Volume 38, Number 2: March/April 2004

Making Sense of the News in 2004

Each 24 hours the news cycle groans these days with an overload of content. The stories laid out daily alternate between themes of menace and hope, import and emptiness, meaning and futility.

As I look out at the world from this midnight hour between Friday the 13th and Valentines Day 2004, I see shades of a return to the Summer of Love in San Francisco. The urban nesting ground of both Haight Ashbury hippiedom and NASDAQ’s Silicon Valley has become ground zero in the newest clash of the Culture Wars. The lovers’ offensive came with a series of marriage ceremonies performed by San Fran’s Mayor, Gavin Newsom. First in line to be hitched were Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, a lesbian couple whose partnership goes back 51 years. They exchanged their vows amidst a tear fest of joy and gay liberation. The explosion of the Same Sex Marriage Debate into the drama of this U.S. election year occurred just as General Wesley Clark gave up his own presidential aspirations to join the growing entourage around Senator John Kerry.

U.S. Elections: Fight for the Dem Nomination

The experience of Ralph Nader, who now threatens to repeat his role in 2004 as the Democratic Party’s spoiler, cast a long shadow over the crash and burn debacle of Howard Dean. Dean was caught in the jet stream of Kerry’s high-octane quest to take control of the White House. Rick Salutin penned an important column on the Dean campaign in The Globe and Mail. It discussed the role of the commercial media in ushering Dean from the mainstream to the margins of American politics. Dean’s real crime, argues Salutin, was that he spoke too clearly and forthrightly about the gross political opportunism of Bush’s recycled Cold Warriors in exploiting their own weird geopolitical concoction, the so-called War on Terror.

BBC Victimization

The commercial media began to gear down from their around-the- clock coverage of Iraq’s occupation. However, the controversy over the disinformation of the Bush and Blair regimes on WMD–weapons of mass destruction–continued to build. The first victim, strangely, was the British Broadcasting Corporation, arguably the world’s most important media venue. The BBC took the lead in efforts to alert us that there were huge exaggerations in the claims emanating from Number 10 Downing Street and Washington that Saddam Hussein was armed to the teeth with chemical, biological, and even nuclear weapons. After Lord Hutton’s dubious investigation, however, it was BBC rather than Bush and Blair officials who began resigning.

Moving behind it all I saw the phantom of News Corporation’s Rupert Murdoch. As one of the most instrumental behind-the-scenes promoters of both Bush and Blair, men who share Murdoch’s devotion to a particularly self-righteous brand of Christian fundamentalism, Australia’s gift to commercialized news delivery may well be playing a promotional role in this war much like that formerly performed by William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was the media baron and propagandist who manufactured the political environment that made possible the Spanish-American War of 1898. One can easily imagine the covetous glint in the Australian businessman’s eye as he watched the world’s most important public broadcaster implode and pull back, leaving wider frontiers available for the commercialized war mongering epitomized by Murdoch’s Fox News.

Michael Jackson and Saddam Hussein

Janet Jackson and Jason Timberlake definitely sexed up the Superbowl–America’s capitalist equivalent to the May Day rituals of the Soviet Union. The episode was enough to displace, briefly, Janet’s brother Michael from the headlines. Michael Jackson’s trial and that of Saddam Hussein both promise to break new ground as political and legal spectacles.

In a way the two men have much in common. Michael Jackson’s childhood was devoured by his early induction as a labourer in the American dream machine of show business. Similarly, Saddam Hussein was inducted as a young man into another aspect of the American Empire. He was made to serve the perceived needs of U.S. policy in the Middle East, first as a strong man who would oppose communism and then as a ruthless enemy of Iran’s expansionistic Shiite revolution.

The early experiences of both individiuals as servants of American cultural and military power entrenched patterns of deformity in their personalities that culminated in sagas of remarkable excess. Even if it turns out that the Thriller is indeed a pedophile, however, I find something ironically compelling in Jackson’s own self-declared advocacy of children’s rights. As we look through the news media at the faces of the entertainer and the deposed dictator, what comes back are reflections of key aspects of our own society that are painful to contemplate even as they are also crucial to understand.

