Saturday, December 19, 2015

Fear as Weapon

We have been afraid before
But we came together with resolve
What is that lion at the door
Is it real or has it evolved
From imagined predators
Or salesmen we abhor
Before we run into the bog
Let us shun the demagogue

Fear is something that we all know and feel, but only rarely is it a driving force in our lives.  In recent months, however, the use of fear by either well meaning but unstable politicians, or those “pols” who are actually nefarious enough to use fear to gain a competitive advantage is stunning.  Nature gave us the innate fear of fire, heights, loud noises, etc., for our protection and preservation.  Normally, the degree of felt fear is commensurate with the level of the threat.  Higher heights and bigger fires produce greater responses than lesser threats.  However, when fear is used a weapon, the internal response is sometimes non-linear and irrational.  That is where we are as a nation today.  Many of our national politicians have joined to denounce Syrian refugees as too great a threat to be permitted into the US.  Tragically, demagogues like Chris Christie of NJ, have grossly exaggerated the threat of 3-year old Syrian orphans as immigrants.  It is also pathetic that the drowned Syrian boy so widely seen in the media was age three.  Forget, will you, that Canada is accepting more Syrians in less time.  Canada is not frozen in fear, despite the climactic disadvantage they have.  Why is that?

Prior to the tragedy of San Bernadino where 14 were killed and 22 wounded, national politicians decried the lack of perfect screening of refugees and demanded that the State Department certify any Syrian refugee.  Really?  We have to certify each refugee?  I was so upset that I placed a note on the Facebook page for my US Representative.  I reminded Representative Ken Calvert that our greatest threat except for 9/11 has been home grown terrorists like Tim McVey and that we lose over 30,000 Americans to gun violence each year which is 10 times the most we ever lost to terrorists in a single incident.  The posting was removed in less than an hour.  This leads me to believe that his motivation was more GOP politics than an actual concern for a real threat from Syrian refugees.  Shamefully, 47 Democrats including a friend, John Garamendi of California, joined Republicans to prohibit Syrian refugee entry.  Bipartisanship for xenophobia and prejudice!   What a concept. 

In 1939 and in the early 40s we had shiploads of Jews wandering the oceans instead of the deserts seeking refuge and a homeland.  The US refused them entry.  Many did not survive the holocaust.  There are over 4 million Syrian refugees.  How many will not survive?  Perhaps fear is stronger than shame.  Be proud, you fearless politicians!  Most GOP candidates for President want boots on the ground and a land war in the Meddle East to gain territory from a noisy Caliphate, but are afraid of 3 year old orphans?  We won and lost Fallujah at least twice with great casualties and these brilliant GOP strategists and tacticians want another land war to take land like Fallujah from ISIS?  This is when a little fear might be healthy so that they avoid a stupid repetition of our Iraqi errors.  They want to commit troops we do not have to another war half-way around the world to stay there and keep the land?  They must know that a “No Trespassing” sign will not work, even if we are lucky enough to succeed.  So we need to keep boots on the ground.  They know that we cannot leave the dirt to the Shiite Iraqi government.  The US trained Shiites ran at first opportunity and left all weapons and equipment to ISIS.  Senator Cruz wants to carpet bomb Syria without civilian casualties.  Will somebody please translate “carpet bomb” into (Canadian) Texan so that we don’t destroy Syria to save it?  There is no precision “carpet bombing” target whether it glows in the dark or not.  It is an oxymoron from what may be a moron.  That is scary.  It is as scary as the GOP candidate concept of a “No-Fly” zone that will work if and only if you are willing to create a battlefield of Air Supremacy (not the Air Superiority we currently have against Russia).  Even with Air Supremacy, expect losses.  Tell me again why you want a no-fly zone?  You don’t want refugees, but you are willing to make more refugees with carpet bombing and to risk WW III with a no-fly zone?  Of course, that makes perfect nonsense.  Especially if you are using fear to motivate the electorate to believe that you have the solution to the fear that you have created.  You can solve the problem you create if only people will vote for you to chase away the scapegoats that you name and accept the problems that you create.

