9/11 and the paranoid style of American society

Understanding 9/11 means understanding the controversy surrounding the conspiracy-based 9/11 “truther” movement, a manifestation of something deeply embedded in what historian Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style” of American politics. The classic film, Dr. Strangelove, depicts an unhinged officer, convinced that the communists are a threat to our precious “bodily fluids.”  The truther mentality is easily parodied, as in this Onion excerpt, which reveals the principle of Occam’s Razor, that the simplest explanation of an event is the most logically plausible.  In a more serious vein, the film Loose Change, a home-made documentary, struck a chord in the American public by promoting some of these conspiracy theories, a significant portion of the public believe.  The more extreme conspiracy ideas can be refuted and easily dismissed, but the social anxiety that gives rise to them and the serious political impulse they manifest must be taken seriously.  Are there forces beyond our view that shape world events? Yes.  Does the government have a tendency to lie and manipulate the facts?  The post-9/11 experience shows that it does and, historically, always has.  Dismissing the 9/11 truther movement as crackpots, although tempting and justified in one sense, fails to reflect these more serious issues–including the media role in failing to address larger structural issues while giving credibility to more conventional conspiracy advocates, whether regarding Pres. Obama “birthers” or climate change skeptics.

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understanding 9/11: interdisciplinary contributions

imagesMany were caught off guard with the rise this year and surprising strength of the radical militant group, ISIS, in Iraq and Syria.  The PBS Frontline documentary series has done an excellent job of tracing these developments through “frontline” news coverage and expert interviews.  From the perspective of our class, we can see that the problem has many facets.  A historical analysis shows the reasons why often arbitrary borders were drawn between nations by former colonial powers;  an anthropological approach could show the importance of tribal allegiance in governing personal identity;  a religious studies perspective helps illustrate how there can be such animosity between seemingly minor differences in Islamic belief;  a psychological analysis shows the level of mistrust and dysfunction that causes certain individuals to become radicalized;  a political science view focuses on how the Sunni population felt disenfranchised by the political system set up by the Americans post-Sadaam;  and so forth.  Cambridge historian David Motadel, provides a model as an advocate for a discipline-specific, historically driven analysis.  As he argues in the New York Times (9/23/14),

We need to recognize what these groups really are. Referring to them as a “cancer,” as President Obama has, is understandable from an emotional standpoint, but simplifies and obscures the phenomenon. Jihadist states are complex polities and must be understood in the context of Islamic history.

An understanding of this history would, according to this historian, provide the following insight:

Created under wartime conditions, and operating in a constant atmosphere of internal and external pressure, these states have been unstable and never fully functional. Forming a state makes Islamists vulnerable: While jihadist networks or guerrilla groups are difficult to fight, a state, which can be invaded, is far easier to confront. And once there is a theocratic state, it often becomes clear that its rulers are incapable of providing sufficient social and political solutions, gradually alienating its subjects.

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the dissenting voice

9/11 thoroughly permeated all forms of American culture, not just news;  culture has boundaries that enforce what’s acceptable and what’s not (e.g., Toby Keith inside, Dixie Chicks out);  those boundaries contract following a time of national trauma;  in a more positive light these boundaries operate to forge consensus and common purpose in a society.  Now we look more specifically at U.S. journalism, which as a key component of the cultural apparatus is prone to these same dynamics. Howard Zinn may be classified as a “dissenting” journalist, even though he’s more likely thought of as an historian, and public intellectual.  The European tradition of journalism casts journalists more as intellectuals and literary writers, rather than objective chroniclers, so in that respect the role of public intellectual is a middle ground between U.S. style journalism and scholarly writers.

Journalism was a critical channel of communication in the days following 9/11, reassuring the public and seeking understanding of what had happened.  Later, of course, it became a powerful factor in the formulation of American policy response.  To find dissenting views, one has to go outside the mainstream media to find key public intellectuals like historian Howard Zinn and linguistics scholar/U.S. policy critic Noam Chomsky, neither of whom get much space in the news pages.  Within the media channels there are certain independent voices like journalist Robert Fisk.  Although much of the U.S. press might be characterized by the comments of CBS anchor Dan Rather to David Letterman supportive of President Bush, shortly after 9/11, even within the mainstream press there are critical perspectives from time to time, including the New York Times which had an investigation of the Pentagon/media complex.  But the media are also monitored and critiqued from the political right, with critics (including among the right-leaning outlets like Fox) advocating that the press avoid any stories that might be deemed “terrorist propaganda.”  All are relevant perspectives in answering the question, Did the American press fail or succeed in helping us understand 9/11?

