There’s no shortage of debate in the political arena. But examining critically the framework within which the debate on any particular issue is limited may be instructive.
Take debate about U.S. foreign policy and, more specifically, war. Typically, the limits of the framework are defined by groups falling into a given category: “hawks” and “doves”, say, or “conservatives” and “liberals”, etc.
Take an example from history, the debate over the Vietnam war. On the one hand there were those who were in favor of the war and characterized it as an act of U.S. benevolence (the “hawks”).
On the extreme other end, there were those who characterized the war as an act of benevolence, executed with the best of intentions, but who criticized the war as a “mistake”, a series of errors in judgment, perhaps even the result of negligence or gross incompetence (the “doves”).
This was generally the framework within which the debate was limited as defined by politicians and the media. Anyone espousing a position outside of this framework, say, at times, the majority of Americans, is considered some sort of radical whose thoughts are not worthy of consideration.
In our Vietnam example, this would include those who opposed the war, say, on moral grounds, which, polls indicated after the war, included most Americans.
The same pattern has certainly repeated itself with the Iraq issue.
The media works to limit the framework in many ways, including by simply parroting talking points along party lines and obediently limiting discussion and analysis to the framework defined by the politicians. The media may push the limits of that framework outward slightly, but not in any really significant way.
Another means by which this framework is established is by presenting the extremes on either end as the point beyond which there is nothing but void, as though the extremes of the framework were yin and yang, black and white, alpha and omega, when, in reality, they constitute a very narrow band along a very much wider spectrum. For example, it is often said that there is a “liberal” media, the implication being that the media often presents an extreme far “left” viewpoint. But if one actually examines the framework within which the “liberal” media actually operate, this myth exposes itself.
To take a current example, we may examine the reporting on the Iran issue, an issue over which the Bush administration has repeatedly declared might be dealt with by means of military action. Since writing that last sentence, I just went to the New York Times online to find a random example, entitled “Iran’s Secrecy Widens Gap in Nuclear Intelligence” (May 19).
The title, needless to say, implies that Iran is being unduly secretive about it’s nuclear program. Reading further, one can see that the truth is that Iran is fulfilling it’s obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (NPT) Treaty by allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to fully monitor their nuclear program. But this message, while in fact communicated, is not readily discernable by merely a precursory examination of the text. One must read between the lines and recognize the means by which the framework for discussion is established.
For example, the Times explained the “secrecy” by reporting that “in February, after three years of unusual openness, Iran drastically reduced access to Natanz and dozens of other atomic sites, programs and personnel.”
A little further on, one reads: “Now that Iran has cut international access to the minimum required under arms-control accords, analysts are left with far fewer tools to penetrate those mysteries, many of which involve how close Iran is to mastering the transformation of uranium and plutonium into atomic fuel.”
In other words, Iran had previously been allowing the IAEA access above and beyond that required by the NPT treaty in a demonstration of openness, but more recently curtailed that access to merely fulfill their obligations. This is what is described by the Times’ headline as Iran’s “secrecy”, and which is often further characterized by eager politicians, happily parroted by a compliant media, as Iran’s failure to fulfill its “obligations”, which, translated from doublespeak, refers not to Iran’s obligations under the NPT treaty, which protect the right to develop nuclear technology for civilian purposes, but to the West’s demands that Iran surrender those very same rights.
“As a result,” of this “secrecy”, the Times tells us, “the world is losing much of its ability to answer pressing questions about Iran’s nuclear ambitions: how fast Tehran could make an atom bomb, and whether it harbors a program to do so.” That would include US intelligence services, whose primary access to information on Iran’s nuclear program is the IAEA (just as UNMOVIC and, prior to that, UNSCOM, were the US’s principle source of information on Iraq’s WMD programs, though one could not readily discern this fact from reading New York Times coverage prior to the invasion).
What’s more, the reasons for Iran’s decisions to merely meet its obligations under the NPT treaty is something the Times sees unfit to print. Specifically, unworthy of comment is that Iran’s decision was the well-predicted result of continued US pressure upon Iran to surrender its right, guaranteed under the terms of the NPT treaty to which it is party, to develop nuclear technology.
In short, the US took deliberate actions which would knowingly result in Iran limiting IAEA access from “unusual openness” to “secrecy” (i.e., merely in fulfillment of their treaty obligations), which “secrecy” is then hinted at as some sort of evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.
Reasoned debate is healthy and necessary for a functioning democracy. But for reasoned debate to occur, the framework within which debate is so often limited must be recognized and discarded. Only by doing so may rational analysis and healthy debate occur, and only by these means may today’s policies, the “mistakes” of tomorrow, be prevented.