I found it highly instructive that the GOP candidates at the Las Vegas “debate” were unanimous in their selective amnesia about Iraq and the region.  They blamed President Obama.  It was the Bush Administration and specifically the work of Bremer in the role of governor who destroyed the balance of power in the region that had Iran and Iraq so well matched before our invasion.  Before the war, the only trained administrators and military leaders were Sunni (Baath Party members).  Bremer fired the whole lot including 40,000 teachers and the entire experienced military down to the rank of private.  General Garner, who preceded Bremer had eliminated Colonels on up, but preserved junior leaders and non-commissioned officers for the government of Iraq. He fired no teachers.  This was nation-building by Bremer?  It played right into the nation of Iran if that is what Bush meant by nation-building, but it destroyed Iraq or the possibility that Iraq could rebuild itself in a vacuum of experience and talent.  The candidates seemed to suggest that we should have kept troops in Iraq despite an unfavorable SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and the burgeoning cost, now over $3 Trillion.  And whose Iraq would that be?  Would the remaining Iraqi people petition for US statehood?  The unspoken assumption was that we should still be in Iraq in numbers great enough to repel all enemies as though it were our country.  It is not.  And remember, take no prisoners…or refugees.

We have often had demagogues, even in war, but if we recall the history of WW II, fear was controlled,  even as we had two great war machines bearing down on us (and a few Fiats).  Before the war, there were isolationists and some of them had ulterior motives, but after December 7, 1941, they were drowned out by our collective strength. Media supported the effort, including Gabriel Heater who intoned nightly:  “There’s good news tonight.”  Politicians argued about economics and rationing, but not about the conduct of the war.  Now we have FOX News and many conservative fear mongers who want to be president in the worst way and are trying their best to be worst.  Don’t buy the fear…and change the channel.  Fear needs no facts, only images of the boogeyman that is under your bed.  Turn the lights on and turn the demagogues off.  Notice that facts have become increasingly scarce.  Look up PolitiFact online for the Las Vegas debate.  I was surprised at the extent of distortion and flat lying by candidates.  The mere look of Senator Rubio when attacked by Senator Cruz tells the story, but then Rubio had his own distortions.  Facts can help us put light on this dishonest and dangerous time when demagogues are trolling for your vote. Syrian refugees as dangerous enemies in your home-town…seriously?  We can do better than that.  Canadians are already taking more Syrian refugees and we boast of being number one?  Greeks have over one million refugees; Germans and Swedes and French have hundreds of thousands.  Fear?  Be afraid of the millions of guns we have with little control and our home-grown fundamentalists and extremists who use them with support of the same politicians who have made fear from thin air and terrified refugees.

Other leaders in decades past were ruthless in using fear to gain power.  Our own Senator McCarthy spoke of Communists in every city and village.  Foreign dictators used their scapegoats to gain power.  Jews and other minorities were singled out for blame.  Economic programs were halted to step up the shrill claxon for war.  We have seen this movie before.  Can we leave now?


