Taking back the Word

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As a name, Tomdispatch came into existence a year ago when this weblog was launched by the Nation Institute, but I had already been at it in an unnamed sort of way for over a year before that — ever since, in early November 2001, unable to bear post-9/11 U.S. news coverage any longer, I stumbled onto the Internet and began searching for pieces from elsewhere which might offer other ways of looking at our world. I was then 57, computer-phobic and barely on e-mail, with no idea that just about every publication in the world could be read on-line. My ignorance left me strangely flexible when I embarked on my little odyssey into the ether-world. This service, which started with single-sentence, check-this-out tags on articles being passed to a small e-list of friends and relatives, has developed curiously ever since. I’m seldom less than surprised.

Now, for the first time since November 2001, I’m planning to stop briefly. Barring surprises, this will be my last dispatch until January 2, 2004. As Tomdispatch is clearly an obsessional activity, it hasn’t been easy taking this step.

Perhaps this is a reasonable moment to thank all of you who, over the last year, have sent in suggestions, tips, articles I would never have found myself (one-man-bands have their limits, naturally enough), and best of all encouragement — words which fuel me — along with thoughts, poems, coined words, adages, and criticisms of every kind.

I’m quite convinced that Tomdispatch is a small part of something large. Clark Dougan, my friend and editor at the University of Massachusetts, pointed out to me perhaps a year ago that when the right-wing was out in the American political wilderness back in the 1960s, one of the first things they did was to capture the Word. Over the twenty years that preceded their taking power in the Age of Reagan, they formed think-tanks, issued enough out-of-power policy statements to use up a rain forest of two, published newsletters, wrote endless books, held conferences, and began to put their version of the Word out over the air. In the meantime, many former progressives retreated to campuses and began writing what was essentially gobbledygook to each other in a priestly language of exclusion whose very point was its impenetrability by the rest of us.

Well, we’ve been in that very American wilderness vacated by the right-wing for some time and we were slow off the mark. But I believe, we’re now making up for lost time and in the process of taking back the Word. A simple look at bestseller lists — first paperback and now hardcover where until recently right-wing books were dominant — indicates as much: Ehrenreich, Chomsky, Franken, Moore et. al. It’s a genuine, if still smallish-scale, change of mood. The locus of the take-back-the-Word movement is, of course, the Internet where news and buzz and projects and prospects and newsletters and policy statements and chat groups and political advocacy groups and critiques and websites, large and small, focused and riotous, and views from elsewhere and just about everything else under the sun has sprouted in the ether. News, ideas, thoughts, complaints seem to pass from e-hand to e-hand in surprising ways and by routes that would have left Daedalus, famed creator of the labyrinth, befuddled and the Minotaur lost in space. It’s a wonderful thing — and a wonderful thing to be part of.

Of course, we’re at a disadvantage, we don’t have all those beer multimillionaires to fund us — but hey, you can’t have everything. Our greatest disadvantage, though, isn’t lack of money, it’s lack of time. The right had those two decades to build. They could fight and lose and go back to the drawing board and fight again. Normally I would say that we should be pleased at the end of 2003. An opposition is building. Anger at the Imperial Republicans is rising (and not just among progressives either) and some of them are slowly beginning to peel away.

In his most recent piece, Jim Lobe reports on what a small, interconnected world the neocons actually inhabit, filled with front-groups and grouplets that always turn out to have something like the same, or overlapping, membership. (What a Tangled Web the Neocons Weave) And despite the last two weeks of good news for them — economically, in Iraq, and in the polls where the President has gotten his “bounce” (Dan Balz and Richard Morin, Bush Gets Year-End Boost in Approval, Poll Shows Dean Surging Among Democratic Rivals,
the Washington Post) — they’re having a tougher time than they ever imagined they would. That the old pros of the first Bush administration have recently been returning from the sidelines is a sign of that; another is that the neocon part of the Bush administration coalition (or given their tiny numbers, perhaps “cabal” is the better word) is fraying.

