The Political Animal

Ukraine and Legitimacy

UkraineIt is fascinating to witness with events in Ukraine an enduring controversy of history in the making. Controversies arise all the time, of course, but some are drawn in more dramatic relief than others, and one of those is Ukraine, 2013-14. Most Western exponents of liberal democracy, of both right and left – by no means all – are adamant that Ukraine represents one more natural social outburst of the desire for freedom and democracy, and a rejection of the democratically-styled authoritarianism that is just one form of corrupt oligarchism. One needn’t dissent from this view to find many of the forces for good in these events, as they zealously and uncritically perceive themselves, to have been inept and, in part, opportunistic and blind causes of their own effect.

The opportunism lay in grasping at the chance to wrest Ukraine free from Russia’s domination, and to do so with so little apparent forethought or preparation or principled consistency. Join that incoherent rationale for Western behavior, both before and after the overthrow of Yanukovych, to what should have been the predictable motivation for Putin to react as he has and you have the grounds for the Russian president’s own opportunistic case and action – and for the predictable defense of it on the Western far right and left.

In that last instance, Patrick L. Smith, at Salon, in “Propaganda, lies and the New York Times: Everything you really need to know about Ukraine” makes just the pro-Russian, anti-Western case the title promises. Like other Western-critic, Russia-rationalizers Smith goes heavy on rightist influence over the Ukrainian uprising.

The decisive influence of ultra-right extremists, some openly committed to an ideology of violence, some whose political ancestors sided with the Nazis to oppose the Soviets, is a matter of record. Svoboda and Right Sector, the two most organized of these groups, now propose to rise into national politics. Right Sector’s leader, Dmytro Yarosh, intends to run for president. The New York Times just described him as “an expert with firebombs” during the street protest period.

These people are thugs by any other name.

This is just one reason, says Smith, that “[t]he more I scrutinize it, the more the American case on Ukraine is held together with spit and baling wire.” Of course, it is not just the “American” case, but that is another topic. So is Smith anymore consistent that the American government he criticizes?

Next Sunday Crimeans will vote in a referendum as to whether they wish to break with the rest of Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. The semi-autonomous region’s parliament has already voted to do so, and good enough that they put the thought to a popular vote.

But no. Self-determination was the guiding principle when demonstrators and pols with records as election losers pushed Yanukovych out and got done via a coup (I insist on the word) what they could not manage in polling booths. But it cannot apply in Crimea’s case. The Crimeans are illegitimate and have no right to such a vote.

“[G]ood enough that they put the thought to a popular vote”? So is Smith accepting events in Kiev as expressive, however extra-legal, of legitimate self-determination or not? Is he criticizing them or resorting to their example to justify the Crimean referendum? Both, we see, in a prime, if covert, example of the argumentative reversal. And somehow, in Smith’s own coup against reason, and his exposition of “everything you really need to know about Ukraine,” he does not tell us this:

The reaction to all this in Crimea does not appear to have been done democratically or by the book.

Armed men assumed to be Russian troops or pro-Russian militia stormed the Crimea Parliament building and locked it down. Anatoly Mogiliov, the president of Crimea, who is a member of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, was ordered out.

In a session not open to the public, the Crimea parliament allegedly appointed Sergei Askyonov as prime minister of Crimea. Askyonov is a member of a small, obscure political group called from the Russian Unity Party, which won too few votes in parliamentary elections in 2012 to win even one seat in Kiev.

Nor, to balance his reporting on “ultra-right extremists” in Ukraine, does Smith include this, about the new Crimean prime minister, in “everything”:

“He wasn’t a criminal big shot,” said Andriy Senchenko, now a member of Ukraine’s Batkivshchyna party, which was at the forefront of the Kiev protests that led last month to the downfall of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych. Senchenko described Aksyonov as a “brigade leader” in a gang that was often involved in extortion rackets.

While Senchenko is not unbiased — his party opposes Aksyonov’s push for Crimea to become part of Russia — the editor of the region’s main pro-Russian newspaper, Crimean Truth, also accused Aksyonov of being in a criminal gang. Mikhail Bakharev made the allegations five years ago, when Aksyonov first emerged on Crimea’s political scene.

Well, so everybody in the pristine realm of national and international power politics will have dirty targets at which to aim a crooked figure. But at least everyone is consistent in principle in how they shape and against whom they direct their arguments, yes? Clearly, no. Among the many consequences of Western carelessness in Ukraine is the opportunity for the Putins and the Smiths to so muddy the waters over the issue of legitimacy.

Was the just completed Crimean referendum legitimate? Was the Ukrainian parliamentary vote to remove Yanukovych from office – compelled by the threat of the streets – legitimate? What constitutes governmental legitimacy? What warrants action to remove by extra-legal action a presiding government, previously recognized as legal? In whom rests the authority to carry out this extra-legal removal, to then assume the authority, on what basis, to govern? When is almost everyone’s liberating revolution a less romantic “mob-action” instead, in which the legitimacy of the complaint in uprising and of the forces rising up in substitution of those governing may be called into question? These are just a few of the questions in political philosophy that may apply, and generally speaking, in practical terms, the determinant of the answer is the existent ideological perspective of those making the judgment.

The ideological perspective on this issue of those adhering to liberal democracy, right and left, is likely best expressed by John Rawls, in Justice As Fairness, that

political power is legitimate only when it is exercised in accordance with a constitution (written or unwritten) the essentials of which all citizens, as reasonable and rational, can endorse in the light of their common human reason. This is the liberal principle of legitimacy.

Add to this some representation of Max Weber’s concept of legal-rational authority, “a set of rules and rule-bound institutions” where “creating and changing the rules are outside of the control of those who administer them,” and we probably have the nut shell of legal administrative procedure leading to democratic justice that most in the West would endorse.

One difficulty, however, is that such would describe what is legitimate, or a standard against which some government might fall short. But how far short may it fall before most of us would agree that legitimacy has been lost, so that some usurpation of authority may be attempted? And whence the legitimacy of the usurping forces?

We pretend when we argue about such crises as Ukraine and Crimea that there is some clear and settled standard by which to make these latter judgments, but there is not. Usurpations of power, by glorious and other revolutions, with the reactions against them, are always ad hoc affairs with makeshift and evolving ethical rationales. In 1969, 71 nations granted diplomatic recognition to the Republic of China on Taiwan, with only 48 recognizing the Peoples Republic of China on the mainland. By 2013, only 22 nations recognized the ROC, while recognition of the PRC had grown to 172. This evolution in the perception of the legitimacy of these two governments did not arise out of any objective improvement in the argument for the PRC over that of the ROC – unless, of course, material facts are considered to influence, along with morality, a political determination, which, of course, they are. The PRC holds, indeed, the mainland, is far larger, more populous, more militarily, and – most important of all – more economically powerful. “Legitimacy” bends beneath the wheel of material reality.

The 2008 declaration of independence of Kosovo is not recognized by Serbia or the Serbian administered North Kosovo. Because of Russian objection, Kosovo will not likely soon be granted a UN seat, yet it has received 110 recognitions as an independent state, and the International Court of Justice advisory opinion on Kosovo stated that Kosovo’s declaration did not violate international law. Kosovo’s government is and will be recognized as legitimate because, right or wrong, international bodies will have reached consensus on it legitimacy and no power strong enough will be acting to prevent the exercise of that government’s authority.

These are the realties that will develop over time in Ukraine and Crimea. It is important to note for the future, however, that the current uncertainty is not just the product of Russia’s role as bad actor, but also the strategic ineptitude of the West. Without attempting any objectively considered defense of the overthrow of Yanukovych within a coherent philosophic framework, the EU and US assert the legitimacy of the usurpation, truly, in the faith that their side and agents represent the substance of democratic justice, even if the procedure has to be made up as events proceed. Further discoveries of Yanukovych’s corruption, subsequent to his flight, are post hoc justifications, and Russia is Russia, and so illegitimate in its power plays on the face of them. Not surprisingly, as I argued before, Putin genuinely believes otherwise. Events, tactics, and countless opportunities to weaken in resolve will determine the real end.

The EU and US acted as if this would be a second go at the 2004-05 Orange Revolution, with another chance to get it right and get Russia and its Ukrainian stand-ins gone. But the course of the Orange Revolution was ultimately decided by a Ukrainian Supreme Court decision and new elections. There was no overthrow of a democratically-elected leader and Putin was not fully the power then that he is now. None of this seems to have been taken into account in anticipating the magnitude of what was occurring. The Western nations, so blinded by their sense of moral superiority, could not see that their advice and guidance of Ukrainian government opponents – rather disingenuously self-styled as just the innocent advocacy of democracy, even as it excused the threat of the streets – would be perceived by Putin as interference and aggression.

