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

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

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

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.

Perception Management

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 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'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

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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