Mumbai, the NYT's Revisionism, and Lessons Not Learned

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Salon.com

Mumbai, the NYT's Revisionism, and Lessons Not Learned

by
Glenn Greenwald

The New York Times Editorial Page, today, on poor U.S./Latin American relations:

[T]he Bush administration did enormous damage to American credibility throughout much of the region when it blessed what turned out to be a failed coup against Mr. Chávez.

Indeed it did.  But what the Times fails to mention, and is apparently eager to erase, is that "the Bush administration" was far from alone in blessing that coup attempt:

The New York Times Editorial Page, April 13, 2002 -- one day after the coup:

With yesterday's resignation of President Hugo Chávez, Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator. Mr. Chávez, a ruinous demagogue, stepped down after the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader, Pedro Carmona. . . .

Early yesterday [Chávez] was compelled to resign by military commanders unwilling to order their troops to fire on fellow Venezuelans to keep him in power. He is being held at a military base and may face charges in Thursday's killings.

New presidential elections should be held this year, perhaps at the same time the new Congress is chosen. Some time is needed for plausible national leaders to emerge and parties to reorganize. But Venezuela urgently needs a leader with a strong democratic mandate to clean up the mess, encourage entrepreneurial freedom and slim down and professionalize the bureaucracy.

That was one of the most Orwellian editorials written in the last decade.  The Times -- in the very first line -- mimicked the claim of the Bush administration that Chavez "resigned," even though, several paragraphs later, they expressly acknowledged that Chavez "was compelled to resign by military commanders" (the definition of a "coup").  Further mimicking the administration, the Times perversely celebrated the coup as safeguarding "Venezuelan democracy" ("Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator"), even though the coup deposed someone whom the Times Editorial itself said "was elected president in 1998" and -- again using the Times' own language -- "handed power to" an unelected, pro-American "respected business leader, Pedro Carmona," who quickly proceeded to dissolve the democratically elected National Assembly, the Supreme Court and other key institutions.

Worse still, the Times Editorial mindlessly spouted the administration's claim that "Washington never publicly demonized Mr. Chávez" and "his removal was a purely Venezuelan affair."  Yet less than a week later, the Times itself was compelled to report that the Bush administration "acknowledged today that a senior administration official [Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich] was in contact with Mr. Chávez's successor on the very day he took over"' -- a disclosure which, as the Times put it with great understatement, "raised questions as to whether Reich or other officials were stage-managing the takeover by Mr. Carmona."  

Four days after its pro-coup Editorial, the Times -- once Chavez was returned to power in the wake of Carmona's anti-democratic moves -- returned to the topic of Venezuela, once again echoing the official line from Bush officials, who took to condemning the now-failed coup attempt.  The Times, while justifying pro-coup sentiments as understandable, proceeded to denounce that reaction without really apologizing for its own role in endorsing it:

In his three years in office, Mr. Chávez has been such a divisive and demagogic leader that his forced departure last week drew applause at home and in Washington. That reaction, which we shared, overlooked the undemocratic manner in which he was removed. Forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader, no matter how badly he has performed, is never something to cheer.

Despite that, the Times still expressed optimism about the coup, righteously intoning in the first paragraph:  "we hope Mr. Chávez will act as a more responsible and moderate leader now that he seems to realize the anger he stirred."

And the Times was hardly alone.  As FAIR documented that week -- in a reported entitled "U.S. Papers Hail Venezuelan Coup as Pro-Democracy Move" -- "the editorial boards of several major U.S. newspapers followed the U.S. government's lead and greeted the news with enthusiasm."

* * * * *

It's nice that the Times -- with a disgraced George Bush on his way out the door -- has come to view the Venezuelan military coup as the destructive, anti-democratic event which, by definition, it was.  And it's also nice that the Times is now willing to assign blame for anti-U.S. sentiments in Latin America at least partially to the actions of the U.S. Government itself.  But it's important that the Times not be allowed to delete its own involvement in those events.  Just as was true for Joe Klein's very similar self-serving revisionism on Wednesday, the point here goes far beyond merely illustrating the dishonesty that lies at the heart of this re-writing of history.  

