Sunday, August 21, 2005

1 Book, Ten Minutes

While going to war may seem easy, any sense of ease is a result of distance, privilege, and illusion. The United States has the potentiaal to set aside the habitual patterns that have made war a frequent endeavor in American life.
There remains a kind of spectator relationship to military actions being implemented in our names. We're apt to crave the insulation that news outlets offer. We tell ourselves that our personal lives are difficult enough without getting too upset about world events. And the conventional war wisdom of American political life has made it predictable that most journalists and politicians cannot resist accommodating themselves to expediency by the time the first missiles are fired. Conformist behavior -- in sharp contrast to authentic conscience -- is notably plastic.
"Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices," Voltaire wrote. The quotation is sometimes rendered with different wording: "As long as people believe in absurdities they will continue to commit atrocities."
Either way, a quarter of a millennium later, Voltaire's statement is all too relevant to this moment. As an astute cliche says, truth is the first casualty of war. But another early casualty is conscience.
When the huge news outlets swing behind warfare, the dissent propelled by conscience is not deemed to be very newsworthy. The mass media are filled with bright lights and sizzle, with high production values and lower human values, boosting the war effort. And for many Americans, the gap between what they believe and what's on their TV sets is the distance between their truer selves and their fearful passivity.
Conscience is not on the military's radar screen, and it's not on our television screen. But government officials and media messeages do not define the limits and possibilites of conscience. We do.

Jim: The above is from Norman Solomon's War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, pp. 236-237. This is "1 Book, Ten Minutes." Participating are The Third Estate Sunday Review's Ty, Jess, Dona, Ava and myself, Betty of Thomas Friedman is a Great Man, Mike of Mikey Likes It!, Cedric of Cedric's Big Mix, Kat of Kat's Korner (of The Common Ills), Elaine who's subbing for Rebecca at Sex and Politics and Screeds and Attitude, and C.I. of The Common Ills and The Third Estate Sunday Review. Mike, set us up.

Mike: First off, War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, the link takes you to the official site for Solomon's book and there you can find excerpts as well as some essays written by Norman Solomon. I think our links are usually informative but I want to stress that this site has a lot of material. Norman Solomon's one of those people that a year ago I wouldn't have known. Say their name and I would have gone, "Huh?" That's part of being eighteen and, I'd argue, part of the process of education but I'll save that for another time. I started hearing the name at The Common Ills and I'd see something by him and without realizing it, I knew the name. When he was on Democracy Now! recently, I was listening to Amy Goodman do the introduction to the show and I was like, "Norman Solomon, cool!" And he was a really cool guest so we'll do a link to that discussion from Democracy Now! So the point is, if you don't recognize the name, don't feel bad because I was in the dark a year ago too. If you do recognize the name, you probably already know that this book, War Made Easy, is a pretty important book even if you haven't read it. Solomon's looking at the history of modern day deception and this is a pretty important book.

Jess: One thing that especially stood out, for me, was how much fun Solomon has a writer. There's a life to his writing and it's there throughout but one standout moment for me was when he was talking about the media lobbying "softballs" and then adds "and beachballs." Some people may look at the title and think, wrongly my opinion, that they already know everything and it's going to be some book that's bogged down and lifeless but that's not true of this book.

Ava: Solomon's an activist. He cofounded FAIR and he's the founder of the Institute for Public Accuracy. Those are wonderful credentials but I mention them because this isn't a book that says, "Here's what happened, now you know, go on back to your haze and fog." He's putting it right back on the reader. This isn't a "far away" book, this is a book about our own power and our own responsibilities. That's one of the reasons we were able to reach a consensus on the quote at the top. There are other reasons and I'm sure Kat or Elaine will probably touch on them. But this wasn't a book where the discussion on what to quote was a two minute thing or left to one individual, we all had strong opinions on what the quote should be. None of us could agree on what the others were picking because we felt our own choices were just as important.

