Someone should write a proper history of the run-up to the Iraq war. We need a book. A documentary. Something.
We don't need another historical work which focuses entirely on the decision-makers in the White House. War is not just one decision; it is millions of small decisions made by millions of people. A good social historian should resurrect the public dialogue of that time, should help us understand why and how a country went mad.
Right now, many pundits are offering mea culpas for their advocacy (or at least toleration) of the Iraq war. Nobody wants to admit a hard truth: Democrats were scared, and with good reason.
A new McCarthyism had taken hold. In fact, the most prominent of the New McCarthyites, Ann Coulter, had published a book which tried to rehabilitate the Tailgunner himself.
We laughed at Coulter, but in our secret places, decent people felt genuinely fearful when she said that antiwar activists were traitors in the pay of Saddam, and that evidence to that effect would come out after the war. I, for one, expected to see that evidence -- planted, of course. When Coulter said that liberals needed to be physically intimidated, liberals snickered, or tried to. But the words themselves did much to intimidate, because we presumed that she gave voice to the sentiments held by the majority.
Ten years ago, the liberal blogosphere was embryonic. People who got their news online didn't understand that conservatives used sockpuppets to make their views seem more popular than they actually were. This false impression of numbers convinced us that the vast majority of our fellow citizens demanded
war -- not as a sad necessity but as an outlet for their blood frenzy. Americans, it seemed, wanted to live in an action movie.
A totalitarian fog engulfed our media. Although conservatives may claim to despise totalitarianism, the social and media history of the first Bush administration proves that rightists will do a mighty persuasive impersonation of Uncle Joe Stalin if given unopposed power.
Even Stalin never dared to proclaim, as Karl Rove once did, that "We're an empire now." Yet Rove was hardly the only person to say those words. All of the forces that forge opinion spread the message: We are the new Rome
. Bush = Caesar + teevee + the web.
We can't look back and point the finger of blame at Fox, because the spirit of Roger Ailes moved over all of television. MSNBC was not then what it is now. Phil Donahue
, in a recent chat with Amy Goodman, reminds us of what MSNBC was like in the days when the higher-ups replaced him with Michael Savage.
replaced Phil Donahue
with Michael Savage
. Did you forget? In 2003, this country was so screwed up that we considered Phil freakin' Donahue
to be an extremist and Michael freakin' Savage
to be just an ordinary guy.
Here's an excerpt from Goodman's show:
PHIL DONAHUE: Well, I think what happened to me, the biggest lesson, I think, is the—how corporate media shapes our opinions and our coverage. This was a decision—my decision—the decision to release me came from far above. This was not an assistant program director who decided to separate me from MSNBC. They were terrified of the antiwar voice. And that is not an overstatement. Antiwar voices were not popular. And if you’re General Electric, you certainly don’t want an antiwar voice on a cable channel that you own; Donald Rumsfeld is your biggest customer. So, by the way, I had to have two conservatives on for every liberal. I could have Richard Perle on alone, but I couldn’t have Dennis Kucinich on alone. I was considered two liberals. It really is funny almost, when you look back on how—how the management was just frozen by the antiwar voice. We were scolds. We weren’t patriotic. American people disagreed with us. And we weren’t good for business.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Phil, the irony that MSNBC now is supposedly this liberal—
PHIL DONAHUE: It’s amazing, really.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —the liberal network now?
PHIL DONAHUE: Yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You wonder, though, if another—if another move to war came, how liberal it would remain.
PHIL DONAHUE: Well, you know, the coin of the realm is the size of the audience. It’s important to see this. When a broadcasting executive gets out of bed in the morning, before his foot hits the floor, his thoughts are ratings.
This exchange raises two questions:
1. Was it the case that the "American people disagreed with" Phil Donahue because of the lack of anti-war voices on the air? To state the chicken/egg problem another way: Did the (quite genuine) popularity of the war force the media to the right, or did a right-wing media make the war popular?
2. Will the next war play to a similarly Stalinized audience? Can it happen again?