Repetition in Politics, News, Big Business and Human Suffering

Having evidently missed all the coverage of the 2003 recall, last Sunday's New York Times ran a story on how Arnold Schwarzenegger promotes his politics the same way he did The Terminator. Modest as ever, Duh Gubna was eager to share his crowd-pleasing secrets — how he trained himself to appear “real” in public, always stayed on message and wasn't afraid to repeat the same phrases every time.

“I come from the world of reps,” he explained with all the sagacity one expects of the Austrian Oak. “Remember that. It is all reps.”

You can say that again. The logic of capitalism is that everything, including politics, comes to be governed by marketing, and the essence of marketing is redundancy. Just as that accursed duck never stops quacking “AFLAC” (where's Elmer Fudd when you need him?), so President Bush tirelessly repeats the same few points, insisting that Iraq possessed WMDs or, now, that Social Security is in “crisis.” Who cares if it's true, as long as it's drummed into people's heads?

Of course, all political administrations seek to control public opinion. But the Bush White House has taken repetition to a whole new level. It has even sought to turn media coverage into an echo chamber, filtering out any noise that might interfere with the administration's iterations. That, as we keep re-discovering, includes buying good coverage. Last year, taxpayer funds bought mock news videos (aired by unwitting local stations) that praised Bush's Medicare plan. This year, the Education Department gave $240,000 to conservative payola pundit Armstrong Williams so he'd push the No Child Left Behind law, while another columnist, Maggie Gallagher, got $20,000 for talking up the president's ideas about marriage. Naturally, both Williams and Gallagher were shocked that anyone thought they'd done anything wrong. So was Jeff Gannon, a “correspondent” for the GOP-loving Talon News Service who, despite using an assumed moniker (his real name is James Guckert) and being a former gay escort, got day passes for two years from a White House delighted to accredit a pseudo-journalist known for repeating Republican talking points rather than posing real questions.

Ten years ago, such journalistic corruptions would have been a scandal. But in the Bush years, the bar keeps being lowered. Such behavior has come to seem normal — as normal as ABC preparing to pull the plug on Nightline, perhaps the last genuine news program on the broadcast networks. As it happens, I was never a great fan of Ted Koppel during his glory years when, despite his preening air of being late night's fearless prosecutor, he was too often a toady to power — it was nauseating how his toupee purred whenever he talked to war criminal Kissinger. Yet today, Nightline comes across like an old standard. It features long, reported pieces — the sort that currently turn up only on Now (recently cut down to half an hour by the craven PBS). It is precisely these pieces that spell the show's doom in a news culture less concerned with actual news than with talking heads braying the same opinions again and again.

A century ago, Freud argued that the compulsion to repeat is a symptom of psychological disarray: One keeps re-enacting the same thing over and over rather than confronting new ideas, new feelings, new experiences. That same repetition compulsion defines our media culture, but what old Sigmund once diagnosed as a neurotic tie to the death instinct is now seen as the very height of acumen — a way of selling your product, be it Viagra or war in Iraq.


It's nature's genius that the cycle of life repeats itself again and again. The galaxies wheel in orderly patterns, the seasons succeed each other with soothing regularity, one generation passes on its double helixes to the next. Of course, nature never repeats itself exactly — everything is always evolving — but the ecosystem has a built-in stability. If you grow a plant, it will produce seeds, and those seeds will produce more plants, which will in turn produce more seeds.

Until now, anyway. Back in the '90s, the U.S. government and Monsanto — whose slogan, “Imagine,” would have John Lennon throwing up — took out a joint patent on a scientific discovery nicknamed the Terminator Gene. This genetic breakthrough made it possible to create seeds that grow into full-fledged plants yet can never reproduce: Their seeds will all be sterile. Naturally, its creators offered high-minded reasons for such unnatural innovation, but everyone knew that Terminator Gene was all about commerce. After all, once you get farmers planting crops that can't reproduce, they have to buy your seeds year after year after year.

The trouble was that, no matter how you described the Terminator Gene, it sounded like something dreamed up by some nutty villain in a James Bond picture: “I will control all the food in the world, hah-hah!” By 1999, Monsanto announced it was abandoning attempts to sell this brave new product; indeed, the U.N. declared an international moratorium on the Terminator Gene. But ideas this seductive rarely go away — especially when the powerful know that trillions of dollars can be made by selling sterile seeds. As I write, there's a meeting in Bangkok of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice, an advisory group to the U.N.'s Convention on Biological Diversity. At that meeting, Canada — you know, that sane, progressive country you talked about moving to after the election — will propose that the whole world be allowed to start using Terminator Gene crops. The U.N. may not grant its wish, but does anyone doubt that eventually such deadly crops will get the okay? After all, it's the genius of capitalism to turn everything — even the very seeds of life — into a commodity that can be patented, owned and sold.


A few months after the genocide in Rwanda, I was visiting that country's capital city, Kigali, and bumped into a British reporter who'd been there during the bloodletting. “When the killing started,” he told me, “I thought somebody was certain to intervene. The world wouldn't let something like this happen.” He gave a phlegmy laugh. “I can't believe I was so naive.”

His words kept coming back to me as I watched the lavish coverage that greeted the 10th anniversary of that ghastly slaughter. PBS ran the superb documentary Ghosts of Rwanda. United Artists released Hotel Rwanda, featuring Don Cheadle's wrenching performance as hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina. Over in Utah, the Sundance audience voted its World Cinema Documentary award to Shake Hands With the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire, about the U.N. commander who remains haunted by his inability to stop the murder of hundreds of thousands of Rwandan innocents. All of these are tales of genuine pain and heroism, and I can't blame anyone for being moved by them any more than I would fault someone for leaving Shoah or Schindler's List and vowing, “Never again.”

If only. Even as the media recall our failure to act in Rwanda, there's another mass murder going on in Darfur, Sudan. Putting his life where his art is, the admirable Cheadle last week did a Nightline segment from Sudan, which reminded viewers of the cruel facts of this new genocide (against so-called ethnic Africans): 70,000 civilians killed so far, 2 million chased from their homes. And talk about the compulsion to repeat, the developed countries are once again dithering. Predictably so. After all, the people of Darfur have the ill fortune to suffer from that most invisible of afflictions — dying
while African.

For many of us on the left, it would be a pleasure to pin the world's inaction on President Bush, as Bill Clinton bears responsibility for the Rwandan disgrace (for which he belatedly apologized). But according to Harvard's Samantha Power, the go-to authority on genocide, things are trickier than that. Compared to other developed countries — especially scoffing France and Russia — the Bush administration has been quite attentive to Darfur. Goaded by the Christian right, it gave that country nearly $200 million in relief, dispatched Colin Powell to the scene and pushed other nations to condemn the Sudanese leadership in Khartoum. That is, it showed concern for innocent victims in a country that the West clearly doesn't give a damn about.

Still, when you consider the effort going into Iraq's extreme makeover, it's obvious that the administration should be doing much, much more — and the left should be pushing it to do so. Over the last few months, President Bush has been lecturing audiences about how freedom is on the march — it's one set of reps he never tires of doing. I wonder how his words would sound in Darfur, where people deprived of the most fundamental of freedoms — the freedom not to be murdered in their homes — keep waiting for the U.S. to come to the rescue. One fears they will hope in vain. If the last hundred years have taught us anything, it's that the world will not step in to protect the innocent, but once they are terminated, it will weep at the movie made about the tragedy and insist that such a lapse in moral courage will never again be repeated.

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