The Virginia Tech shooting at the hands of Cho Seung-Hui should have sparked more discussion among Americans about gun control and death and violence fascination than it did. Members of the two major political parties, as well as pundits from across the political spectrum, ducked the issue. California Senator Diane Feinstein did note the obvious: “Shootings like these are enabled by the unparalleled ease with which people procure weapons in this country.” But her observation was a lone ripple across the otherwise placid surface of elite opinion. Not even Bush’s inane comment at the Virginia Tech memorial service drew a comment from the talking heads. “It’s impossible to make sense of such violence and suffering,” the Texan said. “They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
But those who died at the hands of Cho Seung-Hui were in the right place at the right time. They were in college classrooms learning—rooms that should be safe from the violence that tragically marks the United States as unique among nations of similar political-economic character. This phrase—“wrong place at the wrong time”—is a brainless and heartless copout. So is the construct “senseless violence.” It is possible to make sense of such violence and suffering; we find that sense in America’s pervasive culture of violence, its fascination with warriors and the instruments of warfare, and its easy access to firearms. To say something is senseless is to say you cannot do anything about it.
Yet the public, despite supporting rational gun control policy in surveys of their opinions, is paralyzed by the assumption that the politicians can do very little about the problem of gun violence in the United States. The gun lobby has convinced Americans that the Second Amendment guarantees individuals the right to own and carry firearms. So standard is this view that the mayor of New York, without fear of contradiction, could say the following: “This tragedy does not alter the Second Amendment.” Rudy Giuliani continued: “People have the right to keep and bear arms, and the Constitution says this right will not be infringed.”
But this belief is mistaken for a very basic reason: the text of the Second Amendment does not guarantee individual citizens the right to possess firearms. Unclouded by ideology, the text and history of the Second Amendment tell a different story.
“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” The first clause of the amendment speaks to intent: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State.” It’s not a throw-away clause, no matter how much the National Rifle Association pretends otherwise. Ownership occurs in the context of a well regulated militia, an entity deemed necessary for the security of a free state. The people—a collective entity—refers to members of the militia.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “the Second Amendment does not confer an unlimited right upon individuals to own guns or other weapons nor does it prohibit reasonable regulation of gun ownership, such as licensing and registration.” The ACLU’s judgment follows the sound judgment of courts and constitution:
In the 1939 case US v. Miller, the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous ruling that the second amendment must be interpreted as intending to guarantee the states’ rights to maintain and regulate a militia. “In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a shotgun having a barrel of less than 18 inches in length at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument.”
A 1976 Sixth Circuit Court ruling states: “Since the Second Amendment…applies only to the right of the State to maintain a militia and not to the individual’s right to bear arms, there can be no serious claim to any express constitutional right to possess a firearm.”
In 1983, the Supreme Court let stand a Seventh Circuit Court decision upholding an ordinance in Morton Grove, Illinois that banned possession of handguns within its borders (Quilici v. Morton Grove).
The Second Amendment roots in the text of the US Constitution: Article I Section 8 of the Constitution grants Congress the authority “for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.” In this capacity, the Congress is responsible “for organizing, arming, and disciplining the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.” Article I, section 8 gives Congress the authority to regulate the militia identified in the second amendment.
According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, most Americans are in favor of stricter gun control. Two-thirds of adults surveyed said the laws regulating the sale of handguns should be tighter. Only five percent said the laws should be looser. Three-quarters of Democrats support stricter handgun laws, about half of Republicans feel this way, and 60 percent of independents agree. A large minority in the poll (32 percent of those surveyed) say they support a handgun ban (with the exception of handguns for law enforcement officers). That number could grow with more education about gun violence. Also promising is the finding that a slender majority (54 percent) believe that stricter gun control laws and enforcement would have had some effect on the killings at Virginia Tech.
Given the consensus of legal professionals concerning the second amendment, public opinion polls showing Americans in support stricter gun sale laws, and five dead Amish schoolchildren in Nickel Mines, fourteen dead high school students at Columbine, and now 33 dead college students in Blacksburg, why are politicians ducking the question? Why would they ignore the courts, public sentiment, and death and destruction?
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, pro-gun lobbyists outspent gun control proponents 166:1 for Republicans and 3:1 for Democrats. The gun lobby pours so much money into the politicians’ trough that, although only 27 percent of the public believe that private citizens should carry guns, states are passing legislation permitting carrying of concealed weapons. And, while more than 70 percent of the public believe guns possessed by school officials in school would make schools more dangerous, gun proponents are calling for arming school officials.
Shockingly, 26 percent of those surveyed said that allowing adults to carry concealed weapons would have helped in the situation. This percentage reflects the intensity of gun fanaticism, which, although representing only around one-quarter of the public in the poll, nonetheless indicates the existence of a committed block of voters. These are the fanatics flooding switch boards and Internet forums with the pro-gun slogans. A loud minority can sometimes mislead the public.
