As I read the coverage of George H.W. Bush’s death and funeral over the past week, I kept returning in my head to a quote from Noam Chomsky about the way American media operates:
You don’t have any other society where the educated classes are so effectively indoctrinated and controlled by a subtle propaganda system—a private system including media, intellectual opinion forming magazines and the participation of the most highly educated sections of the population. Such people ought to be referred to as “Commissars”; – for that is what their essential function is—to set up and maintain a system of doctrines and beliefs which will undermine independent thought and prevent a proper understanding and analysis of national and global institutions, issues, and policies.
The use of words like “commissars” and “propaganda” may make Chomsky sound extreme here, but the point he is making is correct: The major U.S. media outlets do not give people a deep understanding of institutions and policies that govern their lives and the lives of others. Many people mistake Chomsky’s “manufacturing consent” for a conspiracy theory—American elites gather in smoke-filled rooms and strategize new ways to delude the public. But Chomsky’s view is actually the opposite: What’s remarkable about American propaganda is how un-coordinated it is. Media entities do not need to conspire, because everyone who works for them has swallowed a set of assumptions about what is important and what isn’t. Nobody needs to tell them what to do. Chomsky contrasts the U.S. system, in which a free press willingly serves the interests of the powerful, to countries in which the powerful actually exert control over the press.
In a reasonable society, the death of a former president would not make the front page of the newspaper. (Actually, a reasonable society would not have presidents at all, but this is a separate argument.) 6,700 people die every day in this country, and presidents are ultimately just unusually elevated bureaucrats. Perhaps it would go on page 3, or in the general obituaries section next to the other notable lives that have recently ended. As meaningful as the death is to the family of the ex-president, in a country that didn’t treat its leaders like emperors there would be no reason to pay it special attention.
George H.W. Bush’s death at the age of 94 after a long illness was treated as a national mourning event. The flags were lowered to half-staff, of course. The post office stopped delivering mail for a day, needlessly inconveniencing millions. As expected, the conservative media spent the subsequent week paying warm tribute to Bush. The Wall Street Journal was filled with headlines like “The Courage of George H.W. Bush: Avoiding the Easy Path,” and “George Bush Led the Biggest Diplomatic Triumph Since Jefferson,” and its op-ed writers described a man who was “steady, honorable, with probity and without deviousness, a man one could count on to preserve the dignity of the presidency” and compared Bush with George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life. FOX News ran an opinion piece entitled “Millennial socialists have a lot to learn from George H.W. Bush’s legacy” (what they have to learn, apparently, is that socialism is bad. Thank you, noted.)
But it was not just the conservative outlets. The New Yorker’s Thomas Mallon wrote of his “irreducible niceness,” “an appealing mixture of noblesse oblige, boy-next-door bonhomie, and parody-begging goofiness.” Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recalled his “quiet humility,” and remembered the fond times they had together eating Klondyke Krispies and bonding because both Goodwin’s husband and Bush enjoyed “crazy socks.” On NPR you could hear that “he was one of the most able, competent, experienced presidents that we’ve been blessed to have and a lovely man who was so modest.” For the New York Times, Bush’s death was not just a front page story, but a front page story for nearly a week. Here’s Saturday’s edition, immediately after Bush’s death:
The next day, Sunday, Bush’s death was still the main story, with an extended tribute to the man who was such a “genial force in American politics”:
On Monday, it slipped below the fold, but the atmosphere of “civility and bipartisanship” in Washington after Bush’s death was still a front page story:
On Tuesday, it was back to number one, as Bush’s body was taken to the capital to begin four days of commemoration:
On Wednesday Bush was off the front page (though the edition contained no less than eight articles about him, and pictures of mourners took up the full front page of the “National” section). But on Thursday, a giant picture of Bush’s funeral at the Washington National Cathedral spanned most of the front page.
(Note the way it pushes the headline “Emissions Surge, Hastening Perils Across The Globe” into a single column. One might have thought, given the dozens of Bush-related articles in the paper over the previous few days, impending global peril should be front and center. The editor of the New York Times would seem to disagree.)
The Times ran eclectic tributes like “Dana Carvey Remembers George Bush, From Muse to Friend,” and the editorial board wrote a generous homage (“George Bush, Public Servant”) saying this was:
…a moment to recall a less quarrelsome political order, when relations with traditional allies were more cordial than combative, when government attracted people of talent and integrity for whom public service offered a purpose higher than self-enrichment, when the Republican Party… still offered room for people with pragmatic policies and sensible dispositions.
