America's Decoupling from Reality

As Election Day 2010 approaches - as
the United States wallows in the swamps of war, recession and
environmental degradation - the consequences of the nation's
three-decade-old decoupling from reality are becoming painfully

As Election Day 2010 approaches - as
the United States wallows in the swamps of war, recession and
environmental degradation - the consequences of the nation's
three-decade-old decoupling from reality are becoming painfully

Yet, despite the danger,
the nation can't seem to move in a positive direction, as if the
suctioning effect of endless spin, half-truths and lies holds the
populace in place, a force that grows ever more powerful like quicksand
sucking the country deeper into the muck - to waist deep, then neck

Trapped in the mud,
millions of Americans are complaining about their loss of economic
status, their sense of powerlessness, their nation's decline. But
instead of examining how the country stumbled into this morass, many
still choose not to face reality.

Instead of seeking paths
to the firmer ground of a reality-based world, people from different
parts of the political spectrum have decided to embrace unreality even
more, either cynically as a way to delegitimize a political opponent or
because they've simply become addicted to the crazy.

The latest manifestation
of the wackiness can be found in the rise of the Tea Party, a movement
of supposedly grassroots, mad-as-hell regular Americans that is
subsidized by wealthy corporate donors (such as the billionaire Koch brothers) seeking to ensure deregulation of their industries and to consolidate their elite control over the political process.

The Tea Party madness is
aided and abetted by a now fully formed right-wing media apparatus that
can popularize any false narrative (like Islam planning to conquer
Christian America as represented by the building of an Islamic
community center near Ground Zero).

The Right sees an
advantage in spreading even the nuttiest of smears against President
Barack Obama. So you have right-wing author Dinesh D'Souza and former
House Speaker Newt Gingrich concocting a toxic brew of racist nonsense
about Obama somehow channeling the anti-colonialism of his late Kenyan

"Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s," D'Souza wrote
in Forbes. "This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged
against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial
ambitions, is now setting the nation's agenda through the reincarnation
of his dreams in his son."

Incredibly, indeed.

The "factual" basis of this "analysis" apparently is that Obama entitled his touching story about his youth, Dreams of My Father, which was a book that focused on the absence of his father from his life.

In a less crazy time, one
might have expected D'Souza's claptrap to be denounced by politicians
across the political spectrum, but that is not the time we live in.

Instead, Gingrich, a leading figure in the Republican Party and a potential candidate for president in 2012, praised
D'Souza's racist psycho-babble as the "most profound insight I have
read in the last six years about Barack Obama," adding that D'Souza
unlocked the mystery of who Obama is by addressing his "Kenyan,
anticolonial behavior."

Gingrich also pretended
that he and D'Souza were the truth-tellers here, not just propagandists
spreading a smear. Gingrich said they simply were unmasking Obama who
has "played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president."

How It Happened

But how did the United
States of America get here? How could the most powerful nation on earth
with a sophisticated media that is constitutionally protected from
government censorship have stumbled into today's dreary place filled
with such up-is-down commentary?

As a journalist in
Washington since 1977, I have had a front-row seat to this sad
devolution of American reason. As the process advanced, I have at times
felt like a Cassandra trying to warn others about the risks of
abandoning fact and rationality in favor of propaganda of whatever

I also have watched Newt
Gingrich since he was a freshman congressman in 1979, when I was a
congressional correspondent for the Associated Press. Though I have met
many politicians in my career and know they can be an egotistical
bunch, Gingrich's burning ambition - his readiness to do whatever was
necessary - stood out even then.

Unlike many other
congressional Republicans of the time, Gingrich cared little for
constructive governance but a great deal for political gamesmanship. He
was already plotting his route to national power and was ready to use
whatever tactics would advance his personal and ideological cause.

However, America's
decoupling from reality - and its disappearance into the swamp of
unreality - began in earnest with the rise of actor and ad pitchman
Ronald Reagan, who crafted a host of get-something-for-nothing policies
that appealed to a nation that was struggling to adjust to a more
complex world.

