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<nettime> Welcome to America, Where We Fight for the Freedom to Visit Di
Michael Gurstein on Wed, 4 Nov 2015 03:09:14 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Welcome to America, Where We Fight for the Freedom to Visit Disney World

< http://www.thenation.com/article/welcome-to-america-where-we-fight-for-the-freedom-to-visit-disney-world/ >

     Welcome to America, Where We Fight for the Freedom to Visit
     Disney World

     That's why we went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, right?

     By Tom Engelhardt

     OCTOBER 29, 2015

     You may not know it, but you're living in a futuristic
     science-fiction novel. And that's a fact. If you were to read
     about our American world in such a novel, you would be amazed by
     its strangeness. Since you exist right smack in the middle of it,
     it seems like normal life (Donald Trump and Ben Carson aside).
     But make no bones about it, so far this has been a bizarre
     American century.

     Let me start with one of the odder moments we've lived through
     and give it the attention it's always deserved. If you follow my
     train of thought and the history it leads us into, I guarantee
     you that you'll end up back exactly where we are -- in the midst of
     the strangest presidential campaign in our history.

     To get a full-frontal sense of what that means, however, let's
     return to late September 2001. I'm sure you remember that moment,
     just over two weeks after those World Trade Center towers came
     down and part of the Pentagon was destroyed, leaving a jangled
     secretary of defense instructing his aides, "Go massive. Sweep it
     all up. Things related and not."

     I couldn't resist sticking in that classic Donald Rumsfeld line,
     but I leave it to others to deal with Saddam Hussein, those
     fictional weapons of mass destruction, the invasion of Iraq, and
     everything that's happened since, including the establishment of
     a terror "caliphate" by a crew of Islamic extremists brought
     together in American military prison camps -- all of which you
     wouldn't believe if it were part of a sci-fi novel. The damn
     thing would make Planet of the Apes look like outright realism.

     Instead, try to recall the screaming headlines that labeled the
     9/11 attacks "the Pearl Harbor of the 21st century" or "a new Day
     of Infamy," and the attackers "the kamikazes of the 21st
     century." Remember the moment when President George W. Bush,
     bullhorn in hand, stepped onto the rubble at "Ground Zero" in New
     York, draped his arm around a fireman, and swore payback in the
     name of the American people, as members of an impromptu crowd
     shouted out things like "Go get 'em, George!"

     "I can hear you! I can hear you!" he responded. "The rest of the
     world hears you! And the people -- and the people who knocked these
     buildings down will hear all of us soon!"

     "USA! USA! USA!" chanted the crowd.

     Then, on September 20, addressing Congress, Bush added,
     "Americans have known wars, but for the past 136 years they have
     been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941." By
     then, he was already talking about "our war on terror."

     Now, hop ahead to that long-forgotten moment when he would
     finally reveal just how a 21st-century American president should
     rally and mobilize the American people in the name of the
     ultimate in collective danger. As CNN put it at the time,
     "President Bush...urged Americans to travel, spend, and enjoy
     life." His actual words were:

          > "And one of the great goals of this nation's war is to restore
          > public confidence in the airline industry and to tell the
          > traveling public, get on board, do your business around the
          > country, fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. Go
          > down to Disney World in Florida, take your families and enjoy
          > life the way we want it to be enjoyed."

     So we went to war in Afghanistan and later Iraq to rebuild faith
     in flying. Though that got little attention at the time, tell me
     it isn't a detail out of some sci-fi novel. Or put another way,
     as far as the Bush administration was then concerned, Rosie the
     Riveter was moldering in her grave and the model American for
     mobilizing a democratic nation in time of war was Rosie the
     Frequent Flyer. It turned out not to be winter in Valley Forge,
     but eternal summer in Orlando. From then on, as the Bush
     administration planned its version of revenge cum global
     domination, the message it sent to the citizenry was: Go about
     your business and leave the dirty work to us.

     Disney World opened in 1971, but for a moment imagine that it had
     been in existence in 1863 and that, more than seven score years
     ago, facing a country in the midst of a terrible civil war,
     Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg had said this:

          > "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task
          > remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take
          > increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last
          > full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these
          > dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God,
          > shall have a new birth of freedom at Disney World -- and that
          > government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall
          > not perish for lack of vacations in Florida."

     Or imagine that, in response to that "day of infamy," the Pearl
     Harbor of the twentieth century, Franklin Roosevelt had gone
     before Congress and, in an address to the nation, had said:

          > "Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our
          > people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.
          > With confidence in our airlines, with the unbounding
          > determination of our people to visit Disney World, we will gain
          > the inevitable triumph -- so help us God."

