"The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.
Saturday, March 22, 2008
The Denial of Truth
During the protests of the past week, CNN sought to undermine the moral authority of those opposed to the Iraq occupation. Jeanne Moos' "coverage" of the war protests was a case study in how to lampoon and undermine the moral force of protest. If you wish While this clip illustrates the attitude of those in power to the anti-war protesters, it is also symbolic of the larger project to see the piece and judge for yourself, go here: CNN Trivializes Iraq and Hits a New Low.
The piece leads with four repetitions of the phrase "Shock and Awe", the first by Jeanne Moos saying "We were shocked and awed", then the rest by a female protester who weaves in and out throughout the clip. Jeanne's use of the word "shocked" implies that the fact that we are now in the fifth year is "shocking", but the meaning of the word is immediately trivialized by its repetition by the pro-war protester. Note that the pro-war voice represents the first image, while "critics of the war" represent the second image, symbolized by protesters with Bush and McCain masks. By presenting the images in this order, the pro-war voice is given an implicit priority over those opposed the occupation. Indeed, throughout the clip, the constant return to this pro-war woman lends her irritating voice a central and dominating position in contrast to the diverse and childish activities of the protesters. Hints throughout build up her image as a mother trying to reign in her disrespectful children.
The two dominating images weaving through the video are the pro-war female protester yelling Bush slogans and a pair of anti-war protesters dressed as Bush and McCain, singing a 70s surfer anthem twisted into anti-McCain sarcasm. The overt message of the "coverage" is that protest is fodder for comedy. This is part of an overarching media strategy which would characterize all such protest as under no circumstances to be taken too seriously. In fact, for the corporate media the cardinal sin is to take oneself too seriously, a crime which demands a lampoon, but one that delivers another covert message as we will see below. The underlying vision embodies a nihilist dissolution of values in which all moral perspectives are equal - and equally absurd.
Protesters in death masks representing dead Iraqis and Americans are characterized as "a lot of dress-up", thus overlaying this powerful image with the latent image of children dressing up and playing at being adults. This image was carefully selected because the image of the death mask has mythic significance and highlights one of the most potent arguments against the war - the millions of dead bodies who will haunt this country for centuries to come. Clearly, Moos is attempting to strip the power from this image by characterizing it as a childish game.
Variations of protester's Bush images are interwoven with images of the real Bush presenting his pro-war message. Notice the cut from the three Bush images to the real Bush. Though it is slightly slurred the words at the point of transition are "while the real George Bush was hoping not to bomb with his speech". The subliminal message is that Bush hopes "not to bomb" and therefore is acting as the responsible, adult party as reinforced by his suit and backdrop images. The protesters are silly children with whom Bush's speech will "bomb" in the second sense of the word, perhaps because he is acting as the adult and is committing the sin of taking himself too seriously. The overall effect is to hollow out the meaning of the word "bomb". This is reinforced by the earlier clip of McCain singing "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" to the Beach Boys tune, which makes bombing both a silly song and the result of a bad speech, not something that tears off children's arms and legs.
Next, the Bush sound byte "removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision" is presented. This sound byte is the one the media needs to repeat as often as possible in order to support Bush's decision. This is followed by a direct cut to an arrested protester, also in suit and tie, shouting "Stop the war, shut it down!" The purpose here is to create a telling contrast between the responsible decision made by Bush and the irrationality of the protester. The subliminal message is that though the protester may appear to be responsible (he has a suit and tie just like Bush), in fact, protesting the war is childish nonsense compared to the weighty decisions made by Bush, though he may "bomb" with his speech, meaning he may execute his responsible decision incompetently. A secondary message that will often be reinforced is that the protesters' message is purely negative - to "stop", to "end" - while having no positive components. Protesters are consistently portrayed as whining children who simply want a discomforting situation to "end", not responsible adults who are capable of facing the often distressing realities of the world.
