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Manipulated by Power: What is Wrong with the New York Times?

The government is manipulating facts. There's no credible evidence on Syria. Why is the Times pretending otherwise?

The conflict between democracy at home and empire abroad has beset this nation since the Spanish-American War, a brief interlude of imperial display in the spring of 1898. Empire did not win merely the day: It won the century, the one America named after itself.

Anyone who doubts the thesis can consider it at intimate range as the Obama administration prepares to send missiles into Syria. What we witness in Washington now is no more or less than a scratchy rerun. We must be thankful there is still any such conflict between democrats and those given to imperial reach, however feebly the fight gets fought. It is better than nothing—if marginally, under the circumstances.

President Obama’s announcement last weekend that he would submit his decision to attack Syrian military installations to Congress has been called numerous things. It was surprising. (We have an imperial presidency. Why ask for congressional assent?) It was politically daring. (What if Congress says no?) It was the democratic thing. (“We act better when we are unified,” as Secretary of State Kerry has put it often this week.)

Can something be quaint and frightening at the same time? The thought tempts. The incessant murmurs of patriotism in Washington this week will comfort a few foolish hearts, but they are part of what makes the current scene in our capital disturbing. Cast Obama’s plans for Syria in history and you see how America the ever-changing nation does not change. We have a government manipulating facts. We have hypocrisy of motive: Humanitarian compassion is not the issue; the issues are vanity and the projection of power. We have perniciously misbehaving media, the clerks of the political class at this point (if ever they were other).

This is 1898 redux. Good historians eventually nailed the poseurs, weaklings, and paranoids who then pretended to heroism. So take heart: The bunch prescribing cruise missiles for Basahr al-Assad will someday get their revisionists, too.

There is one quite essential difference between our moment and the days when Teddy Roosevelt charged up hills in Cuba. A century and a bit ago Americans were jingoists almost (not quite) to a one. It did not take much other than a few shrieking newspapers, salivating along with TR for brown peoples’ blood. (It was precisely so.) There was consensus—conjured, yes, but not with much exertion.

Now there is no consensus. What we watch this week and next is not the manufacture of consent—Noam Chomsky’s phrase, borrowed from Walter Lippmann. That is no longer possible, in my view. It is the manufacture of the appearance of consent, a cardboard cutout of consent. And it is this, consent as spectacle, that is so frightening about our moment. It is this that is about to make the Syria crisis a marker in the road leading down the American slope.

The problem of consent was among Henry Kissinger’s bitter lessons during the Vietnam war. Frustrated with democracy’s necessities (as were several Middle Europeans who came to postwar positions of influence, please note), Kissinger ignored them. The U.S. lost Vietnam (as in Vietnam won Vietnam), and in my view things have never been the same for the producers of consent. More care would be taken, starting with our “embedded” correspondents in Iraq and Afghanistan (an ethical travesty on the part of the press).

One of the telling snippets of the week comes courtesy of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s secretary of state and another figure with a tin ear for what cannot be said if you want to fool most people all the time. In the Syria case, he observed the other day, apparently innocent of his own drift, “corralling public opinion is proving more difficult.”

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