America’s Silly Acceptance of Propaganda

Martin LongmanOne of the things that I find most interesting about public life in America is the way that people just fall in line when it comes to who we love and who we hate. During the lead up to the Iraq War, the American people got a great big hate on about France because it wouldn’t allow us to use its airspace for a war that Americans now agree was at best really, really stupid. But that doesn’t stop Americans from widely disliking France to this day. In fact, there is the totally unreasonable belief that France is some kind of weak peacenik country. (I wish!)

It’s reminiscent of the Two Minute Hate in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The people hate and fear Emmanuel Goldstein because they are told to. As far as we can tell in the novel, if Goldstein is a real person, he’s a high ranking party official, glad to be used as a tool for oppressing the bourgeoisie. But the main thing about it is that for the vast majority of people, it is all so real. People don’t watch Fox News because they like being misinformed; they watch it because they know they are getting the truth. We can laugh at them, but a far more pernicious kind of propaganda is the way all of the mainstream media just treat some countries as bad and others as good.

Ordinary Life in IranIt’s not hard to see how this works. No country is all good or all bad. So for official government enemies, our media reports almost exclusively the bad things. For official government friends, our media reports almost exclusively the good things. I’ve discussed this before with respect to Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, American Double Standard Regarding Democracy. That’s a case where it isn’t even close. Venezuela has lots of problems, but it is a bastion of goodness and light compared to Saudi Arabia. But few Americans are aware of this. They just know that Saudi Arabia is “good” and Venezuela is “bad” — because they’ve been manipulated to believe that.

A better comparison is between Saudi Arabia and Iran. They are both Muslim theocracies. And yet we hate Iran and if we don’t love Saudi Arabia, we tend to apologize for it and say that it is moving in the right direction. What exactly that means for a country that officially kills its own citizens via beheading with sword and stoning, I can’t say. But Martin Longman brought up a very interesting fact the other day: Iran is a far better place to be Jewish than Saudi Arabia.

Ordinary Life in Saudi ArabiaActually, that kind of under-states it. The truth is that in Saudi Arabia, “Jewish (as well as Christian and other non-Muslim) religious services are prohibited from being held on Saudi Arabian soil.” What’s more, “Persons with an Israeli government stamp in their passport or who are openly Jewish are generally not permitted into the Kingdom.”

Meanwhile, in Iran, things are not so bad for Jews. “Iran’s Jewish community is officially recognized as a religious minority group by the government, and, like the Zoroastrians and Christians, they are allocated one seat in the Iranian Parliament.” There appear to be about 25,000 Jews in Iran. I’m sure that doesn’t make Iran a great place to be Jewish — or anything else, for that matter. But why is it that a government like Iran’s that has at least a modicum of respect for Judaism is the one that we assume can’t possibly get along with Israel. But the government that won’t allow Jews (Or Israelis!) into its country is a great ally of Israel?

What’s really going on is that it is all about power politics. The US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia are all bound together by similar strategic interests. Yet right now, our supposed greatest threat in the region is the Islamic State. And it is Sunni — like Saudi Arabia. In fact, wealthy donors in Saudi Arabia (Of course!) were funding the Islamic State for years. Meanwhile, Iran has at war with the Islamic State for years.

None of this is to say that Iran is some great country. But it is just to highlight that our attitudes toward Iran and Saudi Arabia have nothing whatsoever to do with the common American propaganda about freedom and democracy. Saudi Arabia is a terrible country, but if we just made a nuclear deal with it, there would be no complaining.

An Excellent Question for Donald Trump

David Cay JohnstonYour first major deal was converting the decrepit Commodore Hotel next to Grand Central Station into a Grand Hyatt. Mayor Abe Beame, a close ally of your father Fred, gave you the first-ever property tax abatement on a New York City hotel, worth at least $400 million over 40 years.

Since you boast that you are a self-made billionaire, how do you rationalize soliciting and accepting $400 million of welfare from the taxpayers?

—David Cay Johnston
21 Questions For Donald Trump

Helping Business and Workers That We Won’t Do

Dean BakerOver the weekend, Dean Baker wrote, Will Hillary Clinton Have a Serious Plan to Persuade Companies to Invest in Workers? It seems that Clinton is calling for companies to invest in their workers, and Baker would like to know if she has any plans to cause that to happen, or whether she is just expecting that her pretty words will convince them. It isn’t surprising that the mainstream media is not interested in the question. After all, they too are in the pretty but anemic words business.

Baker noted, “It actually is not hard to give companies more incentive to invest in their workers, we can just make it harder for them to fire them.” This is something that is very big in Europe. But in America, we have done nothing over the past 60 years but move away from this. The argument is that businesses must have total flexibility or we won’t have acceptable growth. What workers might need doesn’t matter. But it is interesting that allowing businesses to lay off workers at the first sign of an economic downturn just plays into the paradox of thrift.

If a business sees a recession is coming on and lays off half its employees, there will be a all those employees who are not buying things. This will cause the recession to get even worse — even faster. Now, this is a fine strategy for any specific business. But in the aggregate, it is bad for all businesses — because there will be fewer people around to buy their products. So legislation that stopped businesses from doing something that will ultimately be bad for them is a good idea. Or at least it is if the concern really is economic growth.

Of course, I don’t think that is why conservatives want to give businesses the most flexibility and workers the least flexibility. More and more, I look back to Edmund Burke when thinking about conservatism. The great concern is that if you allow the workers to get comfortable, they will revolt. And by “revolt,” they mean “ask for anything at all.” So I think the whole idea here is to make workers as insecure as possible. But all that ultimately does is put off the day when workers demand some kind of equal share of the resources of this country. But I guess the conservatives figure that they’ve been able to finesse it this long, and now with Fox News, it is a good bet that they can continue on indefinitely.

