Two Decades of Gary Webb Attacks Continue

Gary WebbLast month, I wrote about the then upcoming Gary Webb bio-pic Kill the Messenger. It is about how Webb’s reporting on CIA-affiliated smuggling of cocaine into the United States in the 1980s was attacked by the major press outlets. This eventually led to Webb killing himself. But I noted, “I’m sure… the press will push it as a story of one of their own, even though the primary reason that Webb seems to have taken his life is that no one would hire him.” Well, I was wrong. What I forgot is that a lot of the people who attacked Webb are not only still alive, but still working. So of course they aren’t going to laud them as the best that journalism is. Webb is long dead, but they still feel the need to attack him.

Recently, there was much coverage of the the Watergate break-in because of the fortieth anniversary. I discussed the coverage, Bob Schieffer Believes in Journalism That Happened 40 Years Ago. (Schieffer, of course, being the man who thinks that Edward Snowden should be thrown in jail — and maybe Glenn Greenwald as well.) In that article, I mentioned that if there had not been the incriminating tapes, Nixon would never have been forced to resign; Republicans would to this day be claiming that it was a small scandal; and most of all, journalists would not celebrate Woodward and Bernstein. And notice: the tapes are nothing that they uncovered; the tapes simply proved them right.

On Friday, Jeff Leen at the Washington Post wrote, Gary Webb Was No Journalism Hero, Despite What “Kill the Messenger” Says. And who is Jeff Leen? Well, at the time of Webb’s reporting, he was a reporter at the Miami Herald, doing work on the drug trade. And part of that work was to counter Webb’s work. It is almost twenty years later, and he’s still working that assignment.

Robert Parry wrote a great response to Leen at Consortium News, WPost’s Slimy Assault on Gary Webb. In 1985, Parry and Brian Barger broke the story in the Associated Press that the Contras — the rebels we supported who were fighting against the Nicaraguan government — were shipping cocaine into the United States. Webb’s work followed up on that, showing that CIA contractors were involved and that the CIA was complicit. So Parry knows what he’s talking about.

I highly recommend reading the whole thing because he takes Leen apart. Of course, it won’t matter to Leen, who is a typical career journalist whose biggest asset to a paper is that he will never file anything that would upset anyone powerful. But what stood out to me in the article is the way that people like Leen can continue to nitpick away at Webb, even while later events have shown him to be right.

That made me wonder what would have happened if Nixon’s tapes had existed, but didn’t get released for a decade after Watergate. Based upon the treatment of Webb, it must be that much of the media establishment would never have forgiven Woodward and Bernstein, much less lionized them. Here is Parry on an interesting comparison:

Instead of diving into the reeds of the CIA and DOJ reports, Leen does what he and his mainstream colleagues have done for the past three decades, try to minimize the seriousness of the Reagan administration tolerating cocaine trafficking by its Contra clients and even obstructing official investigations that threatened to expose this crime of state.

Instead, to Leen, the only important issue is whether Gary Webb’s story was perfect. But no journalistic product is perfect. There are always more details that a reporter would like to have, not to mention compromises with editors over how a story is presented. And, on a complex story, there are always some nuances that could have been explained better. That is simply the reality of journalism, the so-called first draft of history.

But Leen pretends that it is the righteous thing to destroy a reporter who is not perfect in his execution of a difficult story — and that Gary Webb thus deserved to be banished from his profession for life, a cruel punishment that impoverished Webb and ultimately drove him to suicide in 2004.

But if Leen is correct — that a reporter who takes on a very tough story and doesn’t get every detail precisely correct should be ruined and disgraced — what does he tell his Washington Post colleague Bob Woodward, whose heroic Watergate reporting included an error about whether a claim regarding who controlled the White House slush fund was made before a grand jury?

While Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein were right about the substance, they were wrong about its presentation to a grand jury. Does Leen really believe that Woodward and Bernstein should have been drummed out of journalism for that mistake? Instead, they were lionized as heroes of investigative journalism despite the error — as they should have been.

Yet, when Webb exposed what was arguably an even worse crime of state — the Reagan administration turning a blind eye to the importation of tons of cocaine into the United States — Leen thinks any abuse of Webb is justified because his story wasn’t perfect.