Reagan promised that tax
cuts tilted to the rich would generate more revenue and eliminate the
federal debt; that this money also could finance a massive military
buildup which would frighten America's enemies and restore national
prestige; that freeing corporations from government regulations and from
powerful unions would herald a new day of prosperity; that the country
could turn its back on alternative energy and simply drill for more
oil; that whites no longer had to feel guilty about the plight of
blacks; that traditional "values" - i.e. rejection of the
"counter-culture" - would bring back the good old days when men were
men and women were women.

Despite the appeal of
Reagan's message to many Americans, it was essentially an invitation to
repudiate reality. Before joining Reagan's ticket as his vice
presidential nominee, George H.W. Bush had famously denounced the
tax-cut plan as "voodoo economics." Early in Reagan's presidency, his
budget director David Stockman acknowledged that the tax cuts would
flood the government in red ink.

But tax policy wasn't
Reagan's only ignore-the-future policy. While rejecting President Jimmy
Carter's warnings about the need for renewable energy sources, Reagan
removed Carter's solar panels from the White House roof and left the
nation dependent on oil. Reagan also led campaigns to break unions and
to free corporations from many government regulations.

Scaring the Public

In foreign policy -
although the Soviet Union was in rapid decline - Reagan put ideological
blinders on the CIA's analysts to make sure they exaggerated the
Soviet menace and justified his military buildup.

Reagan achieved this
"politicization" of the CIA by placing in charge his campaign chief
William Casey, who, in turn, picked a young CIA careerist named Robert
Gates to purge the analytical division of its long tradition of
objectivity. Gates arranged the scariest intelligence estimates

Reagan also credentialed a
group of young intellectuals who became known as the neoconservatives -
the likes of Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle and Robert Kagan - who
emerged from an elitist tradition (advocated by philosopher Leo
Strauss) that it was their proper role to manipulate the less-educated
masses and guide them in certain directions.

After Reagan gave the
neocons oversight of his Central American policies, the neocons worked
with seasoned CIA propagandists, like Walter Raymond Jr. who was moved
over to the National Security Council, to develop what they called
"perception management" strategies for controlling how the American
people would see and understand things.

The neocons used fear,
exaggeration and outright lying to get the American people behind
Reagan's support for brutal military regimes in El Salvador and
Guatemala and the contra rebels seeking to overthrow Nicaragua's leftist
Sandinista government. Truth was subordinated to policy.

Perception management
operatives targeted honest journalists, human rights activists and
congressional investigators who dug up unwanted facts that challenged
Reagan's propaganda. To discredit truthful messages, the neocons
"controversialized" the messengers.

These techniques proved
very successful, in large part, because many senior executives at
leading news outlets - from the AP where general manager Keith Fuller
was a Reagan enthusiast to the New York Times where executive editor
Abe Rosenthal was himself a neocon - sided with the propagandists
against their own journalists. [For details on "perception management,"
see Robert Parry's Lost History.]

Meanwhile, the American
Right began building its own media infrastructure with wealthy
foundations footing the bills for a host of political magazines.
Far-right religious cult leader Sun Myung Moon poured billions of
mysterious dollars into the Washington Times and other media operations.
[See Secrecy & Privilege.]

By contrast, the American
Left mostly under-funded or even de-funded its scattered media
outlets. Some, like Ramparts, were shuttered, while other formerly
left-of-center publications, such as The New Republic and The Atlantic,
changed hands to neocon and conservative owners. [See's "The Left's Media Miscalculation."]

Whatever the long-term
costs, Reagan made many Americans feel good in the short run. They
liked the idea of not having to pay for government services (by simply
putting the bill on the government's credit card) and many bought into
Reagan's notion that "government is the problem."

So, in 1984, Reagan's
gauzy "Morning in America" vision won big over Walter Mondale's appeal
for fiscal responsibility.

The Iran-Contra Window

Perhaps the last best
hope to reassert reality came with the Iran-Contra scandal, which
played out from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. Reagan's secret
arms-for-hostages deals with Iran had the potential to unravel an
interconnected series of national security cover-ups and scandals,
including cocaine smuggling by Reagan's contras and creation of the
"perception management" operation itself.

However, again, truth
about these complex scandals was not considered that important, either
in Congress or within the Washington news media. The governing
Democrats, the likes of Rep. Lee Hamilton and later President Bill
Clinton, chose to sweep the scandals under the rug in the hope that the
Republicans would reciprocate through a renewed bipartisanship. [See Secrecy & Privilege.]

