Something wicked this way comes.
- Item: Former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino says “we did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush’s term.”
- Item: GOP apologist Mary Matalin says President Bush “inherited the most tragic attack on our own soil in our nation’s history.”
- Item: Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani says “We had no domestic attacks under Bush; we’ve had one under Obama.”
There are a number of problems with these assertions, not the least of which is that when Saudi terrorists started flying hijacked jets into large buildings on September 11, 2001, George W. Bush had been president of the United States for the better part of eight months. The lapses in memory noted above are all striking, but especially so in the case of Giuliani, who was, from September 11 until he dropped out of the presidential race on January 30, 2008 (a span of roughly 2,332 days, if my math is accurate), unable to say so much as “hello” without somehow shoehorning “9/11” into the conversation. (He sounds even more clueless when he gets called out and tries to backtrack.) At the time of the attacks Perino was living in San Diego and working in “high-tech public affairs,” so it’s possible she missed the story. Still, when she was hired as Press Secretary, you’d think some mention of 9/11 would have been included in her orientation packet. And Matalin – wasn’t she working for Vice President Cheney at the time?
In any case, it seems safe enough to classify 9/11 as a “terrorist attack.” But the problems with this chicanery don’t end with the fall of the World Trade Center towers. A second wave of revisionism asserts that the US was a terror-free zone after 9/11. For instance:
- The New York Post‘s Michael Goodwin claimed that former President Bush had “a record of zero successful attacks on America after 9/11.”
- Just last week Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour told Neil Cavuto that “one of the things the American people appreciate about the Bush administration, after Sept.11, not one time did the terrorists who tried to kill us and end our way of life, not one time were they able to attack the mainland United States again.”
- FOX News harpy Monica Crowley said on Bill O’Reilly’s show that after 9/11 Bush and Cheney had a “100% perfect track record in keeping the homeland safe from an Islamist terrorist attack.” The quote is in the video, but is not not mentioned in the linked post. (For bonus fun, note Crowley’s assertion that Obama cares more about terrorist rights than American lives. It takes some effort to make BillO look like the rational one.)
Other prominent noise engineers have been beta-testing the meme for awhile. The Dick is on record with this rhetorical misdirection: “The important thing is whether the Obama administration will continue the policies that have kept us safe for the past eight years.” And, as Dave Neiwert and Blue Texan point out, Peggy Noonan was pioneering the meme in late 2008.
Of course, these claims are objectively, demonstrably false. While history teaches us to have low expectations for honesty when it comes to FOX News mouthpieces, Southern Republican governors, former Reagan speechwriters and Dick Cheney, Goodwin’s column would be an on-the-spot, no-appeal, have-security-escort-him-from-the-premises-right-now firing offense at a real newspaper.
2002 attack against El Al ticket counter at LAX. In July 2002, Hesham Mohamed Hadayet opened fire at an El Al Airlines ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport, killing two people and wounding four others before being shot dead. A 2004 Justice Department report stated that Hadayet’s case had been “officially designated as an act of international terrorism.”
2006 UNC SUV attack. In March 2006, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill graduate Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar drove an SUV into an area of campus, striking nine pedestrians. According to reports, Taheri-azar said he acted because he wanted to “avenge the deaths or murders of Muslims around the world.” Taheri-azar also reportedly stated in a letter: “I was aiming to follow in the footsteps of one of my role models, Mohammad Atta, one of the 9/11/01 hijackers, who obtained a doctorate degree.”
2001 Anthrax attacks. A March 2004 State Department report on “Significant Terrorist Incidents, 1961-2003” quotes then-Attorney General John Ashcroft saying of the letters containing anthrax mailed to various targets: “When people send anthrax through the mail to hurt people and invoke terror, it’s a terrorist act.” Five people were killed as a result of those letters in the autumn of 2001.
2002 DC-area sniper. The state of Virginia indicted Washington, D.C.-area sniper John Allen Muhammad — along with his accomplice, a minor at the time — on terrorism charges for one of the murders he committed during a three-week shooting spree across Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Muhammad was convicted, sentenced to death, and subsequently executed for the crime.
Then there’s the hundreds of cases of domestic terrorism aimed at women’s health clinics during the Bush presidency.
