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No End to the New Normal

Dark reflections on the presidential campaign to this point

By R. V. Scheide

On Wednesday, Sept. 8, when I was working out of my home office with three television sets tuned to CNN, CNBC and FOX as usual, an image on one of the screens caught my attention: a metallic saucer-shaped object jutted out of desert floor like a scene from The Day the Earth Stood Still. There was no comforting voiceover from the news anchor, just a stunned silence, and for a split-second I thought, "They're here!" fully expecting a Martian to step out of the spacecraft and declare, "Take me to your leader."

What I'd witnessed, of course, was the live crash landing of Genesis after the spacecraft's parachutes failed to deploy. But if a little green man had hopped out of the wreckage, I wouldn't have been surprised. That's the way things have been going lately here in the "new normal."

Here in the new normal, nothing is as it seems. Fingernail clippers are lethal weapons. The Artist Formerly Known as Cat Stevens is a terrorist. Our brutal occupation of Iraq is liberation. "This is going to make you free," throbs the techno soundtrack on a commercial for the Hummer 2, the tanklike vehicle that gets 10 miles per gallon. Sure, maybe after we "liberate" Iraq's oil reserves.

Not that I'm complaining. That's not allowed in the new normal. The phrase was first coined to describe the recovery process for survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing, who were searching for a "new normal" in the wake of that tragedy. After the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, the phrase took on a fresh, more Orwellian tone. In today's new normal, no one, particularly mainstream journalists, dares question authority, no matter how towering the falsehood. To do so is to risk being branded unpatriotic and banished to the margins of societal discourse.

What or who accounts for this state of affairs, this new normal in which the truth is forbidden? There are many factors involved, but if a Martian actually did request to be taken to our leader, I know exactly what I'd do.

I'd send him straight to the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, dark architect of the new normal.

 

In fact, the former Halliburton CEO appears to be the first government official to use the phrase in the post-9-11 era, when just days after the attack he called for a "new normalcy" that recognizes "an understanding of the world as it is" when making future policy decisions concerning the security of the United States and its citizens. Or, as Cheney recently put it within the hallowed elegance of the Senate floor, "Fuck off."

The new normal quickly became a staple on CNN's flagship program, News Night with Aaron Brown, which sent reporter Candy Crowley out on a nationwide search for the elusive construct. America was at war, and wherever she roamed, Crowley found a populace willing to share the sacrifice, whether that meant curtailing long-cherished constitutional rights here at home or killing thousands of innocents abroad. Activists and MBAs held hands in Berkeley. The mayor of St. Louis offered to cut the city's budget. Don't ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

Host Aaron Brown took a more whimsical view, grudgingly accepting the sacrifices and marveling that after a few months, things had calmed down enough so that News Night could once again run the occasional baseball feature. In one new-normal segment, grateful Afghanis watched TV for the first time, oblivious to the destruction around them. A trip to the North Pole revealed that even Santa Claus checks his mail for anthrax. All of us were sharing in the sacrifice.

"I saw a poll today showing that only one in every 10 Americans would say that life has returned to normal," Brown said on a broadcast in late 2001. "When asked that question, I assume that people think normal is the way things used to be, and in that regard, normal is gone and it's not coming back. Things aren't going to be the way they used to be. Too much has changed."

As the new normal settled into a series of politically motivated elevations in the terrorist threat level by Tom Ridge's Department of Homeland Security, it seemed no sacrifice was too large. At least, that's the way it was until this July, when Ridge floated the idea of postponing the presidential election because of terrorism. Brown had finally been pushed too far.

"It's one thing to have to take your shoes off at the airport, that sort of new normal is tolerable," Brown said. "It is quite another to postpone a national election."

It's nice to know someone has limits--overthrowing the country is apparently going too far, even in the new normal. But as far as mainstream new media are concerned, just about anything else goes.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the coverage of the current presidential campaign. Arguably no president has ever run for reelection with a more abysmal record than George W. Bush. On every front, foreign and domestic, Bush is, to use the phrase he recently coined when referring to conditions on the ground in Iraq, a "catastrophic success."

The war in Iraq has become an inextricable quagmire, as predicted; more than 1,000 Americans have so far lost their lives, with no end in sight. Bush stands to be the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net loss of jobs, nearly 1 million on his watch, and his ill-advised tax cuts for the rich have plunged the country from record surplus into record deficit. As the 9/11 Commission Report revealed, even national security, the president's supposed strong suit, is suspect. Despite adequate forewarning of the attacks, the Bush administration failed to take measures that conceivably might have prevented the tragedy.

