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-30- Column: We emperors without clothes

The Daily Texan, 4A
May 9, 2007

My first year in college began in the fall of 2002, which turned out to be one of the most stained eras for journalists this country may ever remember. Some of our most trusted news sources -- The New York Times, CBS News, The Washington Post -- went along with selling a war in a far-away land, on a people who had never directly threatened Americans. They helped sell that invasion between commercials selling new Hummers and weight-loss pills.

Almost as much as Sept. 11, this country needs to remember Sept. 8, 2002 if we are interested in protecting our tattered democracy. That morning, The New York Times ran a front page story detailing "evidence" for Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program, citing anonymous Bush administration officials.

Sept. 8 happened to be a Sunday, and Vice President Dick Cheney conveniently found himself on NBC's Meet the Press, the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11 days away. "There's a story in The New York Times this morning, this is -- and I want to attribute this to the Times," Cheney said, "It's now public that in fact [Hussein] has been seeking to acquire and we have been able to intercept to prevent him from acquiring through this particular channel the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge, and the centrifuge is required to take low grade uranium and enhance it into highly enriched uranium, which is what you have to have in order to build a bomb."

That fall, White House officials cowardly, anonymously leaked their fables about aluminum tubes to America's greatest media outlets, and then had the audacity to cite those sources as a justified pretext to war. Newspapers were relaying what they were told was the truth, and most Americans, as expressed in public opinion polls, took the bait. At any rate, we're still yet to feel the full consequences of the war and occupation that followed.

In March 2003, I was a freshman en route to becoming a civil engineer, learning how appropriately placed forces could suspend a bridge. Meanwhile, my government tore down bridges with 500-pound bombs in Baghdad. Needless to say, I wondered how our press could have been so spineless, how obsequiousness to power could have so clouded reason.

There were, of course, trees screaming in the forest, even within the media. Democracy Now, Harper's, Mother Jones, The New York Review of Books —- intelligent dissent was out there to find. And since I was attending the best university in the state of Texas (this is no exaggeration: this has been five of the most enlightening and stimulating years I could ever hope to know), I had an opportunity to see how this journalistic collapse happened, and try my hand as a "working member of the press" myself.

So I've spent the last three years, on and off, pretending I was a journalist at The Daily Texan, trying to apprentice the skills it takes to find stories that aren't being told. In a nutshell, this is what I've found: The closest thing to the truth is in reports, e-mails and other documents, especially those marked "confidential" or "classified" or "do not reproduce," and sometimes you have to think creatively to unearth and publish those documents. Most everything else is either spin, an echo chamber or an advertising campaign.

More than anything, I feel my last five years exemplify why UT is one of the greatest places to learn in the country. The spectrum is broad here: I have gone from studying gravity and particle physics with world-class professors during the day to experimenting with journalism at night.

So while I'll always be disgusted at some of the ways this place waters down that pristine environment -- Student Government's Mobile Campus sell-out, $176-million stadium expansions, "Halliburton" business programs, student loan graft, moving Plan II into the "University College," pushing more than $4 billion in UT endowments into hedge funds -- I have to admire the resources and doors that have opened for me on this campus. This place has made me never want to stop asking questions.

But the war in Iraq bookends my experience here. Universities are one of the few perpetual sanctuaries for dissent, but so far our crops of UT graduates have felt that updating their Facebook profiles far outweighs updating and sharing their experience of the world outside themselves. An all-volunteer and privatized army of Blackwater mercenaries keeps middle-class America's sacrifice to a minimum.

Our generation has a uniquely self-confident fear of failure. We've grown up in a period of economic prosperity, but we're petrified of the job market. We're afraid Iraq will fall apart into chaos if we pull out our troops, but we're narcissistic enough to think we know how to run their country. Our contradictions are almost blinding.

So while I'll leave UT with a bachelor's degree, I'll also leave with a feeling of failure: That I haven't helped do enough to bring the war in Iraq home with nonviolence, to occupy an ROTC building or the Tower, to stop traffic with protests, to excuse my radical outrage by my lack of a real job.

But the best peace of mind I've gotten over the last five years is that however inflated we like to consider our influence on the world around us, we're still an insignificant lump of protons and electrons, lording over militaries, universities and Interstate highway systems like emperors without clothes.