The leftists organizing in Vermont since the 1970s prepared the ground for James Jeffords's jump, and he never would have done it without them. In the 1970s and 1980s Democrats howled with fury when Vermont's Progressive Party said that no matter what the short-term consequences, the important political task was to build a radical, third-force movement in the state.
In 1988 this progressive coalition backed Bernard Sanders, then the mayor of Burlington, in a run for Vermont's single Congressional seat. Democratic liberals raised the "wrecker" charge, saying the Sanders intervention would cost the Democrats votes and put in a Republican. It did. Then, two years later, Sanders ran again against the incumbent Republican and won. Creative destruction worked.
Without decades of work by radicals, nourishing the propriety of independent politics in Vermont, would Jeffords ever have jumped the Republican ship and handed control of the Senate back to the Democrats? I don't think so.
A couple of weeks ago someone sent me an article by Todd Gitlin and Sean Wilentz, published in an obscure journal called Dissent. Since Gitlin's prime political function for years has been to fortify respectable opinion about the impropriety of independent thinking, I knew what to expect, particularly since he was in harness with Wilentz, a truly hysterical proprietarian.
Sure enough, it was an attack on those who voted for Ralph Nader, tumid with a full-inventory parade of every cliché from the past forty years about the folly of radical hopes. Want a taste?
Numbers aside, there is a deeper force at work, behind the delusion that the masses hanker for radical change that Gore would not give them--a purist approach to politics. This all-or-nothing approach, allergic to democratic contest and compromise, is rooted equally in American self-righteousness and traditional left-wing utopianism. It is as if by venting one's anger, one were free to remake the world by willing it so...
Yup, this pompous cant translates into the single, finger-wagging admonition, "You should have voted for Al Gore," the latest variant on Gitlin's one-note career sermon about voting for Hubert Humphrey in 1968. (What is it about these Humphrey lovers? Vermonter Marty Jezer, another sermonizer about main-chance political propriety, recently lashed out at CBS in his column in the Brattleboro Reformer for what he denounced as excessively hostile and prejudicial interviewing of baby-killer Bob Kerrey! The lust to be respectably "fair," whether to HHH or Kerrey, leads to some astonishingly ridiculous postures.)
In Vermont the Republican Party is pretty much dead. Jeffords should sign up right now as a member of the Progressive Party, with whose political positions he has some things in common. Of course Jeffords, at least in his latest incarnation, is truly an independent, whereas Sanders is effectively a Democrat.
Now let's see how much fortitude the Democrats on the Hill have in contesting Bush and Cheney. They no longer have the alibi of the Republicans' controlling the White House and both chambers. Footnote: The Nation's editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, wishes it to be on record that she takes exception to the description of Dissent as "obscure." I suggest a poll of the American people.
More on the Gandoo Man
In a recent column I described how the Chicago police have declined the request of a gay Pakistani poet to hit his supposed assailant, Salman Aftab, with a hate-crimes charge. Ifti Nasim claims Aftab called him a faggot bottom and lunged at him with a knife. For some of Chicago's gays it's become a very big issue. The Chicago Anti-Bashing Network prompted the ACLU's Pamela Sumner to write a three-page letter to State's Attorney Dick Devine detailing why she felt he should pursue hate-crimes charges in Nasim's case. Devine has refused to do so.
The cops and Devine are quite right. It turns out that the initial quarrel between Nasim and Aftab wasn't about the former's sexual orientation but about an article he'd written. Aftab never attacked Nasim with a knife (though Nasim insists he'd gone to the kitchen to get one). And Nasim put up Aftab's bail money, though he still wants him hit with a hate-crimes charge for calling him an insulting sexual term. The Chicago Anti-Bashing Network supports this position, which only goes to show how dementedly wrongheaded progressives are on the hate-crimes issue.
The Bush Menu
Poor Jenna Bush's travails with the absurd liquor laws of Texas take me back to my gilded youth at Oxford, when even the appearance of sobriety, at least at Keble, was an object of scandal and reproof from the better element. As it admits elsewhere in this issue, The Nation was a tad unfair relaying the claim that the Bush White House has ordered its chef to prepare genetically modified foods on some state occasions. The source of this claim was a piece by Jennifer Berkshire posted on Alternet. The Nation earnestly commented that "the demonstration smells like a paid political announcement for the agribusiness lobby."
I remember reading Berkshire's Alternet piece as an excellent little satire, and Jennifer confirms that this was indeed the case. Satire is always an uncertain weapon. My father once wrote an update of Swift's "A Modest Proposal," this time about inoculating people with the same sort of lethal strain that wiped out rabbits with myxomatosis. When it appeared in Punch furious letters poured in, denouncing him as an advocate of mass murder. Back in my days at the Village Voice I wrote a parody of conspiracy mongering and awoke to hear it being read out as serious news on WBAI by the late Samori Marksman. Since then I've stayed with the unvarnished truth, which is usually far more incredible than anything a satirist could dream up. For evidence see Marty Jezer's onslaught on CBS, noted above.
