The Eagle's Shadow

Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World

by Mark Hertsgaard

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002, hardcover


Americans not only don't know much about the rest of the world, we don't care. Or at least we didn't before the terrible events of September 11, 2001. Until then, many Americans were barely aware the outside world existed, a fact that both exasperates and amuses foreigners.

... George W. Bush had traveled abroad only three times before he became president. Whatever his other qualities as a leader, in this respect the younger Bush was perfectly representative of his fellow citizens, only 14 percent of whom have passports.

As a people forever fixated on the promise of a better tomorrow, Americans are barely familiar with our history, much less anyone else's.

As in most countries, the dominant institutions in the United States are run by elites whose views do not necessarily coincide with those of the general public. In fact, the gap between America's elites and its masses has been growing over the last quarter century as economic inequality intensifies, the wealthy and well-connected increasingly control the political process, and once proud news organizations are gobbled up by giant corporations whose only allegiance is to profits... To oversimplify, the media reflect elite opinion but shape mass opinion.

... few(foreigners) appreciate how poorly served Americans are by our media and educational systems-how narrow the range of information and debate is in the land of the free ...

In the United States [after 9-11] ... the news media's pronouncements were indistinguishable from the government's, and neither showed tolerance for anything less than full-throated outrage. At the Fox television network, correspondents wore American flag pins and anchor Brit Hume dismissed civilian deaths in Afghanistan as unworthy of news coverage. CNN chairman Walter Isaacson directed his U.S. staff not to mention civilian casualties in Afghanistan without at the same time recalling the Americans who died on September 11. (Tellingly, CNN did not impose such restrictions on its overseas broadcasts.) When the American media finally examined the question of how the United States appeared to the rest of the world, that richly complex subject was reduced simplistic melodrama.

The United States sits atop an increasingly unequal world; 45 percent of humanity lives on less than two dollars a day. Peace and prosperity are unlikely under such conditions, as the CIA itself has warned. "Groups feeling left behind [by widening inequality] ... will foster political, ethnic, ideological, and religious extremism, along with the violence that often accompanies it," an agency report forecast in 2000-as good a prediction of September 11 as one could want.

... globalization is in fact largely Americanization ...

How can [America] put men on the moon and libraries onto computer chips but still debate the teaching of evolution in public schools and nearly impeach a president over an extramarital affair? How can Americans be so rich in material possessions but so lacking in family and community ties? So inundated with timesaving appliances yet perpetually stressed and hurried? How can the United States have given birth to uplifting cultural glories like jazz and rock and roll and socially resonant ethics like environmentalism yet be a cheerleader for vacuous celebrity, gratuitous violence, and ubiquitous luxury?

How can a nation famous as the land of opportunity be spawning a growing underclass for whom the American Dream has become a cruel myth? How could the world's proudest democracy descend to the chaos and corruption that stained the 2000 presidential contest?

Politically, we live in a democracy that barely deserves the name. Our government lectures others on how to run elections, yet most of our own citizens don't vote. Abdication of this basic civic responsibility may be rooted partly in the complacency that affluence can breed, but surely another cause is the alienation many Americans feel from a political system they correctly perceive as captive to the rich and powerful.

... in our foreign policy we say we stand for freedom and often we do, but we can be shamelessly hypocritical, siding with treacherous dictatorships that serve our perceived interests and overthrowing real democracies that do not.

Ten things that foreigners think about America that Americans usually don't talk about:

1. America is parochial and self-centered.

2. America is rich and exciting.

3. America is the land of freedom.

4. America is an empire, hypocritical and domineering.

5. Americans are naive about the world.

6. Americans are philistines.

7. America is the land of opportunity.

8. America is self-righteous about its democracy.

9. America is the future.

10. America is out for itself.

... the largest act of mass murder in the twentieth century [was] the famine engineered by Mao Zedong [China] from 1959 to 1962 that killed an estimated thirty million people


We Americans have no idea how rich we are, but everyone else, certainly does; it's often the first thing foreigners mention about the United States. There is, of course, also extensive poverty within the United States, especially among children, a condition. But most of us take for granted modern bathrooms, hot showers, and unlimited water for cooking at the turn of a faucet; no walking to and from an unclean creek with buckets and building a fire first, as countless women in Africa, Asia, and South America still do every day. Nor do we think twice about jumping in one of our family's two or three cars and zipping off whenever we want, wherever we want; we disdain the buses, trains, and other forms of mass transit widely used even in affluent Japan and western Europe as too slow and inconvenient, and the walking that hundreds of millions of the world's poor rely upon is inconceivable to us; many of us will drive the two blocks to the corner store to pick up bread and milk. And that bread and milk, which are always fresh, only hint at the mind-boggling variety and volume of food and drink we have to choose from, whether in mammoth supermarkets whose shelves bulge with virtually every food imaginable no matter what time of year or where we live-strawberries in February, sea crabs in Denver-or in the restaurants that now receive 46 percent of all the money Americans spend on food per year.