Those two divergent judgments — on how Woodward’s mistake was understandably excused and how Webb’s imperfections were never forgiven — speak volumes about what has happened to the modern profession of journalism at least in the mainstream US media. In reality, Leen’s insistence on perfection and “extraordinary proof” is just a dodge to rationalize letting well-connected criminals and their powerful accomplices off the hook.

In the old days, the journalistic goal was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” but the new rule appears to be: “any standard of proof works when condemning the weak or the despised but you need unachievable ‘extraordinary proof’ if you’re writing about the strong and the politically popular.”

In another scathing attack on Leen’s article, Al Giordano and Bill Conroy at Narco News wrote, The Washington Post Needs a Bus — and to Throw Jeff Leen Under It. It makes the argument that the big three newspapers didn’t destroy the story because of its subject matter, but because Webb’s story was the first big news story on the internet. They were trying to kill electronic media and Webb was just a casualty of that. Here is Webb discussing the impact of the internet:

But what’s especially great about the article is that they interviewed Nick Schou, who wrote the book, Kill the Messenger. Leen took some quotes from his book to prove his case that “Gary Webb Was No Journalism Hero.” Well, Schou read Leen’s article and was not pleased:

I’m glad this guy wrote what he did because it reveals exactly why the movie gets the story so right. The writer of this worthless and whiny op-ed perfectly captures the craven mentality of cowardice of most of Webb’s critics at the three major papers. And he totally takes my statement out of context. I do believe that Dark Alliance contained major flaws of hyperbole, but they were mostly the story’s logo and a few unnecessary phrases that overstated the evidence Webb had at the time. What I’ve always argued is that had Webb been allowed to keep writing, and had the other papers including the Post actually done their job, the true extent of the story would have been revealed. The fact remains that Webb’s story nonetheless forced the CIA to admit that the true flaw of Dark Alliance was hardly one of hyperbole but the exact opposite – the story radically understated the scandal.

The article also contains a bit of text from Webb’s book, Dark Alliance where he calls out the work of Jeff Leen. I’ve transcribed it:

A handful of researchers, James Inciardi for example, maintain that the crack market in Miami developed simultaneously with that in LA, but the historical record to support this is much thinner. One of the journalistic advocates of this scenario is Jeff Leen, a self-styled cocaine expert formally with the Miami Herald. If Leen is correct, however, it means he missed the story by about four years. His first article on crack (which he erroneously referred to as “free-base” throughout) didn’t appear until December 30, 1985, a month after the New York Times announced its presence on the Eastern seaboard.

Giordano and Conroy added, “Leen thought he could publish Friday’s essay without disclosing that it was none other than Gary Webb who exposed Leen’s early cocaine journalism in that passage of his book.” But the sad truth of the matter is that Leen will get away with the article. It’s been several days and I’ve only found a smattering of articles about it — only two of which were in Google News. And Leen will finish out his unremarkable and cowardly career and have a nice retirement. I’d like to believe that Giordano and Conroy are right and that Leen will be thrown under the bus. But it doesn’t work that way. People like Gary Webb who speak truth to power are thrown under the bus. People like Jeff Leen who kiss up to the establishment are cherished.

Update (21 October 2014 11:23 am)

The Rancid Honeytrap has posted an article about some other attacks and resources about the work that Webb and the work he did, Misremembering Gary Webb. It is very good.

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To Be or Not to Bop With Dizzy Gillespie

Dizzy GillespieOn this day in 1917, the great jazz trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie was born. Actually, that kind of under-sells him. He was a whole lot more than that. He was probably the most important person in the development of bebop. And if you think of jazz, you probably think of bebop unless you are just really boring. The great thing about bebop is that it killed swing. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with swing, but it was played out and yes, it was boring.

