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Seymour Hersh

May 14, 2015

Seymour Hersh’s London Review of Books piece on the killing of Osama Bin Laden has been met with wide skepticism; many have characterized it as “conspiracy theory.” Hersh, of course, was proven alarmingly correct about other things in the past that were initially denied–for example, his wild story about a massacre of innocent Vietnamese civilians at My Lai, or the horrible tortures that were carried out in an Iraqi prison by active duty personnel of the US armed forces and CIA. But he wouldn’t be the first prominent journalist to go off the rails either. Pierre Salinger gave his name to a syndrome in the months after the crash of TWA Flight 800 (he was suffering from dementia when he died just a few years later); back in the ’90s, Hersh himself fell for a notorious con man and almost used his forgeries in his book The Dark Side of Camelot.

Should Hersh be granted latitude now because he was so often right in the past, or should his present alleged credulity discredit his past bombshells? Neither, obviously, though you wouldn’t know that to read the stories on the Internet.

“Conspiracy theory,” it’s worth remembering, isn’t the belief in conspiracies per se, which often do happen.  Merely disbelieving an official story doesn’t make you a conspiracy theorist. Given the government’s track record in the past and its strong motives for engaging in disinformation today you’d be foolish to believe everything it says, and you’d be particularly foolish to put much credence in its story about the OBL killing, which I went on the record at the time, for what it’s worth, to characterize as troublesome, to say the very least. It’s only when you craft an alternative story based on rumor, lies, inference, and supposition and present it with absolute certainty as the unvarnished truth that you become a conspiracy theorist.

This is some of what I wrote about the story back then–and I was speaking completely off the top of my head, without the benefit of high-placed (or not-so-high-placed) intelligence sources:

I got a call from Russia Today TV this afternoon and they asked me what I thought was going on. I repeated what I said in this space yesterday–that I find the whole thing baffling, especially after the weekend that Obama just had. Friday he released the birth certificate, belatedly conceding that conspiracy theories do matter but finally putting that particular one to rest. Saturday he eviscerated Donald Trump while wearing a tuxedo and a smile and Sunday he announced that he’d taken out the most hated man in the world. And then Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, he couldn’t stop tripping over his feet. Our Skype connection was pretty unstable; they only used a second of the interview, but you can watch their package here if you’re interested.

They aced the operation, but the subsequent messaging has been really uneven, to say the very least. I suspect that what we’re seeing is the result of a lack of consensus within the White House team on what the message actually is. One group–let’s call them the grownups–thinks that we should be bending over backwards to show our Muslim allies that we’re respectful, that we’re not gloating over or desecrating the body of a man that some regard as a religious leader. Another group–the political guys–figured that what happened wasn’t dramatic enough, that it needed the kind of artful, morally-telling touches that you’d see on TV, like Osama shielding himself with his young wife’s body before dying in a firefight, instead of simply having his head blown off when soldiers burst into the room where he was hiding. When the grownups rushed in to undo the damage that the political guys were causing, they planted the germ of cognitive dissonance that conspiracy theories grow out of.

Thomas Powers wrote something in the NYTBR piece about The Dark Side of Camelot I linked to above that stayed with me: “Hersh does not write history in the usual sense of the term, but he makes life difficult for historians by digging up just enough about distressing matters so they can’t honestly be ignored.” He goes on to say that while Hersh’s speculations about motives aren’t always to be trusted, his reporting generally is.

If some of Hersh’s LBR piece sounds like something you’d read at Infowars, a lot of it, to quote one of its lines about the enigma of the disposition of OBL’s corpse, sounds more like what you get after “the classic unravelling of a poorly constructed cover story – it solves an immediate problem but, given the slightest inspection, there is no back-up support.” I suspect that many of the mysteries that will forever surround Kennedy’s assassination could have been dispelled by documents that were made to disappear for a variety of reasons. Though I don’t believe that Hersh got all the details right and suspect that he got some of them wrong, I think he did get this one right when it comes to matters related to Iraq, Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and more: “High-level lying nevertheless remains the modus operandi of US policy, along with secret prisons, drone attacks, Special Forces night raids, bypassing the chain of command, and cutting out those who might say no.” Given all that, how could a piece like “The Killing of Osama bin Laden” not sound like conspiracy theory?

