This morning, just after eight, BBC Radio 4’s John Humphrys interviewed an American ‘expert’ – didn’t catch the name – on the first meeting, today, of Trump and Putin. In the time between my reaching for the bread bin, and two slices of the moderately browned popping from the toaster, said expert had presented as incontestable truth – no need to back up such a claim – Russia’s ‘aggression’ as against America’s ‘caution’.
People buy this crap, you know, if only subliminally. Why? Because the west, anglo saxon west in particular, long ago traded independence of foreign policy for favoured status in Washington, so framing the boundaries for mainstream discourse on global affairs. And because, thanks to English as world lingua franca, most of us grew up on a cultural diet of the US as force for good: the orientalist corollary being the inscrutable asiatic; untrustworthy and capable of unspeakable acts.
(Nowadays no one says such things out loud of course. An age that’s given rise to so many new and useful terms – blowback and spin spring to mind – now gives us dog-whistle.)
Those two realities underpin projection and reality inversion on a colossal scale; variations on the Shoot Out at the OK Corral theme of good, dependable and peace loving America morally compelled once more to heave reluctant sigh, strap on the Colt 45s and step out into the latest high noon (Syria say) or deep shade (Yemen) to face down the latest bad guy. It’s an immensely durable narrative, remarkable in its ability to shrug off a wealth of counter-evidence. Up against powerful myth, truth is always the underdog.
To these two factors we can a third, exemplified by Humphrys’ unsurprising failure to challenge his interviewee’s self satisfied claims. He might have asked what’s so cautious about shooting down a Syrian jet in airspace where America has no lawful business, and the world’s second military power is there on the invite of Syria’s elected government. Or how firing 59 Tomahawk Missiles, while saying Damascus has ‘again’ used chemical weapons, is a sign of restraint.
(It’s useful to keep in mind, at times like this, that “we have evidence” is not evidence.)
But Humphreys asked no such question. Nor – since jet and Tomahawks can after all be laid by the only partially gullible at Trump’s door – why US and UK arms suppliers have for years made fat profits from slaughter in Yemen. Nor why we should fear Pyongyang’s tiny nuclear capability but not America’s huge one. He might even have asked how many nations have been invaded this past twenty years – let’s be generous and exclude the covert stuff in such as Ukraine and Honduras – by cautious America; how many by aggressive Russia.
But again he didn’t. Why? Here I’m accused at times of conspiracism; of supposing thousands of journalists like Humphreys to be consciously mendacious. In fact no such supposition is needed. My insistence that ‘our’ media are not fit for purpose stands up to Occam’s Razor, resting on but few premises:
- The two already cited: (a) lack of independence from Washington, especially in wars hot or cold; (b) deep, culturally imbibed assumptions of America as capable of mistakes, yes – blamed on specific administrations so the slate can be wiped clean every four or eight years (useful thing, ‘democracy’) – but fundamentally a force for good.
- Widespread ignorance of history and even basic geography, not just by media consumers but its producers too.
- A combination of economic and other forces making once investigative journalists reliant for war coverage on official sources in military and intelligence circles. For example the stark choice for reporters in Iraq of being chaperoned by army units else excluded altogether from the war zone.
- A market driven matrix of incentive and disincentive, effective with only occasional need for outright lying, that keeps major media and career focused journalists on message re aspects of state interest too critical to be challenged in any sustained way. A key text here is Herman & Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, which sheds a great deal of light on how relentlessly dominant but highly misleading narratives can be sustained by subjectively honest journalists; never more so than when demonisation gives cover for wars of profit in the name of humanitarianism. It’s not that the real and very material drivers of such wars are completely hidden. Snowden and Assange helped of course, but we needn’t hack US intelligence to see that America has for decades harboured plans to reshape the oil rich middle east by ridding it of a Ba’athism opposed on the one hand to salafism, on the other to an imperialism with a record dating back to the fall of the Ottomans of using salafism to further its own ends. You can even find some of the evidence in mainstream media. What you won’t find there, however, is any consistent narrative that joins up the threads in ways that suggest, if only as alternative possibility, that the reasons given for ‘our’ wars are seldom the real ones. Such counterarratives must wait a decade or two before being fearlessly served up by an intrepid Guardian, an unshakably truth seeking BBC.