‘I do not believe that the president loves America.” So said the mayor who stood for America in the days after 9/11.
It would be worth asking how many Americans think Giuliani’s observation is true, and discussing whether, and to what extent, it is in fact true.
It is plainly a legitimate question. It would be dangerous for the fate of a country to lie in the hands of someone who doesn’t love it. Very dangerous, when the country is seen in that person’s ideology as the root of the world’s ills, and when it is the first thing he and his friends blame when an ill crops up.
No one, however, is asking this question. Instead, everyone is being asked to denounce the remark. The legitimate question is being hounded out of the public space.
Most of the people who are denouncing Giuliani’s remark probably think it’s true. Even many of the liberals who are denouncing it must think so. How often have they portrayed patriotism as a backward idea, held onto by ignorant ordinary Americans, the kind who cling to their religion and their guns — something intelligent people know better than? Even conservatives recognize that patriotism is an ambiguous virtue, a love of the near that can be in contradiction to the love of the universal good. Leo Strauss reminded us that Socrates said a soldier was like a dog, nice to the people of the house but dangerous to the rest. This does not lead conservatives to scoff at soldiers or forget their virtues, the way many progressives have been heaping mud on American Sniper.
The main use for words such as “patriotism,” in contemporary progressive circles, has been to deploy them in an upside-down fashion. When things are done and said at America’s expense, they praise it as “true patriotism,” as when an Obama or a Leahy says that “America would cease to be America” if it went on electing conservatives and taking commonsense national-protection measures. Or when they condemn a pro-American idea as “un-American” — a phrase they abhor when it is used sincerely, but feel no compunction about using for the sake of confounding the masses. Or talk about their loyalty to “America” as a “principle” — interpreted always their way — rather than an actual country, to be served loyally. Or demand that, to be true to their rhetorical “America,” we must sacrifice the global interests and power of the real America — the America whose strength is the most important guarantee the world has for the continuation and progress of its principles.
They don’t like it when ordinary patriotic Americans see something wrong with their lack of love for the real, existing America. They call it “McCarthyism,” an attack on intellectuals for thinking the things intelligent people are supposed to think. As if there could be anything wrong with being an enlightened intellectual and seeing through the silliness of love of country!
They don’t feel they are hurting freedom when they go about constructing an edifice of denunciation and discipline against ever saying such things. They feel it, rather, as a way of protecting their own freedom from unfair criticism. It is, for them, a matter of maintaining public hygiene in face of the unwashed, mean-spirited masses.
We are seeing something of this in the current campaign of denunciations of Rudy Giuliani.
John Stuart Mill, who defined true liberalism, said people should focus on whether something actually was true instead of spreading fears that it might be harmful to believe it. To raise fear against thinking something creates vicious circles and mental repression.
The pervasiveness of these repressive circularities is seen in the way Giuliani half-denounced himself, even while he was making his point. He caught himself in mid-sentence to add, “I know this is a horrible thing to say” — accepting instinctively the sensibilities of the Left as to what it is “horrible” to say, trying to cover himself with an apology in advance.
This sort of thing happens all the time. People have become inured to it. We have to step back to realize how serious it is.
What the media are doing with Rudy Giuliani is a kind of ritual for purging the public mental space. It is expanding the exclusion zones, the ones that the safe mind and mouth must navigate away from. To accomplish this, it is going through the same cycle of motions that were used, in the 20th century, as a standard technique of totalitarian dictatorships for controlling what people say and think. This technique of control operated in the sphere of the media and public mobilization for affirmations and denunciations, not in the police cells and torture chambers.
The point of this method goes beyond silencing criticism. It serves to keep a vast range of facts and ideas out of the mental processes of society. It limits how people are able and willing to think.
In the Western media’s version of the ritual of expurgation, it starts by denouncing the person or persons who spoke an unwelcome truth. It excludes their remarks and their views, and often their very persons, from the range of discourse that is accepted in the mainstream public space. Next it demands that others, whose conservative sensibilities might lead them to be expected to agree with the comment, join in denouncing it, on the pain of being accused of the sin of thinking such things and thus risking their own excision from the public space. Then it demands that those conservative others join also in demanding that everyone else denounce them.
It extends the purge outward in ever widening circles. Residual spaces for free thinking and criticism are lopped off one by one, by salami tactics.
In principle, there is no point at which the purge can stop — not until the entire discourse space has been purged, and people throughout it have been set eternally on edge to denounce any reappearance of the expurgated thoughts.
