"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Politics News
(updated below – Update II – Update III – Update IV – Update V – Update VI)
Many have compared the coordinated propaganda campaign now being disseminated about The Iranian Threat to that which preceded the Iraq War, but there is one notable difference. Whereas the American media in 2002 followed the lead of the U.S. government in beating the war drums against Saddam, they now seem even more eager for war against Iran than the U.S. government itself, which actually appears somewhat reluctant. Consider this highly illustrative, one-minute report yesterday from the nightly broadcast of NBC News with Brian Williams, by the network’s Chief Pentagon Correspondent Jim “Mik” Miklaszewski, which packs multiple misleading narratives into one short package:
We’re told that if the U.S. ends up in a war with Iran, then “the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet would be the world’s first line of defense“: because Iran is threatening the entire world, and the U.S. would be defending “the world” from this grave Persian menace. Then there’s the ominous claim that “Iranian leaders have threatened all-out war”: but that’s “if Israel launches air strikes against Iran’s nuclear program,” which would already itself be “all-out war.” The NBC story — which begins with video shots of Iranians in lab coats lurking around complex, James-Bond-villain-like nuclear-ish machines — ends with twenty seconds of scary video footage of Iranian missiles being launched, accompanied with this narration: “U.S. officials warn that Iran’s massive stockpile of ballistic missiles is the more serious threat”; after all, “within just the past few days, Iranian leaders [cue video of a scary, ranting Ahmedinijad] have threatened that if attacked, they would launch those missiles at U.S. targets.”
It’s just remarkable to watch the American media depict Iran as the threatening, aggressive party here. Literally on a daily basis, political and media figures in both the U.S. and Israel openly threaten to attack Iran and debate how the attack should happen with a casualness that most people use to contemplate what to have for lunch. The U.S. has orchestrated devastating and always-escalating sanctions which, by design, are wrecking the Iranian economy, collapsing its currency, and generating serious hardship for its 75 million citizens. The U.S. military has that country almost completely encircled. The U.S. military behemoth, and Israel’s massive nuclear stockpile and sophisticated weaponry, make the Iranian military by comparison look almost as laughable as Saddam’s. Iran’s scientists have been serially murdered on its own soil, their facilities bombarded with sophisticated cyber attacks, and dissident groups devoted to the overthrow of their government (ones even the U.S. designates as Terrorists) have been armed, trained and funded by Israel while leading American politicians openly shill for them in exchange for substantial payments.
Yet the Manichean narrative driving this NBC report is par for the media course: Iran’s aggression must be contained, and it is leaving the U.S. and Israel with no choice but to pre-emptively attack it. Most telling is how Iran is continuously depicted as though they are the ones issuing threats of aggression even though all of their threats are retaliatory: if you attack us, we will attack back. Here, for instance, was how The Washington Post – under the headline “Iran, perceiving threat from West, willing to attack on U.S. soil, U.S. intelligence report finds” — described the recent warnings about The Iranian Danger from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper:
That plot “shows that some Iranian officials — probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime,” Clapper said in the testimony, which was submitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee in advance of a threat assessment hearing Tuesday. “We are also concerned about Iranian plotting against U.S. or allied interests overseas.”
What I like about the latest Iranian hijinks is that everyone is so forthright about the fact that any increase in Iranian bellicosity–ahem, “real or perceived”–is the direct result of American sword-rattling. There’s not even a stutter in the direction of circumlocution. It’s all straight up: “Senator, we are concerned that the Iranians may respond if we go to war with them.” It may necessitate a war!
The propaganda at play here is intense indeed. For several years, the U.S. and Israel threaten on an almost daily basis to aggressively attack a country, all while engaging in multiple acts of war against them, and then when their leaders suggest they may not acquiesce to such an attack with passivity and gratitude, those vows of defensive retaliation are used to depict them as the threat-issuing aggressors. And the American media, as always, eagerly implants the propaganda. Thus, if such a war breaks out, NBC News‘ Mik announces, “the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet would be the world’s first line of defense,” though those crazed Persian leaders have threatened to use “Iran’s massive stockpile of ballistic missiles” and to “launch those missiles at U.S. targets.”
I used to find somewhat baffling this bizarre aspect of American public opinion: time and again, Americans support whatever new war of aggression their government proposes, then come to regret that support and decide the war was a “mistake,” only to demonstrate that they learned no lessons from their “mistake” by eagerly supporting whatever the next proposed war is. Thus did the widespread belief that Vietnam was a “mistake” have no impact on their support for the attack on Iraq, and now — with some polls showing Americans, before their government even proposes it, preliminarily willing to cheer on an attack on Iran — it is clear they have learned nothing from their acknowledged “mistake” in supporting the attack on Iraq. Most Americans continue with this strange mindset: we realize we were wrong to support those past wars you gave us, but we stand ready and eager to support this next one!
