The Eagle's Shadow
Why America Fascinates and
Infuriates the World
by Mark Hertsgaard
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
Americans not only don't know much about the rest of the world,
we don't care. Or at least we didn't before the terrible events
of September 11, 2001. Until then, many Americans were barely
aware the outside world existed, a fact that both exasperates
and amuses foreigners.
... George W. Bush had traveled abroad only three times before
he became president. Whatever his other qualities as a leader,
in this respect the younger Bush was perfectly representative
of his fellow citizens, only 14 percent of whom have passports.
As a people forever fixated on the promise of a better tomorrow,
Americans are barely familiar with our history, much less anyone
As in most countries, the dominant institutions in the United
States are run by elites whose views do not necessarily coincide
with those of the general public. In fact, the gap between America's
elites and its masses has been growing over the last quarter century
as economic inequality intensifies, the wealthy and well-connected
increasingly control the political process, and once proud news
organizations are gobbled up by giant corporations whose only
allegiance is to profits... To oversimplify, the media reflect
elite opinion but shape mass opinion.
... few(foreigners) appreciate how poorly served Americans are
by our media and educational systems-how narrow the range of information
and debate is in the land of the free ...
In the United States [after 9-11] ... the news media's pronouncements
were indistinguishable from the government's, and neither showed
tolerance for anything less than full-throated outrage. At the
Fox television network, correspondents wore American flag pins
and anchor Brit Hume dismissed civilian deaths in Afghanistan
as unworthy of news coverage. CNN chairman Walter Isaacson directed
his U.S. staff not to mention civilian casualties in Afghanistan
without at the same time recalling the Americans who died on September
11. (Tellingly, CNN did not impose such restrictions on its overseas
broadcasts.) When the American media finally examined the question
of how the United States appeared to the rest of the world, that
richly complex subject was reduced simplistic melodrama.
The United States sits atop an increasingly unequal world; 45
percent of humanity lives on less than two dollars a day. Peace
and prosperity are unlikely under such conditions, as the CIA
itself has warned. "Groups feeling left behind [by widening
inequality] ... will foster political, ethnic, ideological, and
religious extremism, along with the violence that often accompanies
it," an agency report forecast in 2000-as good a prediction
of September 11 as one could want.
... globalization is in fact largely Americanization ...
How can [America] put men on the moon and libraries onto computer
chips but still debate the teaching of evolution in public schools
and nearly impeach a president over an extramarital affair? How
can Americans be so rich in material possessions but so lacking
in family and community ties? So inundated with timesaving appliances
yet perpetually stressed and hurried? How can the United States
have given birth to uplifting cultural glories like jazz and rock
and roll and socially resonant ethics like environmentalism yet
be a cheerleader for vacuous celebrity, gratuitous violence, and
How can a nation famous as the land of
opportunity be spawning a growing underclass for whom the American
Dream has become a cruel myth? How could the world's proudest
democracy descend to the chaos and corruption that stained the
2000 presidential contest?
Politically, we live in a democracy that barely deserves the name.
Our government lectures others on how to run elections, yet most
of our own citizens don't vote. Abdication of this basic civic
responsibility may be rooted partly in the complacency that affluence
can breed, but surely another cause is the alienation many Americans
feel from a political system they correctly perceive as captive
to the rich and powerful.
... in our foreign policy we say we stand for freedom and often
we do, but we can be shamelessly hypocritical, siding with treacherous
dictatorships that serve our perceived interests and overthrowing
real democracies that do not.
Ten things that foreigners think about America that Americans
usually don't talk about:
1. America is parochial and self-centered.
2. America is rich and exciting.
3. America is the land of freedom.
4. America is an empire, hypocritical
5. Americans are naive about the world.
6. Americans are philistines.
7. America is the land of opportunity.
8. America is self-righteous about its
9. America is the future.
10. America is out for itself.
... the largest act of mass murder in the twentieth century [was]
the famine engineered by Mao Zedong [China] from 1959 to 1962
that killed an estimated thirty million people
FUN, FUN, FUN.
We Americans have no idea how rich we
are, but everyone else, certainly does; it's often the first thing
foreigners mention about the United States. There is, of course,
also extensive poverty within the United States, especially among
children, a condition. But most of us take for granted modern
bathrooms, hot showers, and unlimited water for cooking at the
turn of a faucet; no walking to and from an unclean creek with
buckets and building a fire first, as countless women in Africa,
Asia, and South America still do every day. Nor do we think twice
about jumping in one of our family's two or three cars and zipping
off whenever we want, wherever we want; we disdain the buses,
trains, and other forms of mass transit widely used even in affluent
Japan and western Europe as too slow and inconvenient, and the
walking that hundreds of millions of the world's poor rely upon
is inconceivable to us; many of us will drive the two blocks to
the corner store to pick up bread and milk. And that bread and
milk, which are always fresh, only hint at the mind-boggling variety
and volume of food and drink we have to choose from, whether in
mammoth supermarkets whose shelves bulge with virtually every
food imaginable no matter what time of year or where we live-strawberries
in February, sea crabs in Denver-or in the restaurants that now
receive 46 percent of all the money Americans spend on food per
Put another way, Americans don't realize
how poor most other people in the world are. For most people on
the planet, shopping is an exercise in penny-pinching prudence,
not the ~ compulsive hobby it has become for many Americans. Approximately
one in every five human beings subsists on one dollar a day, a
level of poverty which makes hunger and illness their frequent
companions. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture
Organization, some 35,600 children die every day from "conditions
of starvation"-that is, from the many illnesses that prey
upon tiny bodies that go hungry day after day.
