SOLOMON: The Modern Emperor's New Clothes

Once upon a time, in early June of 1999, the man on the throne displayed his moral finery as he complained that "children are being fed a dependable daily dose of violence." The emperor added: "This desensitizes our children to violence and to the consequences of it."Courtiers and scribes exclaimed that the monarch was resplendent in the garb of wisdom. Reporting his statements with reverence, the journalists of the day were generally impressed. They nodded with appreciation for the popular verities.Sovereigns had long made a habit of going on parade while wearing pious garments, and this ruler was no exception. His loud costumes proclaimed how deeply he abhorred violence.Of course, some of the powerful scribes did not care for this particular emperor. They would have preferred the election of a different ruler, cloaked in another style. But they were content to criticize the current ruler for having bad taste in clothing.Meanwhile, there were many prominent defenders. For instance, a gentleman named Anthony Lewis was one of the bluebloods who found the emperor to be quite presentable. Sir Anthony saw virtues and responsibilities. "We are in the war now," he wrote in the New York Times as the spring neared its end, "and for the most urgent political as well as moral reasons we must win."On parade, the sovereign walked with dignity as he showed off the golden fabric of his nobility. Along with other influential scribes, Sir Anthony cheered and bowed while the stately procession advanced, imperial flags rippling in the wind. He wrote death sentences like: "NATO air attacks have killed Serbian civilians. That is regrettable. But it is a price that has to be paid when a nation falls in behind a criminal leader."Somewhere in the crowd stood a little girl and a little boy who were perplexed. They wanted to know why the scribes, so respected and so widely heeded, did not talk about the huge holes in the weave of the emperor's pronouncements. In fact, watching the parade, they wondered why no one mentioned that the royal highness was just about bare.The two kids scratched their heads when the emperor denounced some forms of media for stirring up violence among young people. "The boundary between fantasy and reality violence -- which is a clear line for most adults -- can become very blurred for vulnerable children," the emperor declared at a Rose Garden ceremony."Why does he prance around with a few skimpy strands of cloth dangling from his shoulders?" the little girl asked. She became more agitated when the emperor's wife stepped forward to deplore a "culture of violence that is engulfing American children every day."The girl began to worry about lacking sophistication. She couldn't find any consistent thread running through the regal assertions. The royal couple kept saying that the culture of violence was bad. But their great enthusiasm for the present war seemed certain to further inflame it."What kind of values are we promoting," the emperor's wife asked rhetorically, without a hint of irony, "when a child can walk into a store and find video games where you win based on how many people you can kill or how many places you can blow up?"The little boy tried to sort out the whole situation. "It must be a matter of the difference between pretend and for real," he observed. "The emperor and his wife don't want us to play at killing people because we might get confused and actually do it without proper authorization. The point is that we should wait till we're a few years older. Then, we could join the armed forces, and if an emperor wants us to kill some people we could do so, and everybody will praise us.""I suppose that's true," said the little girl. "For a while there, I figured the emperor for a stark naked hypocrite. But the scribes don't seem to see through his finery, so maybe we shouldn't either. Or at least we ought to keep it to ourselves.""The emperor's wearing some fine new clothes after all," said the little boy. "Surely, if he wasn't wearing a stitch, the wise people of the mass media would point that out.""That makes sense. After all, who are you going to believe, the news media or your own eyes?"Norman Solomon's most recent book, "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media," was published this spring.


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