On NPR, Please Follow the Script
by Robert Jensen
March 24, 2003
Last week I found out that National Public Radio wants the opinions of antiwar activists -- as long as we follow the right script.
After a day of antiwar protests on the University of Texas campus and in Austin, I found myself booked as a late-night guest on NPR’s all-day coverage of the war to be interviewed by Scott Simon, the popular host of Weekend Edition on Saturdays.
I knew something about Simon’s politics from an essay he published in the Wall Street Journal a month after 9/11. In that piece he explained that he had become a Quaker and pacifist during the antiwar movement of the 1960s but now supported Bush’s “war on terrorism.” His prose at the time was undistinguishable from the president’s rhetoric:
“But those of us who have been pacifists must admit that it has been our blessing to live in a nation in which other citizens have been willing to risk their lives to defend our dissent. The war against terrorism does not shove American power into places where it has no place. It calls on America’s military strength in a global crisis in which peaceful solutions are not apparent.”
So, when I found out Simon would be interviewing me, I had an idea of what to expect: The liberal defense of the American empire that one hears from people who have accepted the idea that we now intervene only for “humanitarian” or defensive reasons, and besides everything is different since 9/11. These people would never be so crude as to try to silence antiwar activists or question their patriotism; instead, they prefer to indulge our naiveté with that “someday you will understand” look. Even though I was not in the studio with him, I could feel that look on Simon’s face through the phone line.
After the first question, it was clear Simon expected me to follow a script that would go something like this: Yes, I’m against this war, but I know that Saddam Hussein is such a monster that nothing short of war can deal with him. Yes, I’m against this war, but now that the president has made this decision we should unify as a nation. Yes, I’m against this war, but -- in the end -- I realize that I should acknowledge that I am a naïve and foolish person who can’t deal the harsh realities of a harsh world.
Well, I didn’t follow the script, and it wasn’t long before it was clear in Simon’s voice that he wasn’t pleased.
Instead of accepting the assumptions built into his pro-war framework, I challenged them. I agreed that Hussein was a totalitarian thug, but argued that had little to do with why the Bush administration had pressed for a war. I talked of U.S. plans for empire and the longstanding U.S. project of controlling the Middle East as a source of strategic power in the world. I referred to the Bush administration’s own National Security Strategy document (http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss.html), which lays out a plan for U.S. dominance, and the U.S. military Space Command’s plans for controlling space (http://www.gsinstitute.org/resources/extras/vision_2020.pdf).
With each point I made, Simon returned to some version of, “Yes, but certainly you must acknowledge …”
But I never did acknowledge what he wanted me to -- not out of obstinacy but because I thought he was wrong. When it came time to take callers, Simon didn’t invite me to stay on the line, even though it was clear that he and I could have engaged in a lively exchange with listeners. After going off the air, I listened to the callers and was amused by the way Simon tried to spin my comments and put back in place the proper pro-war framework.
Since 9/11, I have been interviewed about antiwar politics hundreds of times on radio and television, including on a number of right-wing shows. I have been invited back on several of those conservative shows, where the hosts generally don’t mind a guest who strongly disagrees (although they keep tight control over their shows and generally like to get the last word).
But I don’t expect ever to be invited back on a show hosted by Scott Simon. He might argue that is because my ideas are so crazy that they don’t deserve a hearing. But what Simon either doesn’t know -- or doesn’t want to know -- is that the analysis I offered that night is hardly unique to me.
Simon should acknowledge that millions of people around the country and the world share a radical analysis of this war for oil and empire. And they are growing increasingly weary of the condescension of liberals.
Robert Jensen, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream and a member of the Nowar Collective. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Other articles are available at his website: http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/home.htm.