Not only were those hopes
unrequited, the Republicans actually grew more emboldened and more
partisan. The GOP and its allies ramped up personal attacks on Clinton
by turning loose its powerful new media infrastructure, which by the
1990s featured the Right's domination of AM talk radio.

A typical example of the
Right's propaganda was to distribute lists of "mysterious deaths" of
people somehow connected to President Clinton. Though there was no
evidence that Clinton was implicated in any of the deaths, the
sophistry of the argument rested simply on the number of cases.

When I checked out some
of the cases and relayed my findings of Clinton's innocence to one
right-wing source, he told me that maybe I could show that Clinton
wasn't responsible for some of the deaths but I couldn't account for all
and that it would be "a big story" if the President was responsible
for even a few deaths.

I responded that it would
be a "big story" if the President were responsible for even one, but
the problem was that there was no evidence of that, just the insidious
impression created by a long list of vague suspicions.

What the Right learned
was that it could achieve political gain by circulating an endless
supply of baseless or wildly exaggerated allegations. Many Americans
would believe them just because of the repetition over right-wing talk
radio, especially by the most prominent talker Rush Limbaugh.

On Election Night 1994,
Democrats were stunned by how effective the tactic of using bogus and
hyped anti-Clinton charges proved to be. Between the smearing of Bill
and Hillary Clinton and the voters desire to punish Democrats for
raising taxes to close the Reagan-Bush-41-era deficits, the Republicans
swept to control of the House and Senate.

Newt Gingrich achieved
his long-held goal of becoming House Speaker, and Rush Limbaugh was
made an honorary member of the Republican congressional caucus.

In the years that have
followed - especially with the emergence of Fox News in the mid-to-late
1990s - the dominance of right-wing propaganda over non-ideological
reality moved to the center of the American political process.

As in the 1980s, much of
the blame should fall on the mainstream news media. Rather than push
for difficult truths, many journalists in the corporate media protected
their careers by going with the flow or turned their attention to
trivial and tabloid stories.

The Bush-43 Era

During Campaign 2000,
journalists from publications such as the New York Times and the
Washington Post ganged up on Al Gore. They even made up quotations to
put in his mouth so they could haze him as if they were the cool kids
on campus and he was the goofy nerd.

By contrast, journalists
knew to fawn all over the ultimate big man on campus, George W. Bush,
as he made them feel important by giving them nicknames. [For details,
see Neck Deep.]

When Gore still narrowly
defeated Bush in Election 2000, the major news media stood aside as
Bush and the Republicans stole the White House.

After Bush's allies on the U.S.
Supreme Court stopped the counting of votes in Florida to give him the
"victory," some executives at major publications felt that pointing
out the fact that Gore actually won - if all votes legal under Florida
law had been counted - would undermine Bush's "legitimacy" and thus it
was better not to let the public know. In other words, ignorance had
become bliss.

Some columnists, like the
Washington Post's Richard Cohen, went so far as to hail the
overturning of the popular will under the theory that Bush would be a
uniter, while Gore would be a divisive figure.

The see-no-evil attitude
hardened after the 9/11 attacks when mainstream outlets, including the
New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN, consciously misreported
their own findings of a Gore victory in Florida, based on an unofficial
media recount. Instead of leading with that remarkable fact, they
buried the lede and highlighted that Bush would still have won some
partial, hypothetical recounts. [See Neck Deep.]

The media mood after 9/11
- a combination of misguided patriotism and fear of right-wing
retaliation - caused the mainstream press to retreat further into
self-censorship and even collaboration. Key journalists, such as the
Times' reporter Judy Miller and the Post's editorial page editor Fred
Hiatt, became handmaidens to Bush's propaganda about Iraq.

With only a few
exceptions, the U.S. news media let itself become silly putty in the
hands of the neocons, who had returned to power under Bush-43 with a
much broader foreign policy portfolio than Reagan had ever given them.
Whereas Reagan confined them mostly to Central America, Bush-43 gave
them the strategically vital Middle East.