Bebop was distinct from swing in two primary ways. The first is obvious, even to modern (but careless) ears: it is highly syncopated. I especially like this. I’ve always had a great fascination with what I call “jagged” melodies. This has not endeared my music to others, but I love it. The second distinction is something that I’ve never been very creative about but which I admire as a listener: harmonic complexity. Swing stayed pretty much to standard chords like a 9th: C-E-G-Bb-D. But bebop composers and improvisers — led by Gillespie and Charlie Parker — played with this in a big way. They especially liked to flatten the 5th and 9th. And augment them. So you end up with things that sound quite dissonant and start to lose all standard harmonic structure. For example: C-E-Gb-Bb-Db, which is really just a Gb7 chord with a flatted 5th thrown in on the bass. The theory confuses me, but it sounds great.

Here is “Woody ‘n’ You,” which Gillespie wrote while working with Coleman Hawkins. It is the very dawn of bebop. It still sounds very swing-y. But it is more syncopated and it is introducing more harmonic complexity. But it isn’t making a full break with the past, and indeed, it is an homage to swing band leader Woody Herman.

But let’s jump ahead. Gillespie was also very important in the development of Afro-Cuban jazz. A great, early example of this is “Manteca” — originally recording in 1947, I don’t think any version was released until Afro in 1954. Anyway, here is a great live version from 1970. You also get to see some of his playing:

I’ve had a hard time finding video of Gillespie really letting fly as a performer. There are videos, but they are generally in hour long sets. So you will just have to make due with this performance of “One Note Samba” from a performance in Paris in 1965. It is just amazingly wonderful. But it doesn’t especially highlight Gillespie. Still, listen:

Happy birthday Dizzy Gillespie!

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Dictionary Sagacious But Not Bonhomous

Child ReadingI have a good vocabulary, but I am constantly looking up words. For one thing, even when you know words, the definitions are usually fuzzy. People often ask me what a particular words means, and I start babbling. If I don’t know what it means, it is fine. “I don’t know” is one of my all time favorite sentences. But when I do know, oh boy: watch out! And the more basic the word, the harder it is to define. For example: if you try to define “creation” you will almost certainly use the word “create” in the first sentence. “It means something that you create. I mean…”

But if you are the writer of a dictionary, you may very easily define the word: something that is created. This is a very annoying aspect of dictionaries that most of us found exasperating when we were young. It has even created (Ha!) a kind of folklore where the entry on “creation” sends you to the entry on “create.” And there you find, “Create: the process of creation.” I do not know of this ever actually occurring. The writers of dictionaries may be annoying, but they aren’t sadistic.

When I was a kid, I always wondered why dictionaries didn’t just insert the definition of “create” into the definition of “creation.” Suppose that create is defined as “bring into existence.” Rather than define “creation” as “something that has been created,” define it as “something that has been brought into existence.” I think there are two reasons that this is not done. One is that dictionaries are already long enough. It isn’t that big a deal to make the reader look at another entry, which after all, is probably on the same page.

The second reason is more important: words often have a number of different definitions. Which one ought to be chosen? Well, in the case of “create,” all of them. Thus, it is better to send the reader to the entry on “create” and leave it there.

As you can see from this, I’m sympathetic to the creators of dictionaries. But online, the first excuse for this kind of “research project” definition doesn’t make sense. We are not constrained by book size. But the second reason remains — at least with regard to many words like “create.” But it isn’t always true, and it tends not to be true for the more obscure words that people are likely to look up. Take for example, my run in with Google earlier today.

I entered “sagacity define” into Google. And it dutifully spit back: “the quality of being sagacious.” This greatly annoyed me. You see, I already knew pretty much what both “sagacity” and “sagacious” meant. And I knew they didn’t have lots of different meanings like “create” and “creation.” For the record “sagacious” means “of keen and farsighted penetration and judgment.” So Google could have provided a better definition of “sagacity.” Perhaps: “having keen and farsighted penetration and judgment”?

If you go to Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, you get the definition, “the quality of being sagacious.” Yes, I know; it is the same. Well, almost. Because at least it makes that would “sagacious” a link to their definition of sagacious. And that is really what you would think is the least they could do. But as we know from Google, at the very least, they could do even less.

