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Poor Boys and Pilgrims | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Poor Boys and Pilgrims

My new Think Again column is called “Government by (and for) Murdoch” and it’s here.

This came out this week, too: “Eric Alterman often ends up the reasonable man in the room. He wears the label “liberal” in full view, but he brings integrity to his positions and confronts his opponents with intellectual honesty. One of the nation’s foremost media critics and a trained historian, he has insightfully diagnosed a chief malaise of contemporary journalism: it’s ignorance of American history. So who better than to acquit liberalism while pulling together a history of its development since Franklin Delano Roosevelt?"

—From the review of The Cause in America (the National Catholic Weekly), June 4-1, 2012, 19-24

Also this fine review in Democracy by Eric Rauchway.

Alter-reviews:
Paul Simon, Graceland 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition Box Set
This deluxe box set will get you lots of bonus tracks (a second CD of them, actually), a concert DVD and video clips from Saturday Night Live and the like, the documentary film Under African Skies (which is also available on Blu-ray separately), a big deluxe book featuring unreleased photos, new liner notes and a replica of Paul Simon's handwritten lyrics pad. The not-quite-deluxe version, for a fraction of the price, will get you the original album, some demos and the documentary. Almost everybody loves this album and it’s not hard to justify the treatment, but the excessiveness of the box is obviously a matter of taste. Many fanatical types will have bits and pieces of the package already, including the 1987 concert film. What can one say? It was a masterpiece when it was released and it remains pretty great today. Amazon’s got some exclusive versions too, so take a look over there.

Heart, Strange Euphoria box set, three CDs, one DVD
There sure have been a lot of Heart “best of's.” This one, curated by Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson, is a mixture of hits, rarities, demos and live performances. Strange Euphoria consists of three CDs and one DVD, though some of the biggest hits are included not in their original versions but in demos or live versions, indicating that this is directed toward people who already have the basics. Personally I think “Magic Man” is one of the greatest rock songs ever, up there with Free’s “All Right Now” as a kind of ur-’70s guitars-and-vocals masterpiece. Anyway, most of the best-of's ended before Heart started up again and did their side and solo projects, and this one collects bits and pieces from everything. The DVD provides a fifty-five-minute live performance recorded in 1976 at Washington State University's television station, KWSU, and the sound quality is not bad at all.

Now here’s Reed.

Plugging the Leak, but Missing the Boat
by Reed Richardson

Forgive me if I find all the current Capitol Hill hyperventilating about leaks to the press of Obama administration foreign policy as little more than just pious posturing. Leaking secrets, after all, is an essential part of human nature—the bigger they are, the more they make demands upon our psyches that we share them with someone. Indeed, I’d wager that only a few moments after Moses came down from Mount Sinai, “senior Israelite officials” or “sources close to the prophet” were already leaking a couple of the juiciest Commandments to the crowd. And in this scenario, I can’t help but imagine the inevitable New York Post front page as something like:

BAIL ON BAAL, MO SEZ!

More rules ‘from G-d’ to come

Also: Dick Morris on why this is good news for the Pharaoh

While not exactly on par with biblical Revelations, the recent insider-laden news accounts of the Obama administration’s drone strike “kill list,” cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear capabilities and double-agent sabotaging of a planned terrorist strike in Yemen are nonetheless revelations of a rather large scale for the purposes of our earthly democracy. Yet in Washington, a lamentable bipartisanship has formed around the idea that more oversight is needed on the leakers than on the disturbing details being leaked. The messages get ignored, in other words, while Congress expends all of its energy trying to shoot the messengers.

Of course, this being a year evenly divisible by four, the motive behind much of this ostentatious outrage on the other side of the aisle is easily identifiable. Republican Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, certainly isn’t about to let a chance for hyperbole slip by him. So he’ll see your outing-of-a-clandestine-agent and selectively-declassified-memos-to-defend-the-rationale-for-war leaks from the Bush administration and counter by going all in rhetorically: “This is 100 times the magnitude of [the Plame affair] and somebody needs to pay a price for this crime.”

Likewise, there’s Texas Senator John Cornyn, who had this to say in 2005 as the Plame scandal swirled around Bush adviser Karl Rove:

“In their eagerness to smear the president and his administration, it has become increasingly clear that the president's opponents jumped out way too far, way too fast,” Mr. Cornyn said in a statement, adding, “I hope that the embarrassing antics will stop, but I'm not convinced they will.”

Seven years later, Cornyn seems to have changed his mind about the dangers of jumping to conclusions, embarrassing antics and claims of conspiratorial tactics:

“It’s all politics, all the time, at the Department of Justice,” Cornyn says. “Now that they’re in cover-up mode, they’re hiring Obama-campaign volunteers to look into the leaks.” […] Cornyn, along with Senator John McCain of Arizona, attempted to introduce legislation that calls for an outside counsel to investigate the leaks. […] He’ll push similar legislation to the floor in the coming days—and he is willing, he says, if necessary, to hold up the Senate’s business to get a vote.

For Cornyn, Rogers and others like them, the real objection to these leaks during a presidential election year can be boiled down to this line in the National Journal: “Republicans, in particular, worry that the leaks are politically motivated to make President Obama look good.” The irony here has to be pretty galling to Republicans (and a source of ever-lasting chagrin for liberals), since leaking confidential "war on terror" details to protect and burnish a sitting president’s foreign policy credentials was so clearly the previous president’s thing. For the current administration to think that leaking the same kind of macho details to make Obama look good as well is a testament to how far off track our national security policy really is.

And let’s not kid ourselves: the Obama administration is trying to get away with having its top-secret cake and leaking it too, as The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf explains in his smart take:

[Congress] ought to be insisting that Obama stop taking advantage of a double-standard, whereby he gets to say what he wants about state secrets while people who think differently are stifled.

