How alternative is Alternet.org? It altercates with mainstream liberalism as its alter ego. Like much of progressivism. But that’s as far as it will go.
Let’s look at the November 19 issue. Terrence McNally interviews Mark Hertsgaard, who’s written The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World (Bloomsbury, 2002). Why do others hate Americans? What about us do they love? The same questions that the Bush administration, and liberals, pose–except with slightly different answers. Or are they that different?
Begin with the joke about corrupt countries like Cuba sending in observers after failing to understand the absurdity of the electoral college. In this narrative, election theft becomes something we can joke about. Normalized, so we can go on with more pressing business. Like–like what? Nothing here that the New York Times hasn’t said more eloquently.
Buy into the establishment myth that before September 11 Americans lived in a land of fantasy and make-believe, not knowing much about the rest of the world, what they thought of us and what their hatred might want to inflict upon us: “And if we’re honest we’ll admit that before September 11 we never paid attention to the rest of the world.” Really? The “we” here is the alternative reader in the heartland who’s only lately become interested in foreign policy, because now he knows that people far away can hit us at home? This reinforces the myth of America as separate and isolated from the rest of the world. And is it really that we haven’t paid attention before, or–as “we” drive SUVs at the price of blood, and spew waste at the cost of ruining the environment–have “we” accepted the terms of the bargain?
The idea for Hertsgaard is to portray an image of American na?vet? all throughout. This makes the problem more manageable. If only the good-hearted American people knew what their government was up to, how destructive our economic policies are for the environment, how corrupted our politicians by corporate money, what an obscene conspiracy of Monsanto to mess up the world with genetically modified food–if only Americans knew all this, they would be shocked, enough to force their representatives in Congress to live up to the true American spirit of generosity and goodwill toward the rest of the world, and to those less privileged amongst ourselves.
Thus the raison d’etre of the alternative press. Outdo the New York Times in bringing to the public’s awareness the horrible things our government does in our name.
The myth must be maintained that there is a crucial difference between our government and ourselves. Question that myth, and the whole rationale for the kind of reporting Alternet and its innumerable progressive siblings engage in collapses.
“I think on September 11 we learned the hard way that what outsiders think does matter,” says Hertsgaard. We will have to be shocked out of our apathy. We’d rather be in our own skins, pay little or no attention to the messy reality in far-away places. But this is a luxury we can’t afford anymore.
Also confirm the establishment narrative about how the rest of the world was spurred to deep sympathy for us after September 11, but that our unilateralism soon after alienated these same sympathetic people. In France and Germany and Britain and many other places, people did visibly demonstrate in support of us right after September 11. But was it in support of America – or the American ideal, which is to say, that which they wish they had more of in their own polities? Also, were the people who showed distress outnumbered by those who were inwardly pleased that America finally had its rude awakening? Maybe–after the initial shock of the spectacle wore off–there were far more around the world, even among supposedly sympathetic countries in Western Europe, who thought the unthinkable?
But if we start questioning like that, then we mess with the establishment narrative that the rest of the world loves America (the country as it is, its actual culture, its actual politics, not America in the most abstract sense of political freedom, global and universal to the point that the word America becomes meaningless as a reference in time and space) and that all we have to do to maintain this goodwill is be a little more observant of diplomatic protocol as we go about ruling the world.
Maybe the people around the world who hate what America–the entity in time and space, apart from the ideals of the founding political texts–really stands for, the height of narcissist materialism, at any cost to human well-being, outnumber those who love America even in nominal terms.
We don’t know that. And that doesn’t change only because many people love American music and movies. But Hertsgaard insists, “The distinction, between America and Americans is a crucial one. It lies at the heart of foreigners’ ambivalence about the United States.” Maybe Hertsgaard needs to listen better. Maybe “foreigners” recite what they’re expected to say, and make that “crucial distinction.” But maybe what they’re really thinking is, We hate America itself, but you’re a nice white reporter with a good head of hair, and we can’t really diss you as a person, or your people–so we’ll go along with the distinction.
If the notion is offered that people hate what America really represents, then we get into the much harder question of why that is, rather than a problem of managing perception. The latter is not all that different from the Bush administration hiring Madison Avenue executive Charlotte Beers to manage public relations as we redraw the map of the Middle East.
The alternative press wants you to believe that “You can love your country and oppose your government.” Really? You can? Think about it. Are these really separable? Who elects these people? Who buys these products that give the corporations so much power to control politics? Who refuses to be shaken off their asses to do anything even if their personal freedoms are annihilated?