But when you look at reports such as this one from NBC last night — and it was nothing unusual: I just happened to stumble into it by accident — it’s not hard to see why this happens. When continuously bombarded with authoritative voices uncritically warning them of the Grave Threat posed by the New Hitlers, and with powerful images of menacing missiles and unhinged leaders accompanying those warnings, even rational populations will become sufficiently scared into succumbing to the next act of aggression. The only thing unusual here is that, with Iran, the American media actually seems out in front of the U.S. Government in the propaganda effort rather than in their normal position of submissively marching behind.
UPDATE: The latest episode being used to fuel the flames of war are two attacks yesterday on Israeli diplomats: one in India and one in Georgia. The headline in The Washington Post tells you all you need to know about how these attacks are being used: “Israel blames Iran for India and Georgia bombing attempts; Tehran denies role.” As Juan Cole points out, Indian investigators do not believe Iran was responsible, though he writes that “American media just parrot” the accusations against Iran by Israeli officials. We’ll likely never know who was actually responsible, though what is clear is that the attacks are being instantly exploited by Israel-devoted neocons to further depict Iran as a Grave Menace (Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post: if Iran is responsible, it’s “one more piece of data that Iran is growing ever bolder and more aggressive”), all without noting the glaring irony that the mode of attack in India is virtually identical to the one used to kill numerous Iranian scientists (“a magnetic bomb was slapped onto [the] car by a passing motorcyclist”). One thing is crystal clear, as macgupta put it in the comment section: “In any case, no matter who the perpetrators are, these attacks are a sign that we are moving closer to a war with Iran.”
UPDATE II: Speaking of mindless media recitations designed to fuel war, we find this today at The New York Times – Ground Zero for such behavior — from Ethan Bronner, whose son, until very recently, was in the Israeli Defense Forces:
If actually carried out by Iran, the attacks would be another indication that the leadership in Tehran was willing to reach beyond its borders against its enemies and expand its attacks to civilians. The United States has charged that Iran was behind a plot to assassinate a Saudi ambassador on American soil, and Israel has said that Iran has planned to attack its citizens in various countries, but that those plots were stopped.
There is absolutely no evidence beyond the assertions of the U.S. and Israeli governments that Iran has done any such thing — indeed, the plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador was so facially incredible that it provoked widespread mockery even among the types of Foreign Policy Experts who reflexively endorse whatever the U.S. Government says and does — but Bronner simply assumes those claims are true and thus says that if Iran is behind these latest attacks, then it is “another indication that the leadership in Tehran was willing to reach beyond its borders against its enemies and expand its attacks to civilians.” He also then quotes an anonymous Israeli official about the India bombing this way: “Iran’s fingerprints are all over this,” but Bronner ignores — simply does not mention — the substantial evidence to the contrary. The whole article is written so blindly from the Israeli perspective that it is what would have been produced had Bronner asked his son’s former comrades to write it for him, but this is absolutely the norm: anything the Americans and Israelis want to highlight as proof of Iranian evil and aggression will be regurgitated by most American journalists writing about this conflict.
UPDATE III: In The Wall Street Journal today, Mitchell Silber — identified as the director of intelligence analysis for the New York City Police Department — warns today that Iran may very well attack New York. I’m not joking:
The NYPD must assume that New York City could be targeted by Iran or Hezbollah. . . . Iran’s U.N. mission allows officials from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence to live and operate in New York with official diplomatic cover. . . . Iran also has a presence in New York via the Alavi Foundation, a nonprofit ostensibly devoted to charity works and promoting Islamic culture. . . . the NYPD must remain vigilant in attempting to detect and disrupt any attack by Iran or its proxies. Anything less would be abdicating our duty to protect New York City and its residents.
The whole fear-mongering screed is equally inane. Also, in that aforementioned NYT article by Bronner, he writes: “Some American Jewish leaders have expressed concern that synagogues and American Jewish centers could be targets in the increased tensions.” Identically, also in the Wall Street Journal today, Alan Dershowitz warns that Iran may attack American synagogues and demands that the U.S. treat any such attack as an attack on the U.S. and respond accordingly (“The Iranian government has now made crystal clear that it is at war not only with Israel and Zionism but with Jewish communities throughout the world”). Look at the coordinated, hysterical frenzy they’ve worked themselves and others into (and oh: Iran helped Al Qaeda with the 1998 embassy bombings and, needless to say, did 9/11; here’s a billboard that recently appeared in NYC). How soon until will we hear that laboratory tests on the anthrax sent to Tom Daschle detected the presence of a chemical used only by Persians?
UPDATE IV: This nicely summarizes the state of American neocon foreign policy discourse at the moment:
I actually consider the discussion there mildly more elevated and sober than that Wall Street Journal Op-Ed from the NYPD official today warning of an Iranian attack on New York City.
UPDATE V: Regarding the current attempt to depict Iran as monstrous aggressors because they dare suggest they may retaliate if attacked, see this short 2003 Onion article, published 9 days before the U.S. attacked Iraq.
UPDATE VI: I was on Cenk Uygur’s CurrentTV program tonight discussion media coverage of Iran, as well as the report documenting U.S. tactics of drone attacks aimed at rescuers and funerals attendees:
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)