Bob Cesca has compiled an extremely detailed record of terrorist attacks for the last three presidencies, and suffice it to say that the facts of the matter do not support the hype emanating from the right-wing noise machine.
(By the way, given how Matalin is trying to frame these “issues,” she shouldn’t have any problems with us chalking the underpants bomber and Fort Hood up to Bush’s account, since Obama “inherited” those attacks. Right?)
Bring in da Noise
So what’s really going on here? Giuliani, Matalin, Perino, Noonan, Barbour, Crowley, Cheney and Goodwin might be fork-tongued apparatchik tools of the first order, but they are not unacquainted with the facts. On the contrary – they’re very familiar with the facts. They just don’t like them. At all. So they hit the media trail with malice aforethought. They had a plan, and the plan was to lie like a cheap toupée.
“Because they’re congenital liars” isn’t enough, even if it’s true. Check their lineages. Review their résumés. Trace their connections and study the organizations that fund their activities and the activities of their allies. Remind yourself about the political and rhetorical landscape of the Bush years, when official speech came once and for all unhitched from fact, from truth, from any sense of decency or shame. These were the years when the words spewing from our official organs (and let’s include FOX News and the transcriptionists working for most other mainstream media outlets in this formulation, because the message couldn’t have been distributed without them) ceased serving any master other than desired outcome. You didn’t worry about telling the truth. You figured out what you wished the truth were, what you wanted the truth to be, then you looked at the camera, said it with a straight face, and kept on saying it no matter what. (NOTE: Technically speaking, you didn’t have to lie. It was perfectly acceptable to tell the truth so long as it worked as effectively as a lie.)
It wasn’t about the facts. It was about the narrative. And in the end, the decade of the ’00s saw the ultimate triumph of spin over journalism. From here on out, if you assume good faith on the part of our official political and “press” institutions ever again you well and truly deserve what happens to you.
No, the truth is that these people don’t go to the fridge for a beer without an agenda, and they all play their parts in the Long War Against America. The foundation for our current predicament was laid in the 1960s by players who cared more about the war than the battle and who were willing to lose a few games along the way in order to establish a long-term right-wing dynasty. If you’ve been paying attention since, oh, 1980 or so, it may have occurred to you that the brains behind the “conservative” revolution were pretty good at it, too.
So it would be sheer stupidity to assume that the recent parade of revisionism headed by Perino, Matalin and Giuliani was an accident or a coincidence. It makes infinitely more sense, given what we know about the Right’s meme machine, to see these bald-faced assertions as the leading edge of a coordinated propaganda campaign.
But to what end?
Ahhh, That Newspeak Smell
The short answer may look something like “to make Bush’s record look better,” but that’s hardly of long-term value in and of itself, even if it’s correct. He served his two terms and isn’t currently eligible to run again…although brother Jeb continues to lurk like a jackal just out of rock-throwing range. Regardless, we’d file “making Dubya look better than he really was” under “means,” not “ends.” Remember, the only goal that matters is long-term Republican hegemony. In that context, a literal reading of terrorism during the Bush years is a negative, and is something that a crafty opponent might be able to exploit. If everyone believes that Bush was hell on terrorists, on the other hand, that meme serves future electoral and policy goals. In the shorter term, it becomes a stick that can be used against Obama in 2012 (and against all Dems in this year’s mid-terms). In the long term, it strengthens the perception that Democrats are pussies and Republicans have balls that drag the ground. In combination with the “world is a scary place” meme, this makes for a powerful campaign platform.
The problem is that it’s not always easy to burnish the image of someone whose record is replete with inconvenient facts. Imagine, for instance, that you were hired by the descendants of Josef Stalin to polish his legacy. There are lots of strategies you might employ, but there is that unfortunate little genocidal maniac problem – he did, after all, kill way more people than Hitler, and you can only smear so much lipstick on a war pig. But what if, instead of working around the facts, you could change them? Perception is reality, especially in an era where words are not intended to signify actual objective facts. Turns out Stalin didn’t kill 20 million people – Lenin and Khrushchev did that. Sure, Stalin inherited a bit of a mess, but he was pure hell on the genociders while he was at the helm.
All of which is fun to contemplate, but how would you actually do it?
A Blueprint for Bushevik Revisionism
If I were going to do it, here’s the strategy I’d employ. Don’t worry if it seems like the plan may take a long time and cost a lot of money – as it turns out, my GOP backers have plenty of both.