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Amazon-Hachette Is Not About the Little Guy

Paul KrugmanPaul Krugman wrote an interesting column today, Amazon’s Monopsony Is Not OK. I don’t disagree with his overall conclusion: Amazon has way too much power. But when it comes to the specific issue of eBook prices, the situation is far from clear. Yes, Amazon is abusing its power. But the publishers are also abusing the public and their writers.

When CDs replaced albums, the music industry used the change to make a whole lot more money. At that time, vinyl records cost more to make and distribute than CDs. But vinyl records had cost about $10 at that time and the industry charged $15 or more for CDs. Whatever the market will bear, right? CDs were the new whizbang technology and even though the sound quality was worse than vinyl, CDs never wore out — at least in theory. So even though on the supply side, there was no reason for the record companies to make this extra money, consumers were getting something they thought was better.

Pretty much the same thing has happened with eBooks. When they first came out, publishers wanted to sell them for $15 a piece. But it turns out that publishers would be making the same amount for a $10 eBook as they made for a $26 physical book. So why exactly should the publishers get a huge boost in profits for doing less? Note also that publishers generally give a smaller royalty to writers. This is because the publisher get a higher percentage of the retail price. So the publishers think the new technology should enrich them, but not their writers. Nice!

But this all might be okay if consumers were getting something more from eBooks than they get from printed books. As a user of both, I think they pretty much are. For research purposes, eBooks are better. But for simple reading, it is at best a wash. I still prefer to read printed books. But I’ll admit that I am (1) more tactile than most people and (2) old. But there are ways that printed books are better. To start, I can sell them. They can theoretically last for thousands of years. And perhaps most important: I don’t need a device to read them. With records, one needed a record player already, so needing to own a CD player wasn’t a big deal. Someone entering the market had to buy a device just like always. That isn’t true of books.

Which brings us back to Amazon. It really is a problem. Right now, Amazon is behaving itself reasonably well. And its pricing policies really have done a favor for readers. But the whole dispute between Amazon and publishers just highlights the fact that capitalism only works well when real limits are placed on it. For over two decades, neither of the two major American political parties is at all interested policing the excesses of capitalism. And that, to me, is the bigger problem.

The fact that Amazon is abusing a huge publishing conglomerate like Hachette isn’t really on my radar of Really Important Things. But this whole issue has gotten a lot of play exactly because Hachette is a big company with lots of power. I was appalled recently when the company went whining onto The Colbert Report. And then, instead of being honest, they were allowed to present it as a great threat to writers as if publishing companies themselves hadn’t long been the greatest threat to writers.

A much more important issue is that Amazon pays its employees really badly. They pay their associates really badly. They totally ripoff sellers. But these are not likely to get the high profile treatment in The New York Times because, you know, they’re the little people. Of course, Krugman’s focus is on the ultimate effects on the little people. But that isn’t why anyone is paying attention to the Amazon-Hachette battle.

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Flag Decals, Yellow Ribbons, and Pink Bracelets

Pink RibbonI’ve loved John Prine’s first album since I was a kid. One of the (many) standout songs on the album is, “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.” It’s an anti-war song for the Vietnam era. The line following the refrain is, “They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war.” But I don’t have much a visceral connection to the Vietnam War. So what has always spoken to me is the use of signifiers to represent which “side” you are on in complicated issues that really do not lend themselves to simple binary positions.

The best example of this is the yellow ribbon. These usually go along with the jingoistic slogan, “Support the troops!” I’ve given this a lot of thought and the reasoning behind this slogan goes something as follows, “The troops have to do whatever the government tells them. Therefore, supporting the troops means supporting whatever the government tells them to do. Therefore, support the war you commie bastards!” The yellow ribbon, just like the flag decal before it, is meant to shutdown debate.

The other side of it is that the yellow ribbons allow people to feel good about “supporting the troops” in a theoretical sense but to not do so in a practical sense. We have a long history of lavishing money on defense contractors while low-level military personnel live in near poverty. We go into war with high tech, whizbang devices (that made some rich guy even more rich) but without basic body and transport armor because, “As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” And, of course, after the wars, the military personnel are largely forgotten. The conservatives who were so keen on “supporting the troops” tend to forget about the former troops and their needs.