Because the West played geopolitics without a playbook – they are, don’t you know, so nineteenth century – numbered among the West’s failures thus far is the opening, from more than one direction, to challenge the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian government, which has become the rationale of all consequent Russian actions.


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They of All People



It has been a fascinating week in anti-Semitism, but then they all are. The more I witness it, the more persuaded I become of the identity of the purer, more direct forms and the ignorant forms. After all, much ignorance – lack of knowledge and sophistication – is open with wonder and without prejudice, like that of a child, so ignorance is not the explanation or an excuse. I begin to think the ignorance a cover, conscious or not, for the hate, and the hate need not be virulent, but only casually alienating, marginalizing, and dehumanizing. This is true of all racism, but anti-Semitism has its longer unified and coherent history.

Mainstream English culture and politics do anti-Semitism well, which is to say more publically and unashamedly, so in addition to the Guardian, which, additional to other roles, is a functionally anti-Semitic rag, we have the academic union UCU, which former member Ronnie Fraser is suing for being “institutionally anti-Semitic.” This week alone we got British MP David Ward issuing the latest “they of all people” slander and the Sunday Times publishing a cartoon with a new iteration of the “blood libel” slander. Both initially and secondarily and arguably tertiarily resisted acknowledgement and apology, and both, when succumbing to pressure, issued disingenuous apologies. Ward apologized for “unintended offence.” This is where a form of ignorance arises, of the nature of a pathology, like the self-delusion of the alcoholic who denies his problem: of course, Ward intended to offend. That was the whole point of his comments. They are deeply critical remarks – particularly in their invidious nature and timing – that have no other possible effect, even if one fools oneself into thinking it is tough love.

A twitter exchange I had was akin to the response and unreserved apology, finally, of the Times that appears, actually, to be somewhat reserved. Unlike some allies, I do not tweet to engage in 140 character argumentation, especially with hateful people who would only waste my time, but sometimes – many tweeters offering a black box of identity – I’ll engage a little to probe the box and satisfy a curiosity. One response to my tweeting the Times cartoon was

 isn’t that what Israel is doing though? Maybe the wrong day for said cartoon, but not anti Semitic, is it??

This purposely chirpy tweeter over a few tweets went on to characterize the cartoon as “criticism,” which I, in closing, corrected to lie. The cartoon, in the manner of similar dishonest characterizations of the separation barrier, ignores or misrepresents the conditions of its origin. And even if one believes an argument can be made for the barrier’s problematic effect on some Palestinian lives, there is no manner whatsoever in which its construction or even its maintenance was or is the product of physical harm to Palestinians, much less mortared with their blood, by even Benjamin Netanyahu, who was not in office when the barrier was constructed. One need not know the history of the Jewish blood libel to recognize this one, even merely locally, as a libel. One need not know the history of Jewish caricature and demonization to recognize demonization and to know that demonization is dehumanization. To criticize, one must address facts; everything in the cartoon, without exception, is a lie.

It is finally meaningless to refer to the mind that looks at that cartoon and calls it true – “what Israel is doing” – and simply call it ignorant. It is the ignorance of a man who beats a woman and tells himself he did it because she misbehaved or in some way deserved it – he believes that, doesn’t he, as Ward and cartoonist Gerald Scarfe believe the Israel and Jews, for Ward, warrant the attack on them?

One has to hate, however so in denial, to form prejudice out of ignorance.

Not to focus on the English unfairly, though, even as I have been composing this post, information arrived that the Brooklyn College political science department does not think it prejudicial directly to sponsor a BDS event on campus – claiming sponsorship is not endorsement – and refuse to permit counter voices to participate.

And the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency, funded by the European Union, the United Nations Development Program, and UNESCO, publishes this:

“[The Jews] feel inferior to the nations and societies in which they live, because of the hostility and evil rising in their hearts towards others and for their plots and schemes against the nations who know with certainty that the Jews are the root of conflict in the world, wherever they reside.”

“[Jews are] outcasts in every corner of the earth, and not one nation in the world respects them… but Allah’s curse upon them and his fury at them cause them to continue with their transgression.”

“Allah has stricken fear in their hearts and decreed humiliation and degradation upon them until Judgment Day.”

The mind must simply reel at the pervasiveness of open anti-Semitism in the Muslim world and the pervasiveness today of covert anti-Semitism in the Western world. Here is how reminiscent the atmosphere is. posted a fascinating piece a couple of weeks ago about “How the press soft-pedaled Hitler” in the period after he was elected to the Chancellorship of Germany.

A law passed on April 7 required the dismissal of Jews from all government jobs. Additional legislation in the months to follow banned Jews from a whole range of professions, from dentistry to the movie industry. The government even sponsored a one-day nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses, with Nazi storm troopers stationed outside Jewish-owned stores to prevent customers from entering.

Nevertheless, in July 1933, nearly six months after Hitler’s rise to power, the New York Times ran a front-page feature about the Fuhrer that presented him in a flattering light. For Hitler, it was a golden opportunity to soften his image by praising President Roosevelt as well as a platform to deliver lengthy justifications of his totalitarian policies and attacks on Jews.

The article, titled “Hitler Seeks Jobs for All Germans,” began with Hitler’s remark that FDR was looking out “for the best interests and welfare of the people of the United States.” He added, “I have sympathy with President Roosevelt because he marches straight toward his objective over Congress, over lobbies, over stubborn bureaucracies.”

The story was based on an interview with the Nazi leader by Times correspondent Anne O’Hare McCormick. She gave Hitler paragraph after paragraph to explain his policies as necessary to address Germany’s unemployment, improve its roads, and promote national unity. The Times correspondent lobbed the Nazi chief softball questions such as “What character in history do you admire most, Caesar, Napoleon, or Frederick the Great?”

McCormick also described Hitler’s appearance and mannerisms in a strongly positive tone: Hitler is “a rather shy and simple man, younger than one expects, more robust, taller… His eyes are almost the color of the blue larkspur in a vase behind him, curiously childlike and candid… His voice is as quiet as his black tie and his double-breasted black suit… Herr Hitler has the sensitive hand of the artist.” [Emphasis added]

Contrast to this: in the Guardian about a year ago ran a feature titled “My Worst Shot,” in which prominent photographers commented, surprisingly, on just that – a photograph of theirs presented as one they chose to meet that description. Among the photographers was Platon who presented a photograph that was controversial on its first publication, of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Here is Platon’s account of the photo:

‘In 2009 I photographed around 110 world leaders at the UN. Ahmadinejad was the biggest surprise. That day, he made a speech that was one of the most controversial ever given and a large proportion of the auditorium walked out. I was expecting to get that dictatorial menace but he suddenly realised that, not only was he about to sit for the most intimate portrait of him ever taken, a crowd of his supporters was watching. They were all cheering; he lost his composure for a second and started to laugh. What I got was him trying to regain his composure. It’s the most sinister leer I’ve ever caught on film. It was a missed opportunity, in the sense that he was trying to gather himself. On the other hand, it gave me something I would never have expected. No one thinks of Ahmadinejad as a man with a hint of a smile.’

Platon never actually calls this photo his worst or offers reason for its being so. His comments implicitly only, for those who already know, recall the controversy over the image. Beyond that, despite Platon’s renown and acknowledged mastery, notice how his account of the image he produced is directed toward Ahmadinejad and entirely away from his own craft and artistry, his own intention and selection.

Wrote Chas Newkey-Burden, who is not Jewish,

Put aside for a moment that the “oppression” which proponents of this argument are accusing Israel of committing is usually imaginary. When directed by gentiles towards Jews, the “they-of-all-people” argument is in its very essence so fundamentally ill-judged and unjust, and voiced with such a breathtaking lack of self-awareness, that my spirit flags when I hear it.


I contend that, as a result of the Holocaust and what preceded it, it is we gentiles who should know better. The Holocaust followed centuries of slander, persecution, violence and murder committed by gentiles against Jews. So it is not you who have an increased responsibility to behave morally, but us.


Let us strip the “they-of-all-people” argument down to its very basics: gentiles telling Jews that we killed six million of your people and that as a result it is you, not us, who have lessons to learn; that it is you, not us, who need to clean up your act. It is an argument of atrocious, spiteful insanity. Do not accept it; turn it back on those who offer it. For it is us, not you, who should know better.





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The Political Animal

Whistle Blowing and Blowing Smoke


John Kiriakou Interview
John Kiriakou Interview (Photo credit:

On Sunday, Scott Shane published an article in The New York Times about the prosecution of ex-CIA operative John C. Kiriakou for having revealed to a reporter the name of another, active and covert CIA agent. The back story is complex. I encourage you to read about it. Like many others, I think the context of the crime for which Kiriakou has been convicted – essentially, loose lips – not to warrant the severity of his sentence or the damaging effects, already, on his life. That is not my subject here.