This "responsibility" message is reinforced as images of arrested male protesters cuts to Bush saying "The surge is working", which is the second major sound byte that the media intends to reinforce. This Bush image cuts immediately to the female pro-war protester repeating his words in a silly sing-song voice. In fact, her sing-song repetition of Bush's sound bytes is the leitmotif of the entire piece. The switch in voices helps reinforce the message by repeating it in two different keys, while bypassing conscious, rational evaluation of the idea by undercutting its seriousness. Moos' purpose is to undercut the seriousness of the pro-war message by making it resemble a child's nursery rhyme, but at the same time reinforce the underlying message.
The word "surge" is then undercut by comparing it to the "surge of traffic" which is being blocked by protesters. Far longer than any of the anti-war voices is the speech of a woman sitting in traffic denouncing the protesters for interfering with the ordinary business of America. She is given an extra dose of sympathy and absurdity by her final "Have a good day". The comic force of this scene is dependent on the viewer identifying with the woman in traffic denouncing the irrationality of the protesters. Clearly, she has no awareness of the purpose of the protest or why blocking traffic might be part of their tactics - she is just an ordinary woman trying to go about her business, a business that is being impeded by protest. By identifying with the women, the viewer assumes the same position, seeing the protest as an absurd phenomena in which irrational people interfere with business, even when that business is the manufacture of death. The final "Have a good day" is the Moos signature that places distance between the viewer and the woman so that she too becomes a part of the absurdity of the situation.
Next, we see a protester "playing chicken with a bus". The key words are "playing", since protest must be consistently characterized as "play", as in "play-acting", not a serious activity like driving a bus and "chicken", which characterizes the political position of the protesters. In fact, the final image is one of the bike riders fleeing from the bus. Clearly, they have lost the game of "chicken", just as the message of the protest will lose to the serious activity of war making.
Next, we meet the "Granny Peace Brigade", challenged by "a few former members of the military" and we are back to the pro-war woman screaming in her slightly silly New York accent. A major contrast is made between "granny" and "former members of the military" with implication that the grannies are senile old coots while the military are defenders of honor and liberty. While granny is silent, the "former member of the military" woman shouts, "and you have the audacity to come out here on the fifth anniversary of Shock and Awe to demoralize, to besmirch our troops".
"Besmirch" then becomes the keyword. Granny "besmirches" "mission accomplished", the by now catch word for the incompetence of the Bush mission in Iraq. Then granny says, "Our mission is to end the mission in Iraq. End it now!" One implication is that the "mission" of the protesters is as incompetent as the Bush mission. It also reinforces message through the clip that the protester's only message is a negative one - their purpose is only about "ending" and "stopping", as symbolized by blocking the flow of traffic. They have no positive message, but their protest only interferes with the serious business of ordinary people who are charged with "continuing the mission" that they besmirch.
This contrast of "ordinary people" with "protesters" is reinforced in the next clip which could be subtitled "Good Cop, Bad Cop". At first the policeman is "lovey dovey" with the protesters, hugging and trading hand and fist locks. The sound byte is "coolest cop in the country, everyone". Then we cut to him slugging one of the protesters using the same fist as before. The effect of these two scenes is to attribute extra humanity to the policeman by providing him with a range of emotions, while the protesters drone on in their monotone. Notice the surprised smile on the protester's face when the cop slugs him. The subsequent pan on the still standing protester shows that he wasn't really hurt by the blow. One underlying message is that beatings by police is just more street theater.
Another point to note is the order of the clips. First, sympathy for the policemen is built by showing the hugs and humanity, then the slugging incident occurs. Then Jeanne states that "earlier the coolest cop lost his cool". The word "cool" is repeated three times in reference to the police. Note that the sequence is to go back in time rather than forward. If the earlier incident had been shown first, then we would have lost sympathy for the cop. If the scene of reconciliation had been shown later, we would have seen him progressing toward greater humanity, with the implication that as we examine our violent behavior, we become more sympathetic with the protesters. By first showing his humanity and then showing him striking the protester, the implication becomes that even the most humane cops can be driven to violence by protesters, but in the end it is all just fun and games because no one is really hurt.
