NEW YORK--In the Soviet Union, political dissidents vanished with chilling efficiency. While the gulags starved and worked "enemies of the state" to death, bureaucrats purged their names from government records, newspaper archives, and school transcripts. Their personal possessions were sold or destroyed. It was as if these "unpersons" had never existed.
In the United States, the government doesn't "disappear" individuals it doesn't like (unless they're of Middle Eastern descent). That job falls to the media. The other difference is that the targets aren't individuals, but entire categories of people: African-Americans, Muslims, Asians, and those with political views to the left and right of the two major parties. The lords of print and broadcast media marginalize these groups to the extent that they have no place in the national conversation. They're born, they have children and they die--but they may as well not exist.
They are America's unpersons--and there are tens of millions of them.
The media's current swooning over Barack Obama's 2008 presidential bid serves as an unintentional reminder that the white majority, which controls top positions in journalism and politics in disproportionate numbers, remains prejudiced against blacks more than four decades after the zenith of the civil rights movement.
But Senator Obama is black! Well, yes and no. His biracial heritage differs from the vast majority of American blacks, who are descended from slaves. If you're one of the tens of millions of African-Americans whose personal and family histories are scarred by centuries of segregation and systematic racism, you may admire Obama's personality and politics. But you don't see yourself in him--not exactly.
Rather than call him biracial (Kenyan-American? African-American-with-an-asterisk*?), however, media reports ask: "Are Americans ready for a black president?" One can't help recall 1995, when General Colin Powell thought about seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Powell too is an African-American* (his parents were born in Jamaica), yet the white-run media repeatedly describes him as black or African-American. Are whites ready to elect a black* president? Maybe. A black one? None have come close.
Decoy politics--slapping a label that doesn't really fit on a person or thing--is the media's principal method of group marginalization. White media executives can brag that they're so liberal and open-minded that they're promoting the presidential candidacy of a black* guy! Yeah, Obama is "black"--but in a relatively arcane way. You're a jerk if you notice and worse if you say so.
Speaking of liberals, the 21 percent of Americans who call themselves liberals suffer from a near total lack of representation in government.
True, the Democratic Party, which controls both houses of Congress, has become a synonym for "liberal" or "leftist" in the media's lexicon. But that doesn't make it so. Only one Congresswoman, Barbara Lee of California, voted against going to war against Afghanistan after 9/11.
Even Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described socialist, went along with the Republocratic mob. Sanders serves as yet another hollow symbol of the system's supposed openness to unorthodox politics. Sanders plays a socialist on TV, but he also voted for a Bush-backed resolution supporting the troops as they invaded Iraq. He has neither joined the Socialist Party nor promoted socialist views.
A true socialist, even one from Vermont, wouldn't have made it to the Senate.
Millions of left-of-center Americans oppose both the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, favor socialized healthcare and oppose NAFTA and other "free trade" agreements. But they don't have a single vote in Congress. Meanwhile both right-wing pundits and mainstream journalists continue the classic red-herring gambit of dubbing center-right figures such as Hillary Clinton and Al Gore "liberal."
A number of big-name commentators are overtly or tacitly marketed as progressives, liberals or even lefties: Alan Colmes of Fox News, Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, Al Franken and his colleagues on Air America Radio (inevitably "Air America Radio, a liberal network" in press accounts). Like their counterparts in Congress, they're leftie in name only. None opposed the Afghan war, none favor an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, and none can honestly be called left of center.
If Spin and CBS and mainstream moviemakers and the National Education Association are "far left," where are Mother Jones, Pacifica Radio, Robert Greenwald and MoveOn? Logically these entities must be somewhere beyond even the "far left," well into "loony fringe" territory--i.e., those not even worth thinking about, much less mentioning. And so they aren't.
Several other segments of the population are routinely squelched from our national debate. When's the last time a libertarian (200,000 registered voters) was invited to speak on a political talk show? Asian-Americans have concerns and opinions on a variety of subjects. Can you, based on what you see on TV, even guess what they are? For a nation that prides itself on being the world's melting pot, our public life is remarkably homogenous.
No group suffers from marginalization-by-mislabeling more than Muslims. Only extremist Islamists and token figures like Somali-born author Hirsi Ali, a self-described atheist who cashed in her rejection of Islam to be embraced as a media darling, get airtime. To the right, "Muslim" = Osama bin Laden. For what passes as the left, it's fringe individuals like Ali. Meanwhile the millions of Muslims who keep their faith and live their lives without blowing up buildings watch a ludicrous debate that has no resemblance to reality, doomed to live as American unpersons.
(Ted Rall is the author of "Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?," an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next foreign policy challenge.)