Americans are not unaware of world poverty-we're
proud of sending food aid overseas-but we have little grasp of
how beyond the human norm our own level of consumption is. It
doesn't help that our news media have almost no interest in the
outside world in general and the plight of the poor in particular;
but neither do we get out and see for ourselves. The relatively
few Americans who travel overseas generally confine themselves
to zones of English-speaking comfort. Thus remain oblivious to
our extraordinary privilege.
United Nations Human Development Report
The richest fifth of the world's people consume 86 percent of
all goods and services, while the poorest fifth are left with
just over one percent.
With 5 percent of the earth's population, the United States is
responsible for approximately 25 percent of humanity's environmental
footprint-that is, its consumption of timber, minerals, and other
resources; its destruction of rain forests, wetlands, and endangered
species; and its production of such pollutants as the dioxins
that poison water supplies and the carbon dioxide that drives
global climate change.
Chinese outnumber Americans more than five to one, but the average
American consumes fifty-three times more goods and services. In
China there is one car for every five hundred people; in the United
States, one car per every two.
Approximately one in every three minutes of American television
By age seven, an average American child watches twenty-seven hours
of television a week-nearly four hours a day-and sees an incredible
twenty thousand commercials a year.
... the shopping mall has replaced the church and town square
as the center of our social life
Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of domestic economy
When George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas
Jefferson, and the other founders of the United States asserted
in our Declaration of Independence that "all men are created
equal" (and with typically American impudence claimed that
this "truth" was "self-evident"), it marked
a radical break from the past.
The climate of intimidation [after 9-11] was such that the most
radical assault mounted on the United States Constitution in decades
became law with scarcely a peep of protest from either the political
class or the general public. On October 25, 2001, President Bush
signed into law the "USA PATRIOT Act," an Orwellian
phrase if ever there was one. Among its many extraordinary provisions,
the law canceled habeas corpus rights for non-citizens (which
amounted to twenty million people in the United States); the attorney
general was now authorized to detain indefinitely any non-citizen
that he and he alone deemed a threat to the national security.
It allowed government agents to search a citizen's house without
notifying that citizen, and it expanded the government's ability
to wiretap not only telephone but Internet communications, giving
the government access to a person's e-mail and bank and credit
card records. Federal agents could also seize public library records
to check what people were reading. Separately, the Justice Department
asserted the right to monitor conversations between criminal suspects
and their lawyers. Other new laws gave the CIA the right to spy
on Americans, authorized the attorney general on his sole discretion
to designate domestic groups as terrorist organizations, and lowered
the legal threshold for obtaining a search warrant from "probable
cause" to "relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation."
Meanwhile, the president declared by executive fiat that any non-citizen
he considered a suspected terrorist could be tried by a military
tribunal rather than by an ordinary court; the tribunal would
operate in secret, could impose the death penalty, and would not
be subject to judicial appeal.
The people's representatives in Congress
passed the "USA PATRIOT Act" by overwhelming margins.
The Senate approved it by a vote of 98 to 1; in the House, only
66 of the 435 members voted against it. As the lone Senate dissenter,
Wisconsin Democrat Russell Feingold, explained, "It is crucial
that civil liberties in this country be preserved. Otherwise I'm
afraid terror will win this battle without firing a shot."
In the House, Representative Dennis Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio,
went further. The "USA PATRIOT Act" and other steps
taken by the Bush administration, Kucinich argued in a speech
in December, revoked half of the ten amendments in the Bill of
Rights: the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and assembly;
the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and
seizure; the Fifth Amendment right to due process; the Sixth Amendment
right to a prompt public trial; and the Eighth Amendment protection
against cruel and unusual punishment.
There was virtually no discussion, much
less criticism, of this extraordinary expansion of government
secrecy and police power when it mattered most-before the bill
was passed and signed into law. Ventilating the proposed measures
and subjecting them to reasoned debate might have helped separate
the wheat from the chaff, illuminating what sorts of changes would
really improve intelligence gathering and security preparedness
and how to do so without sacrificing essential freedoms. But there
was no such debate. One prominent Washington journalist, who asked
to remain nameless, told me after the fact that "there was
no time [for news coverage]. They rushed [the bill] through before
the press could focus on it." It is true the bill was introduced
on September 19 and signed on October 25, which is lightning-fast
by Washington standards. Nevertheless, journalists had five weeks
to analyze the law and bring its provisions to public attention.
For people who face deadlines every day, that was plenty of time.
And what a difference outspoken news coverage
might have made! The exception proves the point: when journalists
did finally wake up, they trained their fire on Bush's military
tribunals, which conservative columnist William Safire lambasted
as "kangaroo courts" that gave Bush "dictatorial
power." Other critics pointed out that such courts would
damage America's reputation overseas and thus sacrifice the moral
high ground in the war on terrorism. Sustained media criticism
led the administration to modify its proposal somewhat; the revised
tribunals would not operate in total secrecy or prohibit all appeals.
The most worrisome aspect of all this
was not the government's restrictions on freedom, as chilling
as they were, but the public's apparent acceptance of those restrictions.
Opinion polls suggested that more than 70 percent of Americans
were willing to give up some freedoms during the war on terrorism
(which, it was said, would last decades). Some worried that the
government would excessively restrict average Americans' civil
liberties, but tolerance for actions aimed at immigrants and minorities
was high. A Gallup poll found that 82 percent of respondents supported
increased government power to detain even legal immigrants; 49
percent favored identification cards for Arab-Americans. A Harris
CNN/Time poll found that 31 percent of respondents thought that
Arab-Americans should be detained in camps.
