June 22, 2017
by Jason Hirthler*
When the United States went to war with Spain in 1898, it did so in a media environment of “yellow journalism,” that played no small part in the advent of the Spanish-American War. Yellow journalism was basically the use of sensationalism and poorly researched reportage to stir up excitement and pad the bottom line. In February on that year, the mysterious sinking of the American cruiser Maine on a quiet night in Havana harbor was seized upon by western media outlets like William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World to create an atmosphere rife with tension, accusation, and defamation. War fever was loosed upon the population. The McKinley administration was soon ensnared in combat, which it won in ten weeks across the Caribbean and Pacific theaters, effectively erasing the Spanish imperial footprint from the Philippines and Caribbean, and delivering American control over Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. American author Mark Twain wasn’t fooled by the jingoistic broadsheets, nor by the administration’s claims of support for Cubans, nor by its claims to want to bring democracy to the Philippines, a former Spanish colony. Twain said, “…we have gone there to conquer, not to redeem.”
Different Century, Same Masterplan
It’s depressingly familiar to see the similarities between the scenario Twain and his anti-imperialist colleagues faced off against and the ones progressives face today. The imperial machine marches on, like W.H. Auden’s driveling ogre, subjugating nation after nation that attempt any sort of freethinking alternative to indentured servitude to the globalists. The tactics of the state and the machinations of the media are little different than they were in 1898. Both seek to cloud the clarity of imperial crimes behind a façade of moral necessity.
To the modern ear, yellow journalism sounds a lot like “fake news,” with its ceaseless reliance on anonymous sources, fake experts, misleading interpretations, and scare tactics. Yellow journalism and fake news are both euphemisms for state propaganda, typically employed to mask the machinery of empire. Whatever we name it, state deceit is in any case slated to grow more pervasive thanks to Barack Obama. Obama, the vacuous charlatan who infested the security state with his pro-war acolytes, signed into law the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act (CDPA) as part of the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This followed the 2013 NDAA which permitted the State Department to aim its public relations efforts directly at the American people, something previously illegal. Overt state propaganda is now legal on domestic turf, as if the state’s media fronts weren’t already busily engaged creating domestic propaganda.
If the media that fronts for the imperial state is much the same, so too is the process by which conflict unfolds. These steps, too, are designed to cast aggression as self-defense. A false flag or at least an uncertain event provides a pretext for media hyperbole and state saber rattling. The Maine fiasco delivered the same pretext as the misattributed chemical attacks did in Syria. A list of untenable demands ensures conflict. McKinley demanding Spain quit Cuba had the same escalating effect as NATO’s demand in the Nineties that Slobodan Milosevic permit it to occupy Serbia. A jingoist media drools for war. Hearst had his papers enjoining readers to “Remember the Maine,” just as the Washington Post editorial board did when it claimed the Bush administration’s argument for war with Iraq was “Irrefutable.” And, as always, claims of noble aims ring forth from the precincts of power. Washington was principally helping Cuba throw off the onerous shackle of Spanish rule rather than protect its sugar and tobacco interests, while NATO is backing freedom fighting moderates in Syria against an authoritarian regime rather than seeking to replace Assad. Those that oppose are, as Hermann Goering recommended, denounced for their lack of patriotism, as have been leftists that claim the Syrian state is sovereign and should determine its own future.
We are still in the same situation Twain was in largely because the imperialist elites own the media that shape our understanding of the world, an understanding that permits little if any genuine discussion of American imperialism and its criminal destruction of vulnerable peoples, communities, villages, and families across the globe. The absence of this information continues in no small part because the general public remains convinced we live in a society of wide-ranging debate in which no topics are off limits in the great American marketplace of ideas.
The Limits of Debate
We do have lively debates, by design, and only within acceptable limits. As Noam Chomsky said, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” Imperialism and its consequences–economic, psychological, and physical violence–are largely off limits. We can discuss racism against blacks in the police force, but not racism as a feature of the imperial state. We can discuss corruption on Wall Street, but not finance as a critical tool of imperial exploitation. We can discuss whether policing borders is racist, but not the role of immigration in creating reserve armies of labor for use by the ruling corporatocracy. We can discuss gay rights and gender pay scales, but not how imperialism destroys the lives of countless women and gays in nations we target. We can discuss the Syrian war, but not Syria as a new chapter in imperialism’s history of slaughter. So long as we debate and march for issues that do not challenge the ruling class power and wealth, nothing structural will change. Racism, bigotry, gender discrimination, financial exploitation of Main Street by Wall Street, debt peonage, wage serfdom, foreign wars of dubious provenance, the canonization of war criminals past and present, and much more will continue unabated.