22 Dec 2015
George Giacoppe

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Oyster Wars

When I first saw the title of Summer Brennan’s book (The Oyster War, Counterpoint: 2015) about the conflict in the Point Reyes area over the fate of the commercial oyster company in Drake’s Estero, I thought it was a bit of hyperbole. Yes, I knew there was controversy over whether to allow the relatively new Drake’s Bay Oyster Company (its owners, the Lunnys, bought the business from the older Johnson’s Oyster Company in 2004) to continue raising oysters in the Point Reyes National Seashore, or enforce the agreement Johnson had signed years earlier to stop operations in 2012 and allow the area to revert to the wilderness status demanded by the Wilderness Act. I had seen the hand-painted blue and white signs urging locals to “Save Our Drake’s Bay Oyster Company” displayed in front of dozens of homes and along highways near my home town of Bolinas. My neighbor Walter, an avowed conservationist, had talked to me often about how this exhortation should not be followed, and that the Lunnys should be forced to close the business to preserve the wilderness of one of the great stretches of wild seashore still left in America. But I had never been involved in any real discussions of the pros and cons, nor had I read all that much about it either. I just knew that in years past, no family gathering at my brother’s place was complete without a trip to Johnson’s to get a carton of oysters for barbecuing. And I really liked having barbecued oysters available locally—as many West Marinites clearly did. They were standard fare at local restaurants and at street celebrations. Almost an emblem of the place. So I was initially inclined to support the continued raising of the oysters, though I knew little about them or the cost they might present to the environment and nearby wildlife.
            Once I read Brennan’s in-depth account, though, detailing the history of oyster growing in the larger Bay Area, and outlining the reasons and rationales and strategies of the embattled sides, I was pretty convinced that right had prevailed. In 2014, as I finally learned in the last pages of Brennan’s book, the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company was forced to shut down its operations, and clean up after itself. By the November 2012 order of the Interior Department, the term of lease for the Oyster company was allowed to expire, with no new lease forthcoming, and the whole place was bulldozed, the waters cleansed of all detritus—mostly plastic bits from the oyster racks upon which local oysters must be cultivated—and all signs of the operation disappeared. Drake’s Estero—the small estuary at the head of which Johnson’s and then Lunny’s operations had been located—was returned to its “natural” state as a federally-designated wilderness area, as provided for in the Wilderness Act of 1964 and all subsequent rulings.
            The problem, of course, was that the order by Interior Secretary Salazar, like all previous orders to suspend operations in 2012, was not obeyed without a fight. The war and the oyster operation would continue, because the Lunnys and their supporters decided to exhaust their last option and take their cause to court. Though in the end this proved futile when the courts yet again ruled against them, this last development typified the case: it was not just a struggle by a commercial oyster grower to continue operations in a National Park, but a much larger ‘war’ symbolic of both the business vs. government battle that has come to signify our era, and as a more local contest between usually allied neighbors in the entire area around Point Reyes. In other words, as I would come to discover, the title of Summer Brennan’s book was no hyperbole: this was a real war and its effects are still being felt in bruised and broken relationships throughout West Marin and beyond.
            What Summer Brennan does in her book is provide the background for the “war” that is still ongoing. She informs us that oysters have been ‘grown’ in Drake’s Estero mostly since 1957, when Charlie Johnson started his operation (a small oyster ‘farming’ operation had been there since 1925). More importantly, she points out clearly that, unlike the insistence of Lunny supporters that Drake’s Bay Oyster Co. was reviving the “natural” oyster habitat that had existed at Point Reyes since Indian times, oysters have never grown naturally in or around Point Reyes: not in Drake’s Estero, not in nearby Tomales Bay where two more oyster operations still exist, not even in San Francisco Bay where John Stillwell Morgan had a large oyster operation in the 19th century. All these operations had been forced, like the Johnsons, to import the “spat” or seed, and hang them on wire or plastic “strings” hanging from wooden platforms