Rand Paul Rex

April 10, 2015

All in all, it’s been a pretty bad week for Rand Paul. The liberal media, anyway, has been making a lot of noise about his shadier political associations and long-standing penchant for conspiratorial theorizing, not to mention his relationship with Alex Jones. He’s faced a lot of questions about flip-flopping and backsliding too, which made him act a little peevish and mansplainy with some female reporters.

Maybe he can ooze out from under Alex Jones and the Southern Avenger — the mainstream media seems incapable of appreciating just how far right and racist some of these people really are. Look how long Pat Buchanan stayed in the mainstream. Paul Senior got something of a free ride too, even if he did get called out a few times about those racist newsletters.

But the thing about the Pauls’ brand of right wing populism is that its enemies aren’t just minorities, immigrants, and the poor — they are elites, too, which is to say, the very rich, powerful, ultra-connected people who get invited to Bilderberg meetings, speculate on international currencies, trade oil futures, choose the leaderships of developing countries, and in general, underwrite and lead the Republican Party, which Rand now aspires to do (not to mention the free world). Paul wants to get credit for hating the Republicans but he also wants to outdo them at their own game — and become their acknowledged leader. He is the ultimate cognitive dissonance candidate.

And notice that I’m not saying anything about the police, law and order, incarceration, recreational drugs, the military, and all the other issues where Paul once defied Republican orthodoxy.

Faced with questions about some of those exact things, he purportedly stormed out of an interview with The Guardian.

If you watch the video, you’ll see that this wasn’t the tantrum the headlines made it out to be; he was over-scheduled. But you’ll also see that he is brittle and defensive, and has a manner that falls a few yards short of commanding or even comfortable in his own skin. He looks a lot like a son who is desperate to please his overbearing father, but who might also have some Oedipal ambivalence about what that entails. He’s in a real bind — he can’t make any headway at all unless he throws his father under a bus and offers himself up to the Koches and Sheldon Adelson.

It seemed to me that the only time Al Gore looked relaxed and at peace with himself during the 2000 campaign was when he finally made his concession speech. He had both won the presidency and lost it, and so in a way he was having his cake and eating it too — fulfilling his father’s dream while also failing —  and at the same time, escaping the prison of expectations that his life had been up to that moment. No wonder he went on to get a divorce and make a billion dollars — it was like he was finally free to be whatever he wanted to be.

I wondered if Romney’s robotic weirdness in 2012 (and Romney at his worst is much more formidable than Rand Paul at his best) wasn’t a manifestation of that same kind of filial ambivalence too.

Is Ted Cruz a “Natural Born Citizen?”

March 24, 2015

No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.

Is the Canadian-born Ted Cruz, whose mother was American but whose father was Cuban, eligible to run for president?

By any reasonable standard he is, EXCEPT the one that the Birthers have applied to Obama. By their reasoning, Cruz is even less eligible than Obama, since Obama was born on American soil.

The definition of “natural born citizen” that the Birthers apply to exclude Obama (“born in the country, of parents who are citizens”), comes from the Swiss legal thinker Emerich Vatel’s book Law of Nations, circa 1758. Though it has the virtue of excluding Obama even if his American birth certificate is authentic, it also excludes a bunch of previous presidents, including Chester Arthur, whose father was British, Woodrow Wilson, whose mother was English, and Herbert Hoover, whose mother was Canadian–not to mention Ted Cruz.

The Founders didn’t define “natural born citizen”; we simply don’t know what they meant. A number of different agencies and courts have adjudicated the issue, but until the Supreme Court does (or the Constitution is amended), Cruz’s eligibility must be considered problematic, if we actually care about things like this, as the Birthers say they do.

It will be interesting to see what Cruz’s announcement stirs up.

