In America the news is big business. That's not news. Everyone realizes that the corporate mass media make their money by delivering readers, viewers, and listeners to advertisers. The bigger the audience delivered, the bigger the profit. So corporate news editors have to know what good entertainers know: what the audience wants and how to give it to them.
In late winter, 2014, it seemed that American news audiences wanted one thing above all else: a U.S. - Russia showdown over Ukraine. Why? Plenty of theories might be offered.
But reading the headlines themselves, one explanation seemed most obvious: Americans understood that their nation's global prestige was on the line. Russian president Vladimir Putin was using Ukraine to test the will and resolve of the Obama administration. So Americans turned to the news each day to see whether their government would demonstrate enough strength to go on leading the international community.
At least that was the story.
Then came an unexpected turn of events calling that story deeply into question. On March 7 Americans began to drown in a deluge of headlines pointing them thousands of miles from Ukraine, to Malaysia, where Flight 370 had inexplicably vanished.
Ever since, the mystery of 370 has at least rivaled, and more often eclipsed, Ukraine in U.S. news headlines -- even in our most respected elite news sources. Ten days after it disappeared, Flight 370 still held five of the top six spots on the New York Times website's "most viewed" list, while Ukraine limped in at numbers 8 and 9. Over at the Washington Post site, the missing flight took two of the top four spots on "Post Most" (and an impending snowstorm held the other two). No sign of Ukraine at all.
Why such obsessive fascination with one missing plane on the other side of the world? Americans do not typically show deep concern about the fate of a handful of Asians (to put it politely). There were apparently three Americans on board, but they were not the main focus of the U.S. headlines.
Nor can the possibility of terrorism explain it; that didn't become a central focus of the investigation until days after the plane disappeared. Yet the deluge of headlines began as soon as news of the disappearance broke. Even after Malaysian officials started focusing on foul play, only one of those NYT "most viewed" stories dealt with that issue.
The most obvious explanation for our fascination with the mystery of Flight 370 is simply that it's a great mystery. Our 24/7 news cycle lets us ride along, as it were, moment by moment with the detectives trying to solve it.
From The Maltese Falcon to NCIS, Americans have loved a good detective story. And the likelihood of mass death never hurt any story's ratings. Make it a Hitchcockian murder mystery -- one that starts out in a setting so normal you could easily imagine yourself there (like a routine air flight) -- and you're headed for the top of the charts, or, in this case, the headlines. That's entertainment!
What does the obsession with Flight 370 tell us about Americans' concern for their nation's strength and resolve as world leader? At the very least, it says, that concern is weak enough to be quickly diverted by an entertaining -- or, more precisely, infotaining -- mystery.
Another possibility is equally plausible. Perhaps the corporate news media gave us all those headlines about Ukraine, knowing they would bring in big audiences, because the U.S. - Russia showdown itself was great entertainment. It, too, was a story involving great risk of life, whose outcome was unknown -- another mystery we could follow in real time, 24/7.
For whatever reason, Ukraine and Flight 370 have held roughly equal appeal in the American news appetite, with 370 often having the edge (to the point where Andy Borowitz joked "CNN apologizes for briefly airing non-flight 370 story"). So the deep geopolitical dimensions of the Ukraine story obviously don't matter a whole lot to the news-consuming public. The people want to be infotained.
Not that they care so deeply about the Ukrainian people. For neocons, Ukraine is just the latest center stage for a drama that is always unfolding (more or less) everywhere, a drama pitting strong U.S. leadership against a global collapse into chaos and anarchy. Those are the only two alternatives neocons can see. And to them it looks like a matter of life or death.
Apparently the rest of America no longer sees it that way. That's the bad news for the neoconservatives.
To understand what’s at stake here for the neocons and for the rest of us, let's look briefly at the history of their movement.
Neoconservatism crystallized in the late 1960s, when it had little concern about foreign affairs at all. As its intellectual godfather Irving Kristol wrote: “If there is any one thing that neoconservatives are unanimous about, it is their dislike of the [American] counterculture.”
The counterculture at home had unleashed a dangerous wave of selfish indulgence in private pleasures, Kristol complained: “Everything is now permitted. ... This is a prescription for moral anarchy. …The idea of ordered liberty could collapse,” leaving only “freedom, confusion, and disorientation."