Thus did both the Bush administration
and a sizable minority of the citizenry flirt with replaying one
of the most shameful episodes in modern American history: the
internment in camps of some 110,000 Japanese-Americans, as well
as 11,000 German-Americans and 3,000 Italian-Americans, during
World War II for no other reason than their ethnic backgrounds.
To his credit, President Bush spoke out in the days immediately
following September 11, urging Americans to show tolerance toward
American Muslims. But meanwhile his administration was actively
violating the rights of some twelve hundred non-citizens who were
hauled into custody and detained without charges, just as the
World War II internees had been. Not only did the Bush administration
deny these detainees access to lawyers, it refused to identify
them. An additional five thousand people within Arab-American
or Muslim communities were singled out for police interrogation.
"We're an open society," the president declared, "but
we're at war."
a London cab driver
It is quite amazing how [Americans] don't
know anything about other places in the world ... unless they're
[In 1998] the United States had shot down an Iranian civilian
jet it mistakenly believed was a military craft. All 290 passengers
When Bush senior was asked if an apology
was in order, he replied, "I will never apologize for the
United States. I don't care what the facts are."
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright modestly explained, "if
we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the
indispensable nation.... We see farther into the future."
As Rupert Cornwell, the Washington correspondent for the British
newspaper The Independent, observed on an other occasion, "No
one wraps self-interest in moral superiority quite like the Americans
Siphiwo Sobuwa, imprisoned on South Africa's Robbin Island for
15 years for his activities with the African National Congress
"It is a trend among United States
presidents that so-called Third World countries must be destabilized.
America believes in solving problems not by negotiations but through
Siphiwo Sobuwa, imprisoned on South Africa's Robbin Island for
15 years for his activities with the African National Congress
(ANC), about President BIll Clinton
"He came here a couple years ago
to visit Mandela and speak to our Parliament, and he told us South
Africa should cut its ties to Cuba because Cuba was a bad government.
Well, when we needed help during our liberation struggle, Cuba
gave it. When we needed food, Cuba provided it. For someone who
did not help our struggle to come now and ask us to distance ourselves
from someone who did, that is very arrogant behavior."
Then there is our self-serving definition of "terrorism,"
a concept America's political and media elites never apply to
the United States or its allies, only to enemies or third parties.
No one disputes that the September 11 attacks against the United
States were acts of terrorism; that is, they targeted innocent
civilians to advance a political or military agenda. When the
Irish Republican Army exploded bombs inside London subway stations
and department stores in the mid-1990s, that, too, was terrorism.
So were the Palestinian suicide bombings
in Israel in early 2002, and Saddam Hussein's use of poison gas
against Kurds in Iraq in 1988. But when Israel attacked Palestinian
refugee camps in April 2002, demolishing buildings and killing
or wounding many civilians, was that not also terrorism? When
the United States lobbed Volkswagen-sized shells into Lebanese
villages in 1983 and dropped "smart bombs" on Baghdad
in 1991, many innocent civilians perished while Washington sent
its geopolitical message. The napalm dropped during the Vietnam
War, the bombing of Dresden, and the annihilation of Hiroshima
and Nagasaki in World War II-these acts all pursued military or
political objectives by killing vast numbers of civilians, just
as the September 11 attacks did. Yet in mainstream American discourse,
the United States is never the perpetrator of terrorism, only
its victim and implacable foe.
veteran Asian affairs analyst Chalmers Johnson, in his book -
"Although most Americans may be largely
ignorant of what was, and still is, being done in their names,
all are likely to pay a steep price . . . for their nation's continued
efforts to dominate the global scene."
DOING THE RIGHT THING
America is modest about very little, but
it is curiously reticent about its status as the mightiest empire
in history. Whereas previous empires gloried in their privileged
status (Rome) or wrestled with its moral implications (Great Britain),
the American empire simply tells itself it doesn't exist. By any
historical definition, the United States is an empire of extraordinary
power, but only in the wake of September 11 have even its elites
begun using this term, and always favorably. Americans believe
they are wealthy because they're decent, hardworking people (which
they generally are), without realizing the huge advantages that
America's overseas power secures for them, starting with the cheap,
abundant Middle East oil that fueled the American economy's remarkable
growth over the past fifty years.
The United States has acted like an empire
from the beginning, repeatedly using force to expand its territory.
It started by pushing Native Americans off their land. In the
War of 1812, it drove the British into Canada once and for all,
a display of strength that convinced Spain to give up its claim
to the Southwest. With the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, the United
States declared unofficial control over the entire western hemisphere.
In 1898 it expanded overseas, "liberating" Cuba and
the Philippines from Spain but making them virtual American colonies;
it also chose an "Open Door" strategy of relying on
economic more than military strength to dominate overseas. The
first half of the twentieth century included dozens of foreign
interventions to ensure friendly governments and protect U.S.
business interests, especially in Central America.