To make America safer, we must do the hard work of reversing the corrosive effects of the culture of militarization and violence. We can begin this work by bringing our soldiers home from Iraq and drawing down our armed forces. We must strive to build more supportive social networks. The state must stop its example of using violence as a solution to conflict. And we must pass and enforce strict gun laws.
Tightening enforcement of already existing federal gun laws could have prevented the tragedy at Virginia Tech. Enforcement could have stopped Cho Seung-Hui, an obviously disturbed young man, from purchasing the guns he used to kill 32 people and himself. But Virginia’s interpretation of what constitutes mental illness is too narrow to prevent sick individuals like Cho from legally getting their hands on firearms.
In the final analysis, although the state of Virginia failed to protect its citizens from a deranged gunman, the people and their representatives have failed to address the culture that deranges the minds of young men. Does this excuse what Cho did? No. Individuals are responsible for their actions. But stating the obvious will not reduce the risk of future mass murders.
I recently returned from Jordan, where, at the invitation of Jordanian political sociologist Ibtesam Al-Atiyat and the United Nations University, with whom Ibtesam is a program officer, I participated in the program, Youth Leadership, the Politicization of Religion, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East, held in Amman and sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and United Nations University International Leadership Institute (UNU/ILI). There, I lectured on the subject of Christian neo-fundamentalism and US foreign policy, chaired a panel on resistance and terrorism, and worked with young people from around the world to develop declarations regarding the hopes of democratization and the problems of politicization of religion I did other things in Jordan, as well, including shopping in downtown Amman and spending a day in the ancient city of Petra among the Bedouin and tourists. I made many friends during my travels and developed a love for a country about which I knew very little before traveling there (aside from research in preparation for the trip, which I have since learned is always inadequate).
My lecture, titled “Christian Neo-fundamentalism, Democracy Promotion, and US Foreign Policy” [based on an article I published with Political Research Associates, “Faith Matters: George Bush and Providence” — but delivered in much less polemical tones to the UNU/ILI], was well received, generating discussion throughout the week-long program. The thesis of my talk was provocative: Assuming that a significant change in foreign policy direction in a democracy requires some degree of popular support, the facts of economic imperative (principally, the need for cheap fossil fuels to power industry) and dedicated hardline Zionists (US neoconservatives and the Israel Lobby) shaping and influencing US foreign policy are insufficient for understanding the direction of US imperialism over the past forty years. What an account of this period requires is a grasp of how the Republican Party, neoconservatives, and rightwing Jewish nationalists have joined with influential conservative Christian leaders to fashion an ideology — Christian Zionism — that has secured the support of tens of millions of Americans for an expansion of the US Empire. This development represents a historic shift from antisemitic fundamentalist Christian culture to pro-Zionist neofundamentalist Christian politics.
To militate against the pessimism that such a thesis might engender, I emphasized throughout the program that not all Christians locate themselves on the political right. Tens of millions of Christians are moderate, liberal, and even socialist. In addition, not all “born again” Christians are Republicans or rightwing Zionists. Black Americans who identify themselves as “born again” are in overwhelming numbers registered Democrats. I relayed to the audience that Jimmy Carter’s recent book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, represents the views of some (albeit a minority of) evangelical Christians, and that with committed and organized efforts progressive forces may recapture the moral discourse and push the United States towards a rational foreign policy. The problem is not Christianity per se, I argued, but rather the power and influence of neo-fundamentalist Christians, their views embraced and pushed by the Republican Party and the current regime in Washington. The religious problem in America stems from extremist politicizations of Christianity, paralleling the struggle over religion occurring in the Islamic world between Muslims and Islamists, the latter representing extremist politicizations of Islam.
My lecture was part of the opening session, “The Politicization of Religions and the Middle East.” I shared the stage with some weighty figures, most notably His Excellency Dr. Abdel Salam Majali, current Minister of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs and former Prime Minister. Majali was one of the principal negotiators in the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty. Also on stage was Dr. Amr El Choubaki, of the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, and Dr. Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I had asked Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein beforehand to tell me what Avineri’s politics were because I was an admirer of his scholarship on Hegel and Marx, which has been published many year earlier, but knew little of his politics. Both Chomsky and Finkelstein told me he was dug in on the question of Palestine and the occupation.
I kept an open mind. One of Avineri’s books, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, has, more than any other work on Marx, influenced my understanding of historical materialism. However, Avineri’s lecture disappointed me. Given the title of the session and the issue I raised concerning Christian Zionism’s close association with the philosophy of Jewish Restorationism — the ideology justifying a larger Israel that animates such rightwing parties as the Likud — I had expected to draw some response from him. Not only did he neglect to engage the question of the politicization of Judaism in Zionism, but he continually stressed that Zionism was more or less a purely political ideology and movement. The relatively atheistic character of Zionism may have been true decades ago (at least a strain of it), say when a young Noam Chomsky was in the movement, but this is no longer the case. Avineri’s only remark concerning religion — beyond his standard position that religion is not inherently anti-democratic, a point on which we agree — was that Christian Zionism is one of the reasons Jews have a problem with Christians. Obviously, he wasn’t speaking for all Jews.