Many supporters believe that Kiriakou has been prosecuted – really, persecuted – because he was the first CIA insider to speak publically about waterboarding, back in 2007. However, despite that charge, that is not what he has been convicted of – rather, the revelation of the covert agent’s name to a reporter. Nonetheless, supporters claim the prosecution is really about the waterboarding revelations, which were, second hand, mostly inaccurate, and regularly refer to and ennoble Kiriakou as a “whistle blower.”

Whistle blowing, properly understood, is not ratting, but an act of conscience. When committed in violation of the law, it is a form of civil disobedience. There is a long tradition of thinkers and actors far greater than anyone defending Kiriakou, going all the way back to Socrates, who have argued – and acted out their argument – that civil disobedience is committed in violation of a law, but out of respect for the rule of law, and thus entails a willingness to accept the punishment for one’s disobedience. Ideally, a self-conscious and ultimately just social and legal order will recognize the injustice – if such it was – giving rise to the disobedience, and mitigate the punishment.

The specific act for which Kiriakou has bees convicted even he claims to have been inadvertent and careless, no act of conscience. About the earlier waterboarding of which Kiriakou spoke publically,

He said he had been offered the chance to be trained in the harsh interrogation methods but turned it down. Even though he had concluded that waterboarding was indeed torture, he felt that the C.I.A.’s critics, inflamed by the new revelation that videotapes of the interrogations had been destroyed, were being unduly harsh in judging actions taken in the hectic months after Sept. 11 when more attacks seemed imminent.

“I think the second-guessing of 2002 decisions is unfair,” he said in our first conversation. “2002 was a different world than 2007. What I think is fair is having a national debate over whether we should be waterboarding.”

His feelings about waterboarding were so mixed that some 2007 news reports cast him as a critic of C.I.A. torture, while others portrayed him as a defender of the agency. Some human rights activists even suspected — wrongly, as it turned out — that the intelligence agency was orchestrating his public comments.

Kiriakou is a surprisingly loquacious fellow for an ex covert operative, but we see here that he makes no claim to have been blowing the whistle on government crimes of torture, however much the, then, Bush administration, not the current Obama administration,  may have been displeased by his public talk. Still, at the website of Friends of John Kiriakou, it is argued that

this is a case that should never have been brought anywhere – let alone in a country that values free speech and the protections of the First Amendment.

Of course, the free speech protections of the first amendment do not apply to revealing to reporters the classified names of covert CIA agents.

At Fire Dog Lake‘s Dissenter blog, Kevin Gosztola, a fervid supporter of “whistle blower” Bradley Manning, offers the same whistle blower defense of Kiriakou.

At Michael Moore’s website, Peter Van Buren states,

no one except John Kiriakou is being held accountable for America’s torture policy. And John Kiriakou didn’t torture anyone, he just blew the whistle on it.

Interestingly, it could be anyone, but not John Kiriakou who would call John Kiriakou a whistle blower. The ingenuous and impressively still patriotic Kiriakou, as we have read, does not claim to have blown the whistle on anything. Still, Oliver Stone supports him.

In their perpetual posture of smug dissent, these recorders of the whistle blow transcribe it as a free concert of their own inner music. One’s own inner conscience, to which one may rightly choose to be true, bears no responsibility to others. If one, as the sole decoder of the just and unjust law, rightful and wrongful acts, chooses to act in violation of the law, one is entitled to get off scot-free. One not only violates the law as an act of conscience, but one’s act of conscience by its inherent righteousness invalidates the entire system of a law by which one might rightfully be judged and held to account for one’s noble transgression.

Pretty neat, that: righteousness without risk, noblesse with no oblige, sacrifice without… sacrifice.

How, then, might we distinguish whistle blowing from ratting, an act of conscience from mere criminality, civil disobedience from treason? Don’t ask these defenders of the faith. They don’t know what they’re talking about.



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The Political Animal

The MSNBC Bent vs the FOX News Bias


You hear it a lot. MSNBC is the liberal Fox News.

No. It’s not.

This is just one more variation of false equivalency, the inability to make acute judgments amid the buffeting winds of so many competing claims, the warp of reason by the gravitational pull of all those massive subjectivities.

MSNBC has a bent. Fox has a bias.

Which is to say that – are you ready for this? – objectively speaking, one leans toward something, the other leans against.

FOX News vs. MSNBC in Terms of Bias” one blog post titles its consideration.

MSNBC really is more partisan than Fox, according to Pew study” headlines a Baltimore Sun article that speaks of “wretched bias.”

How MSNBC Became Fox’s Liberal Evil Twin” stunningly opined The New York Times’ Alexandra Stanley, who bizarrely amplified that

You can agree with everything that Rachel Maddow or Ed Schultz say on MSNBC and still oppose their right to say it.

That is to say, you can think they are right – that what they say is true – and not even simply disagree with their decision to say it (a curious enough contention), but their right to say it.

One contemplates the double irony of considering whether Stanley might ever have written for Pravda during her Times tenure in Moscow.

Jim Naureckas at FAIR offered this review of Stanley’s critique, which he titled, after Stanley’s illustration of objective journalism, in comparing MSNBC to CNN, “When Candidates Lie, REAL Journalists Say They ‘Finessed the Facts’.

One might argue that aside from FOX itself, the like of Alessandra Stanley is another reason there is an MSNBC.

Offers Stanley,

Both Fox News and MSNBC have experienced reporters in the field who stay neutral even when their anchors let loose. The NBC network’s anchors keep their opinions to themselves.

Bias, partisanship, opinion, neutrality – do any of these people know what they are talking about?

Not to put too fine a point on it – oh, all right, I will – the truth is a point of view.

Plantation owners say that slavery is essential to Southern agriculture and that its abolition would devastate the South’s economy. Abolitionists claim it is a crime against human dignity and a moral abomination. The Times takes no position on the matter. We are neutral, not partisan. (And, by the way, adopting the term “enhanced interrogation” to describe what was previously, uncontroversially designated as torture – because the government asserts that propagandistic manipulation of language, history, and law – is not taking sides. Didn’t we just say we’re neutral? Unbiased. Nonpartisan. We have no opinion. Or judgment. Or minds?)

The word “bias,” originating from the French biais, meaning “slant, slope, oblique,” took on the English sense of “predisposition and prejudice” – a leaning. Prejudice and bias are harsher words, loaded down as they are with their senses of racial or ethnic or other stereotypical dislike and discrimination. A predisposition, however, like a bias in garment work – a cut against the grain or weave of the fabric – is by no means necessarily prejudicial in that ugly sense. It is a leaning.

As a New York Yankee fan, I have a predisposition, a bent – another word for leaning – toward left-handed power hitters who can reach the short porch in right field for home runs. It is a cast of mind I bring to my consideration of players. It is not an ill-considered disfavor, but a judgment about general conditions based on fact and experience. However, if you present me with a right-handed hitter who can hit with power to the opposite field, bat for average, field, and steal forty bases a year, I will overcome my predisposition. I yield to specific conditions, wider considerations, and, most of all, to facts.

To have a vision of life, a political philosophy, and the sum of knowledge we call experience is not a prejudice, though it is a leaning. I lean left. I do it not because I hatefully discount political notions that are conservative and discount them out of hand because I wish to dismiss them for no reason other than that I disfavor them. I do it because more often than not, I think the right is wrong. I lean toward the truth, and I believe the truth leans left. “Left” and “right,” keep in mind, are conceptual and lexical constructs. I lean toward gravity, too, name it what you will.

The Baltimore Sun informed us in support of its case against MSNBC, from a PEW poll, that

On MSNBC, the ratio of negative to positive stories on GOP candidate Mitt Romney was 71 to 3.

Sounds awful, huh? Unless, of course, like me, you are inclined to believe that 3 is too many. If one believes that Mitt Romney and his campaign were completely dishonest and fraudulent and a threat to the integrity of the democratic process, if one has chronicled in detail the mendacity of Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate, as, indeed, Steve Benen at, of all places, MSNBC did, then what rationale other than a mindless commitment to mindlessness – journalism as stenographic record, the reporter as digital recorder – can there be for seeking the illusion that “balance” is reporting the facts or the truth?

Mr. Stalin could not be reached for comment.

It is not always as simple as the examples I have given – and even so, plenty of people mucked up mightily the judgments on slavery and Stalin. One certainly can, as in another context I would, make the case for the unclear notion to which so many uncertainly cling, of journalism with less pronounced a bent toward an institutional philosophy. Let a hundred media flowers blossom. But the contention that MSNBC is a liberal equivalent – absurdly beneath contempt, an “evil twin” – of FOX News is not a corrective to a journalistic ill, but an ill itself that MSNBC well serves to correct.