Yet these facts are rarely reported in detail. That's why, when asked by pollsters which candidate will keep America safer, a majority continue to prefer George W. Bush to Democratic presidential contender John Kerry. Likewise, a large percentage continues to believe that weapons of mass destruction were discovered in Iraq, despite full evidence to the contrary. On the campaign stump, Bush and Cheney repeatedly conflate the war on terror with the war on Iraq as if they were the same thing; no one in the corporate media questions this blatantly false assertion. When Cheney recently said the nation would be at an increased risk of terrorist attack if Kerry is elected, Aaron Brown twisted uncomfortably in his chair as CNN political analyst Jeff Greenfield explained that wasn't really what Cheney said.

Of course, mainstream media have long been in the business of manufacturing consent, as Noam Chomsky and other critics have noted. What's different about the new normal is the openness in which this manufacturing takes place. Witness the tortured evolution of the Bush administration's rationale for unilaterally invading Iraq. First, relying in part on intelligence cooked up by Cheney's secret Office of Special Plans, the administration declared Saddam Hussein and his alleged weapons of mass destruction an imminent threat to the United States. When no actual WMDs were found, evidence of "WMD-related programs" was sought. When that hole came up dry, we were suddenly informed that we'd gone into the nation-building business. Talk about a flip-flop. The only "news" program that picked up on it was The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

That's because "flip-flop" is an RNC-talking point especially reserved for candidate Kerry. Remember that $87 billion spending bill he voted for before he voted against that's become a standard Republican taunt? Of the $18.4 billion allocated for reconstruction, so far only $1 billion has been spent. No wonder Kerry was leery. Meanwhile, the only organization that appears to have received any of the billions of taxpayer dollars that have poured into Iraq is Halliburton, which received a $13 billion no-bid contract to construct bases, deliver mail and provide food and shelter to U.S. troops. Former Halliburton CEO Cheney swears he wielded no influence on the deal, which will establish a series of permanent military bases in Iraq for the unexpressed purpose of controlling Iraq's oil reserves, the second largest in the world. More fuel for those Hummers that are gonna make us all free.

Perhaps that's why Cheney and Co. were in full gloat at the Republican National Convention held in New York City last month, just a hop, skip and a jump away from Ground Zero. In a triumph of image over substance, speaker after speaker embraced one of the main tenets of the new normal: when in doubt, lie.

Republican California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, born in 1947, recalled Soviet tanks rolling through his Austrian neighborhood. The Russians were long gone by 1946.

The crowd cheered.

Zell Miller, the turncoat Democratic senator from Georgia, attacked John Kerry for supposedly voting against a list of weapon systems that virtually accounted for the entire military-industrial complex. How dare Kerry call the liberation of Iraq an occupation, Miller thundered, like a deranged preacher.

The delegates roared.

It was easily the ugliest speech ever delivered at a political convention, demonstrating why some of Miller's closest associates worry that he's in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's. The CNN pundit team was ashen-faced afterward, nearly speechless. For a moment, it looked like the new normal might be finished. Wolf Blitzer snapped out of the semi-permanent coma he's been in since 1988, recalling his days on the Pentagon beat, when then-Defense Secretary Cheney had sought to cut the very same weapons systems Kerry had vetoed.

The outrage soon fizzled out, and by convention's end, the Republicans were rewarded with a 12-point bounce in the polls.

 

On Sept. 8, the same day Genesis plummeted to earth, CBS' 60 Minutes aired the infamous story on the discrepancies in George W. Bush's Texas Air National Guard record. Part of Dan Rather's report was old news--former Texas Lt. Governor Ben Barnes' claim that he pulled strings to help a young George W. Bush get into the guard in 1968 has been public knowledge since at least 1999. But Rather's report also included four documents allegedly written by the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, one of Bush's Guard commanders. The memos appeared to confirm long-held suspicions that Bush had disobeyed a direct order by not showing up for a physical and that the Bush family had exerted pressure to "sugarcoat" the young pilot's record.

