The American Id

Thursday, October 4th, 2007

I don’t know how many people read the Sun, but my guess is that even if its circulation stats aren’t greater than, oh, Foreign Affairs, let us say, or The New Yorker, its position in the American consciousness is more central simply by virtue of its commanding niche on convenience-store and drugstore news racks from sea to shining sea.

When America goes shopping, it’s confronted by a distorted image of itself in a million checkout lines and shopping aisles, as though this is what matters to us: babes and bikes and pecs, tawdry gossip and freak-show inanities. How, I’ve sometimes wondered in passing, as I’ve waited in line to pay for soap or toothpaste and couldn’t help but feel my attention pulled to the magazines and tabloids on display, did this particular limited range of special-interest publications wind up as what you might call the default setting of our intellectual life?

For instance, get a load of this recent cover story in the aforementioned Sun — a stealth product of American Media Inc., which claims to reach 50 million readers with its array of health-and-fitness and “celebrity journalism” titles (including the National Enquirer, which is positively upscale compared to the barely acknowledged Sun):

Against a generic inferno backdrop and just below the paper’s “God Bless America” logo, the headline proclaims: “Thousands will die in Thanksgiving Day massacre as. . . ARMAGEDDON BEGINS IN IRAN.”

When America faces a threat, we all must do our part. This publication has the self-appointed task of marketing our next war to impulse buyers.

Three of the major tabloid prophets — Nostradamus, Edgar Cayce and none other than John the Baptist — all agree on a surprisingly precise scenario, it turns out. This Thanksgiving Day, Iran’s Council of Ayatollahs will decide to slaughter every last Christian and Jew within the country’s borders. Stunned world leaders, “after much debate,” will decide to nuke Iran — but, guess what? Contrary to what the newspapers say, Iran already has a huge nuclear arsenal at the ready and it responds with “a merciless barrage of missiles” aimed at U.S. population centers. It gets so bad that George Bush and Nancy Pelosi appeal to the survivors to pray, and Jesus himself responds, leading an army of angels . . .

Well, I won’t go on. We win, but it’s ugly.

My apologies for bringing it up. I don’t usually monitor the tabloids, but their widely disseminated appeal to the American id — the impulse center — is in eerie sync with the Bush administration, which is selling a scenario with barely more credibility.

“I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran’s murderous activities,” the president said in August, reducing complexity to its constituent parts — good and evil — and generating applause from his audience of American Legion conventioneers. This was applause for another war, and it emanated, I’d wager, more from the id than the neocortex — from emotional catharsis, not from fact-finding, reflection and analysis.

Like tabloid Armageddon, in other words, real bombing campaigns and real invasions are rooted in the myth of redemptive violence (in the terminology of theologian Walter Wink). Mythical violence is cleansing and glorious — “surgical.” It sets things aright and leaves behind no messy consequences.

War is always sold, and its costs calculated, in the short term. Thus when Iran’s evil emanated from its alleged nuclear-weapons program, the solution was to bomb its nuclear facilities out of existence. What are the environmental consequences of bombing a nuclear plant? Who cares? To ask that question is, of course, to traverse the slippery slope that leads to an anti-war mentality.

But now Iranian WMD are on the back burner. As Seymour Hersh points out in a lengthy analysis the Oct. 8 New Yorker — and just try finding it at your corner 7-Eleven — the “campaign to convince the American public that Iran poses an imminent nuclear threat has failed” and “there is not enough popular support for a major bombing campaign.” So now the focus is on Iran’s support of America’s enemy in Iraq.

But this gets hairy because, as Hersh points out, “The crux of the Bush administration’s strategic dilemma is that its decision to back a Shiite-led government after the fall of Saddam has empowered Iran, and made it impossible to exclude Iran from the Iraqi political scene.”

We opened the door for Iran’s involvement in Iraq and now we think we can extricate ourselves from the mess and paradox with another war, another enemy, another unsheathing of the terrible swift sword.

If you don’t think this will work, read the tabloids.