The New York Times tried again more recently, just before the election, less wildly, more blandly than in Stanley’s case, via the “news analysis” of Jeremy W. Peters. Peters pursues the same equivalency argument in a piece that, frankly, with nothing more than two handfuls of examples and no thought behind it, simply peters out. He catches MSNBC anchors in some excesses – it does have a point of view, it was an election season – but the case is actually so weak that Peters closes it against MSNBC with this:

Some MSNBC hosts even use the channel’s own ads promoting its slogan “Lean Forward,” to criticize the Republicans. Mr. O’Donnell accuses them of basing their campaigns on the false notion that Mr. Obama is inciting class warfare. “You have to come up with a lie,” he says, when your campaign is based on empty rhetoric.

In her ad, Rachel Maddow breathlessly decodes the logic behind the push to overhaul state voting laws. “The idea is to shrink the electorate,” she says, “so a smaller number of people get to decide what happens to all of us.”

This is actually embarrassing. What the “breathless” Rachel Maddow was – excuse me – reporting is the truth, apparent and acknowledgeable by all but GOP party hacks and flacks and news analysts who do not analyze: the GOP was seeking to shrink the electorate, so that a smaller number of people, with fewer minority voters, would get to cast votes. The evidence and the contours of the reality are overwhelming. One could argue that Maddow should have been breathless. Peters counts this as an example of mockable bias.

MSNBC is left leaning. It is predisposed, philosophically inclined, to the left. It has a liberal bent. It has, however, no record like FOX of intentional distortion and deceit, of manipulation of the facts, of coordinated campaigns against political opponents, of mixing their contractual on-air staff and host ranks with those of active political campaigners, of employing current Super PAC fundraisers and coordinators as on-air analysts who actually influence live decision making in calling elections.

That is not a bent. That is a bias – prejudicial, misleading, and false. MSNBC sees the world left and reports, believing it true, what it sees. FOX News knows what it wants its viewers to see and manipulates the elements of a story and shapes its narrative so that viewers well have that vision.

These are not the same activity, and a reporter who cannot see the difference is an unreliable reporter.


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The Political Animal

Threats to Democracy


The New York Times editorialized the other day, in “Too Much Power for a President,”

It has been clear for years that the Obama administration believes the shadow war on terrorism gives it the power to choose targets for assassination, including Americans, without any oversight.

The Times argued,

No one in that position should be able to unilaterally order the killing of American citizens or foreigners located far from a battlefield — depriving Americans of their due-process rights — without the consent of someone outside his political inner circle.

This is a discussion always worth having, but it can never be productively engaged if one does not honestly acknowledge some of the essential terms of the debate. Proponents and defenders of drone attacks against Al Qaeda and affiliated groups have long maintained that the declared hostility and the campaign of terror waged by those organizations constitute a new paradigm of war, by non-state actors. Drone killings are not “assassinations” but military actions. Opponents and critics who, like the Times, simply continue to use terminology like “assassination” and “far from a battlefield,” state thereby a position, but ignore by this reiteration the opposing view and evade, plain and simple, the actual argument. If one argues that the President is acting as Commander in Chief in a condition of war, then it is not, as the Times said,

too easy to say that this is a natural power of a commander in chief.

It is, instead, a coherent position. In contrast, the the Times takes the position that

[a] unilateral campaign of death is untenable. To provide real assurance, President Obamashould publish clear guidelines for targeting to be carried out by nonpoliticians, making assassination truly a last resort, and allow an outside court to review the evidence before placing Americans on a kill list. And it should release the legal briefs upon which the targeted killing was based.

That last recommendation is appropriate, as would be some Presidential characterization of what conditions might represent an “end” to this particular non-state war. The legal justifications for government acts should never be secret or war be pursued without a conceivable close. But the “campaign of death,” i.e. war, is not “unilateral.” It is founded in the Joint Resolution Authorization for the Use of Military Force of September 18, 2001. In war, the President makes these ultimate decisions. Harry Truman, and not an unelected panel of judges, made the decision to drop atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That is, in fact, our constitutional system.

Many of those who regularly inveigh against the drone program do so with dire threats about the loss of American liberty inherent in the whole war on terror, including its accompanying intelligence and detention regimes. There is probably no more frequent vocalizer of shrill and hysterical threat than Glenn Greenwald, whose stock self-identification is as former Constitutional and civil rights attorney. Let it be noted, then, that in contrast to the current President and his party, we have in the United States a political party in the current Republican Party that has become, functionally, the most undemocratic force the nation has seen outside of the old apparatus of Jim Crow in the South.

While all politicians stretch the truth, evade, and double talk, and can be caricatured by their political opposites as ideological threats to liberty and the “American way of life,” examining the substance of claims can help us determine the truth. Already there has probably not been, since Richard Nixon, a more baldfaced liar and awkwardly grinning and dishonest prevaricator in pursuit of the presidency than Mitt Romney. Even more to the documentable truth, while the GOP for nearly four years has made those wild general arguments against the Obama administration, that it, through the Affordable Care Act, for instance, would be robbing Americans through expanded federal power of their liberty, the GOP itself, at the state level – the level at which, historically, Americans have actually most often been deprived of their rights – has been since 2010 aggressively attacking and limiting,  in a manner unprecedented, the democratic rights of varied groups of Americans.

Google Glenn Greenwald and “drones” or “terror” and its variations and you will get pages of hits. Try, instead, Googling Greenwald and “reproductive rights” or “war on women.” Google Greenwald and “labor.”  Google Greenwald and “Wisconsin” or “Scott Walker. Google him on Michigan and its emergency manager law – the single most tyrannical act in American governance. Google him on the Michigan GOP’s abuse of the “immediate effect” practice in passing legislation.

Google Greenwald and “voter suppression,” in Florida or anywhere else.

While Greenwald and his minions have relentlessly attacked the Obama administration as a threat to liberty and, literally, American life, as they drone on monomaniacally about how there is no difference between the Democrats and Republicans, the Republicans have been already, for two years, without yet having won the Presidency and potentially both Houses of Congress, depriving Americans of their rights in ways that have real effects ever day, on workers and women, gays, and whole towns and cities.

The eye, for these people, is forever on the drone. They need to put it back on the ball.


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Dear Nicholas Kristof, You Are a Fool


Let’s begin with the title of that ejaculation of tendentious nonsense you and The New York Times have passed off as thoughtful commentary by a serious commentator on international affairs.

Is Israel Its Own Worst Enemy?”

Really, you mean that? You haven’t heard that spoken around the block a time or two. It’s your own, its original, you came up with it yourself in a flash of wordsmithing insight? In comparison to anti-Semitic terror organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and whole national governments of like nature – Iran – and Palestinian and other Arab public officials who repeatedly reveal in interviews to Mideast media that their true, private intent is never to accept Israel and even to destroy it, and a sea of racist religious, educational and cultural inculcation all around it, you ask if Israel is its own worst enemy?

Oh, it’s just hyperbole? Is it? Is that how you meant it? And in either case, you think such a trite formulation will educate your readers on the situation? You think it grasps essential rhetorical hold of a conflict spanning nearly a century and of the current moment too? This is the concentrated extract of your understanding?

You begin,

For decades, Palestinian leaders sometimes seemed to be their own people’s worst enemies. Palestinian radicals antagonized the West, and, when militant leaders turned to hijackings and rockets, they undermined the Palestinian cause around the world. They empowered Israeli settlers and hard-liners, while eviscerating Israeli doves.

This curiously, dumbly (as in mute, but make of it further as you will) frames that history as tactical error. But what was the aim of that terrorism? To reject Israel and make war, not just on Israel, but Jews, and others, around the world. To deny Israel peace and its very existence, just as was hoped in 1947. And you offer, instead of that clear truth, the empowerment of “Israeli settlers and hard-liners” as the unfortunate consequence of what were not only tactics but a strategy. All this hateful and warlike history has, in your expression of its consequences, the empowerment of Israeli hardliners as it worst outcome. What an odd distillation of historical meaning.

You write,

Nothing is more corrosive than Israel’s growth of settlements because they erode hope of a peace agreement in the future.

Nothing? Nothing is more corrosive? Really? (Why does your writing on this subject evoke repeated reality checks?) Are you unaware – are you Mr. Kristof – of the history and currency of Arab anti-Semitism? Its religious and political, even national, expression in every nation surrounding Israel, in schools, in media, in religious worship and sermon, in songs taught to children? Do you know how long is the history of this anti-Semitism? How far back in time, in contrast, do those settlements, the ones you are talking about (which ones, actually, are you talking about?) go in the history of this conflict? Do you care to meditate a little more deeply on matters of causation? But really (that word again) the settlements are more corrosive than that acid of hate that runs through the culture of the Arab world?