Put another way, Americans don't realize how poor most other people in the world are. For most people on the planet, shopping is an exercise in penny-pinching prudence, not the ~ compulsive hobby it has become for many Americans. Approximately one in every five human beings subsists on one dollar a day, a level of poverty which makes hunger and illness their frequent companions. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, some 35,600 children die every day from "conditions of starvation"-that is, from the many illnesses that prey upon tiny bodies that go hungry day after day.

Americans are not unaware of world poverty-we're proud of sending food aid overseas-but we have little grasp of how beyond the human norm our own level of consumption is. It doesn't help that our news media have almost no interest in the outside world in general and the plight of the poor in particular; but neither do we get out and see for ourselves. The relatively few Americans who travel overseas generally confine themselves to zones of English-speaking comfort. Thus remain oblivious to our extraordinary privilege.


United Nations Human Development Report of 1999
The richest fifth of the world's people consume 86 percent of all goods and services, while the poorest fifth are left with just over one percent.

With 5 percent of the earth's population, the United States is responsible for approximately 25 percent of humanity's environmental footprint-that is, its consumption of timber, minerals, and other resources; its destruction of rain forests, wetlands, and endangered species; and its production of such pollutants as the dioxins that poison water supplies and the carbon dioxide that drives global climate change.

Chinese outnumber Americans more than five to one, but the average American consumes fifty-three times more goods and services. In China there is one car for every five hundred people; in the United States, one car per every two.

Approximately one in every three minutes of American television is advertising.

By age seven, an average American child watches twenty-seven hours of television a week-nearly four hours a day-and sees an incredible twenty thousand commercials a year.

... the shopping mall has replaced the church and town square as the center of our social life

Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of domestic economy activity.

When George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and the other founders of the United States asserted in our Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" (and with typically American impudence claimed that this "truth" was "self-evident"), it marked a radical break from the past.

The climate of intimidation [after 9-11] was such that the most radical assault mounted on the United States Constitution in decades became law with scarcely a peep of protest from either the political class or the general public. On October 25, 2001, President Bush signed into law the "USA PATRIOT Act," an Orwellian phrase if ever there was one. Among its many extraordinary provisions, the law canceled habeas corpus rights for non-citizens (which amounted to twenty million people in the United States); the attorney general was now authorized to detain indefinitely any non-citizen that he and he alone deemed a threat to the national security. It allowed government agents to search a citizen's house without notifying that citizen, and it expanded the government's ability to wiretap not only telephone but Internet communications, giving the government access to a person's e-mail and bank and credit card records. Federal agents could also seize public library records to check what people were reading. Separately, the Justice Department asserted the right to monitor conversations between criminal suspects and their lawyers. Other new laws gave the CIA the right to spy on Americans, authorized the attorney general on his sole discretion to designate domestic groups as terrorist organizations, and lowered the legal threshold for obtaining a search warrant from "probable cause" to "relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation." Meanwhile, the president declared by executive fiat that any non-citizen he considered a suspected terrorist could be tried by a military tribunal rather than by an ordinary court; the tribunal would operate in secret, could impose the death penalty, and would not be subject to judicial appeal.

The people's representatives in Congress passed the "USA PATRIOT Act" by overwhelming margins. The Senate approved it by a vote of 98 to 1; in the House, only 66 of the 435 members voted against it. As the lone Senate dissenter, Wisconsin Democrat Russell Feingold, explained, "It is crucial that civil liberties in this country be preserved. Otherwise I'm afraid terror will win this battle without firing a shot." In the House, Representative Dennis Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio, went further. The "USA PATRIOT Act" and other steps taken by the Bush administration, Kucinich argued in a speech in December, revoked half of the ten amendments in the Bill of Rights: the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and assembly; the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure; the Fifth Amendment right to due process; the Sixth Amendment right to a prompt public trial; and the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

There was virtually no discussion, much less criticism, of this extraordinary expansion of government secrecy and police power when it mattered most-before the bill was passed and signed into law. Ventilating the proposed measures and subjecting them to reasoned debate might have helped separate the wheat from the chaff, illuminating what sorts of changes would really improve intelligence gathering and security preparedness and how to do so without sacrificing essential freedoms. But there was no such debate. One prominent Washington journalist, who asked to remain nameless, told me after the fact that "there was no time [for news coverage]. They rushed [the bill] through before the press could focus on it." It is true the bill was introduced on September 19 and signed on October 25, which is lightning-fast by Washington standards. Nevertheless, journalists had five weeks to analyze the law and bring its provisions to public attention. For people who face deadlines every day, that was plenty of time.

And what a difference outspoken news coverage might have made! The exception proves the point: when journalists did finally wake up, they trained their fire on Bush's military tribunals, which conservative columnist William Safire lambasted as "kangaroo courts" that gave Bush "dictatorial power." Other critics pointed out that such courts would damage America's reputation overseas and thus sacrifice the moral high ground in the war on terrorism. Sustained media criticism led the administration to modify its proposal somewhat; the revised tribunals would not operate in total secrecy or prohibit all appeals.

The most worrisome aspect of all this was not the government's restrictions on freedom, as chilling as they were, but the public's apparent acceptance of those restrictions. Opinion polls suggested that more than 70 percent of Americans were willing to give up some freedoms during the war on terrorism (which, it was said, would last decades). Some worried that the government would excessively restrict average Americans' civil liberties, but tolerance for actions aimed at immigrants and minorities was high. A Gallup poll found that 82 percent of respondents supported increased government power to detain even legal immigrants; 49 percent favored identification cards for Arab-Americans. A Harris CNN/Time poll found that 31 percent of respondents thought that Arab-Americans should be detained in camps.