A Rant About Hillary Clinton

March 10, 2015

One measure of Hillary Clinton’s inspirational inevitability is the leadership role she’s taken as a former secretary of state and president-in-waiting on the Iran negotiations. Oh wait a minute — has she issued a single comment on Netanyahu’s speech? On the 47 treasonous senators?*

With all that I’ve written about cognitive dissonance, what amazes me the most these days isn’t all the right wing bullshit. It’s the certainty among so many self-styled liberals that Hillary Clinton, who has never run in a national election, who lost the Democratic primaries in 2008, who has been demonized as much as or more than Barack Obama has for nigh on 25 years and who is up to her neck in conflicts of interest today (no, not Benghazi, though that’s never going to go away now that it’s become a matter of Fox News dogma, or the Chappaqua e-mail account, though that’s not going away either, anymore than the missing Rose law firm documents did–I’m talking about the Clinton Foundation’s fund-raising; the six-figure speaking fees; and the 1 percenters the Clintons surround themselves with), is the only “electable” alternative we have.

It’s not Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sander’s purity versus Hillary’s monumental strengths. It’s Hillary’s vulnerabilities versus the abyss. Can’t they see this?

There are other Democratic senators and governors. Let’s start a groundswell for one of them or a few of them. Let’s change the narrative. Let’s not write off Maryland’s Martin O’Malley when he announces, as I am told he will.

If we don’t, the Republicans are going to win the presidency in 2016. As unpopular as they are, they’re going to nominate a bunch of justices to the Supreme Court and they might even lead us into another war in the Middle East (which, come to think of it, Hillary could easily do as well).

I feel like I’m watching a slow motion car wreck.

*Late-breaking news, yes she has:

The recent letter from Republican senators was out of step with the best traditions of American leadership. And one has to ask, what was the purpose of this letter?

There appear to be two logical answers. Either these senators were trying to be helpful to the Iranians or harmful to the commander- in-chief in the midst of high-stakes international diplomacy. Either answer does discredit to the letters’ signatories.

Giuliani again

February 23, 2015

Rudy GiulianiIt’s been all Giuliani all the time over at Talking Points Memo, ever since he embarrassed himself and Scott Walker with his animadversions on Obama’s upbringing, his likely communist affiliations, and his lack of patriotism. Josh Marshall says Giuliani introduced a dangerous distraction into the GOP primary sweepstakes, one that has already hurt Walker, who should be concentrating on economic rather than culture issues. Readers of THE NEW HATE and this blog can guess what I would say — that distractions though they might be, xenophobic and racist dog whistling have been a staple of the right wing backlash since, well, forever.

The backlash against Giuliani’s backlash has almost been comical. It’s ridiculously easy to find pictures in which he looks demented (see above); his biography and family background are absurdly easy to mine for examples of his hypocrisy (as Wayne Barrett quickly did). Giuliani’s father was a convicted criminal; Giuliani announced his second divorce to the press before he got around to telling his wife. Yadda yadda yadda.

Jim Sleeper had an article in Salon about Giuliani’s sad devolution into “just another GOP street lunatic” that I found interesting and probably right. Rudy’s fatal flaw, he said, was his “zealot’s graceless division of everyone into friend or foe and [his] snarling, sometimes histrionic, vilifications of the foes. Those are operatic emotions, beneath the civic dignity of a great city and its chief magistrate.” Ironically, it was that same flaw that enabled his apotheosis:

Only on 9/11, when the whole city became as operatic as the inside of Rudy’s mind, was he able to project himself so convincingly as America’s Mayor. For once, his New York rearranged itself into a stage fit for, say, Rossini’s “Le Siege de Corinth” or a dark, nationalist epic by Verdi or Puccini that ends with bodies strewn all over and the tragic but noble hero grieving for his devastated people and foretelling a new dawn.

I think he’s probably right, but what struck me and I think most New Yorkers about Rudy’s performance in the days after 911 wasn’t its grandeur, but its simplicity and calm. When reporters were spreading rumors about a van full of explosives on the Washington Bridge, Giuliani went on TV and quashed them. He reminded us of the unseemliness of vindictiveness and the importance of knowing the facts (although it’s worth remembering that, as Giuliani himself recounted in his book Leadership, he asked Bush to let him execute Bin Laden when he was caught). 

That aura instantly evaporated when he proposed that his term be extended, but before that he really shone, especially in the absence of national leadership (ex-president Clinton, who had been in Australia on 911, got to New York before Bush did). The most important thing that a leader can do in the face of a catastrophe is simply to show up. Bush got it as wrong after 911 as he did after Katrina; Giuliani has gotten everything else wrong ever since. But for a few days, he hit all his marks unerringly.