Over the past two years, it has become commonplace to read that the casualties among Kosovo Albanians were not sufficiently high to warrant the NATO intervention that put an end--at some remove--to the rule of Slobodan Milosevic. Without saying so explicitly, many liberal and "left" types, and many conservatives and isolationists, have implied that the Kosovars did not suffer quite enough to deserve their deliverance. The dispute revolves around two things; the alleged massacre at Racak (which may or may not have been a firefight provoked by the Kosovo Liberation Army) and the relative emptiness of certain identifiable "mass grave" sites.
As to Racak, it might be argued that Western policy-makers seized too fast on the evidence of a Bosnian-style bloodbath, but--in view of what had been overlooked or tolerated for so long in Bosnia--it would be tough to argue that a "wait and see" policy would have been morally or politically superior. Wait for what? Wait to see what? And, since most of those who cast doubt on Racak were opposed on principle in any case to any intervention, as they had been in Bosnia, the force of their objection does not really depend on the body count, or on the issue of who shot first. For those of us who supported the intervention, with whatever misgivings, it was plain enough that Milosevic wanted the territory of Kosovo without the native population, and that a plan of mass expulsion, preceded by some exemplary killings, was in train. The level of casualties would depend on the extent of resistance that the execution of the plan would encounter.
The bulk of the European and American right had announced in advance that the cleansing of Kosovo by Milosevic was not a big enough deal to justify military action; this seems to remain their view. It was also, according to former NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clark in his new memoir, the institutional view of the Pentagon. It would therefore have been the right's view, whatever happened or did not happen at Racak. It would presumably also have been their view even if the United Nations had passed a resolution authorizing the operation, over the entrenched objections of Boris Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin. (The Genocide Convention, which mandates action by signatory powers whenever the destruction of a people in whole or in part is being committed, takes precedence in the view of some.)
So we'll never know if another Rwanda was prevented or not, since another Rwanda did not in fact take place. However, on the issue of the mass graves there is now, as a result of the implosion of the Milosevic regime, more forensic evidence to go on.
At the time of the war itself I received a letter from a Serbian student of mine, a political foe of Milosevic but by no means a NATO fan. He told me that his family in Serbia had a friend, a long-distance truck driver whom they trusted. This man had told them of entering Kosovo with his refrigerated vehicle, picking up Albanian corpses under military orders and driving them across the "Yugoslav" border as far as the formerly autonomous province of Voivodina, where they were hastily unloaded. He'd made several such runs. At the time, I decided not to publish this letter because although it appeared to be offered in good faith it also seemed somewhat weird and fanciful, and because rumors of exactly this sort do tend to circulate in times of war and censorship.
In early May of this year, the Belgrade daily newspaper Blic, now freed from the constraints of censorship, published a report about a freezer truck, loaded with Albanian cadavers and bearing Kosovo license plates, that had been pulled from the river Danube in April 1999. The location was the town of Kladovo, about 150 miles east of Belgrade. Local gravediggers told of being hastily mobilized to load the bodies onto another truck, and to keep their mouths shut. The man who found the truck, Zivojin Djordjevic, was interviewed on Belgrade Radio B92. "It was a Mercedes lorry--the name of the meat-processing company from Pec was written in Albanian on the cabin. The license plates were from Pec.... When the lorry was pulled out and the doors of the freezer opened, corpses started sliding out. There were many bodies of women, children and old people. Some women had Turkish trousers, some children and old people were naked."
To this macabre tale, identifiable people have put their names. The director of the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade, Natasha Kandic, has been collecting information about comparable incidents in the period between late March and mid-June 1999, with piles of corpses removed from cemeteries or graves in Kosovo and either reburied secretly or incinerated. This is not improvised wartime atrocity propaganda; it is the careful finding of patient human rights investigators after the fact.
One cannot yet say the same about another story, which concerns the mass burning of bodies in the blast furnaces of the Trepca steel plant. The eyewitnesses here are, so far, only a driver named "Branko" and a Serbian "special forces" officer named "Dusko." They suggest that, in that terrible spring, as many as 1,500 murdered Albanian civilians were fed into the mills and furnaces of the steel complex. It would be premature to credit such unconfirmed and lurid reports, even though investigators from the Hague tribunal have already spoken about evidence being destroyed at the nearby Trepca mines. And at first, I didn't quite believe the freezer-truck tale either.
In the relatively new atmosphere of post-Milosevic Serbia, the armed forces have charged some 183 soldiers for crimes committed in Kosovo. This might be part of an "isolated incident" strategy, or it might be the beginning of a real investigation. If the reports now in circulation prove to be true, it would mean (given the complicity of border guards, steelworks managers, traffic cops and cemetery authorities) there was a state design both to the original murders and the secret interments. Such a discovery would help constitute the emancipation of Serbia as well as of Kosovo. But it would owe very little to those who described the belated Western intervention as an exercise in imperialism based upon false reporting. We shall see.
