Unfair, Unbalanced, Unrepentant
I did not intend to emphasize politics in this journal, and, more specifically, I did not intend to write about politics again this week. But I find myself unable to stop thinking about the current presidential campaign. What follows has been bothering me for months; maybe I’ll be able to leave it alone for a while now, although the biggest news is yet to come. I have bitten off a bigger subject here than I can handle in the time or space I usually devote to these pieces, so I may revise it later in the week.
What an exhausting and depressing campaign this has been. I feel that way and I have been involved only as a spectator. The sheer level of acrimony has begun to affect me like psychological sandpaper. The country has not been so divided since the Vietnam war.
The media bear a lot of responsibility for the intensity of the division. Never has the partisanship of the most visible media empires—the New York Times, CBS, et.al.—been more evident and less ashamed. I suppose the clearest example of this is in the treatment of the military service of Kerry and Bush, in which the media made it their business to question Bush’s service and to defend Kerry’s. When the Swift Boat Veterans began their attacks on John Kerry’s military record, the New York Times ignored the story for a couple of weeks and then, when it did not go away, attempted not to investigate the charges but to discredit the veterans. When Bush’s record was attacked, the attacks either originated with or were happily amplified by the media, as in Dan Rather’s eager trumpeting of what seem to have been bogus documents.
But the bias shows itself in less colorful but more damaging ways. For instance, the Deufler Report ( see here for the CIA’s summary) apparently indicates that although Saddam Hussein did not have stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, he was nevertheless playing more or less the sort of game the Bush administration and indeed the Clinton administration had accused him of: attempting to wait out the inspections and sanctions with the intention of restarting his WMD programs when he could safely do so—which is to say that he did in fact represent a long-term threat. But as far as I can tell most news stories have emphasised only the fact that no stockpiles existed and no active work was in progress.
Similarly, the media have repeated interminably, as a point against the administration, the assertion that Saddam Hussein had no ties to the 9-11 attacks, which is true but beside the point: the administration’s claim was not that he masterminded 9-11 but that he was very much involved with the promotion of terrorism. And although this latter claim is certainly true, the media have left an impression in the public mind that Bush lied—or, rather, BUSH LIED!!!—about Saddam’s terrorist connections.
There was and is a reasonable and principled argument to be made against the war, but most of its opponents have not bothered to make it. The Kerry campaign is certainly not making it, since its need to please both hawks and doves leaves it with little room for anything but Monday-morning quarterbacking which runs the gamut from nonsense to cheap shot. Probably the most cogent domestic opposition came from the right, from the Pat Buchanan-America First school of non-interventionism. And the most persuasive international opposition was from the Pope, who simply and passionately decried the loss of life that would surely be involved. From the left, domestic and international, we mostly had the unending shriek of BUSH LIED!!!, even before the war started. It’s easy to forget now that this accusation preceded not just the determination that Saddam Hussein possessed no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, but indeed the war itself. It was a given; most of the anti-war left began with the assumption that the administration were simply bloodthirsty liars (or psychopaths, or Zionist/neoconservative conspirators, or fools, or sometimes all of the above).
The media in general have done very little to raise the level of debate, and have helped in creating an environment in which not only the bitter leftists of A.N.S.W.E.R but prominent Democrats feel perfectly at ease in asserting (or at least insinuating) that the president took us to war based on a lie, even going so far as to seat prominently at their convention—with an ex-president no less—Michael Moore, whose film about the war is by all accounts a tower of mendacity, and not very brave mendacity at that, for it apparently proceeds by innuendo and association, generally stopping short of actually stating the lie which it is implying. (I am relying here on reports about the film, because every time I considered going to see it I was stopped by the prospect of my money ending up in Michael Moore’s pocket. This analysis seems to be a pretty thorough justification of my opinion. I have browsed Moore’s books in stores, enough to get a good sense of what he thinks and how he operates rhetorically; on the basis of that I agree with Victor Davis Hanson’s view that they are “simple big-print screaming.”)
I sometimes wonder if the BUSH LIED!!! brigade really understand and mean what they say. Sometimes it seems that they don’t understand the distinction between lying and being mistaken. Why would anyone tell a lie such as the one Bush is accused of regarding WMD, knowing that it could not possibly escape being disproved by actions which he himself was initiating? It would be like a tax evader asking the IRS to audit him. Or, on the other hand, if he was so very unscrupulous, why would he hesitate to plant a little nerve gas or something of that sort here and there to cement the deception? None of this passes a basic sanity check, yet apparently millions of people believe it.