You acknowledge,

Every negotiator knows the framework of a peace agreement — 1967 borders with land swaps, Jerusalem as the capital of both Israeli and Palestinian states, only a token right of return.

I wonder, Mr. Kristof, do you know why “every negotiator knows the framework of a peace agreement”? I mean can you review history a bit better than you’ve done so far and articulate how it is exactly that this truism of future outcomes has become that truism? I’m an impatient man. Forgive me. I’ll tell you: because the framework is indeed reasonable – and because Israel has on multiple occasions tentatively accepted (pending Palestinian agreement) or even itself offered these terms. It is Israel, in its acknowledged acquiescence to these rough parameters, that has made them the distantly perceived resolution that “every negotiator knows.” Can you offer a single instance of Palestinian negotiators having accepted these rough parameters or offered a like plan themselves, in toto? My arms are folded, my feet are tapping, I don’t mean to be rude.

You refer to

the demographic and political change within Israeli society, which has made the country more conservative when it comes to border and land issues.

I don’t wish to deny the truth in this. We are about seeing the complexity of situations and conflicts around here and not simplifying and distorting them – at least some of us are – but how is it you do not yourself acknowledge how decades of war and terror, and the horrific second intifada coming off Oslo, and after Camp David, turned many Israelis on the left to a harder right? You’re a reporter. I understand you travel a great deal. I’m confident you could find very large numbers of Israelis who meet that description. It isn’t  just “demographic” change, and by the way that word isn’t the simple comfortable placeholder for historical experience you intend it to be. But that’s for another time. So I’ll just ask again – why do you not mention here the effect on the Israeli electorate of Palestinian rejectionism and terror ?

Speaking of mention – I really do have to mention this:

That’s the saddest thing about the Middle East: hard-liners like Hamas empower hard-liners like Mr. Netanyahu.

Now, we’re both writers (well, you’re a tad more famous, with a few more awards, and you make a lot more money than I do – but we’re all brothers and sisters in the trade, right?) – does this particular column of yours leave you the least bit wary at this point of absolutes and superlatives? That’s “the saddest thing about the Middle East”? Benjamin Netanyahu? Not Hamas itself? What’s sad about Hamas is that it empowers Netanyahu? Netanyahu is worse than a genocidally constituted terror organization? Worse than Bashir Assad? Or Hezbollah or all that, you know, stuff I’ve already mentioned? The saddest thing? My goodness, Mr. Kristof, that is sad, and one can well understand those friends of yours whom you anticipate thinking you “unfair and harsh” thinking you – well, unfair and harsh is the least of it.

There are many only a little finer points to challenge in your column, but in the interests of length I have been focusing only on the howlers. I don’t mean funny, Mr. Kristof, I mean scream. I’ll close with the somewhat less obvious but greatest of them all, because you are a journalist of distinction, and I know that once pointed out to you it will be embarrassingly manifest. You close,

Some of my Israeli friends will think I’m unfair and harsh, applying double standards by focusing on Israeli shortcomings while paying less attention to those of other countries in the region. Fair enough: I plead guilty. I apply higher standards to a close American ally like Israel that is a huge recipient of American aid.

Friends don’t let friends drive drunk — or drive a diplomatic course that leaves their nation veering away from any hope of peace. Today, Israel’s leaders sometimes seem to be that country’s worst enemies, and it’s an act of friendship to point that out.

Now I want you to think about the logical implications of what you claim here. You acknowledge applying a higher standard to Israel, which rationalize it however you wish – “close American ally,” “huge recipient of American aid” – means a double standard. I clarify this point because we need to know, as they say, where you’re coming from. We talkin’ hardball, amoral client-state geopolitics here, or are we moralizing? Interested people want to know. Because in the first instance, sure – you takes the money, you do our bidding. The Soviet Union was awfully clear about that arrangement. Some people think the U.S. is more that way than it should be. I have previously understood that you might be one of those people. Perhaps I was mistaken.

If, on the other hand, you are moralizing, which I think is the tone, really, of your outpouring, then it is incumbent on us to acknowledge that double standards are not a very moral thing. Everybody has to play by the same rules, don’t you think, and nations all be held to the same standards? Aren’t the injustices of the world already deeply historically embedded in the truth that nations acted in variance from this moral imperative?

But more, Mr. Kristof, more. Your criticisms of Israel throughout your column are presented as objective realities: you look at the situation and what you perceive as the objective reality is what you have put down on paper for all to read. But when you write that you are holding Israel to a higher standard, that suggests something other. That suggests that at every point in your column where a judgment was offered, and no advise was provided as to how that judgment might be made according to equal standards, and how it was now being altered – distorted we might say – by the double standard, your argument is being subverted. You offer it all as true, and then in the end you say that all of it is not really true, but true by a special standard, a standard prejudicial toward Israel. You have rendered your entire argument – which wasn’t really an argument anyway, but a string of undisciplined hyperboles – entirely without force.

You compound this by closing with that tired refrain that you so misrepresent the history and the present of the Middle East, and prejudice untold readers against Israel – readers armed now with the ignorance and warped righteousness that is the currency of this historical moment – because you are Israel’s friend.

And friends, don’t you know, don’t let friends drive drunk. Or make fools of themselves either. They step in. They take away the keys. Or the keyboard. And I’m your friend, Mr. Kristof. I really am.

I mean it.



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The Political Animal

9/11/11: Chomsky Nation


(Eleventh in a series)

Noam Chomsky at the World Social Forum in 2003...
Image via Wikipedia

On October 18, 2001, five weeks after the 9/11 attack, Noam Chomsky gave a talk at MIT, still available on the web in video and transcript form, entitled “The New War against Terror.” He employed the same slippery rhetorical constructs and argumentative ploys as were on display in his half-hearted but always fully dishonest Nation exchange with Christopher Hitchens. Stringing together several reports from The New York Times (both jokingly relied upon and faulted in the same argument, as it suited Chomsky’s purpose), loose references to the World Food Program, and The London Financial Times, as well as both refugees and aid workers cited by the above, Chomsky sought to establish, as an easily accepted premise by his audience, that American plans for action in Afghanistan were resulting in a “genocide” through starvation (though Chomsky actually used the word “slaughter,” not starvation) of perhaps three to four million people.

It was not sufficient, however, for Chomsky to make wanton accusations of genocide; what the U.S. was doing somehow qualified as a “silent” genocide. Chomsky did not elaborate on the modifier. Did Chomsky mean the lack of news coverage? But he was, in fact, relying on reports from various sources, including a major world newspaper. Also, genocides, while they generally produce, ultimately, abundant evidence, are rarely publicized – made visible and audible – by their perpetrators. That is the nature of the crime; relative silence and invisibility to the outside world are the conditions of their occurrence. Given these characteristic circumstances, what could it possibly mean for genocide to be silent? Nothing, as we see, but there is no question that the added “silent” conveys some deeper level of wicked stealth. Since accusations of genocide – like Chomsky’s cry of “racist contempt” at Hitchens – are so freely made by some, the word may appear to have lost some force. Clearly, for Chomsky genocide alone was no longer enough; now he needed need (really, really) bad genocide– it’s secret.  Of course, another reason genocide might be “silent” is that it is not, in fact, occurring. Still, Chomsky will stand thin premises on spindly legs, attach them to threads of supposition and tenuous prediction, based on sketchy evidence, and try to make them all fit on the head of an imaginary needle his animus insists is real.

What did Chomsky have to say about this supposed silent genocide nearly two years later? He emailed one correspondent, reporter and culture critic Jesse Fox Mayshark, that

thankfully, the dire warnings of the NY Times, the aid agencies, Harvard U specialists on Afghanistan, and others were realized only partially — how much, of course, we do not know, with no investigations.

Note the levels of disingenuousness here. It was the Times, the aid agencies, Harvard “specialists,” and “others” who were mistaken in their “dire warnings,” not Chomsky for confidently and maliciously attributing to the United States an act of genocide through starvation (“slaughter”) that never took place. Or, according to Chomsky, the – what? genocide? starvation? – did “partially” take place? To what degree? Ninety-five percent? Fifty percent? One percent? And, of course, in Chomsky’s Logic, failure to prove a negative is only – ah, recall this from yesterday and his accusation about Sudan? – failure to investigate. Or, rather, it is to posit an unsubstantiated claim and assert it not disproved by virtue of its being uninvestigated. “With no investigations,” implies something to be investigated, which something should be perhaps Chomsky’s own claim of partially realized – genocide? slaughter? starvation?