Progressivism is a matter of fine-tuning, refinement, not radical thought and action. If you want to call that alternative, that’s your choice.
Hertsgaard talks about Europeans seeing the Democratic party being to the right of their conservative parties. Is that also a mistake of perception that can be corrected by giving out the right information? It used to be that the Republican party of the 1950s and 1960s, on many issues, was to the left of the Democratic party now. The Republicans were the party of racial progressivism, not the Democrats, until the 1960s. When race was made an issue, neither the Republican nor Democratic party could stand up under the criticism. Criticism by whom? The people of America, or large numbers of them anyway, right? Is this a matter of perception management?
Convey back to Americans that the rest of the world basically thinks fondly of us. Terrorists in Cairo are fond of Kirk Douglas movies. Egyptians may be upset about America’s policy toward Israel, but as one salesman tells Hertsgaard: ” . . .we also know that many of you Americans disagree with your government about that, because you have good minds and you are allowed to think for yourselves.” Not far from the establishment position that we have the freedom to think for ourselves. Not very alternative. As Bush says, “America is goo-ood.”
What can Americans do? We can “start by listening” to allies abroad, people like the Egyptian salesman quoted above. And our government will follow suit, right?
Is empire really that flexible? Not very far from the CFR position. Not very alternative.
Hertsgaard thinks we “don’t share” enough of our wealth. Maybe a lot of them don’t want anything to do with our stinking wealth. Maybe it’s a more metaphysical problem.
Reform is a marketing problem. Market more slickly than the government, and Americans will come around.
“They do envy us, but not in a resentful way. They want to have it for themselves.” Another questionable proposition, on which much of foreign policy reform rests. They want to be like us, more or less. Maybe some people–many people–reject wealth and power of the kind we have altogether? How would Hertsgaard know? That’s too alternative for the alternatives.
It was Kyoto that really set the world against us. Maybe, but it seems too esoteric an issue for many of the starving around the world to care about, or even know. This fits into the establishment narrative of American initiative to manage the earth’s atmosphere, its very future at the macro level. And the U.S. as the only country with the ultimate say in administrating the earth’s future. The other side of this coin is missile defense, space weapons. Bush doesn’t believe in greenhouse warming, but he wants to ensure a safe earth for us anyway.
A former Czech environment minister tells Hertsgaard that we Americans set the example on everything–the world watches us closely to figure out how to go. A massive boost to our ego, no? This is the old progressivism’s narcissism minus any chance of reform.
Blame the media. Blame it on Murdoch, the most powerful man in the world. And his deputy, Roger Ailes. This exempts Americans themselves. It’s the media, stupid! They’ve taken over. They won’t let the truth get through. Hence the need for alternative journals that will speak the truth more liberally than the liberals.
Once Americans find out that 350,000 Iraqi children have died because of our sanctions–by God, they’re going to be pissed off! They’re going to demand that their government stop these genocidal actions! Same for Palestine! They just don’t know (forgive them, father, for they know not what they’re not told by Murdoch the traitor). So 24/7, the alternative press must remind us of the horrors in Palestine and Iraq and wherever else the American media dare not go. Once enough momentum builds up–through sheer awareness raising–things will change.
So the myth, “They don’t care because they don’t know! Because they are not told! Because our media doesn’t report that!” Let’s fix that. Let’s tell them. The American people are goo-ood!
The high-school dropout at 7/11 doesn’t know, never will, and can’t afford to think about things like that. It’s outside her range. The middle-class suburbanite already knows at some level. If he wanted to know more, he could. He doesn’t need the alternative press for that. The library is good enough. There are plenty of books on all this. Is the alternative media’s rationale to shortcut the process of people going to the library, instead accessing information quickly and easily through the internet? Will that make the difference? Should information be so cheap anyway? Doesn’t that cheapen everything?
After the trauma of last year, every good liberal is trying to show how deeply he believes in the goodness of America. Hitchens and Corn, and the rest of the alternative camp. By saying that America is basically a sound project–with a bit of suasion aimed toward good-hearted citizens to let them see we don’t have to be quite this unilateral–they’re out-Bushing Bush.
The Reaganites understood, Hertsgaard says, that only repetition matters in the era of the “Palace Court” press. So let’s co-opt this technique. Let liberals–alternatives–take repetition to even greater lengths. 24/7 Palestine. 24/7 Iraq. Create our own drumbeat. Our own noise. Whoever is loudest wins. That’s the main alternative press credo for today.
