Does Sanity Matter?
As satire has done through the ages, Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity" has found a comedic way to focus national attention on a serious issue: Will the United States begin acting like a responsible force in the world or will it continue to wander off into its own ghastly dreamscape?
Millions of Americans have responded positively to Stewart's message, with thousands arriving from all over the country to take part in Stewart's semi-serious rally at the National Mall in Washington on Saturday.
But other Americans are confused about why someone would call a march for "sanity," and some who get the point are perturbed by its implicit criticism of their own craziness.
Whether Stewart's rally will have any lasting effect is another question. Is it possible that many Americans don't want to be sane? Or put differently, are they addicted to the crazy?
Is watching the madness of Glenn Beck simply too much fun for many? Are Rush Limbaugh's rants a way for listeners to feel better about their own personal grievances, by blaming the hated "liberals" or the "minorities" or some other scapegoats?
Especially on the Right, crazy has become the bread-and-butter. For Muslim-haters like Michael Savage and Steven Emerson - not to mention the bigger names like Limbaugh and Beck - irrationality and fear-mongering are how they rile up their audiences and make their money.
Crazy also is how you trump rationality. You can dismiss it as "liberal elitism" brought to you by those pointy-headed, we-know-better-than-you-do Al Gore types, folks who want us to listen to the "scientists" as they explain about the looming calamity of global warming and stuff like that. Isn't it more fun to simply call scientific judgments "myths" and feel superior to all those PhD guys?
To the Religious Right, irrationality has another role, as a defense of "biblical truth" in the face of reason. Anyone who operates under the principles of empiricism and objectivity is by definition a "liberal" for not accepting the Bible and Faith as the provider of all answers.
Many centrists are uncomfortable with Stewart's rally for a different reason. They may find his jokes amusing, but they reject his more serious message - that the U.S. political/media process has gone quite literally mad. If you're a Washington-Post-or-CNN-styled journalist, you simply can't accept that the system you have helped sustain is insane.
To do so - and to be honestly self-critical - would require acknowledging that you sat on your hands in the face of George W. Bush's violent delusions of the past decade because to do otherwise would have put your salary at risk. For these centrists to accept the need to restore sanity would require them to admit they tolerated madness.
Some on the Left also have trouble with Stewart's observation about how insane things have become because they, too, have operated with their own unrealistic expectations, at least about how much can be done and how quickly. As we also have seen with some of the conspiracy excesses of the 9/11 truther movement, anti-empiricism is not a monopoly of the Right.
Still, the American Right must be seen as the principal culprit in the decoupling of America from rationality.
The latest manifestation of the Right's wackiness can be found in the rise of the Tea Party, a movement of supposedly grassroots, mad-as-hell regular Americans. However, even that image is an illusion. The reality is that the movement is heavily subsidized by wealthy corporate donors (such as the billionaire Koch brothers) who want to ensure deregulation of their industries.
The reality that the Tea Party's phony "grassroots" obscures is that the hated federal government is the only force potentially powerful enough - if it were energized on behalf of the people - to counter the overwhelming might of multinational corporations. By hobbling the government, the Tea Partiers are simply empowering the corporations to run everything.
But the Tea Partiers have been persuaded that they are the new revolutionaries fighting for America against all those who would sap its strength - from the liberals and the illegals, to the Muslims and the atheists - but most of all, the federal government itself.
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 reach this place where a comedian is needed to point out how crazy the political system has become?
In the 1980s, early in the Reagan administration as an investigative reporter for the Associated Press, I was encountering so much deceptive propaganda regarding U.S. policies on Central America that I half-jokingly asked an editor what should an American news organization do if the U.S. government went from lying once in a while to lying all the time?
The realistic answer at AP and other mainstream news organizations was to retreat and to avoid any head-on battles. The thinking was that the cheerful dishonesty of Ronald Reagan, a former actor and ad pitchman, would eventually fade away and rationality would return, that the pendulum would swing back on its own.
But the imaginary pendulum never worked. Instead, through the 1980s, the Right used its combined power of the Executive Branch and the emerging right-wing media to assert control over reality itself. A few politicians and journalists fought back, but most accommodated and waited.
Meanwhile, Reagan won over large segments of the U.S. electorate with his something-for-nothing promises. Indeed, his greatest role as an actor may have been as the Pied Piper leading the American people off to their doom.
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 brought about by the magic of "free trade" and "free markets"; 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, it was essentially an invitation to reject reality. Even Reagan's vice presidential nominee, George H.W. Bush, had famously labeled Reagan's tax-cut scheme "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. 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 government regulations.
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 possible.
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 the people in a desired direction.
The neocons worked with seasoned CIA propagandists, like Walter Raymond Jr. who was moved over to the National Security Council, to develop what was called "perception management" for controlling how the American people would see and understand things.
The neocons used fear, exaggeration and lying to get the American people behind Reagan's support for brutal military regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala as well as the contra rebels seeking to overthrow Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government.
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 was 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 and Dispatch News, 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 Consortiumnews.com's "The Left's Media Miscalculation."]
Despite the long-term costs, Reagan made many Americans feel good in the short run. Many bought into Reagan's notion that "government is the problem." 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.[See Secrecy & Privilege.]
Not only were hopes for bipartisanship unrequited, the Republicans grew more emboldened and more partisan. The GOP and its allies ramped up personal attacks on Clinton by turning loose their 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 rested simply on the number of cases.
What the Right learned was that it could achieve political gain with the American people 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 and other outlets.
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.
The Fox Effect
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. The rout of rationality was on.
During Campaign 2000, journalists from publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post ganged up on Al Gore. They even put made-up quotes 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.
When Gore still narrowly defeated Bush in Election 2000, the major news media stood aside as Bush and the Republicans stole the White House.
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 from a fight for reality. Key journalists, such as the Times' reporter Judy Miller and the Post's editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, even became collaborators with Bush's propaganda about Iraq.
Meanwhile, the neocons, who had returned to power under Bush, reprised their old strategy of perception management, stoking excessive fears of Iraq's mythical WMD programs and stomping out any 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.
Since President Obama's election in 2008, the Right has again pulled out the old disinformation bag of tricks. The Right used its media dominance to pound the public with barrage after barrage of conspiracy theories about Obama.
Anti-Obama 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, gained credibility with large numbers of Americans. Similarly, the Right convinced tens of millions that Obama is a Muslim, though he is Christian.
At this late stage, the Republican Party and the Right recognize that they can dominate American politics through a clever mix of disinformation and faux populism, especially when dealing with a confused and embittered electorate.
But other Americans understand that craziness is not the way to rebuild the nation or to make the United States a responsible force in the world. That is why Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity has touched a popular nerve.
It may be all that stands in the way of a landslide victory for insanity.
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