Memorial Day Morning: Only Apparently Real?
Monday, May 26, 2003
You furnish the pictures. I'll furnish the war.
-- William Randolph Hearst, founder of yellow journalism and instigator of the Spanish-American War
Last year, I took Peter to Pleasantviille's Memorial Day parade. As the first Memorial Day after 9/11, it was very serious and very moving. We waved our flags and marched with the crowd when all the official marchers had passed by. There were speeches in the train station parking lot. It was hot and uncomfortably humid, but the ceremony was deeply meaningful and in memory it still is.
This year I will not be going to a Memorial Day parade. I'm sure I could find one in Baltimore if I wanted to. But today we are called upon by the President to not only honor those who serve and die for our country, but to honor the intentions of those who got them killed and to agree that the Iraq war was a good thing:
Throughout our history, the decency, character, and idealism of our military troops have turned enemies into allies and oppression into hope. In all our victories, American soldiers have fought to liberate, not to conquer; and today, the United States joins with a strong coalition in the noble cause of liberty and peace for the world. On this day, America honors her own, but we also recognize the shared victories and hardships of our allied forces who have served and fallen alongside our troops.
We're in our hotel room at Balticon. We'll be heading home today. I've been skimming today's news. Peter was watching cartoons a few minutes ago. But I noticed a change in the music to something very up-tempo-promotional and looked over at the TV. Instead of cartoons, there were fast cuts between scenes of the US invading Iraq like it was some kind of Xtreme Sport. I explained to Peter that the television was trying to convince him that war was a good idea and that we must change the channel now. He agreed and suggested that maybe someone in the next room had used a remote to change the channel. I looked for another kids' show, but most channels seemed to be running promotional trailers for the next war. He's watching Jack Hannah (animal show guy) being interviewed by Murray Popvich right now.
Who was it, exactly, on 9/11 or immediately thereafter, who decided that the colors of mourning for our dead would be red, white, and blue not black? that we would express our national pain and upset through patriotic display? I admit, I was taken in. I did not go as far as some in Pleasantville. There were some houses displaying 16 or more flags in the front yard. There were flags as big as bedsheets. There were SUVs decked out like Presidential motorcades. I didn'y go that far, but I did put little flags on our mailbox. I wore a little flag pin. I had convinced myself that partiotic display did not equal support of militarism, that it meant something else. And yet here we are, only the second Memorial Day after 9/11 and that exactly what it's supposed to mean.
Can we please be allowed to support the military without supporting militarism?
The answer is probably no. Thus, it is appropriate that more people will celebrate Memorial Day by going to see The Matrix Reloaded than by attempting to honor our war dead. Frank Rich, who years ago worked in a record store with Philip K. Dick, published a brilliant piece in yesterday's NYT on the movie, the media and the war. (It's worth paying to read even once the NTY's free viewing has expired.) Here's a sample:
But the media giants that wield such clout don't always put it to such frivolous use. We are not just plugged into their matrix to be sold movies and other entertainment products. These companies can also plug the nation into news narratives as ubiquitous and lightweight as "The Matrix Reloaded," but with more damaging side effects.
This is what has happened consistently during America's struggle with Osama bin Laden. During the years when Al Qaeda's terrorists were gearing up for 9/11, the media giants were in overdrive selling escapist fare like the Clinton scandals, Gary Condit's sex life and shark attacks. They were all legitimate stories. But just as "The Matrix Reloaded," playing on a record 8,517 screens, crowded most other movies out of the marketplace last weekend, so those entertaining melodramas drove any reports of threatening developments beyond our shores to the periphery of the mass-media news culture.
The media giants took the same tack in banding together to push the administration-dictated narrative of Saddam Hussein -- and with the same results. The networks' various productions of "Countdown: Iraq," though as ponderous as "The Matrix Reloaded," were so effective that by the time we went to war, 51 percent of the country, according to a Knight-Ridder poll, believed that Iraqis were among the 9/11 hijackers. It took the bloody re-emergence of Qaeda terrorists in Riyadh two weeks ago to recover the repressed memory that none of the 9/11 terrorists were Iraqis and that most of them were Saudis. And whatever happened to Saddam's arsenal, all those advanced nuclear weapons programs and biological poisons that George W. Bush kept citing as the justification for going to war? Well, sarin today, gone tomorrow. That laundry list of terrors, none of them yet found, vanished from the national consciousness as soon as the cable outlets of AOL Time Warner, Fox and NBC put their muscle behind The Laci Peterson Murder.
Media and government hit increasingly dangerous resonanance patterns yeilding catastrophic results. We have not just one William Randolph Hearst, but a screaming army of them, channel after channel. Here we stand, on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge of the information highway, and the wind is rising. What I see on TV this morning seems likely to yield new wars soon. I wish it were only apparently real.