Thus did both the Bush administration and a sizable minority of the citizenry flirt with replaying one of the most shameful episodes in modern American history: the internment in camps of some 110,000 Japanese-Americans, as well as 11,000 German-Americans and 3,000 Italian-Americans, during World War II for no other reason than their ethnic backgrounds. To his credit, President Bush spoke out in the days immediately following September 11, urging Americans to show tolerance toward American Muslims. But meanwhile his administration was actively violating the rights of some twelve hundred non-citizens who were hauled into custody and detained without charges, just as the World War II internees had been. Not only did the Bush administration deny these detainees access to lawyers, it refused to identify them. An additional five thousand people within Arab-American or Muslim communities were singled out for police interrogation. "We're an open society," the president declared, "but we're at war."

a London cab driver

It is quite amazing how [Americans] don't know anything about other places in the world ... unless they're invading them.

[In 1998] the United States had shot down an Iranian civilian jet it mistakenly believed was a military craft. All 290 passengers died.

When Bush senior was asked if an apology was in order, he replied, "I will never apologize for the United States. I don't care what the facts are."

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright modestly explained, "if we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation.... We see farther into the future."

As Rupert Cornwell, the Washington correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent, observed on an other occasion, "No one wraps self-interest in moral superiority quite like the Americans do."

Siphiwo Sobuwa, imprisoned on South Africa's Robbin Island for 15 years for his activities with the African National Congress (ANC).

"It is a trend among United States presidents that so-called Third World countries must be destabilized. America believes in solving problems not by negotiations but through military pressure."

Siphiwo Sobuwa, imprisoned on South Africa's Robbin Island for 15 years for his activities with the African National Congress (ANC), about President BIll Clinton

"He came here a couple years ago to visit Mandela and speak to our Parliament, and he told us South Africa should cut its ties to Cuba because Cuba was a bad government. Well, when we needed help during our liberation struggle, Cuba gave it. When we needed food, Cuba provided it. For someone who did not help our struggle to come now and ask us to distance ourselves from someone who did, that is very arrogant behavior."

Then there is our self-serving definition of "terrorism," a concept America's political and media elites never apply to the United States or its allies, only to enemies or third parties. No one disputes that the September 11 attacks against the United States were acts of terrorism; that is, they targeted innocent civilians to advance a political or military agenda. When the Irish Republican Army exploded bombs inside London subway stations and department stores in the mid-1990s, that, too, was terrorism.

So were the Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel in early 2002, and Saddam Hussein's use of poison gas against Kurds in Iraq in 1988. But when Israel attacked Palestinian refugee camps in April 2002, demolishing buildings and killing or wounding many civilians, was that not also terrorism? When the United States lobbed Volkswagen-sized shells into Lebanese villages in 1983 and dropped "smart bombs" on Baghdad in 1991, many innocent civilians perished while Washington sent its geopolitical message. The napalm dropped during the Vietnam War, the bombing of Dresden, and the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II-these acts all pursued military or political objectives by killing vast numbers of civilians, just as the September 11 attacks did. Yet in mainstream American discourse, the United States is never the perpetrator of terrorism, only its victim and implacable foe.

veteran Asian affairs analyst Chalmers Johnson, in his book - Blowback

"Although most Americans may be largely ignorant of what was, and still is, being done in their names, all are likely to pay a steep price . . . for their nation's continued efforts to dominate the global scene."


America is modest about very little, but it is curiously reticent about its status as the mightiest empire in history. Whereas previous empires gloried in their privileged status (Rome) or wrestled with its moral implications (Great Britain), the American empire simply tells itself it doesn't exist. By any historical definition, the United States is an empire of extraordinary power, but only in the wake of September 11 have even its elites begun using this term, and always favorably. Americans believe they are wealthy because they're decent, hardworking people (which they generally are), without realizing the huge advantages that America's overseas power secures for them, starting with the cheap, abundant Middle East oil that fueled the American economy's remarkable growth over the past fifty years.

The United States has acted like an empire from the beginning, repeatedly using force to expand its territory. It started by pushing Native Americans off their land. In the War of 1812, it drove the British into Canada once and for all, a display of strength that convinced Spain to give up its claim to the Southwest. With the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, the United States declared unofficial control over the entire western hemisphere. In 1898 it expanded overseas, "liberating" Cuba and the Philippines from Spain but making them virtual American colonies; it also chose an "Open Door" strategy of relying on economic more than military strength to dominate overseas. The first half of the twentieth century included dozens of foreign interventions to ensure friendly governments and protect U.S. business interests, especially in Central America.