There were voices to the contrary. In response to Baudrillard and Zizek and Chomsky, as well as Susan Sontag (who simply refrained from using the precise words “chickens coming home to roost”) and the countless others, Marc Cooper, long of The Nation, decried in the October 14, 2001 Los Angeles Times “the odious whiff” of those nesting fowl. Christopher Hitchens was, by then, completing his Nation debate with Chomsky. The embarrassment grew, and the thoughtful left response to the bloodless left response continued throughout 2002.

Dissent published in its fall 2002 issue Michael Kazin’s “A Patriotic Left.” Kazin pointed out the sadly necessary, that “[w]ithout empathy for one’s neighbors, politics becomes a cold, censorious enterprise indeed.” Of course, American left critics without sympathy to squander had been declaring for months that one could simultaneously regret the loss of life and criticize American policy. The reassuring character of empathy, however, is in its fifty percent perfect bullshit detector: one can be emotionally conned into believing it present, but there is no mistaking its absence when there are only verbal protests to the contrary. In Dissent’s earlier, spring 2002 issue, Michael Walzer had put the questions more directly in “Can There Be a Decent Left?” Wisely, he asked, “Why can’t we accept an ambivalent relation to American power, acknowledging that it has had good and bad effects in the world?” Walzer hopefully claimed,

Many people on the left recovered their moral balance in the weeks that followed [9/11]; there is at least the beginning of what should be a long process of self-examination. But many more have still not brought themselves to think about what really happened.

Nine years after Walzer’s article, the latter observation remains regretfully true, and the former demonstrably false of those who lacked the balance to begin. There has been no examination and no change. The nature of much of the opposition to the Iraq War – mind you, not the opposition itself, or the reasonable arguments for the opposition, but the nature of it, in its rhetoric, its skewed moral considerations, its continuing anti-Americanism – demonstrated yet again that the broad left learned nothing from 9/11 or its continuing governing sojourn in the American wilderness. As Todd Gitlin wrote in the winter 2003 Dissent (of the eminently deserving Gore Vidal),

Anti-Americanism is an emotion masquerading as an analysis, a morality, an ideal, even an idea about what to do. When hatred of foreign policies ignites into hatred of an entire people and their civilization, then thinking is dead and demonology lives. When complexity of thought devolves into caricature, intellect is close to reconciling itself to mass murder.

By September 23, 2002, just over a year later, even The Nation was attempting some analysis of the difficulties the left had encountered over the previous year. By this time, Christopher Hitchens no longer felt at home at The Nation, and Adam Shatz, The Nation’s literary editor, essayed, in the “The Left and 9/11,” a first overview of the ideological and moral disarray. Given that Shatz grouped the Soviets and the African National Congress in the same emblematic ideological category, and notably “never saw [the Soviets] as enemies,” he did a fair job of attempting to consider reasonably the left’s post 9/11 intellectual conflicts. In the end, however, he could not escape the absurdities of his own position on the spectrum. He observed that the left has demonstrated

a highly selective solicitude for the oppressed: “Muslim grievances” are to be heeded when they emanate from Palestine, but ignored or even repudiated when they arise in Bosnia or Kosovo. This has damaged the left’s moral standing ….

Well, yeah, sure, it certainly has, but it isn’t as if decades of rationalizing Soviet and Maoist abuses hadn’t already sullied, just a bit, something that might be referred to as the “moral standing” of one identifiable segment of the left.

Then Shatz gave us Richard Falk reflecting, on Chomsky’s weaknesses, that he is

so preoccupied with the evils of US imperialism that it completely occupies all the political and moral space, and therefore it’s not possible for him to acknowledge that even without intending to do so some US military interventions may actually have a beneficial effect. [Emphasis added]

One can’t quite know for sure here whether the inability to imagine the U.S. intending to do good is Falk’s or only Chomsky’s, ascribed by Falk, but in any event, the comment speaks for itself. We also got Katha Pollitt musing,

This war is a real crisis for the left…in that finally there is an enemy who has attacked us, as opposed to any enemy that’s in our heads, and one that’s completely unsympathetic to the goals of the left.

It apparently took a year, but Pollitt came to acknowledge a crisis, though one can’t help but wonder what her reaction to the attack might have been – given what it was – had the perpetrators actually been sympathetic to the goals of the left. And then there was Tony Kushner, of recent controversy, stating,

I don’t believe that we’re ideologically committed to do evil.

Ah, yes. Well, thanks for that. What can one call an examination of a crisis in which even the supposed dissents from misguided orthodoxy are obtuse?

As it happens, to bring the divergent threads of The Nation and Dissent together in closing, the latter in its Winter 2010 issue presented a symposium on “Intellectuals and their America,” and of varied interesting voices among them, Katha Pollitt was not one. She did author one of the entries, but only to disappoint that hopeful sentiment of Kazin’s back in 2002 about those on the left who had lost their moral balance recovering it. Oh, sure, she heard the critics of her post 9/11 column.

I’m sure I could have written more carefully and sensitively. The tone of that column was unnecessarily prickly, and I went too far when I identified the flag with racism and jingoism, because of course it has many meanings, including anti-racism and rejection of ignorant chauvinism.

Is it possible for Pollitt to be more clueless even in her attempt to articulate more positive meanings for the American flag? But this is the best Pollitt can offer:

It may be natural to love one’s country, but it’s less a noble virtue than a habit, the way people tend to like the food they grew up with, even if it’s haggis or lutefisk or roasted rats on a stick.

Believing as I do that poets cannot by nature be such unreflective, superficial beings as this thinking suggests, I understand such writing to reflect instead how psychologically and affectively disabling the pronounced ideologizing of human experience can be. It leads one to conclude an essay, after ten years opportunity to reconsider, like this:

I realize that criticizing patriotism generally doesn’t go over very well, let alone telling people they’re not so great and even a bit greedy. But what has all our flag-waving done for us in the end?

If one were to answer that it created, and in crisis preserved, the nation, and saved a good portion of the world from tyranny and death as well, there is reason to believe that these to Pollitt are gifts, like a horse, the opposing ends of which she knows far better than the precious animal between them.


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Israel The Political Animal

How Greenwald Argues

We’ve had an interesting and now long-running thread of comments going from Rob H.’s guest post the other day, “Glenn Greenwald’s False Accusation Against The New York Times.” I’ve offered my latest contribution in the comments, the full length of which you can reach via link at the end of this post. I thought I would highlight here my comments on Greenwald rather than the other topic of Israel with which the thread also became involved.

This commentary thread has intertwined criticism of Greenwald on a different topic with the topic of Israel. Ultimately, I think, for those critical of Greenwald and of certain ideological trends he represents in his peculiar way, those two strains have the same source.

Here is a typical passage from Greenwald that Rob quotes:

“Conversely, the U.S. Government most certainly did pursue vastly increased security powers in the name of McVeigh’s attack: the Clinton administration, citing the Oklahoma City attack, demanded a full-scale prohibition on all computer encryption that the Government could not access, as well as significantly increased domestic eavesdropping powers, while Congress — by an overwhelming majority — enacted the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 that severely infringed due process rights, created new Terrorism crimes, and vested the government with a litany of vast new prosecutorial powers — all galvanized by the McVeigh attack (read more from The New York Times’ Linda Greenhouse on how both parties exploited the Oklahoma City bombing to significantly increase the government’s surveillance and police powers).”

Vague and diffuse adjectives and adverbs for Greenwald are ideational cluster bombs. Based just on those few I highlighted one might think 1996 ushered in the beginnings of a police state. Undoubtedly, there are readers of Greenwald who do think we already live in a police state. Language, like the metaphors of violence I mentioned earlier, can create the reality in which we choose to live. There is, too, the mixture of what the government pursued and Clinton demanded with what the Congress enacted. How many readers of that passage know how these laws actually are changed based on these events?

Rob quotes this passage:

“Regardless of the justifications of these wars — and Norway is in both countries as part of a U.N. action — it is simply a fact that Norway has sent its military to two foreign countries where it is attacking people, dropping bombs, and killing civilians.”

“On a weekly basis — literally — the U.S. and its Western allies explode homes, mangle children, extinguish the lives of innocent people, disrupt communities, kill community and government leaders, and bring violence and terror to large numbers of people — those are just facts.”

Greenwald is no real writer anymore than he is a genuine thinker, so it would probably take skills he lacks to argue with any less integrity. On the larger level, these two bathetic paragraphs would apply, allowing for anachronism, to every war ever fought in the history of humankind, regardless – and why, pray tell, regardless? – “of the justification of these wars.” (Don’t justifications matter?) More narrowly, “attacking people [just people, any, old people], dropping bombs, and killing civilians” certainly sounds purposeful to those effects, doesn’t it? “

[T]he U.S. and its Western allies explode homes, mangle children, extinguish the lives of innocent people, disrupt communities, kill community and government leaders, and bring violence and terror to large numbers of people.” Sounds purposeful again, doesn’t it? What monsters! If only it weren’t for “the U.S. and its Western allies,” what peaceful, terror-free and unmangled and unextinguished lives we might all be leading. And this manipulative combination of purposeful agency and bathetic description is labeled “just facts.”