Later, Avineri took issue with my observation that the major US media and mainstream politicians are rarely critical of Israel and that critics of Israel in America are routinely dismissed as “anti-Semitic,” two what I regarded as rather obvious facts of which Avineri, who closely follows the US media, must certainly have been aware. Indeed, criticism of Israel approaches levels of zero in mainstream American political discourse. (Just ask President Carter what happens when you try to criticize Israel.) Avineri promised publicly that a deeper criticism of my views awaited me in private; however, this confrontation never occurred, even though Avineri and I dined together that evening (we had a wonderful time). I felt let down a little because I so admire Avineri. However, his chauvinism notwithstanding, my respect for Avineri as a scholar of Hegel and Marx remains unshaken, and I found him to be extremely knowledgeable on the affairs and history of the Middle East, a subject which I admit I am not an expert. He is a warm, personally decent, and humorous individual. It was truly an honor to have spent time with such an outstanding scholar and unique person.
The next morning, I chaired the session “Resistance, Terrorism, and State Building: Islamists in Conflict Areas and Countries in Transition,” featuring Dr. Nadir Said, a sociology professor at Birzeit University in Palestine who spoke about the conditions of Palestinians, and Evans Wafula, a journalist writing for African Week Magazine, who spoke on the subject of the Islamic Courts of Somalia. Dr. Said came armed with slides concerning the empirical situation of the Palestinians which, because of the short time given, he unloaded in rapid fire succession, having to skip over several. Nonetheless, he managed to paint a depressingly detailed portrait of the Palestinian situation. Mr. Wafula argued that the reason so many Somalis were supportive of the Islamic courts was because they brought order out of the chaos that had reigned since the devolution of Somali society into a loose network of warlords. However, the Islamic courts, once having established jurisdiction over the legal system, began a political conquest of Somalia. Therein resides the problem. Both presentations were excellent.
The session became contentious when a young Israeli man offered neither a question nor his opinion but instead gave the official Israeli position on the so-called security fence. For those who don’t know the facts, the government of Israel is building a wall through Palestine which Israeli propagandists describe as a temporary “security fence.” The Israeli government claims that fences reduce the number of suicide attacks. The structure, or more accurately a system of structures, is in fact a very high and very permanent wall that separates families from families and individuals from the services they desperately need for survival. Furthermore, the structure does not reduce suicide attacks. Dr. Said argued that only one thing will reduce the incidence of suicide attacks — ending the occupation. This observation is not meant to justify suicide bombings, he stressed, which every reasonable person agrees are a tragedy for victim and perpetrator, but rather to explain them.
The situation of the Palestinians was brought home to me just before I left for Jordan when a student of mine, who had a short time earlier spent two weeks in Palestine, showed me pictures of the wall and described to me the daily existence of the people surrounded by these walls. His experience in Palestine radically changed his perspective on the conflict. With these images and stories fresh in my mind, and with the new ones Said had just given me, I momentarily forgot my moderator duties — the antagonism of the young Israeli man continued, rebutting Said and provoking one of the assistants in the conference, a young British-Palestinian woman, to avail herself of the microphone she was holding to tear into him, speaking so eloquently about the condition of Palestine that I hesitated before interrupting her so that Said could answer the question. Said expressed disappointment in the fact that, rather than sending an independent thinker to participate in the session, Israel had sent an official spokesperson. (Many suspected he was from IDF).
Then, when Said stated that the Israelis never intended to make peace with the Palestinians, Avineri walked out of the session, shaking his head. This protest disturbed many of the western students. Afterwards, Dr. Avineri wanted to make sure I understood that he had not walked out of the session to go to the bathroom, but that he could not stand to once more hear a Palestinian talk about the conflict. I assured him that not a person in the room had misunderstood his actions. He told me how beautiful are the structures of Jerusalem at sunset. A rose color, he said. I tried to comfort the students at the break, but it took a clarification during the following morning student session — with Al-Atiyat announcing that the broad discussion of democracy and the politicization of religion intended by the programmers should not dissolve into a debate about the fate of Palestine — before the tension subsided.
However, the fate of Palestine being the major point of discussion among Arabs, who see Israel as an extension of European colonization, the critics would not remain silent for long. Indeed, on day two, during the session “Political Religion in National and Foreign Policy,” the US Embassy’s Counselor for Press and Cultural Affairs, Philip Frayne, encountered fierce interrogation by the audience concerning the Palestinian situation. His attitude was dismissive and his manner entirely political. He was a buffoon, frankly, sent by the State Department as a gesture and instructed to dissemble. Before the session, Mr. Frayne questioned me about the substance of my talk the previous day, which he apologized for having missed. I painted for him in broad strokes what I had said, which caused him to ask, “So you explained to everybody why the United States is so committed to supporting Israel?” Yes, I responded. He then said, “I am here to tell America’s side of the story.” The substance of his talk told me he was aware of the substance of mine.
