How the Iraq war was sold

If you missed the excellent special episode of Bill Moyer’s journal Buying the War: How did the mainstream press get it so wrong? that was broadcast on PBS on Wednesday, April 25, 2007, you can see the 90-minute program online.

I would strongly urge that you watch the program. Those of us who followed the run-up to the war closely will not find any startling new revelations in the program but by assembling the information into one narrative, Moyers shows dramatically how the administration and Congress and the media colluded in misleading the country into the disastrous Iraq war. (See Justin Raimondo’s review of the program which adds useful information.)

I have written extensively about how the media works before, about the benefits of unbalanced media coverage, the consequences of having media monopolies, how the media censors itself, the incestuous media, business, and political worlds, how the media propaganda model works (here, here, here, and here), the the class nature of journalists, and how to avoid being suckered by the media.

Watching the Moyers program and seeing how newspapers like The New York Times and the Washington Post and the main television network news and talk shows not only uncritically reported White House propaganda but acted as cheerleaders for the war, vindicated my long-time strategy of not reading or watching these sources but instead looking for more better news sources and analysis.

Like many other people, I knew that the war was immoral and illegal and that the case being made was a sham and said so at that time. This was not because I was smarter or had better sources than other people but simply because I am always skeptical about obviously self-serving statements by politicians and pundits. If you are willing to look, you can find valuable news and analysis. But if you sit back and take only what is given to you, you will be misled.

For example, just a couple of days after Colin Powell’s infamous UN speech in February 2003, it was clear from reading the international media that almost his entire presentation was a fraud. But you would never have guessed it if you had only read the swooning coverage in the mainstream US media.

There were some exceptions to the rule as Moyers points out. Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy) news service reporters Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel took the trouble to actually investigate claims and statements made by government officials (imagine that!) and found that they seemed to be living in a different world from the rest of their media colleagues. But since their news service is not a ‘glamour’ operation and owned no newspapers in the New York and Washingon markets, the skeptical reports they filed were drowned out by the noise machines.

Media stars like Tim Russert and reporters like Judith Miller and Michael Gordon are revealed for what they are, mere stenographers and conduits for administration propaganda. Dan Rather of CBS and Walter Isaacson of CNN offer mea culpas now for how they were swept by and made fearful by the patriotic fervor at the time, but their statements seem self-serving and pathetic. Bob Simon of CBS at least asked the right questions and had a good sense of what the truth was even if he did not push hard enough to get the story out.

As Norman Solomon says, the real test for journalists is how they respond during times of peak emotion, not when they have time to look back, and by that standard Rather and Russert and Isaacson failed miserably. As Rudyard Kipling said in his poem If:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
. . .
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!

But very few of them met Kipling’s standard. Nearly all of them lost their heads in the pro-war hysteria.

All the gung-ho pro-war pundits like Thomas Friedman, Charles Krauthammer, William Safire, Roger Ailes, and Judith Miller weaseled out of appearing on Moyers’ show, not willing to stand by their words or defend them. All of them are still around, unfazed by being spectacularly wrong. And others who misled the US into war (like William Kristol, Peter Beinart, and Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson) even get rewarded by being given even more prominent platforms than before.

See this excellent Tom Tomorrow cartoon called Great Moments in Punditry capturing the statements of these pundits in 2003. What is amazing is that they are still around, still spouting warmongering nonsense.

Now that the war has gone seriously wrong, some people are trying to edge back in to respectability by becoming critics. I am always suspicious of such people like Zbigniew Bzerzinski and Madeline Albright. These people like to shine their anti-war badges on the backs of an unpopular war so that they will be taken seriously when they advocate in favor of the next war. After all, Bzerzinski was the shameful architect of Afghanistan’s current troubles and Albright was the one who casually dismissed the deaths of half a million Iraqi children as ‘worth it’ to pursue US policy goals. These people have no principles, they are just opportunists, waiting for their next chance in the seats of power. And they will use the phony antiwar credentials they have created during this unpopular war to make themselves more credible when they agitate for a future war.

Similarly former CIA head George Tenet is now whining about how badly he has been treated by his former friends, trying to act like he was a poor, misunderstood voice of reason who has been treated dishonorably by others and Colin Powell is, as usual, is trying to persuade us that he is an honorable man by rewriting history. One should treat all these people with caution

One adage that I keep in mind when following the news is not to just pay attention to what people are making a fuss about but to look at the things about which they silently agree. Very often, the big, noisy controversies are like a magician’s patter, designed to distract your attention form where the action really is. For example, the recent big drama about the president vetoing the bill that Congress sent him putting timetables on troop redeployment masks the facts that Congress is not objecting to money going for the construction of many large permanent military bases within Iraq. This suggests to me that there is a silent bipartisan agreement to station a large number of US troops in Iraq indefinitely. If the Democrats were really serious about withdrawal, why would they continue funding to build those bases? Such an action would not even leave them open to the phony charge of ‘not supporting the troops.’ Their silence on this speaks volumes.

This is why I encourage people to read and support sites like Antiwar.com. They have been taking a principled stand on war from early on, and provide links to a wide variety of news reports and commentary. Even when I disagree with them on specific issues (and there are many), I respect them for not being the kinds of shameless opportunists that infest the mainstream TV and newspapers.

POST SCRIPT: How and why god caused global warming

When a science teacher in Seattle wanted to show her class the film An Inconvenient Truth, an outraged parent named (ironically enough) Frosty Hardison managed to get it stopped, unless an anti-global warming film was also shown ‘for balance.’

