Four Score and Seven Years Ago... at Disney World

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Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

... The desire to take the American public out of the “of the people, by the people, for the people” business can minimally be traced back to the Vietnam War, to the moment when a citizen’s army began voting with its feet and antiwar sentiment grew to startling proportions not just on the home front, but inside a military in the field.  It was then that the high command began to fear the actual disintegration of the U.S. Army. 

Not surprisingly, there was a deep desire never to repeat such an experience.  (No more Vietnams!  No more antiwar movements!)  As a result, on January 27, 1973, with a stroke of the pen, President Richard Nixon abolished the draft, and so the citizen’s army.  With it went the sense that Americans had an obligation to serve their country in time of war (and peace).  

From that moment on, the urge to demobilize the American people and send them to Disney World would only grow.  First, they were to be removed from all imaginable aspects of war making.  Later, the same principle would be applied to the processes of government and to democracy itself.  In this context, for instance, you could write a history of the monstrous growth of secrecy and surveillance as twin deities of the American state: the urge to keep ever more information from the citizenry and to see ever more of what those citizens were doing in their own private time.  Both should be considered demobilizing trends. 

revisedvictory.jpgThis twin process certainly has a long history in the U.S., as any biography of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover would indicate.  Still, the expansion of secrecy and surveillance in this century has been a stunning development, as ever-larger parts of the national security state and the military (especially its 70,000-strong Special Operations forces) fell into the shadows.  In these years, American “safety” and “security” were redefined in terms of a citizen’s need not to know.  Only bathed in ignorance, were we safest from the danger that mattered most (Islamic terrorism -- a threat of microscopic proportionsin the continental United States).

As the American people were demobilized from war and left, in the post-9/11 era, with the single duty of eternally thanking and praising our "warriors” (or our "wounded warriors”), war itself was being transformed into a new kind of American entertainment spectacle.  In the 1980s, in response to the Vietnam experience, the Pentagon began to take responsibility not just for making war but for producing it.  Initially, in the invasions of Grenada and Panama, this largely meant sidelining the media, which many U.S. commanders still blamed for defeat in Vietnam.

By the First Gulf War of 1991, however, the Pentagon was prepared to produce a weeks-long televised extravaganza, which would enter the living rooms of increasingly demobilized Americans as a riveting show.  It would have its own snazzy graphics, logos, background music, and special effects (including nose-cone shots of targets obliterated).  In addition, retired military men were brought in to do Monday Night Football-style play-by-play and color commentary on the fighting in progress.  In this new version of war, there were to be no rebellious troops, no body bags, no body counts, no rogue reporters, and above all no antiwar movement.  In other words, the Gulf War was to be the anti-Vietnam. And it seemed to work... briefly.

Unfortunately for the first Bush administration, Saddam Hussein remained in power in Baghdad, the carefully staged post-war “victory” parades faded fast, the major networks lost ad money on the Pentagon’s show, and the ratings for war as entertainment sank.  More than a decade later, the second Bush administration, again eager not to repeat Vietnam and intent on sidelining the American public while it invaded and occupied Iraq, did it all over again.

This time, the Pentagon sent reporters to “boot camp,” “embedded” them with advancing units, built a quarter-million-dollar movie-style set for planned briefings in Doha, Qatar, and launched its invasion with “decapitation strikes” over Baghdad that lit the televised skies of the Iraqi capital an eerie green on TVs across America.  This spectacle of war, American-style, turned out to have a distinctly Disney-esque aura to it.  (Typically, however, those strikes produced scores of dead Iraqis, but managed to “decapitate” not a single targeted Iraqi leader from Saddam Hussein on down.)  That spectacle, replete with the usual music, logos, special effects, and those retired generals-cum-commentators -- this time even more tightly organized by the Pentagon -- turned out again to have a remarkably brief half-life.

The Spectacle of Democracy

War as the first demobilizing spectacle of our era is now largely forgotten because, as entertainment, it was reliant on ratings, and in the end, it lost the battle for viewers.  As a result, America's wars became ever more an activity to be conducted in the shadows beyond the view of most Americans. 

If war was the first experimental subject for the demobilizing spectacle, democracy and elections turned out to be remarkably ripe for the plucking as well.  As a result, we now have the never-ending presidential campaign season.  In the past, elections did not necessarily lack either drama or spectacle.  In the nineteenth century, for instance, there were campaign torchlight parades, but those were always spectacles of mobilization.  No longer.  Our new 1% elections call for something different.