     If those are absurdities, then so is 21st-century America. By
     late September 2001, though no one would have put it that way,
     the demobilization of the American people had become a crucial
     aspect of Washington's way of life. The thought that Americans
     might be called upon to sacrifice in any way in a time of peril
     had gone with the wind. Any newly minted version of the classic
     "don't tread on me" flag of the revolutionary war era would have
     had to read: "Don't bother them."


     The desire to take the American public out of the "of the people,
     by the people, for the people" business can minimally be traced
     back to the Vietnam War, to the moment when a citizen's army
     began voting with its feet and antiwar sentiment grew to
     startling proportions not just on the home front, but inside a
     military in the field. It was then that the high command began to
     fear the actual disintegration of the US Army.

     Not surprisingly, there was a deep desire never to repeat such an
     experience. (No more Vietnams! No more antiwar movements!) As a
     result, on January 27, 1973, with a stroke of the pen, President
     Richard Nixon abolished the draft, and so the citizen's army.
     With it went the sense that Americans had an obligation to serve
     their country in time of war (and peace).

     From that moment on, the urge to demobilize the American people
     and send them to Disney World would only grow. First, they were
     to be removed from all imaginable aspects of war making. Later,
     the same principle would be applied to the processes of
     government and to democracy itself. In this context, for
     instance, you could write a history of the monstrous growth of
     secrecy and surveillance as twin deities of the American state:
     the urge to keep ever more information from the citizenry and to
     see ever more of what those citizens were doing in their own
     private time. Both should be considered demobilizing trends.

     This twin process certainly has a long history in the US, as any
     biography of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover would indicate.
     Still, the expansion of secrecy and surveillance in this century
     has been a stunning development, as ever-larger parts of the
     national-security state and the military (especially its
     70,000-strong Special Operations forces) fell into the shadows.
     In these years, American "safety" and "security" were redefined
     in terms of a citizen's need not to know. Only bathed in
     ignorance, were we safest from the danger that mattered most
     (Islamic terrorism -- a threat of microscopic proportions in the
     continental United States).

     As the American people were demobilized from war and left, in the
     post-9/11 era, with the single duty of eternally thanking and
     praising our "warriors" (or our "wounded warriors"), war itself
     was being transformed into a new kind of American entertainment
     spectacle. In the 1980s, in response to the Vietnam experience,
     the Pentagon began to take responsibility not just for making war
     but for producing it. Initially, in the invasions of Grenada and
     Panama, this largely meant sidelining the media, which many US
     commanders still blamed for defeat in Vietnam.

     By the first Gulf War of 1991, however, the Pentagon was prepared
     to produce a weeks-long televised extravaganza, which would enter
     the living rooms of increasingly demobilized Americans as a
     riveting show. It would have its own snazzy graphics, logos,
     background music, and special effects (including nose-cone shots
     of targets obliterated). In addition, retired military men were
     brought in to do Monday Night Football-style play-by-play and
     color commentary on the fighting in progress. In this new version
     of war, there were to be no rebellious troops, no body bags, no
     body counts, no rogue reporters, and above all no antiwar
     movement. In other words, the Gulf War was to be the
     anti-Vietnam. And it seemed to work... briefly.

     Unfortunately for the first Bush administration, Saddam Hussein
     remained in power in Baghdad, the carefully staged postwar
     "victory" parades faded fast, the major networks lost ad money on
     the Pentagon's show, and the ratings for war as entertainment
     sank. More than a decade later, the second Bush administration,
     again eager not to repeat Vietnam and intent on sidelining the
     American public while it invaded and occupied Iraq, did it all
     over again.

     This time, the Pentagon sent reporters to "boot camp," "embedded"
     them with advancing units, built a quarter-million-dollar
     movie-style set for planned briefings in Doha, Qatar, and
     launched its invasion with "decapitation strikes" over Baghdad
     that lit the televised skies of the Iraqi capital an eerie green
     on TVs across America. This spectacle of war, American-style,
     turned out to have a distinctly Disney-esque aura to it.
     (Typically, however, those strikes produced scores of dead
     Iraqis, but managed to "decapitate" not a single targeted Iraqi
     leader from Saddam Hussein on down.) That spectacle, replete with
     the usual music, logos, special effects, and those retired
     generals cum commentators -- this time even more tightly organized
     by the Pentagon -- turned out again to have a remarkably brief


     War as the first demobilizing spectacle of our era is now largely
     forgotten because, as entertainment, it was reliant on ratings,
     and in the end, it lost the battle for viewers. As a result,
     America's wars became ever more an activity to be conducted in
     the shadows beyond the view of most Americans.

     If war was the first experimental subject for the demobilizing
     spectacle, democracy and elections turned out to be remarkably
     ripe for the plucking as well. As a result, we now have the
     never-ending presidential campaign season. In the past, elections
     did not necessarily lack either drama or spectacle. In the 19th
     century, for instance, there were campaign torchlight parades,
     but those were always spectacles of mobilization. No longer. Our
     new 1 percent elections call for something different.