- First off, I need a gullible audience. Too many brainiacs will kneecap the entire project. The best way to optimize my audience is to dumb down the education system as far as possible. In particular, we’ll need to shift the emphasis away from programs that foster analytical skills and self-reliance and toward programs that teach people to follow instructions. “Empowering” parents and students and insisting on “accountability” by the runaway bureaucracy that is the public school system (fueled by “overpaid” teachers and “corrupt” unions) will be extremely helpful.
- Next, I need a powerful strategy machine. This is easy. We just pour money into “think tanks” that attract bright minds and develop conservative “ideas.” Money is the most compelling attractor in the world, and we can absolutely outspend our opponents.
- Now that I have the meme-generation engine set up and the audience primed, we need a medium by which to transmit the message. Our chances are going to be slim in a society that relies on a hard-nosed press that takes its watchdog responsibilities too seriously. So we need a strong offensive against the Fourth Estate. If media institutions see themselves as guardians of the “public interest” we’ll get chewed up and spit out in little pieces; however, if media institutions are businesses, then the goal is profit, just like any other business. To that end, we’ll lean heavily on the already dominant ideology of free enterprise in promoting ownership and taxation structures that corporatize the press. We’ll also promote the (also well-established) ideology of self-determination, which makes clear that people know what’s best for themselves (no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary). Those who would suggest that the public can’t be counted on to know what’s good for it we’ll dismiss as paternalists and elitists and socialists. There’s tremendous power in telling people that they’re right. The public interest, by god, is what the public is interested in, and an appropriately undereducated populace can be counted on to ignore complex news in favor of splashy entertainment.
- Now we’re in great shape. Citizens Consumers know they’re right no matter what, so there’s no reason to respect education. They sneer along with our noisemakers at the elitists. All opinions are equal. Their self-worth is a function of what they can buy. Their attention spans are insanely short. They don’t know history nor do they see any need for it – history is only relevant insomuch as it validates their immediate purchasing decisions. Life is good.
- Once we have destroyed, though weakened educational programs and the noise media, the ability to critically evaluate data and to distinguish between information and disinformation, we begin working through a variety of channels to socialize the idea that “controversial” “issues” should be “debated.” Since all opinions are equal and we have carefully crafted and distributed veritable libraries worth of disinfo, these debates become never-ending shoutfests that lead to more and more confusion (although, ironically, increased public certainty that ill-informed opinions are fact). A couple of “ideas” that should be “debated”: ubiquitous research demonstrating that our climate is warming and that human activity is in part to blame is part of a genocidal conspiracy and millennia-old superstitions are science. Remember, the refusal to respect all opinions as equally valid is arrogant and elitist.
- At this point we can begin shaping history a little more aggressively (because “facts” are now in play and the insistence on their preeminence is de facto evidence of elitist condescension). We’ve won a number of battles over getting the “creation” “debate” into textbooks so students can “consider all the facts” and “decide for themselves.” Ditto for the climate “debate.”
- Now, time to codify the Newfacts. Having softened up the textbook beachfront through a consumer-friendly treatment of manufactured controversy, we’re ready to take the final step. We rewrite history – literally. Even if we have to include events like 9/11, we now have the freedom to structure those lessons so that it looks like Bush “inherited” the attacks from Clinton and that Bush then became a warrior hero. Over time, well, it’s like they say – the winners write the history books. And not all wars are fought with guns. Our final co-option of the official textbook version of history will be significantly aided if we can call on long, cozy family relationships with powerful publishing interests.
Someone is guaranteed to read this scenario and cry “conspiracy theory.” When that happens, you’re encouraged to take a long, hard, critical look at how the person leveling the charge fits into the process outlined above.
The truth is that this blueprint involves no speculation at all. It points to real events and draws logical conclusions about motives. For instance, certain wealthy interests pour millions and millions of dollars into conservative think tanks that work in documented ways to shape public policies that are in the best interests of their donors. No conspiracy theory is required to reach the obvious conclusions here. In fact, any credible conservative will tell you that it’s essentially American for people to invest their resources in ways that benefit their interests – that’s what the free market is.
When people speak and act they do so for reasons, and many times we can figure out what these reasons are without too much trouble. When a lot of people who are known allies say and do things that seem obviously coordinated – especially when they have a history of acting in concert toward common goals – we’re well advised to pay attention and ask ourselves what’s really going on.