This issue of the meaninglessness of such signifiers is discuss today by Danielle Kurtzleben at Vox, Pink Breast Cancer Awareness Ribbons Sell Because They Don’t Really Say Anything. It discussed how the pink ribbons mean something different to everyone. But as I have already indicated, they don’t actually say anything about the person or entity sporting one:

“Ribbon-wearing requires very little commitment to a cause. Indeed, wearing a ribbon does not mean that one is an active or staunch supporter of a given charity,” writes Sarah EH Moore in her 2009 book Ribbon Culture. And though she’s talking about [the] person wearing a ribbon, her comment can easily transfer to a yogurt or a football league — the pink ribboned advertisement can often signify very little in the way of how much money that company is giving to fighting cancer, as “pinkwashing” opponents often warn. There are several instances of companies saying they will give “a portion” of a product’s proceeds to cancer research, without specifying exactly what the amount will be.

The article goes on to discuss how most businesses just see the pink ribbon as good PR. It’s just fondness by association. But this is nothing new. I’m more bothered with it on a personal level. What exactly would it say if I wore a pink ribbon? That I’m against breast cancer? That seems like a non-statement, like, “I’m against things that are bad!” Or perhaps it says that I’m in favor of finding a cure? Ditto. Or maybe it says that we should put more resources toward finding a cure for breast cancer? Well, there I have to break ranks. Sure, I’m for more research. But in our current “pay as you go” environment where we absolutely positively cannot raise taxes (and people are constrained in their giving), more money for breast cancer research is less money for something else. It would depend upon what that something else was.

Of course, pink ribbons don’t express jingoism. But otherwise, they are the same as the yellow ribbons. They either say something so vague that they are meaningless. Or they say something contentious, so they divide us. Kurtzleben briefly discussed this issue in her article. Recently, Susan G Komen has twice gotten into trouble by being something other than the anemic, “We’re taking a bold stand to be against breast cancer!” The first was the Planned Parenthood fiasco and then the pink fracking drill-bits.

I would never give Komen a cent, because their real intentions are too clear. No one is too dirty for them to partner with. If a rich neo-Nazi wanted to give them billions for the cause, they would take it. All that matters is that they get the cash for their one cause. Of course, it doesn’t even take billions (it probably would for a neo-Nazi); Baker Hughes only had to donate $100,000 to equate fracking with breast cancer awareness. What’s more, the Planned Parenthood case showed that Komen doesn’t even care about women generally. So unless you believe that nothing matters as much as breast cancer, I can’t see why you would support Komen.

That gets to the very heart of the flag decals, yellow ribbons, and pink bracelets: they don’t actually mean anything to the people sporting them. But they mean a great deal to the people pushing them. And what they mean is at best complicated and at worst downright evil.

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Obama Was Always a Milquetoast

Thomas FrankEven if I didn’t agree with him almost all the time, I would read Thomas Frank because he is a great writer. But the truth is that I very rarely disagree with him. We are both liberal populists who think that there is a very big problem with the Democratic Party: it has turned conservative on the issues that most matter to people — economic issues. And that means we both get attacks — from fellow Democrats — who think that we just don’t get it. They think that if the DLC hadn’t taken over the Democratic Party we wouldn’t have had a Democratic president since Carter. They are wrong, of course. Political science tells us they are wrong, but they are as resistant to evidence as conservatives are. That may be because they too are conservatives and want to hide under a cover of being slightly reasonable about abortion and same sex marriage.

But yesterday, Thomas Frank wrote an article that bothered me, Paul Krugman’s Sloppy, Wet Kiss. It is a response to Krugman’s Rolling Stone article, In Defense of Obama. I had read it when it first came out and my reaction to it was more or less the same as Frank’s: Krugman is putting the too positive a face the Obama presidency. And Frank did it using an important idea from economics: opportunity cost.

Let me put the Obama years into context like this: What the times called for was a second New Deal, for a wholesale makeover of the economic system. What Obama chose to deliver instead was a second round of ’90s-style bipartisanship. As I have written before, the president looked out over a nation laid low by epic white-collar misbehavior and decided that what we needed was for politicians in Washington to get along with one another…

So the crisis went to waste and our smart young president let an era of possibility slip through his fingers. The cost of missing this opportunity is impossible to measure.