The kind of person capable of arguing in this manner is the bullshitter. In “The Hypocrisy and Bullshit of Glenn Greenwald,” I quoted thusly Harry G. Frankfurt from On Bullshit:

Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires.

(Full comment here…)

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The Political Animal

Glenn Greenwald’s False Accusation Against The New York Times

(The following is Guest Post by Robert H., cross-posted from OpenSalon.)

In the wake of the deadly attacks in Norway on Friday, Glenn Greenwald posted this controversial column. It mainly spoke to both the media’s early reporting of a Jihadi claim of involvement, and the ongoing journalistic portrayal of Norway as a peaceful nation when they are, in fact, militarily involved in Libya and Afghanistan.

Leaving aside the acrimonious debate over the intent and propriety of penning such a piece in the immediate aftermath of these attacks, Glenn updated his column with this accusatory nugget:

The New York Times headline was quick to suggest responsibility for these attacks

Attached was a partial screen grab of their online page highlighting the attack that also contained this sub-headline:

Powerful Explosions Hit Oslo; Jihadis Claim Responsibility

I’m still unclear as to his problem with this since it is simply a fact that a Jihadi website did claim responsibility for the attacks. And this is how The New York Times detailed that claim:

A terror group, Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or the Helpers of the Global Jihad, issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, according to Will McCants, a terrorism analyst at C.N.A., a research institute that studies terrorism. The message said the attack was a response to Norwegian forces’ presence in Afghanistan and to unspecified insults to the Prophet Muhammad. “We have warned since the Stockholm raid of more operations,” the group said, according to Mr. McCants’ translation, apparently referring to a bombing in Sweden in December 2010. “What you see is only the beginning, and there is more to come.” The claim could not be confirmed. [Emphasis added]

On Saturday, he continued his castigation of The Times headline (and, by extension, The Times) by leading off his piece with this damning accusation:

For much of the day yesterday [Emphasis added], the featured headline on The New York Times online front page strongly suggested that Muslims were responsible for the attacks on Oslo; that led to definitive statements on the BBC and elsewhere that Muslims were the culprits.

“For much of the day,”… that sounds dreadful and slovenly on the part of The New York Times, doesn’t it? How could they be so irresponsible as to leave that headline up for such a long period of time when it became clear there was no Jihadi involvement in these crimes? After all, according to Glenn, it “strongly suggested that Muslims were responsible for the attacks on Oslo.”

I had seen the headline Glenn referenced, but I also noticed it had vanished a little while later. I even commented on its removal in his letters section. So I was fairly certain it hadn’t been on the site for “much of the day,” as Glenn put it. But to be sure, I needed to check with The Times.

As I suspected, the truth turned out to be that the headline he sharply criticized in two columns — over two days — was only online for about two hours, and NOT “much of the day.” I confirmed this with a Senior Editor at The Times by simply sending him an email inquiring about the headline in question. This is what he wrote back:

I checked with our Home Page editors.  The reference was in the second — or so-called “deck” — headline.  Beginning around 3pm, we had:

Blasts and Gun Attack in Norway; 7 Dead
Powerful Explosions Hit Oslo; Jihadis Claim Responsibility

Two hours later [Emphasis added], all references to Jihadis was gone from the Home Page and this explanation was given in the article as the news continued to unfold:

Initial reports focused on the possibility of Islamic militants, in particular Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or Helpers of the Global Jihad, cited by some analysts as claiming responsibility for the attacks. American officials said the group was previously unknown and might not even exist.

According to Salon’s timestamp, Glenn posted Friday’s column at 2:23PM (when he posted the update is unknown). I posted my comment about the headline at 6:12PM. So undoubtedly, somewhere within that time frame, the ‘offending’ headline had been removed. And considering the update certainly wasn’t posted at 2:23, and my comment was being composed before 6:12, that pretty much cements what the Senior Editor stated above.

So how Glenn translated those two hours into “much of the day,” is beyond me. I won’t speculate on his motivation for prominently kicking off an article with such explicit misinformation (because when it comes to debating Glenn on equivocal subjects, it places one squarely in nailing-Jello-to-the-wall territory), but I will say that at best, it’s a reckless mistake, and at worst, a blatantly misleading accusation. And it appears he made it without performing the slightest bit of fact checking.

More importantly, one of the thrusts of Saturday’s column was that the headline’s narrative about Jihadis being responsible for the attacks was widely dissemenated throughout the world. Therefore, along with other examples, it painted a false picture; one that unfairly disparaged Muslims as terrorists.

There’s no doubt some of that is true, and Glenn was absolutely correct in pointing that finger at conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post. But if one is going to denounce the dissemination of uncorrected, false information, one should ensure one is innocent of that sin, as well.

As a case in point, Jennifer Rubin updated her article late Sunday afternoon, so Glenn’s accusation from Saturday morning is no longer valid:

The Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin wrote a whole column based on the assertion that Muslims were responsible, one that, as James Fallows notes, remains at the Post with no corrections or updates.

So… according to Glenn’s standards, he should note Rubin’s update in his piece. But predictably, Glenn’s accusation remains at Salon, “with no corrections or updates.” Her mea culpa may be too little too late, and he may not approve, but as the saying goes: What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

As to The Times headline, he’s clearly fabricated a distorted picture of their coverage that’s now widely disseminated. But unlike that headline (now long gone from their site), Glenn’s accusation against The Times lives on. And unless he updates his piece (many of those Google hits don’t supply the entire story, but only a link to Glenn’s column at Salon), predictably, it will be repeated with little skepticism by followers and like-minded bloggers. So I’ll wait for the “corrections or updates” in his column on that one, too.

With that in mind, last year (in rather astonishing fashion), Glenn admitted in a comment to me that he’d made a mistake about something he stated twice on national TV. Because of Jello, I’m not getting into  his reasoning, except to say that his professed devotion to being factual on TV took a hit. Despite my early detection of this mistake, and asking him mulitple times to post a correction to the article, it’s never been corrected there, nor in the television transcript which still stands at Democracy Now (and I wrote to Democracy Now about the error but they never replied). Part of his continuing explanation for the mistake was this:

It doesn’t matter how “prominent” you are or how many television shows you appear on – making mistakes and getting things wrong is absolutely inevitable for every single person, including me. If it’s perceived that you do it deliberately or recklessly, then your credibility won’t last very long, but the mere making of mistakes is something that every single person does….

It was just a simple, honest mistake of the kind I (and everyone else) have made many times before and will make many times again.

So… Glenn has made many mistakes before and will do so again many times in the future.  So… my questions become: What method does he propose to ensure that his mistakes are not circulated around the world? And what, exactly, does he plan to do to ensure he doesn’t make so many mistakes in the first place?

Ya know, like the egregious one about the Times headline.

UPDATE: Glenn, via Richard Silverstein, printed this from The Times story. I note it because it contains the same paragrah sent to me by the The Times:

Initial reports focused on the possibility of Islamic militants, in particular Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or Helpers of the Global Jihad, cited by some analysts as claiming responsibility for the attacks. American officials said the group was previously unknown and might not even exist.

There was ample reason for concern that terrorists might be responsible.

Does that last sentence seem somewhat forlorn? Like it’s lost its friends? It has, and if you were so inclined to view said “ample reason,” you had to find it yourself. Greenwald and Silverstein weren’t going to offer it up. Why? I’ll let readers decide for themselves because as I’ve said, I’m not so fond of Jello. In its entirety:

Still, there was ample reason for concern that terrorists might be responsible. In 2004 and again in 2008, the No. 2 leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, who took over after the death of Osama bin Laden, threatened Norway because of its support of the American-led NATO military operation in Afghanistan. [Emphasis added]

Here. Were. Some. Ample. Reasons. For concern.

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Reasoning Gone Off the Rails: Jerusalem’s Light Rail Project

It is, so far, impossible to run out of examples of how intellectually corrupt much contemporary thinking is on the subject of Israel-Palestine. Today, Adam Levick at CiFWatch offers a mundane municipal illustration by way of Jerusalem’s soon to be operational (in its first phase) Light Rail line. Levick tells us that

the first line will run through the East part of the city, and serve Arab neighborhoods, such as Shu’afat, and the Project planners noted that they consulted with, and gained the approval of, resident associations there – many of which will benefit by the increased ease of access to the center of town, and a rise in property values – which, according to Rail planners, has already occurred.