The American empire reached maturity after
emerging from World War II as by far the strongest and richest
world power. Military bases were established throughout Europe,
Asia, and the Middle East. The rules of international trade and
finance were favorably rewritten to encourage expansion of American
companies overseas. During the subsequent Cold War, the Soviet
empire challenged but never seriously threatened the supremacy
of its American counterpart. Today, thirteen years after the fall
of the Berlin Wall, the United States maintains nearly the same
global posture it did during the Cold War: scores of overseas
military bases; the world's highest volume of arms sales (90 percent
to undemocratic or human-rights-abusing governments); and massive
nuclear overkill (each of its twenty-two Trident submarines can
reduce four hundred cities to radioactive dust, and the Tridents
are but a small part of the total arsenal). In short, the American
empire shows no signs of either shrinking or retreating.
How can Americans be expected to form considered opinions about
the "war on terrorism" when our news media report little
but the government's version of the truth?
The biggest political joke in America is that we have a liberal
press. It's a joke taken seriously by a surprisingly large number
of people, including the nation's sizable right-wing minority
(approximately one of every four voters). Their purchases propelled
a book reiterating the myth, Bernard Goldberg's Bias, to the top
of America's best-seller lists in early 2002. The notion of a
liberal press was injected into the national consciousness thirty
years ago by Richard Nixon, who blamed the press for losing the
Vietnam War and inflating what he dismissed as a "third-rate
burglary" into the Watergate scandal. Ever since, the myth
of the liberal press has served as a political weapon for conservative
and right-wing forces eager to discourage critical coverage of
government and corporate power. And journalists and their superiors
have fallen for the trick. They are forever asking themselves
if their coverage is too liberal, never if it is too conservative.
Understand: In America, "liberal"
means "left-wing," with its connotations of anti-government,
anti-corporate, antiestablishment. The reality of how America's
newspapers, television, radio, Internet, and other mass media
operate could hardly be more different.
Anti-government? Most of what the American
press reports about the U.S. government is the government's side
of the story. Check any newspaper, peruse any broadcast. You find
statement after statement of what the president said today about
subject X, what the defense secretary said about topic Y, how
proposal Z was received by the Senate or House majority leader.
Often there are disputes among these officials-conflict being
a necessary ingredient of the news narrative-but the disputes
tend to be incremental or tactical. There is precious little reporting
that stands back from the insider debates of Washington, challenges
their underlying premises, or offers a genuinely alternative analysis.
"What we do most of the time is,
we really are a transmission belt," confessed the late James
Reston, who served for decades as the New York Times's man in
Washington. Of course, it is important to report the government's
side of any story. But if that is all, or nearly all, of the story,
the resulting picture is inevitably misleading. What citizens
end up being told is not so much a lie as it is woefully incomplete,
which can amount to the same thing. For example, the press repeatedly
reported the Bush administration's claim to be taking extraordinary
measures to avoid civilian casualties during the war in Afghanistan.
Only rarely and long after the fact did it present contrary information.
Thus news coverage left the impression that few innocents were
being killed, when in fact the death toll was probably higher
than the number killed in the September 11 attacks.
We do not,(thank God,)have a state-owned
or state-controlled press in the United States. We do have a state-friendly
one. That is, our press supports the prevailing political system,
its underlying assumptions and power relations, and the economic
and foreign policies that flow from them. Rarely are these liberal.
Americans and foreigners alike, I've learned,
find the idea of a state-friendly press in the United States hard
to grasp. They see the freedoms that permeate American life and
they assume that a robust, diverse exchange of political ideas
and information is naturally part of the mix. After all, freedom
of the press is written into the very first amendment of our Bill
of Rights. Alas, in contemporary America, that freedom exists
in theory more than it gets exercised in practice. "It's
always amazed me about you guys," a British journalist once
told me. "We do lots of investigative reporting in Britain,
even though our libel laws are quite strict. You guys have all
the freedom in the world and you don't use it." The best
line ever written about the press, at least by an American, was
by A. J. Liebling:
"Freedom of the press is guaranteed
only to those who own one." Nowadays, ownership of the American
press has been captured by a handful of gigantic transnational
corporations who are the farthest thing imaginable from leftist
troublemakers or even law-abiding liberals. Should it surprise
anyone that the news they provide downplays unconventional viewpoints,
tough criticism of corporate and government elites, and other
information uncongenial to the established order?
The problem with the American press is not that it favors Republicans
or Democrats; the problem is that it is a stenographer to power.
In the name of objectivity and political neutrality, the Washington
press corps limits its definition of quotable news sources to
official Washington: administration officials, influential members
of Congress, experts from the plethora of "think tanks"
in town. This limits the range of debate to the existing Republican-to-Democrat
spectrum. However valid a given point of view might be on an intellectual
level-say, that missile defense is a technological pipe dream-if
it isn't forcefully argued by a significant part of the Washington
establishment, it receives no attention.
In short, the Washington press corps functions
as a palace court press. It is adept at detailing the intrigues
of palace politics: What is the president proposing? How will
Congress react? Who is going to win the fight? Where does the
balance of power lie? This is not unimportant information, but
it falls short of what citizens really need to hold their government
accountable. (It also makes reporters sound dumber than most of
them actually are.) Because the press is not inclined to step
outside the mind-set of the authorities it covers, it surrenders
much of its formal independence and rarely acts as the check and
balance on the nation's rulers that the founders envisioned.
A key corollary is that the press will
be only as adversarial toward a given president as the opposition
party is. Since journalists must (appear to) be neutral and quote
mainly official sources, they depend on the opposition party to
balance their coverage. If the opposition is tough, coverage of
the president will be commensurately tougher. Other factors contribute
to any president's media profile, but this rule of thumb accounts
for much of the positive coverage that Reagan received; Democrats
were simply unwilling to criticize him.