The Daily Show’s Jason Jones interviewed Frosty and the interview is hilarious and has to be seen to be believed. It turns out that he believes the rapture will occur in the next five to seven years and that the current warming trend is due to god’s wrath for our abominable behavior.

What is really strange about these rapturites is that if one of these days a major city were to be suddenly demolished for whatever reason with massive casualties ensuing, the rest of us would see the event as a major tragedy, whatever the cause. But the rapturites will wait hopefully, wondering if this is a sign of Jesus’s return.

The new atheism-4: The new questions posed by the new atheists

Religious beliefs are ubiquitous and have been around for a long time despite the lack of any convincing empirical evidence in support of the beliefs. As I have said before, the evidence asked for is not unlike the evidence required if someone says that there are three kinds of electric charge in the universe, as opposed to the two kinds that scientists currently believe in. You have to provide data to support that contention. If you don’t, people are perfectly justified in rejecting that position. To assert that a third kind of charge exists but it has no measurable and observable effect on anything is not a position that has any intellectual merit. And yet that seems to be precisely the kind of argument that elite religionists are making.

That is not the only kind of evidence that god could provide. Sam Harris in his book Letter to a Christian Nation (p. 78) points to a website that asks why the people who claim that god heals people in response to prayers never seem to pray to have the limbs of amputees re-grow, even though salamanders routinely do this without any prayer. As the website says: “If we pray for anything that is impossible — for example, regenerating an amputated limb or moving Mt. Everest to Newark, NJ — it never happens. We all know that. If we pray for anything that is possible, the results of the prayer will unfold in exact accord with the normal laws of probability.”

Yet despite this lack of evidence, almost all societies at all times seem to have had some form of religious beliefs and observances and this naturally begs the question of why this is so. Religious people and theologians will answer that this is because god really does exist and people have sensed god’s presence in some way. This then requires an explanation of why, if there is a single god, there are so many varieties of religious beliefs that are quite different.

One commonly accepted explanation is that only one religion is right and the rest are wrong. This assumes that only one particular religious group managed to sense correctly the right nature of god. The catch, as we all know, is that each of the different religions believes that they are the truly special ones and there seems to be no way of determining which belief is correct.

But another explanation can be obtained by bringing social scientists and anthropologists into the picture, and trying to explain the divergence of beliefs in this single god in the light of historical contingencies. In other words, they argue that god’s presence is revealed to humans in such subtle ways that people interpret god in the light of their immediate social and cultural contexts, leading to different conceptions of the one god at different times and different places. Why is god so subtle in leaving clues instead of being direct? That is put down to inscrutability.

But one can easily come up with yet more alternative explanations. One (which I just made up in the course of writing this post) is that there isn’t just a single god but many gods, each competing for the allegiance of people on Earth. In other words, rather than one religion being right and all the others wrong, they are all right. The Jewish god, Christian god, Muslim god, Hindu god, and all the other gods that people worship are all separate entities, playing a game according to some rules they have agreed upon that results in the people on Earth, who are the ‘pieces’ in their game, competing as proxies to see which god is going to emerge the winner with the most followers.

This explanation explains quite a lot that a single god model does not. For example, take the problem of why bad things happen to good people. When people suffer for no discernible reason, this model could argue that it is caused by one god trying to make the believer in another god angry with their current god and shift their allegiance. This model would also explain why for most religions apostasy is one of the biggest sins and unquestioning faith and devotion are portrayed as great virtues, because all these things discourage people from switching allegiances and thus causing their god to lose the game.

It is often argued that religions can also arise even in the absence of any god because the notions of an all-powerful god and the existence of an afterlife are so comforting for those who fear death, that they have been tempted to invent a benevolent father figure and a life after this life. Or that religion arose because ancient people were trying to find explanations for the wonders of the natural world and the idea of a cosmic creator made sense to them. These kinds of explanations arise from the fields of individual and social psychology.

But such explanations for the existence of religion are not satisfying for those who look at it from the point of view of evolutionary biology because they come in response to the wrong question. For such scientists, it is not enough to suggest that religion came into existence because it satisfies psychological needs. Since the paradigm for them is evolution by natural selection, a satisfactory explanation would have to answer the harder question of why it was evolutionarily advantageous for those individuals who had predispositions for behaviors that result in religion coming into being to be preferentially selected over those individuals that did not. Saying that beliefs in god and the afterlife satisfy human curiosity and are comforting may be true but miss the point.

The answer to this question is not at all obvious. On the face of it, religion is at an evolutionary disadvantage because evolution prefers those organisms that use their time and resources wisely and efficiently to propagate their genes. It is hard to see how people who seem to want to spend their energy and resources building places of worship, and their time in worship, can have an advantage (in terms of natural selection survival) over other humans who use their time in more productive ways such as cultivating food or building better shelters or hunting prey.

This is why the entrance of natural scientists into the science-religion debate has shaken things up so much, because they are not only asking new questions, they are suggesting that they may soon be able to provide biologically-based answers to age old questions of then origins of morality and religion and consciousness.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: NPR host audition

I heard that NPR is having an American Idol style contest to find the next National Public Radio program host. A good friend of mine Daniel Steinberg has submitted an audio clip which you can listen to here and then rate him.

I listened and he has a terrific voice, very NPR-y. But even more important than that is that as a host Daniel (by training a mathematician but now diversified into many areas) would bring with him a sharp intelligence, wit, broad knowledge, a good humored approach, and common sense.

I hope you will listen and vote accordingly. To avoid ballot stuffing, there is a quick registration process to assign you a password before you can vote, but that was quick and painless and they do not ask intrusive personal questions.