Hertsgaard hopes–in regard to where “the levers of change are going to be” – that body bags coming from Iraq might do it. If the verbal message doesn’t get through to the basically good-hearted American, the spectacle of body bags will do it. First, body bags won’t come home. We have fought no real wars since Vietnam, and we won’t again. Second, if they do, the message can be managed.
John K. Wilson claims in How to Win Arguments and Influence People: A Practical Manual for Pragmatic Progressives (NYU Press, 2001) that all progressives need to do is copy the right’s playbook in getting their message across. Of course, throughout he keeps saying that we don’t want to be duplicitous like the right, but that’s his argument anyway. Build think-tanks like the AEI and Heritage. Build the progressives’ version of the Goldwater movement. Wait thirty years. Start with the school boards. In the meantime, hope for body bags. (They can’t hope for economic collapse anymore – it happened already and it didn’t faze the electorate one bit.) It’s the body bags, stupid!
It’s basically the New York Times’s argument too.
And they’ve long been outwitted.
Hertsgaard says, “I think that what really needs to happen, in terms of making political change in America, is to copy the way the right-wing made political change.” It’s the message, stupid!
To hold this position, alternatives must believe that most of America is basically with them. On health care, education, abortion, gun control. Yes, but if you run an ad scaring people about socialized medicine, they’ll run for the Goldwater/Reagan clones every time, not the Green party na?fs.
The working class as the agent of social change has ceased to exist. The middle-class, even if declining and insecure, has made its peace with the status quo. So who is the agent of change?
Hertsgaard, like other alternatives, finds it in Americans who don’t vote, “because they’ve been alienated from the political process.” Today’s muckrakers are going to entice them back into the political process? It’s not even a matter of that. The two parties don’t want most of these voters joining the electorate, which might muddy the waters for them. They’d rather depress the vote, for their own reasons. Besides, these people are not going to vote. They don’t read Alternet.org–or much of anything. The old party machines that used to bring in large numbers of what today would be the non-voting public were killed mainly by the progressives of the last century. Without mass parties–and there’s nothing to make us believe that anything like that is in the offing–these votes won’t materialize.
“Richard Nixon got out of Vietnam not because he wanted to, but because any President would have had to bow in front of that popular pressure.” Except that my reading is that we prosecuted the war in Vietnam as far as we could, and only got out when the establishment decided it was hopeless. Didn’t war in Southeast Asia escalate after the mass protests of the late sixties?
A rather large number of lies–or at least misinformation and disingenuousness–for just one interview in the alternative press, don’t you think?
But it’s all like that. Feeling crushed by the victory aura of Bill O’Reilly? Come to Alternet.org or its companion therapists and get your daily Prozac info-feed. The world is about to get so much better! Even if Wellstone died–the Wellstone spirit lives!
“I think that Jim Hightower has the right idea, going around the country with his Rolling Thunder Revue, organizing people.” Yes, and Granny D. too. And Michael Moore. And Ani Di Franco. And Melissa Etheridge. And Phil Donahue, when he can get time off from MSNBC. In about the year 2032, we should be set for the “majority” to come to power, and give the people what they want: a living wage, intact Social Security, women’s right to choose, national health care. The polls say that people want all that. The polls would also say that most people want eternal love. Immortal life. A personal god. So?
“But we’ve been out-organized by the right. It’s really that simple.” There’s no content in the alternative media, because that is their essential message. It’s the organization, stupid!
“In a democracy, the numbers eventually matter.” Meanwhile, in the real world, Iran-contra felon John Poindexter is working on Total Information Awareness, they’re talking in elite circles about starting a domestic intelligence agency like in Britain, an oversight court has formally loosened restrictions on wiretapping, and in Michigan they’re stopping people in random traffic checks to see if they’re terrorists (or Alternet.org readers). The Homeland Security Department is to be made exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, drug companies from vaccine lawsuits, and insurance companies from terrorism insurance beyond a certain limit. So the new department will set us up for the next terror attack, protect the drug companies when they go wrong vaccinating us, and insure private businesses for losses. The government is officially in the business of managing terror “attacks” at all stages, from conceptualization to final disposition.
Do people not already know these things? C-SPAN viewers have been treated to total information awareness on Total Information Awareness and the fascist provisions of Homeland Security. Perhaps the alternative media will tip the critical mass.