Controversy continued when, on day three, the Islamic Action Front refused to participate in the session “Political Religions and the State: The Islamists in Jordan,” because, to quote from their message delivered by Dr. Jairam Reddy, director of the UNU/ILI and moderator for the period, “of the presence of Israelis in the room.” The IAF protest struck me as a missed opportunity for the party to reach young people with their message, which I gathered from discussing their position with others is a positive one. And while I understand that the IAF has a policy against engaging Israelis in dialogue until Israel withdraws from the territory it occupies, it was a United Nations event in which all are welcome, even US-labeled terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah. In any case, the extra time was taken up by the Islamic Centrist Party, whose positions on various issues, especially on the subject of women in politics (of which there were two representatives on stage, one a member of the parliament) generated a very interesting question-and-answer session.
The highpoint of day three for most people was the appearance of Her Majesty Queen Noor, who sat and listened intently for much of the two-and-half hour session that Dr. Reddy moderated, and, afterwards, stood outside the room for group photos. It must have taken some courage for the IAF to refuse to participate in protest knowing the Queen of Jordan was present. I wanted to thank her personally for attending and for the good work she does sitting on the board of the United Nations University, but there were many important people in the room and security was tight (and intimidating). Besides, the young people wanted very much to meet with her and time was short. By the time I got close, she was on her way out. At least these were the things I was telling myself. There was something else stopping me: I did not believe I could bring myself to genuflect to a monarch.
The students were on the whole outstanding, and I was extremely impressed with several of them, who showed themselves to quite sophisticated in their understanding of complex issues. Students from places such as Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Sudan were most interested in my arguments. I was disappointed with the more vocal students from the United States; they were robotic in their recitations of standard political science rhetoric. One young woman in particular exhibited deep and unyielding indoctrination in neoliberal ideology. When I asked the students as a whole to consider opening up their conception of democracy to more than the limited rhetoric of liberal-pluralism, for example by considering matters of industrial democracy and collective control over resources, this young woman accused me of communism. F.A. Hayek would have been so proud. When I explained that capitalism was one of the causes of unemployment and poverty around the world, and that the more unfettered capitalism is the more brutal are its effects, citing the Gilded Age as an example, she responded that nineteenth century was not pure capitalism. I couldn’t respond to this point, of course, as it is actually more of a slogan than an argument (can capitalism be any more pure than it was in the nineteenth century?) When I explained the logic of inequality among the nations, she argued that capitalism liberated Europe from its previous third world status! My response to this absurd claim was drowned out by retorts aimed at her from the third worlders. “Europe? The third world?” It took some work to calm the room.
In another student session, with the slogan “one’s politics is not determined by her genitalia,” a young American man objected to a young Israeli woman’s suggestion that some of the time be spent in groups sorted by gender. The Israeli student lamented that she hadn’t time to educate the young man in the sociological distinction between sex and gender. During the exchange, Avineri leaned over to me and informed me that the young woman had announced to him and others her intent to push a feminist agenda during the conference. She had informed others in my company of her agenda, as well, I told him.
The framework used by many of the students was also used by many of the older participants, and, at its worst, was clearly and most unfortunately the rhetoric of the political science school of modernization. The blatant exhibition of neoliberal and liberal-pluralist ideologies worked in my favor, however, since most of the students were yearning for a more expansive way of thinking about the problems of their country — which are, in my view, largely the problems of global capitalism — and the range of possible solutions.
Here I want to offer a sociological observation: Because eastern elites and political actors encounter the ideas of western powers by reading the literature and entertaining the arguments of official diplomats and intellectuals advancing the hegemonic theoretical framework, and because the West is the prevailing intellectual power on the world stage, the peripheral subject parrots the conceptual and theoretical framework of the core. I heard repeatedly discussions using terms and phrases such as “modernization,” “clash of civilizations,” and “democracy promotion.” Democracy was narrowly defined as a list of basic procedures — suffrage, peaceful transition, equality before the law — and not as a substantive understanding of the social being achieving control over her collective existence and destiny. During group discussions I explained that liberal-pluralist ideology not only constrains practical possibility, it also limits the cognitive framework in which the ideas of the possible are generated.
Amman was a beautiful city. Of course, I was not taken to the poorer sections, but instead driven through the wealthy districts where the embassies and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung institute were located, as well as through middle class districts inhabited by affluent Jordanians and Iraqis (wealthy Iraqis fled Iraq with the US invasion, bringing the money and talents to Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries). Perhaps this wasn’t done to hide anything, but rather reflected my purpose there. Nonetheless, I saw some of the signs of poverty we know exist in Jordan when I strolled through the upscale market district in Amman, for example people with disabilities begging for money.