Time magazine, while anointing Paul Wolfowitz its “Person of the Year” (Paul Wolfowitz, The Godfather of the Iraq War) had this bit of scuttlebutt on his possible fate:

“The Rummy and Wolfie show may soon go off the air. It is widely believed in national-security circles that Wolfowitz may leave the Administration sometime in 2004. He has become too controversial for Bush to promote to Defense Secretary; Wolfowitz believed that U.S. troops in Iraq would be greeted with rose petals”

The fact is we can always live through a few good weeks for them, many times over if we have to. Unfortunately, we may not have the luxury of twenty years of building. The rush for us is far greater than it was for them. Four more years of George W. Bush and Co., no less two decades of something verging on one-party government at home and imperial war-making abroad, of Humvees and pipelines, of exploitation of the planet in ways that, until recently, were beyond humanity’s powers, and for the first time in history, Earth, at least as a habitable place for the likes of us, may be in jeopardy. Failing to get Bush out of there is no small matter, and as the last two weeks show, these guys are no pikers when it comes to using a bit of serendipity to their advantage. (Certainly, I was most off-the-mark in the last year in my brief period of hope that George and his friends would fall straight through the Florida 50% mark in the polls.)

Still, nothing is decided. This administration got a Christmas “gift” from Saddam’s capture, and as Evan Thomas, Rod Nordland and Christian Caryl, of Newsweek, report in a vivid piece, Operation Hearts and Minds, American troops have lowered their casualties in Iraq by pulling back into an armored shell. (“It might be called the Da Nanging of Iraq,” they comment, referring to a major American base during the Vietnam War, “though the military prefers to speak of ‘the maturing of the battlefield.'”). Our troops venture out less often in greater strength and far more violently. (Just tonight an Air Force gunship was hitting some section of Baghdad on the nightly news.) But none of this adds up to any guarantee of long-term success in Washington or against the insurgency in Iraq. It’s a long near-year ahead to next November — and don’t assume it won’t be a trying one for the Busheviks.

The Newsweek journalists sum up our situation in Iraq this way:

“It took months for the top brass to even admit that America faced a true insurgency in Iraq. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of U.S. forces, initially described the bombings and rocket attacks as ‘pinpricks.’ Proconsul Paul Bremer likened them to gnat bites on the hide of an elephant. Repeatedly, Rumsfeld and CENTCOM commander Gen. John Abizaid dismissed the uprising as ‘of no strategic importance.’ A more accurate measure of reality in Iraq is the color-coded road system. Roads and highways in Iraq are classified by the U.S. military as green (safe), yellow (dangerous; no travel at night) and red (closed to military traffic). There are no green routes left except in the far north; all other routes are usually yellow and occasionally red. Route 1, the road north out of Baghdad, is routinely red. (Latest joke: What does the front desk ask you when you check into the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad? Which side of the hotel do you want: the bullet side or the rocket side?)”

Color-coding may be a fraud here, but evidently it’s not there. By the way, if you want to get a sense of the “secure” life we’ve brought to Baghdad under the occupation — of why, that is, Iraq is likely to drive the administration hard in 2004 — just read the “girl blogger” of that city, who writes like an angel, in her latest posting on life in the capital at her weblog, Baghdad Burning:

“Baghdad has been a very tense place these last few days. Yesterday alone we heard around 8 explosions though none of the news channels seem to be covering them There have also been several demonstrations- some anti-Saddam and some pro-Saddam and several anti-America

“We’ve been using candles most of the time instead of kerosene lamps because the kerosene man hasn’t been coming around these last few days and we need the kerosene for the heaters. The kids really hate the candles. The other day, the electricity suddenly flashed on at 8 pm after a 6-hour blackout. We were exalted. Everyone jumped for the television at once and a chorus of voices called out, ‘News! The movie! A song! Cartoons!’ After flipping the channels, we settled for a movie.