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media representation of Islam

Writing in the American Sociological Review, Christopher Bail of the University of North Carolina used plagiarism detection software to determine how well represented the views on Islam were from 120 various groups:

Bail reports that radical anti-Shariah groups’ messages have been “heavily overrepresented” in the public discourse, whereas pro-Muslim voices have been largely underrepresented. The lopsided media coverage has had far-ranging consequences, elevating the visibility of these radical groups, their perception of their credibility, and creating “a gravitational pull on the mainstream” that moves it towards the fringe position.

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Thinking clearly about “the media”

media model

There are many ways to think about the role of the press, but one needs to be clear in making any claims about whether the “American press failed or succeeded in helping us understand 9/11.”  In the model above, we can think of multiple levels of influence operating to shape the “symbolic reality”:  individual, routines, organizational policy, institutional forces (including PR and advertising), and socio-cultural (or ideological).  Consider the recent Secret Service scandal, an important aspect of which is the willingness of insider Service personnel to leak sensitive information to journalists.  What are their routine, symbiotic relationships with source that make that possible?

Certain pundits on Fox News have a particular political tendency, such as Bill O’Reilly, but the mainstream (non-partisan) press have similar tendencies to sensationalize and gravitate toward military frames of reference.96fb8b72612593bc564cb898d0f6b80a

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press criticism: the enemy within

massingFormer editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, Michael Massing, contributes an important two-part analysis of press performance post-9/11 in the New York Review of Books.  Although written in 2005, the second of his essays, “Enemy within,” reviews familiar constraints on the press due to to declining economic resources.  The less visible internal constraint involves journalism’s own conventions and norms, including that of “balance.”  When carried too far, the idea of “false balance” leads to equating two unequal sides of an issue.  The classic case was the smoking issue, which led news articles to give equal voice to the tobacco industry denying claims of cancer-causing products.  More recently, the charge has been made that media accounts are led to consider the false equivalence of Donald Trump on the extreme side of the Republican party and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side.  The documentary “Merchants of Doubt” examines how various powerful interests have exploited this journalistic norm to advance their message.  Former editor at the Washington Post, R.B. Brenner, helps us understand the press from an insider’s perspective.

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Dick Cheney: A literary journalism perspective

didionThe question I’ve posed regarding 9/11: “What did we do about it?” leads to in our next stage: “What were leaders planning to do all along, for which 9/11 provided a means to already determined ends.” Joan Didion is one of the most celebrated American authors, with a lengthy biography of her life appearing recently.  She is identified with “new” or “literary journalism, which proposes, as Tom Wolfe has said, that it is “possible to write journalism that would … read like a novel.” Her analysis of Dick Cheney, published in the New York
Review of Books
(10/5/2006) draws on what, even just five years post-9/11, was a rapidly growing accumulation of book-length analyses of presidential decision-making in the context of national security.  If critics have accused Obama of conducting an imperial presidency, former vice-president Cheney has been a strong advocate for a powerful chief executive.  In examining Cheney himself, one of the most important shapers of the post-9/11 security response, Didion tries to understand the motivations for the decisions made to go to war.  To what extent were they driven by idealism and American values, and to what extent by the quest for politicalcheney power, calibrated to conform to business interests (exemplified in Cheney’s previous experience as CEO of Halliburton).  Intelligence was used not to find answers but to confirm pre-existing decisions and goals (“cherry picking” intelligence findings to support a case for war).  His “one-percent doctrine” argued that if there was even a small chance of a threat is must be treated as a certainty, a perspective that short-circuits traditional analysis and debate in favor of suspicion, leaving government leaders wide latitude of action. Most concerning, in Didion’s analysis, is the decline in political accountability and transparency.

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