On my last full day there, I traveled to the ancient city of Petra, which lies on the edge of the Wadi Araba, about four hours south of Amman and a couple of hours north of Jordan’s lone seaport Aqaba. Petra was established roughly twenty-six centuries ago by the Nabataean Arabs (a network of nomadic tribes that settled in southern Jordan, the Naqab desert in Palestine, and northern Arabia) and was the center of a trading commercial network extending as far north as modern Syria. (The area is even older than this, inhabited by the Edomites before the Nabataeans settled there and raised their civilization.) The Nabataeans found the geography conducive to the construction of a unique and durable civilization — sandstone mountains in which they carved buildings, temples, and mortuaries. Jordan is ninety percent desert, forcing the Nabataeans to develop their scientists as deft water engineers, irrigating the land by devising a marvelous system of aqueducts, canals, dams, and reservoirs. The rock is beautiful, with whirling and waving strata in vibrant colors ranging from white and yellows to deep reds and browns.
Many foreign powers tried to subjugate the Nabataeans — Seleucid king Antigonus, Roman emperor Pompey, and Herod the Great — but all failed. Finally, around the first century, the Romans overran Petra (by destroying their water system) and controlled the region into the Byzantine period. The Crusaders briefly occupied Petra in the twelfth century, but were forced to abandon the city by the Muslims. Petra is now inhabited by Bedouin peoples, settled nomadic tribes found throughout Middle East, who sell their wares and rent their transportation (camels, donkeys, and horses) to tourists. I cannot find the words to describe the way being in such a place makes one feel. It is a magical place.
I made many friends in Amman, Jordan. I struck up a friendship with a thirty-year-old man from Kenya named Evans Wafula who writes for African Week Magazine. I feel that we became best of friends and we have promised to remain in touch and visit each others homes. I also befriended Murad Tangiev, a Chechnyan who moved all of us with his condemnation of terrorism in his country. As a program officer for the university, Tangiev has invited me back to Jordan in the spring to lecture on the history of democracy. I believe I shall accept his invitation. I also admired the person of Nadir Said, the Palestinian man who spoke so eloquently on the condition of the Palestinians. There are many more, many of them were among the students…
This is getting long, so I will make two concluding remarks. First, an observation. In general, I found many of the Muslims with whom I interacted to be open minded. I expected to find Muslims critical of Israel, as well as Muslims who harbored dislike for Americans because of US financial and diplomatic support for Israel. My first expectation was confirmed. Muslims believe that Israeli occupation of Palestine is the driving source of conflict in the region. However, I found wherever I went a genuine love for Americans. No Muslim was shy about telling me of her or his great dislike for the US government and its policies in the Middle East, but nowhere did I feel anger or hatred directed towards me; I encountered only warm smiles and greetings. Everyone assumed I was Christian (I am an atheist and a secular humanist) and treated me with the utmost respect. On the other hand, I found the thinking of some of the Israelis in the program circumscribed by one or another form of Zionism, their morality shaped by their nationalism, treating with disdain those who asked them to consider the plight of Palestinians. It disappointed me to find young people lacking sympathy sufficient to have an impact on the overall authoritarian mentality that rationalizes occupation and oppression in terms of security and victimhood. It is the persistence of the authoritarian mentality that is the greatest barrier to peace in the Middle East.
This brings me to my closing point. Many of the participants told me that my presence at the program served to improve the image of America among them, since they had heretofore only heard the point of view given to them by the corporate-dominated press in the United States and in their own countries, many of which serve as client states for the global capitalists. Their own experience of authoritarian government told them that there must be Americans who disagreed with US policies. They were very pleased to have their suspicions confirmed, that there were indeed Americans who disagreed with their government, and they assured me that they would share with their friends back home my point of view and the optimistic fact that I possessed it.
(August 24, 2018) I forgot to record a moment in this report that I have since shared numerous times. There was a young Lebanese man who sat through a Jordanian politician’s speech (I do not recall either of their names). He was visibly perturbed the entire time and when he finally got the chance to speak his mind he said, “You referred to Jordanians throughout your speech as ‘citizens.’ Jordan has no citizens. It has subjects. Jordan has a king.”
A version of this essay was published in the Journal of World-Systems Research in 2005.
In the manufacture of consent for its policies and practices abroad, the power elite of the American Empire—the dominant corporate, military, and political sectors—depends heavily on the arts of propaganda and public diplomacy. To be sure, the fist of force always lies in reserve for the recalcitrant, a fact to which recent history in Afghanistan and Iraq attests. Nonetheless, shaping public attitudes towards the means and ends of US foreign policy has proven an efficient standard practice for the expansion of global domination. Over the past fifty years probably as many boots have stepped onto foreign soil via diplomatic designs as through armed means. Inventing Public Diplomacy (2004), by Wilson P. Dizard Jr., is a friendly examination of a key component of the American project to shape world opinion: the US Information Agency (USIA).
Of the multitude of published works concerning US public diplomacy (too many to recount here), observers from points beyond the charmed circle of government operatives have penned the majority. However, the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) and the Diplomatic and Consular Officers, Retired (DACOR), have joined forces to produce a book series organizing the history of diplomacy and intelligence services from the standpoint of the diplomat and the information agent. The ADST is functionally and structurally close to formal state power. An NGO whose mission is to strengthen the efficacy of US diplomacy, it is located on the campus of the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, home to the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI), and works alongside the FSI to complement the latter’s work, managing the archives of US diplomatic history and providing these materials to historians and diplomats. Thus the ADST plays a role in the way global history is shaped, both in the manner in which the past is recorded and interpreted by historians, and by supplying a ready and ideologically-consistent history for diplomats to base their present and future work upon. Inventing Public Diplomacy is a product of this project.