The American empire reached maturity after emerging from World War II as by far the strongest and richest world power. Military bases were established throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The rules of international trade and finance were favorably rewritten to encourage expansion of American companies overseas. During the subsequent Cold War, the Soviet empire challenged but never seriously threatened the supremacy of its American counterpart. Today, thirteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States maintains nearly the same global posture it did during the Cold War: scores of overseas military bases; the world's highest volume of arms sales (90 percent to undemocratic or human-rights-abusing governments); and massive nuclear overkill (each of its twenty-two Trident submarines can reduce four hundred cities to radioactive dust, and the Tridents are but a small part of the total arsenal). In short, the American empire shows no signs of either shrinking or retreating.

How can Americans be expected to form considered opinions about the "war on terrorism" when our news media report little but the government's version of the truth?

The biggest political joke in America is that we have a liberal press. It's a joke taken seriously by a surprisingly large number of people, including the nation's sizable right-wing minority (approximately one of every four voters). Their purchases propelled a book reiterating the myth, Bernard Goldberg's Bias, to the top of America's best-seller lists in early 2002. The notion of a liberal press was injected into the national consciousness thirty years ago by Richard Nixon, who blamed the press for losing the Vietnam War and inflating what he dismissed as a "third-rate burglary" into the Watergate scandal. Ever since, the myth of the liberal press has served as a political weapon for conservative and right-wing forces eager to discourage critical coverage of government and corporate power. And journalists and their superiors have fallen for the trick. They are forever asking themselves if their coverage is too liberal, never if it is too conservative.

Understand: In America, "liberal" means "left-wing," with its connotations of anti-government, anti-corporate, antiestablishment. The reality of how America's newspapers, television, radio, Internet, and other mass media operate could hardly be more different.

Anti-government? Most of what the American press reports about the U.S. government is the government's side of the story. Check any newspaper, peruse any broadcast. You find statement after statement of what the president said today about subject X, what the defense secretary said about topic Y, how proposal Z was received by the Senate or House majority leader. Often there are disputes among these officials-conflict being a necessary ingredient of the news narrative-but the disputes tend to be incremental or tactical. There is precious little reporting that stands back from the insider debates of Washington, challenges their underlying premises, or offers a genuinely alternative analysis.

"What we do most of the time is, we really are a transmission belt," confessed the late James Reston, who served for decades as the New York Times's man in Washington. Of course, it is important to report the government's side of any story. But if that is all, or nearly all, of the story, the resulting picture is inevitably misleading. What citizens end up being told is not so much a lie as it is woefully incomplete, which can amount to the same thing. For example, the press repeatedly reported the Bush administration's claim to be taking extraordinary measures to avoid civilian casualties during the war in Afghanistan. Only rarely and long after the fact did it present contrary information. Thus news coverage left the impression that few innocents were being killed, when in fact the death toll was probably higher than the number killed in the September 11 attacks.

We do not,(thank God,)have a state-owned or state-controlled press in the United States. We do have a state-friendly one. That is, our press supports the prevailing political system, its underlying assumptions and power relations, and the economic and foreign policies that flow from them. Rarely are these liberal.

Americans and foreigners alike, I've learned, find the idea of a state-friendly press in the United States hard to grasp. They see the freedoms that permeate American life and they assume that a robust, diverse exchange of political ideas and information is naturally part of the mix. After all, freedom of the press is written into the very first amendment of our Bill of Rights. Alas, in contemporary America, that freedom exists in theory more than it gets exercised in practice. "It's always amazed me about you guys," a British journalist once told me. "We do lots of investigative reporting in Britain, even though our libel laws are quite strict. You guys have all the freedom in the world and you don't use it." The best line ever written about the press, at least by an American, was by A. J. Liebling:

"Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." Nowadays, ownership of the American press has been captured by a handful of gigantic transnational corporations who are the farthest thing imaginable from leftist troublemakers or even law-abiding liberals. Should it surprise anyone that the news they provide downplays unconventional viewpoints, tough criticism of corporate and government elites, and other information uncongenial to the established order?

The problem with the American press is not that it favors Republicans or Democrats; the problem is that it is a stenographer to power. In the name of objectivity and political neutrality, the Washington press corps limits its definition of quotable news sources to official Washington: administration officials, influential members of Congress, experts from the plethora of "think tanks" in town. This limits the range of debate to the existing Republican-to-Democrat spectrum. However valid a given point of view might be on an intellectual level-say, that missile defense is a technological pipe dream-if it isn't forcefully argued by a significant part of the Washington establishment, it receives no attention.

In short, the Washington press corps functions as a palace court press. It is adept at detailing the intrigues of palace politics: What is the president proposing? How will Congress react? Who is going to win the fight? Where does the balance of power lie? This is not unimportant information, but it falls short of what citizens really need to hold their government accountable. (It also makes reporters sound dumber than most of them actually are.) Because the press is not inclined to step outside the mind-set of the authorities it covers, it surrenders much of its formal independence and rarely acts as the check and balance on the nation's rulers that the founders envisioned.

A key corollary is that the press will be only as adversarial toward a given president as the opposition party is. Since journalists must (appear to) be neutral and quote mainly official sources, they depend on the opposition party to balance their coverage. If the opposition is tough, coverage of the president will be commensurately tougher. Other factors contribute to any president's media profile, but this rule of thumb accounts for much of the positive coverage that Reagan received; Democrats were simply unwilling to criticize him.

