Yemeni children take part in a mass funeral for children killed in an air strike by the Saudi-led coalition last week. Photo:  AFP
Yemeni children take part in a mass funeral for children killed in an air strike by the Saudi-led coalition in August 2018. Photo: AFP

In the English-speaking world, politics has ceased even to pretend to be about making a better world, and now is all about distraction from endemic failure. To a degree, this has always been true, but in the past, competent media and dissenting intellectuals held politicians’ feet to the fire. Now, intelligent commentary is drowned out by an incoherent din of shallow babble.

On September 21, The Intercept published an article headlined “State Department team led by former Raytheon lobbyist pushed Mike Pompeo to support Yemen War because of arms sales.” It referenced an earlier report by The Wall Street Journal that US State Department staff had raised concerns about the ongoing slaughter in Yemen by a Saudi-led coalition backed by the United States. The Intercept reported:

“Those concerns, however, were overruled after Pompeo discussed the matter with the State Department’s legislative affairs team. The legislative affairs staff, according to the Wall Street Journal, argued that restricting US support would endanger billions of dollars in future weapons sales, including a massive sale of precision-guided munitions between Raytheon, a US weapons manufacturer, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”

The Yemen disaster has for a very long time shone a harsh spotlight on the war industry, and in a sense it is heartening that even the US State Department – or, at least, some people who work there – is sickened by being party to that bloodbath. But if the WSJ is correct, yet again greed has trumped humanity, and the campaign of death continues, with mosques, schools and hospitals bombed, a cholera epidemic out of control, and millions at risk of starvation.

The worry at State at the time was a looming deadline for Pompeo to certify one way or the other, as mandated by Congress, “that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were taking steps to reduce civilian casualties in the Yemen war,” The Intercept said. Without that certification, the US military, which has been running refueling sorties to aid the coalition’s rain of fire on the Middle East’s poorest country, would have been banned from doing so.

The knock-on effect could have made it hard for US weapons companies – among the few profitable operations left in America’s decimated manufacturing sector – to secure future sales to the Persian Gulf dictatorships.

“The main pending sale is a $2 billion deal to give Saudi Arabia and the UAE air-to-ground munitions produced by Raytheon,” the website noted. And rushing to the rescue was a fellow named Charles Faulkner, now an assistant secretary of state but formerly a lobbyist for none other than Raytheon itself.

At the urging of Faulkner and his legislative-affairs team, Pompeo issued the congressionally mandated certification, and a humanitarian crisis that dwarfs those of the Rohingya and the Syrians and the Venezuelans goes on.

But unfortunately for the growing voices of protest against the Yemen slaughter, the war industry’s victory in securing Pompeo’s signature, thus ensuring the continued besmirching of America’s claim to be a supporter of justice and human rights, did not happen on a slow news day. It happened during the Brett Kavanaugh saga. And it got next to no coverage.

Left-wing commentator Kyle Kulinski noted in a YouTube post that while the Senate hearings on Kavanaugh’s nomination for the US Supreme Court were obviously important, Americans yet again were seeing coverage of important news practically silenced by a story that normally would be a yawner. And that coverage was not leading the newscasts because of the bizarre US system that encourages a deeply politicized apex court and appoints its judges for life, but because this particular nominee – like the man in the Oval Office who nominated him – has been accused of sexual misconduct.

Thousands are dying daily in Yemen; but the Kavanaugh story is “salacious,” and therefore newsworthy to the exclusion of nearly everything else Kulinski noted.

But salaciousness is not the story’s only selling point for US media. It also serves as another distraction, as if any more were needed.

Democracies, by their very nature, must struggle with the threat of polarization. To do so, their voting-age citizens must be kept informed, and the tool built into modern democratic systems to convey that information is a free press (and its descendants in non-print media). Yet the failures of that tool have become too numerous to keep track of: the flawed justifications for the invasion of Iraq, the disinformation around the Brexit referendum, the Russiagate red herring, the fog of war in Syria are a small sampling that leap to mind.

And they are just a few of the most obvious. What of the deeper ills threatening civilization or even the survival of the species, such as climate change, fascist bigotry and warmongering, or – to get back to the Kavanaugh story – the plague of misogyny? Good luck finding comprehensive coverage, let alone reasoned analysis, of those amid the cacophony of distraction.

David Simmons

David Simmons is a Canadian journalist based in Thailand. He has worked for newspapers and news websites in four countries, three of them in Asia. He holds a bachelor's degree in linguistics from the University of British Columbia and a diploma in journalism from Langara College in Vancouver.