Dizard’s account of US propaganda operations is that of a dedicated insider. From 1951 to 1980, he served in the State Department and the US Information Service (USIS). His expertise is international communications. The aim of Inventing Public Diplomacy is to measure the ideological impact of the US Information Agency and its precursors. Dizard’s account is sympathetic, although his appraisal is at times candid, such as his acknowledgement that Reagan’s Central American adventures, which entailed extensive use of the agency, involved illegal conduct. He is also frank in depicting the agency as a propaganda operation—one that matched the operations of other countries and regions with whom the US competed for global advantage. However, he fails to discuss as problematic the deeper aims of the agency and its sister organizations, namely, their function as instruments of global capitalist domination. Moreover, he fails in an explicit objective of his study: to substantiate his claim that, because the agency reflected the national strategic interests of the day, its structure and practices are explicable within analyses of that larger context. In the final analysis, because of Dizard’s loyalty to the agency, the book fails to develop a critical history of either the USIA or the geopolitical context.
The book begins with an overview of the USIA. Created in 1955, state elites designed the USIA as an element of public diplomacy in the Cold War milieu. The mission of the agency was to present to contested parts of the world an idealized image of America that would promote foreign support for the economic and political aims of the United States. Dizard contends that until the USIA, America had no global propaganda system. He attributes this to “American exceptionalism,” theorizing that isolationism and disengagement with European cultural models were the major causes of America’s delayed entry into ideological warfare. This insular view of the world dominated elite consciousness until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Much as the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 shattered America’s sense of invulnerability, Pearl Harbor made a big world seem much smaller. In response, US elites built a global communications apparatus.
The path to the USIA was a blend of international restructuring, historical conjuncture, the evolving configuration of intelligence and propaganda networks, and the personalities of leaders and sponsors. The Office of War Information (OWI) established the Voice of America (VOA) shortwave news service in February to take advantage of new communications technologies that had emerged from WWI. The overseas component of the OWI was the USIS. Nelson A. Rockefeller pushed the Roosevelt administration to embrace a larger role in the struggle against the Nazis, especially in checking their growing influence in the southern hemisphere of the Americas. Through the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OCIA), which Rockefeller ran out of the State Department, the United States distributed pro-American press throughout South America and the Caribbean. Dizard credits Rockefeller with having devised the template for the USIA,the purpose of which was to penetrate Europe with pro-American propaganda in a fashion similar to US American operations. A related effort was the Coordinator of Information (COI), also created by Roosevelt in 1941. This agency morphed into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1942. The COI and OSS represented the first institutional steps towards the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The principal activity of the US propaganda efforts during the late 1940s and 1950s was to counter what President Harry Truman called “imperialistic communism” and its “propaganda of slavery.” In 1948, Truman signed into law the Smith-Mundt Act, which established ideological operations as a permanent part of US foreign policy. Legislative backing played a vital role in legitimating Truman’s “Campaign of Truth,” a propaganda offensive coordinating the information services of the United States and other capitalist countries. This direction figured into the design of psychological operations that accompanied the creation of the National Security Council and the CIA in 1947. The academic community, including research units at MIT, Harvard, and Columbia, joined with the government intelligence community in designing psychological operations, in turn contributing to the development of the public opinion and public relations industry. (For a detailed historical account of this, see Christopher Simpson 1994 The Science of Coercion: Communications Research and Psychological Warfare 1945-1960.) Corporations with an interest in overseas operations and markets financed the operations. Largely based upon a particular reading of George Kennan’s thinking about the motives and nature of the Soviet Union, a view of the world emerged in which communications sciences were seen as a vital weapon in political warfare.
When Eisenhower formally consolidated the various propaganda agencies in under the name USIA, the US commercial media, which was likewise extending its influence over world markets, moved to coordinate its activities even more closely with the government. The goal of the public and private mix of information was to shape cultural attitudes and present the United States, its products and services, as an attractive alternative to communism, as well as foster the development of business climates favorable to overseas investment. USIA and corporate propaganda targeted Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, countries with which, according to Dizard, the United States had limited previous cultural engagement. The USIA used several methods to preach the gospel of Americanism abroad, including shortwave radio, leaflets, magazines, news bulletins, pamphlets, a worldwide library network, exhibits on American life, and exchange programs. The activities of the USIA overlapped with the DOD and CIA, and USIA subsidies were vital in helping US media corporations establish firms in foreign countries.