The op-ed section, too, contained little but praise. Frank Bruni wrote a column about Bush’s “uncommon grace,” his “softness and soulfulness”:
[In] reality and in retrospect, Bush was a kinder and gentler breed of leader. He believed in courtesy, as any lawmaker who dealt with him and any journalist who repeatedly crossed paths with him can attest. He believed in manners, not merely as an outgrowth of his patrician background and not principally in a fussy way, but because he saw them as an expression of respect. To read his voluminous letters is to encounter a man who cared deeply about that — about precedent, propriety, tradition. And, yes, about kindness.
Perhaps you don’t find any of this objectionable. Perhaps you share the sentiment, and see all of this as a fittingly respectful tribute to a great man. Personally, I do not believe a country should venerate its leaders like this. As a general matter, it strikes me as unhealthy, fit for monarchies and dictatorships but not for a country whose elected officials are supposed to be humble public servants. I am certain that when Kim Jong Un dies, North Korean papers will be full of loving essays about his down-home charm and joie-de-vivre. Here in a Democracy where all are “created equal,” however, this kind of pomp and circumstance feels out of place.
Yet even if you have differing instincts on this, you should still conclude media coverage of Bush’s death was disturbingly propagandistic. Let’s just remember a few important parts of Bush’s actual record, setting aside for a moment his kindness, gentleness, humility, bonhomie, public-spiritedness, pragmatism, integrity, selflessness, propriety, and the rest of the superlatives with which he was showered post-mortem. When I think of George H.W. Bush, I cannot help but recall the following:
- He imprisoned Haitian refugees at Guantanamo Bay. In 1991, the democratically elected president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown in a military coup. The Bush administration refused to back the restoration of democracy, and with the military regime conducting “disappearances, torture, rape and massacres,” refugees fled Haiti by the score, attempting to seek asylum in the United States. The Bush administration first attempted to violate international law by simply sending them back to face persecution. After protest and a legal battle, Bush instead ordered the refugees captured and imprisoned in Guantanamo, which eventually held over 10,000 of them. Bush officials deemed only a small number of these “bona fide” refugees, sending the rest back to face their fate.
- He sent a black teenager to prison for nearly a decade as a PR stunt. As historian Joshua Clark Davis explains, in 1989, for his first address from the Oval Office, Bush wanted to draw attention to the scourge of crack cocaine in the inner cities by displaying on live television a bag of crack that had been bought near the White House. But there wasn’t any crack being sold near the White House, so the DEA had to go to considerable lengths to lure a poor Black teenager (who didn’t even know where the White House was) to the White House to sell them some crack. Bush got his bag of cocaine, which he used to call for more cops and more prisons. The teenager, high school senior Keith Jackson, was convicted after two hung juries and sentenced to 10 years without parole under the mandatory minimum sentencing law. Bush used the hoax to escalate the War on Drugs, ruining a hapless teenager’s life in the process and never showing the slightest bit of remorse.
- He oversaw war crimes that killed hundreds if not thousands of people. In the New York Times editorial about Bush’s life, the Gulf War is portrayed as a triumph: “His second big achievement was the skillful orchestration over many months of a collective global response to Iraq’s aggression in the Persian Gulf. A war that began on January 17, 1991, was over in weeks, with Saddam Hussein’s air force neutralized and his ground troops on the run.” But the Gulf War, just as with 2003’s Iraq War, was sold to the public based on lies. The Bush administration insisted that Iraq posed a far larger threat to its neighbors than it actually did. Then in the conduct of the war itself, the U.S. was responsible for two major atrocities. First, it killed 400 civilians in an attack on a Baghdad air raid shelter. Women and children were burned beyond recognition by the score. Then, it trapped and ferociously bombed retreating Iraqi soldiers on the so-called “Highway of Death,” named because of the endless charred vehicles and corpses that were left along the roadside after the U.S. attack. Soldiers were told to kill “anything that moved,” even attacking turnip trucks, because General Norman Schwarzkopf reasoned that the Iraqi Army was full of “thugs and rapists” rather than “innocent people.” The Bush administration committed numerous acts of terrorism in Iraq by intentionally targeting civilian infrastructure. Here is a Washington Post report from 1991: “Some targets, especially late in the war, were bombed primarily to create postwar leverage over Iraq, not to influence the course of the conflict itself. Planners now say their intent was to destroy or damage valuable facilities that Baghdad could not repair without foreign assistance. … Because of these goals, damage to civilian structures and interests, invariably described by briefers during the war as ‘collateral’ and unintended, was sometimes neither.” Attacking immobilized retreating soldiers, air raid shelters, and electricity-generating and water-treatment facilities, and doing so in a war waged under false pretenses, is the act of a criminal.