However, the current “Giuliani purge,” unlike many of the media-purge campaigns in recent years, is failing on the third, outer rung of its outward extension. Conservatives in the media are mostly joining in the second rung — personally denouncing Giuliani’s comment, as demanded by the liberals in the first rung — but are refusing to join in demanding that all the rest of their party denounce it as well.
It is an indicator that the purge is so far removed from the public’s perceptions of truth that it could fail. The media’s own hedging — denouncing the comment, but dancing around whether to denounce Giuliani as a person — shows a similar perception of a risk of failure.
The purge campaign could well boomerang against the media and the Democrats. There is always a risk that conservatives will not just defend a bit against extending the purge too far, but find a way to turn the tables on it.
Ideological Hegemony in the Media
Purges could not be conducted, people could not be corralled into condemning things they agree with, without a massive hegemony within the media of people of one ideological orientation. The fact that purging is done so often, and so effectively, confirms the extent of the imbalance to the Left. It underlines the seriousness of the imbalance that every media survey has shown. Thanks to the harsh methods of speech control that are exercised, the hegemony in personnel is translated into a near-unanimity in the discourse space and in the language that is the very foundation for thinking about public issues.
The mainstream media have a few token conservatives. Indeed, they have something even more. They really are two-party — they have plenty of Greens and a fair number of far-leftists of other stripes, not just Democrats. But all their left extensions are just that — extensions of the same orientation, not a genuine pluralism.
The far-leftists in the media are treated with a civility that does not extend to the token conservatives. Left interviewees are given sop questions to help them elaborate their doctrines, not interrupted with tough repartee and debating tricks as are conservative guests. Left pundits on the talk shows are not treated as outsiders from the mainstream group, to be interrupted freely and whipped back into line, but are treated as “us.” They serve to reinforce the mainstream media’s positions, even while being presented as dissidents who offer an alternative point of view to the media’s supposedly too-conservative narrative.
There is a revolving door between MSNBC journalists and NBC-ABC-CBS-CNN-PBS journalists; the same goes even for Al Jazeera. But there is a sharp dividing line between the mainstream liberal-left media and the conservative alternative media. When the Brit Humes and John Stossels depart from their old mainstream-media outlets and sign up with Fox, they go into exile — an outer darkness, one that the mainstream pillories as “not real news media,” demonizes in every way it can, and does its best to exclude from the national dialogue. Even a Juan Williams, a liberal with somewhat less of a hack mentality than most, was penalized for crossing the line once he started appearing on Fox. He got kicked off of NPR for it, as soon as NPR found a political-correctness pretext, patently absurd though it was, for the purge.
How does the other side of the coin operate, where we see an uninterrupted institutional spectrum from the mainstream liberal media to more openly left media to far-left “alternative” media?
ABC/NBC/CBS/CNN/New York Times/Washington Post/Los Angeles Times and all their affiliates nationwide: These are America’s mainstream media, the ones that tell themselves they are America’s legitimate reportorial media, and that serve as the gatekeepers for controlling the mainstream public space.
They bleed into PBS and NPR and MSNBC and Al Jazeera — the major media that are openly left. MSNBC and Al Jazeera serve as a politically activist left; PBS and NPR, a more ideological left. They give depth to the mainstream media’s prejudices. They elaborate the larger left theories for the media; they show how to explain away the contradictions in their theories, and stigmatize any critical mention of them as an attempt to “divide the people”; they plough the vicious circles; they train the mental synapses to flow along the circular path and repel criticisms at each point of the circle; they build up the PC constructs the mainstream media use for excluding different views, and that the mainstreamers need for failing to notice that they are doing anything wrong. The major media of the left in turn bleed into the universe of far-left “alternative” media, such as Mother Jones and The Nation.
The left, NPR-PBS-Al Jazeera media are thought of as the “cutting edge” for “intelligent,” “informed” thinking. They are seen as good people who stand up, without hedging, to all those ignorant, prejudiced (bigoted, racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, etc., etc.) types on the other side; as liberals “just like ourselves,” but with courage. They are envied for their freedom from ordinary commercialism. They are looked up to as “our conscience” or “the conscience of society” — noble people who are not jettisoning “our ideals” that “we” had when we were young, who do not make the sad opportunistic compromises with corporate capitalist society that the mainstream media tell themselves they are making and sullying their conscience with. This, significantly, is the only criticism of themselves they allow themselves to hear; they carefully exclude and ridicule the more serious conservative criticism of their bias.
