The Parallel Universe In Which We Live

Independent journalist Michael Yon has some pointed criticisms of the way in which the reality of life in Iraq is unrecognizably twisted by the media, meaning that the American people rarely get the real story of what is going on over there:

I was at home in the United States just one day before the magnitude hit me like vertigo: America seems to be under a glass dome which allows few hard facts from the field to filter in unless they are attached to a string of false assumptions. Considering that my trip home coincided with General Petraeus’ testimony before the US Congress, when media interest in the war was (I’m told) unusually concentrated, it’s a wonder my eardrums didn’t burst on the trip back to Iraq. In places like Singapore, Indonesia, and Britain people hardly seemed to notice that success is being achieved in Iraq, while in the United States, Britney was competing for airtime with O.J. in one of the saddest sideshows on Earth.

No thinking person would look at last year’s weather reports to judge whether it will rain today, yet we do something similar with Iraq news. The situation in Iraq has drastically changed, but the inertia of bad news leaves many convinced that the mission has failed beyond recovery, that all Iraqis are engaged in sectarian violence, or are waiting for us to leave so they can crush their neighbors. This view allows our soldiers two possible roles: either “victim caught in the crossfire” or “referee between warring parties.” Neither, rightly, is tolerable to the American or British public.

Today I am in Iraq, back in a war of such strategic consequence that it will affect generations yet unborn—whether or not they want it to. Hiding under the covers will not work, because whether it is good news or bad, whether it is true or untrue, once information is widely circulated, it has such formidable inertia that public opinion seems impervious to the corrective balm of simple and clear facts.

There are a couple of factors which seem to be at play here. The first is that the media is simply lazy. Iraqi politics, Middle Eastern culture, the interplay between Sunni and Shi’ite, the tortured history of the region, all of these factors are important to a full understanding of the war, and all of them are incredibly complex. How does one distill all of that down to a 3 minute news piece? The simple answer is that it’s impossible. So the media “dumbs it down”—the media portrays the situation in Iraq as being about Shi’ites and Sunnis who hate each other and can’t get along, and the US is stuck in the middle. Of course, that’s an incredibly simplistic picture. For example, it clashes with the fact that many Iraqi tribes and families are mixed Sunni and Shi’ia. But reporting on that would confuse people, and the media constantly panders to the lowest common denominator. So the story is simplified beyond recognition to fit with our soundbite culture.

However, that’s not the only problem. The biggest problem is that the media is largely unified in their political views. More than 90 percent of American reporters are liberal Democrats. The media narrative on the war is that it was unnecessary, a waste, a failure, and everything about it is wrong. That media narrative colors nearly every view of the war. Had a President Gore done the exact same thing with the exact same results, the media would be clamoring for him to win a Nobel Peace Prize. (And by corollary Fox News would undoubtedly be trying to argue that Iraq was a distraction from the real war in Afghanistan.) They’d then have political reason to explore the humanitarian mission in Iraq, one of the most audacious exercises in national benevolence since the Marshall Plan.

Yon is right: America lives in a self-absorbed glass bubble. The media has little interest in breaking that bubble, and it’s up to independent journalists and others to try to get the real story out.

The problem is that societies who are that self-absorbed tend not to live very long. America seems firmly lodged in our >panem et circenses stage. We care more about Britney Spears’ custody battles than the bravery of men like 1st Sgt. Paul Ray Smith. Ultimately, our culture continues to slide because we seem unable to pay more than lip service to the values upon which our culture was founded. Those of us who read Edward Gibbon in school know what happens when a society abandon its values to a kind of social hedonism.

What happens in Iraq, like it or not, will have profound effects on the lives of not only the children of Iraq, but our children as well. By trying to sweep Iraq under the rug, by subordinating the real issues for crude and childish political battles, and by living in deep ignorance of what is really going on, we threaten to let other define our future. Our ignorance and our self-obsession is the greatest weapon groups like al-Qaeda has. In 1993, bin Laden looked at the carnage in Mogadishu and saw a paper tiger, a superpower so risk-averse and so unwilling to fight that a few body bags and a public show of depravity could change its course. Al-Qaeda flourished on that weakness. We dare not prove them right again.

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