The Times' propagandistic cheer-leading for the military coup in Venezuela is an important illustrative event which should be regretted, but not erased.  There are vital lessons from the last eight years that get obscured when influential outlets such as the Times Editorial Page try to erase their own responsibility for events and heap all blame on "the Bush administration" -- which was able to do what it did only because it enjoyed the acquiescence, complicity and often blind support from so many of our leading political and media institutions.  

To this day, Chavez's hostility towards the U.S. Government (just as is true for the hostility of Iranian and Cuban leaders and many others) is depicted as proof of his dangerous extremism and irrationality -- even his mental instability -- as though American attempts to dictate who governs other countries will generate anger and resentment only among the Primitive, the Crazed, and the Evil.  More generally, discussions of our own role in spawning anti-American sentiment around the world is still more or less off limits in mainstream discourse, ludicrously demonized as "Blame America First" pathology from anti-American fringes on the radical Left and the isolationist Right.  And our political and media elite continue to bastardize language to justify whatever we do, with "democracy" meaning "a government that follows U.S. dictates regardless of how it gained and maintains power," and "dictatorship" meaning "a government not beholden to U.S. dictates even if they were democratically elected."

It wasn't just the Bush administraiton, but most of our media and political elite, which approved of the overthrow of Venezuela's democratically elected leader and overlooked our own role in it.  There is much to learn from that which the NYT Editorial Board shouldn't be able to suppress.

* * * * *

But just as importantly, that heinous though typical pro-coup, government-mimicking NYT Editorial was written in April, 2002 -- just months after the 9/11 attacks, when the extremism and mindless submission to Government authority that would grip this country for the next several years was still rumbling towards it peak.  The terrorist attacks in India this week serve as a critical reminder of how easily those forces are unleashed.

Any decent, civilized person watching scenes in Mumbai of extremists shooting indiscriminate machine gun fire and launching grenades into civilians crowds -- deliberately slaughtering innocent people by the dozens -- is going to feel disgust, fury, and a desire for vengeance against the perpetrators, regardless of what precipitated it.  The temptation is great even among the most rational to empower authority to do anything and everything -- without limits -- to punish those responsible and prevent repeat occurrences.  That's a natural, even understandable, response.  And it's the response that the attackers hope to provoke.

It's that temptation to which most Americans -- and our leading media institutions -- succumbed in the wake of 9/11, and it's exactly the reaction that's most self-destructive.  As documented by this superb Washington Post Op-Ed today from Dileep Padgaonkar, former editor of the Times of India, the Indian Government -- in response to prior terrorist attacks -- has been employing tactics all-too-familiar to Americans:  "terrorism suspects have been picked up at random and denied legal rights"; "allegations of torture by police are routine"; "suspects have been held for years as their court cases have dragged on. Convictions have been few and far between"; Muslims and Hindus are subjected to vastly disparate treatment; and much of the most consequential actions take place in secrecy, shielded from public view, debate or accountability.

As Padgaonkar details, many of these measures, particularly in the wake of new terrorist attacks, are emotionally satisfying, yet they do little other than exacerbate the problem, spawn further extremism and resentment, and massively increase the likelihood of further and more reckless attacks -- thereby fueling this cycle endlessly -- all while degrading the very institutions and values that are ostensibly being defended.  The greater one's physical or emotional proximity to the attacks, the greater is the danger that one will seek excessively to empower and submit to government authority and cheer for destructive counter-measures which allow few, if any, limits.

What happened in the U.S. over the last eight years is about much, much more than what "the Bush administration" did.  It begins there, but responsibility in the post 9/11-era is much more diffuse and collective than that.  Shoveling it all off on the administration that is leaving, while exonerating our culpable media and political institutions that remain, isn't merely historically inaccurate and unfair, though it is that.  Allowing that revisionism also ensures that the critical lessons that ought to be learned will instead be easily and quickly forgotten when similar episodes occur here in the future.

Glenn Greenwald was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book "How Would a Patriot Act?," a critique of the Bush administration's use of executive power, released in May 2006. His second book, "A Tragic Legacy", examines the Bush legacy.

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