Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Liars and their enablers now work hand in glove -- mendocracy is the regime that governs us now" (Rick Perlstein)


Postscript: Keith Olbermann's announcement
(see below)

Ronald Reagan laid the groundwork for the Right's official
severing of the country from the reality standard.

"In researching [the '80s], I've been surprised to discover the extent to which Ronald Reagan explicitly built his appeal around the notion that it was time to stop challenging the powerful. A new sort of lie took over: that the villains were not those deceiving the nation, but those exposing the deceit -- those, as Reagan put it in his 1980 acceptance speech, who 'say that the United States has had its day in the sun, that our nation has passed its zenith.' They were just so, so negative. According to the argument Reagan consistently made, Watergate revealed nothing essential about American politicians and institutions -- the conspirators 'were not criminals at heart.'"
-- Rick Perlstein, in "Inside the GOP's Fact-Free
," in Mother Jones

by Ken

For the benefit of new readers, since the 2008 presidential election campaign, I've been reduced to periodic rants about Republicans and the Right generally having officially gone off the standard, no longer feeling any obligation or indeed connection to reality, so there should be no surprise at my responsiveness to our friend (and favorite working historian) Rick Perlstein's new Mother Jones piece, which tackles this very subject.

Rick, you may recall, after his landmark books Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, has been immersed in the next turning point in the conservatizing of America, the Reagan era. And it's hard to look at that period without grappling with the loosening of the bonds of reality.

Reagan himself had a decidedly shaky relation to reality, quite independent of the descent into Alzheimer's. Indeed, while there's a political career's worth of evildoing that the sainted Ronnie has to answer for, I've always thought his most toxic legacy was preaching to an all-too-eager American public the happy-making doctrine that reality is whatever you think it is, whatever you want it to be, whatever makes you feel best. But it wasn't till that 2008 election that I perceived that an entire side of the American political spectrum had abandoned any feeling of responsibility to truth.

It's been hard to think how there could fail to be consequences.

Of course long before 2008 the Bush regime had been hard at work permanently sundering all links between its pronouncements and truth. This is what I found myself pondering as I read -- with Rick's piece already resounding in my head -- today's ThinkProgress Progress Report, "The Neverending Story," which looks into the documentation about the abuses in Guantanamo provided by the latest WikiLeaks cache of more than 700 documents (with a link is to The Guardian's coverage).
THE DETAILS: The Times editorializes today that the documents serve as "a chilling reminder of the legal and moral disaster that President George W. Bush created" at Gitmo and "describe the chaos, lawlessness and incompetence in his administration's system for deciding detainees' guilt or innocence and assessing whether they would be a threat if released." "Innocent men were picked up on the basis of scant or nonexistent evidence and subjected to lengthy detention and often to abuse and torture," the Times editorial notes, adding that suicides there "were regarded only as a public relations p roblem.& quot; The documents show that there were 158 detainees "who did not receive a formal hearing under a system instituted in 2004. Many were assessed to be 'of little intelligence value' with no ties to or significant knowledge about Al Qaeda or the Taliban." The Guardian notes that 212 Afghans at Gitmo were either "entirely innocent," "mere Taliban conscripts" or "had been transferred to Guantanamo with no reason for doing so." Among inmates who proved harmless were an 89-year-old Afghan villager, suffering from senile dementia, and a 14-year-old boy who had been an innocent kidnap victim. The so-called 20th 9/11 hijacker, Mohammed Qahtani, "was leashed like a dog, sexually humiliated and forced to urinate on himself." And U.S. forces held Sami al-Hajj, a Sudanese cameraman for Al-Jazeera, for 6 years before finally letting him go. Hajj had insisted he was just a journalist and he went back to work for Al-Jazeera after his release.

There are, of course, many discussion-worthy aspects to this story, but I bring it up tonight as for its demonstration of the purity of the Bush regime's commitment to untruthfulness. At every step in the process outlined above, it's clear that no consideration of any sort was given to telling the truth about the gathering, treatment, or ultimate disposition of the Guantanamo detainees, any more than such consideration was given to any aspect of our involvement in Afghanistan or Iraq -- with perhaps occasional semi-exceptions where a bit or two of reality may have been judged tactically superior to the best lie that could be concocted.