During the Kennedy years, elites restructured the USIA to keep pace with rapidly changing world realities and to reflect a unified ideological response to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s declaration of “wars of national liberation.” According to the US intelligence establishment, the USSR was sponsoring communists and left-wing guerrilla groups throughout the periphery of the capitalist world economy. Propagandists depicted global communism as a red army on the march. The US responded to the Soviet threat with modernization theory, a set of assumptions that posited that the infusion of Western ideals and values would, if adopted, catapult the backward peoples of the undeveloped world into modernity. The USIA scaled back operations in Europe and Japan and stepped up activities in the periphery to advance the offensive. As a point of comparison, Dizard documents that in the USIA had twenty-four posts in thirteen African countries. Four years later, there were fifty-five posts in thirty-three countries on the African continent. To give its propaganda operations more polish, the Kennedy administration brought CBS documentarian Edward R. Murrow on board. Murrow believed the agency should not just inform but persuade. He oversaw propaganda operations during such tense moments as Operation Mongoose, the covert program to sabotage the Castro regime in Cuba, the disastrous Bay of Pigs incident, where CIA-trained exiles attempted to overthrow the Cuban government, and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, in which the Soviet Union endeavored to build missile sites in Cuba.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the USIA took advantage of several opportunities and struggled with many challenges. The agency successfully exploited the triumphs of the Apollo space program to project the image of a strong America abroad. Advancements in civil rights, however ineffective these were in dealing with the racist heart of America, allowed USIA propagandists to claim victory in the struggle for racial justice, which the Declaration of Human Rights had made an explicit priority in . The always-present specter of nuclear holocaust continued to present problems for the USIA; the agency confronted a world that understood the problem of nuclear weapons through the prisms of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The scandalous Nixon administration and the appointment of the ideologically-driven Frank Shakespeare to the USIA, which caused the agency’s objectivity to come into question, presented still more challenges. In response to the ideological bent of the agency under Nixon, Jimmy Carter moved to curtail the USIA’s propaganda efforts by suppressing activities he deemed “covert, manipulative, or propagandistic,” and renaming the agency as the US International Communications Agency. Carter’s attempt to steer the agency back towards its original mission—as objective information disseminating agency—would be short lived.
Politicization of the USIA reemerged during the 1980s under Ronald Reagan. Although changing international communications patterns, such as commercial information firms and advanced communications technologies, complicated the agency’s mission, Reagan’s desire to wage intensive ideological warfare against the “Evil Empire” guaranteed that the USIA would see growth in its budget and a more aggressive outlook. Reagan doubled the USIA budget (its annual budget reached nearly one billion dollars by the end of the decade). The administration threw out the policies on balanced news treatment, and the USIA became a propaganda organ for the Reagan regime. The USIA became closely associated with the Special Planning Group (SPG), created in 1983, an association that made the agency a policy participant and not just a mouthpiece for US policy goals. The SPG was behind the creations of Project Democracy, which Reagan later restructured as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The SPG, along with the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy, became part of Reagan’s shadow government during the Iran-Contra Affair.
The last chapters in Dizard’s book end the study of the USIA in an abrupt manner, despite the number of pages dedicated to the matter. We learn that in 1999, Clinton returned public diplomacy operations to the Department of States and effectively closed down the USIA as an independent agency. In putting the agency to bed, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright eulogized that it was “the most effective anti-propaganda institution on the face of the earth.” The State Department takeover put operations formerly conducted by the USIA quite low on the priority list, evidenced by the fact that President George W. Bush waited nine months before appointing an undersecretary of state for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
In his conclusion, Dizard suggests that the weakness of USIA-style operations during this period was in large part due to an inability to adapt to changing threats. Terrorist organizations, such as al Qaeda, present a problem for state propaganda operations. As Richard Holbrooke mused, “How can a man in a cave outmaneuver the world’s leading communications society?” The US government had no method for effectively spinning a threat unattached to a state apparatus. In an effort to be more effective in the “war on terrorism,” the White House took over propaganda production, creating the Coalition Information Center, which ran a 24-hour war room staffed with officials from the NSC, DOD, CIA, and State Department. This was followed in July of with the creation of the Office of Global Communications.
Dizard leaves out much of the story. Because of these omissions, he fails to locate US propaganda operations within the structure of geopolitics and global capitalism. Dizard tells his readers what many of them already know: The official mission of the USIA from its inception through the s was, as Brigadier General Robert McClure put it during the Korean War, to win the “struggle for men’s minds.” This was, for US elites, the qualitative essence of “modern war” and it was embodied in the ideological components of Containment policy. The USIA’s purpose was to counter Soviet propaganda, what Ayn Rand characterized before the US House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities in “as anything which gives a good impression of communism as a way of life.” And this the agency did well into the s; under Reagan, in conjunction with the National Security Council, the agency launched the “Project Truth” campaign, parroting Truman’s “Campaign of Truth,” thus book-ending the USIA’s role in the anti-communist crusade.
However, Dizard leaves unexplored the consequences of the fall of the Soviet Union. How were the bureaucrats and professionals going to justify the USIA’s existence with the specter of communism no longer haunting the West? There was, it turns out, a pressing need. Guided by Clinton’s foreign policy team, and led by director Joe Duffy, the agency adopted a new role, best articulated by the NSC’s Anthony Lake, whom in a 1993 speech delivered at the School of Advanced International Studies: “the successor to a doctrine of containment must be a strategy of enlargement—enlargement of the world’s free community of market democracies.” With this charge, the primary mission of the agency shifted from anti-communist activities to pushing liberalization of trade policy. In short, with the Soviets out of the way, the USIA openly pushed the transnational project of capitalist globalization.
