Monday, May 31, 2004

Thoughts on Treason in the Media Age

This will be a bit of a less formal entry, something of a thought piece. For the past few weeks, this blog has been naming people or organizations that I consider to have sought to aid our enemies in the war on terror. Some might complain about this. "Treason is a serious matter," they might say. Or, "How exactly do the things you are blogging about amount to treason, however reprehensible they might be?"

Let's begin by defining treason. A good, non-dictionary definition would be that treason is willfully undermining your own country. (If you insist on being pedantic, defines it as "Violation of allegiance toward one's country or sovereign, especially the betrayal of one's country by waging war against it or by consciously and purposely acting to aid its enemies.") Generally, when we think of treason, we think of people switching sides in a conflict (like Benedict Arnold) or a citizen passing sensitive information to hostile powers (like Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs). But I think that changes in the relationship between media and politics in recent years should cause us to expand our definition of treason.

That media and politics are inextricably linked is hardly a novel concept. I'd be willing to bet that anyone with enough interest in politics to read this or any other political blog understands that you cannot separate politics from media effects (save, perhaps, local offices in rural areas). But I think it's still worth talking about this media-politics axis.

Think about this: how is it that you know the things that you know? How do facts and statistics and the opinions of others take up residence in your head? Well, if you accept the theories of Walter Lippmann (an early 20th century scholar, a sociologist, I believe), then we learn about events in one of two ways. Either we experience the events first-hand, or we hear about events from others, whether personally or through intermediaries such as the media, who filter the information out of necessity, although sometimes insidious biases creep in. The media also set the political agenda. Whatever is in the media is what viewers, listeners, and readers think about.

But the transfer of information is instantaneous today. And more importantly, this easily accessed information can be used as a weapon. And this is exactly what is happening -- foreign media outlets seize upon various utterances by high-profile individuals and organizations and use their statements as propaganda. Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya propagandize on TV while countless newspapers propagandize on the ground. These outlets will take our chattering classes' anti-American rantings and play them to inflame the already unhinged "Arab Street". They use these statements side-by-side with "news pieces" that amount to apologia and recruiting videos for terrorists. This anti-American propaganda makes it harder for Arab leaders who might side with the US to do so. In short, when Al Gore or Ted Kennedy goes before the cameras to launch anti-war diatribes, they are undermining the US position in several strategic and tactical ways. And, of course, let's not forget the "Fonda Effect": the demoralizing effect that these statements have on our troops.

I am not saying that the First Amendment should be ignored. Our First Amendment rights are part of what make us American and should never be taken away. Nor am I saying that every American citizen should fall in lockstep with every policy promoted by the government. For instance, I opposed action in Somalia, Haiti, and Kosovo as not being critical to US interests (although I did not protest). I have liberal friends who opposed action in Iraq for what I consider to be rational reasons, and although I disagreed with them, they weren't shrill or anti-American about the positions they took. But shrill anti-Americanism replete with half-truths, distortions, and outright lies is the stock-in-trade of the Gores and Moores, Kennedys and Kucinichs, and Fritz Hollingses and Howard Deans. Hostile media forces are using their words against us. And they know it. Think about it: They ignore evidence of WMDs and banned missile systems in Iraq, they refuse to acknowledge that the world is better of with Saddam Hussein out of power, and some, like MoveOn, opposed the Afghan campaign. Instead, they equate President Bush with Hitler, liken a few abuses at Abu Ghraib to the systematic torture and murder of the Soviet Gulag, claim that President Bush went to war to win over Jewish voters, and some even say that we would have deserved 9/11 if it weren't liberal New Yorkers getting killed. The Arab media seizes upon this and uses it against us.

This is obviously not a new form of treason: I've already referenced Jane obviously. But its scope seems to be widening. We're not seeing this just among a few buffoons with nothing better to do. When former and current government officials knowingly say these outlandish things for the consumption of the propagandist arms of our enemies, the phenomenon has reached new heights.

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