In the same issue of Alternet.org is an article called “Bush Bashing” by John Powers of L.A. Weekly. It’s not clear what his point is, but it seems to be that we’re too much into worshipping Bush’s power. It’s addled people’s judgment, this perception of illimitable power.
First, it is illimitable power–as near as it can be in a democracy with some remaining formal trappings. Second, is it again only a matter of perception? If Powers tells us (who?) that Bush isn’t all-powerful, then will his power in fact decline?
Start with a quotation from the always-handy George Orwell. Poor Orwell! The real Orwell wrote the most influential book of the twentieth century to make precisely the point about power’s total inescapability.
Powers says that Bush’s midterm election victory wasn’t as extensive as people think. Carville should ashamed of making such a sorry spectacle of himself on election night. ” . . .anomalous-seeming midterm results are not unprecedented,” alternative readers are assured. Really? That anomalous? Cosmically anomalous? The American people are goo-ood! They didn’t really validate Bush’s fascist agenda. We must not accept that.
Powers indicts the pack of reporters in Alexandra Pelosi’s HBO documentary about campaign 2000, Journeys with George, for being “lemmings who weren’t about to risk their asses by asking the candidate tough questions.” Actually, the Bush press corps had plenty of skeptical reporters. They just weren’t as na?ve as the alternative media. The documentary is a frightening picture of the collaboration of all–not the least the fascist-looking audiences at Bush’s stump speeches, crazily supporting the Crawford moron because they “like him,” although they couldn’t tell you why–in the nightmare we’re living with. This is one Pelosi I could die for (or at least ask out for a drink). It’s only the “progressives” who feel the need to hammer into our dull heads that we need to rise and dream! The postmodern press corps is too sophisticated for that. The reporters didn’t “fawn” on Bush–they and Bush were equally aware of the postmodern spectacle being played out. Pelosi was smart enough to know that the emptiness of the campaign was the content. And didn’t Bob Roberts take care of that ten years ago? Nobody was taking advantage of anybody else. Pelosi 1, Powers 0.
It’s not the media bosses. It’s the stupid people, stupid!
Powers feels that the mainstream press has legitimized Bush at every level. But who does the press report on behalf of?
The press are not “power worshippers.” That’s personalizing it, psychologizing it.
If we place the press in the web of power and interest that it really belongs to, the trail works it way backward all the way to the–very goo-ood people of America.
Powers complains that “left-liberal” media have gone crazy bashing Bush. Alterman has gone crazy asking “why reporters can’t flat out call Bush a liar,” Mark Shields and Bill Moyers have gone hysterical. But Powers’s own project is to tell people about Bush’s lies.
In this postmodern society, there are no lies. Everything is out in the open.
The Times’s Paul Krugman has gone nuts–Bush has driven him crazy–says Powers. He’s lost his Ivy League demeanor. Powers has a chip on his shoulder when it comes to the Ivy League. Krugman teaches at Princeton–that doesn’t square with the alternative media’s image of a populist progressive. You’ve got to be working in the trenches with the people, swilling beer with illegal Mexican immigrants, wearing your baseball cap backwards and not letting on that you’re worried if you’re fat like Michael Moore–like they do at the LA Weekly and Village Voice offices. And date someone from the working-class.
You’ve gotta be cool, not Ivy League. Leave the passionate criticism to the real alternative media, will you please, columnists at the New York Times? And that includes you, William Safire of the privacy-obsessed column!
Mock Gore Vidal’s elitism. That always works. Set his elitist detachment against the real alternatives, the populists in Levis. ” . . .his [Vidal’s] interpretation of American history has always focused on the very elite that he himself was born into, thereby putting him (unlike the rest of us slobs) at the center of our national history. This is his own version of power worship.” Vidal as power-worshipper? He’s become a real convenient scapegoat for the alternatives. They make fun of his conspiracy theories, because that doesn’t let us focus on the goo-ood American people gradually bringing their representatives in office back in line.
What we’re really seeing playing out in these essays is not some new information that we need to have–it’s the evolving narrative of the so-called left-liberals’ or progressives’ own place in a polity that has no place for them.
Now let me go read the New York Times, where they don’t pretend to be what they’re not, trying to push us back to the way liberals and conservatives used to be in the 1950s before anti-people politicians took over the parties.
The most populist position is the most elitist one. Figure that one out, Hertsgaard and Powers.
ANIS SHIVANI studied economics at Harvard, and is the author of two novels, The Age of Critics and Memoirs of a Terrorist. He welcomes comments at: Anis_Shivani_ab92@post.harvard.edu