- He helped bury the facts of the Iran Contra scandal. Given how much Republicans like to talk about the Iranian threat, it’s always worth remembering that it was the great Republican president Ronald Reagan who secretly sold weapons to the Iranian regime in the ’80s, and then used the proceeds to fund right-wing Nicaraguan death squads. Bush lied to the public about his knowledge of the scheme, and pardoned everyone involved in it, even though they had all almost certainly covered up serious evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, who had been investigating the scandal, was furious that Bush had buried it, calling him a “president who has such a contempt for honesty [and] arrogant disregard for the rule of law.”
- He debased politics through underhanded tactics that appealed to voters’ fears and prejudices. It’s very strange to read tributes to Bush’s honor and decency, considering that his presidential campaign became legendary for how cheap, dishonorable, and sleazy it was. Bush hired infamous Republican strategist Lee Atwater, who was known for doing whatever it took to win without regard to truth or morality. You don’t win by “talking about issues,” Atwater said. Instead “you had to make the case that the other guy, the other candidate, is a bad guy.” That’s exactly what he did for Bush, with rumors about Dukakis’ mental health mysteriously surfacing, and with the infamous “Willie Horton” commercial that tried to convince Americans that a Dukakis presidency would mean large, scary Black men roaming the streets and committing sex crimes. (The ad was so bad that even Roger Stone called it “racist.”) Talking about Dukakis, Atwater said he “would strip the bark off the little bastard” and “make Willie Horton his running mate,” and the Bush campaign was conducted so appallingly that on his deathbed Atwater would apologize for its “naked cruelty.”
- He believed America should be allowed to commit negligently mass killings without displaying even a hint of contrition. In 1988, the United States shot down an Iranian passenger jet, killing 290 people. Discussing the incident at a campaign stop, George H.W. Bush said “I will never apologize for the United States — I don’t care what the facts are. … I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.” In this case, the “facts” were that the U.S. was well aware that the airliner might be carrying civilians but destroyed it anyway, causing hundreds of people to die in the most horrible manner imaginable. Bush blamed Iran for the tragedy, calling it “just an unhappy incident” and telling Americans that “life goes on.” Every time you hear mention in the media of Bush’s civility, honor, and decency, remember what this actually consisted of: insisting that no matter what the facts, America never needs to apologize for anything.
- He launched a needless military invasion of Panama, killing hundreds of Panamanians in the process. The United States had supported Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega for years, and looked the other way when it came to his obvious crimes, but when Noriega became openly defiant of the U.S., the Reagan administration began plotting to remove him. In 1989, Bush followed through on the threat and invaded Panama, casually firebombing a neighborhood that was thought to contain Noriega supporters and destroying 4,000 homes. Hundreds of Panamanian civilians are thought to have died in the invasion, but the U.S. didn’t bother to keep count.
- He ignored AIDS and blamed its victims as tens of thousands of people died horribly. LGBT activists found Bush “actively hostile” to their cause, as they begged for government intervention while watching their friends die. Instead of showing concern about the AIDS epidemic, “Bush responded by repeatedly suggesting that people should advised ‘change their behavior’ so they didn’t become infected with H.I.V., and criticizing ACT UP for exercising an ‘excess of free speech.'” AIDS deaths continued to soar under Bush, to 40,000 a year, meaning that more Americans died of AIDS during his presidency than died in the entire Vietnam War. (Rather shockingly, Frank Bruni did not mention this in his tribute to Bush’s soulfulness, even though Bruni is gay, covered AIDS as a reporter, and has received a GLAAD media award.)
- He serially groped women. Bush was accused of inappropriate touching by 8 women, and was known to “cop a feel” when taking photos with women, sometimes also telling an inappropriate dirty joke at the same time. When the accusations were reported, the Bush family had the audacity to have a spokesperson suggest that the women were misinterpreting an innocent act caused by Bush’s disability. That turned out to be nonsense, since there were accusations about incidents dating back to 1992. One woman reported being groped when she was a child of 16.
