Without taking sides regarding the wisdom of the war-that debate we can leave to history — the huge rift between Americans and their distant cousins in other countries points to persuasion at work. What persuaded Americans to favor the war? What persuaded most people elsewhere to oppose it? (Tell me where you live and I will guess whether you view the United States more as protector or predator.)
One possible reason is that people tend to identify with their groups and express their groups’ attitudes. Attitudes regarding capital punishment, for example, tend to follow a nation’s practice. The United States allows the death penalty for murder, and three in four of its citizens support this (Jones, 2003). Most other nations do not have a death penalty, and most of their citizens oppose it (readers in Canada, western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and most of South America will nod their heads).
In addition to possible rationalization of “my country’s” actions, attitudes were also being shaped by persuasive messages that led half of Americans to believe that Saddam was directly involved in the 9/11 attacks and four in five to believe that weapons of mass destruction would be found (Duffy, 2003; Gallup, 2003; Newport & others, 2003). Sociologist James Davison Hunter (2002) notes that culture-shaping usually occurs top-down, as cultural elites control the dissemination of information and ideas. Thus, Americans and people elsewhere learned about and watched a different war (della Cava, 2003; Friedman, 2003; Goldsmith, 2003; Krugman 2003; Tomorrow, 2003). Depending on where you lived, you may have witnessed “America’s liberation of Iraq” or “America’s Invasion of Iraq”, “Operation Iraqi Freedom” or “The War in Iraq”, the Iraqi “death squads” or the “Fedayeen” irregulars, headlines such as “Tense Standoff Between Troops and Iraqis Erupts in Bloodshed” (ambiguous passive voice headlines of Los Angeles Times) or “U.S. Troops Fire on Iraqis; 13 Reported Dead” (active voice headline of the same incident by Canada’s CBC), scenes of captured and dead Iraqis or scenes of captured and dead Americans, and brief clips of “the usual protestors” (Fox News, CNN) or features on massive antiwar rallies.
To many Americans, the media of other nations appeared to combine a pervasive anti-American bias with a blindness to the threat posed by Saddam. To many people elsewhere, the “embedded” American war journalists seemed to feel it their patriotic duty to sell the war. Were they, as the German press wondered, going through Gleichschaltung — an ominous word used to describe how the Nazis brought the German media into line (Goldsmith, 2003)?
Even at age twelve I could tell that Jimmy Carter was an honest man trying to address complicated issues and Ronald Reagan was a brilcreemed salesman telling people what they wanted to hear. I secretly wept on the stairs the night he was elected President, because I understood that the kind of shitheads I had to listen to in the cafeteria grew up to become voters, and won. I spent the eight years he was in office living in one of those science-fiction movies where everyone is taken over by aliens—I was appalled by how stupid and mean-spirited and repulsive the world was becoming while everyone else in America seemed to agree that things were finally exactly as they should be. The Washington Press corps was so enamored of his down-to-earth charm that they never checked his facts, but if you watched his face when it was at rest, when he wasn’t performing for anyone, you could see him for what he really was—a black-eyed, slit-mouthed, lizard-faced old son-of-a-bitch. He was a bad actor, an informer for McCarthy, and a hired front man for a gang of Texas oilmen, fundamentalist dingbats, and right-wing psychotics out of Dr. Strangelove. He put a genial face on chauvanism, callousness, and greed, and made people feel good about being bigots again. He likened Central American death squads to our founding fathers and called the Taliban “freedom fighters.” His legacy includes the dismantling of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the final dirty win of Management over Labor, the outsourcing of America’s manufacturing base, the embezzlement of almost all the country’s wealth by 1% of its citizens, the scapegoating of the poor and black, the War on Drugs, the eviction of schizophrenics into the streets, AIDS, acid rain, Iran-Contra, and, let’s not forget, the corpses of two hundred forty United States Marines. He moved the center of political discourse in this country to somewhere in between Richard Nixon and Augusto Pinochet. He believed in astrology and Armageddon and didn’t know the difference between history and movies; his stories were lies and his jokes were scripted. He was the triumph of image over truth, paving the way for even more vapid spokesmodels like George W. Bush. He was, as everyone agrees, exactly what he appeared to be—nothing. He made me ashamed to be an American. If there was any justice in this world his Presidential Library would contain nothing but boys’ adventure books and bad cowboy movies, and the only things named after him would be shopping malls and Potter’s Fields. Let the earth where he is buried be seeded with salt.