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Dec 19 2008

Beware of the ‘tortured liberal’

The reason I usually disdain labels like liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican that are bestowed on people by the media is that their main purpose is to establish the author’s bona fides with specific segments of the population as a means of influencing them on what to think about a particular issue. For example, many people who consider themselves liberals take their cues from what prominently labeled ‘liberals’ say. So if you can get a ‘liberal’ spokesperson to advocate a policy, many liberals will take it seriously even if the policy is antithetical to their values. This was on prominent display during the lead up to the Iraq war, when many so-called media liberals were swept along by the hysteria of that time.

Media analyst Edward Herman writing in 2002 astutely identifies the value of people like the allegedly ‘leftist’ Christopher Hitchens to furthering the aims of the pro-war one party state.

Christopher Hitchens is a real asset to the war party, because he is a facile writer and covers over by vigorous assertion and imagery his new reactionary politics and the feeble intellectual defenses he musters for it. His value is enhanced by the fact that he is a “straddler,” that is, a man in transition from an earlier left politics to apologetics for imperial wars, but with a foot still in The Nation’s door and a harsh critic of Kissinger and Pinochet. He is therefore presentable as a member of the “rational left” or left that has “seen the light.” Such folks are much honored by the mainstream media.

I have noticed that in the lead up to wars, National Public Radio (frequently labeled as ‘liberal’) becomes effectively National Pentagon Radio, so enamored do they become of military strategy and hardware. In 2003, I could barely listen to their Pentagon correspondent Tom Gjelten, so pro-war was his coverage, so admiring of the technical prowess of the US military, that he seemed to forget about the devastating toll on ordinary people at the receiving end of all the so-called ‘smart bombs’ that he rhapsodized about.

Or take another allegedly ‘liberal’ commentator, the Washington Post‘s columnist Richard Cohen. His relentless navel-gazing and total self-absorption is on display in his column on Tuesday, November 21, 2006 (Page A27), where he talks about how he was for the Vietnam war before he turned against it, then describes how he was similarly for the Iraq war before he turned against that too. Despite his fascination with himself, he does not even see the clear pattern that he himself describes: That he always supports the wars the pro-war party wants, bleating his timid opposition only when it is too late and public opinion has turned conclusively against it.

Things are precisely the same with Iraq, and here, too, I … originally had no moral qualms about the war. Saddam Hussein was a beast who had twice invaded his neighbors, had killed his own people with abandon and posed a threat — and not just a theoretical one — to Israel. If anything, I was encouraged in my belief by the offensive opposition to the war — silly arguments about oil or empire or, at bottom, the ineradicable and perpetual rottenness of America.

On the contrary, I thought. We are a good country, attempting to do a good thing. In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic. (my italics)

It is incredible that Cohen thought that violence against other people was justified because it would make us feel better. Also he says his support for the Iraq invasion increased because he was annoyed by what antiwar activists were saying. For such people it is always about them and their feelings, and not about others. We should kill people in other countries because it will make us feel good. Of course, we should use violence in a ‘prudent’ manner, whatever the hell that means, because we are (of course) good people.

Do not be surprised when people like Cohen (like Kenneth Pollack and Michael O’Hanlon) use their belated critiques of the management of the Iraq war to re-brand themselves as being ‘war critics’ in order to promote the next war. They will wave their ‘liberal’ flag as a cover to hide their past and disguise their true role. This mindset is endemic in the ruling class.

David Edwards of Media Lens writing in February 2003 warned us to be careful of the ‘tortured liberal’ in the media: “There is nothing tortured about it – media fortunes have long been made by mastering the ‘liberal’ art of appearing to care while doing nothing to oppose those who clearly do not give a damn. This is what earns the nod from the powers that be.”

The role of these ‘tortured liberals’ is not to demand that governments abide by the constitution, international law, and accepted legal and moral principles, but instead to persuade the public to go along with whatever geopolitical policies the one party ruling class determines is necessary. They do this by creating a fake consensus by excluding those who disagree. Right now the goal is to get people to believe that before the war ‘everyone’ thought that invading Iraq was either a good thing to do or unavoidable. This is manifestly false. In fact, the opposition to the war worldwide was overwhelming.

On February 11, 2003, prior to the Iraq war, we had a forum at Case where many speakers (including me) exposed the fraudulent case being made for war and its immorality and illegality, let alone the absence of credible evidence. None of us were full-time journalists or analysts, merely ordinary people with day jobs. If we, simply by not limiting ourselves to the US mainstream media, could see through all the lies being spread, why could not these so-called liberals in the media? Because they are ‘tortured liberals’ who, as Edwards points out, know exactly what role they must play to keep their privileged positions.

Media analysts Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon just released their annual list of The Stinkiest Media Performances of the Year and the “WHO WOULD HAVE PREDICTED?” award goes to the New York Times:

The Times op-ed page marked the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion in March by choosing “nine experts on military and foreign affairs” to write on “the one aspect of the war that most surprised them or that they wish they had considered in the prewar debate.” None of the experts selected had opposed the invasion. That kind of exclusion made possible a bizarre claim by Times correspondent John Burns in the same day’s paper: “Only the most prescient could have guessed … that the toll would include tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed, as well as nearly 4,000 American troops; or that America’s financial costs by some recent estimates, would rise above $650 billion by 2008.” Those who’d warned of such disastrous results were not only prescient, but were routinely excluded from mainstream coverage.

Note that the people I have criticized are considered ‘moderate’ commentators, so-called ‘reasonable’ people, ‘centrists’, ‘liberals’, and even ‘leftists’. I am not even bothering to analyze the ravings of people like Michael Ledeen and William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer or third-tier pundits like Jonah Goldberg, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, and the like.

Given the drubbing that the Republicans have received in the last two elections we should not be surprised to see even the neoconservatives trying to disguise their past and move into key positions in the Democratic party, in order to continue to give their views some clout. They will be aided in their transition by the mainstream ‘liberals’ in the media who will not be so rude as to dig up their past statements.

Because they all benefit from a mutually convenient agreement to forget the sordid roles they have played in the past.

POST SCRIPT: Requiem for a campaign

Matt Taibbi, one of the best gonzo journalists around, sums up the McCain campaign:

It sounds strange to say, but this election season may have done to the word “Republican” what 1972 did for the word “liberal”: turned it into a poisonous sobriquet that no politician with bipartisan aspirations will ever again welcome. The Republicans didn’t just break the party — they left it smashed into space dust. They weren’t just beaten; the very idea of Republican conservatism was massively rejected in virtually every state where large chunks of the population do not believe in the literal existence of a horned devil, and even in some that do.

The ironic thing is that the destruction of the Republican Party was a two-part process. Their president, George W. Bush, did most of the work by making virtually every mistake possible in his two terms, reducing the mightiest economy on Earth to the status of a beggar-debtor nation like Pakistan or Zambia. … But John McCain and Sarah Palin made their own unique contribution to the disaster by running perhaps the most incompetent presidential campaign in modern times. … Instead of a plan, they had an endless succession of dumb ideas scrapped at the 11th hour in favor of even dumber ones.

You should read the whole thing.

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