This magazine has been inundated of late with missives from irate Naderites demanding that the editors immediately exile me to The New Republic, the DLC or worse. My last column on Nader, which merely pointed out that he and his campaign should be held morally responsible for the awful acts of the Bush Administration--since without Nader's candidacy there would be no Bush Administration--inspired 122 such responses, a high percentage of which were personally abusive. Yet when the man himself appeared in these pages to denounce the President whose election he abetted, only twenty-seven readers were so moved. These numbers point to a perennial problem for liberals: Such zeal and enthusiasm that exists for politics at all anymore appears to rest exclusively with the extremes of left and right. Too bad that instead of learning from the far right's march to power through a grassroots takeover of the Republican Party, the Naderite left seems intent on destroying the fragile gains of seven decades of social progress.
True, it's not easy to support a party with standard-bearers like Clinton and Gore, temperamentally conservative career politicians whose lifetimes of compromise have made them untrustworthy except as weathervanes telling the direction of the political winds. Many (though not all) Democrats are no different. Yet virtually every day the Bush Administration reminds the non-Naderites among us that the only alternative is far worse. And so long as leftists are too weak to create a movement to rival the Republican right, the fight against Bush, DeLay & Co. will require whatever imperfect weapons we have at our disposal. The problem is how to excite people about such unexciting prospects.
Fortunately, the landscape is not entirely barren. Beyond the useful-but-wonkish American Prospect and the well-written but frequently neocon New Republic, the niche economics of Net publishing has spawned a number of sites that manage to combine sensible politics with humor and enthusiasm. Most are tiny operations run on love and charity, largely dependent on their communities of readers for information and support. As such, they have remained pretty much invisible to the mainstream media. Here are a few of my favorites.
§ Despite its criticism of this magazine and some of its columnists--an argument I think I'll stay out of--www.mediawhoresonline.com has a wonderful joie de vivre and some great punchlines. They view the mainstream media as being the captive of the right wing, whether for reasons of ideology or, as the site would put it, "whorishness." Most of the site's material and commentary is designed to insure that the media's "credibility in the public mind be brought in line with its genuine lack of credibility." To do this, they're willing to "mimic the tactics of the wingnuts," referring to all with whom they disagree as "whores" or occasionally "fascists" and refusing, on principle, to criticize any writer whose work they deem to be that of a "non-whore." Hypocritical, you say? "We don't believe it is hypocrisy at all to follow their standard, but fairness," responds Jennifer Kelly, the site's guiding spirit. "And what's more, it's really easy and doesn't require anything in the way of conscience or diligence." I don't follow this philosophy myself, but take my word for it: These people are as funny as they are fearless. Unfortunately, they are a bit unfair to actual whores...
§ www.bartcop.com began as a critique of Rush run by a fellow who wishes to remain anonymous but describes himself as "your average Okie liberal with too much time on my hands." It's developed into a very smart, funny critique of the right and is financed to the tune of $600 a month by Marc Perkel of San Francisco, who simply liked it and offered to pay the freight.
§ www.buzzflash.com, run by Mark Karlin, provides a liberal antidote to Matt Drudge, offering a bit less in the obnoxious self-promotion department and a bit more in the way of accuracy. Turn to it for up-to-the-second reports on, and links to, the Bush Administration's outrage du jour, frequently with smile-inducing headlines ("Yes We Have to Post It Twice: Doobie Brothers Guitarist Is Helping Design Bush's Missile Defense Shield").
§ Despite its unpromising name, www.democrats.com has no relationship to the somnolent party it seeks to revive. Its sponsors tell me, "We think the progressive Democratic message is the winning message, but the party needs to live up to its message by fighting for its principles." Bob Fertik, Dave Lytel and some 200 local chapters do this by highlighting news of interest to progressives, connecting a community of progressive Democrats, publicizing demonstrations to "Irk the Smirk," as Mediawhoresonline puts it, to protest the "stolen election of 2000." They try to fill "an enormous void left by the Democratic Party, which keeps Democratic activists at arm's length."
§ www.americanpolitics.com is a terrific place for links, satires and cartoons. It's also a great place to find incriminating quotes by the bad guys. Oh, and check out the shapely "firstname.lastname@example.org" before someone makes them take her down. Similarly comprehensive, www.onlinejournal.com contains original reporting from a sensibly leftish perspective.
§ www.bear-left.com offers first-rate in-depth analysis of whatever topic strikes the fancy of its authors, Paul Corrigan and Tim Francis-Wright, including an insanely detailed recent analysis of Skull and Bones's tax filings. See also its fantastic links page at www.bear-left.com/links.html.
§ www.mediatransparency.org does not really belong on this list, since it's more of an intellectual and political resource for journalists and scholars doing research on the connections between right-wing foundations and public policy. But it does deserve recognition for its public service and the widest possible audience for the tireless research on this neglected topic undertaken by its founder, Rob Levine.