There is so much else to mention. Bush put the architecture of NAFTA in place, an agreement that would damage Mexican agriculture and put Americans out of work, paving the way for the rise of Trump. He fought against basic minimum wage increases. He oversaw bloody CIA cooperation with ruthless Latin American military juntas. He replaced Thurgood Marshall, one of the giants of the civil rights movement and the greatest of all Supreme Court justices, with cruel and callous sexual harasser Clarence Thomas, a cynical move based on the theory that African Americans would be wary about opposing a Black nominee.
My rule is not “Do not speak ill of the dead.” It is “do not speak ill of the dead unnecessarily.” There is no need to use the occasion of a neighbor’s funeral to remind his family and acquaintances that he was a deadbeat. An ex-president is a different matter. If history is fabricated, if serious crimes are erased from the record, then powerful people who commit such crimes in future can rest assured that nobody will remember them.
Of course, we can try to appreciate Bush in his “complexity”: He was a good granddad and he made Doris Kearns Goodwin laugh. When presidential obituaries are written, they don’t have to choose between hagiography and “fuckyoulogy.” But it does end up feeling strange to say “He was a war criminal and sexual harasser and did imprison and deport a lot of Haitian refugees, but he was kind to his pets and had a self-deprecating wit.” When someone does extremely bad things, the bad necessarily overshadows the good. As one Medium headline about Bush put it, “If You Murdered A Bunch Of People, Mass Murder Is Your Single Defining Legacy.” I understand why people leave the dark stuff out, then. Admitting it makes it very difficult to say anything about honor and decency and civility with a straight face. What does civility even mean if it’s just “being polite as you send asylum-seekers to their deaths”? There’s no choice, though. Even if it ruins a solemn occasion, the historical record has to be preserved. The Iraqis who were incinerated in the Amiriyah shelter did not get a special multi-page pullout tribute in the newspaper upon their deaths, and it’s for them that we must puncture the decorum of Bush’s memorial. To honor their killer is to dishonor them, and they matter far more.
Cynical as I am, it’s still somewhat remarkable to me that the “liberal” New York Times could run so much glowing coverage of Bush after his death. It was not a sudden, tragic death—Bush lived a long, full life. He was not a remarkable statesman, his presidency memorable mainly for being so unmemorable. What is the need to run a headline like “George Bush, Who Steered Nation in Tumultuous Times, Is Dead at 94”? That Bush “steered the nation” isn’t fact. It’s highly contentious opinion. The correct headline is “George Bush, 41st President of the United States, Is Dead at 94.” But here we see why the media theories of Noam Chomsky, who turned 90 himself on Friday, are so valuable. In books like Manufacturing Consent, Necessary Illusions, and Understanding Power, Chomsky helps us understand how, even though there is little outright coercion of the press in the United States, we have the same kind of coverage you might expect from state-controlled media. Loving weeklong tributes to our dear deceased leaders in which all of their crimes are minimized, all of their flaws become virtues, and their most minimal human qualities are portrayed as great, rare virtues. And it’s not actually that troubling facts are “erased”—instead, they’re buried, and framed in ways that minimize their importance or obscure the seriousness of the underlying moral issue. (This failure of moral vision has been going on for a long time, as one can see in the Times’ coverage of the Holocaust. It’s not that the atrocities were absent from the paper. It’s that they were not treated as significant.)
The “manufacturing of consent” is still going on, and it is dangerous. If people are not shown George H.W. Bush’s bad acts, then slowly his son’s will disappear as well. In fact, they already are, to the point where a smart and savvy liberal like Michelle Obama can seem to have totally forgotten the Iraq War, hugging Bush and calling him her “partner in crime.” (She is not wrong, of course, that Bush is a criminal.) I have a pet theory, only somewhat in jest, that someday Donald Trump will become as respected as Ronald Reagan through this same process. Reagan, after all, illegally funded Latin American death squads, supported the racist apartheid regime in South Africa, and ignored AIDS as thousands of people died. (Asked about the epidemic, Reagan’s press secretary indicated that Reagan hadn’t paid the disease any attention and then began cracking jokes about it.) For all of this, Reagan is now voted in many public opinion polls as the greatest president in American history, possibly even the greatest American, period. The only way to keep future monsters from behaving as they please, knowing they will be eulogized as heroes, is to resist propaganda and tell the truth.
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