Politics & Policy

Trying America

The closest British media gets to "fair and balanced."

Recently England’s Channel Four staged a political jousting match; America on Trial was a mock trial in front of a studio audience. The result, the show’s organizers no doubt hoped, would establish that America was a belligerent imperial monster, hitting Iraq only out of greed for oil and a sinister desire for world domination. And, of course, it would be a stinging blow for Tony Blair and America, showing beyond a doubt that support for war is waning, and that there is a severe lack of any rational argument for war. That would settle things!

Well, not exactly. In fact, as heavily weighted as the show seemed to be in the favor of the peaceniks, what really happened was that America’s case seemed to be significantly furthered and that of the audience, picked to be “representative of the British population,” was shown to be rather lacking in foundation. The set-up itself was bombastic, with “America on Trial” glaring unforgivingly down on the audience, along with numerous pictures of Americans straddling large bombs, George W. Bush looking pensive, and, for good measure — because after all this was a fair debate — a picture of Saddam with his gun, nestled away in a corner.

Impartiality was not the order of the day. The “representative” audience was largely made up of rabidly anti-American Palestinians, Afghanis, and Iraqis, and the usual quota of raving Daily Mail-reading old men who had died for their country several times over, had put in their honest day’s work, and were not afraid to call a spade a spade. All, of course, coming in with completely open minds, because, of course, the audience was like a jury, objectively considering the evidence and objectively voting at the end. (My suspicions were raised early on, when my father told me that the organizers had given him trouble about me because the quota of male teenagers had already been filled up. I looked around. I was one of three at the most.) Adding to this diverse, “representative” pot was a group of Americans specially freighted in from St. Louis, who, we were told, represented the grassroots of America and would give us an idea of what they thought about Bush over the pond.

As this innocuous bunch were gradually given their say, it became clear that something fishy had happened in their selection. Those who were given a say did not so much shoot the cause of the Americans in the foot as drop a grenade on it. I was naïve to think that this was a debate on Iraq: It was a trial, deciding once and for all the motives and nature of America. The title made that much clear.

And the audience responded, seeing this not as a debate, but as a moral clash of the titans — a clash between good and evil, peace and war, and everybody else and America. They were noble crusaders, here to show the world once and for all how corrupt America was. How they hissed at any pro-American comments! How they cheered at every blow struck against this evil behemoth! But this bold crusade soon turned into something a little less magnificent, more like a pantomime, or a wrestling match.

Those charged with “trying” America — an aid worker and a battle-worn Labour MP — responded accordingly. With every cheer, their pithy insults got more confident. America became the pantomime villain. One could almost hear whispers of “It’s behind you,” while there were audible hisses whenever the dreaded “A” word was mentioned.

Jon Snow, the impartial arbiter, was chairman of proceedings, trying to blow a hole in America as subtly as possible, oozing charm with Arabic greetings. Those with anti-American comments were allowed to continue with a compassionate nod of the head, while those offering support were either shot down immediately or, if they were shooting themselves in the foot, left to empty the magazine. A typical exchange:

Anti-American: (random nonsensical vitriol)

Jon Snow (nodding sympathetically, then rushing over to the nearest, most vulnerable looking victim): So, how do you respond to that, then? Eh? Eh? How can you come back to that? Eh?

Pro-American/impartial onlooker: To what?

Jon Snow: To that! Come on, then! What do you have to say to that, eh?

Pro -American: Well . . . nothing really . . . I mean he didn’t really say anything — There’s nothing to answer to, Jon, there’s nothing to say. It didn’t make any sense.

Jon Snow: Well, there we have it. No reply. Nothing to say in favor of the bellicose oil-hunger of the tyrannical super state.

(Cue wild cheers, whistling.)

It was all ridiculous, and, in the end, a pleasure to watch. It was too bad that the “prosecution” had so little to say. All they had going for them was the seemingly undying support of the audience, and no argument of any real substance. The defense, on the other hand, was fun to watch; it was, in fact, the only evidence that the whole “trial” was not hopelessly weighted against America. They had the one genuine bigwig of the debate in Richard Perle, a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, and the one genuinely entertaining person in Daniel Finklestein, conservative columnist at the Times of London. Throughout, both kept their composure, sticking to their arguments and at no time being tempted to pander to the audience, as their adversaries did.

In the end, this approach worked. It is fair to say that Perle and Finklestein managed to convince all of those who had come in with an open mind. They appealed to reason where the others appealed to passion.

What was somewhat shocking was the xenophobic pitch to the whole debate. By the end, it had descended into farce, with everyone trying to get in some way in which America had apparently crossed him, or others. “What about Namibia?,” cried one; another felt the urge to cry out “The CIA! The CIA!” somewhat randomly. I am sure someone had a grievance about a rude baggage handler on their last visit to the States, but it was lost in the tumult. One man claimed that this was a judgment on the Bush administration, provoking a loud cheer. But this was not the case — the whole charade had been merely an opportunity for everyone to get that anti-American feeling off his chest, strike one for the little man, play David to the American Goliath.

And then, all of a sudden, the verdict came in: Little more than ten percent of the audience had voted in the prosecution’s favor. Jon Snow paused for a moment before pronouncing the verdict — that “the nation” had decided that America was a land-hungry, oil-hungry imperial Janus that should be stopped before it took over the world.

An image of George W. Bush as Dr. Evil briefly floated into my head, and I had a feeling of vague satisfaction. Perhaps the prosecution had won, perhaps America had been exposed a little, but what had also been exposed was the flimsiness of all those charges against it. After the antiwar marches, which seemed to show that the nation was against America, here we were shown that public sentiment was not so unanimous. Furthermore, the “irrational hawks” and the “compassionate doves” had reversed roles, with the hawks displaying more reason and rationality, and the doves exhibiting the vitriolic hatred and unreflective belligerence it accuses the other side of. This battle may have gone their way, but the war seems to be swinging back in the other direction. Sometimes calm reason is the best tonic for hearts and minds.

Seventeen-year-old Charlie Morrison attends Eton College in England. His mother is British and his father is American.

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