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Weapons Of Mass Stupidity

Fox News hits a new lowest common denominator

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It's the inviolable first rule of democracy that all politicians will praise the wisdom of the people -- an effusive flattery that intensifies when they ask "the people" to swallow something exceptionally inedible. What the people never hear from anyone, or from anyone with further ambitions, is the truth. If a public figure wishes to leave the stage forever, a sound strategy is to offer his fellow citizens a candid and disparaging assessment of their intelligence.In the aftermath of the conquest of Iraq, as we awake to the bewildering possibility of a United States of Asia, the patriotic pageantry and premature gloating call to mind an obsession that once gripped the great French novelist Gustave Flaubert. (In my recklessness I ignore the halfwit embargo on all things French.) Flaubert, according to W.G. Sebald, became convinced that his own work and his own brain had been infected by a national epidemic of stupidity, a relentless tide of gullibility and muddled thinking which made him feel, he said, as if he were sinking into sand.

At his low point, Flaubert convinced himself that everything he had written had been contaminated and "consisted solely of a string of the most abysmal errors and lies." Sometimes he lay on his couch for months, frozen with the dread that anything he wrote would only extend Stupidity's domain. Flaubert became a scholar of moronic utterances, painstakingly collecting hundreds of what he called betises -- stupidities -- and arranging them in his "Dictionary of Received Opinions."

The wondrous blessing God bestowed on Gustave Flaubert -- and on America's own great chroniclers of contagious stupidity, Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken -- is that they lived and died without imagining a thing like Fox News. It's easy to laugh at Rupert Murdoch's outrageous mongrel, the impossible offspring of supermarket tabloids, sitcom news spoofs, police-state propaganda mills and the World Wrestling Federation.

Fox News is an oxymoron and Cheech and Chong would have made a more credible team of war correspondents than Geraldo Rivera and Ollie North. Neither Saturday Night Live nor the 1973 film Network, Paddy Chayefsky's corrosive satire of TV news, could even approach the comic impact of Geraldo embedded, or of Fox's pariah parade, its mothball fleet of experts who always turn out to be disgraced or indicted Republican refugees. If Ed Meese, Newt Gingrich and Elliott Abrams couldn't fill your sails with mirth, you could count on the recently deposed Viceroy of Virtue and High Regent of Rectitude, my old schoolmate Blackjack Bill Bennett.

With its red-faced, hyperventilating reactionaries and slapstick abuse of lame "liberal" foils who serve them as crash dummies, Fox News could easily be taken as pure entertainment, even as inspired burlesque of the rightwing menagerie. But the problem -- in fact, the serious problem - is that Fox isn't kidding, and brownshirts aren't funny.

Harper's reports that Fox commentator Bill O'Reilly became so infuriated by the son of a 9-ll victim who opposed the war -- "I'm against it and my father would have been against it, too" -- that he cursed the man and even threatened him off-camera. A Fox TV anchor, one Neil Cavuto, celebrated the fall of Baghdad by informing all of us who opposed the war in March, "You were sickening then, you are sickening now." If reports are accurate, these troubled men are neither bad journalists nor even bad actors portraying journalists -- they're mentally unbalanced individuals whose partisan belligerence is pressing them to the brink of psychosis.

But the scariest thing about Fox and Rupert Murdoch, the thing that renders them all fear and no fun in a time of national crisis, is that they channel for the Bush administration as faithfully as if they were on the White House payroll. Like no other substantial media outlet in American history, Fox serves -- voluntarily -- as the propaganda arm of a controversial, manipulative, image-obsessed government. To watch its war coverage for even a minute was to grind your teeth convulsively at each Orwellian repetition of the Newspeak mantra, "Operation Iraqi Freedom." I swear I hate to stoop to Nazi analogies; but if Joseph Goebbels had run his own cable channel, it would have been indistinguishable from Fox News.

Fox's truculent patriotism is misleading, of course. Rupert Murdoch is not exactly an American patriot, he's not even exactly an American. Though he became an American citizen in 1985 (solely to qualify, under US law, as the owner of a TV network), the Australian Murdoch was already 54 and his tabloid formula had already polluted the media mainstreams in Australia and Great Britain. Murdoch is an insatiable parasite, a vampirish lamprey who fastens himself to English-speaking nations and grows fat on their cultural lifeblood, leaving permanently degraded media cultures in his wake. Rabid patriotism is a product he sells, along with celebrity gossip, naked women and smirky bedroom humor, in every country he contaminates. And a little "white rage" racism has always gone into his mix for good measure. ("He tried so hard to use race to sell his newspapers that he became known as "Tar Baby' Murdoch," Jimmy Breslin once charged.)

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