Commentary: The Procrustean bed in Washington's disinformation campaign

2020-05-09 09:34:26

by Xinhua writer Guo Yage

BEIJING, April 27 (Xinhua) -- While the raging COVID-19 epidemic continues to rattle the nerves of the American people amid mounting calls for a more committed and effective federal response, some U.S. politicians are racking their brains for new ways to spread rumors and scapegoat others.

Their relentless disinformation campaign, mostly directed at such convenient targets as China and the World Health Organization (WHO), features a brazenly arbitrary distortion of facts that is reminiscent of the horrors of Procrustes, a robber in Greek mythology who forced his victims to fit into his metal bed by either stretching their bodies or chopping off their legs.

Just as indicated in a recently revealed 57-page memo sent by the National Republican Senatorial Committee to GOP campaigns, those rumormongers are doing to facts what Procrustes did to the bodies of his victims, and their Procrustean beds are the predetermined narratives in their heads.

In the strategy playbook titled "Corona Big Book," disclosed by U.S. news outlet Politico, Republican candidates are advised to address the COVID-19 pandemic by aggressively attacking China, and provided with detailed guidelines on everything from how to tie Democratic candidates to the Chinese government to how to deal with accusations of racism.

And just as Procrustes did not care about the lives of those travelers falling into his hands, his modern-day avatars, bent on muddying the waters to help themselves escape responsibility, do not bother with the truthfulness of the "truths" coming out of their mouths.

But there is a big heart-wrenching difference in this analogy: The onslaught on facts in a real-world pandemic is deadly on a far greater scale than Procrustes' murders.

In fact, the Procrustean practice of manipulating facts by U.S. politicians with preconceived beliefs or preset agendas long predates the ongoing global public health crisis. The Iraq War is a lesson too bitter to forget. But the COVID-19 outbreak has exposed it more clearly to the world as well as the enormous danger it can potentially cause.

As Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, a Washington-based nonprofit think tank, with rich experience in U.S. foreign disaster assistance and the WHO's outbreak responses, said in an interview with Intelligencer, part of New York Magazine, when trying to make the case against Iraq, the U.S. administration back then pushed "the intelligence community to cherry-pick whatever information they could to make that case on the thinnest of grounds." Today with the coronavirus pandemic, "you see a very parallel dynamic here," he noted.

The mind-numbing propaganda by some U.S. officials at the highest echelons -- particularly the likes of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House trade advisor Peter Navarro -- to smear China over the coronavirus disease serves as a telling example. As Konyndyk said, "You have an administration, or at least figures in the administration, who really want the intelligence to give them a particular outcome and they disregard any evidence that runs against that outcome."

Amid jaw-dropping revelations of what mainstream U.S. media outlets have described as "denial and dysfunction" in the federal response, those U.S. politicians, already viewing China through an increasingly confrontational lens, are going to extraordinary lengths to thrust China into the narrative they have forged to help them divert growing domestic pressure and shirk responsibilities.

For example, in their version of the story, China must not be seen as transparent; otherwise they would have no grounds to blame their own failures on a "cover-up" by the Asian country. So they just axed the part that on Jan. 3 China began to regularly inform the WHO and relevant countries and regions, including the United States, about the outbreak of a respiratory disease later known as COVID-19.

And in their alt-reality, China helping other countries combat the common threat must not be cast in a positive light; otherwise the United States would lose more of its already waning credibility as a global leader. So they just stretched some isolated quality problems in the medical supplies some countries purchased from China through unofficial channels to keep smearing the entirety of China's assistance.

Compared with Procrustes, his real-world incarnations are more innovative. In order to fit China perfectly into their template, they have been inventing what they cannot find and then patching it onto China. For instance, their narrative cannot allow China to act as a responsible major country dedicated to global good, so they just keep alleging that its helping hand in the global battle against COVID-19 is intended for geopolitical gains.

Compared with Procrustes' bed, the one in those politicians' mind, although not used to mutilate bodies, is costing more lives, because it is churning out distorted facts and outright lies and adding fuel to the firestorm of an "infodemic" that, as public health officials and scientists around the world have pointed out, is no less deadly than the coronavirus itself.

In the face of a cunning and lethal virus that threatens all human beings regardless of countries, regions, races and political systems, only with global cooperation can humanity beat the common enemy while saving more lives. It is high time that the Procrustean bed in the heads of those smear-mongering U.S. politicians was dismantled, because it only breeds disinformation, distrust and division.

A crisis like the ongoing pandemic, devastating as it is, also offers opportunities. Not least, it is a moment to ponder what can be done to better protect lives and prepare the world. Among the must-dos are cementing international solidarity, improving global coordination, and putting best practices available to use through mutual learning.

Every one of the more than 200,000 lives already lost to COVID-19 stands for a reason and adds to the urgency for the world to be clear-eyed about who are fighting the virus and who are feeding it. Those fact-manipulators in Washington need to heed the warning that in the mythological story, Procrustes was killed on his own bed. 

Editor:Jiang Yiwei