Despite the agreement of the actual Arab residents, the official position of the Palestinian Authority has been one opposed to the line. One can easily see, if not endorse, the PA’s reasoning: the rail line is just one more way that Israel’s governance of East Jerusalem, in a unified city, appears acceded to and a fait accompli. Again, though, note that the actual Arab locals endorsed the line and benefit from it in multiple ways. But this is not the real point of Levick’s post. The point is how do others, not the PA, react to the Light Rail? How do they integrate it into the narrative that media and involved third parties are daily constructing around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

As media events in Israel go, this was, for most journalists covering the story, quite non-controversial, and the smooth, quiet ride we took on the modern rail car, on a small section of the route which runs through the center from Yaffo to the road along the Arab section of the Old City, was a quite pleasant experience.

However, during the Q&A session after the presentation, both by transportation officials, and then later, in our group’s meeting with Jerusalem’s Mayor, Nir Barkat, two American journalists – one from National Public Radio (NPR) and the other from the New York Times … asked whether the fact that the route runs though the East part of the city (serving Arab neighborhoods) was an impediment to peace.

Should reporters ever not ask questions? That’s their job, right? These might seem reasonable questions, too. Isn’t everything that happens in the lives of Israelis and Palestinians either an aide or an impediment to peace? Ah, but the reporters didn’t ask what might have struck them as the counter-intuitive question about aiding peace. And a question is not just a question. Even just asked – as in “I just asked” – it introduces an idea.

[W]hile listening [to] the NYT and NPR correspondents question Mayor Barkat on the political implications of the Light Rail Project, I began wondering what the reaction would be if the Arab neighborhoods were excluded from the Rail’s route.  Is there any question that the narrative would have been one of racism and discrimination against Jerusalem’s Arabs?

Further, would it be preferable if the city were to delay addressing such major municipal problems until a peace agreement is one day achieved?

These are “just questions” too. And any honest observer knows the answers. “Apartheid,” anyone?

When an action and its opposite are both, according to a line of thought, condemnable, we then have one more, and the best reason for judging an argument and the position behind it to have collapsed into utter self-contradictory absurdity.

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The Political Animal

Wikileaks Jumps the Shark

Logo used by Wikileaks
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That was fast. But we live in an accelerated age. It is not entirely clear who the defenders are of Julian Assange, but they seem to be generally people of the hard Left and monomaniacal anti-authoritarians such as Glenn Greenwald, who, in his ill-defined ambi-political orientation, can embrace both extremes of incoherent opposition to state power. Writes Greenwald,

Then there’s the somewhat controversial claim that our major media stars are nothing more than Government spokespeople and major news outlets little more than glorified state-run media.

Not surprisingly, Greenwald is an advocate of this “controversial claim.” The fact that many, such as I, are critical of The New York Times and other newspapers for publishing anything at all of the Wikileaks diplomatic cables release does not register with him as a counter to his position. That, complexly, the Times, by seeking government guidance on what identities should be wisely elided from published versions might be pursuing its own vision of responsible citizenship is irreconcilable with the absolutist Greenwald’s commitment to attacking the idea of state authority. He himself approvingly cites Digby, in her expression of the essential, unrefined devotion to the commandment to “question authority.”

My personal feeling is that any allegedly democratic government that is so hubristic that it will lie blatantly to the entire world in order to invade a country it has long wanted to invade probably needs a self-correcting mechanism. There are times when it’s necessary that the powerful be shown that there are checks on its behavior, particularly when the systems normally designed to do that are breaking down. Now is one of those times. . . . .As for the substance of the revelations, I don’t know what the results will be. But in the world of diplomacy, embarrassment is meaningful and I’m not sure that it’s a bad thing for all these people to be embarrassed right now.  Puncturing a certain kind of self-importance — especially national self-importance — may be the most worthwhile thing they do. A little humility is long overdue.

This is an emotion masquerading as an idea, as, in fact, Digby introduces it. As I wrote yesterday, the Cables release, in contrast, to Afghan releases, shows clearly that rather than a specific anti-war political goal, Assange has, as he openly expresses, a philosophically anarchic agenda, and it is completely incoherent, unless one simply wishes to take emotional revenge – joy in a little embarrassment – from a resented center of power. Digby’s comment above, with a different source of resentment, might just as easily have come from a Tea Partier.

Sensible thinking on the subject comes from both sides of the political divide, which is why the bloom already fades from Assange’s shriveling rose. Here is the liberal James Rubin:

Yet those on the hard left are usually the loudest critics of America imposing its own values, its own way of doing business, and its own culture on other countries. For better or worse, in many parts of the world there’s a big difference between what government officials are prepared to do publicly and what they’re prepared to say and do privately. We may wish it otherwise, but those are the realities faced by U.S. officials. The hard left, so quick to demand that America accept other countries’ political systems, now seems blind to the fact that other governments want to have the right to say one thing in public and a different thing in private. By respecting that difference, American diplomats are doing their job. Surely the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, would prefer for Arab leaders to be as honest and open and transparent as we are in our country. Until such democratic values come to the Arab world, however, we have to work with what we’ve got. U.S. diplomacy has been damaged, not destroyed; it will recover after a time. But for now, Wikileaks is making diplomacy’s task a whole lot harder.

And here is the conservative Max Boot, citing the Times’ rationale that “[a]s daunting as it is to publish such material over official objections, it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in their name”:

Isn’t it presumptuous to assume that readers of the New York Times have no right to know what is being done in their name by the editors of the New York Times? Isn’t it important for us to learn “the unvarnished story” of how the Times makes its editorial decisions — such as the decision to publish the WikiLeaks documents? Sure, we know the official explanation — it’s in the newspaper. But what happened behind the scenes? Maybe there were embarrassing squabbles that will make for juicy reading? Therefore, I humbly suggest that in the interest of the greater public good (as determined by me), Bill Keller, the editor, and Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, should release to the world all their private e-mails and memos concerning WikiLeaks.

The New York Times building in New York, NY ac...
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Actually, let’s make our document request broader: the Times should share with the world all its internal correspondence going back years. That would include, of course, memos that disclose the identity of anonymous sources, including sources who may have risked their lives to reveal information to Times reporters. Of course, just as it does with government documents, we would give the Times the privilege of redacting a few names and facts — at least in a few of the versions that are published on the Internet.

My suspicion — call it a hunch — is that the Times won’t accept my modest suggestion. Their position, in effect, is “secrecy for me but not for thee.” But why? Can the Times editors possibly argue with a straight face that their deliberations are more important and more privileged than the work of our soldiers and diplomats? No doubt the editors can see all the damage that releasing their own documents would do — it would have a chilling effect on internal discourse and on the willingness of sources to share information with Times reporters. But they seem blind to the fact that precisely the same damage is being done to the United States government with consequences potentially far more momentous.

The most persuasive argument the Times has made is that “most of these documents will be made public regardless of what The Times decides.” That’s true, but that doesn’t eradicate the Times’ responsibility for choosing to act as a press agent and megaphone for WikiLeaks.

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The Political Animal

Journalistic Cowardice

Andrew Sullivan, of whom I have been quite critical of late, is nonetheless pursuing the U.S. torture issue – multiple times daily – with diligence and courage. He focuses not just on the lies and current self-serving campaign of Cheney and former Bush administration officials, but also on the cowardice and incompetence of even the largest journalistc lights. Here he does his hero George Orwell proud, cutting the New York Times a new one for its professional irresponsibility – its refusal to call torture torture. A must read thumbnail of the hypocrisy surrounding this issue.

Culture Clash

Culture Clash

So Herman Rosenblat’s falsified Holocaust memoir, Angel at the Fence will now be published not as non-fiction, but as fiction – based upon a screenplay – adapted from the fraudulent true story – because people need stories – and need to believe the stories are true – or could be – since if someone could conceive it…. then it could happen. Right? And why would he make up such a story? Now there’s a story. Let’s make it part of – the story.

When New York Magazine’s Daily Intel begins criticizing The New York Times for unoriginal and shallow reporting – “Midtown Twentysomething Thinks NYC Is O-V-E-R” – you know the Gray Lady has troubles. Choice quote from a young ad man: “Not to say New York isn’t still exciting and fun, but it feels a little grittier; there is a sense that the thrill of paying $20 for a cocktail is over.” Even 23 isn’t an excuse. He needs to be shot.

Andrew Haydon at TheatreBlog explains why, unless you’re Berthold Brecht, agitprop and good art kinda don’t like each other. All those complacent and self-righteous anti-Bush plays and poems that rained down upon us over the past 6-8 years made people feel good and smug but will fare worse in the historical record even than W. At least he’ll be remembered.