Not surprisingly, the
neocons reprised their old strategy of perception management, stoking
excessive fears of Iraq's mythical WMD programs and stomping out any
counter embers of doubt. For millions of Americans, the WMD lies became
truth as they were repeated everywhere, from Fox News and Rush
Limbaugh to the pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Aping the Right

After watching the
success of the Bush administration's propaganda, some on the Left
decided that their only hope was to give the neocons a taste of their
own disinformation medicine.

Though the 9/11 evidence
pointed to Bush's incompetence in ignoring warnings and failing to stop
al-Qaeda's terrorist operation, some American leftists felt that it
wasn't enough to convince the people that Bush was simply a bonehead.
The feeling was that Bush had so bamboozled the people that they needed
to be shocked out of their trances by something bigger.

So, this small group
brushed aside the evidence-backed narrative of Bush's incompetence and
even a competing interpretation of that factual framework, claiming
that Bush had "let 9/11 happen." Instead, this group insisted that the
only way to wake up America was to make a case that Bush "made it
happen," that he was behind the 9/11 attacks.

To accomplish this feat,
these activists, who became known as "9/11 truthers," threw out all the
evidence of al-Qaeda's involvement, from contemporaneous calls from
hijack victims on the planes to confessions from al-Qaeda leaders both
in and out of captivity that they indeed had done it. The "truthers"
then cherry-picked a few supposed "anomalies" to build an "inside-job"
story line.

The "truthers" even
recycled many of the Right's sophistry techniques, such as using long
lists of supposed evidence to overcome the lack of any real evidence.
These sleight-of-hand techniques obscured the glaring fact that not a
single witness has emerged to describe the alleged "inside job," either
the supposed "controlled demolition" of the Twin Towers or the alleged
"missile" attack on the Pentagon.

Some supporters of the
"inside-job" theory may have simply been destabilized by all the years
of right-wing disinformation. Reality and real evidence may have lost
all currency, replaced by a deep and understandable distrust of the
nation's leaders and the news media.

Other "truthers" whom I've talked
with view their anti-Bush propaganda campaign as a success because it
injected some doubts among the American people about Bush. One told me
that this was the only attack line against Bush that had gained any

However, after President
Obama's election in 2008, the Right again demonstrated its mastery of
the disinformation techniques. Unlike the Left, the Right could roll
out the heavy artillery of a multi-layered media apparatus that pounded
the public with barrage after barrage of conspiracy theories.

Falsehoods took on the color of
truth simply by their endless retelling. For instance, the canard that
Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii as his birth certificate shows, has
gained credibility with large numbers of Americans including about
half of Republicans, some polls show. Similarly, the Right has convinced
tens of millions that Obama is a Muslim, though he is Christian.

The Right's media power
has enabled the Republicans to portray Obama as some un-American
"other," while the GOP has little fear that its spreading of
racist-tinged conspiracy theories will hurt the party's election

The latest example is
Dinesh D'Souza's bizarre theorizing about Obama's channeling his late
father's opposition to British colonialism in Kenya, a reincarnated
dream which somehow has morphed into Obama's "socialist" agenda which is
"alien" to American values.

Instead of roundly
condemning D'Souza for this strange and racist article, Gingrich - one
of the supposed intellectuals of the Republican Party - went out of his
way to praise the nonsense as "profound."

As former Bush-43 speechwriter David Frum noted in a blog post, "With the Forbes
story and now the Gingrich endorsement, the argument that Obama is an
infiltrating alien, a deceiving foreigner - and not just any kind of
alien, but specifically a Third World alien - has been absorbed almost
to the very core of the Republican platform for November 2010."

Despite some internal GOP
critics like Frum, the Republican Party clearly feels that it has a
winning formula, using such psychological warfare to exploit a confused
and embittered electorate. That confidence will be tested on Nov. 2,
although if most prognosticators are correct, the Republicans have good
reason to feel confident.

Whatever happens on
Election Day, the longer-term challenge will be to rebuild an
old-fashioned commitment to fact and reason within both American
journalism and the broader political system.

Though lying is not
foreign to U.S. politics and media, telling the truth has always been a
fundamental American value, one that is vital to democracy.

The great task of restoring the
Republic must include honest efforts to dig out recent history's
ground truth, which can then be used to build a path out of the
disinformation swamp and onto the dry land of rational political

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