§ And if you need cheering up, try www.bushorchimp.com, but remember it's a joke. The left got rolled for years by Ronald Reagan's dumb act, and I fear "W" is no dummy either--appearances, quite obviously, to the contrary.
I scanned all the cheap effusions that followed the Bob Kerrey disclosures, looking for just one mention of just one name. Ron Ridenhour. Ron was the GI who got wind of the My Lai massacre, followed up on what he'd heard, complained to the higher-ups and, when that didn't work, blew the whistle to the press (which took about a year to print anything). He was a friend of mine and by any known test an American hero. Except that there is a strong tendency in all cultures and all societies to hate people like Ron. By his simple and principled action, he destroyed all the excuses of those who say that war is hell and "whaddayagonnado." He was from Texas whiteboy stock and an uneducated draftee; call him a grunt--he wouldn't have minded. His example demolishes both those who say that only combat-hardened men can judge other veterans, and those who shiftily maintain that those who weren't actually there have no business making judgments. Ron wasn't at My Lai, but he'd seen quite enough to know that the rumors of what had happened were probably true, and he felt obliged to check them out, and to risk his own skin to do so.
Things evidently happened rather fast in the village of Thanh Phong on February 24, 1969. Calley's platoon in March 1968 had taken much of a day in which to really work on the villagers of My Lai. Nonetheless, even given more leisure, Bob Kerrey would not I think have raped any of the women, cut off any ears, disemboweled any babies or tortured any of the prisoners. He never went around referring to the Vietnamese as "gooks" or "slopes" or "slants." Whenever the subject of war came up in Washington during his tenure as a senator, he was a sane and lucid voice. And I should add that I know him somewhat and that, since I'm a lowly adjunct prof at the New School, he is actually my president.
By the end of his week before the cameras, however, I began to wish that he wasn't. If you have had more than three decades to reflect, and some weeks of advance notice on top of that, you don't have to rise to the Ron Ridenhour standard. But you must not disgrace it. It is, I suppose, arguable that both Gerhard Klann (a man in possession of a somehow unfortunate name) and the Vietnamese witnesses are all under a misapprehension. But neither the New York Times Magazine nor 60 Minutes II gave them any chance to compare notes or concert their story. And then Kerrey, confronted by the contradictions of his own account, said the following: "The Vietnam government likes to routinely say how terrible Americans were. The Times and CBS are now collaborating in that effort." This was a sad improvisation of paltry lies, adding up to a lie on the Spiro Agnew scale. (As this was going to press, Kerrey told me that he's written to the Times to withdraw at least the "collaborating" part.)
Nobody troubled to report an even worse moment at Kerrey's press conference, which occurred when the invaluable Amy Goodman asked him about the command responsibility for war crimes borne by the Nixon-Kissinger architects of the aggression. (He was, after all, under orders in a "free-fire zone" to treat all civilians as potential cadavers and all cadavers as part of the enemy "body count"; he did accept a citation for carrying out this standing policy.) I can appreciate that Kerrey might not have wanted to seem to shift responsibility; the Ridenhour standard makes it plain that you can't be ordered to commit crimes against humanity. However, such a standard must not be twisted for the purposes of moral relativism. Kerrey answered Goodman's inescapable question by focusing entirely on his own need to "get well." He thus excused himself--and his political "superiors."
The date of the "firefight" is almost unbearable to contemplate. February 24, 1969, is about a month after Nixon took the oath of office. It's about two months after he asked Henry Kissinger to be his National Security Adviser. It's about three months after the South Vietnamese military junta withdrew precipitately from the Paris peace negotiations. And it's about four months after the Nixon campaign made a covert approach to that same junta in order to incite it to do so, and to take out an illegal and treasonous mortgage on another four years of war, as well as to subvert an American election. (For still more evidence of this historic crime, see most recently Robert Mann's A Grand Delusion: America's Descent Into Vietnam, published by Basic Books.) One must of course sympathize with Kerrey's pain. Only a few weeks after Thanh Phong, Kerrey lost a healthy limb to Nixon's sick design. But even the most tentative judgment requires that we give moral priority to the more than 20,000 US servicemen who died after the sabotage of the Paris talks, and to the uncountable number of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians who were immolated as a result of the same despicable policy.
We should also abandon easy nonjudgmental relativism and give moral priority to men like Hugh Thompson, Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta. These three were flying over My Lai in their helicopter on March 16, 1968, and saw Charlie Company butchering the inhabitants with no "enemy" in sight. Thompson not only grounded his chopper between the remaining civilians and his fellow Americans, he drew his weapon and told the murderers to back off. This was no impulsive gesture; he took some civilians away with him and then returned. Andreotta (who was killed three weeks later) found a small child in one of the corpse-choked ditches and managed to save him. Exactly thirty years after the atrocity, Thompson, Colburn and--posthumously--Andreotta were awarded the Soldier's Medal in a ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It's the highest award you can get for an action that doesn't involve engaging "the enemy." There was no mention of their awkward bravery in the recent coverage, either, though as far as was possible, these three men lived up to one of our current dopey mantras, which is to "leave no child behind."