The American news media have degenerated over the past quarter
century into a profit-obsessed colossus, a peddler of pseudo-news
that at once entrances and demeans the public.
The American media used to be more serious and civic minded, but
that changed fast after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
In the name of free enterprise, Reagan deregulated the broadcasting
business. Federal rules intended to ensure that the public interest
was taken into account in the use of the nation's airwaves-which
are, after all, public property-were relaxed or eliminated. Reagan's
deregulation made renewal of broadcast licenses virtually automatic;
no longer would companies have to earn their licenses by providing
news and public affairs programming. Most lucrative of all, Reagan
expanded ownership limits. Historically, federal law had limited
a company to owning seven television stations, seven FM radio
stations, and seven AM radio stations in the United States. In
a democracy, the thinking went, no single voice should control
too large a share of the communications system. Reagan said the
market should decide; he wanted to eliminate restrictions entirely
but had to settle for expanding the so-called 7-7-7 rule to 12-12-12.
Those fifteen extra stations represented a gift to broadcast corporations
of literally billions of dollars in additional revenues over the
FCC Chairman Michael Powell
"The night after I was sworn in [as
commissioner], I waited for a visit from the angel of the public
interest. I waited all night, but she did not come."
The American news media's ideological center of gravity has shifted
well to the right over the past twenty years, in part because
corporations have taken over virtually every news organization
that reaches a mass audience, including such ostensibly noncommercial
outfits as National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System.
NPR and PBS have grown increasingly indistinguishable from commercial
broadcasting since right-wing politicians successfully defunded
them, beginning in the 1980s under Reagan and concluding during
the Gingrich revolution of 1995, when members of Congress pressed
to "zero out" their budgets. Left on starvation rations,
NPR and PBS were forced to turn more and more to corporate funders,
which in turn compelled them to produce programming likely to
please those funders. Often this programming remains admirable
on technical grounds, but it displays little critical distance
from the centers of power in the United States, especially the
giant corporations that dominate our economy and government.
Americans now have the worst of both worlds: a press that, at
best, parrots the pronouncements of the powerful and, at worst,
encourages people to be stupid with pseudo-news that illuminates
nothing but the bottom line. If you think I am painting too bleak
a picture, how about this shocker: Not long before September 11,
the press passed up-that is, missed- the story of Osama bin Laden's
plan to attack the United States. That's right. America's corporate
news organizations had the chance to blow the whistle on bin Laden's
plans eight weeks in advance, but they chose not to run the story.
A year later, in 2002, the media swarmed
all over the Bush administration for failing to heed warnings
of an impending terrorist attack-pretty nervy, considering that
the media had made exactly the same mistake. On June 23, 2001,
a story reporting that "followers of exiled Saudi dissident
Osama bin Laden are planning a major attack on U.S. and Israeli
interests" was sent out over the Reuters wire service, which
meant that it landed in virtually every major newsroom in the
United States. United Press International circulated a similar
report on June 25, informing subscribers that "Saudi dissident
Osama bin Laden is planning a terrorist attack against the United
States." But the stories were largely ignored by the nation's
media. According to journalist Simon Marks, writing in Quill,
the journal of the Society of Professional Journalists, "A
search of the country's major newspaper and broadcast network
Web sites reveals that barely any considered the stories worthy
Mind you, America's media found plenty
of time during those same days to continue flogging a sex scandal
involving Gary Condit, an obscure Democratic congressman, and
to divulge the underage drinking arrest of President Bush's daughter
Jenna. But a story about a Middle Eastern guy with a name Americans
couldn't even pronounce, warning about an attack that might or
might not happen? Who had time for that kind of trivia when there
were vital issues of sex and drugs facing the nation?
... programs like Crossfire, Hardball, and The Washington Gang
favor a macho approach; panelists bluster, insult and interrupt
one another, and in general show all the wisdom and thought of
a kennel of barking dogs. Their ideological cast is decidedly
right-wing. Most panelists' views range from conservative to hard
right; the left is defined by former Clinton administration officials.
A study by Columbia University's Project for Excellence in Journalism,
summarized by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, found that "less
than ten percent of the coverage evaluating administration policy
offers significant dissent. Most contains no dissent at all."
What media critic Michael Massing deplored in The Nation as "a
Soviet-style reliance on official and semi-official sources"
further ensured that American policy and behavior were rarely
cast in a less than glorious light.
America's media should not reflexively oppose government policies,
but they should widen their ideological perspective so that all
meaningful points of view are covered. Almost never, for example,
did the major media give space to advocates of nonmilitary responses
to the September 11 attacks. While the op-ed pages of the New
York Times and especially the Washington Post bristled day after
day with calls for immediate bombing of Afghanistan and beyond,
television producers explained the absence of alternative voices
by saying that they couldn't find anyone who opposed war. They
couldn't have looked very hard; by September 28 nearly two hundred
prominent Americans, including the celebrities that television
traditionally preferred (Martin Sheen and Bonnie Raitt), as well
as internationally renowned intellectuals such as Edward W. Said
and Frances Moore Lappe, had signed a statement calling for "Justice
Not Vengeance." The statement was later published as an advertisement
in various newspapers; in the United States, it seems, there are
some things you have to buy the freedom to say.
The media did offer criticism of the war
in Afghanistan, but only of its tactics, not its basic rationale.