I like Hillary Clinton. But I have no illusions that she isn’t part of the power elite. She will not do anything that taxes her class. But even if she did do something, it would be changed over time to help the business community. Dean Baker discussed how a Carter administration program to allow workers to become part owners has been instead little more than a “tax break for creative owners.” To me, it is all about this: it isn’t enough to elect a president. Unless we can keep a liberal government in power for a decade, we are going to get relatively little reform. And given that a large section of the liberal coalition has something better to do during off-year elections, we have a problem.

David McCullough Creates Myth to Replace Myth

David McCulloughDavid McCullough was on The Daily Show Monday night. Earlier this year, he wrote, The Wright Brothers. He was a last minute replacement for Ted Cruz who suddenly found out there were some kittens that he needed to drown. And McCullough was certainly better than listening to Ted Cruz spit out a stream of talking points about how Mexicans are destroying America and the Iran deal is the worst foreign policy ever known to man — Neville Chamberlain blah, blah, blah. But that hardly means the segment was good. I wanted to retch.

Stewart started off by noting that we don’t know that much about the Wright brothers — just what we learned on the children’s place mats we got at family restaurants. So here comes McCullough to tell us about the real Wright brothers — to give us just a taste of his 336 pages of wisdom on the subject. The man will dispel the myth and create instead a real story of these men — not the children’s book narrative of the rugged individuals or the Romantic heroes. But that was not to be.

This is how he begins to “enlighten” us on the true nature of the Wright brothers:

In fact, they were infinitely more than that, and more interesting as human beings. And brave almost beyond almost anyone I’ve ever known much about. And they would not give up. And they never let failure get them down. And they were determined to succeed. And they did it on their own — entirely. They had no foundation behind them. They had no university backing them. They had no angel… And they had no backer. They did it all with their own money. On their own steam. On their own initiative. In their own free time. And they had very little in the way of income.

And he continues on in the same vein. He finally gets around to telling the story of the Wright’s 82 year old father who goes flying for the first time, “Orville took him up… And the whole time he was sitting beside Orville on this plane — no seat belts or anything… He kept saying, ‘Higher, Orville! Higher!’ That was the spirit of the family.” There’s a word for this: pathetic.

I don’t have a problem with hagiography. People like to make heroes out of humans. I’m fine with that. But don’t give me this garbage about telling the real story of the Wright brothers and then just provide the same old story with ever more hero worship. Back in 1968, The Archie Show produced an episode about the Wright brothers that contained more information about the subject — and a song!

As the voice of so many Ken Burns documentaries, David McCullough sort of speaks to a quaint Americana. But he also presents himself as a serious historian — complaining about the state of education. But the kind of history that he peddles is not what I recognize as history. It is more or less apologetics — the “We’re number one!” argument presented quietly, seriously, eloquently — but with no more cogency.

Morning Music: Mimi Fariña

Mimi Fariña and Joan BaezSome time before World War I, the labor organizer Rose Schneiderman gave a speech that included the poetic line, “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” This lead to a poem, “Bread and Roses.” And this was later turned into several songs. The most recent was in 1974, when Mimi Fariña set it to music.

That same year, Fariña set up an organization called Bread & Roses that provides free music to people in institutions. She died in 2001 of neuroendocrine cancer. But the organization lives on.

Here is Fariña and her big sister Joan Baez singing the song. As usual, I couldn’t find a video of a live performance. But this one has a nice collection of labor related images to go along with it.

Anniversary Post: START I

START I - Trust, but Verify

On this day in 1991, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty — START I — was signed between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was the first nuclear treaty that ever actually reduced the number of nuclear weapons that the superpowers had. It is stuff like this that makes what I hear today about the nuclear deal with Iran so frustrating. I recently heard a conservative say, “I just don’t trust the Iranians!” And why didn’t he trust the Iranians? No reason really. I discuss this glib acceptance of propaganda in an article later today. But it comes down to this: the media have told the people in countless ways that the Iranians can’t be trusted, so the people believe it — without any evidence.

But I at least understand that. What I don’t understand is how people can have forgotten that the exact same things were said about the Soviet Union. It was widely believed that the Soviets just couldn’t be trusted. They would supposedly start a nuclear war if they thought they could win. They weren’t rational. They weren’t like the enemies that came before. The fact that the Soviet Union had shown itself to be extremely rational didn’t matter — everyone just “knew” that it wasn’t so.

And so the same thing is said about the Iranians — because the same thing is always said about whomever happens to be our enemy. Like I said: I understand. What is it that most defines an enemy: lack of trust. Of course, when it comes to treaties, it isn’t about trust. If it were, and the Iranians truly couldn’t be trusted, then why did they negotiate? Why didn’t they just agree to everything, given that they intended to not abide by the treaty and there is nothing in the treaty to compel them? Of course, when it is phrased like that, the ridiculousness of the claim becomes clear.

What’s wrong with the average foe of the Iran nuclear deal is that what they really want is war. I know that’s shocking to say. After all, didn’t we just manage to mess up in a big way in Iraq with a war of choice? But I think these people believe that if we just repeated the Iraq War in every other country in the Middle East, everything would be fine. Of course, the opposite is true. And if we were to cause the fall of the current Iranian government, I believe the entire Middle East would be destabilized. There’s no telling what new horrible governments we would facilitate.

But it is nice to think back 24 years ago to the START I. What kind of a messed up world do we live in where George HW Bush looks like a great statesman? And give it another 20 years — we might think back fondly on the seriousness of his son.