If Kerrey wishes he could say the same, rather than have left a pile of children behind him, then he has missed several opportunities to do so. His official statement was entirely about himself. It did not in fact come clean about what happened. And it did not contain one word of contrition for the action, or of sympathy for the victims. It was also internally inconsistent in other ways. The war, he said, hadn't become unpopular until 1969. Whatever this was supposed to mean, it didn't explain his accepting a Medal of Honor from Richard Nixon on May 14, 1970, in a ceremony that he now claims he knew was a tawdry and stagy bid for public opinion, and in the immediate aftermath of the assault on Cambodia and the killings of lawful protesters at Kent State and Jackson State.
Talking of universities, I was ashamed and disgusted to read the statement put out by the authorities at the New School. Here it is in full: "The Board of Trustees of New School University gives its unqualified support to Bob Kerrey. It is hard for most of us to imagine the horrors of war. War is hell. Traumatic events take place and their terrible effects may last a lifetime. We should all recognize the agony that Bob has gone through and must continue to deal with. We should also recognize that Bob's heroism and integrity have been demonstrated on many occasions. The Board of Trustees stands solidly behind him."
I try to teach English to humorous and intelligent graduates at this place. I could and will use this pathetic text--signed by John Tishman and Philip Scaturro, respectively chairman of the board and chancellor--as a case study in subliterate euphemism. ("What about Bob?" Leave no cliché behind!) But it is worse than it looks. Notice the insistence that only Kerrey's feelings count. And notice the insinuation that wartime actions are above moral distinction or discrimination. The New School, founded by some antimilitarist defectors from the then-conformist Columbia University at the end of the First World War, became the host campus for dozens of anti-Nazi refugee scholars in the succeeding decades. It gave podiums to Erich Fromm and Hannah Arendt, in lecture rooms where the nature of political evil was thoroughly discussed. It still runs democracy programs from Kosovo to South Africa. Its student body is multinational and always has been. A word or two about the slaughtered Vietnamese might not have been out of place. But this graceless little handout didn't even refer to them. Unrepudiated, the statement is a direct insult to everybody at the school and a surreptitious invitation to a creepy kind of secondhand complicity in murder.
I've no wish to hurt Kerrey's feelings unduly, but it ill becomes him to act as if he's facing a firing squad while he's being made the object of apparently limitless empathy. The truth of the matter is that I can't guess what these "many occasions" of "heroism and integrity" have been. (I'm assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that the New School authorities aren't counting the Thanh Phong massacre.) He was a fairly decent senator, as I've already said. But he showed then, as he shows now, a pronounced tendency to have things both ways. Like the Moynihans and the Gores, he was fond of privately denouncing Clinton as a crook and a liar and a thug, and then casting the ultimate vote in his favor. He told me in the week of the impeachment trial that he was determined to vote to convict Clinton for obstruction of justice, adding rather irrelevantly that it "wouldn't do him any harm" in his home state of Nebraska. And then, maybe when he remembered that he'd steered the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee through one of the greatest fundraising bonanzas in history, he thought better of it. "They all do it," of course, but then they needn't expect moist tributes for their bravery.
And yet--they don't all do it. Think again of Ridenhour, Thompson, Colburn, Andreotta--names that are barely known, names of men who would have been ashamed to leave a ditchful of women and children behind them, or to watch such a ditch being filled and say and do nothing. And think of what a great wall we'd have to build if we intended to inscribe all the Indochinese names. There's no possible repair or apology that could measure up to such a vast crime. But this must not mean a culture of stupid lenience and self-pity, in which the only wounds to be healed are those of the perpetrators, or of their obedient servants. How wonderful that at last we are forgiving the people of Vietnam for what we did to them.
There are war crimes and there is the crime of war, and it's ethically null to say that only veterans can pronounce on either. (There could be no human rights tribunals or Truth and Justice Commissions if this were so.) Kerrey was not caught in an ambush or suddenly placed in a hopeless situation. He led a stealthy, deliberate incursion into other people's homes, and the first act of those under his command was to slit the throats of an elderly couple and three children to keep them from making a sound. Kerrey now says that he didn't enter that particular "hooch" before, during or after--something of an oversight for the team leader, whose job it was to ascertain the nature of the opposition. He says it was a moonless night; the US Naval Observatory says there was a 60 percent disk until an hour after the squad had finished up....
This horror occurred in the context of two others: the Phoenix program and Operation Speedy Express. The first has been acknowledged even by its architects as a death-squad campaign, and the second was exposed at the time, by Kevin Buckley of Newsweek, as a mass slaughter of the civilians of the Mekong Delta. In other words, it's a bit late for armchair supporters of the war, or armchair excuse-makers, to discover indecipherable subjective mysteries where none in fact exist. Kerrey's after-action report on Thanh Phong, for which he received a Bronze Star citation, reads, in a vile code compounded of cruelty and falsification: "21 VC KIA (BC)." That stands for twenty-one Vietcong, killed in action according to body count. Did he accept that medal as part of coming to terms with how haunting it all was?
