I knew a boy in college who was really good at sleight of hand. His hands would fly with the same rhythm and grace of his skates on ice, and the palmed object never turned up where you were expecting to see it. The gist of his secret was simple: misdirection. He subtly cued the audience to attend to something that distracted them from the real game and its real goal. In the mainstream press this game could be called “Watch my false dichotomy.”
A scant week before a showdown in Congress over funding the next escalation of war in Afghanistan, Rolling Stone's now-infamous interview with the now-defunct General Stanley McChrystal hit the stands. The general's adviser trash talked the president. His staff trash talked the vice president and other big Beltway dogs. Other media outlets erupted with speculation about what would happen next. It was leaked that the general might be removed. Speculation about who's really in charge – the civilian president, or the military – swirled through the blogosphere. Secretary of Defense Gates was quoted as saying McChrystal's remarks in the article were “distractions” from the war in Afghanistan.
A hallmark of sophisticated propaganda is that even its opposite is not true. Suppose your purpose was to misdirect attention from the issue of whom the United States government really represents at this point in history. False dichotomy is an excellent method, playing on our tendency to see situations in terms of either/or. For example, is President Obama the boss of McChrystal, or is it the other way around? The framing excludes a third possibility: maybe neither one of them is in charge of the war.
Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone presents the general as a sexy, charismatic bad boy who's kicking ass and taking names. An adoring female gazes on his youthful macho antics, waiting patiently while he gets his wrist slapped. He grows up to find a wimpy opponent the other corner of the ring: Washington. For the general, it was a crash course in Beltway politics – a battle that pitted him against experienced Washington insiders like Vice President Biden, who argued that a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan would plunge America into a military quagmire without weakening international terrorist networks.
Conflicts are the fuel that modern journalism runs on. This article served up several: Obama v. McChrystal, Obama v. Hillary Clinton: “Only Hillary Clinton receives good reviews from McChrystal's inner circle. 'Hillary had Stan's back during the strategic review,' says an adviser. 'She said, 'If Stan wants it, give him what he needs.'" (The general apparently has a way with women.)
McChrystal v. his troops: "...due to McChrystal's new restrictions to avoid upsetting civilians, the request had been denied. "These were abandoned houses," fumes Staff Sgt. Kennith Hicks. "Nobody was coming back to live in them." At this point you may be asking why soldiers actively engaged in war are publicly airing their differences instead of addressing them within the chain of command. What's up with the men in uniform mouthing off to a reporter for a magazine about pop culture?
The target audience of this article could be potential peaceniks. Here's some juicy bait that's dropped right at the beginning: Opposition to the war has already toppled the Dutch government, forced the resignation of Germany's president and sparked both Canada and the Netherlands to announce the withdrawal of their 4,500 troops. A feelgood message after years of freezing your butt off vigiling against using your taxes to kill people.
In a contest between a foul-mouthed white man with a history of violence, and a well-spoken black man who taught constitutional law, which side are you on? Still not sure? Here's the general in Paris: "I'd rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to this dinner," McChrystal says.
The personification of both the values we uphold and the values we reject draws us in emotionally, providing celebrity spokesmen we can imagine we relate to. It provides cover for misrepresenting what's really going on. "After graduation, 2nd Lt. Stanley McChrystal entered an Army that was all but broken in the wake of Vietnam. "We really felt we were a peacetime generation," he recalls. "There was the Gulf War, but even that didn't feel like that big of a deal." The general seems to have forgotten about NATO bombing Yugoslavia, about the US training torturers in the School of the Americas , about funding the contras in Nicaragua. How convenient. Also, when you're pretty sure everyone's paying more attention to the puppets than than to the puppeteers, you can slip in some more strategic misinformation: "...says Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer who has extensive experience in the region, "Afghanistan is not in our vital interest – there's nothing for us there."
We're not the first empire to think that Afghanistan was a vital corridor from central Eurasia to the sea, and we've done a pretty good job of building permanent bases both there and in Iraq, effectively surrounding Iran, the target of most of our recent sabre rattling. Where are the remaining fossil fuel reserves in the world? Which areas would you need to control to make sure that the biggest growth consumers of energy, India and China, don't get their hands on those reserves?
Another trope of misinformation employed in the article is “business as usual.” For example, Congress is corrupt (yawn): "...as McChrystal prepared for his confirmation hearings, his staff prepared him for hard questions about Camp Nama and the Tillman cover-up. But the scandals barely made a ripple in Congress, and McChrystal was soon on his way back to Kabul to run the war in Afghanistan. Also, anyone can be corrupted: "The Boss would find the 24-year-old kid with a nose ring, with some fucking brilliant degree from MIT, sitting in the corner with 16 computer monitors humming," says a Special Forces commando who worked with McChrystal in Iraq and now serves on his staff in Kabul. "He'd say, 'Hey – you fucking muscleheads couldn't find lunch without help. You got to work together with these guys.'"
Well it's one, two, three, what are we fighting for? And does a guy who say idealistic stuff so convincingly deserve to be dissed? "There is no denying the progress that the Afghan people have made in recent years – in education, in health care and economic development," the president says. "As I saw in the lights across Kabul when I landed – lights that would not have been visible just a few years earlier."
While you were wiping away that sentimental tear, Madam Speaker Pelosi, with guidance from other Democrat leaders, used the sneaky "self-executing rule" to push through another $33 billion for war. So who's really in charge: our elected officials, or the military top brass? Oops, false dichotomy again. Let's try this one. Who was invisible from the Rolling Stone article: U.S. taxpayers, or the stockholders and executives of corporations who profit from endless wars?