Some scandals are too big to acknowledge.
The fundamental issue involving the Russiagate scandal is something Noam Chomsky said about Nixon somewhere. Richard Nixon didn’t get the boot because he plunged Chile into fascism or bombed Cambodia or sided with Pakistan while its dictator was slaughtering people in Bangladesh. He got kicked out because one powerful faction in US politics, Republicans, broke the rules operating against another powerful faction, the Democrats. That is bad, but one would think mass murder is worse. Not, however, if you live in a superpower. The rules are different for people who are powerful. This is true in any system, whether Hollywood, the Beltway, or the Kremlin.
Americans, including American liberals, seem blissfully unaware this also applies to us. We think because we are a democracy that we have checks on the bad actions of our government. The problem with this theory is that the people we kill overseas don’t vote in our elections. And if you expect liberals to act as a check you haven’t been counting the bodies. Many liberals simply don’t care what we do to people overseas unless it is a useful talking point to be used against a Republican. Or think of it this way— given what powerful people have been getting away with when it comes to rape and sexual harassment in this country, how well will the system work in preventing American atrocities against people overseas?
After Nixon and Watergate the next big Presidential scandal was Iran Contra. Ronald Reagan supported death squads in El Salvador and genocidal generals in Guatemala (so did Israel, btw). He supported Jonas Savimbi and his UNITA movement in Angola, another terrorist movement. And Iran Contra nearly brought Reagan down, but not because the contras murdered civilians. Again, it was a process scandal. Reagan broke the law in arming the contras, violating the Boland Amendment. Plus the Iranians were the official bad guys and he was willing to trade weapons for hostages.
The hundreds of thousands murdered by the groups Reagan supported in various places didn’t matter. Oh, people argued about them. As policy choices. The Boland Amendment was meant to stop the supply of arms to the contras. But the idea that it might be scandalous for the US to participate in state-sponsored terror was never the point of Iran Contra investigations. In fact, Oliver North was treated as a hero who broke laws to save lives. The reason for the Boland Amendment was forgotten— it was more in the Beltway’s comfort zone to treat the scandal as a process story where an overzealous Colonel North broke the law with good intentions.
Objectively speaking, the worst things American politicians are responsible for are crimes against humanity, but those are never seen as scandals, except maybe a century later. Nobody is investigated, nobody tries to figure out who benefited, whether money or career ambitions are involved. At most we just treat war crimes as policy disputes. So some congresspeople and senators oppose our war in Yemen, and good for them. That is the best they can do with this system. But nobody expects a bipartisan investigation into our ties with the Saudis — who benefits and why. Nobody expects war crimes trials for Americans who assisted the Saudi bombing or for Trump or Obama.
It does not occur to the press that it doesn’t have to see things the way politicians do, as policy disputes. It could see the blood soaked hypocrisy and corruption. It could investigate in depth who benefits and how decisions to commit mass murder are made. It doesn’t. That is because the mainstream press is part of how the system operates, presenting some dissent within a narrow framework, but never stepping outside it. There are some good stories in the Mainstream Media on occasion— New York Times reporters Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal just did a devastating piece on our bombing of civilians in the Middle East. I can’t praise this story enough. It is very very good. Yet it stands out because of its extreme rarity. We have been killing civilians for 16 years— and usually the American press is content to pass on what the government claims. And based on past experience with the torture scandal, not much will come of it.
I assume that many people in the press are unconscious of our hypocrisy. Others might see it; but they can’t step very far outside the expected framework if they want to keep their jobs. They know that part of our behavior as a superpower involves killing civilians, either directly or by proxy. Probably most Americans are barely aware of it. Yemen is just the latest and currently the most extreme example of our cruelty, but it is not that unusual. As this blog points out, we support the Israelis because we have racist contempt for Palestinians— their rights are of no importance to powerful Americans and this is why America has never been an honest broker as it pretends to be.
Trump is complicit in Saudi war crimes that murder children, or that subject them to hunger and famine which if it doesn’t kill them may permanently stunt their growth and cause brain damage. “Our democracy” chose to do this. The policy started under Obama and continues under Trump. And yet we only hear token reports. Facebook ads and stolen emails are obviously far more important than the children of some poor country. Russiagate fits into the standard US framework of what a political scandal should be like. It is about individuals doing dirty things, not a corrupt system and better yet it involves a foreign villain who sullied “ our democracy”. If we get to the bottom of Russiagate, bad individuals may get punished, the system works, and we go back to normal. Or so liberals hope, along with many Republicans, notably including people in both parties who supported the Iraq War.:
“Our Democracy” show its priorities by the attention it gives to stories. Russiagate is endlessly fascinating to political junkies and gets constant attention. Democrats love it. The war in Yemen is not that kind of story. The bombing of Mosul is not that kind of story. The blockade of Gaza is not that kind of story.
Both political parties are guilty to some degree and many educated liberal New York Times readers are no better than the Trump enthusiasts they despise so much. “Our Democracy” treats war crimes as policy disputes, when it notices them at all. This isn’t a bug — it is a feature. That is why Facebook ads are a scandal and the children we murder are not. Some scandals are literally too big to acknowledge.
Why did State Department spokesman John Kirby lie about Saudi bombing in Yemen? Because a truthful response would be an admission of American war crimes. Why does the mainstream press refuse to push this? And so: how strong is “Our Democracy”? What happens if we start seeing our leaders as people guilty of the same kinds of atrocities that lead to prison time for deposed dictators?
We have a choice here. We can accept a system where murderous policies are among the options built into the system, policies that, with considerable effort, might be debated once in a while if congressional leaders allow it. We can accept this system as “Our Democracy” and dutifully listen to our press as it tells us what really matters. If we do, then we are saying that we endorse the moral judgments of that system. We accept that Yemen receives only token attention because we agree that the people we kill are of no more significance than the ants we step on as we go down the sidewalk. We agree that there is no need to investigate our actions in killing such insignificant people. We have more important things to investigate, because “Our Democracy” is under attack by Russian Facebook and twitter trolls.
At what point do we accept that if we take such pride in “Our Democracy”, we are personally responsible for its actions up to and including genocide?