I am completely with Frank on this. And I’m with him when he criticizes the fecklessness of the Obama administration in believing that the Republicans would want to work with him. Where I disagree with Frank is in thinking that Obama “seemed like exactly the right man for the job.” No! He never seemed like the right man for the job. During the 2008 primary, I wondered if Clinton mightn’t be the better president. For one thing, she had something to prove: that she wasn’t her husband. And she might be strong in standing up to the Republicans. There was never any doubt that Obama was a milquetoast politician and that once in power, he was going to yield to the same old power elite as ever.

Obama NopeIt seems kind of obvious now. Only Nixon could go to China because he was such a rabid anti-communist. Only Clinton could destroy welfare because he was labeled a liberal (and even a socialist). And only rich boy FDR could really take on the power elite. The last person for the job was a black man so nonthreatening that the Harvard Law Review allowed him to be president of it.

None of this is to say that Obama is bad. I admire him. I think he has been about as good a president as we are ever likely to have. I can say that because I am a pessimist. But no one who tells you he is going to bring “change” is actually going to bring change. People who bring change tell you what they are going to do. And that’s why any liberal bringing actual change would be cut to pieces. Our “liberal” media would never allow it. We’ve seen conservatives bringing change and they’ve delivered. Oh, how they’ve delivered! And we never learn. But all you have to do in this country is shout “Socialism!” and everyone cowers under our bridges that are falling down because of lack of infrastructure spending.

So I understand why Obama is the president he is. What I don’t understand is why someone as smart and insightful as Thomas Frank would ever have been fooled. Obama is an establishment man through and through. And he always was. He never meant “change” to be anything that would threaten (Even just a little!) the power elite.


See also: Obama’s Hope Is There’ll Be No Change

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Education Reform and John Dewey

John DeweyI feel I let my readers down this last weekend with the minor publishing schedule. But I do have an excuse. It isn’t just that I was reading my friend Kristen’s novel. It was also that it is about a once promising artist whose life is crumbling to bits — very much by her own doing. And that reminds me very much of myself as I sit here writing this with my bank account recently liquidated by the State of California. But I am determined to be on my regular schedule today. Or at least, I am determined to get five articles out today — I’m not sure exactly when they will come. Onward!

Today is a great day for birthdays. In particular, there are two 17th century painters who I absolutely love: Aelbert Cuyp and Nicolas de Largilliere. There are also two actors I love: Bela Lugosi and Margaret Dumont. There are also French film director Jean-Pierre Melville and stride pianist Jelly Roll Morton. But I just couldn’t go with them. Not with my ever increasing interest in the American educational system and all the education “reform” fakers.

On this day in 1859, the great John Dewey was born. He was an education reformer — a real one, not just one who wanted to diminish teachers and create good little workers for the factories of the rich. In fact, he believed in liberal education. This is something that has largely been abandoned in the modern debate about education. Now it is all about how we can create more STEM graduates, as if all we need is better technology and the rest of our culture can just rot.

I’m reminded of a quote by Jonathan Kozol:

The best reason to give a child a good school… is so that child will have a happy childhood, and not so that it will help IBM in competing with Sony… There is something ethically embarrassing about resting a national agenda on the basis of sheer greed.

Dewey would very much agree with that sentiment.

One thing that Dewey did not do is invent the Dewey Decimal system. That was done by Melvil Dewey, who lived at the same time and place as John Dewey. But Melvil was a librarian. They are not related in any direct way, so far as I know. I admire both men.

Here is a short video discussion about John Dewey and his work. It also discusses his beliefs about diversity in education:

Happy birthday John Dewey!

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Wrapped in the Flag

Wrapped in the FlagShortly after Obama became President of the United States, I noticed something interesting. Some people in the Tea Party movement started to talk about Fluoride. They claimed that it was a toxin and that people shouldn’t ingest it because it was — insert dramatic music here — a government conspiracy. This may not mean much to you, but to me it meant everything: the John Birch Society rides again!