The American news media have degenerated over the past quarter century into a profit-obsessed colossus, a peddler of pseudo-news that at once entrances and demeans the public.

The American media used to be more serious and civic minded, but that changed fast after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. In the name of free enterprise, Reagan deregulated the broadcasting business. Federal rules intended to ensure that the public interest was taken into account in the use of the nation's airwaves-which are, after all, public property-were relaxed or eliminated. Reagan's deregulation made renewal of broadcast licenses virtually automatic; no longer would companies have to earn their licenses by providing news and public affairs programming. Most lucrative of all, Reagan expanded ownership limits. Historically, federal law had limited a company to owning seven television stations, seven FM radio stations, and seven AM radio stations in the United States. In a democracy, the thinking went, no single voice should control too large a share of the communications system. Reagan said the market should decide; he wanted to eliminate restrictions entirely but had to settle for expanding the so-called 7-7-7 rule to 12-12-12. Those fifteen extra stations represented a gift to broadcast corporations of literally billions of dollars in additional revenues over the coming years.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell

"The night after I was sworn in [as commissioner], I waited for a visit from the angel of the public interest. I waited all night, but she did not come."

The American news media's ideological center of gravity has shifted well to the right over the past twenty years, in part because corporations have taken over virtually every news organization that reaches a mass audience, including such ostensibly noncommercial outfits as National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System. NPR and PBS have grown increasingly indistinguishable from commercial broadcasting since right-wing politicians successfully defunded them, beginning in the 1980s under Reagan and concluding during the Gingrich revolution of 1995, when members of Congress pressed to "zero out" their budgets. Left on starvation rations, NPR and PBS were forced to turn more and more to corporate funders, which in turn compelled them to produce programming likely to please those funders. Often this programming remains admirable on technical grounds, but it displays little critical distance from the centers of power in the United States, especially the giant corporations that dominate our economy and government.

Americans now have the worst of both worlds: a press that, at best, parrots the pronouncements of the powerful and, at worst, encourages people to be stupid with pseudo-news that illuminates nothing but the bottom line. If you think I am painting too bleak a picture, how about this shocker: Not long before September 11, the press passed up-that is, missed- the story of Osama bin Laden's plan to attack the United States. That's right. America's corporate news organizations had the chance to blow the whistle on bin Laden's plans eight weeks in advance, but they chose not to run the story.

A year later, in 2002, the media swarmed all over the Bush administration for failing to heed warnings of an impending terrorist attack-pretty nervy, considering that the media had made exactly the same mistake. On June 23, 2001, a story reporting that "followers of exiled Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden are planning a major attack on U.S. and Israeli interests" was sent out over the Reuters wire service, which meant that it landed in virtually every major newsroom in the United States. United Press International circulated a similar report on June 25, informing subscribers that "Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden is planning a terrorist attack against the United States." But the stories were largely ignored by the nation's media. According to journalist Simon Marks, writing in Quill, the journal of the Society of Professional Journalists, "A search of the country's major newspaper and broadcast network Web sites reveals that barely any considered the stories worthy of publication."

Mind you, America's media found plenty of time during those same days to continue flogging a sex scandal involving Gary Condit, an obscure Democratic congressman, and to divulge the underage drinking arrest of President Bush's daughter Jenna. But a story about a Middle Eastern guy with a name Americans couldn't even pronounce, warning about an attack that might or might not happen? Who had time for that kind of trivia when there were vital issues of sex and drugs facing the nation?

... programs like Crossfire, Hardball, and The Washington Gang favor a macho approach; panelists bluster, insult and interrupt one another, and in general show all the wisdom and thought of a kennel of barking dogs. Their ideological cast is decidedly right-wing. Most panelists' views range from conservative to hard right; the left is defined by former Clinton administration officials.

A study by Columbia University's Project for Excellence in Journalism, summarized by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, found that "less than ten percent of the coverage evaluating administration policy offers significant dissent. Most contains no dissent at all." What media critic Michael Massing deplored in The Nation as "a Soviet-style reliance on official and semi-official sources" further ensured that American policy and behavior were rarely cast in a less than glorious light.

America's media should not reflexively oppose government policies, but they should widen their ideological perspective so that all meaningful points of view are covered. Almost never, for example, did the major media give space to advocates of nonmilitary responses to the September 11 attacks. While the op-ed pages of the New York Times and especially the Washington Post bristled day after day with calls for immediate bombing of Afghanistan and beyond, television producers explained the absence of alternative voices by saying that they couldn't find anyone who opposed war. They couldn't have looked very hard; by September 28 nearly two hundred prominent Americans, including the celebrities that television traditionally preferred (Martin Sheen and Bonnie Raitt), as well as internationally renowned intellectuals such as Edward W. Said and Frances Moore Lappe, had signed a statement calling for "Justice Not Vengeance." The statement was later published as an advertisement in various newspapers; in the United States, it seems, there are some things you have to buy the freedom to say.

The media did offer criticism of the war in Afghanistan, but only of its tactics, not its basic rationale. It was a good example of the palace court dynamic in action: because the Washington establishment was divided over how to conduct the war, the media ventilated these divisions at great length, through stories debating whether Bush's plan for air strikes would succeed, whether ground troops would be needed, whether the alliance would hold. Whether the war was justified, whether alternative responses might exist, whether September 11 should provoke a basic rethinking of America's approach to foreign affairs-these questions were simply not raised, much less discussed.