so they can feed on nutrients in the waters. The reason stems from the sandy conditions of the shorelines in and around San Francisco Bay and Point Reyes. To establish themselves naturally, oysters require a rocky substrate on which to fasten their shells—like the ones that exist in New York Harbor and the surrounding rivers that, before industrialization polluted them, spawned a cornucopia of oysters. Thus unable to get oysters to grow naturally, Johnson imported his oyster spat from Japan, and with tutelage from his Japanese wife, used the platform-and-string technique Japanese oyster growers had long used. Morgan, despite determined efforts to grow oysters in San Francisco Bay, had done something similar: he imported young oysters from Washington state and the East where they grow naturally, and raised them to maturity here. One more important fact: the Wilderness Act of 1964, and the Point Reyes Wilderness Act of 1976, had mandated that the National Park Service implement “wilderness” within its borders—and Drake’s Estero had been designated as “potential wilderness.” In other words, it was to be restored to actual wilderness status whenever possible—by eliminating the oyster farm. Don Neubacher, superintendent of Point Reyes National Seashore, decided that the forty-year lease that in 1972 had granted the Johnsons their right to grow oysters should not be extended. He re-emphasized that the termination date was still 2012, and notified Johson’s heirs. Johnson’s son Tom, who’d been having trouble with pollution from an inadequate septic system, soon thereafter sold his oyster operation to Kevin Lunny, a longtime rancher on Point Reyes. Though Lunny knew of the plan to terminate the RUO (Reservation of Use and Occupancy) in 2012, he bought the oyster operation anyway, positive that by solving the environmental problems he could persuade the Park Service to renew the lease.
            Lunny was wrong. There had been continuing complaints about the environmental mess (the pollution from the septic system, running motor boats in the Estero, plastic detritus) created by the Johnsons’ oyster operation, including the problem of disturbing the harbor seals that traditionally use Drake’s Estero as a resting and spawning spot. The National Park Service wanted to make Point Reyes as “natural” as possible for visitors, though it concluded that the ranching/dairying operations that had long thrived there could continue within limits. The problem, of course, arose with the notion of restoring any environment to its “natural” state. The concept was commonly understood but plagued by problems of interpretation, and into that dubious area sprang Lunny supporters, especially a nearby resident and prominent neuroscientist named Corey Goodman. Goodman inundated newspapers and government officials with reports questioning the Park Service data about harm to harbor seals and government misuse of what he called “false science”. Beyond that, the Lunny camp recruited local Supervisor Steve Kinsey to its ranks, and managed to get U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein to lobby on behalf of extending the lease of the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company. Feinstein managed to push a Special Use Permit through the Congress, stipulating measures the oyster farm was to take to not disturb either seals or eelgrass, and the Lunnys signed it in April 2008. But the fight was far from over. Lunny and his supporters rallied everyone they could, as did the opposing side—so that by now the local community was split into such fiercely opposed factions that neighbors and even families split over their differences. On the one side were those officials and scientists from the Park Service, many local residents among them, who saw the dispute as putting all national parks at risk. As one resident wrote, the dispute was simply a “shell game” carried on by a local business enlisting major politicians to allow it to do what the lease termination and a respect for wilderness forbid it to do. If an exception was made for Drake’s Bay, he wrote, all national parks would henceforth be in greater danger from commercial operations seeking to take private advantage of land set aside for the public. On the other side were many local residents and some national organizations who viewed the dispute as an emblem of a larger conflict, pitting excessive government authority against private enterprise. On this side were not only local residents who saw the oyster farm as promoting a local business (good) over mass chains (bad), and as promoting good local jobs for oyster farm workers, but also national conservative organizations. A Washington, DC group named Cause of Action entered the fray, with its executive director, Dan Epstein, drawing the connection between the heavy-handed National Park Service lease denial and the plight of small businesses everywhere harassed by environmental regulations. But when it turned out that Epstein had once worked for one of the infamous Koch Brothers, and that Koch Brothers money was financing Cause of Action, many local supporters expressed dismay and disavowed their support.