The clip is rounded off with the historical origin of the peace sign. At the statement "the peace sign comes from semaphore flags", the image of "No more blood for oil" with peace symbols on the back of a protester flashes across the screen. The protest message is immediately trivialized by synchronizing it with the words "semaphore flags". An image from the sixties of two soldiers, one painting a peace symbol, the other doing is military job as a signaler is flashed on the screen. The words "fifty years" are emphasized in describing the origin of the peace symbol. The idea communicated is that this type of protest is as old and outdated as the sixties. The contrast between the sign on the back and the ship to ship signals sends the implicit signal that protester's messages are as uninteresting and outdated and trivial as this prattle about signal shapes.
The "former member of the military" woman shouts again, this time saying, "You need to go home", as a mother would do with her naughty children. "Go home to your mothers" where you should be spanked for your behavior is the implication. As the camera shifts a disembodied voice repeats over and over "Go take your Geritol, go take your Geritol", as a grey-haired female protester is arrested. The idea communicated is that protesters are mostly senile old people that never grew up, never really let go of the sixties.
The other component of the protesters are rowdy college age students just having a good time. The voice over says, "Protesters are already demonstrating against what they think could be the next one", meaning war with Iran, while a bare chested young man jumps on what looks like a coffin. The word "think" synchronizes with the young man falling backward in a clumsy, misdirected leap. The word "already" implies that this leap is premature, just as virtually everything about these protesters lacks maturity.
As the clip fades out, we see Bush and McCain images again while the sound tracks reverts to the sarcastic Beach Boys tune and John McCain's face and final words are "John, John McCain...", who reigns triumphant over the childish protesters.
While this clip illustrates the attitude of those in power to anti-war protesters, it also characterizes the larger project of subverting the moral force which protesters represent. The corporate media has come close to the perfecting the art of neutralizing radical critique in the years since the rebellions of the 60s and 70s. Several tools have been designed to counter specific aspects of that critique. The underlying nihilism of the clip by Jeanne Moos has its counterpart in the academic fashion known as post-modernism.
Post-modernism, while growing out of the radical critiques of the 60s, has actually become a primary instrument of their domestication. For post-modernists, the idea of "truth" is an instrument of domination by the ruling social group, whether that group characterizes its ideology as "capitalist" or "socialist". Only the quality of stories matter to post-modernists, though they tend to prefer "leftist"-type stories. But clearly that is simply a matter of taste and "rightist" stories might be equally compelling if the "leftist" ones go out of style. The powers currently ruling global capitalism clearly relish and encourage this trend because its practical effect is to undermine the strength of those social forces which challenge it. If "truth" is simply an instrument by which one social group attempts to gain power over another group, then radical critiques are subverted at their foundation. This echoes William Stringfellow's description of one of the pillars of demonic power: "A rudimentary claim with which the principalities confront and subvert persons is that truth in the sense of eventful and factual matter does not exist. In the place of truth and appropriating the name of truth are data engineered and manufactured, programed and propagated by the principality. The truth is usurped and displaced by a self-serving version of events or facts, with whatever selectivity, distortion, falsehood, manipulation, exaggeration, evasion, concoction necessary to maintain the image or enhance the survival or multiply the coercive capacity of the principality. Instead of the truth as that which may be disclosed empirically, the principality furnishes a story fabricated and prefabricated to suit institutional or ideological or similar vested interests." - "An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land"
Precisely so, a "story" is fabricated and data collected to enhance the coercive capability of that principality. Post-modernism, while elaborating the trappings of radicalism to new extremes, in practice becomes a literary critic of radical "stories", while undercutting the basis of radical action.
When this trend filters down to the corporate media, it tells the story of protest in a way that makes protest no more meaningful than a Beach Boys song, while millions are displaced, murdered and mutilated.