-schedule the event would have been a colossal nightmare. Far more jarring to me by a long shot was that the NCAA basketball tournament - March Madness indeed! - began almost at the same moment that we commenced our bombing of Baghdad. Talk about bad taste!
By Academy Award standards, it was a fairly subdued occasion. Host Steve Martin made sure that no one took the proceedings too seriously right from the start when he commented about the fact that the Academy had decided to forgo the traditional "red carpet" entrance. "That'll send a message," he deadpanned.
For the most part, the stars took pains to be as apolitical as possible. Chris Cooper, accepting his award for Best Supporting Actor, made a dignified and brief plea for peace. But of course, Michael Moore felt no such constraints. As political an animal as they come, Moore said what was on the minds of probably eighty to ninety percent of the people in the hall, and got booed for his trouble.
Like Michael Moore, I cannot bring myself to refer to George W. Bush as President. Moore called him a fictitious president, in office because of fictitious election results, and I can find nothing fictitious in that assessment.
Think about it for a minute. Let's say that in...oh, Guatemala...an election had taken place. In that election, the results were neck-and-neck. Then just as it began to look as though one candidate had emerged victorious, the election was swung to the other candidate by a change in results from a region of the country under the control of the brother of that candidate. You don't have to think very hard to imagine the derisive howls of indignation that would emanate from all corners of the free world decrying these corrupt elections, and the United States would be the biggest and loudest howler. (And if a Bush were in office, you can bet that the Monroe Doctrine would be invoked to justify correcting the results with military force.)
Yet, let a Democrat or - gasp - a liberal make that kind of statement here, and you'll see those right-wing watchdogs pounce faster than you can say Total Information Awareness. "Sore loser," they'll cry! "Just grow up and stop being such a baby!" Well, some things are not so easily forgotten, nor should they be. The fact that our great nation has been hijacked by a man who can barely speak in complete sentences ought to be a matter of grave concern to us all.
Remember way back in 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected the first time? That was a three-sided election, recall, with Ross Perot being the wild card. After that election, I remember all the conservative commentators making grandiose statements to the effect of "This president had better tread lightly, since he obviously has no clear mandate from the people." I wonder, where are those guys now, and why haven't they been saying the same things about the current White House occupant? At least Mr. Clinton actually won his elections!
And speaking of Bill Clinton, have you noticed another interesting trend? The same people who spent most of their waking moments from about mid-1991 until the present (and they show no signs of quitting now) criticizing and ridiculing every thought, word and deed committed by President Clinton now want you to know that YOU HATE AMERICA if you have the audacity to question the policies (or the intelligence) of the guy in the White House these days.
You'll never hear me say that George W. Bush is stupid. You will, however, hear me say that he is a simple-minded, shortsighted, morally bankrupt spoiled brat who has never had to work for a thing, up to and including the presidency of this great and beautiful nation, in his pampered life. I believe that he is about as in touch with the world as the inhabitants of the Andromeda galaxy.
But why did so many of those stars boo Michael Moore, even though most of them agreed with what he was saying? I think the reason can be summed up in a political cartoon I saw shortly before Bush's war began. The cartoon was by a guy named Glenn McCoy, who draws with all the skill of a third-grader who has only just seen human beings for the first time, and has the mental acuity to match. In this cartoon, McCoy depicts Barbra Streisand and a couple of other stars embracing Saddam Hussein, with the caption reading "Human Shields." This is the sort of simple-mindedness that appeals to people who are eager to hate some vague "other" every chance they get. For people who love to hate, these are truly Good Times. Not only is there Hussein to hate, but there are all those disgusting do-gooders to despise, too. Funny, I was under the impression that "doing good" was something to be admired.
Anyway, the idiotic McCoy cartoon illustrates a mindset that is becoming commonplace in our country. As long as the right-wing members of the media (and they are legion) continue to manipulate the media and perpetuate the myth of a "liberal media," they make it easy for those being manipulated to disregard the opinions of the relative few who have the courage to speak out. Personally, I admire the courage of those who dare to voice their objections to this horrific war. They've placed their careers in jeopardy to say what they believe. Streisand has been vilified by many of the people who previously loved her. Susan Sarandon has already had a speaking engagement in Florida canceled. How soon will it be before these people begin to have trouble finding work? As we speak, is there a new Black List in the making?
In my opinion, Moore was booed because a lot of stars are tired of being thought of as "unpatriotic" liberals. We are constantly told that the profession of acting is a breeding ground for liberalism. But so what? Construction sites, warehouses and factories all over the country are breeding grounds for conservative jingoism, but I don't hear any hue and cry to close them down. "But stars have more influence, speak from a more visible podium, and reach more people than reg'lar folks," we're told. Come on. In these days of scores of right-wing call-in shows in every city, and blogs, not even to mention Fox News Channel, can anyone really believe that anymore? And as for the "liberal media," well, I work in the News Department a television station, and believe me when I tell you that I am distinctly in a minority in my views about Bush and his war.