            What I did not understand until recently, however, was how such a dispute could rip chasms in local communities that would linger even after the dispute was finally settled, and the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company was closed. In recent weeks, after having read Brennan’s book and been impressed by it, I thought to mention the book to a friend I knew who lived in Inverness (the tiny community adjacent to Point Reyes National Seashore), and who I was sure would favor the closure and want to read it. I mentioned the book, and walked into a mini-volcano of vituperation. ‘The book is totally biased,’ she began; and then proceeded to attack the author as having been ‘hired by the Sierra Club to do a hatchet job,’ and as a ‘blonde chippy with her New York hairdo.’ I was stunned. My friend then insisted that the oyster farm had been there for over 100 years (she was close, if we count from the first operation in 1925), and that there was tons of evidence that Native Americans had eaten oysters, thus proving they had grown in the area all along (Brennan actually does concede that a very few oyster shells have been found in middens, but reasons that they were probably traded from groups farther north where they do grow.) I dropped the subject, not wanting to initiate a new war over something I didn’t truly have a stake in, but the incident puzzled me. When I asked my local librarian, who lives in Point Reyes Station, what could prompt people to defend a business that violated the clear law about not extending the permit, she indicated several reasons: people favoring a local business growing local food (but the oysters are NOT local; they have to be imported from Japan or Washington or elsewhere), people upset at the loss of so many jobs by mostly Hispanic workers, many of whom lived on the site, and friends who had known the Lunnys for years.
            These are all sound reasons, I suppose. But still, it is fascinating to me—again with no dog in this fight; I haven’t eaten oysters in years—that such a dispute could cause so much passion and anger that my librarian actually said she can’t even mention the word “oyster” in public any more. After all, the end result is that Drake’s Estero is now as clean and pristine as the rest of the National Seashore and can be enjoyed by millions. Is that not what most people out here want? Apparently not when it conflicts with their version of what’s right. Indeed, the same is true of disputes that have arisen among locals over what to do with the fallow and axis deer that have, since their introduction years ago, begun to overrun the native herds on Point Reyes. When the Park Service decided that it had to cull the herds by shooting some of them, residents went crazy. Killing those sweet deer. But the deer, without any natural predators, have spread like the European grasses they feed on. They menace any local garden not fenced in. They overrun their natural habitat to the point that they can begin to starve (as they did recently on Angel Island) for lack of food. What is one to do? Brennan has a chapter on this problem in her book—the problem of invasives such as grasses and eucalyptus trees and flowering plants and many types of fish and rodents and other mammals. What is to be done? Without natural predators, and with invasives from all over the globe having been moved randomly with our ships and goods, we are drastically altering environments everywhere by upsetting the balance between predator and prey built up over millennia. What is to be done?
            But of course, this is a related but fairly separate matter. With respect to the oyster farm in Drake’s Estero, the Interior Department and the National Park Service have made their decision. Oyster farming on Point Reyes no longer exists, and I, for one, think the decision made was a good one—one that benefits far more people (and the local ecology) than it hurts. But clearly, many many others disagree and given the signs will likely nurse their grievance for years. And this makes me wonder: when it comes to the far more disruptive measures needed to mitigate runaway climate change, can we ever get agreement on what to do? Can we ever get over the battles that will ensue? Once I might have said that rational humans could agree, especially in a crisis as potentially catastrophic as global warming and sea-level rise. After the oyster wars, though, I’m not so sure.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Truth: Does Anyone Give a Damn?