The humanoid who came up with the shady term "Vietnam syndrome" was of course Henry Kissinger, who had every reason to try to change the subject from his own hideous responsibility. But even now, the president of a humanist academy takes up that same pseudo-neutral tone of therapy-babble and quasi-confessional healing, instead of demanding the Truth and Justice Commission that might establish what we owe to the people he killed, as well as what we could and should do about the still unpunished and still untroubled people who directed him to slay them in their sleep.
A parody of Gone With the Wind has run into legal trouble: too revealing of the real nature of slavery?
The New York Times could benefit from having an in-house arbitrator.
Perhaps I underestimate the joy of being given a silly nickname by the Leader of the Free World, but I'm having a hard time understanding why media big feet are so taken by the nation's new Charmer in Chief. Leave aside the extreme right-wing agenda he's pursuing when by any fair measure of voting he lost the election. Forget that he began his term by breaking his key campaign promises. And ignore his frequent and unapologetic lies about his commitment to bipartisan governance. What about the fact that, perhaps more than any President since Nixon, Bush holds the media and its denizens in utter contempt?
Take for example Bush's decision to appoint Otto Reich to head the Latin American office in the State Department. As Peter Kornbluh discusses elsewhere in this issue [see "Bush's Contra Buddies," page 6], Reich's job in the Reagan Administration was simply to lie to (and about) the media. He did it very well. According to Walter Raymond--the CIA propaganda specialist whom William Casey transferred to the National Security Council in order to circumvent the 1947 National Security Act, which restricted CIA involvement in domestic propaganda operations--the purpose of Reich's Office of Public Diplomacy was to "concentrate on gluing black hats on the sandinistas and white hats on the UNO [contras]." Staffed by senior CIA officials with backgrounds in covert operations, military intelligence and psychological warfare, the OPD offered privileges to favored journalists, placed ghostwritten articles over the signatures of contra leaders in leading opinion magazines and on Op-Ed pages, and publicized nasty stories about the Sandinistas, true or not. In its first year, it sent attacks on the Sandinistas to 1,600 college libraries, 520 political science faculties, 122 editorial writers, 107 religious organizations and countless reporters, right-wing lobbyists and members of Congress. It booked advocates for 1,570 lecture and talk-show engagements. In just one week of March 1985, the OPD officers bragged in a memo of having fooled the editors of the Wall Street Journal into publishing an Op-Ed about Nicaragua penned by an unknown professor, having guided an NBC news story on the contras and having written and edited Op-Ed articles to be signed by contra spokesmen, as well as having planted false stories in the media about a visiting Congressman's experiences in Nicaragua.
Among the OPD's lies were stories that portrayed the Sandinistas as virulent anti-Semites, that reported a Soviet shipment of MIG jets to Managua and that purported to reveal that US reporters in Nicaragua were receiving sexual favors--hetero- and homosexual--from Sandinista agents in exchange for pro-Communist reporting. That last lie, published in the July 29, 1985, New York magazine, came directly from Reich.
Perhaps OPD's most important effort was to convince Congress and the media of the contras' democratic bona fides. They did this by pretending that the men handpicked by North as front men were operationally in charge of contra political and military operations. In addition to signing the names of these men to fake Op-Ed articles, Reich and company coached them on how to lie whenever they were asked about being on the US government payroll, as well as about their aims for their US-funded armies. Together with top officials of the State Department, the CIA and the National Security Council, the OPD spent millions to paint civilians as the true leaders of the contras. The United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO), founded in San José, Costa Rica, in June 1985, thanks in large part to the efforts of Oliver North, was designed to manufacture an acceptably "democratic" face for the contra leadership. According to a private 1985 memo by Robert Owen, North's liaison with the contras, the UNO was entirely "a creation of the USG[overnment] to garner support from Congress." Its leaders were "liars" and "greed and power motivated."
Reporting on Reich's appointment has been decidedly unsensational. The LA Times has ignored it. The New York Times and the Washington Post assigned to the story knowledgeable reporters who covered Central America, but the results reflected the strictures of journalistic objectivity as much as the outrageousness of Reich's activities. Raymond Bonner and Christopher Marquis wrote in the Times that "a government investigation concluded that Mr. Reich's office engaged in prohibited acts of domestic propaganda." (In a backhanded tribute to Bonner's brilliant Central American reporting of the 1980s, Reich called the Times editors with a vicious personal attack on the journalist hoping to get him taken off the story.) Karen DeYoung noted in the Post that the OPD "used what critics called legally questionable means to promote favorable publicity and political support for the U.S.-backed contras in Nicaragua in their war against the Cuba-backed Sandinista government." The Economist was even more generous, insisting that Reich "got marginally caught up in the Iran/contra scandal when his office was accused of engaging in covert propaganda activities to get Americans' support for the Nicaraguan contras." No major paper has yet addressed the issue in an editorial.
