Solomon will be speaking at MacEwan Ballroom Fri., Nov. 2.
courtesy Norman Solomon

Media and the warfare state

Q and A with media critic Norman Solomon

Publication YearIssue Date 

American author and media critic Norman Solomon has been an active voice within the independent media sector since first getting involved with independent, alternative radio in 1971. He has written extensively about the close relationship between corporate media and American politics, and the harmful effects of this relationship, specifically in the context of war. His latest book, "Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America's Warfare State," presents both a historical examination and personal reflection of the warfare state's evolution throughout the last fifty years. Solomon will be speaking about Media and Democracy in the Digital Era in MacEwan Ballroom at 7 p.m. Fri., Nov. 2.

Gauntlet: Where did you start out as a journalist?

Solomon: I started out in the Washington, D.C. area in high school, and then after high school at a mainstream, weekly paper in the mid to late-1960s.

G: Was there something that specifically sparked your change in attitude towards the mainstream media?

S: It was a number of things, but a big element was the Vietnam War, and the way in which the war, and the dissent against the war, was being covered or not covered.

G: Why are you so intrigued by the idea of the 'warfare state' and what exactly does this idea mean by your definition?

S: The ways that war and militarianism permeate so much of United States society are very powerful in all walks of life and often we don't notice it. It's a concentric condition, there are many different rings around the circle--the personal dimensions of acceptance and of enablement. There are the media aspects of messages and numbing, the political dimensions of rhetoric and the economic driving forces. There are huge profits being made from what President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex.

G: What do you mean by "numbing?"

Desensitizing is important for the war-fare state and if there is sort of an anesthetic provided to feeling, then its helpful for encouraging and achieving acceptance and passivity from individuals and society as a whole.

G: What is your latest book about?

S: It's really about the last half century, the fifty years of the warfare state in the U.S., in its different dimensions, often personal, certainly social and cultural, as well as economic and political. A lot of the media threads go through so many different aspects of life. Since I grew up in the 1950s and 60s, it's an opportunity to examine the history of the United States in its different dimensions, and then use that as a counterpoint my own first-hand experiences, my eye-witness accounts, which is another dimension of the historical record.

G: You have said "the warfare state doesn't come and go." Do you think the majority of Americans just accept the warfare state as the way their government operates, or are the majority ignorant to the idea in the first place?

S: Most people accept it and there are varying degrees of accommodation and knowledge. It is a constant, and therefore, it is something we become acculturated to, even though our responses are widely different. It's very tough for us to get an overview of the warfare state, as a topic for media discussion, as there are these pervasive effects on society.

G: Why do you think it is such a hard topic to get access to? Is it because of media control, or is it because people don't necessarily want to understand it?

S: It's so large, that's one aspect, and also its frightening, which might account for some aversion from looking at it. It goes to the core of who we are as individuals in society. Darwin had the opinion that what distinguishes humans most of all from other animals is conscience. Once you get into questions of your country being at war, then there is a conscience--you either kick it or don't. A lot of people are conflicted about their action or lack of action in response to a war that is done in their names with their tax dollars.

G: Do you think a large number of Americans think the idea of the warfare state is just a left-wing myth that has been devised to scare people?

S: When you get down to the particulars, most people are at least a little bit opposed, but when it comes to the systemic nature of what I think is accurately described as the warfare state, there is a lot of failure to engage with it. It's not a problem, not a huge problem or "too big for me to deal with." I don't think that's a good approach, because even if you're not into politics, politics is into you and will affect your life whether you want it to or not.

G: Can the democracies of the U.S. and Canada be true democracies under such consolidated news media? If so, then how?

S: I would say we have elements of democracy and real gaps--absences and short-falls of democracy--and the absences we pay for dearly. The elements of democracy that we have--the freedoms of speech and press--give us opportunities, but how that will be resolved is all up for grabs. One of the important ways to affect the future will be independent media that provide an alternative to the corporate-driven coverage. It's one of the key elements for the future--how strong and what character alternative media can develop.

G: What do you think the future holds for alternative media? Can it sustain itself in the face of increasing media conglomeration?

S: I think it can sustain itself, and even grow, but at the same time the major question is 'to what extent can the independent media make inroads in public awareness.' Because [independent media is] marginalized, [there are] limitations on [its] impacts.

G: How much promise does the internet hold for alternative media?

S: The promise is enormous, but the dangers are quite large too, in terms of the efforts to create a two-tiered system and with the corporate effort to exploit more from the internet. While we are so often told that the internet is revolutionizing media and is a tool for democracy--it potentially is, but technology has never created democracy, people have always created democracy. It has been tempting to believe that one technological innovation after another--going from the telegraph to radio to television to cable TV and to the internet--will be the tipping point for democracy, and that's not the case. Decentralized technology such as the internet is necessary, but not sufficient for creating authentic democratic discourse.

G: Does the responsibility to change the current system of corporate media lie with journalists or with media consumers?

S: It's a shared responsibility. We all need to keep pushing from our various angles--nobody gets off the hook. The term media activism is almost an oxymoron in our cultural context, because media is passivity, at least that is the intended result from corporate programmers. They want us to keep watching, listening and reading. The idea that we could be actively engaged in media is a relatively new one for a lot of people, and yet that's really the key. Media activism is the opposite of media passivity.

G: What can the average citizen do to stand up to the media conglomerates?

S: It's about not simply consuming--not defining ourselves as those who buy, listen, read and hear, but as those who speak, think, organize, critique and are part of the process of communication, rather than simply tuning in.