Of course, in the final analysis, the “Clinton Doctrine” was not inconsistent with or even a departure from the founding mission of the USIA, since its goal had really always been to push the virtues of capitalism abroad and involve the private sector in this effort. Indeed, the aggressive push for liberalization began under Reagan with the creation of the NED and the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE). Changes in the agency reflected greater shifts in the process of globalization and state strategy to shape that process. In the 1990s, the development of the global system demanded reorganization of the US propaganda network. In 1994, Clinton, with Congressional backing, brought all nonmilitary state international propaganda operations—including Radio and TV Marti, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and Worldnet television—under USIA control. The USIA was put to the task of selling international trade agreements, such as NAFTA, and stressing the importance of membership in such transnational organizations as the WTO. It was a prominent preacher of the gospels of deregulation and trade liberalization. The agency also pushed for the expansion of NATO, helping to transform that Cold War military structure into a transnational security apparatus, as well as collaborated with the Drug Enforcement Administration to regulate global narcotics trafficking. All of this history is left out of Inventing Public Diplomacy.
Finally, Dizard fails to sufficiently criticize the agency for its failures to articulate its purpose to the US citizenry and to involve non-business interests in shaping a collective vision of the nation’s aims in the world. The Smith-Mundt act sought to exclude non-corporate voices by prohibiting the targeting of US audiences with programming aimed at foreign audiences. The image of America projected abroad was—and continues to be—neither generated nor consumed by Americans. In 1997, in the essay “Foreign Policy in Focus: United States Information Agency,” published in the Interhemispheric Resource Center and Institute for Policy Studies, Nancy Snow contrasts the alternatives: “Millions of private citizens, both here and abroad, are using their collective vision to promote a one-world community—not a one-world market—where diverse cultures are united in efforts to combat poverty, oppression, pollution, and collective violence. In contrast to the USIA’s boardroom-style globalization, many of these citizen activists favor more freedom of movement for people and greater regulation on the movement of capital.”
Clearly, then, the initial design and guiding vision of the USIA was to serve as a propaganda instrument for the imperial project to spread capitalism across the planet, illustrating Marx and Engels’ famous axiom that the executive of the capitalist state is but an organ for pursuing the common interests of the capitalist class.
The anti-terrorism line the dominant capitalist states push has the same purpose as the anti-communist line pushed by previous bourgeois governments, namely, ideological cover under which imperialism and the police state are expanded and entrenched. The US government has no real commitment to fighting terrorism. If they did, things would look a lot differently than they do today. The current policy is either designed or at least functions to increase terrorism—as defined by this government.
Indeed, a threat of terrorism is desirable, as more terrorism perpetuates the useful state of fear and the oppression fear justifies. Exposing the lies imperialists use to construct anti-terrorism today serves the same purpose that exposing the lies of anti-communism served.
However, such practices are not central to the struggle against imperialism and war. What is central to anti-imperialism/anti-war struggles is the moral argument—specifically, the principle of universality. This holds that, if it is not okay when the official enemy of the state does it, then it is not okay when the state does it. One of the most useful empirical pieces in pushing the universality principle in the present time are making people aware of the illegality of US foreign policy.
There’s a danger in taking up a line that makes deconstructing anti-terror ideology central to the anti-imperialist/anti-war movement. This is the error of questioning the official story in such a way as to deny the immoral actions of the official enemy or portraying the official enemy as nothing more than the government’s conspiratorial construction. If this line becomes pronounced then the anti-imperialism/anti-war struggle loses credibility.
Solidarity with oppressed peoples is always contingent upon qualified observation of the principle of universality. Violence practiced by oppressed peoples should be criticized in terms of how these populations have been forced into responding to oppression by their oppressors.
It is recognized that violence is sometimes necessary to repel invaders and drive occupiers off one’s land. For example, the Lebanese people have the right to organize into armed groups to force Israel off their land and to remain prepared to prevent Israeli invasion. Moreover, defensive strikes against the instruments of aggressive war may be necessary in order to prevent further invasions and to weaken occupations. However, the harming of civilians should be avoided, and violence must be rooted in defense, resistance, and independence, not motivated by conquest.
It is recognized that violence is sometimes necessary to throw off the yolk of an oppressive system. A people should of course exhaust the means of peaceful change, but resort to violence should nevertheless remain the basic collective human right of all oppressed people. In situations of caste and class struggle, violence is sometimes the only means of achieving the ends of social justice. As with national and territorial struggle, the harming of civilians should be avoided, and violence must be rooted in liberation, not motivated by domination.
In both cases, movements that seek to extend political and economic systems must be judged on the basis of their emancipatory character. Any movement that seeks to impose an ethnic and religious ideology and practice is inherently suspect, but ultimately only always wrong in the religious case.