The problem was that CBS didn't properly authenticate the documents, which turned out to come from Bill Burkett, a Democrat and Texas Guard official who has a longstanding feud with Bush, hardly an unimpeachable source. Conservatives trolling the Internet quickly picked up on the document discrepancies, and in the media frenzy that ensued, Rather and CBS were forced to back away from the documents, if not the story. Despite the fact that Bush's Guard record remains in doubt and no one knows for sure if the documents are real, Republicans were quick to claim victory against their most hated adversary, the so-called liberal media.

This tired shibboleth, "the liberal media," predates the new normal and remains one of the conservative movement's most potent prevarications. There simply is no such thing as a monolithic "liberal media." Like every other major network, CBS is owned by a larger parent corporation, in its case the cable television conglomerate Viacom. It's a safe bet CBS will never do a story that might threaten the parent company's existence, for instance, maligning a Republican administration that as been exceedingly helpful in paving the way for further media consolidation. That goes double in the new normal. Although Rather would never admit it, at least in the United States, BBC investigative reporter Greg Palast reports that the CBS anchor was unusually forthcoming when he appeared before a BBC audience in 2002.

"It's that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions," Rather said. "It's an obscene comparison, but there was a time in South Africa when people would put flaming tires around people's necks if they dissented. In some ways, the fear is that you will be necklaced here. You will have a flaming tire of lack of patriotism put around your neck."

Rather isn't kidding. And he is by no means the only journalist to be punished under the strict tenets of the new normal. Consider the case of tell-all celebrity biographer Kitty Kelly, whose latest book, The Family, documents among other things Dubya's alleged former cocaine habit. Appearing on three successive mornings on NBC's Today Show to tout the book, Kelly was nearly eviscerated by co-host Matt Lauer, who behaved as if the lawyers at Doubleday hadn't already fully vetted the tome. "Maybe I should go into the witness protection program," Kelly quipped.

Or consider the recent appearance of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh on CNN's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer. In the Vietnam era, Hersh broke the My Lai massacre story, in which American soldiers mercilessly murdered the inhabitants of an entire village. This year, he broke the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal. Hersh appeared on the program with former Bush speechwriter David Frum (who coined the phrase "axis of evil") and spent the entire session being brutally browbeaten by both men for his use of anonymous sources--as if Hersh's sources in the intelligence community had nothing to fear by going public.

Contrast that to the treatment afforded the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. True, some networks refused to have Swift Boat leader John O'Neil, (the Republican operative with ties that go all the way back Nixon) on their programs, but FOX and MSNBC let O'Neil prattle on for days, often without challenging his false, unsubstantiated assertions regarding John Kerry's record in Vietnam. The Swift Boat story has been utterly refuted, but that didn't stop the group's commercial from running in key battleground states in the week leading up to the Republican National Convention. According to one poll released the day the convention started, the mud was already sticking: Bush had pulled a 10-point gap on Kerry.

That's the way it goes here in the new normal. George W. Bush, who has yet to definitively prove he showed up for Guard duty in Alabama, gets a free pass. John Kerry, whose heroic record in Vietnam is well-documented, gets the shaft--more than half of the people recently polled on the subject say there's something suspect about Kerry's service.

In a sense, the Democratic Party has only itself to blame. During the primary campaign, the Democratic National Committee demonstrated it was all too willing to abandon the truth, as angrily espoused by former frontrunner Howard Dean, in favor of that elusive quality known as "electability." Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, a genuine war hero, fit the bill. Now they're stuck with a candidate who voted in favor of the war and of what is arguably the most anti-democratic legislation ever passed by Congress, the Patriot Act.

How bad is the Patriot Act? Here's how the Washington, D.C.-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights put it in its report released last year, Assessing the New Normal: "Some of the changes now part of this new normal are sensible and good. But the new normal is also defined by dramatic changes in the relationship between the U.S. government and the people it serves, changes that have meant the loss of particular freedoms for some, and worse, a detachment from the rule of law as a whole. . . . [T]he United States has become unbound from the principles that have long held it to the mast."

That's not exactly the vessel I want to be sailing on heading into stormy weather. The presidential race has boiled down to the traditional choice between the lesser of two evils. Kerry now says he'll bring the troops home before the end of his first term and that he's willing to take a second look at the Patriot Act, and for that Republicans call him a flip-flopper. I guess that makes me one, too. No matter who wins, the new normal isn't going away anytime soon. How can it, when both candidates are running on platforms stressing national security? So I've changed my mind about what I'm going to do if that little green man ever shows up in his flying saucer.

"Slide over," I'll tell him. "I'm driving."

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From the September 29-October 5, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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