But even more to the point, why is it that Barbra Streisand, Susan Sarandon, Martin Sheen and others are scoffed at for their beliefs? One of the favorite criticisms is that they aren't political scientists, which invalidates their opinions. Yet I hear none of those people telling Arnold Schwarzenegger or Charlton Heston to shut up, or that they aren't qualified to voice their opinions. And we elected an actor (albeit a pretty awful one) president of this country not once, but twice!!
But now let's move on to how this war is being covered and reported. Like you, I've marveled at some of the up-close images that we're being given. Seeing crystal-clear live pictures, for instance, of NBC's David Bloom riding with a column of tanks through the Iraq desert is indeed pretty amazing. Yet I'll tell you that "embedding" reporters with combat is probably the single most savvy and manipulative thing that this Administration has done with respect to the war coverage. On the surface, it would seem that we have "unprecedented access" to combat units and war developments. However, this embedding accomplishes two important goals for the Bush crowd. Firstly, because the embedded reporters are, by nature of their assignment, unable to see the entire scope of the conflict, they are forced, especially in those times of boredom in between engagements, to focus on minutiae such as sandstorms and the like. By doing this, the viewing public is provided with the endless images of the war that they seem to crave, while those most critical of the media are afforded ample opportunities to say that the reporters are losing sight of the big picture. (The evil McCoy again surfaces as a personification of that viewpoint in a recent cartoon. In it, he pictures Bush in uniform - there's the real joke - driving a jeep. Seated next to him is a whining child with "News Media" printed on his shirt holding an ice cream cone and screaming "Are we there yet? Are we there yet?")
The second aspect of the manipulative nature of the embedding is that by assigning reporters to specific combat units the fates of those reporters is irreversibly linked to the fates of the units to which they're assigned. The result is that, no matter what opinion the reporter has of the war in general or the particular engagement that is being covered at the time, that reporter unintentionally becomes a cheerleader for his unit. After all, the life of the reporter depends on the troops he is accompanying. (I say "he" here because I'm pretty sure that all the embedded reporters are men. The few "Danger Women," such as Ashleigh Banfield and the indomitable Christianne Amanpour are, as far as I can tell, not assigned to combat units.) The more that viewers hear the reporters praising the bravery and humanitarian nature of the troops, the easier it is for those viewers to forget about all of the innocent civilians who are the unfortunate recipients of our military might.
Which brings me to my biggest reason for opposing this war, which is purportedly in retaliation to September 11. Anyone who believes that right at this very moment there aren't innocent civilians screaming in agony and/or dying as a direct result of military action initiated by the United States of America is simply deluding himself or herself. And if we're willing to consider those non-combatants "collateral damage" in pursuit of some vague and nebulous "greater good," how does that make us any different from Osama bin Laden? Oh, yeah, remember him? He was the enemy not too long ago. But since we've been unable to find him, and we gotta go kick some towel-head ass somewhere, this will serve to distract the American public, most of whom already have the attention span of a fruit fly.
I could go on and on. Remember how outraged we pretended to be by the Taliban destroying those huge, ancient statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan? Well, here's a news flash. The first permanent human settlements sprang up in the part of the world now known as Iraq. That means that as we rip that land to shreds looking for Saddam Hussein and the "elite Republican Guard" (notice how they are always referred to with that modifier?), we are also undoubtedly destroying some of the earliest remnants of human civilization. Oh well. We told ‘em to knock it off over there. Just another "cost of freedom," I suppose.
Also, will somebody please tell me why we're flouting the will of the United Nations so that we can impress upon other countries that they should not flout the will of the United Nations??
For me, though, one of the truly saddest aspects of this war is that for the first time in the history of this great nation, WE are the ones who started this war. If I have to spell it out for you, that means that we are now an aggressor nation. As is the case with virginity, once you do it, there's no taking it back. Isn't this the sort of arrogance that signaled the downfall of every great empire and world power in history? History!? Isn't that that boring stuff about years and kings and stuff that I mostly ignored in school?
Yes, I know that I've strayed considerably from simple media commentary in this column this time. I hope you can accept my apologies. These are gravely serious times, though, and I find that I'm simply unable to keep my mouth shut when granted an open forum. Believe me, nobody hopes more than I do that I have something different to write about next month!
I do like to provide some amusement in this space, though, so I thought I'd relate to you the thing I find most humorous in the war coverage. Have you noticed all the different pronunciations that have emerged for the country called Qatar? I was taught that it was pronounced more or less like one pronounces the musical instrument favored by the likes of Eric Clapton and Andres Segovia. So I was really surprised to hear - I think it was Katie Couric that I noticed doing it first - it pronounced "cutter," like the slang term for money used by Alex DeLarge and his droogs in A Clockwork Orange. But the other day while I was driving, NPR news came on, and I heard a woman pronounce it "kotter," like the name of the character played by Gabe Kaplan in that 70s sitcom about the teacher of the infamous Sweathogs. Alone in my car, I started singing in my best John Sebastian voice "Welcome back..."
Let's all just hope that our dreams aren't our only ticket out of a world transformed into hell by the guy in the White House and his cronies.