How different the world might be if the American people knew all the things their media keep from them! Less superficial and jingoistic coverage of foreign affairs would help Americans understand why their country's reputation overseas is so uneven. It would enable us to see foreigners not as incomprehensible, abstract stereotypes but as flesh-and-blood human beings with the same kinds of faults, virtues, and frailties that we have. Better reporting would explain why foreigners see the world differently, why they are so much more concerned about globalization than Americans are, why they are annoyed by Washington's environmental foot-dragging and imperial high-handedness, why they nevertheless generally yearn for friendlier relations with the United States. Improved journalism is no panacea; better information will not automatically yield better policies at home or increased cooperation abroad. But it is a vital first step. As long as America's media remain locked into their profiteering palace court posture, the American public is doomed to ignorance about the outside world, and that's not good for anyone.

The United States is the largest market for religious books in the world, and one of


the biggest sellers over the past five years has been the "Left Behind" series: eight novels that dramatize the Rapture theory of salvation. Favored by many fundamentalists, this theory holds that when conditions cited in the Book of Revelations come to pass, God will end the world in an explosion of light-the Rapture-and sweep twelve thousand Christians up to heaven while condemning the rest of humanity to hell.

Alexis de Tocqueville
"Never have I been so conscious of the influence of religion on the morals and social and political state of a people as since my arrival in America."

Calvinism [Protestantism} put an extra twist on Americans' pursuit of wealth, for it prescribed hard work for everyone and held that an unquestioning faith in God-rather than good works-was the only path to salvation. The possession of riches was a sign that God favored a given individual, just as a person's poverty signaled God's disapproval (and the person's unenviable prospects in the afterlife.

Business Week

"The '90s have seen a greater polarization of income in the U.S. than at any point since the end of World War II."

Nearly half of the tax reductions that Washington ordered in early 2001 will go to the top 4 percent of income earners; only 14.7 percent of the cuts will benefit the bottom 60 percent of Americans.

United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, David Cohen reports that 46 percent of the jobs with the most projected growth in America to the year 2005-jobs such as janitor, retail clerk, and waiter or waitress-pay poverty wages. Many workers will choose to work a second or third job to provide for their families-an increasingly common strategy for Americans trying to retain their middle-class dreams or identities, but one which leaves families even less time together. More poverty and inequality, it seems, will be accompanied by more stress and isolation.

America is more economically unequal today than at any time since the Great Depression of 1929, and one of the most disturbing aspects of the problem is that we as a society barely acknowledge it, much less talk about how to respond. In Europe and Japan, even minor increases in economic inequality attract extensive media coverage and provoke discussion among politicians, clergy, and other opinion leaders, because those elites recognize the attendant dangers. By contrast, the elites who dominate America's political, economic, and media systems carry on as if all is well, which it is for them.

As disturbing as widespread poverty amid plenty is, the shrinking of the middle class is the most ominous aspect of America's growing inequality. Throughout modern world history, it has been a secure middle class-and the belief by lower classes that they could rise to enter that class-that has kept nations politically stable and socially peaceful. The corporate and right-wing forces behind rising inequality in the United States are therefore playing with fire. But they are blinded by their ideology of "market fundamentalism," to borrow financier George Soros's term, an ideology as rigid and all-encompassing as the Islamic fundamentalism they often condemn.

Naomi Klein's critical examination of corporate globalization in No Logo, a runaway best-seller in Great Britain and her native Canada ... was not even reviewed by leading newspapers and magazines in the United States.

Likewise, social class is a much-discussed fact of life in Britain and other advanced capitalist nations but a forbidden subject among Americans. Our elites dislike the topic for obvious reasons, and the rest of us have been socialized into thinking it simply doesn't exist. The only time the phrase "class warfare" appears in our media is when it is invoked against such proposals as requiring corporations and the wealthy to pay higher taxes. Cutting social welfare spending, expanding high-end tax breaks, firing workers by the thousands-somehow these attacks against America's non-affluent majority are never described as "class warfare."

"America is a very segregated place, and it's not only segregated by race, it's also segregated by class," Andy Kolker, the co-director of the documentary People Like Us, said on the

Washington, D.C.-area television show The Coffee House. "We don't talk about that in this country because of our belief that we're really all kind of middle class. We're all Americans together." Our egalitarian roots contribute to this myopia. Because of our past, when class relations were more equal, we want to believe that class is irrelevant. The truth, as people around the world well know, is that one's class decisively shapes one's life, especially one's economic prospects.

"For the vast majority of Americans, the most important determinant of their success, or lack of it, is the situation they are born into and the opportunity it affords," Jack Litzenberg, the director of the Pathways Out of Poverty program at the Mott Foundation in Detroit, told David Cohen. "Equality is a myth. Social mobility is increasingly a myth. The American Dream is a myth. But we hold on to these myths and they define who we are."

