Monday, June 13, 2005

Paranoia, the destroyer

At the TPM Café, David Gelber helpfully mentions a recent commencement speech by Mark Danner of the New Yorker that crystallizes some of the things I’ve been thinking about in the wake of the unmasking of Deep Throat and the torture mess. The piece touches on many issues, but here one of its key points:

Never in my experience has frank mendacity so dominated our public life. This has to do less with ideology itself, I think, than the fact that our country was attacked and that --from the Palmer Raids after World War I, to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, to the McCarthyite witch-hunts during the Fifties -- America tends to respond to such attacks, or the threat of them, in predictably paranoid ways.

This is an apt description. And what we have isn’t just America reacting in paranoid fashion, but the stoking and exploitation of that paranoia for political purposes.

I had to think about the statement, though. Is there more “frank mendacity” now than there was during the Vietnam War or during Watergate? Certainly plenty of spectacular lying has gone on under both Democratic and Republican administrations over the past generation or two.

The lies and misrepresentations of the Vietnam and Watergate were designed to cover up wrongdoing and policy disasters – they were political survival tactics. But with Bush, lies are just a normal, everyday political and policy tool.

The difference between then and now is, of course, is a unique convergence of spin, power, and ideology. Political spin has always been around, but it reached new heights as the news cycle accelerated, and controlling or managing it became a key function in the White House. Our current leadership took this a step further, with the aim not just of controlling the news cycle but replacing it with an alternative "conservative" narrative of reality. It’s now impossible to tell where the BS leaves off and the lying begins – a line the media could once reliably detect. If everything is spin, then there is no truth and no lies, and as Josh Marshall points out, the media haven’t yet figured out how to handle this.

Setting partisan concerns aside (if that’s possible these days) if you seek to deny reality so systematically –undermining human rights, the law and science – you’re not just playing politics but eroding the underpinnings of open debate and democracy. I keep wondering how long the country will stand for it. But then some new outrage occurs, accompanied by yawns. We are, apparently, still in the paranoid backlash stage.