Jeff Cohen

Here's why 'liberal' media is pushing an 'America First' message — and a new Cold War

If you get your foreign policy news today from CNN or MSNBC or NPR or similar outlets, then you're bombarded hour after hour with the idea that the United States has the absolute right to impose sanctions on country after country overseas if they violate human rights or are not democratic.

To give just one example: On Sunday, CNN anchor Dana Bash grilled Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, on why the White House is not imposing yet more sanctions on Russia (and China) and why Team Biden was "giving in to Russia" on the gas pipeline to Western Europe. Sullivan was emphatic in insisting that sanctions had been imposed and more were on the way, boasting that Biden had grabbed even more presidential power to sanction Russia through an executive order.

I'm old enough to remember the superiority complex behind the liberal media propaganda during the Cold War with the Soviet Union — while U.S. foreign policy, in the name of democracy, massacred millions of people of color, mostly civilians, across the globe from Asia to Southern Africa to Latin America.

In the middle of the Cold War, when Martin Luther King Jr. denounced the U.S. government as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" and criticized U.S. hubris fueling the Cold War, liberal outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post furiously condemned King — in essence, telling him to leave foreign policy to "us white guys."

When it came to relations between nations, King criticized the "arrogance" of our country and the West in "feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them."

Jump to the present, and you see the same arrogance in liberal U.S. media: We have everything to teach others — whether Russia or China or Iran or Venezuela or any of the dozens of countries the U.S. is imposing sanctions on, sometimes deadly sanctions.

Let's do today what MLK urged us to do back then: Look at ourselves in the mirror.

There is no more precious human right than the right to be free from jail or prison. So it's a human rights violation of epic proportions that the United States has more than 2 million people incarcerated, way more than any other country, including China with its much huger population. Our people behind bars are disproportionately Black or brown people. Liberal media have recently learned how to throw around the term "systemic racism," but when lecturing other countries they deftly forget that mass incarceration is an affront to notions of "democracy" and "human rights."

It's a human right to be able to live without the fear of violence. Yet no other major country has so much gun violence, with hundreds shot every day — one of many problems that U.S. "democracy" can't even address, let alone solve.

One might have hoped that recent U.S. history would have humbled liberal media pundits about their cherished belief in the U.S. as a "beacon of democracy" to the world — and therefore, our sacred right to punish other countries that don't measure up.

After four years of Trump and a Trump movement that has captured almost half the electorate, after our corporatized media system lavished massive amounts of free airtime on candidate Trump in 2015 (CNN, CBS, ABC, etc.) because it was good for network profits, after years of a dysfunctional political system in Washington that serves the rich and giant corporations when not in total gridlock, after the Supreme Court was packed with right-wing judges through legislative double-dealing, after ever-increasing voter suppression targeting people of color and young voters, one would hope for some humility about "U.S. democracy."

Yet liberal media pundits keep propagandizing the public about the USA's right to lecture foreign countries over their political systems, and to severely punish them (leaving aside allies like Colombia, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, of course). Never mind the horrific consequences to civilians overseas when deprived of life-sustaining imports.

These liberal news outlets may despise Trump, but they sure put "America first" when it comes to policing the rest of the world. And they seem intent on instigating new cold wars with Russia and China.

It's indefensible that Putin has imprisoned and nearly killed opposition figure Alexei Navalny, and it's important for the U.S. government to publicly and privately speak out against such behavior. The same goes for China's terrible mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims. But while speaking out with self-awareness and humility about human rights, the U.S. also needs to work collaboratively with Russia on cyber-peace and disarmament (the two nations have 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons) and with China on climate change. Without collaboration, the world is doomed.

The liberal view on the original Cold War with the Soviet Union is that "we won." The progressive view is that everybody lost, especially Global South countries like Vietnam, Iran, Indonesia, Guatemala, and El Salvador that were victimized by U.S. invasions, coups and proxy wars supported by both Democrats and Republicans.

I have a bold idea you won't hear on CNN or MSNBC: Instead of lecturing and sanctioning the rest of the world, let's get our own house in order. Let's lead by example. On democracy, instead of sanctioning other countries, Team Biden should rally Democrats to sanction the U.S. Senate by establishing majority rule through an end to that Jim Crow legacy, the filibuster. And Biden should address the right-wing-packed Supreme Court.

On human rights, let's cut the U.S. military budget in half, and provide things that other advanced countries already have: universal health care and free or near-free higher education. Let's invest billions of dollars in poor and working-class communities, and end the horrors of mass incarceration. Let's cancel student debt that burdens 45 million people and, at long last, seriously tax U.S. oligarchs and corporations to pay for these investments (and perhaps worry less about sanctioning Russian oligarchs).