Only 51 percent of the nation's eligible voters bothered to cast ballots in 2000, and since Buchanan and Ralph Nader won 3 percent of the vote between them, Bush and Gore were each left with support from only one-quarter of the electorate. This has become common in modern America. Bill Clinton gained reelection in 1996 on the strength of votes from only 24 percent of the electorate. Reagan drew only 27 percent in 1980, though the media declared he had won a "landslide" and a "mandate" because he had trounced Carter in the Electoral College. But do such terms as "landslide" and "mandate," with their implication of massive popular approval, really apply when half of the electorate declines to vote?

What does it say about American democracy that so many of our citizens consistently choose not to participate in selecting the nation's leaders? Our voter turnout levels are consistently lower than those of most other advanced capitalist democracies. In a measure of all elections between 1945 and 1998, the United States ranks 114th in the world in voter turnout, with only 48.3 percent of our electorate going to the polls. Italy ranks first, with 92.5 percent. Belgium, Holland, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia, and Germany are all in the 80s, while Spain has averaged 77 percent, the United Kingdom 74.9 percent, Japan 69 percent, France 67 percent, and India 61 percent.

The ability to raise money is now the single most important qualification for running for high office in the United States. Long before actual voters get a chance to choose among candidates in primary elections, those candidates must succeed in what has been called the "wealth primary"-the race to prove one's fund-raising clout. Without it, the media do not take a candidate's chances seriously and so withhold the coverage needed to make him or her known to voters. Of course, to raise a war chest, a candidate must convince potential donors that he or she deserves their support. This fact gives an enormous amount of political power to the nation's richest individuals. The richest 4 percent of the population ~ provide nearly 100 percent of all individual campaign contributions. These people are not monolithic in their views, but they tend to support policies that will preserve their privileges, such as high-end tax breaks and a corporate-friendly approach to government regulation. Non-individual contributions come from labor unions and corporations. Since corporations' contributions outnumber labor's by seven to one, the well-off maintain an overwhelming advantage.

Under such conditions, is it any wonder that most candidates refrain from taking positions that might displease the donor class? Like Republicans and Democrats in general, Bush's and Gore's economic positions were friendlier to corporations and the well-to-do than to the bottom 80 percent of the population. Neither candidate criticized corporate welfare subsidies that drain hundreds of billions of dollars from the federal treasury every year, especially through a military budget riddled with absurd cost overruns. (Pentagon workers, for example, have bought prostitutes for themselves and paid for breast enhancement for their girlfriends.) Both men supported the World Trade Organization and other mechanisms of so-called free trade that raise profits for corporations but bring workers unemployment and lower wages. Judging by their silence, both also found the idea of raising the minimum wage as unthinkable as making corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes.

Big money distorts American democracy in another way as | well: it reinforces the stranglehold that incumbent politicians exercise over elections. Donors prefer to give money to incumbents, because incumbents can more surely deliver returns on that investment by voting favorably, writing laws, prodding the bureaucracy, and the like. Congressional incumbents raise ten times more money than challengers, giving them a virtually insurmountable advantage at election time. Micah Sifry reports in Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America that in 2000, 98 percent of House of Representatives incumbents won reelection; in 1998, 99 percent won. "In recent years a House incumbent has been more likely to die in office than be beaten by a challenger from his own party," adds Sifry. The odds are stacked even less fairly at the state level; a majority of Americans live in what amount to one-party fiefdoms.

To complete the circle of corruption, incumbent politicians and the major parties write the rules for political competition that deprive challengers of an equal opportunity to defeat them. The practice of gerrymandering - carving up districts to decide which voters will vote for which incumbents-assures Democrats and Republicans alike of safe seats in much the same way that price-fixing corporations divide up customers to boost profits. No less self-serving was the Democrats' and Republicans' exclusion of Nader and Buchanan from the 2000 presidential debates. These nationally televised debates were most citizens' only sustained, unfiltered exposure to the candidates. Polls showed that most Americans wanted the minor-party candidates included, perhaps in hopes of forcing some zest and diversity into the discussion. Yet the Democrats' and Republicans' power play succeeded. The exclusion of Nader and Buchanan never even became a controversy, because the media agreed they didn't belong, and that was that.

Instead of a left, America has a right wing that has proven powerful enough to pull both major parties significantly in its direction over the past twenty years. Although Bill Clinton governed like a Republican in many respects, he was reviled by Christian fundamentalists as a draft-dodging, pot-smoking advocate of abortion, homosexuality, and socialism. They were determined to bring him down, and they had at their disposal a well-financed political machine. Besides grassroots strength, especially in the South, the right has its own daily newspaper in the political capital, the Washington Times, and another in the financial capital, the New York Post; and it controls the editorial page of the nation's largest paper, the Wall Street Journal. It owns television networks-both Christian and commercial, like Fox-as well as hundreds of radio stations. Together, this apparatus can focus popular outrage on Washington.