Ty: Right because we all had examples that rang true to us and spoke to us. They were specific incidents that Solomon was covering in the book and they were either points we'd made in our way in our own lives or information that just made our mouths drop, there's a lot of that in this book, and we really wanted to share that. We spent thirty minutes debating what quote to use and that's because so much of the book spoke to us which I feel is a strong recommendation for people to read this book. Usually, one of us is most passionate about a book or an author or we do this feature last, like with Exceptions to the Rulers, and we're in a rush so whomever argues the strongest gets the pick of the quote. But we started this fairly early and the result was that we were all very strong about what part best presented the book.

Cedric: And I really enjoyed this book. My comments are going to be the part I wanted quoted, from page 214:

"When popular resolve among the Vietnamese disappointed Washington, U.S. strategists would change the government in Saigon," William Greider recalled. "The U.S. proconsul in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, fired the interior minister in charge of the Iraqi police we trained to maintain civil order, because they fled the police stations rather than shoot it out with their countrymen." A journalist with several professional decades behind him by 2004, Greider saw a recurring motif: "To my eye, the insurrection under way in Iraq looks like 'little Tet' -- a smaller version of the original Tet offensive the Vietcong staged in 1968. It shocks Americans in much the same way. Iraq is a 'little war' compared with Vietnam, but Americans are learning, once again, that the indigenous people we 'liberated' do not love us. Many want our occupying army to withdraw."

Cedric (con't): It's amazing how uninformed we can be of history and patterns and the book just proved to me how very little I knew. It was eye opening.

Kat: And for some people it may just be a reminder. If that's the case, if people who remember earlier history as a distant memory see it as a reminder, well we need to be reminded. And Solomon's arguing a case that's got a historical and factual basis to it. Reading it, sidebar, I got why C.I. speaks of disgust with the daily papers. There's a section in the book where Solomon's speaking of how the paper tries to have it both way by reporting something and then acting as though it didn't happen until it's necessary to mention it again but use it to argue "resolve" or whatever. He notes George Orwell's "productive stupidity" from 1984. And when you think about and how the daily paper offers very little perspective . . . It made me think of Amy Goodman and what an amazing job she does. There was a Headline item two weeks ago where she noted that a general had been demoted for an affair and then noted that none had been punished for Abu Graihb.

C.I.: Okay, Dallas has that Democracy Now! link, it was Thursday, August 11th. Here's the item that Kat's referring to:

Four-Star General Demoted For Extramarital Affair
The Pentagon has refused to punish any senior military officers for the prison abuse at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, but the army has taken the rare action of relieving a four-star general of his command. But not for any role in torture of prisoners. Gen. Kevin Byrnes stands accused of having an extramarital affair with a civilian. The General led the Army's Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Monroe, Virginia and he was reportedly set to retire in November after 36 years of service. Army officials say they could find no case of another four-star general being relieved of duty in modern times.

Kat: Thank you, Dallas. But see, you read the story in the paper, I read about it in the LA Times, and you don't get that point that Amy Goodman's making, that perspective: "The Pentagon has refused to punish any senior military officers for the prison abuse at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, but the army has taken the rare action of relieving a four-star general of his command. But not for any role in torture of prisoners." You don't get that in your daily paper. Or when C.I. steers you to something with "you can supplement this article in the Times by reading this" from The Nation or whatever. And that and the whole vanishing something down the memory hole just really came across, how the daily papers do that, while I was reading Norman Solomon's book.

Dona: Newspapers don't do think pieces or perspective pieces. I'm not defending them, I'm just noting it. They're spitting out the barest details of what just happened the day before and magazines, strong ones, are where you have to go for perspective. Again, I'm not defending that. I agree with Kat that those sort of connections could be made and, obviously, it's not unusual for Amy Goodman to do them on a daily basis five days a week, so newspapers could do so as well. But their argument would be, and they've made it, reporters, when they've spoken to some of our classes, "We're on a deadline and we're writing quickly with what we know." But what they know, and here's the big problem for me, is what they're told. I've been amazed, and I think this is a point C.I.'s made at The Common Ills, at how unaware they are of what others are writing. Not only what others are writing at magazines but what others are writing at their own papers. Time and again, someone in class would bring up some detail that got left out of the reporter's story and the response would be, "I'm not aware of that." And the student would respond, "Well your paper published that two weeks before your article ran." And it's not an obscure detail buried at the bottom of the article, it's usually the lead of a front page story.

