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October 16, 2004

The Brownshirting of America


by Paul Craig Roberts

James Bovard, the great libertarian champion of our freedom and civil liberties, recently shared with readers his mail from Bush supporters. For starters, here are some of the salutations: "communist bastard," "a**hole," "a piece of trash, scum of the earth." It goes downhill from there.

Bush's supporters demand lockstep consensus that Bush is right. They regard truthful reports that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction and was not involved in the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. – truths now firmly established by the Bush administration's own reports – as treasonous America-bashing.

Bovard is interpreted as throwing cold water on the feel-good, macho, Muslim butt-kicking that Bush's invasion of Iraq has come to symbolize for his supporters. "People like you and Michael Moore," one irate reader wrote, "is [sic] what brings down our country."

I have received similar responses from conservatives, as, no doubt, have a number of other writers who object to a domestic police state at war with the world.

In language reeking with hatred, the Heritage Foundation's TownHall.com readers impolitely informed me that opposing the invasion of Iraq is identical to opposing America, that Bush is the greatest American leader in history and everyone who disagrees with him should be shot before they cause America to lose another war. TownHall's readers were sufficiently frightening to convince the Heritage Foundation to stop posting my columns.

Bush's conservative supporters want no debate. They want no facts, no analysis. They want to denounce and demonize the enemies that the Hannitys, Limbaughs, and Savages of talk radio assure them are everywhere at work destroying their great and noble country.

I remember when conservatives favored restraint in foreign policy and wished to limit government power in order to protect civil liberties. Today's young conservatives are Jacobins determined to use government power to impose their will at home and abroad.

Where did such "conservatives" come from?

Claes Ryn in his important book, America the Virtuous, explains the intellectual evolution of the neoconservatives who lead the Bush administration. For all their defects, however, neocons are thoughtful compared to the world of talk radio, whose inhabitants are trained to shout down everyone else. Whence came the brownshirt movement that slavishly adheres to the neocons' agenda?

Three recent books address this question. Thomas Frank, in What's the Matter With Kansas?, locates the movement in legitimate conservative resentments of people who feel that family, religious, and patriotic values are given short shrift by elitist liberals.

These resentments festered and multiplied as offshore production, jobs outsourcing, and immigration took a toll on careers and the American dream.

An audience was waiting for right-wing talk radio, which found its stride during the Clinton years. Clinton's evasions made it easy to fall in with show hosts, who spun conspiracies and fabricated a false consciousness for listeners who became increasingly angry.

Show hosts, who advertise themselves as truth-tellers in a no-spin zone, quickly figured out that success depends upon constantly confronting listeners with bogeymen to be exposed and denounced: war protesters and America-bashers, the French, marrying homosexuals, the liberal media, turncoats, Democrats, and the ACLU.

Talk radio's "news stories" do not need to be true. Their importance lies in inflaming resentments and confirming that America's implacable enemies are working resolutely to destroy us.

David Brock's The Republican Noise Machine lacks the insights of Thomas Frank's book, but it provides a gossipy history of the right-wing takeover of the U.S. media. Brock is unfair to some people, myself included, and mischaracterizes as right wing some media personalities who are under right-wing attack.

Brock is as blindly committed to his causes as the right-wing zealots he exposes are to theirs. Unlike Frank, he cannot acknowledge that the right wing has legitimate issues.

Nevertheless, Brock makes a credible case that today's conservatives are driven by ideology, not by fact. He argues that their stock in trade is denunciation, not debate. Conservatives don't assess opponents' arguments, they demonize opponents. Truth and falsity are out of the picture; the criteria are: who's good, who's evil, who's patriotic, who's unpatriotic.

These are the traits of brownshirts. Brownshirts know they are right. They know their opponents are wrong and regard them as enemies who must be silenced if not exterminated.

Some of Brock's quotes from prominent conservative commentators will curl your toes. His description of the right wing's destruction of an independent media and the "Fairness Doctrine" explain why a recent CNN/Gallup poll found that 42% of Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. and 32% believe that Saddam Hussein personally planned the attack.

A country in which 42% of the population is totally misinformed is not a country where democracy is safe.

Today there is no one to correct a lie once it is told. The media, thanks to Republicans, has been concentrated in few hands, and they are not the hands of newsmen. Corporate values rule. If lies sell, sell them. If listeners, viewers, and readers want confirmation of their resentments and beliefs, give it to them. Objectivity turns listeners off and is a money loser.

In his book, Cruel and Unusual, Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies at New York University, explains how right-wing influence has moved the media away from reporting news to designing our consciousness. "The Age of Information," Miller writes, "has turned out to be an Age of Ignorance."

Miller makes a strong case. His description of how CNN and Fox News destroyed the credibility of Scott Ritter, the leading expert on Iraq's weapons, reveals a media completely given over to propaganda. Ritter stood in the way of the neocons' invasion of Iraq.

CNN's Miles O'Brien, Eason Jordan, Catherine Callaway, Paula Zahn, Kyra Phillips, Arthel Neville, and Fox News' David Asman and John Gibson portrayed Ritter as a disloyal American, a Ba'athist stooge on the take from Saddam Hussein, and compared him to Jane Fonda in North Vietnam.

With this, the right-wing talk radio crazies were off and running. Anyone with the slightest bit of real information about the state of weapons development in Iraq was dismissed as a foreign agent who should be shot for treason.

By substituting fiction for reality, the U.S. media took the country to war. The CNN and Fox News "journalists" are as responsible for America's ill-fated invasion of Iraq as Cheney and Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Perle.

With a sizable percentage of the U.S. population now addicted to daily confirmations of their resentments and hatreds, U.S. policy will be increasingly driven by tightly made-up minds in pursuit of unrealistic agendas.

American troops are in Iraq on false pretenses. No one knows all the fateful consequences of this mistaken adventure. Bush's reelection would be seen as a vindication of aggression, and more aggression would likely follow. A continuing expenditure of blood, money, alliances, good will, and civil liberties is not a future to which to look forward.

Dr. Roberts served as assistant secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration. During the Cold War era, he was a member of the Committee on the Present Danger. He is a former associate editor and columnist for the Wall Street Journal editorial page and a former contributing editor for National Review. In 1986-87 he assisted the French government's privatization of socialized firms and was awarded the Legion of Honor.


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    Paul Craig Roberts wrote the Kemp-Roth bill and was assistant secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration. He was associate editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and contributing editor of National Review. He is author or co-author of eight books, including The Supply-Side Revolution (Harvard University Press). He has held numerous academic appointments, including the William E. Simon chair in political economy, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University, and senior research fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He has contributed to numerous scholarly journals and testified before Congress on 30 occasions. He has been awarded the U.S. Treasury's Meritorious Service Award and the French Legion of Honor. He was a reviewer for the Journal of Political Economy under editor Robert Mundell.

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