It was a good example of the palace court dynamic in action: because
the Washington establishment was divided over how to conduct the
war, the media ventilated these divisions at great length, through
stories debating whether Bush's plan for air strikes would succeed,
whether ground troops would be needed, whether the alliance would
hold. Whether the war was justified, whether alternative responses
might exist, whether September 11 should provoke a basic rethinking
of America's approach to foreign affairs-these questions were
simply not raised, much less discussed.
How different the world might be if the
American people knew all the things their media keep from them!
Less superficial and jingoistic coverage of foreign affairs would
help Americans understand why their country's reputation overseas
is so uneven. It would enable us to see foreigners not as incomprehensible,
abstract stereotypes but as flesh-and-blood human beings with
the same kinds of faults, virtues, and frailties that we have.
Better reporting would explain why foreigners see the world differently,
why they are so much more concerned about globalization than Americans
are, why they are annoyed by Washington's environmental foot-dragging
and imperial high-handedness, why they nevertheless generally
yearn for friendlier relations with the United States. Improved
journalism is no panacea; better information will not automatically
yield better policies at home or increased cooperation abroad.
But it is a vital first step. As long as America's media remain
locked into their profiteering palace court posture, the American
public is doomed to ignorance about the outside world, and that's
not good for anyone.
The United States is the largest market for religious books in
the world, and one of
the biggest sellers over the past five
years has been the "Left Behind" series: eight novels
that dramatize the Rapture theory of salvation. Favored by many
fundamentalists, this theory holds that when conditions cited
in the Book of Revelations come to pass, God will end the world
in an explosion of light-the Rapture-and sweep twelve thousand
Christians up to heaven while condemning the rest of humanity
Alexis de Tocqueville
"Never have I been so conscious of the influence of religion
on the morals and social and political state of a people as since
my arrival in America."
Calvinism [Protestantism} put an extra twist on Americans' pursuit
of wealth, for it prescribed hard work for everyone and held that
an unquestioning faith in God-rather than good works-was the only
path to salvation. The possession of riches was a sign that God
favored a given individual, just as a person's poverty signaled
God's disapproval (and the person's unenviable prospects in the
"The '90s have seen a greater polarization
of income in the U.S. than at any point since the end of World
Nearly half of the tax reductions that Washington ordered in early
2001 will go to the top 4 percent of income earners; only 14.7
percent of the cuts will benefit the bottom 60 percent of Americans.
United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, David Cohen reports
that 46 percent of the jobs with the most projected growth in
America to the year 2005-jobs such as janitor, retail clerk, and
waiter or waitress-pay poverty wages. Many workers will choose
to work a second or third job to provide for their families-an
increasingly common strategy for Americans trying to retain their
middle-class dreams or identities, but one which leaves families
even less time together. More poverty and inequality, it seems,
will be accompanied by more stress and isolation.
America is more economically unequal today than at any time since
the Great Depression of 1929, and one of the most disturbing aspects
of the problem is that we as a society barely acknowledge it,
much less talk about how to respond. In Europe and Japan, even
minor increases in economic inequality attract extensive media
coverage and provoke discussion among politicians, clergy, and
other opinion leaders, because those elites recognize the attendant
dangers. By contrast, the elites who dominate America's political,
economic, and media systems carry on as if all is well, which
it is for them.
As disturbing as widespread poverty amid
plenty is, the shrinking of the middle class is the most ominous
aspect of America's growing inequality. Throughout modern world
history, it has been a secure middle class-and the belief by lower
classes that they could rise to enter that class-that has kept
nations politically stable and socially peaceful. The corporate
and right-wing forces behind rising inequality in the United States
are therefore playing with fire. But they are blinded by their
ideology of "market fundamentalism," to borrow financier
George Soros's term, an ideology as rigid and all-encompassing
as the Islamic fundamentalism they often condemn.
Naomi Klein's critical examination of corporate globalization
in No Logo, a runaway best-seller in Great Britain and her native
Canada ... was not even reviewed by leading newspapers and magazines
in the United States.
Likewise, social class is a much-discussed fact of life in Britain
and other advanced capitalist nations but a forbidden subject
among Americans. Our elites dislike the topic for obvious reasons,
and the rest of us have been socialized into thinking it simply
doesn't exist. The only time the phrase "class warfare"
appears in our media is when it is invoked against such proposals
as requiring corporations and the wealthy to pay higher taxes.
Cutting social welfare spending, expanding high-end tax breaks,
firing workers by the thousands-somehow these attacks against
America's non-affluent majority are never described as "class
"America is a very segregated place,
and it's not only segregated by race, it's also segregated by
class," Andy Kolker, the co-director of the documentary People
Like Us, said on the
Washington, D.C.-area television show
The Coffee House. "We don't talk about that in this country
because of our belief that we're really all kind of middle class.
We're all Americans together." Our egalitarian roots contribute
to this myopia. Because of our past, when class relations were
more equal, we want to believe that class is irrelevant. The truth,
as people around the world well know, is that one's class decisively
shapes one's life, especially one's economic prospects.
"For the vast majority of Americans,
the most important determinant of their success, or lack of it,
is the situation they are born into and the opportunity it affords,"
Jack Litzenberg, the director of the Pathways Out of Poverty program
at the Mott Foundation in Detroit, told David Cohen. "Equality
is a myth. Social mobility is increasingly a myth. The American
Dream is a myth. But we hold on to these myths and they define
who we are."