Of course Republicans didn't invent the concept of government lying. In his swell Mother Jones Rick Perlstein takes us for a stroll down the memory lane of government and media fibbing, going back to the young William Randolph Hearst's tactic of "Just Making Stuff Up" in his eagerness to help foment the Spanish-American War, then jumping to the same feat performed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. [Links and footnotes onsite.]
"Some of our boys are floating around in the water," Lyndon Johnson told congressmen to goad them into passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing war in 1964, after a supposed attack on an American PT boat. "Hell, those dumb stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish," LBJ observed later, after the deed was done. That resolution inaugurated a decade of official American military activities in Southeast Asia (unofficially, we had been carrying out secret acts of war for years). A full-scale air war began the following February, after the enemy shelled the barracks of 23,000 American "advisers" in a South Vietnamese town called Pleiku. But that was just a pretext. "Pleikus are like streetcars," LBJ's national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, said—if you miss one, you can always just hop on another. The bombing targets had been in the can for months, even as LBJ was telling voters on the campaign trail, "We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves."

It would have been possible all along for some intrepid soul to drop the dime on the whole thing. There were many who knew or suspected the truth, but with a villain as universally feared as communism was during the Cold War years, denying the facts felt like the only patriotic thing to do.

In the course of tracing back the hit to the reality standard engineered by the Nixon administration in the speech Vice President Spiro Agnew was charged with delivering in November 1969, Rick delivers a droll and punishing blow to one of my favorite exemplars of media lying and corruption, George Will.
Agnew's remarks reinforced a mood that had been building since at least the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when many viewers complained about the media images of police beating protesters. By the 1980s the trend was fully apparent: News became fluffier, hosts became airier—less assured of their own moral authority. (Around this same time, TV news lost its exceptional status within the networks—once accepted as a "loss leader" intended to burnish their prestige, it was increasingly subject to bottom-line pressures.)

There evolved a new media definition of civility that privileged "balance" over truth-telling—even when one side was lying. It's a real and profound change—one stunningly obvious when you review a 1973 PBS news panel hosted by Bill Moyers and featuring National Review editor George Will, both excoriating the administration's "Watergate morality." Such a panel today on, say, global warming would not be complete without a complement of conservatives, one of them probably George Will, lambasting the "liberal" contention that scientific facts are facts—and anyone daring to call them out for lying would be instantly censured. It's happened to me more than once—on public radio, no less.

In the same vein, when the Obama administration accused Fox News of not being a legitimate news source, the DC journalism elite rushed to admonish the White House. Granted, they were partly defending Major Garrett, the network's since-departed White House correspondent and a solid journalist—but in the process, few acknowledged that under Roger Ailes, another Nixon veteran, management has enforced an ideological line top to bottom.

Rick concludes:
The protective bubble of the "civility" mandate also seems to extend to the propagandists whose absurdly doctored stories and videos continue to fool the mainstream media. From blogger Pamela Geller, originator of the "Ground Zero mosque" falsehood, to Andrew Breitbart's video attack on Shirley Sherrod -- who lost her job after her anti-discrimination speech was deceptively edited to make her sound like a racist -- to James O'Keefe's fraudulent stingagainst National Public Radio, right-wing ideologues "lie without consequence," as a desperate Vincent Foster put it in his suicide note nearly two decades ago. But they only succeed because they are amplified by "balanced" outlets that frame each smear as just another he-said-she-said "controversy."

And here, in the end, is the difference between the untruths told by William Randolph Hearst and Lyndon Baines Johnson, and the ones inundating us now: Today, it's not just the most powerful men who can lie and get away with it. It's just about anyone -- a congressional back-bencher, an ideology-driven hack, a guy with a video camera -- who can inject deception into the news cycle and the political discourse on a grand scale.

Sure, there will always be liars in positions of influence -- that's stipulated, as the lawyers say. And the media, God knows, have never been ideal watchdogs -- the battleships that crossed the seas to avenge the sinking of the Maine attest to that. What's new is the way the liars and their enablers now work hand in glove. That I call a mendocracy, and it is the regime that governs us now.

I might just add, as I've argued before, that there's a third component to the Lying Triangle: a large segment of the American public that not only is willing to accept wholesale lying but demands it, often violently. Reality is in a heap o' trouble.


"I wanted to go somewhere where I could expand on and enlarge upon the work I'd already done, a place where journalistic integrity and analytical honesty would never be compromised by corporate synergy, a place where no one would ever proclaim the ultimate dishonesty: that balancing a lie for every truth was somehow fair. I found that place in Current TV."
-- Keith Olbermann, announcing the start date, Monday, June 20 (live at 8pm ET/5pm PT, with repeats at 11pm ET/8pm PT and 2am ET/11pm PT), of his new Current TV show, to be called (are you ready for this?) Countdown with Keith Olbermann

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