Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Message-Force Multipliers and Panic at the Pump

Last Sunday’s New York Times published a massive, well-sourced piece of investigative journalism on news networks’ use of Pentagon-briefed “military analysts” to comment favorably on the war in Iraq. These retired high-ranking officers were called “message force multipliers,” and “surrogates," spinning war news to keep the intervention justified and the outlook positive. Though they looked like neutral experts, some of them also worked for defense industries as lobbyists or consultants, and the broadcasters failed to investigate or disclose a conflict of interest. More damning, the Pentagon apparently used public funds to propagandize the American people, which, believe it or not, is still illegal. Apparently the chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services is requesting an investigation. None of this is much of a surprise. It’s that bad old military-industrial complex, and the “corporate media” is just an industry in league with the folks getting rich selling big guns, exactly what Eisenhower warned us about in 1961.

That said, in his farewell address to the nation, the military-industrial complex was just one of the two threats to American democracy Eisenhower mentioned, and I almost never see reference to the second: the government’s relationship to research:

“Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.”

It’s easy to point to the fulfillment of Eisenhower’s forecast of the power of the military- industrial complex, but this second “threat” at first seems harder to nail down (except by those of us who smugly congratulate ourselves for eschewing “administrative” research). It’s hard to grasp how the general public was meant to understand it then, and how we can understand it now. This view of “free ideas” – as opposed to ideas that cost a lot and require validation with a patent or other “deliverable” – seems romantic but obsolete. However, when paired with the American dependence on oil, and the lengths to which we go to “protect our interests” in the Middle East, Eisenhower’s skeptical glance at “the power of money” in allocating research funds makes a lot of sense. The scholars he imagines are “hard” scientists – those who might have figured out some energy alternatives by now, had public money been aggressively allocated to this sort of research instead of war (and internally-targeted psy-ops programs put in place to justify war). As critical media scholars, we have some interest in examining the demise of the notion of “free ideas,” and wondering whether the education industry has long been covered by Eisenhower’s first warning, leaving the second warning elegantly phrased and interesting to read, but ultimately redundant.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Jesus Christ, Superman

Given my religious allegiances, and my amateur interest in the possibilities of sequential art (not to be confused with the actual expertise of our own pravdakid, of which see below), it was probably inevitable that I would end up directing readers to this story. And for those of you who aren’t into the whole “Christian” thing; the very notion of a British artist of African heritage using a Japanese variation on a medium generally associated with twentieth century American popular culture, in order to update a several thousand year-old text from the Middle East, should be interesting simply as an example of the emerging, global ecumene, if nothing else.