Joe Biden likes to think of himself as a foreign policy specialist. If he listens to the laptop warriors in the media who want him to "pivot" belligerently toward China and Russia, an adventurist foreign policy will undermine the Democrats' domestic agenda and doom his administration quicker than you can say "LBJ." And Republicans will retake Congress.

Biden can succeed only if he ignores the media hawks and focuses laser-like on domestic policy — galvanizing his party toward a serious FDR-like effort to address human rights and climate change with major federal programs uplifting working-class people of all colors.

The liberal contempt for Martin Luther King's final year

The anniversary of his assassination always brings a flood of tributes to Martin Luther King Jr., and this Sunday will surely be no exception. But those tributes—including from countless organizations calling themselves progressive—are routinely evasive about the anti-militarist ideals that King passionately expressed during the final year of his life.

You could call it evasion by omission.

The standard liberal canon waxes fondly nostalgic about King's "I have a dream" speech in 1963 and his efforts against racial segregation. But in memory lane, the Dr. King who lived his last year is persona non grata.

The pattern is positively Orwellian. King explicitly condemned what he called "the madness of militarism." And by any reasonable standard, that madness can be diagnosed as pervading U.S. foreign policy in 2021. But today, almost all politicians and mainstream media commentators act as though King never said such things, or if he did then those observations have little to do with today.

But they have everything to do with the USA now in its twentieth year of continuous warfare. The Pentagon's constant bombing in the Middle East and elsewhere is the scarcely noticed wallpaper in the U.S. media's echo chamber.

What compounds the madness of militarism in the present day is the silence that stretches eerily and lethally across almost the entire U.S. political spectrum, including the bulk of progressive organizations doing excellent work to challenge economic injustice and institutionalized racism here at home.

But as for the institutionalized militarism that terrorizes, wounds and kills people overseas—overwhelmingly people of color—a sad truth is that most progressive U.S. organizations have little to say about it. At the same time, they eagerly and selectively laud King as a visionary and role model.

King didn't simply oppose the Vietnam War. In an April 4, 1967 speech at New York's Riverside Church delivered exactly a year before he was assassinated—titled "Beyond Vietnam"—he referred to the U.S. government as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" and broadly denounced the racist and imperial underpinnings of U.S. foreign policy. From Vietnam to South Africa to Latin America, King said, our country was on the "wrong side of a world revolution"—suppressing revolutions "of the shirtless and barefoot people" in the Global South, instead of supporting them.

King critiqued the economics of U.S. foreign policy, complaining about "capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries." And he castigated U.S. federal budgets prioritizing militarism: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

Mainstream media today pretend that King's anti-militarism pronouncements were never uttered, but that was not the case in 1967. Condemnation was swift, emphatic and widespread. Life magazine denounced the "Beyond Vietnam" speech as "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi." The New York Times and Washington Post both published harsh and patronizing editorials.

Today, it's not just a problem of elite media—but also a vast spectrum of organizations that are taking a dive in the fight against the warfare state. This problem undermines the political resonance and social mission of countless organizations that do wonderful work but are betraying a crucial part of the living legacy of Dr. King, whom they never tire of claiming to be emulating and venerating.

This crisis is now heightened under the Biden administration. In an ominous echo of the mid-1960s, when King began speaking out against the warfare state, the kind of split between somewhat progressive domestic policies and militaristic foreign policies that occurred under the Lyndon Johnson presidency now appears to be occurring under the presidency of Joe Biden.

In the persistent "guns vs. butter" reckoning, it's clear that federal funds needed to uplift poor and working-class people as well as our planet keep getting diverted to militarism and war.

Dr. King pointed out that, in effect, what goes around comes around. As he put it, "the bombs in Vietnam explode at home." But there is a dire shortage of large progressive organizations willing to say that the bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere have been exploding at home for two decades.

Twenty-first century bombs that have been exploding overseas, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers, also explode at home in terms of the further militarization of the economy, police, culture and consciousness—as well as the misdirection of vital resources to the Pentagon rather than human needs.

"It challenges the imagination to contemplate what lives we could transform if we were to cease killing," Dr. King said as the Vietnam War raged. The massive U.S. military budget still functions the way King described it—"some demonic, destructive suction tube." Yet the silences across so much of the U.S. political spectrum, including the liberal establishment and a great many progressive groups, persist in contempt of what Martin Luther King stood for during the final year of his life.

Jeff Cohen is an activist and author. Cohen was an associate professor of journalism and the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, founder of the media watch group FAIR, and former board member of Progressive Democrats of America. In 2002, he was a producer and pundit at MSNBC (overseen by NBC News). He is the author of "Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media" - and a co-founder of the online action group, www.RootsAction.org. His website is here: http://jeffcohen.org

Norman Solomon is co-founder and national coordinator of RootsAction.org. His books include "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death" (2006) and "Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America's Warfare State" (2007).

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