“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people to peacefully assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances.”
-- The First Amendment of the Constitution
Looking back over the last five years we can see that the dismantling of the Constitution has been anything but haphazard. From the time the Bush administration began to illegally round up 1,100 Moslems after 9-11 (incarcerating them for up to six months without charges) it was evident that they had a plan to bulldoze the Bill of Rights. At that time they experimented with three rationalizations for overturning the protections elicited in the 5th and 6th amendments: the material witness clause, SAMs (special administrative measures) and a term which they invented themselves for eviscerating due process, “unlawful combatant”. The administration finally settled on unlawful combatant as the most effective way to confer absolute power on the executive, allowing Bush to arrest indefinitely anyone he arbitrarily accuses of terrorism.
The 4th amendment proved even less difficult to rescind. Following 9-11 the administration miraculously produced a 300-plus-page “wish list” for state repression cynically named the Patriot Act. The Congress passed the bill without even reading it, opening up every area of the citizen’s life to unlimited government intrusion. The Bill of Rights’ protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures” no longer exists in Bush’s America, nor does the “reasonable expectation of privacy.”
Similarly, the 8th amendment’s protection from “cruel and unusual punishment” has been entirely ignored. As reports and memos from Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan reveal, the use of torture has been “widespread and systematic”. There can be no reasonable doubt that cases of prisoner abuse are not illustrative of “a few bad apples” but, rather, a regime of torture instigated and perpetuated at the highest levels of government.
Can we agree now that these tyrannical measures were not spontaneously devised in reaction to 9-11, but part of a calculated strategy to undermine the Constitution?
Having eviscerated the 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th amendments, the administration has moved on to the cornerstone of American life and culture -- the First Amendment. The Bush strategy for attacking “free speech” has been much more subtle and requires more serious analysis. It will never be possible for the state to simply issue an edict that “free speech” has been summarily repealed. Instead, the administration is trying to affect this change by operating through its many surrogates in the right-wing media.
Wherever you travel in America today you can tune into at least one or two 24 hour-a-day far-right radio programs. The estimated 45 million Americans who listen to these stations enjoy hearing a perspective that is compatible with their own worldview; it’s a matter of “predisposition” to ideas that are similar to one’s own. The news becomes a form of “wish fulfillment”.
The hard-right in America has used this tool to much greater advantage than the left, which is clearly playing catch-up. The fact that we’re two years into a foreign occupation and over 50% of the public are still confused about the basic facts which provided the rationale for the war (which is readily available) demonstrates the triumph of this propaganda-model.
The ideological culture of right wing radio, and its implicit intolerance of alternative viewpoints, is a direct attack on free speech. The assault is not the blaring trumpet of McCarthyism that intimidated its victims with accusations of being a communist sympathizer. It’s much more subtle than that, and involves the discreet workings of so-called free market coupled with the efforts of quasi-fascist radio hosts to marshal public rage against divergent points of view.
At one time, the founders of this nation provided the resources for the free distribution of political materials through the postal system. They understood that the circulation of many differing points of view was the life’s-blood of democracy. Compare that thinking to the logic that guides today’s media, where ideas that oppose war or the evisceration of civil liberties or the savaging of the economy with “unsustainable” tax cuts for the wealthy are scrupulously kept off the airwaves. Today’s media aims for uniformity of opinion by presenting two modestly contrasting points of view that support the basic tenets of state power, free markets and consumerism. The opinions that are at variance with these views are consigned to smaller audiences on the Internet. Even there, these opinions are picked off the Web sites and used as an example of “threats to the status quo”; the errant thinking of enemies of the state whose thoughts are not in line with the goals of regimentation and homogeny. Freethinking is the sworn enemy of conformity and, as such, a threat to the objectives of autocratic government.
The current system does not allow the administration to attack individuals by itself, but to act, as it did with John Kerry, through its operatives in the private sector who carry out their wishes. (Nevertheless, no one was confused about whose interests were served by the Swift Boat campaign.) In the case of individuals whose views pose a challenge to the state, the institutions that are already in place swing into action to destroy the person in question (Ward Churchill). We have already seen how the media can tilt all its cameras in one direction (like Michael Schiavo or Clinton) with the expressed intention of destroying its victim. Human interest stories (like these) and weather-related tragedies now form the bulk of what we Americans call the news. It is a purely diversionary strategy intended to keep the public from getting the economic and political news they require to be participants in the democratic process. The real objectives of the modern media are to depoliticize the American people and to cultivate the next generation of consumers. On both these counts the media has succeeded admirably.
The current strategy for undermining the First Amendment is a two-pronged attack:
1) The intentional exclusion of “unpopular” ideas from the media.
2) The reliance on an institutional system (right-wing radio) that can direct the elements of public rage at a particular person.
Unpopular ideas have virtually disappeared from the mainstream. When they do appear, as in the case of Bill Moyers investigative program NOW, there is such a furor, that all the forces of the political establishment are brought to bear to abolish the show. The case of NOW demonstrates the pathological fear that arch-conservatives have to ideas other than their own. Moyers alternate view turned out to be the catalyst for revamping the PBS leadership and replacing the top people with Bush loyalists. Ideas that conflict with the corporate-friendly vision of reality are now quickly scrubbed from the media and consigned to the dustbin.
Right-wing radio operates differently, taking on the unpopular ideas and savaging both the idea and its author. In fact, most of the programming is devoted to denigrating people whose ideas directly challenge the business-friendly, flag-waving jingoism espoused by the conservative establishment. It is an effective way to annihilate dissent, eliminate threatening opinions and crush the opposition. We all know from listening to these programs that the aim is not to provide a fair airing of differing viewpoints, but to hector, confuse, intimidate and wipe out the person with the alternate opinion. This extends to putting out information about that person that will incite others to threaten or harass him, to discredit groups he is connected to, and to humiliate his family and friends.
Right-wing radio and blog sites are now being used to bludgeon the First Amendment and stifle free speech. They have tapped into that bottomless reserve of white male rage and directed it towards the adversaries of conformity and state power. Behind the incoherent fury of their listening audience, the “institutions” are now in place to carry out the work of targeting dissidents and shutting people up. These institutions run counter to our fundamental principles and are the direct enemy of democratic government. They must be exposed and then challenged through an open debate of the issues.
Democracy does not function without a “marketplace of ideas”. Unpopular ideas must be defended more rigorously than those that are held by the majority. Media that does not provide an open forum for the dissemination of unpopular ideas betrays its mandate under the Constitution to maintain an “informed public”. By abandoning that mandate, the media has become little more than a propaganda service for special interests.
The reclamation of democracy in America will require a complete overhaul of the existing media paradigm. It’s time we started removing the dead wood.
Mike Whitney lives in Washington state, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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