Saturday, August 27, 2016

McCarthyism's Long Shadow

First published over three years ago, this post has received a few hits the last three weeks, so I'm republishing it. The anti-Iran animus has become worse since it first appeared. Perhaps this will help balance what can become runaway panic. The video at the end is priceless.
During my high school days McCarthyism had blossomed and wilted, but the blacklists, fears and public sentiments of the time remained fresh. The House Un-American Activities Committee had been formed in the Thirties to investigate and root out subversive Communist activity. And in the Senate Wisconsin's Joseph McCarthy carried the same banner effectively enough to brand the era with his name -- McCarthyism. HUAC was alive and well into the late Sixties and the list of subversive organizations remained a litmus test for anyone having to do with the government. When I was drafted I was required to read over that list and sign a document affirming that I had not been associated with any of them. Thanks to those years I recognize the exaggerated fear that  social and political paranoia produces when I see it. And I'm seeing it again today.

A very wise man of my parents' generation who was later instrumental in assisting me in getting a couple of low-interest college loans told me a story about the McCarthy Era. Sometime during the mid-Fifties a college professor he knew went into his classroom once afternoon and told the class to be quiet, he had something important to tell them. He checked the hall and closed the door and transom, went to the windows and pulled the blinds and told the ones in the back to move in a little closer so they could hear.
When all was quiet, he said in a very low voice, "Russian mothers love their babies."
He then went to the windows and opened the blinds, told those in the back to return to their seats, opened the door and transom for ventilation and began his lecture.
That was his way of commenting on the fears and paranoia of the time. It seems silly and may have been a made-up story. But in telling the story he was letting me know something important about the adult world I could expect as I finished high school and ventured into the world. The changes of the Sixties were still to come.

I'm retelling the story because since the September 11, 2001 with the destruction of the World Trade Center America has found it's way back to the same level of suspicion, fear and national paranoia that is the enduring legacy of McCarthyism. We have waged two actual wars and waved the flag as elected representatives added Wars on Drugs, Terror, Gangs, Cancer, Poverty, Pollution, Science and just about any trope imaginable.  Waging war has become a way of life, so much that we have accepted war as part of what normalcy looks like. Those of us who were conscientious objectors during the time when a military draft was in effect find ourselves surrounded by a generation that never heard the term. War seems no longer objectionable, having become a metaphor for achieving something good instead of the disagreeable duty it is, what some have called a necessary evil.


I'm putting these thoughts into words in response to a post by Juan Cole making reference to an excellent op-ed in Lebanon's Daily Star by the highly esteemed journalist Rami Khouri.  The proximate subject is Iran, but there is a larger picture. The way we as Americans look at Iran is typical of the simplistic way we see most other countries as well as political adversaries in our midst.
I give the reader credit for being smart enough to connect the dots when I refer him to the story above ending with the line "Russian mothers love their babies.

The pain of following Iran in U.S. media
By Rami G. Khouri, April 06, 2013
One of the most annoying aspects of spending time in the United States, as I have just done during a month’s working visit there, is to follow news coverage of Iran in the mainstream American media. Well, calling it “news” coverage is a bit of a stretch, because the mainstream media is not really reporting news about Iran, but rather repackaging ideological attacks and threats that emanate primarily from the American and Israeli governments. 
The main problem – evident in virtually every story about Iran in the mainstream media, including “quality” outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the leading television channels – is that the coverage is inevitably based on assumptions, fears, concerns, accusations and expectations that are almost never supported by factual and credible evidence. 
Two things in particular are wrong in the coverage. First is that most media stories about Iran view the country almost uniquely as being an adversary and a threat to the United States, Israel and Arab allies of the U.S., whether because of Iran’s alleged regional hegemonic aims or its terrorism links. Iran only exists for most American media as a threat to be beaten back at any cost. 
The second is that most media analyze Iran almost exclusively through the lens of its nuclear industry. This attitude sees Iran as secretly developing a nuclear bomb that it will use to threaten or destroy neighboring powers, including Israel and Arab oil-producing countries. For the U.S. media, Iran is first and foremost a nuclear threat. Little else about the country is deemed worthy of serious coverage. 
I have no doubt that any impartial assessment of the professional conduct of most American media outlets in covering the Iran situation would find it deeply flawed and highly opinionated, to the point where I would say that mainstream media coverage of Iran in the U.S. is professionally criminal. I base this on having learned my journalism craft and values in the United States, where quality press coverage of any issue ideally should be characterized by accuracy, balance, depth and context, and a rigorous attempt by the writer to remain impartial when reporting stories that include controversy or conflict. 
These professional qualities are usually absent from news coverage of Iran, and I say this is a criminal enterprise because the consequences of the flawed and aggressive coverage helps shape a public view that makes it acceptable to threaten and sanction Iran on the basis of mere suspicions and fears in the minds of American and Israeli politicians – all of whom, I would guess, have never visited Iran or spoken to any credible or “normal” Iranian not involved in political lobbying in Washington. The discussion of Iran in media outlets over the past two years has also been full of references to the possibility of attacks against Iran by Israel or the U.S., with little if any serious analysis of whether such attacks are permissible under international law. 
I am continuously amazed to see every accusation in every story about Iran’s alleged sinister and secretive nuclear bomb plans hedged with phrases such as “it is assumed” or “officials believe” or “analysts suspect” or Iran “may be” or “is thought to be” or is “suspected of” doing this, that or the other. There is no certainty, little credible proof, and few verifiable facts, only anger, assumptions and fear 
This same hollow and shoddy level of evidence presented in media portrayals of Iran could never be used to frame, say, the actions of young African-Americans, Hispanic teachers, or professional women bankers, because it would be opposed by both professional media standards and common human rights standards as being a bag of wild prejudices and stereotypes that are not supported by fact. 
The mass media gets away with disguising ideological venom as impartial news coverage in the case of Iran, though, because a different standard of professionalism is at work here, one which makes it permissible for media outlets to ignore their role as reporters of facts in favor of being ideological warriors that serve the purposes of assorted governments. We saw at great cost in Iraq what destruction, waste and criminality this sort of behavior can lead to. 
It will be fascinating now to see how media reports on possible signs of progress in the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) which are set to resume in Kazakhstan. I hope our American journalism colleagues will summon the moral and professional strengths within them to cover both sides of these talks in their full and accurate political and technical contexts, rather than continue to act as robotic cheerleaders for the American and Israeli governments.

It is for that reason that my Facebook timeline often shares links with Humans of Tehrana brave, quiet, civil photographic attempt to share glimpses of ordinary Persians from a variety of lifestyles that reflect the diversity and humanity of their country's culture and social diversity.

Check the collection of snapshots from that site.

And finally, take a look at this thirteen year old Persian girl and as she sings her heart out ask yourself out how well you think this image, and those above, conform to the impressions of Iran which Americans are being fed on a daily basis.

If the place we are living is not McCarthyism Redux I don't know what it is.

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