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Belmont Club

To Dream the Implausible Dream

September 24th, 2012 - 7:13 pm

The problem with pretending to like something when you don’t — no let us put it more strongly — the problem with lying with a straight face is forgetting the last vestiges of your own self respect. Frederick Forsyth’s hero in the Dogs of War describes his inability to adapt to civilian life. The problem was simple. He couldn’t stomach it.

The real problem was being able to stick it out, to sit in an office under the orders of a wee man in a dark gray suit and look out of the window and recall the bush country, the waving palms, the smell of sweat and cordite, the grunts of men hauling the jeeps over the river crossings, the copper-tasting fears just before the attack, and the wild cruel joy of being alive afterward. To remember, and then to go back to the ledgers and the commuter train, that was what was impossible.

All the more reason to admire those who can stomach anything; who can put aside logic and every feeling for self in the performance of the job. Take the New York Times’ account of the second attack on State Department personnel in Benghazi.

The survivors of the assault on the American Mission in Benghazi, Libya, thought they were safe. They had retreated to a villa not far from the main building where the surprise attack had occurred, and a State Department team had arrived to evacuate them. The eruption of violence had ended, and now they were surrounded by friendly Libyan brigades in what seemed to be a dark, uneasy calm.

Then, shortly after 2 a.m. on Sept. 12, just as they were assembling to be taken to the airport, gunfire erupted, followed by the thunderous blasts of falling mortar rounds. Two of the mission’s guards — Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty, former members of the Navy SEALs — were killed just outside the villa’s front gate. A mortar round struck the roof of the building where the Americans had scrambled for cover.

The attackers had lain in wait, silently observing as the rescuers, including eight State Department civilians who had just landed at the airport in Benghazi, arrived in large convoys. This second attack was shorter in duration than the first, but more complex and sophisticated. It was an ambush.

“It was really accurate,” Fathi al-Obeidi, commander of special operations for a militia called Libyan Shield, who was there that night, said of the mortar fire. “The people who were shooting at us knew what they were doing.”

They also escaped, apparently uninjured.

Interviews with Libyan witnesses and American officials provide new details on the assault on American diplomatic facilities and the initial moblike attack, set off by a video denigrating the Prophet Muhammad, that transformed into what the Obama administration now, after initial hesitation, describes as a terrorist attack …

Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said at a Senate hearing on Wednesday that the authorities believe “this was an opportunistic attack” that “evolved and escalated over several hours.”

How do you “evolve” from a mob to a combined arms team in a few hours? How? It takes real professionalism to characterize a coordinated attack with mortars and automatic weapons involving the complex surveillance of a secret facility and the ambush of a convoy from the Benghazi airport as something that grew out of “moblike attack, set off by a video denigrating the Prophet Muhammad” with a straight face. And a great deal of contempt for the readers too. But the NYT is up to the job.

Yet the Gray Lady’s astounding efforts far are surpassed by the truly prodigious Andrew Sullivan who describes what President Obama will do in his second term even before he formally wins it. Obama he says, will be a second, greater but Democratic Ronald Reagan.

he will become the Democrats’ Reagan. The narrative writes itself. He will emerge as an iconic figure who struggled through a recession and a terrorized world, reshaping the economy within it, passing universal health care, strafing the ranks of al-Qaeda, presiding over a civil-rights revolution, and then enjoying the fruits of the recovery …

And unlike Clinton’s constant triangulating improvisation, Obama has been playing a long, strategic game from the very start—a long game that will only truly pay off if he gets eight full years to see it through. That game is not only changing America. It may also bring his opposition, the GOP, back to the center, just as Reagan indelibly moved the Democrats away from the far left.

Sullivan’s paragraphs are destined for greatness.  It leaves one slack-jawed, unable to credit the words on the page. You have to read it twice to make sure you weren’t hallucinating. It may be quoted decades from now as  a truly astonishing sample of what happens when a writer is either a scoundrel or mad — possibly both — involuntarily perhaps, in the corrosive atmosphere marking the end of the post World War 2 cultural elite which we now inhabit. The article is almost provocative in its implausibility. Yet Sullivan does it with a straight face. Maybe not because he believes it himself; but simply because it is time for the new phase.

In the past the media played favorites by shading the percentages, by adjusting and subtly manipulating the imagery to advantage their preferred candidate. This was in recognition of the fact that the American public had some hold on common sense and therefore it was inadvisable to lie to them blatantly. It was necessary to persuade them by fact, albeit shaded. But recent efforts have all the subtlety of a North Korean poster. If so the new style marks a transition from the older form of ‘news’ to straight out barking-mad propaganda.

To write propaganda you are the “wee man in a dark gray suit” hoping you don’t have to leave via the window. In classic propaganda there is no attempt at logical coherence. There is no effort to make cogent argument.  It simply treats the public like cattle or a bunch of Pavlovian dogs; it dins a lie into the audience’s head until they are conditioned by repetition to accept it, even though they don’t even realize why.

Propaganda is generally an appeal to emotion, not intellect …  Propaganda often presents facts selectively (thus possibly lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or uses loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented. The desired result is a change of the attitude toward the subject in the target audience to further a political or religious agenda. Propaganda can be used as a form of political warfare.

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The Democratic Ronald Reagan

Propaganda is often the fanfare of fascism: a loud, brassy flourish of music intended to introduce a Great Man or Event. It does not bode well, nor is it a healthy accompaniment of everyday life. And neither are the puff pieces that have proliferated in the last stages of this campaign. Propaganda is not how discourse between equals is conducted.


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