Elaine: And I'd argue that goes to the need for people to get their information from more than a daily paper. We hearing a lot of whining about the fall in circulation for the dailies but at the same time, you've had an increase in subscriptions and readership of some publications like The Progressive or The Nation. And awareness of Democracy Now! has just soared. I'm not a journalist so I'm looking at it from my own field, psychology, and what I see in daily papers on psychology is usually so off the mark that I wonder why they even bothered to print it. Most of the time what they've printed either opens a can of worms that they didn't deal with and probably were unaware of or else it's just so far from reality that I don't see any benefit for any reader from the article being printed. But to move back to the quote above, and it's a thread to throughout the book that gets explicitly stated at the end, we are responsible, we do have power. We may choose to disempower ourselves, but we have the power if we excercise it. And this week, Mike, Kat, Elaine, C.I., Cedric and Betty, we were all shocked to hear that policy making on the war in Iraq was not something that the citizens of this country should have a say in it. We read that, or heard about it, and responded to it. That idea goes so against empowerment and so against democracy that it still stuns me that it was written. But I do think it goes to where you get your information. And if you're reading a daily paper as your sole information or, worse, watching the network news, you're getting a shocking incident here and there that's never connected to a larger picture and you're not encouraged to do so yourself. On top of that, the administration trots out Operation Happy Talk on a regular basis and the reporters fall in line and repeat the phoney claims and trumpet them and you're left with a confused public. I have a very low opinion of daily papers and that comes, granted, from the way I see my field covered in them. But it also comes from the fact that there's no perspective and everything is "Today in . . ." and today never gets connected to yesterday or last month or anything else. That's why when an author like Norman Solomon writes a book like this there is a strong response to it. It's about making the connections and providing the perspective.

Betty: I would agree with that. I would have before I read the book but after the examples he sets forth, I would agree with it even more. This is a tough book. Jess pointed out that his writing style makes it enjoyable to read but it's a tough book. And that's because, I think, Solomon's asking for not just perspective, but accountability and not just from leadership but from all of us. I really enjoyed this book. I really enjoyed this book and I would do like Cedric did and read the part that spoke most to me but I know we're trying to stay focused and complete this within ten minutes so I'll just say, "Read it" and pass to someone else.

Jim: Who hasn't discussed it yet?

Betty: C.I.

C.I.: I like the book, really, I love it. I'll be brief and I'll note that I enjoyed how he went into the editorials and the avoidance of the "bring the troops home" issue, even when facts in the paper -- obviously I'm speaking of the New York Times -- suggested that "success" was a huge leap from reality. Everyone's brought up strong points and I know Dona's watching the clock so I'll let that be it from me.

Jim: Okay, so this is a book with thumbs way up. Read it. War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death by Norman Solomon. Dona had an announcement that we'll go out with.

Dona: We'd planned to review Edith Wharton's Custom of the Country among other books this time. C.I. got an e-mail that later was also sent to us here about how we are ignoring fiction. We're not attempting to ignore fiction. When we lost a "Five Books, Five Minutes" awhile back, we had commented on fiction and poetry in that feature. But when a book comes along that deserves the entire entry, we've focused on that one book and it has been nonfiction. We hope to do some fiction in the future and feel free to suggest books via e-mail but we're reading books and if one stands out and becomes the focus for an entire feature, it will probably continue to be nonfiction. Due to the debate over what quote to use to capture this book, it became obvious that the entire feature should be devoted to Norman Solomon's War Made Easy. Read the book and you'll understand why that is.
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