Yet the media consistently denies us the imperial context on issue after issue, which leaves us arguing about our response to an event that we misunderstand. We fail to see the root causes of events, and therefore debate symptoms of imperialism, not the imperialist disease itself.
* Look at the recent Manchester attacks. The media–from the BBC to the Washington Post–refused to deal with the complexities of the collapse of the Libyan state. They will note that in 2011 Libya suffered a “chaotic collapse.” They will mention that Muammar Gadhafi “was toppled from power. They will decry its status as “a failed state.” But they won’t situate that war on the timeline of global imperialism, which quite transparently marches on, toppling ‘despots’ and ‘dictators’ and installing puppet regimes willing to facilitate western exploitation of that particular nation’s resources, infrastructure, and national monetary wealth. The focus, most especially on the right, will descend on Islam, which is radicalized and thereby ‘weaponized’ by imperial brutality. Each war is treated as a one-off, an isolated incident that has its own unique motive force. This is essentially the ‘rogue actor’ excuse writ large, an explanation that is often used to shield corporations from institutional complicity in crimes.
* Look at liberal criticism of President Donald Trump. The Washington Post gave Trump four “Pinocchios” for supposedly lying about NATO. He was first correctly accused of being incorrect for saying nations owed monies to the United States. NATO nations are current on their dues. He was then accused of lying for saying NATO nations weren’t spending enough on their own security. In fact, NATO members have until 2024 to up their spending to two percent of GDP. Therefore, this statement was likewise deemed to be incorrect, even though the article did not note the probable conflict between what Trump deemed to be sufficient spending and what extant NATO agreements thought sufficient. Nor was a word spent illuminating Trump’s overarching criticism, that NATO was a defunct organization that should have been dissolved when the Warsaw Pact was dismantled at the end of the Cold War. The paper never noted that was instead expanded as a tool of western aggression toward Russia in the post-Gorbachev era. The paper failed to note that Washington has increasingly used NATO, and has consequently spent more on NATO, as a Trojan horse by which it can somewhat covertly expand Washington’s imperialism to the East.
* Look at Russiagate. The probe. The investigation. The hearings. The intelligence community’s supposedly “damning” report on Russian hacking of the election failed to deliver technical evidence of the Russian state’s role in the crime and primarily complained about Russian media coverage of America. The supposed consensus of the 17 intelligence agencies is even a dubious claim. Look at the nonstop New York Times coverage of the collusion allegations, a sophomoric attempt to use standard business contacts, cocktail party conversations, media appearance fees, and Twitter contacts to paint the Russian Federation as a wanton imperial power. This baseless investigation steals precious column inches from what could be discussions of the actual empire and its heavy-handed military deployments abroad. Nor is it explained why this fearmongering distraction exists in the first place: because the freewheeling Trump wanted to unwind President Obama’s witless aggressions against Russia, from sanctions to NATO to Syria to the election disinformation campaign. That would have directly challenged the globalist strategy to extend U.S. hegemony worldwide.
* Look at the British parliamentary elections. Jeremy Corbyn’s tattered, divided Labour party clawed 32 seats away from the center-right, while Theresa May’s reactionary Conservative Party dropped 12 seats, losing its majority. This was considered by the mainstream press to be a devastating turn of events, mostly because it had comprehensively demonized Corbyn and his socialist-leaning ideas. The day before the election the Daily Mail ran a front-page story calling Corbyn a terrorist sympathizer. Context was dutifully elided. It might have been mentioned that May’s own party comprehensively supported terror in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, and the DUP party it will now align with to form a majority was a major supporter of anti-Catholic violence as well. More to the point, May now supports a war in Syria that a) represents a war of aggression by the West against a sovereign state that has never invited it inside its borders; and b) is the most transparent instance yet of the dovetailing interests of terrorist organizations and western governments, namely that the former profitably serve the latter as a lance or trident injecting the triple evils of war, poverty, and racism into the vortex of the post-colonial chaos that is neo-imperialism.
