And The War Came

Planet America: Our world and welcome to it

I. Oprah Agonistes

If your viewing habits are anything like mine, you probably did not tune in to Oprah last Tuesday. I caught a teaser on Drudge. It was the day after Bush's "48 Hours" speech, and the man who wants to be Rush Limbaugh's dog was out having his morning run at the heels of liberal media. Oprah taping antiwar show! Developing! Right, I thought. What might Oprah Winfrey--Goddess of All Media, a figure nearly as shining and raceless and apolitical as Tiger Woods--have to say about invading Iraq? That war is a bad thing and harms children? That it causes distress and depression in the middle classes?

So I watched, and I am here to tell you: For anyone concerned to know where the fabled silent majority is these days, it was a revelation.

From the start the air was heavy and melancholy; Winfrey and her guests (the ubiquitous Tom Friedman of the Times and a Middle East specialist from Sarah Lawrence, Fawas Gerges) all seemed shaken by the quickening of events. Friedman looked especially cowed. The three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner spoke as though he had just wandered in dazed from a particularly brutal Dr. Phil taping. The thing is, he kept saying, America has to come to grips with the way it has hurt the world's feelings. "We've been exporting our fears, not our hopes," he scolded. Yet even the always-dependable Friedman could not exactly endorse Bush's war. The administration needed an "attitude lobotomy," he suggested. But now that we were going, "My column is gonna be devoted to turning lemons into lemonade." No, I did not make that up.

In spite of him, the mood of the broadcast was quietly and vehemently antiwar. The most amazing segment came midway through, when Oprah lent her seal of approval to a lengthy and fairly devastating bit of Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine--the scene in which shot after shot and caption after caption recount bloody U.S.-sponsored coups and dictators while Louis Armstrong croons "What a Wonderful World." Now first, you rarely see this sort of thing on American television, and when you do it is always followed by a litany of credentialed hacks telling you what hogwash it is. But after the clip, and Moore's own pointed comments about our bloody empire, no one tried to deny the veracity of the claims. Well, Friedman said wearily, you could make a similar clip about Saddam. Right, said Gerges, and you could make a dozen more about the U.S.! Friedman fell silent.

What's so remarkable about this? So Oprah did an antiwar show, you might say. She's not God.

But you're wrong about that. Oprah is the author of the most successful syndicated show in television history. She presides over one of the largest-circulation magazines in the country, launched a scant few years ago. She sells millions of books magically, simply by causing their names to pass her lips. She spins the likes of Dr. Phil into gold. She knows the pulse of workaday America better than you will ever know your spouse, your children, yourself. Where the public taste is concerned, she is God. She attained this status not just by telling her audience things they already knew, as some of her critics have charged; Oprah's great gift is that she never tells them things they will not want to hear.

So you see what it means for her to step out this way. It says that, at the start of a war that will not end in the present theater of battle and may conceivably not end at all in this generation, the president of the United States is already losing the hearts and minds of the American people. A majority--or near majority, depending on the day and the poll--have opposed waging war on the present terms. (Polls since early last week have shown a large and predictable spike in support of the war, but that is an emotional reaction and probably a fleeting one.) Not only that: A shockingly large and heretofore unseen minority have begun to realize that their country is an iron-fisted world empire that is despised on nearly every corner of the globe. And now the most revered producer in American media thinks that message is ready to go mainstream.

This is something new under the sun.

 

II. Bush's Borrowed Crusade

The war itself--that's something new as well. The United States in its pursuit of empire has never flouted the opinion of the world with such brazenness and open calculation, and, more to the point, no imperial power since Hitler's Germany has launched an unprovoked preemptive war on anything approaching this scale. (Let's not make too much of the fact, though, because it is strictly a question of scale: There was no provocation in Grenada, or Vietnam, or any of the many coups and proxy wars the U.S. has staged in Latin America and elsewhere.) When the Supreme Court peremptorily handed the presidency to Bush a little over two years ago, no one on the outside of his circle guessed the magnitude of his ambition. Friend and foe alike presumed that he would be more or less a slacker-steward of The Way Things Are, as befitted his pedigree and his hapless business résumé, and not the most radical executor of U.S. imperial policy since--well, who? I polled a number of people by e-mail on this question. The legendary Injun-killer Andrew Jackson took the popular vote; well-considered cases were made on behalf of Truman, Wilson, and Lincoln. It all depends on which face of the prism you choose. I tend to conjoin W and Teddy Roosevelt. Both were not-very-promising sons of privilege (Teddy because of his physical infirmities, George his psychological ones) who grew up to seize the cause of empire with a zeal and a myth-making flair born of the very personal desire to prove they were men and not just frivolous boys.

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