It’s no secret that our presidential campaigns have morphed into a “billionaire’s playground,” even as the right to vote has become more constrained.  These days, it could be said that the only group of citizens that automatically mobilizes for such events is “the billionaire class” (as Bernie Sanders calls it).  Increasingly, many of the rest of us catch the now year-round spectacle demobilized in our living rooms, watching journalists play... gasp!... journalists on TV and give American democracy that good old Gotcha!

In 2001, George W. Bush wanted to send us all to Disney World (on our own dollar, of course).  In 2015, Disney World is increasingly coming directly to us.

After all, at the center of election 2016 is Donald Trump.  For a historical equivalent, you would have to imagine P.T. Barnum, who could sell any “curiosity” to the American public, running for president.  (In fact, he did serve two terms in the Connecticut legislature and was, improbably enough, the mayor of Bridgeport.)  Meanwhile, the TV “debates” that Trump and the rest of the candidates are now taking part in months before the first primary have left the League of Women Voters and the Commission on Presidential Debates in the dust.  These are the ratings-driven equivalent of food fights encased in ads, with the “questions” clearly based on what will glue eyeballs.

Here, for instance, was CNN host Jake Tapper’s first question of the second Republican debate: “Mrs. Fiorina, I want to start with you. Fellow Republican candidate, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, has suggested that your party’s frontrunner, Mr. Donald Trump, would be dangerous as president. He said he wouldn’t want, quote, ‘such a hot head with his finger on the nuclear codes.’ You, as well, have raised concerns about Mr. Trump’s temperament. You’ve dismissed him as an entertainer. Would you feel comfortable with Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear codes?”

And the event only went downhill from there as responses ranged from non-answers to (no kidding!) a discussion of the looks of the candidates and yet the event proved such a ratings smash that its 23 million viewers were compared favorably to viewership of National Football League games.

In sum, a citizen’s duty, whether in time of war or elections, is now, at best, to watch the show, or at worst, to see nothing at all.

This reality has been highlighted by the whistleblowers of this generation, including Edward SnowdenChelsea Manning, and John Kiriakou.  Whenever they have revealed something of what our government is doing beyond our sight, they have been prosecuted with a fierceness unique in our history and for a simple enough reason.  Those who watch us believe themselves exempt from being watched by us.  That’s their definition of “democracy.”  When “spies” appear in their midst, even if those whistleblowers are “spies” for us, they are horrified at a visceral level and promptly haul out the World War I-era Espionage Act.  They now expect a demobilized response to whatever they do and when anything else is forthcoming, they strike back in outrage.

A Largely Demobilized Land

A report on a demobilized America shouldn’t end without some mention of at least one counter-impulse.  All systems assumedly have their opposites lurking somewhere inside them, which brings us to Bernie Sanders.  He’s the figure who doesn’t seem to compute in this story so far. 

All you had to do was watch the first Democratic debate to sense what an anomaly he is, or you could have noted that, until almost the moment he went on stage that night, few involved in the election 2016 media spectacle had the time of day for him. And stranger yet, that lack of attention in the mainstream proved no impediment to the expansion of his campaign and his supporters, who, via social media and in person in the form of gigantic crowds, seem to exist in some parallel universe.

In this election cycle, Sanders alone uses the words “mobilize” and “mobilization” regularly, while calling for a “political revolution.” (“We need to mobilize tens of millions of people to begin to stand up and fight back and to reclaim the government, which is now owned by big money.”) And there is no question that he has indeed mobilized significant numbers of young people, many of whom are undoubtedly unplugged from the TV set, even if glued to other screens, and so may hardly be noticing the mainstream spectacle at all.

Whether the Sanders phenomenon represents our past or our future, his age or the age of his followers, is impossible to know. We do, of course, have one recent example of a mobilization in an election season. In the 2008 election, the charismatic Barack Obama created a youthful, grassroots movement, a kind of cult of personality that helped sweep him to victory, only to demobilize it as soon as he entered the Oval Office. Sanders himself puts little emphasis on personality or a cult of the same and undoubtedly represents something different, though what exactly remains open to question.

In the meantime, the national security state’s power is largely uncontested; the airlines still fly; Disney World continues to be a destination of choice; and the United States remains a largely demobilized land.




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