Instead, Senators Feinstein and McCain and others seem determined to resolve the double-standard in the other direction. They want to stop the leaks that, semi-propagandistic as they often are, account for much of the information Americans have about what their government is doing abroad. This despite the fact that there is no evidence that these leaks have harmed national security.

Here Friedersdorf identifies yet another constituency in this drama, one whose outrage isn’t nakedly political but more structural in nature. Along with folks like Feinstein, McCain and independent Senator Joe Lieberman, one can also count Republican Senator Lindsey Graham as part of this clearly-missing-the-damn-point crowd:

“I’m glad that we have a targeted assassination program against terrorists trying to kill us all, but I’m not sure we need to read blow by blow how it’s done,” Graham said. “I cannot imagine this can continue much longer without seriously undermining our national security.”

One would be hard-pressed to find a better distillation of the national security state mindset that now dominates so much of our political discourse. For his part, Graham rarely sees a foreign policy saber without feeling the need to rattle it. So the fact that the “this” he is so soberly referring to here is not our nation’s policy of global, executive branch death-dealing from 10,000 feet is not much of a shock. Instead, from Graham's upside-down worldview, the greater long-term threat to our national security comes from someone somewhere within the government talking to the media about a drone strike program that, next to the fact that pro wrestling is fixed, is perhaps the worst-kept secret in the world.

Friedersdorf, again, nails the absurdity of it all:

Especially when it comes to the drone program, it's hard to understand how acknowledging something the whole world already knows, classified or not, makes us less safe. In contrast, ample evidence exists that the classified status of the drone strikes makes it more difficult for Congress to debate the issue, for informed bureaucrats to criticize it, or for civil liberties groups to litigate it.

He does leave one other group out of this drama, perhaps intentionally—the press. As we saw after the Times drone strike story broke in late May, the rest of the Beltway media more or less absorbed the article, looked to the usual partisans for a response and, finding little, swiftly moved on. (The conventional wisdom-setting Sunday news shows mostly ignored the story.)

That the press remains broadly uninterested in re-examining the larger implications of these leaks is predictable, since the objective framing of the drone story and others has now coalesced around focusing on the medium and not the message. One can no doubt expect breathless coverage throughout the summer of contentious Senate hearings in search of the sources of these leaks, with nary a mention in the press of why Congress isn’t spending any time debating the administration’s actual drone strike policy.

What’s more, it’s cowardly for the media to stand idly by as one of their key methods of gathering information from a increasingly secretive government is put through the rhetorical wringer. Yes, anonymous leaks to the press are, without question, a kind of Faustian bargain for journalists. All too often, the press—and, by extension, the public—gets a raw deal from the arrangement, trading little in the way of new information in return for being blindly fed a big, precooked political talking point. As the credulous, sometimes fawning tone of the drone program and cyberattack stories made apparent, even the New York Times can still fall victim to letting administration leaks too heavily influence the narrative, despite naïve protestations to the contrary.

 Still, there are times when leaks are the best—or only—means for shaking out the truth. Granted, the press must weigh the gravity of what it learns and the motives of its sources against the public’s right to know what its government is doing. Rare is the case, though, where legitimate national security concerns merit holding off publication. A long exposé about the inner workings of a legally dubious drone strike assassination program that everyone already knows about certainly isn’t worthy of such protection. Nor is it worthy of a Congressional wild goose chase to find the sources that leaked it. And the press shouldn’t blink from pointing all this out, lest it run the risk of missing the bigger story—just like the rest of Washington.

 

Mail:
Frank Moraes
Santa Rosa

Hi,

Two quick points:

1. Reed is always great. Why he is stuck over at Touchpoint Media doing nefarious "executive" editing, I don't know. (Yes, I did a Google search.)

2. Don't you think these Nation Cruises are kind of creepy? I for one do not want to see how John Nichols chews his food. Don't the staff worry about being in a confined space with people who are interested in Nichols's digestive system?

Reed replies:
As to your first comment, I can only respond by saying that whatever magic cosmic truth I uncover or fundamental ontological riddles I try to solve here, I do what I do five days a week somewhere else for same reason Crash Davis decides to play out the season for the Asheville Tourists in Bull Durham.

Regarding your second point, I’d just say that I attended a Nation Cruise in 2004 while an intern for the magazine and, yes, there was definitely a Matthew 9:20-22 element among the cruisers (or the “lefties at sea,” as Calvin Trillin humorously calls them in this video interview). And you can’t overlook the self-interested, fiduciary benefit the magazine gets from the cruise—which was $750 a head the year I attended, according to this story. But as I recall Victor Navasky tenderly pointing out to the cruising staffers before we all embarked, many of the cruisers we would meet are from places in this nation where, sadly, liberals are few and far between. This cruise was that (rare) chance for them to meet and interact with like-minded people. And that, there is nothing wrong with, I think.

More mail:
Michael Green
Las Vegas, Nevada

This will veer in a couple of directions. First, on Reed's post, why should we expect the Washington Post to publish a logical columnist? I'm surprised they haven't fired E.J. Dionne for making sense. The Post's main requirement in columnists in recent years has been to use only those who ignore reality.

As to Dr. A., I am glad that he rightly points out the wrongheadedness of ignoring culture in connection with liberalism, and I have a classic example from his and my profession. I have a friend and colleague who wrote an article about the importance to the civil rights movement of the artist Ben Shahn. It was very detailed and thoughtful. The response from a history journal? It's "art history." No, it was the history of an artist involved in making history. But tell that to those who already have decided that art is just something you look at on a museum wall and discuss only the colors and textures.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

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