Heres to the pseudo-literate Puritans of the U.S.A..
If you want to get through to the American public, dont put it in words--put it in pictures. And if you really want the average American to perk up and pay attention, make the pictures about sex. From Janet Jacksons nipple to Iraqi prisoners penises, nothing does it for us like sex, you betcha.
For two years now, organizations like Human Rights Watch and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have been telling us that George Bushs imperial drones have been abusing prisoners beyond the limits of the Geneva Conventions. These organizations have long warned that prisoners in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo are being humiliated, tortured and (in some suspect cases) murdered in the name of the War on Terror. The ICRC has issued regular press releases about prisoners being deprived of sleep for days, made to endure extremes of cold and heat, exposed to near-drowning, and tied up and forced to contort themselves for hours in positions of agony--all of which adds up to torture by anybodys standards except, perhaps, those of Donald Rumsfeld. These warnings of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch have been in the newspapers and magazines for two years.
And for two years, Mr. and Mrs. America have paid no attention.
You see, like pre-literate three-year-olds, Americans need to see the pictures to understand the story.
Americas newspapers and magazines now know their proper role in the media arena: Their role is to tell Tom Brokaw, CNN, and Fox what pictures to show, so at least some small bit of the news can actually get through to John and Jane Q. America. Thank you, Seymour Hersh. Thank you, The New Yorker
. Nobody reads what you have to say, but hell, if you can direct Peter Jennings and Bill OReilly to the pictures--especially if theyre pictures of piles of naked people with, ooh la la, leering young women in the foreground--well sure as heck look at those.
Because Americans dont read. And we love both sex and the shame it makes us feel.
According to the U.S. Department of Education (USDE), 96% of Americans can in fact read. Thats pretty good, by world standards. But a quarter of those supposedly literate Americans could not, according to the USDE, "draft a letter explaining an error on their credit card bill" and at least another quarter could not follow the ideas in this column. (No jokes, please.)
Even those Americans who can read, dont. According to the Pew Research Center (whose frequent, admirable polling work should be required reading for anyone in the media), in a recent survey, 68% of Americans say they are getting their main news about this years presidential campaign from television, while only 15% are getting it from newspapers, and just 1% are getting it from magazines. No wonder George Bush--the nations Illiterate-in-Chief--didnt concern himself with the torture scandal until 60 Minutes
put it on the air.
Its even worse than that. According to the Pew poll, only 10% of Americans get any of their campaign news from magazines like Time
, while fully 20% get it from "morning TV shows." Maybe Seymour Hersh should just send his sources directly to Katie Couric.
He should make sure they bring pictures of naked people with them.
My guess is, if the only pictures coming out of Abu Ghraib showed fully-clothed prisoners being threatened by attack dogs or electrodes, the American public would have just shrugged the whole thing off by now. But bring sex into those pictures, and we suddenly weep and gnash our teeth in self-loathing. Theres nothing a Puritan loves better than to beat himself up over sex.
A psychologist friend told me last week that in some mental-health circles the theory has it that the American public is, in his words, "getting off" on the whole Abu Ghraib torture story. We are, according to the psychologists, both attracted to and repelled by the lascivious, sado-masochistic aspects of the scandal. We are titillated by the images of helpless, naked men forced to perform fellatio on each other and to pile into heaps of faux-homosexual activity. We are mesmerized by images of healthy young American women gazing at the penises of men tied up and hooded. But then, note the psychologists, we are also the spiritual descendants of the Puritans, whatever our denomination. And so we loathe ourselves for gaping at precisely what attracts us.
This is a persuasive theory. After all, what else can you expect from a nation that, on the one hand, has made Internet sex sites the biggest industry on the Web and, on the other, falls into a red-faced faint over JJs Superbowl Boob?
So perhaps thats the real reason for our "outrage" over what happened at Abu Ghraib prison: We hate ourselves for loving Torture Porn. For the American public, what happened in Abu Ghraib is really a sex scandal. You watch: When the pictures of grinning young women in uniform and naked young men in bondage stop coming out, and the story is merely about suffocation, electrocution, and other forms of individualized terror, the American public will turn their attention somewhere else.
If its not in pictures and its not about sex, we just dont care.
Case in point: On Friday, May 21, the Red Cross issued a press release stating that the United States may be holding prisoners on Diego Garcia, a small island leased from the British in the Indian Ocean. The Geneva Conventions call for the Red Cross to have access to all prisoners worldwide, but Rumsfeld and company have not allowed the Red Cross to check up on any of our prisoners outside of Afghanistan, Iraq or Guantanamo. (Other human rights organizations have warned that the U.S. may also be sending some prisoners to countries where they can be tortured by surrogate sadists, so American sadists dont have to dirty their hands.) The prisoners in Diego Garcia, if there are any, are out of sight. That means, for the American public, they are also out of mind.
You probably missed this Red Cross press release. It was in the small print on the Internet, primarily on foreign press sites. The mainstream American media, it seems, have given up on such news. No sexy pictures.
Two weeks back, there was another nonsexy news item you might have missed: The U.S. State Department issued its annual human rights report. Originally, the report, titled "Supporting Human Rights and Democracy," was scheduled to come out May 5, but then the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. White House pols arranged for the reports release to be postponed for several weeks, fearing it might be, um, just a tad embarrassing. You see, this years U. S. Human Rights Report condemns 101 other countries for their human rights violations. When this was brought up in Mexico City at a recent international conference following the Abu Ghraib news, the audience laughed derisively.
And why not? Our Illiterate-in-Chief can barely bring himself to apologize for Abu Ghraibs atrocities. Of course, this is the same president whose White House counsel, Albert Gonzales, two years ago actually recommended
that we not abide by the Geneva Conventions. Gonzales, by the way, has been touted by neocons for the next appointment to the Supreme Court. Think of the laughter that will generate in the rest of the world.
So are the prisoners we hold on Diego Garcia being tortured by Americans? Are other prisoners, in other places we dont know about, being tortured by proxies working under the guidance of Bushs drones? Most Americans will never know, even if Seymour Hersh tries to tell us. We can only hope that among the soldiers and intelligence agents "debriefing" those poor souls are a few with their own digital cameras.