Most reports on the appointment have focused on it as payback to extremist Miami Cubans and brother Jeb for their instrumental role in helping Bush hijack Florida and hence the election. (Reich regularly likens Cuba to Auschwitz and to an antebellum slave plantation.) Perhaps it is. But Reich's appointment ought to be recognized as an intentional kick in the teeth to the media, as well as a testament to its lack of institutional memory.
When Kornbluh and Robert Parry first revealed the activities of the OPD in Foreign Policy magazine in 1988, Reich, according to a Boston Globe report, compared the fully accurate article to Hitler's "big lie" technique regarding the Final Solution. It's hard to imagine a more offensive manipulation of the murder of millions than using it to slander journalists and lie to the country about an illegal war--but hell, the Bush people are just getting started.
Attorney General John Ashcroft says he does not want Timothy McVeigh to "inject more poison into our culture"--a striking statement, given the method of McVeigh's execution. Accordingly, he intends to deny permission for television interviews during the Oklahoma City bomber's final weeks on federal death row. (The Oklahoma legislature had a similar purpose in mind when it passed a resolution condemning a new book about McVeigh--thus bringing it more publicity, as a dissenting legislator pointed out.) At the same time, Ashcroft has made a dramatic cultural intervention of his own, authorizing the closed-circuit telecast of McVeigh's execution to perhaps 200 family members of his victims.
Both of Ashcroft's announcements show clearly how capital punishment is coarsening American institutions. Although most of the press coverage did not mention it, the Attorney General's diktat banning broadcast interviews applies not only to McVeigh but to all federal death-row inmates. However repellent the thought of a McVeigh TV interview, the ban is one more step in a repressive, systematic national clampdown on press coverage of prisons, which in some states, like Virginia, has led to a virtual blackout of inmate interviews. In the future, Ashcroft's interview ban could deny broadcast access to a federal inmate far different from McVeigh, someone with a legitimate claim of innocence or discrimination--a real likelihood given the nearly 100 death-row inmates in state prisons exonerated by new evidence and the large percentage of capital convictions overturned for grave constitutional error in the original trial.
The question of a public telecast of McVeigh's lethal injection is now moot with Ashcroft's closed-circuit plan, though the drumbeat for public executions continues--with some support among notable death-penalty abolitionists and civil libertarians like Sister Helen Prejean and Nat Hentoff. Televising executions, their argument goes, would either sicken the public or at least make Americans more accountable for what goes on in their name. We disagree. We see telecasts of executions as a fundamentally different matter from death-row interviews. Today's executions by lethal injection are exercises in the engineering of death, the institutionalizing of death, the bureaucratizing of death. Far from shocking America, viewing lethal injections through the distancing glow of a TV screen will further normalize state killing--as television ultimately normalizes the forms of violence it depicts.
Ashcroft did not invent closed-circuit telecasts of an execution--it has been tried at the state level--but it raises disturbing questions. For one thing, as several technological experts have pointed out, the phone-line transmission may not be immune to hacking or decryption--raising the prospect of a McVeigh snuff film in the near or distant future. More important, it makes this first federal execution, one moving forward even as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joins the call for a death-penalty moratorium, a spectacle of individual vengeance for McVeigh's victims--a dangerous turn toward privatizing justice.
Far from shifting the spotlight to the survivors of Oklahoma City, Ashcroft's decision heightens the perverse amplification of McVeigh's voice initiated by his death sentence. The press spent the early weeks of spring speculating about how large a crowd would watch McVeigh take the needle. Instead of fading into anonymity, McVeigh has kept himself on the front page until his final moments and turned the chronicle of his last months into a testament for the militia fringe, who will make him a martyr. This is justice neither for McVeigh's victims nor for the country--and that is the real poison seeping into our culture from the federal death chamber in Terre Haute.
On the importance of being a "public nuisance."
Bill Clinton and George Will so rarely agree with each other that when they embrace the same position, we should be alarmed. This thought came to mind upon realizing that their stances on the Internet and China are interchangeable--despite Clinton's favoring a softer political line than Will on Beijing. When it comes to the web, both espouse what might best be dubbed a neo-McLuhanite approach, or a form of "McLuhanism with Capitalist Characteristics." The medium (the net) is the message (freedom), both insist, but ideally the market and the modem have to work their respective magics simultaneously. There is something appealing about this vision, but it is deeply flawed. And viewing the future through this particular rose-colored lens can lead observers to misunderstand crises in Chinese-American affairs (and in cross-cultural communications), such as those generated by the recent spy-plane fiasco and the 1999 destruction by NATO bombs of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.
What exactly is the neo-McLuhanite camp, and why place Clinton and Will inside it? Consider, first, a speech the then-President gave in March 2000 calling for permanent normal trade relations with China. Clinton invoked Earl Warren's claim that "liberty is the most contagious force in the world," then insisted that the "cell phone and cable modem" would help freedom flourish in the new century. "We know how much the Internet has changed America," Clinton said, "and we are already an open society. Imagine how much it could change China." The Chinese government had "been trying to crack down on the Internet," he acknowledged, but this was like trying "to nail Jell-O to the wall."