* Look at the faux scope creep in Syria. The so-called coalition of western states plus terrorist factions shot down a Syrian jet that was supposedly bombing ISIS. Washington said it bombed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). They are probably one in the same, as the Russians seem to think. In any case, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times, and Financial Times all skipped the “inciting action” of the U.S. attack on a Syrian jet, an act of war in a nation into which the west’s farcical coalition was never invited. These White House flacks instantly published articles announcing that Russia would now “target” and “threaten” U.S. warplanes over Syria. At once, the roles have been reversed and the aggressor is acting in self-defense. Ostensibly there to combat ISIS, something the Russians and Syrians vehemently challenge, the U.S. is really there to overthrow Bashar Al Assad, balkanize Syria in sectarian statelets that Israel can control on our behalf, and sever linkages between Iran and Hezbollah, which will weaken resistance to Tel Aviv’s conquest and settlement of all of the West Bank. Not to mention moving toward its feverish vision of one day expanding its Jewish democracy from the Nile to the Euphrates.
Topics aside, the question of empire is rarely included, if ever. Not in a reporter’s notes, not in a list of interview questions, not in the video transcript, not in a first or second or final draft.
Corruptions of Protocol
We have two actions in particular to thank for the whitewashing of imperialism in modern times. One is the Clinton regime’s popularization of “humanitarian interventions” as a legitimate form of violent aggression in the Nineties. Generally, the UN Security Council is summoned to provide a patina of legitimacy for such aggression. Simon Chesterton, in his book Just War or Just Peace?, examines what he calls, “Security Council activism, notable for the plasticity of circumstances in which the Council was prepared to assert its responsibility for international peace and security.” The related “responsibility to protect” (R2P) was enshrined by UN members as a new international norm in 2005. Among its intellectual underpinnings is the idea that sovereign states are responsible for the safety of their populations and if they fail to live up to that responsibility, including violations of humanitarian law, it falls to the international community to fulfill it.
Both concepts have been used to confuse and co-opt progressive voters and move them into a state of surrender in which they acquiesce to our noble wars in whatever form they materialize–by air, land, sea, or proxy. Both concepts are founded on a fair premise–the desire to protect the weak against the strong, but predictably both have been deliberately perverted into justifications for their antithesis–removing legal protections for the weak against the aggression of the strong. A look at Libya, Iraq, Serbia, among other wars makes this plain.
Nature of the Beast
But this is the brazen, crass, and intrepid nature of imperialism. It wantonly employs language to erect a curtain of rectitude behind which it prosecutes its vice. As Chesterton points out, the UNSC seems to harbor little fear of invoking R2P for its own uses. Likewise, Washington has no compunction in leveraging the norms of R2P to unilaterally take military action, as though one nation among all has the moral fortitude to stride into the breach and defend the undefended. This has been necessary in Syria since Russia and China have gotten wise to Washington’s intrigues. Perhaps they have finally learned that the Bretton Woods institutions, as well as the UN, are the legitimizing instruments of western hegemony. The “third world” understood this in the Seventies. These institutions are the notary republics that give western violence the stamp of authority.
Twain voiced a popular impulse when he wrote he was “opposed to having the (American) eagle put its talons on any other land.” But his words were drowned out by imperialists then, and today the globalists and their press flacks continue to refashion the notion of “just war” in fresh raiment to bamboozle a new generation of citizen-readers, and lead them hollering and cheering into the breech. As George Orwell said, “It is the same in all wars; the soldiers do the fighting, the journalists do the shouting, and no true patriot ever gets near a front-line trench, except on the briefest of propaganda-tours.” As long as the yellow press at the Times and Post continues to peddle the narrative of America above all, right or wrong, the march of imperial slaughter will never abate. That tale and its glib raconteurs have to be comprehensively discredited if resistance to empire is ever going to achieve critical mass.
*Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and author of The Sins of Empire: Unmasking American Imperialism. He lives in New York City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.