Our future depends on the answers.
Thanks to those who helped me find resources for this story: Brandon Hersh at Media Matters, Matt Browner Hamlin, Julia at The Voice, Clifford Schecter, Ellen at Newshounds, Spencer Ackerman, Wendy Norris and David Neiwert.
Categories: Education, History, Journalism, Politics/Law/Government, Science/Technology, United States, War/Security
I don’t know what makes me more sad: the lies that these people tell or the fact that millions of Americans buy those lies.
I think it’s the latter. It’s because of how gullible people are that these lies are of any concern.
Yes, but it’s important to understand that gullible didn’t just happen. Gullible was, to some extent, engineered.
Excellent post, Doc.
My major question is why the Democrats have never pushed back on any of this? And no, i don’t need an answer. It’s a rhetorical question to which the answer is obvious.
Great piece, Sam.
One important issue to note (and that you may want to consider discussing in a future piece) is the targets the Right selected as it implemented its strategy for hegemony – education and journalism – fields traditionally staffed with idealistic, underpaid souls who have had little political power except that derived from representing the good intentions of the wealthy who supported an educated and informed citizenry. Appealing to the baser instincts of these well intentioned “social elites” by showing them the vast money to be made by sloughing off their moral and ethical standards allowed the Right to gain control of textbooks and media – and turn them into the sad dog and pony shows that pass as “journalism” and “education” these days.
Who’d ever have thought that Americans would scoff at their free press? At higher education?
The Right. That’s who….
Also, note that both educatin and journalism are (were) based on actual facts. Making people distrust those institutions makes them more likely to distrust those “facts”.
Why dignify their assertions by writing such a long article? A simple, “Uhhhhh, ever heard of 9/11?” will suffice.
Thanks, Frumpy, for the most ironically telling comment of the year so far.
Great piece of research–thank you from the front lines.
Every time I hear another person playing fast and loose with the truth, I just cringe (it’s either that or throw a book through the TV and that’s a bad habit to get into). The truly amazing thing is that people/citizens/consumers are forgetting their own lived experience. We SAW it happen. It’s a ‘where were you when you heard. . .” moment and people are being asked to scrub their memories.
Of course we are supposed to remember our visceral sense of outrage–when asked by the “right people” wielding the “right” phrases. We were primed like Pavlov’s dogs to foam at the mouth at the mention of the word “terror” (especially when delivered every 2 minutes). Give us the duct tape and drop cloths, threat warnings taken from a pack of Lifesavers, airport security theater, and all the other things that are done for our own good.
Yes, WE saw it. But people who weren’t even alive for it will be eligible to vote in ten years.
My brain is spinning. How do we fight this fight in schools? Textbooks are bad enough, but some schools have abandoned them in favor of “Buckle-Down Books” or their ilk that only cover standardized test material.
What’s going to happen when this tsunami of ignorance hits the universities?
I meet weekly with a group of university professors for beer and trivia. Judging from their comments, the tsunami has already hit shore…but it will get worse, i’m sure.
Hey Sam, add this to your drumbeat of disinformation: Al Gore bears some responsibility for the intelligence failures leading to 9/11. Yesterday (1/13) on Morning edition, Steve Inskeep interviewed John Negroponte about his role in intelligence reform. Near the end of the interview, there was this exchange:
INSKEEP: How would you judge the quality of the analysts who worked under you for a time?
Mr. NEGROPONTE: Well, they’re good. Everybody’s good and they work very hard. But here’s an issue – with the so-called peace dividend at the end of the cold war and the Al Gore’s effort that rightsizing government, which you may remember in the 1990s, we really cut back national security. So now we’re starting, post-9/11, to start building up that cadre of analysts. And after all, intelligence is about analysis. That’s the key function.
Quality of analysists –> they’re good –> Al Gore weakened the intelligence community.
I guess that comment didn’t fit anywhere else in the interview.
Well, maybe the textbooks can add a graf or two about how Gore helped Obama blow up the towers or something.
[sigh] Hell, I don’t know. These things being what they are, I’m sure a lot of people had a hand in the failure besides Dubya. I guess I’d have to see a larger body of Negroponte’s comments to get a sense for his context.