Only 51 percent of the nation's eligible voters bothered to cast
ballots in 2000, and since Buchanan and Ralph Nader won 3 percent
of the vote between them, Bush and Gore were each left with support
from only one-quarter of the electorate. This has become common
in modern America. Bill Clinton gained reelection in 1996 on the
strength of votes from only 24 percent of the electorate. Reagan
drew only 27 percent in 1980, though the media declared he had
won a "landslide" and a "mandate" because
he had trounced Carter in the Electoral College. But do such terms
as "landslide" and "mandate," with their implication
of massive popular approval, really apply when half of the electorate
declines to vote?
What does it say about American democracy
that so many of our citizens consistently choose not to participate
in selecting the nation's leaders? Our voter turnout levels are
consistently lower than those of most other advanced capitalist
democracies. In a measure of all elections between 1945 and 1998,
the United States ranks 114th in the world in voter turnout, with
only 48.3 percent of our electorate going to the polls. Italy
ranks first, with 92.5 percent. Belgium, Holland, Sweden, New
Zealand, Australia, and Germany are all in the 80s, while Spain
has averaged 77 percent, the United Kingdom 74.9 percent, Japan
69 percent, France 67 percent, and India 61 percent.
The ability to raise money is now the single most important qualification
for running for high office in the United States. Long before
actual voters get a chance to choose among candidates in primary
elections, those candidates must succeed in what has been called
the "wealth primary"-the race to prove one's fund-raising
clout. Without it, the media do not take a candidate's chances
seriously and so withhold the coverage needed to make him or her
known to voters. Of course, to raise a war chest, a candidate
must convince potential donors that he or she deserves their support.
This fact gives an enormous amount of political power to the nation's
richest individuals. The richest 4 percent of the population ~
provide nearly 100 percent of all individual campaign contributions.
These people are not monolithic in their views, but they tend
to support policies that will preserve their privileges, such
as high-end tax breaks and a corporate-friendly approach to government
regulation. Non-individual contributions come from labor unions
and corporations. Since corporations' contributions outnumber
labor's by seven to one, the well-off maintain an overwhelming
Under such conditions, is it any wonder
that most candidates refrain from taking positions that might
displease the donor class? Like Republicans and Democrats in general,
Bush's and Gore's economic positions were friendlier to corporations
and the well-to-do than to the bottom 80 percent of the population.
Neither candidate criticized corporate welfare subsidies that
drain hundreds of billions of dollars from the federal treasury
every year, especially through a military budget riddled with
absurd cost overruns. (Pentagon workers, for example, have bought
prostitutes for themselves and paid for breast enhancement for
their girlfriends.) Both men supported the World Trade Organization
and other mechanisms of so-called free trade that raise profits
for corporations but bring workers unemployment and lower wages.
Judging by their silence, both also found the idea of raising
the minimum wage as unthinkable as making corporations and the
wealthy pay their fair share of taxes.
Big money distorts American democracy in another way as | well:
it reinforces the stranglehold that incumbent politicians exercise
over elections. Donors prefer to give money to incumbents, because
incumbents can more surely deliver returns on that investment
by voting favorably, writing laws, prodding the bureaucracy, and
the like. Congressional incumbents raise ten times more money
than challengers, giving them a virtually insurmountable advantage
at election time. Micah Sifry reports in Spoiling for a Fight:
Third-Party Politics in America that in 2000, 98 percent of House
of Representatives incumbents won reelection; in 1998, 99 percent
won. "In recent years a House incumbent has been more likely
to die in office than be beaten by a challenger from his own party,"
adds Sifry. The odds are stacked even less fairly at the state
level; a majority of Americans live in what amount to one-party
To complete the circle of corruption,
incumbent politicians and the major parties write the rules for
political competition that deprive challengers of an equal opportunity
to defeat them. The practice of gerrymandering - carving up districts
to decide which voters will vote for which incumbents-assures
Democrats and Republicans alike of safe seats in much the same
way that price-fixing corporations divide up customers to boost
profits. No less self-serving was the Democrats' and Republicans'
exclusion of Nader and Buchanan from the 2000 presidential debates.
These nationally televised debates were most citizens' only sustained,
unfiltered exposure to the candidates. Polls showed that most
Americans wanted the minor-party candidates included, perhaps
in hopes of forcing some zest and diversity into the discussion.
Yet the Democrats' and Republicans' power play succeeded. The
exclusion of Nader and Buchanan never even became a controversy,
because the media agreed they didn't belong, and that was that.
Instead of a left, America has a right wing that has proven powerful
enough to pull both major parties significantly in its direction
over the past twenty years. Although Bill Clinton governed like
a Republican in many respects, he was reviled by Christian fundamentalists
as a draft-dodging, pot-smoking advocate of abortion, homosexuality,
and socialism. They were determined to bring him down, and they
had at their disposal a well-financed political machine. Besides
grassroots strength, especially in the South, the right has its
own daily newspaper in the political capital, the Washington Times,
and another in the financial capital, the New York Post; and it
controls the editorial page of the nation's largest paper, the
Wall Street Journal. It owns television networks-both Christian
and commercial, like Fox-as well as hundreds of radio stations.
Together, this apparatus can focus popular outrage on Washington.
REAGAN AND THE TRIUMPH OF WEALTH
The Americanization of global culture
is a complex story featuring many players, but one of its stars
is Ronald Reagan, himself a former Hollywood screen actor. Reagan's
deregulation of broadcasting in the United States sent ripples
across the world. By allowing corporations to own not just seven
but twelve television, twelve FM, and twelve AM radio stations,
Reagan gave media corporations countless billions of dollars in
new revenue. This financial infusion helped the corporations to
expand their presence in overseas markets, but even more decisive
over time was the power of the American example. The gigantic
sums of money that deregulated television began to make for American
companies spurred their foreign counterparts to redouble efforts
to gain similar opportunities in their home countries, where broadcasting
was usually dominated by public entities such as the BBC. The
story is complex and varies by country, but in general such efforts
succeeded; commercial television experienced enormous growth around
the world in the 1990s.