And do Bush’s attackers really, truly believe that the president of the United States started a war for the purpose of enriching himself and his friends? I cannot think of anything short of aiding an invading army which would so clearly qualify as the “high crimes and misdemeanors” which are grounds for impeachment. I believe Bill Clinton was a very dishonest president, and in many ways a bad one (though not so bad as he might have been had he been less concerned with his own popularity). But I never would have entertained such an accusation against him, at least not without a lot of indisputable evidence. And if I believed it about George Bush I would be agitating for his impeachment.
I don’t think people like Michael Moore care much about the truth as such; or say rather that they have a Larger Truth, for instance that America is run by and for evil men, which makes them indifferent to lesser truths, and certainly uninterested in being fair. (This of course is an occupational hazard for anyone with strong convictions, but a more honest person makes at least some attempt to engage opposing arguments.) Moore reminds me of people I knew in my own days as a student radical, and I was struck then by their lack of interest in truth. Their motivation lay elsewhere, in some mysterious urge to savage the society which had produced them (an urge which I also felt at the time and still have not satisfactorily explained to myself) and their interest in facts did not extend beyond those which could be exploited for that purpose. Or perhaps Moore and others like him are best understood as conspiracy theorists, convinced that they have the key to the Real Story which explains everything and which causes them to filter out any data which does not support the theory.
Perhaps all I’m doing here is describing the fanatic mind, from which breadth and balance can hardly be expected. But the press is supposed to be a corrective to fanaticism. It is supposed to be the means by which citizens in a democracy are informed of the truth, enabled to see as comprehensive a picture as possible, and if the press fails, for partisan reasons, to do its duty it is guilty of a serious dereliction.
And what of the putatively serious statesmen of the Democratic party who fawn over Moore and repeat, in more decorous language, his assertions? Why, again, have they not moved to impeach a president who, were these charges valid, would be a criminal the like of which has never yet occupied the Oval Office? I conclude that they don’t really believe what they are saying, and that their willingness to keep saying it marks them as far more unworthy than the man they are attacking.
Consider these three items, which paint a pretty good picture of what the Democratic Party has come to in this campaign:
The image of the weeping and terrified CARE worker begging for her life last week after being kidnapped by men who have already demonstrated that they regard with demonic glee the prospect of using a butcher knife to saw off the head of a helpless and harmless person.
Michael Moore’s encouragement of men like these. Do you think I’m being harsh or unfair? Judge his words for yourself: “The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation are not ‘insurgents’ or ‘terrorists or ‘The Enemy.’ They are the REVOLUTION, the Minutemen, and their numbers will grow—and they will win.” And this: “I’m sorry, but the majority of Americans supported this war once it began and, sadly, that majority must now sacrifice their children until enough blood has been let that maybe—just maybe—God and the Iraqi people will forgive us in the end.” ( Entire piece here; it was written back in April and Moore does not seem to be talking this way anymore, perhaps having decided, after the televised beheadings, that praise of these “Minutemen” is impolitic.)
Jimmy Carter’s statement that his two favorite movies are Casbablanca and Fahrenheit 911. Carter may be a decent man in his private life but with his support of people like Moore he is putting the final nails in the coffin of his already shaky reputation as a statesman.
Note that the Democratic convention, at which Moore was very visibly seated next to ex-President Carter, occurred months after Moore made the statements above. The Democrats have embraced a man who has made it his business to poison the wells of debate about the war and who believes that the other side should win. Most of the media apparently think this is acceptable, but that there is something illicit about a group of Vietnam veterans questioning Kerry’s service. The Democratic Party and the Kerry-Edwards campaign ought to be pressed to confront their association with these repulsive statements and tactics, either to repudiate them or to justify them openly, as would be demanded of, say, a Republican candidate who hobnobbed with the KKK. But the mainstream media, willing to denounce as liars some 250 Vietnam veterans, is silent on this, either because they agree with it or because they think Bush’s defeat too important to put at risk.
Journalists ought to be like judges, intent on making sure that all the facts are put plainly before a jury. Instead too many of them have become mere bellowing lawyers, concerned only with winning and indifferent to justice. My opinion of George W. Bush’s presidency is very mixed (for the record, I describe myself as an uneasy supporter of the war). But I hope he wins this election. More than that, though, I hope and pray that the truth will win. Let the chips fall where they may, not where fanatics of any stripe want to put them.