It was founded in 1958, following the death of Joseph McCarthy from hepatitis. Or was it? Certainly those who started the John Birch Society didn’t think it was. They thought he was murdered because he knew too much. And who was he murdered by? Why all the communists inside the government! The founder, Robert Welch, even thought that President Eisenhower was a “conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist Conspiracy.” I know it sounds loony, but for many years, the group was part of the mainstream conservative movement. And, in fact, even in 1964, the group was hugely important in getting Goldwater the Republican nomination for president.

So the rise of the Tea Party did not surprise me. There is always about 20% of the population who gobble up this kind of extremism. The Tea Party was just another manifestation of it. And early on, there were John Birch Society booths at Tea Party events. Despite its terrible reputation, in 2010, CPAC finally allowed the group to sponsor the event. The only thing that had changed in the previous fifty years was the rhetoric. And how could it not? With the fall of the Soviet Union, it was impossible to continue to claim that the commies were coming. But calling the president an illegitimate socialist is pretty much the same thing.

Another person who was not surprised by the rise of the Tea Party was Claire Conner. She was a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s and her parents were some of the founding and lifelong members of the John Birch Society. She chronicles all of this in her book, Wrapped in the Flag. It provides an amazing look inside the cult of conservative extremism. And make no mistake: it is a cult.

In fact, the book works more as a memoir of a family tragedy than it does anything else. I think most people will learn a lot about conservatives from the book, but I already knew most of it. What kept me reading was watching how people let their political obsessions bankrupt every part of their lives. If Conner’s parents feared communism, they also created their own kind of authoritarianism. Their entire lives circled around their political activities. And this was enforced onto the children. Conner was forced to write her “letters” each day: to newspapers, to politicians, to whomever.

This is hardly surprising: the communists and the fascists always hated each other, even though they were effectively the same thing. And the John Birch Society and the Tea Party are, at base, theocratic fascist groups. They are against “socialism” — the word. They don’t seem to know exactly what “socialism” the concept is. This is why the Tea Party talks about “freedom” but all they same to stand for are restrictions on reproductive rights and same sex marriage. The John Birch Society slogan was, “Less government, more responsibility, and — with God’s help — a better word.” That’s the Tea Party rhetoric.

At the start of the book, Conner’s father has a very successful business. But over time, his work with the John Birch Society takes its toll. In addition to everything else, he becomes a very public figure — notorious to many people. And this has a negative effect on his business. Eventually, his partners force him out and into a less promising part of the company. But the most telling part of the book comes when Conner is in college. Her parents have not helped her at all with college — she had to do it herself with work and scholarships. But even as they won’t help her with anything, her father is flying off to expensive John Birch Society conferences. A man’s got to have his priorities!

The take away from the book is that for both her parents, the political struggle was more important than she was. They were so blinded by ideology and fear of nonexistent threats that they lost sight of what was genuine and important in their lives. There is a similar disease on the left — the parents of the so called red diaper babies. But this was an extremely small group that simply doesn’t exist today. People on the left have turned in their ideologies for a pragmatic approach to politics. I think they’ve gone too far in this regard. But at least no one on the left sees their children as nothing but future warriors in the battle between Good and Evil.

If you want to understand the modern conservative movement, you really need to read Wrapped in the Flag. It explains a lot about how we got to where we are. And it explains why conservatives are so resistant to logical thought. But it is also chilling. Because 20% of the population that is crazy and fearful enough really can transform a nation if they are well organized. And they are.

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Lumière Brothers

Lumière BrothersForgive me the slowdown in posting. I am reading the first draft of a friend’s novel. And there is relatively little traffic here on weekends anyway. And I badly need a break from doing this anyway. I’m not terribly clear what I do it for. Sometimes it seems like housekeeping — just because. Except, of course, that I don’t actually do housekeeping, and I actually do publish about 4,000 words per day here. But not yesterday and probably not today.

On this day in 1862, Auguste Lumière was born. But we celebrate it with his brother Louis Lumière, who was born exactly two weeks later, but in 1864. They are collectively known as the Lumière brothers — cinema inventors and pioneers. You know how motion pictures work, right? An image is displayed on the screen for a fraction of a second; the screen goes dark while the next image is put into place; the next image is displayed on the screen for a fraction of a second. Done over and over, this appears to create action. Well, the Lumière brothers invented the perforations on the side of film that allow it to be moved quickly and accurately through the projector.