Flash forward to a column Will wrote during the latest crisis, while the man the Chinese call Xiao Bushi (Little Bush) was proving (as a headline in the Guardian put it) that sorry really is the hardest word. Despite being troubled by Beijing's demand for an apology, the pundit saw hope on the horizon. Henry Kissinger had reported in glowing terms about the "proliferation of 'Internet cafes'" in China, and Will considered these "small businesses" to be "huge portents" of changes to come, since without a "monopoly of information," authoritarian governments collapse.
"Totalitarianism is rendered impossible, and perhaps even tyranny is rendered difficult," Will wrote, "by technologies that make nations porous to information." He then reminded his readers that "China already was becoming porous in 1989," when students there learned about massacres via e-mails sent to them from "American campuses where they had studied and made friends," and it has grown even more porous since. The official media might still try to "nationalize the public's consciousness," he concluded, but the web would undermine this.
Typically, neo-McLuhanite commentaries of this sort take three things for granted: first, that access to the Internet will not just make Chinese citizens more like us but also like us more. Second, that virtual globalization is tantamount to virtual Americanization, so the Internet can do for information what the Big Mac has done for cuisine. And last, that nationalism, at least in virulent forms, is a remnant ideology clung to only by older, less-plugged-in people out of step with the cosmopolitan dot-com generation.
So, what's wrong with this picture? Plenty--at least where Chinese-American conflicts are concerned. This struck me in 1999 (when I happened to be in China and witnessed anti-American protest spurred by the US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade) and again this year.
The first mistaken neo-McLuhanite assumption is that when Chinese go onto the web to connect with foreign cultures, they naturally turn to American URLs. Sometimes they do, often they don't. In 1999, when I visited an Internet cafe in Beijing before the anti-American protests began, most of the youths I saw were hooked up to Japanese-style video games. After the demonstrations began, more patrons logged on to news sites, but as likely as not this would be www.serbia.com. Cultural globalization is never about one-way flows, though Americans often forget this, conveniently ignoring the fact that the world's cities are now cluttered not just with KFC franchises but also karaoke bars. American destinations provide some attractive options to netizens in search of adventure, but they are never the only places these globetrotters go.
A second problematic assumption is that visiting American websites will make Chinese doubt their government's propaganda. In the most emotional stages of recent crises, many US magazines, newspapers and on-line zines have showcased China-bashing Op-Eds and editorial cartoons that might well serve to confirm, not undermine, Beijing's rhetoric of victimization. They contain postings supporting the notion that for all our talk of the universality of human rights, we are not above being more outraged by the endangerment of US lives than by the loss of Chinese ones, and supporting the idea that Americans are far too prone to demonize and infantilize China. I actually hope, at certain moments, that my Chinese friends will stay away from the web. What good will it do them to see resurrections of Yellow Peril-type images of bloodthirsty dragons? Or to read the headline at least one paper used for George Will's recent column: "America Shouldn't Appease Its Adolescent Foe"?
Yet another problem with the neo-McLuhanite approach is that there is in fact never a clear line separating nationalists from netizens. There are plenty of plugged-in populists with jingoistic impulses in China (as anyone who has visited its chatrooms can attest). And the same goes for the United States (just visit www.RushLimbaugh.com). Nor does generation make the difference. Some of the nastiest anti-American cyberpostings on Chinese bulletin boards in 1999 came from educated youths. And Wang Wei, the young pilot downed in the brush with the US spy plane, has been described recently in the Chinese media as having traits we associate both with the global netizen (a regular surfer of the web and user of e-mail) and the fervent nationalist (ready to die for his homeland).
Last but not least, neo-McLuhanite rhapsodists often overlook the extent to which old and new media forms overlap and affect each other. Old forms of communication never die, they just get digital makeovers, and new media can easily be integrated into traditional political games. Witness the key role of an exchange of snail-mail letters between Wang Wei's wife and Xiao Bushi in the most recent Chinese-American crisis, the importance of which was magnified by both Chinese TV and CNN coverage. Or consider the use in the 1999 Chinese protests of a new form of wall poster: printouts from websites.
The neo-McLuhanites are certainly right about two things: China is changing dramatically, in part because of new forms of international communication and commerce, and the transformations will continue. But these changes have not and will not take simple and predictable forms. Markets and modems, in the era of the New World Disorder, push and pull people and countries in different directions, and the choices individuals and groups make when faced with novel challenges matter.
It seems fitting to end with an ironic question. Wasn't it Marxist analysts who used to be criticized--albeit sometimes unfairly--for insisting that History flows in a predetermined direction? I, for one, doubt that the new forms of virtual determinism will prove any better at predicting the future in this century than the materialist one spelled out by the author of Das Kapital did in the last one.