The never-ending saga of the American political campaign for the presidential nomination has revealed (or newly emphasized) some amazing fractures where truth is concerned. Each week, it seems, one of the Republican aspirants for the crown issues a new “whopper” that the major media organizations still seem loathe to call a “lie.” Leading the pack, of course, is Donald Trump, the man who seems to have no moral sense whatever. His latest whopper involves his claim that he personally “saw” thousands of Arabs cheering in Jersey City as they watched the twin towers fall on 9/11. Even faced with evidence that his claim is impossible—by both reporters and rivals like New Jersey governor Chris Christie—Trump has stuck to his story, this past week only modifying it some by saying that what he saw was on television, and then that millions of people around the globe are convinced that they saw it too. And yet, no one calls him a “liar,” which is what he so clearly is. Rather, the shock jocks like Rush Limbaugh back him up, saying his essential facts are “what everyone in the world knows.” Ben Carson, also vying for the nomination (though no one can really say why; Carson himself seems to think God has chosen him for the role), has also been caught in several ‘whoppers,’ especially regarding his youth. He claimed that, when young, he was a ‘bad boy’ who had stabbed someone, until this proved slightly exaggerated; he also claimed that he had been offered a scholarship to West Point, though everyone else knows that those who are admitted attend the military academy for free. Like Trump, though, Carson has refused to recant, and simply offers slightly amended versions of his whoppers. And Carly Fiorina, the one-time CEO of Hewlett-Packard (which nearly expired under her tenure), has famously insisted that she “saw” videos of feminists harvesting fetal brains, though no such videos have ever been located. She also continues to claim that 92% of the jobs lost under President Obama were lost by women—though the same statistic was once used by the Romney campaign until it was seen to be so obviously false the campaign abandoned it. And others in the Republican camp keep doing the same thing: uttering false statistics and faux facts that they refuse to recant. The reasons seems clear: none of the candidates seems to suffer in the polls because of such lies. Their supporters only double down, like the candidates, in their support and, also like them, attribute the criticism of their darlings to “liberal-left media bias.”
            What has happened? Do Americans care anymore about holding the aspirants to public office to something as arcane as truth? Do most contemporary Americans even have the capability to distinguish truth from lies? Or do most people now prefer what Stephen Colbert hilariously called “truthiness”—the feel in our gut that we are right, without the need for all that tedious evidence, and logic, and fact.
            These and other questions are very much at issue in Charles Lewis’ recent book, 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity (Public Affairs: 2014). Lewis has been a journalist all his adult life, serving as an investigator/producer for Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, and then founding several nonprofit organizations devoted to bolstering the battered profession of investigative journalism, most notably in 1989 when he founded The Center for Public Integrity. What he does in 935 Lies is to show—using some of the familiar cases of the last half-century marked by both government and corporate malfeasance (the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, based on a presidential lie; the Watergate scandal, based on countless presidential lies; the rush to war in Iraq, based on no less than 935 lies by Bush Administration officials claiming Saddam’s possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction as their casus belli; and the notorious history of tobacco industry denial and obfuscation of the clear link between tobacco smoke and lung cancer)—how both government and corporate lying has become more blatant and ubiquitous over the years. Indeed, Lewis himself had produced the 60 Minutes show on tobacco industry lying called “Tobacco on Trial,” in the course of which he was heavily pressured to kill or at least modify the story by the CEO of CBS, Laurence Tisch. Lewis prevailed in that battle, though a friend of his from ABC, the Emmy-award-winning Marty Koughan, was forced in 1994 to stop his investigation of the tobacco industry on the show Turning Point. Philip Morris had filed a $10 billion libel suit against ABC, and the network executives decided not only to kill the story, but, as part of a settlement, to publicly apologize to Philip Morris for its reporters’ attempt to tell the truth. That truth, as cited by Surgeon-General C. Everett Koop, is that due to the lies of the tobacco industry over the years, “100 million people around the world died from smoking-related illnesses in the 20th Century, according to the World Health Organization,” and that an additional one billion would die in this century. To sum it up, Lewis cites what Marty Koughan told the Washington Post in August 1995: With its lawsuit, Philip Morris had shown that “for a paltry $10 million or $20 million in legal fees…you can effectively silence the criticism” (139).
            This is really the key for Charles Lewis. The problem had morphed from the hiding or censorship of important information by the government, as in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (N. Vietnamese boats had not attacked American warships), or corporations as in the tobacco wars, to self-censorship by the major news media. Lewis saw this firsthand in his attempt to produce a 60 Minutes segment called Foreign Agent, in which he was exposing how former US officials cashed in on their political connections by working as lobbyists on behalf of foreign governments. He had focused on Pete Peterson, a former Commerce Secretary who had become CEO of the investment firm Blackstone, whose consultants were shown in the story to exemplify precisely the government-to-industry pipeline the story was featuring. But Peterson was a close friend of 60 Minutes’creator, Don Hewitt, who told Lewis to ‘edit’ the story. Lewis finally agreed to the edit by substituting former Reagan budget director David Stockman (also with Blackstone) for Peterson. Though that didn’t solve all the problems or the blame laid on Lewis, even by Mike Wallace, the story aired as edited in the end. But Lewis knew he had had enough:
“I had had a jarring epiphany that the obstacles on the way to publishing the unvarnished truth had become more formidable internally than externally” (197). 