The Americanization of global culture is a complex story featuring many players, but one of its stars is Ronald Reagan, himself a former Hollywood screen actor. Reagan's deregulation of broadcasting in the United States sent ripples across the world. By allowing corporations to own not just seven but twelve television, twelve FM, and twelve AM radio stations, Reagan gave media corporations countless billions of dollars in new revenue. This financial infusion helped the corporations to expand their presence in overseas markets, but even more decisive over time was the power of the American example. The gigantic sums of money that deregulated television began to make for American companies spurred their foreign counterparts to redouble efforts to gain similar opportunities in their home countries, where broadcasting was usually dominated by public entities such as the BBC. The story is complex and varies by country, but in general such efforts succeeded; commercial television experienced enormous growth around the world in the 1990s.

The result has been a proliferation of the junkiest of junk television. By the late 1990s, an average of one billion people a day were watching Bay Watch, the moronic Hollywood drama starring lifeguards in scanty swimsuits. In Egypt, one-third of the programs shown on the state-run television networks are crime shows from the United States, with the result that Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris are household names among children. Across Europe, the triumph of commercial priorities is so pervasive that even public broadcasting stalwarts like the BBC and its Dutch and Swedish counterparts have launched commercial divisions and begun to broadcast advertising. Wherever one turns, the offerings on television screens are looking more and more like those of the United States. Americans' television-viewing habits appear to be spreading as well. French children aged four to eleven averaged nearly two hours of television a day in 1997, a 10 percent increase from the year before.

The media sector reveals, in microcosm, Reagan's greater achievement: by transforming America's economy, he changed how capitalism operated throughout the world. With help from his ideological soul mate, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Reagan challenged the prevailing assumptions within the major capitalist countries about the proper extent of the welfare state and the regulation of capital. Get government off of business's back and out of charity work, he argued, and everyone will be better off. In Britain as in the United States, this approach yielded a burst of economic growth, a widening of the gap between rich and poor, and an erosion of transportation, health, and other public services. Crucially, and perhaps unwittingly on Reagan's part, it also pressured other countries to adopt similar free market policies, if only to remain competitive in the world market.

How so? By cutting taxes and regulations, Reagan effectively lowered the operating costs of American corporations. This naturally aided their expansion into foreign markets, but it also gave ammunition to Reagan's ideological allies abroad. Corporate and right-wing forces in other countries could now justify the idea of scaling back their own welfare states, cutting taxes, and deregulating corporations by citing the need to remain competitive with the Americans. Meanwhile, Reagan was also pushing deregulation of international commerce- the so-called free trade agenda of opening foreign nations to corporate investment and removing the kinds of barriers that the European Union later tried to erect against American television programming. America's overwhelming influence within the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank helped ensure that this free market vision carried the day, especially in weaker economies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Just as globalization has been largely Americanization, so Reagan's version of free market capitalism has become the global norm.

Nowhere have these trends combined more ostentatiously than in Italy, where tycoon Silvio Berlusconi has made a crusade of copying Reaganism. Berlusconi, who began as a real estate magnate from Milan, had by the early 1990s accumulated a formidable media empire, including three private television networks as well as Italy's largest publisher of newspapers, magazines, and books. He then set out to acquire direct political power, seizing the opening provided by the corruption scandals that discredited Italy's governing parties to offer himself as a reform candidate in the 1994 elections. Ample, adoring coverage from his own media outlets gave his candidacy instant credibility. He ended up as prime minister in a coalition with the neofascist National Alliance and the separatist Lombardy League, but it collapsed after seven months. He ran again in 2001, to the dismay of some in Europe. The Economist declared him unfit to govern, noting that as prime minister he would control not only Italy's three largest private TV networks but also its three publicly owned networks. Nevertheless, the week I arrived in Italy to begin my travels for this book, he was elected, decisively.

"Of course, Berlusconi's control of television helped him win this election, but not in the direct propaganda sense of his companies saying, 'Vote for me,' " said Paula Biagini, a high school teacher from Florence who was seated next to me at the "European Society and the American Way" conference. "He was helped more by the indirect effect of his television shows, which glorify the American lifestyle and economic model and discourage critical thinking. Many of our youth voted for Berlusconi. I know from my students that they believe in the American model they see on TV.

... Americans cannot escape a certain responsibility for what is done in our name around the world. In a democracy, even one as corrupted as ours, ultimate authority rests with the people. We empower the government with our votes, finance it with our taxes, bolster it with our silent acquiescence. If we are passive in the face of America's official actions overseas, we in effect endorse them.

The first challenge for Americans is to do a better job of informing ourselves about what is going on around the world and our nation's role in it. This won't be easy, because the most readily available information comes from our media, which are greatly compromised by their corporate character and establishment-friendly world view. Our media may as well be a formal part of the government, for all the critical distance they usually maintain. (Which also puts the lie to the common assumption that 75 percent approval ratings in the polls mean that Americans wholeheartedly approve of Bush's approach to the war on terrorism and governance in general. Poll results are only as good as the information they are based on, and the failure of Democrats and the media to offer meaningful criticisms of Bush has left Americans largely ignorant of the alternatives that could be pursued.

We need a revolution in America. Not one of violence and disorder, but one of values and ways of thinking, one that remembers where we came from. Our nation was born in revolution. It was dedicated to freedom and fairness, and based on the idea that all citizens could join together as equals to govern themselves. That was a radical idea in 1776, and it remains a radical idea today-and one worth fighting for. No doubt it will be an uphill struggle to reclaim our democracy

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