In addition to this, the two made almost 200 films together. They are notable in this regard because their films show great care in terms of the framing of shots. Unlike Edison, they were actually interested in photography. So even though their films are all very short (generally less than a minute), they look good. Consider, for example, their most famous film, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat:

Yes, not a lot of drama. But it was made in 1895. The first film was not shown publicly in the United States until 1896. In France, of course, they were already displaying their films publicly. It actually shows the artistic potential of motion pictures and makes the work done by Edison at that time look pathetic. Here is another Lumière film from the same year, The Sprinkler Sprinkled. It is arguably the first comedy ever shot:

Happy birthday Auguste and Louis Lumière!

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Why MSNBC Continues to Suck

Keith OlbermannDR Tucker over at Political Animal wrote an interesting article, Forward Thinking. It’s about MSNBC’s supposed problem with breaking through in the ratings game. He makes the provocative suggestion that the network give Naomi Klein a show. But this, I think, just highlights the problem with having a liberal network. And it highlights the problem with MSNBC generally.

MSNBC is not going to give a show to someone who is an outspoken proponent of economic liberalism. It’s too dangerous to the rich people who own the network and its too unappealing to the people who advertise on the network. Remember: television is not about ratings; it is about advertising. While it is true that people want to advertise to the 25-54 demographic, they don’t want to do it when the show so aggressively attacks the major advertisers.

I am surprised that most people don’t remember what happens in the movie Network. Everyone remembers Howard Beale getting “mad as hell.” And maybe they remember that the ratings go way up for the show he’s on. But the head of the network, Arthur Jensen, doesn’t like it. So he has a little talk with Beale, who thinks he is speaking to God. (He might as well be!) So Beale abandons his populism for a message about how we are all meaningless cogs in the machinery of multinational capitalism. Ratings plummet so the producers of the show have Beale assassinated.

Martin BashirThat’s the story of Network. And anyone who thinks that the people who own MSNBC are any different than those who own Fox News are deluded. None of them care about same sex marriage or abortion or even foreign wars. But they all care very much about having a political system that is rigged against the majority and for all the rich folks like themselves.

But there are other things. MSNBC (sort of like the modern Democratic Party) has shown it to be a amazingly disloyal outfit. Martin Bashir got fired over a minor thing. Ed Schultz was taken from prime time to the weekends and finally early evenings. And then, of course, there was Keith Olbermann, who was badly treated long before he finally got canned. All of these men are very passionate and that is something that MSNBC apparently doesn’t accept. (Well, it accepts it for Al Sharpton because he’s a legend and, what the hell, he’s not in prime time either.) It’s much better to have Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow, who are both really good, but not especially passionate.

It’s a well worn stereotype that liberals aren’t passionate. And to prove this, people point to Mark Shields. It’s true that the liberals that the mainstream media put on television tend not to be passionate. But that’s just because they’ve decided that passionate liberals aren’t suitable for television. Why? Because liberals on television aren’t passionate! Cenk Uygur has talked about this. MSNBC originally hired him because of his fiery liberal rhetoric. But once he was there, they complained about his fiery liberal rhetoric.

Ed SchultzIn addition to this, I just don’t see a liberal network ever being as successful as a conservative network. It isn’t because liberals aren’t as into politics as conservatives. Rather, the reason that people tune into conservative media is for the dopamine rush they get from the constant diet of fear and outrage. Liberals just don’t have the same resources on the fear issue. When it comes to outrage, there is a lot; but it is an outrage over systemic issues. You don’t feed it with constant small stories.

There is one thing that would greatly help MSNBC ratings: another Republican White House. That will greatly increase viewership as liberals reach out for any shelter in the storm for another four or eight years of everyone’s favorite game show, “Let’s Give More Money to the Rich and Claim it is for Freedom!” And I’m sure the owners of MSNBC would love that: more advertising revue and lower estate taxes. Liberalism rocks!

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