The result has been a proliferation of
the junkiest of junk television. By the late 1990s, an average
of one billion people a day were watching Bay Watch, the moronic
Hollywood drama starring lifeguards in scanty swimsuits. In Egypt,
one-third of the programs shown on the state-run television networks
are crime shows from the United States, with the result that Steven
Seagal and Chuck Norris are household names among children. Across
Europe, the triumph of commercial priorities is so pervasive that
even public broadcasting stalwarts like the BBC and its Dutch
and Swedish counterparts have launched commercial divisions and
begun to broadcast advertising. Wherever one turns, the offerings
on television screens are looking more and more like those of
the United States. Americans' television-viewing habits appear
to be spreading as well. French children aged four to eleven averaged
nearly two hours of television a day in 1997, a 10 percent increase
from the year before.
The media sector reveals, in microcosm,
Reagan's greater achievement: by transforming America's economy,
he changed how capitalism operated throughout the world. With
help from his ideological soul mate, British prime minister Margaret
Thatcher, Reagan challenged the prevailing assumptions within
the major capitalist countries about the proper extent of the
welfare state and the regulation of capital. Get government off
of business's back and out of charity work, he argued, and everyone
will be better off. In Britain as in the United States, this approach
yielded a burst of economic growth, a widening of the gap between
rich and poor, and an erosion of transportation, health, and other
public services. Crucially, and perhaps unwittingly on Reagan's
part, it also pressured other countries to adopt similar free
market policies, if only to remain competitive in the world market.
How so? By cutting taxes and regulations,
Reagan effectively lowered the operating costs of American corporations.
This naturally aided their expansion into foreign markets, but
it also gave ammunition to Reagan's ideological allies abroad.
Corporate and right-wing forces in other countries could now justify
the idea of scaling back their own welfare states, cutting taxes,
and deregulating corporations by citing the need to remain competitive
with the Americans. Meanwhile, Reagan was also pushing deregulation
of international commerce- the so-called free trade agenda of
opening foreign nations to corporate investment and removing the
kinds of barriers that the European Union later tried to erect
against American television programming. America's overwhelming
influence within the World Trade Organization, the International
Monetary Fund, and the World Bank helped ensure that this free
market vision carried the day, especially in weaker economies
in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Just as globalization has
been largely Americanization, so Reagan's version of free market
capitalism has become the global norm.
Nowhere have these trends combined more
ostentatiously than in Italy, where tycoon Silvio Berlusconi has
made a crusade of copying Reaganism. Berlusconi, who began as
a real estate magnate from Milan, had by the early 1990s accumulated
a formidable media empire, including three private television
networks as well as Italy's largest publisher of newspapers, magazines,
and books. He then set out to acquire direct political power,
seizing the opening provided by the corruption scandals that discredited
Italy's governing parties to offer himself as a reform candidate
in the 1994 elections. Ample, adoring coverage from his own media
outlets gave his candidacy instant credibility. He ended up as
prime minister in a coalition with the neofascist National Alliance
and the separatist Lombardy League, but it collapsed after seven
months. He ran again in 2001, to the dismay of some in Europe.
The Economist declared him unfit to govern, noting that as prime
minister he would control not only Italy's three largest private
TV networks but also its three publicly owned networks. Nevertheless,
the week I arrived in Italy to begin my travels for this book,
he was elected, decisively.
"Of course, Berlusconi's control
of television helped him win this election, but not in the direct
propaganda sense of his companies saying, 'Vote for me,' "
said Paula Biagini, a high school teacher from Florence who was
seated next to me at the "European Society and the American
Way" conference. "He was helped more by the indirect
effect of his television shows, which glorify the American lifestyle
and economic model and discourage critical thinking. Many of our
youth voted for Berlusconi. I know from my students that they
believe in the American model they see on TV.
... Americans cannot escape a certain responsibility for what
is done in our name around the world. In a democracy, even one
as corrupted as ours, ultimate authority rests with the people.
We empower the government with our votes, finance it with our
taxes, bolster it with our silent acquiescence. If we are passive
in the face of America's official actions overseas, we in effect
The first challenge for Americans is to
do a better job of informing ourselves about what is going on
around the world and our nation's role in it. This won't be easy,
because the most readily available information comes from our
media, which are greatly compromised by their corporate character
and establishment-friendly world view. Our media may as well be
a formal part of the government, for all the critical distance
they usually maintain. (Which also puts the lie to the common
assumption that 75 percent approval ratings in the polls mean
that Americans wholeheartedly approve of Bush's approach to the
war on terrorism and governance in general. Poll results are only
as good as the information they are based on, and the failure
of Democrats and the media to offer meaningful criticisms of Bush
has left Americans largely ignorant of the alternatives that could
We need a revolution in America. Not one of violence and disorder,
but one of values and ways of thinking, one that remembers where
we came from. Our nation was born in revolution. It was dedicated
to freedom and fairness, and based on the idea that all citizens
could join together as equals to govern themselves. That was a
radical idea in 1776, and it remains a radical idea today-and
one worth fighting for. No doubt it will be an uphill struggle
to reclaim our democracy