The other great exponent of neoconservatism, Norman Podhoretz, called the "epidemic" of '60s radicalism "a vulgar plot to undermine Western civilization itself.” The root of the problem, in his view, was that “nobody was in charge” of the world any more.
Neocons insisted that America could be saved only by restoring the rule of traditional authorities -- "organized religion, traditional moral values, and the family," as Kristol put it. Somebody had to be in charge.
The neocons began to focus on foreign affairs only in the mid-1970s, "after the New Left and the ‘counterculture’ had dissolved as convincing foils for neoconservativism,” as historian Peter Steinfels pointed out.
Neocons now worried that, after the '60s and the Vietnam debacle, Americans had lost the moral fiber that comes (they claimed) only from self-discipline. Political scientist Robert Tucker complained that the United States was afraid to make the “effort and sacrifice required to sustain the exercise of power.” So it might “no longer be the principal creator and guarantor of order.” The result, he warned, would be a “drift and uncertainty” in policy that might “lead to chaos.”
Neoconservatives championed renewed cold war and a huge nuclear buildup in the '70s as symbols of "spiritual discipline," historian Edward Linenthal explained, "an inner transformation, a revival of the will to sacrifice." Such a return to traditional values would reject the "hedonism" of the '60s and restore order, both at home and abroad. As Podhoretz's wife, Midge Decter, said, for neocons “domestic policy was foreign policy, and vice versa.”
When the cold war ended, most neocons turned back to their original battle against domestic moral anarchy. But a few kept the focus on global affairs, led by Krauthammer, who preached: “If America wants stability it will have to create it. The alternative…is chaos.”
Two new neocon lights, Irving Kristol's son William and Robert Kagan, agreed. In the '90s they praised "conservatives' war against a relativistic multiculturalism ... reversing the widespread collapse of morals and standards in American society." But, they warned, "the remoralization of America at home ultimately requires the remoralization of American foreign policy.” So the U.S. should impose a “benevolent global hegemony,” demonstrating “that it is futile to compete with American power.”
This was the worldview that George W. Bush brought into the White House. After the neocons had launched their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, two scholars of the movement, Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, observed: “Even today they look with horror at American society, which, in their view has never recovered from the assault of Woodstock.”
Bush's neocons projected their fear of America's moral decay onto a global stage. They relied on a "tough" foreign policy, with endless shows of American "will and resolve," to fight against the "chaos and anarchy" that had first provoked them into action in the 1960s.
They are still waging the same war, driven by the same fear. Listen to three of their most respected voices, clamoring for Obama and his administration to "get tough" with the Russians:
Elliot Abrams: "Before Obama, there was a sense of world order that relied in large part on America."
Charles Krauthammer: "What Obama doesn’t seem to understand is that American inaction creates a vacuum."
Reuel Marc Gerecht: "If Washington retreats, only the void follows. Things are likely to get very, very nasty and brutish and short."
For neocons to see the nation ignoring their warnings and indulging in the pure, self-centered pleasure of news as mere infotainment must be agonizing.
That's how it looks from inside the neocon's mythic worldview. Nothing has changed since they first switched their focus from domestic to foreign fears in the 1970s -- except that most Americans no longer buy the neocon warnings as a genuine cause for anxiety, nor as a foundation for foreign policy.
Perhaps most would agree with our last ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack F. Matlock, Jr., that Putin is reacting understandably to a long "cycle of dismissive actions by the United States ... the diplomatic equivalent of swift kicks to the groin," most of them administered by Bush and his neocons. More such kicks "encouraging a more obstructive Russia is not in anyone’s interest."
The public buys the neocon view, apparently, only as an entertaining story. When a more exciting story comes along, like Flight 370, the U.S. - Russian showdown simply can't control the headlines any more.
Inside my mythic worldview we call that a step in the right (well, actually, left) direction. But it's only a step. The next big step is to make the quest for peace, nonviolence, and justice just as exciting and entertaining as the push toward war.
The great Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison knew how to do that. So did Gandhi and Dr. King. We always need to be re-learning the lessons they taught.
However I'd still keep an eye on the neoconservatives. They've suffered decline before. Yet they keep on coming back, the same old wolves, just wearing slightly altered clothing.
They speak for one permanent strain of American insecurity -- a fear of disorder and confusion, disguised as a fear of foreign enemies. It lies buried beneath the surface of our political culture now, but not too deeply. It could be unearthed all too easily, as suddenly as an airplane can vanish.