“We sat watching until one of the scenes faded into a darkened room. The camera focused on the couple sitting at a round table, gazing into each others eyes and smiling fondly across two elegant candles. It was a cozy, romantic candle-light dinner. I think the whole family was lost in the scene when suddenly, my cousin’s youngest daughter spoke up, impatiently, ‘They have no electricity! They’re using the candles’

“It took me about 15 minutes to try to explain to her that they had electricity but actually ‘chose’ to sit in the dark because it was more ‘romantic’. The difficulty of explaining romance to a 7-year-old is nothing compared to the difficulty of explaining the ‘romance’ of a darkened room and candles — especially if the 7-year-old has associated candles to explosions and blackouts her whole life.”

In any case, whatever happens in the world for the next week, it will happen without me. Perhaps those of us who can will take a breather and prepare for the year to come.

As a teaser for the first month or two of Tomdispatch in 2004, let me mention a powerful upcoming piece on our empire by Chalmers Johnson, a stirring essay on the first human rights movement in history by Adam Hochschild, Rebecca Solnit on the Zapatistas ten years later, Chip Ward on environmental giveaways, and Mike Davis on everything under the sun. Nick Turse will still be decoding the complex military-industrial-entertainment complex, and there’s a Tomgram in the works from Iraq. Other surprises will surely be in store. (I, at least, expect to be surprised.)

Those of you who find yourselves missing Tomdispatch between Christmas Eve and January 2 can always go to my main screen ( and catch up on all the dispatches that were eaten alive by your computer or revisit oldies-but-goodies by scrolling down and clicking on “older posts” to the right of the screen. You might also enjoy checking out the various links I’ve posted to other sites I particularly enjoy and visit on my daily rounds.

Let me then wish you the best holiday season possible and send you off with three appropriately seasonal pieces. The first two are on the Nativity — James Carroll of the Boston Globe uses the “facts” of the Nativity to explore fundamentalism in our American world; while novelist David Benjamin in the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Sunday Insight section offers a Pentagonesque rewriting of the Nativity story (which involves changing just a few of the “facts on the ground”). Finally, as with football bowl games that leap their competitors to grab TV audiences (The Enron Lemon Bowl; the Bechtel Banana Bowl, the Halliburton Cauliflower Bowl), so journalist Norman Solomon, whose regular column appears at FAIR’s website, leaps all competitors for the year’s best-of lists to launch his own P.U.-Litzer Prizes for the most shameless coverage of 2003. His examples are striking because when it came to shamelessness, this was a vintage media year. So enjoy. I’ll be back. Tom

Questions about the Nativity
By James Carroll
The Boston Globe
December 23, 2003

Our Calendar assumes that Jesus was born in the year 0 — but was he? Scholars, noting a mistaken calculation by the 6th century sage who invented a scheme of time to honor a “Christian era,” tell us that Jesus was born in the year 4 BC. But was he?

That date is derived from the fact that the Gospel of Matthew puts the birth “during the reign of King Herod,” and he is known to have died that year. But the Gospel of Luke says that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem from their home in Nazareth to comply with the empire-wide census order of the Caesar Augustus, and some such decree is thought to have been issued after Herod died, perhaps as late as AD 6.

To read more Carroll click here

Holiday Tales
If the Romans had had ‘smart weapons’ . . .
By David Benjamin
The San Francisco Chronicle
December 21, 2003

Bethlehem, Judea, Dec. 26, 0000 A.D. — A small stable was destroyed here yesterday, and an undetermined number of noncombatants killed or injured, after a remote-controlled missile, fired by Roman forces, missed by less than 10 yards its intended target, an inn where a notorious Hebrew terrorist was reported to be spending the night.

The “smart weapon,” launched from a Roman galley on the Sea of Galilee and guided by an unmanned radar-equipped “drone” seagull, was fired after reports that Barabbas, a Hebrew assassin long-sought by Roman intelligence, had arrived in Bethlehem, apparently to disrupt the census recently ordered by Emperor Caesar Augustus.

“We had a solid tip that Barabbas — who’s a real bad guy — was at the inn,” said Marcus Dubius, spokesman for the Roman occupation. However, after centurions arrived at the scene, they found only the destroyed stable and a crowd of shell-shocked Judeans who said Barabbas had left Bethlehem days before.