     It's no secret that our presidential campaigns have morphed into
     a "billionaire's playground," even as the right to vote has
     become more constrained. These days, it could be said that the
     only group of citizens that automatically mobilizes for such
     events is "the billionaire class" (as Bernie Sanders calls it).
     Increasingly, many of the rest of us catch the now year-round
     spectacle demobilized in our living rooms, watching journalists
     play... gasp!... journalists on TV and give American democracy that
     good old Gotcha!

     In 2001, George W. Bush wanted to send us all to Disney World (on
     our own dollar, of course). In 2015, Disney World is increasingly
     coming directly to us.

     After all, at the center of election 2016 is Donald Trump. For a
     historical equivalent, you would have to imagine P.T. Barnum, who
     could sell any "curiosity" to the American public, running for
     president. (In fact, he did serve two terms in the Connecticut
     legislature and was, improbably enough, the mayor of Bridgeport.)
     Meanwhile, the TV "debates" that Trump and the rest of the
     candidates are now taking part in months before the first primary
     have left the League of Women Voters and the Commission on
     Presidential Debates in the dust. These are the ratings-driven
     equivalent of food fights encased in ads, with the "questions"
     clearly based on what will glue eyeballs.

     Here, for instance, was CNN host Jake Tapper's first question of
     the second Republican debate: "Mrs. Fiorina, I want to start with
     you. Fellow Republican candidate, and Louisiana Governor Bobby
     Jindal, has suggested that your party's front-runner, Mr. Donald
     Trump, would be dangerous as president. He said he wouldn't want,
     quote, 'such a hot head with his finger on the nuclear codes.'
     You, as well, have raised concerns about Mr. Trump's temperament.
     You've dismissed him as an entertainer. Would you feel
     comfortable with Donald Trump's finger on the nuclear codes?"

     And the event only went downhill from there as responses ranged
     from non-answers to (no kidding!) a discussion of the looks of
     the candidates, and yet the event proved such a ratings smash
     that its 23 million viewers were compared favorably to viewership
     of National Football League games.

     In sum, a citizen's duty, whether in time of war or elections, is
     now, at best, to watch the show, or at worst, to see nothing at

     This reality has been highlighted by the whistle-blowers of this
     generation, including Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and John
     Kiriakou. Whenever they have revealed something of what our
     government is doing beyond our sight, they have been prosecuted
     with a fierceness unique in our history and for a simple enough
     reason. Those who watch us believe themselves exempt from being
     watched by us. That's their definition of "democracy." When
     "spies" appear in their midst, even if those whistleblowers are
     "spies" for us, they are horrified at a visceral level and
     promptly haul out the World War I-era Espionage Act. They now
     expect a demobilized response to whatever they do and when
     anything else is forthcoming, they strike back in outrage.

      A LARGELY DEMOBILIZED LAND A report on a demobilized America
      shouldn't end without some mention of at least one
      counter-impulse. All systems assumedly have their opposites
      lurking somewhere inside them, which brings us to Bernie
      Sanders. He's the figure who doesn't seem to compute in this
      story so far.

     All you had to do was watch the first Democratic debate to sense
     what an anomaly he is, or you could have noted that, until almost
     the moment he went on stage that night, few involved in the
     election 2016 media spectacle had the time of day for him. And
     stranger yet, that lack of attention in the mainstream proved no
     impediment to the expansion of his campaign and his supporters,
     who, via social media and in person in the form of gigantic
     crowds, seem to exist in some parallel universe.

     In this election cycle, Sanders alone uses the words "mobilize"
     and "mobilization" regularly, while calling for a "political
     revolution." ("We need to mobilize tens of millions of people to
     begin to stand up and fight back and to reclaim the government,
     which is now owned by big money.") And there is no question that
     he has indeed mobilized significant numbers of young people, many
     of whom are undoubtedly unplugged from the TV set, even if glued
     to other screens, and so may hardly be noticing the mainstream
     spectacle at all.

     Whether the Sanders phenomenon represents our past or our future,
     his age or the age of his followers, is impossible to know. We
     do, of course, have one recent example of a mobilization in an
     election season. In the 2008 election, the charismatic Barack
     Obama created a youthful, grassroots movement, a kind of cult of
     personality that helped sweep him to victory, only to demobilize
     it as soon as he entered the Oval Office. Sanders himself puts
     little emphasis on personality or a cult of the same and
     undoubtedly represents something different, though what exactly
     remains open to question.

     In the meantime, the national-security state's power is largely
     uncontested; the airlines still fly; Disney World continues to be
     a destination of choice; and the United States remains a largely
     demobilized land.

          TOM ENGELHARDT Tom Engelhardt created and runs the Tomdispatch.com
          website, a project of The Nation Institute of which he is a Fellow.

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