In short, even before government or corporate pressures, the media were censoring themselves to avoid trouble and maintain cozy relationships with power. And the real conundrum of television news, according to Lewis, had become (or perhaps always was) the basic conflict between money and truth: “TV is an immensely powerful medium, but its potential to make astonishing sums of money is typically realized only by appealing to the lowest-common-denominator instincts of viewers.” The most famous instance of this was when legendary CBS producer Fred Friendly tried to broadcast live coverage of Senator J. William Fulbright’s 1971 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings about the problems in Vietnam. To do so, however, CBS would have to interrupt its profitable daytime reruns of I Love Lucy. Not surprisingly, CBS execs chose I Love Lucy. To have aired the Fulbright hearings over Lucy would have represented, as David Halberstam put it, “a higher price for democracy than most network executives would be willing to pay” (164).
            After quitting CBS in 1989, Charles Lewis founded The Center for Public Integrity, today the largest nonprofit investigative reporting organization in the world. It has not only received Pulitzer prizes, Polk awards, and countless other honors for its serious investigative reporting, but has also inspired other similar organizations to supplant the seriously curtailed reporting traditionally done by large newspapers—who can no longer afford it. Lewis is rather optimistic about these developments, including those on the Internet, and about the continuing ‘thirst’ for the general public to know the truth.
            I am not so sure. Consider what we began with: the serious decline in any price being paid by presidential aspirants who are caught in outrageous lies. The public simply does not seem to care if their public figures shade or distort or completely falsify the truth. This is partly because of the decline in investigative reporting that Lewis details in his book. It is also due to secrecy—the mania for classifying documents that Lewis also records: just recently, for example, the number of US Government documents classified has risen from 8.6 million in 2001 to 23.8 million in 2008, and then in two more years, to 76.7 million documents classified in 2010. All of these documents require security clearance of one degree or another, with 1.2 million Americans now having Top Secret clearance to read them. As Lewis puts it, “our citizenry is divided into two tiers—a small elite with access to inside knowledge about our government, and a vast lower echelon that is kept in the dark” (227-8). But what Lewis cited about the dumbing down of the media is also clearly a factor. Here, a recent article by Matt Taibbi has some very salient points to make.
            Taibbi’s article (in Rolling Stone, reprinted 27 November on Reader Supported News), responding to the same lies by Republican candidates cited above, is titled: “America is Too Dumb for TV News.” Like many of us, Taibbi is shocked by the apparent indifference of the public to the level of lying, and more, to the lack of any penalty paid by the liars when their lies are publicly exposed. As he puts it, it used to be that “if a candidate said something nuts…the candidate ultimately was either vindicated, apologized, or suffered terrible agonies.” As, for example, Al Gore did when confronted with his implication that he had invented the Internet. Now, however, politicians “are learning that they can say just about anything and get away with it.” They just blame the media and get to be heroes to their media-hating base, which is convinced that the liberal media is all “controlled by special interests” who want an established candidate as their nominee.
            But Taibbi goes deeper, into what major media in this nation have become—“a consumer business that’s basically indistinguishable from selling cheeseburgers or video games.” Where once TV news was dominated by Edward R. Murrow and real investigative reports on important issues of the day, now it’s nothing but “murders, bombs, and panda births, delivered to thickening couch potatoes in ever briefer blasts of forty, thirty, twenty seconds.”  The results are clear: When you make the news into this kind of consumer business, pretty soon “audiences lose the ability to distinguish between what they think they’re doing, informing themselves, and what they’re actually doing, shopping.” So it’s not just that at some point, TV executives decided that their audiences preferred I Love Lucy (and the money they coughed up for goods promoted there) to Fulbright Senate Committee Hearings on dull old Vietnam; it’s also that after many years of this, audiences simply no longer have the ability to distinguish between corporate-generated pseudo-news and real information necessary to a democracy. Between the truth as supported by facts, and the lies that stroke their preferences about the way things in the world are, or should be. Most people must know, by now, that what they’re seeing on TV commercials are lies—distortions of the truth, if not outright fabrications. The problem is, the commercial lies begin to bleed over into the news distortions. The news omissions. The news that becomes simply a slight makeover of whatever foreign or domestic position the opinion-makers hand out for us to believe.
            And perhaps it’s even more basic than that. It really becomes a question of how much truth we wish to know, or can bear to know. How much do we wish to know about the dire predictions regarding climate change? Regarding the complex mess in Syria deriving from our own foreign misadventures? Regarding the critical state of our oceans, or our garbage dumps, or what we’re doing to our own bodies, our own planet? About how we’re being manipulated daily by the most corrupt, murderous, money-hungry corporations on this planet, who have literally become governments unto themselves. About how the endless dramas on TV about cops and their glorious efforts to protect us are really meant to disguise how corrupt they truly are, how specifically designed to protect only certain segments of the population while controlling the ‘other’ segments, even unto their deaths? How much of this do we really want to know? Or would we rather tune in to I Love Lucy?
            In short, though we are surely the target of massive deception from above, we also collude in our own self-deception; the self-censorship we confront stems, at least in part, from our own willingness to leave the hard decisions to others. Trained by media to be spectators at the pro game rather than players in our own, to be watchers rather than actors or singers or protestors, we grow more and more content to let the world proceed along lines of least resistance and enjoy our mediated world, our pre-fabricated confinement, our gut-satisfying “truthiness” as Stephen Colbert would have it. That’s because knowing is hard, knowing takes effort, being aware of what is being done to us, and what we’re doing to ourselves forces us to have to think and consider changes. And change is hard. Sadly, the changes have been proceeding at an alarming pace beneath our level of awareness, and have gone very far indeed. Whether we, most of us, can ever get back to that thirst for real truth that Charles Lewis is still convinced has never left us, remains to be seen. But it surely appears, in this terrible season of idiot politics and faith-based slaughter, that the prospects are not very good.

Lawrence DiStasi