It serves as a division of labor: a would-be objective media for the larger public spaces, somewhat narrower and specially funded media for the ideological cutting edge.
The token conservatives in the mainstream media, by contrast, are jarringly discontinuous, cautious though they are in what they say. They are treated as a Them, brought in to make a show of diversity. They are tolerated only barely. Their colleagues often visibly chafe at the bit while the conservatives make their points, finding it hard to restrain themselves from denouncing such unacceptable comments. It is not unusual for them to gang up collectively against the poor conservative, going through a minor expurgation ritual then and there, with one after another piling on to issue their denunciations, building on one another’s points to erect in front of everyone’s eyes a new vicious circle against saying otherwise, and conflating the conservative’s comments with views and personalities that they have all already safely agreed on excluding as “hate”, “racist”, “ignorant”, or “extreme.”
Could Things Change?
The media’s conservatives have shown that they know the very limited terms on which they are tolerated on the mainstream airwaves. They know their role as tokens, to be seen and not heard if their colleagues could truly have their way, yet necessarily to be heard somewhat, since that’s the only way they can be seen on air and serve their role as tokens. They are allowed an occasional battle. They have to pick their battles carefully.
Their calculation this time has been carefully parsed, yet not unhopeful. They have joined their dominant progressive colleagues in denouncing Giuliani’s comment. They have, to all appearances, hedged “correctly” about their own views, as they have avoided mentioning the obvious fact that there was truth in the comment — important, publicly necessary truth. They have said instead that there was somehow something wrong and rude, inappropriate and unfair, “below the belt” and “out of bounds” about saying it.
But at the same time, they have displayed courage by protecting their fellow conservatives and Republicans from any demands to join in the denunciation. Their mainstream colleagues have repeatedly demanded that all Republicans denounce Giuliani. They have pressed their token conservatives to join them in this demand. At this point, the conservative “colleagues” have demurred. They have instead claimed a bit of the role of genuine equal colleagues and criticized the demand. They have tried to erect a protective dam for freedom of opinion at this final, inner moat. And the same thing has been done by most of the Republican political figures who have been interviewed on this matter.
That’s a hopeful sign. The purge could be dead-ending this time. As some of them do. But even then, the next purge comes along, starting from where this one left off.
Containment can’t stop that progression. Only liberation can stop it. And containment is never complete by itself; not, at least, when one is dealing with an aggressive ideology. Ideologies are always pushing against the bounds; a total, or totalitarian, dynamic is inherent. Faced with an ideological dynamic, only liberation can make containment finally succeed. It is as true today in the era of media ideology as it was in the era of totalitarian state ideologies.
How can we get to liberation from the media purge-regime, and inter alia complete this particular exercise in containment of it?
First, by continuing with the promising push-back against this purge — or the next one, if good people aren’t ready for doing it this time; unfortunately there will always be another chance, given the frequency of these expurgations — and carrying the pushback farther. Exposing the ugly mechanisms of the purge. Showing how these mechanisms are applied in one purge ritual after another on the media. Pointing out the lack of innocence in it, the malice and bigotry. Showing how much harm it does. The damage to the capacity of society to think about the most serious public issues. Among them, certainly, the issue of whether it isn’t dangerous to be entrusting America into the hands of a president with dubious attitudes toward America.
Next, showing that this is a travesty of the functions of a mass media, abusing it for conducting public campaigns and public purges. That it is a threat to democracy and to our most basic freedom, the freedom of speech and thought. And that it is the kind of abuse that flows almost inevitably when there is the kind of overweening control of the media that we have by people from one ideological faction within America.
Finally, by working out somehow a program for reformation of the mainstream media to become honest, legitimate media. In addition to continuing with building up alternative media such as Fox and talk radio; media that, noble though their effort is and important though their function has become, are still able to be kept to the periphery by the mainstream media, like cul-de-sacs.
Liberation is a right. The mainstream media have become bearers of repression, actively destroying the freedoms they are sworn to defend.
And liberation is a public duty. The vast bulk of the issues excluded by the media in their purges are legitimate issues. They include the most vital issues, ones that society urgently needs to be discussing.
Our very good token conservatives on the networks, who have carefully, judiciously maintained what little independent space there is on the mainstream media, need to begin mulling over how we can go further: how liberation can be accomplished.
— Ira Straus is executive director of Democracy International and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO. He has also been a Fulbright professor of political science and international relations. The views expressed herein are solely his own responsibility.