Thursday, April 26, 2007

Can You Help Me Find the Free and Independent Press?

Bill Moyers Journal aired a great program last night called "Buying the War," a commentary inquiring how the press got Iraq and the WMDs so wrong in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion. You can see more about it here:

I had the unique angle of living in Amsterdam from November 2002 until September 2003, so I was OUT of the US press' reach during the time that Moyers covers, the time when the Administration was building the case for war. While Americans were bombarded with ominous messages of fear and imminent danger, I was in a place where the messages were ones of incredulity at the U.S.'s lone ranger arrogance in the face of the wishes of most of the international community. After the invasion, the European voices turned to anger and defiance, and poured into the streets and squares.

Major European cities, including my own Amsterdam, held anti-war rallies involving tens and even hundreds of thousands of people in those first months after the invasion. It has taken America 4 years to get to that point. While a small remnant of Americans had the principle and foresight to be against this war from the beginning (including some in the Christian community), it has taken the general public nearly four years to reach the level of disapproval and outrage that Europe has had since the moment "shock and awe" hit the ground in Baghdad over 4 years ago (and even before). That begs the obvious question of input - what were the messages being fed the American public at a time when the rest of the world was seeing things very differently? As Moyers points out in this piece, dissenting views in mainstream American media were hard to come by back in 2002 and 2003. While now it might be more "in vogue" for mainstream press to question the war, the question remains, where were those voices four years ago?

This is a serious indictment of our supposed free and independent press, especially during times when it matters most. It is not that some news sources wouldn't have understandably towed the Administration's line in the months leading up to the war, but most dismaying is the point Moyers brings out that any dissenting views were marginalized or wiped away altogether. Dan Rather, who - as did all major network anchors - supported the invasion and bought the "evidence" the Administration was peddling, had some telling quotes when he said that the unspoken pressures in the newsrooms were that no network wanted to be perceived as unpatriotic or, even worse, supportive of terrorism. Questioning the Administration's "evidence" would have been immediately seen as just those things, and concern for viewership and the bottom line overrode concerns for truth and fairness in reporting. Waving the flag loudly and proudly is simply better for ratings, and that remains true today.

Those dissenting voices existed four years ago, but they were not allowed to speak on the biggest stage during the most critical time. Four years and thousands of body bags later, we are the worse off for it. Where was the free and independent press when we needed them?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Virginia Tech, America, Guns, and the Spirit of Individualism

Here's a really interesting thought piece on the VT killings from a British paper. Sometimes what we need most is a discerning and gently critical eye from political cousins:

The Tablet (London) / 21 April 2007


Guns and American values

It is almost too easy to hold American gun law responsible for American gun crime. The ready availability of firearms is undoubtedly one of the reasons why a student at Virginia Tech shot and killed more than 30 university members - fellow students and academic staff - before turning his weapon on himself. But it also has to be noted that the pro-gun lobby is saying that if more students carried guns, he could have been stopped sooner. Indeed, self-protection is the most common reason why Americans buy guns in the first place.

Those who seek tighter control of guns, and not just in Virginia, which is notoriously lax in these matters, are asserting that certain liberties of the citizen have to be curtailed by Government for the sake of the common good. In contrast, the Second Amendment's "right to bear arms" arose from the perception that British colonial power had become a threat to individual freedom, which only an armed citizenry could effectively hold at bay. Thus the debate about gun control touches something very deep in the American psyche. It is a generalisation, but one bearing much truth, that Americans have never trusted their own government, whether colonial, federal or state, and they do not trust each other.

The national frame of values encourages an individualism, even atomisation, within American society that may relate to the Puritan origins of the first colonial settlements. Some American
commentators speak of a streak of paranoia in the national personality, and a tendency to suspect conspiracies in high places. Guns are no less prevalent in the hands of ordinary people in peace-loving Canada and law-abiding Switzerland, but gun crime is low in both places. But neither the Swiss nor the Canadians have a national culture that emphasises the sense of individual competitiveness, of "each against the whole", that characterises America, nor a film industry that glamorises gun violence.

Although this competitiveness may be the source of American economic success, it clearly has its negative side. The feeling that one's monetary worth reflects one's merit explains the relatively
low emphasis in American politics on welfare and policies for overcoming poverty. Compassion dictates that no one should starve, but most of the people who find themselves in a hole are
expected to dig their own way out of it. In other countries, a feeling for the common good gives a government an unchallenged right to regulate gun ownership even to the point of prohibiting it in principle, as in the United Kingdom. That implies a degree of trust among citizens themselves, and between citizens and the state, that America manifestly lacks. So gun control is not about to become an American election winner, even if ghastly campus mass killings like that at Virginia Tech were to happen again.

In the very long term what could change these basic American cultural values would be a shift from a mainly Protestant individualistic to a more Catholic communitarian understanding of the relationship between the state and the individual. The Catholic population is predicted to go on growing, largely through Spanish-speaking immigration, to the point where it could even become a majority in half a century. So such a cultural shift is not inconceivable. But until now American Catholics have seemed keener to embrace American values than to criticise them. Where gun control is concerned, a strong assertion of the primacy of the common good is overdue.