Unlocking the Language Room of War


The late poet Allen Ginsberg, who was a teacher and friend, knew that issues of media and language were crucial to our prospects for building a real and humane democracy in America. Allen was an avid reader of the alternative press, and an enthusiastic supporter of
the group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. In one of his great antiwar poems of the Vietnam era, "Wichita Vortex Sutra," Allen challenged the "amnesia" and "television language" of the corporate media and wrote: "I
search for the language / that is also yours / almost all our language has been taxed by war." How relevant those words sound today.

Later in the same poem, Allen called all "Powers of imagination" to his side and wrote the memorable line, "I here declare the end of the War!" Allen’s idea was that, in
the poet-prophet tradition, what can be imagined can one day be made real.

Unfortunately, it is rare to find anything close to that level of imagination in our mainstream media, which these last few years has all-too-often seemed locked in the language of war.

Locked in the language of war, it’s impossible to find another way out.

Locked in the language of war, the corporate media too often locked out sensible antiwar voices, failed to tell the public often enough that there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, and failed to highlight strongly enough that weapons inspectors before the war had followed U.S. intelligence agency leads and had not found any WMD’s.

Locked in the language of war, the mainstream press was unable to untangle the adminstration’s knotted and contradictory prewar justifications, just as it has been unable to highlight and explore the recent Freudian revelations of President Bush saying that Iraq has been a "catastrophic success" and that his administration is constantly looking for new ways to harm our country.

Locked in the language of war, no mainstream media outlet has devoted sufficient attention to the question of how many Iraqis have been killed or seriously injured in this unnecessary adventure.

Locked in the language of war, the mainstream media failed to explore alternative ways that solidarity might have been expressed with the Iraqi people without bombing and maiming the people the neocons were claiming to want to liberate.

Inside the language of war,mwe continue to get sound-bite explanations and historical amnesia.

Locked in the language of war, the major media failed to point out that the Bush administration was effectively declaring bankruptcy of the imagination by undertaking the illegal and immoral precedent of preventive war.

Locked and lost in the language of war, the corporate media’s half-hearted apologies for their pre-war coverage inevitably come too late and not nearly deep enough.

Look at the magnifying lens through which the media has tried to find any tiny instance of violence on the part of those of us protesting the Bush agenda here in NYC this week. What if
that lens was used instead to look at the death and destruction caused by war? Why isn’t that magnifying lens, for example, used to look at the dangers of depleted uranium weapons, which were used so widely in this Iraq war and which seem to have been causing cancer and birth defects in Iraqi civilians as well as American troops since their use in the first Gulf War. After this week of news coverage, I’ve come to think that in order to get the mainstream press to focus more closely on whether Depleted Uranium ought to be banned as a weapon of widespread destruction, we would need to announce that the DU missiles are lining up for a peace march and that some of them are anarchists.

Of course, it’s not only in the area of foreign policy that our mainstream press shows its lack of imagination. Night after endless TV night, the networks cite changes in the stock exchange as an implied indicator of the state of the American economy, an indicator that sometimes seems to lodge in the subconscious even of Americans who don’t own much or any stock. Instead of, or in addition to, stock exchange numbers, imagine what would happen if CBS ABC CNN FOX MSNBC gave us nightly figures for the increasing number of homeless people in America, whether the number of those going without health insurance is up or down, whether more or fewer people around the world have access to clean water tonight? With such daily scorekeeping, wouldn’t our elected leaders be more likely to find the resources
to address these urgent social needs?

Too often these days, led by Fox, cable TV news seems to news what professional wrestling is to wrestling. There may be nuggets of geniune news and analysis in there somewhere, but those nuggets can be difficult to find beneath the hype, the bluster, the pre-scripted storylines, and the limited scope of so-called experts and ideas. Professional wrestling may get good ratings, but that doesn’t make it honest. And that doesn’t mean it provides the information on which a thriving democracy depends.

While we work to challenge and improve the mainstream media, it is lucky for the planet that we have the fast-growing independent media; that we have inventive writers and artists envisioning and sketching more humane possibilities that might one day be made real; and that we have millions of creative citizens of the world, many of whom have come to rally in NYC during the Republican convention to expose the
harmful and unjust policies of the Bush administration, to "press the press" as my friend Danny Schechter the News Dissector puts it, and to unlock the doors that hold the language of war in place and speak out in myriad ways to move our country in a new direction–one that reflects our most progressive democratic, egalitarian, peaceful, and ecological principles.

(Originally published in Common Dreams, 2004)