This article was first published in the New York Press on February 8, 2005.
Thank God for the Iraqi insurgency. If it weren’t for the resistance tying us down, we would have already moved against far more serious foes like Iran or North Korea, foes we clearly can’t handle. Given the bang-up job the incompetents running our country have done in Iraq, you can bet that America versus Iran/North Korea would end with something like Bush commanding a rump American state from deep inside a Colorado bunker, cursing the American people for having let him down, as the Jihadi/People’s Army coalition troops encircle Denver…
This conclusion dawned on me while reading The Record of the Paper, a frustratingly rational, careful yet necessary critique of the New York Times‘ criminal coverage of—and collusion in—the march to war in Iraq.
Admittedly, I didn’t expect much from this book. It seems that everyone with a DSL line and a livejournal page is a New York Times critic these days. After reading the dry, legalistic introduction to Record, I was even inclined to feel defensive on behalf of the Times. Like, “Why’ncha guys pick on someone your own size—you know, like a really small academic periodical!”
The authors of The Record of the Paper, Howard Friel and Richard Falk, are a pair of grim wonks straight out of the East Coast Left. As left-rationalists, they take America’s official propaganda about our rational, Enlightenment-based culture very seriously. Consequently, they believe that the New York Times a) has a constitutional and civic responsibility to serve as a watchdog against the government; b) directly influences policy decisions, as its editorial page pretends to do; and c) is run by responsible civic-minded professionals who are sensitive to rational debate and will respond to criticism of the sort leveled at them in The Record of the Paper.
So rather than seeing the Times for the nest of Vichy collabos that it is, Friel and Falk engage the beast with punishing salvoes of rational argument. Their thesis is that by ignoring international law, the Times has failed in its civic duty to inform its readers of the government’s mistakes, and therefore allowed every awful, blood-soaked blunder from Vietnam through Iraq II. The cause-and-effect aspect of this thesis is, in its own harmless way, almost as loopy as the material they cover. If the Times had given more consideration to international law, they say, then the wars in Vietnam and Iraq might have been prevented.
The problem with this thesis is that it assumes that the New York Times people are nice guys. But what if they’re just a bunch of fucking liars, and they know they’re lying? How do you present rational counter-arguments to powerful people who lie intentionally solely in order to remain powerful?
You can’t. And that is why Friel and Frank come off as intellectual Mr. Magoos in three-pointed hats, living in a world of rational bliss, totally unconnected to the real, awful world where the brutes and the maniacs murder, lie and plunder at will, cheered on by a population that demands more lies and more slaughter.
Americans these days don’t respond to rational argument. Now that I think about it, I don’t think they ever have. They respond to the brute who picks up the biggest stick and beats it hardest on the ground, which is why the Right has had so much success over the past 20 years. The Right is merely playing catch-up with the base nature of Middle America, populated by the descendents of the same mob feared by Alexander Hamilton.
After My Lai broke, even after Americans knew exactly what had happened, an overwhelming majority supported the leader of the unit that carried out the massacre, Lt. William Calley, practically forcing Nixon to intervene and soften his sentence. Indeed, if Americans had their way, we’d probably still be bombing Vietnam today. It took the Vietnamese whipping our asses to bring some sense into the nation—not rational argument.
That’s why the Iraqi insurgents are saving us from ourselves. My own sense is that the Times, like so many other media, trumped up the war in Iraq not so much because they believed in it, but because they knew that their brutish, bloodthirsty consumers—the American newspaper-reading public—wanted war, any war.
Do Friel and Falk know this? Did they write the book to expose and shame the Times, or just to remind those of us who remember those jackbooted Times articles that we didn’t imagine what we read, that we’re the sane ones, not they.
Which brings me to the body of the book, the “evidence” section, which makes for blood-pressure-rising reading. Michael Ignatieff: That’s a name I won’t soon forget. An entire chapter is dedicated to this human hagfish. Ignatieff, the director of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government, was not only one of the most vocal pro-Lebensraum propagandists in the lead-up to the war in Iraq—in January 2003, he published a Times Magazine piece called “The American Empire: Get Used To It”—but also, and most hilariously, the following May he published a piece arguing for reasonable levels of torture. I say hilarious because his piece on torture was published on May 2, four days after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. It was too late for the Times to stop publication.
But then a funny thing happened. As in, nothing happened. Ignatieff suffered no consequences whatsoever. In fact, eight weeks later, he published an article in the Times Magazine denouncing the Bush administration for allowing torture, crying out in moral outrage that their actions at Abu Ghraib “left you wondering if they had ever heard of the Nuremberg tribunal.” Just two months after writing, “Sticking too firmly to the rule of law simply allows terrorists too much leeway to exploit our freedom… A lesser-evil approach permits preventive detention, where subject to judicial review; coercive interrogation, where subject to executive control; pre-emptive strikes and assassination, where these serve publicly defensible strategic goals.” He got away with it, as Friel and Falk point out—which leaves me wondering again, what makes you think that merely arguing well will stop this madness?
The body of incriminating evidence against the Times—all Friel and Falk had to do was cite that newspaper’s articles and editorials over the past five years—is so damning that you wonder how it is that the organization hasn’t been targeted by the International Tribunal in the Hague for war crimes.
A chapter called “Liberal Hawks” cites numerous examples of shameless pro-war arguments repeated all over the Times in the lead-up to the war in Iraq. In fact, “liberal hawks” is not an appropriate description for the goons who peddled war—”Squeamish Fascists” would be more like it, given Ignatieff’s and his entire newspaper’s grotesque abandonment of their hard pro-war line once the first IED’s started going off in Iraq.
As far as I can tell, America today is dominated by two “opposing” factions: the Incompetent Fascists of the Bush Right, and the Squeamish Fascists of the center-Right, the sort promoted in the Times. Which is why relying on mere rational argument is a cop-out—much as the Times’ own credo of “objectivity” and centrism is a kind of cop-out on genuine journalism. If the lesson of Vietnam taught us one thing, it’s that the Squeamish Fascists are in many ways more culpable than the Incompetent ones. When the Squeamish Fascists support war—as they did in Nam, Serbia and Iraq—the slaughter machine revs up. When the Squeamish Fascists squeam, as they’re doing now, the long, slow, tortuous road to withdrawal and self-examination begins. Without the Squeamers, the Incompetent Fascists have a much more difficult time putting their plans into action.
At the end of the book, the authors present a “constructive” argument for how the Times could improve its coverage, urging them to give full consideration to international law. Again, this line of reasoning may go over well with the high school civics teacher, but it has no basis in American reality. Rather than being constructive, I would suggest we get far more destructive.
First, let’s call the Times for what it is. Friel and Falk won’t say it, but they sure imply that the Times is guilty of war crimes. In 1999, America bombed the main TV tower in Belgrade and killed several Serbian journalists, citing the Geneva Conventions articles that say that any organ propagandizing for genocide is itself a legitimate target in warfare and for prosecution of war crimes. Let the Geneva Conventions be the basis for a similar argument against the New York Times: It is guilty of war crimes in Iraq and Serbia. It deserves to be punished accordingly, as the U.S. would punish any war criminal anywhere.
As for the Michael Ignatieffs, Judith Millers and David Brooks and all the other Vichy collabos, rather than nerfing them with well-presented arguments, they should be hunted down, have their heads shaven, and paraded down Broadway with wire signs around their necks reading “War Whore,” on their way to being sealed inside the walls of the ESPN center. Don’t ask them to consider international law in their work—apply international law to them instead, based on their records, and apply it roughly. That is the only language these people understand.
Mark Ames is the author of Going Postal: Rage, Murder and Rebellion from Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine.
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