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General News    H3'ed 10/29/15

Tomgram: Engelhardt, Campaign 2016 as a Demobilizing Spectacle

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If those are absurdities, then so is twenty-first-century America. By late September 2001, though no one would have put it that way, the demobilization of the American people had become a crucial aspect of Washington's way of life. The thought that Americans might be called upon to sacrifice in any way in a time of peril had gone with the wind. Any newly minted version of the classic "don't tread on me" flag of the revolutionary war era would have had to read: "don't bother them."

The Spectacle of War

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.

This 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 proportions in 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.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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