David Benjamin, a novelist and journalist with a tendency for satire, lives and works in Paris.

To read more Benjamin click here

Announcing the P.U.-Litzer Prizes for 2003
By Norman Soloman
December 18, 2003

The P.U.-litzer Prizes were established more than a decade ago to give recognition to the stinkiest media performances of the year.

As usual, I have conferred with Jeff Cohen, founder of the media watch group FAIR, to sift through the large volume of entries. In view of the many deserving competitors, we regret that only a few can win a P.U.-litzer.

And now, the twelfth annual P.U.-litzer Prizes, for the foulest media performances of 2003:

*MEDIA MOGUL OF THE YEAR — Lowry Mays, CEO of Clear Channel

While some broadcasters care about their programming, the CEO of America’s biggest radio company (with more than 1,200 stations) admits he cares only about the ads. The Clear Channel boss told Fortune magazine in March: “If anyone said we were in the radio business, it wouldn’t be someone from our company. We’re not in the business of providing news and information. We’re not in the business of providing well-researched music. We’re simply in the business of selling our customers products.”


Interviewing a military analyst as U.S. jet bombers headed to Baghdad on the first day of the Iraq war, NBC anchor Brokaw declared: “Admiral McGinn, one of the things that we don’t want to do is to destroy the infrastructure of Iraq, because in a few days we’re going to own that country.”


According to a University of Maryland study, most Americans who get their news from commercial TV harbored at least one of three “misperceptions” about the Iraq war: that weapons of mass destruction had been discovered in Iraq, that evidence closely linking Iraq to Al Qaeda had been found, or that world opinion approved of the U.S. invasion. Fox News viewers were the most confused about key facts, with 80 percent embracing at least one of those misperceptions. The study found a correlation between being misinformed and being supportive of the war.


A month after the invasion of Iraq began, CNN executive Eason Jordan admitted on his network’s “Reliable Sources” show (April 20) that CNN had allowed U.S. military officials to help screen its on-air analysts: “I went to the Pentagon myself several times before the war started and met with important people there and said, for instance — ‘At CNN, here are the generals we’re thinking of retaining to advise us on the air and off about the war’ — and we got a big thumbs-up on all of them. That was important.”


Over the years, ABC correspondent John Stossel became known for one-sided, often-inaccurate reporting on behalf of his pro-corporate, “greed is good” ideology. He boasted that his on-air job was to “explain the beauties of the free market,” received lecture fees from corporate pressure groups, and even spoke on Capitol Hill against consumer-protection regulation. In May of this year, when Stossel was promoted to co-anchor of ABC’s “20/20,” a network insider told TV Guide: “These are conservative times. … The network wants somebody to match the times.”

*”CODDLING DONALD” PRIZE — CBS’s Lesley Stahl, ABC’s Peter Jennings and Others

On the day news broke about Saddam Hussein’s capture, Stahl and Jennings each interviewed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In step with their mainstream media colleagues, both failed to ask about Rumsfeld’s cordial 1983 meeting with Hussein in Baghdad on behalf of the Reagan administration that opened up strong diplomatic and military ties between the U.S. government and the dictator that lasted through seven years of his worst brutality.

*MILITARY GROUPIE PRIZE — Katie Couric of NBC’s “Today” Show

“Well, Commander Thompson,” said Couric on April 3, in the midst of the invasion carnage, “thanks for talking with us at this very early hour out there. And I just want you to know, I think Navy SEALs rock.”


In a Nov. 30 piece, Times columnist Friedman gushed that “this war (in Iraq) is the most important liberal, revolutionary U.S. democracy-building project since the Marshall Plan.” He lauded the war as “one of the noblest things this country has ever attempted abroad.” Friedman did not mention the estimated 112 billion barrels of oil in Iraq … or the continuous deceptions that led to the “noble” enterprise.

Norman Solomon writes a syndicated column on media and politics. He is co-author (with Reese Erlich) of Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You, published this year by Context Books

To read more Solomon click here