Liberal Party in Trouble?

In Canada, Auditor-General Sheila Fraser, has carved out a unique role for herself as a kind of hybrid of the Church Lady and Mother Theresa. Her report on the web of patronage and financial misappropriations linking a number of Quebec ad agencies, the RCMP, several Crown corporations and the Liberal government of Canada ignited a firestorm that seemingly altered the political landscape of the country.

In question period veteran NDP parliamentarian, Bill Blaikie, got off one of the most creative shots at the fledgling Prime Minister. Instead of joining the who-knew-what-when chorus of the other opposition parties, Blaikie used the scandal to call attention to the Paul Martin Liberals’ decision to join with the Bush regime in instituting a scheme of so-called missile defense. Responding to Martin’s dubious claims that Canada could take part in the initiative without becoming an active participant in Star Wars, the Bush regime’s push to “weaponize” space, Blaikie was suitably sceptical. He wondered if someday there would be a public inquiry called by the Liberals to investigate how it was that the Canadian government had joined America’s Star Wars initiative without anyone in control admitting to any knowledge of how this could have happened. It was a good introduction to one of the key NDP positions in the great Canadian election of 2004.

The 2004 Olympics

All of these stories will continue to unfold in this year of momentous decisions for the future of our country, the United States, and the planet. One of the big events that I see on the horizon of world history is the Athens Summer Olympic Games. It will take place between August 13 and 29. The return of the Olmpics to their Greek home is bound to be an emotionally charged event drenched in evocative symbolism. As I see it, the Olmpics as conceived by the Games’ Greek founders represented a wonderful celebration of some of the finest qualities of the human spirit. The beauty of that idea, however, has been appropriated and demeaned by the Olympics’ sponsors in order to transform a giant sports competition into a wall-to-wall advertisement for corporate capitalism. The prospect of seeing the branding by McDonald’s and Coke of the Parthanon, one of Western civilization’s most cherished and evocative symbols, is truly depressing.

The return of the Olmpics to Athens, one of the acknowledged seed beds of the idea and exercise of democracy, is full of global significance in 2004. How is the democratic ideal faring, as the United Nations is rendered subordinate to the unilateralism of the military-industrial complex centred in the United States? How will the Greeks themselves respond to the return of the Games to their country, one of the most contested jurisdictions in the Cold War where the United States intervened repeatedly to prop up rightwing client regimes against left-wing contenders?

The appropriation of the Aboriginal culture of the Greeks by one group of imperialists after another is symbolized by the transfer of the Elgin Marbles to the British Museum in London. The Elgin Marbles were “purchased” by Britain’s Lord Elgin from representatives of the Ottoman Empire when it governed Greece during the early years of the nineteenth century. The Elgin Marbles were stripped from the most prominent features of the Parthanon, a structure originally built as part of a religious shrine to honour the goddess Athena. The appropriation of the Athen’s greatest treasures to serve the imperial prestige of the British Empire foreshadowed the fate of many Indigenous peoples right up to the present day. Their lands, their lives and their cultures continue to be colonized to advance the expansionary agendas of a worldwide empire whose agents have transformed events like the Superbowl and the Olympic Games onto celebrations of the Manifest Destiny of global capitalism. The industrial and ideological core of this worldwide system of power is the military-industrial complex of the United States.

In order to reverse this ongoing cycle of colonial rule, which runs back into history at least as far as the military imperialism of Alexander the Great, it will take much more than a few promises in a Canadian Throne Speech. It will take transnational coalition building on a scale that carries forward the legacy of February 15, 2003. That was the day when over 10 million citizens of the planet took to the streets in common cause. It will take the imaginative elaboration of an inclusive Fourth World, a realm of biocultural diversity that offers humanity a rich array of alternatives to the narrow monoculturalism promoted as the end of history by agents of the dimming American empire of private property.

Tony Hall is Founding Coordinator of Globalization Studies at the University of Lethbridge. His recent book, The American Empire and the Fourth World is published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.