Maybe it was the diner waitress who called me "sweetie" as she poured that
second cup. As a US citizen living abroad, there are certain comforting
familiarities I miss.
But this year, being home for the holidays was different. The first step off
the airplane, I was confronted with CNN's "War on Terror" blasting from a
massive TV screen, right next to a telecom's patriotic "United We Stand"
poster. "Freedom" beer mugs and "America 1st" shot glasses on sale at the
airport gift shop. Little flags everywhere.
This year was different alright. What do you say to friends who have been
laid off? Is it possible to have faith in a system that provides billions in
corporate welfare for companies like Enron and IBM, even as they turn
thousands of workers out on the streets? How do you get that patriotic
feeling when your president was appointed in a rigged election, and the new
mayor of embattled New York, media mogul Michael Bloomberg, basically bought
the office at $92.60 per vote? When your government carpet bombs a far-off
country yet misses the point entirely?
It was summed up best by Bob, a man sitting next to me on the flight. He was
certain that bin Laden had turned to crime because "they lose all sense of
reality in those caves." Bob reckoned the best way to fight terrorism and
achieve world peace was to bomb the hell out of every cave in Afghanistan.
And what about our own caves? Plato's allegory (of prisoners trapped in
caves and trained to see shadows on the wall as reality) oddly fit my
feelings upon coming home. When the Pentagon can suppress satellite images
of the war, CNN staffers can be warned not to discuss Afghan war casualties,
and supposedly unbiased news broadcasters, such as CBS's Dan Rather, say
things like "Wherever (Bush) wants me to line up, just tell me where," it
seems clear that we are being fed shadows and not the truth.
Which goes a long way in explaining why media experts from around the world
recently converged in Bonn, Germany to discuss setting up a new global news
network. Sponsored by Germany's Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES), the
seminar explored a way to give CNN and the rest a run for their corporate
money. According to the seminar's concluding paper, "Under the guise of
combating terrorism, autocratic regimes are strangling whatever little
exists of those freedoms in order to seal themselves off from scrutiny by
independent media." There was a call for multiculturalism and a more
balanced approach to news reporting with this warning: "For journalists in
the South, journalism in the North is increasingly losing its credibility
and thus its role as a standard for their own practice."
No doubt (Vice President Dick Cheney's wife) Lynne Cheney, Senator Joe
Lieberman and other leaders of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni
(ACTA) would disagree. Their new "Defending Civilization" initiative would
have studies in "Western civilization as well as American history" replace
multiculturalism courses in US universities. While the ACTA sees itself as
dedicated to "academic freedom, quality and accountability," it expresses
outrage that "expressions of moral relativism are a staple of academic life
in this country" and that some professors may even invoke "tolerance and
diversity as antidotes to evil."
So where does all of this leave us? Straight back to the caves it seems.
Plato's allegory predicted that those who had escaped and come to learn the
difference between shadows and reality would be ridiculed and attacked by
other prisoners if they reentered the cave to free them. Such was the fate
of Plato's teacher Socrates, who chose death rather than giving in to a
corrupt political system. Such is also the fate of normal Americans with the
guts to say that this war and its accompanying rollback of civil liberties
is just plain wrong.
Somewhere between the caves, beer mugs and flags lies my country. Its
reality is in the painful aftermath of a horrific attack on its soil. But
its echoes are in the Pentagon Papers showing up on page one and citizen
protests stopping a senseless war. Its promise is in throwing off shackles
of lies and repression, and in naming shadows for what they are.
Heather Wokusch is a free-lance writer. She can be contacted at