His tragedy, as some have called it, is that he is every bit the “nasty man” that Ed Koch said he is.

New book from Killing the Buddha

February 13, 2015

519ME2hWdKL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_I’m in this e book, along with some very impressive writers, among them Jeff Sharlet, Darcey Steinke, Nathan Schneider, and Meera Subramanian. I’m going to buy it!

The High Cost of Fame

February 13, 2015

Mike Daisey, the brilliant monologist whose embellished accounts of his investigations into the miseries of Chinese factory workers in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs got him into so much trouble a couple of years ago, offered some collegial advice to Brian Williams in Slate. “I feel sorry for Brian Williams,” he wrote. “Not because I think war stories deserve embellishment, or that famous men should be able to tell tall tales on television. Instead, I have sympathy because I know what it feels like to be put through the public wringer for this particular sin: telling the American public a story that isn’t exactly true, and pretending that it is.”

It made for interesting reading in juxtaposition with the Jon Ronson piece in the NY Times magazine, about regular people who are publicly shamed and shunned on Twitter. It’s adapted from his new book, I think. Ronson focused on Justine Sacco, the publicist who Tweeted what she thought was an ironic joke about white privilege while she was flying to South Africa, and who got off the plane to discover that she was the object of a digital firestorm that would cost her her job and her reputation. The guy who lit the match (and who subsequently suffered some digital shaming of his own) has written an interesting mea culpa).

Of course Brian Williams isn’t a regular person or a journalist for that matter; he’s a brand. He made millions because television-watchers thought they liked him (though of course they didn’t really know him at all). If they still think they like him when he comes back from his sojourn in the wilderness, if they still tune into NBC to watch him and his sponsors’ commercials, he’ll be fine. If not, he gets to keep his money and his daughter still has her career. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

A week or so ago, there was a huge kerfuffle on the Internet about an African American comedian who was racially victimized by a cafe in Berkeley–the same cafe, ironically, where he had celebrated his birthday a few hours before. The story was that he’d stopped to talk to his white wife and some of her friends who were sitting at an outdoor table, when a waitress pounded on the glass, mouthed something that he lipread as “Scram!”, and motioned for him to leave.

“I as a black man was being told to ‘GIT!’ like it was 1963, Selma, Alabama, and I was crashing a meeting of The New Moms of the Confederacy,” he wrote. The waitress, who insisted that she had been told that a street salesman was harassing customers, was duly fired; the restaurant promised that there would be a public dialogue. I don’t know how the story concluded, or whether the waitress was a racist or not. But it reminded me of a terrible mistake that I once made here in Brooklyn.

Shortly after we moved into this neighborhood, a homeless man offered me his services as a leaf sweeper. We negotiated a fee, and every week or so, he’d show up and sweep the leaves off the sidewalk in front of our house. When he finished, he’d ring the doorbell and I’d give him $5.00.

One day my son told me there was a guy outside sweeping leaves. I was in the middle of something, so I gave him $5.00 and told him to give it to him. My son came back and told me that the man had refused the money. “He looked at me like I was crazy,” he added. So I got up and looked out the front window and saw that the man was one of our neighbors.

I rushed outside. “I thought you were the homeless guy that comes around,” I told him, and then I got even more embarrassed. “So you think all black people are homeless?” I imagined him thinking. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for him to destroy me. “Author of THE NEW HATE thinks black men are put on this earth to do his chores,” he might have Tweeted. For all I know, that’s what I did think in the chthonic depths of my subconscious, and the thought of that makes me hate myself even more than I usually do. Justine Sacco’s South African family had been ANC members, they were humiliated by their daughter’s infamy and she spent a lot of time worrying, she told Ronson, that she really was the monster that so many strangers were so avid to believe she was.

Though I do think it’s ironic, as Chris Rock put it, that Brian Williams is just about the only public person who’s had to pay any price for lying about the Iraq war, I don’t particularly care about what happens to him. After all, he knew what he was getting into when he cashed his first paycheck. I do worry a lot about the little people who never sought their fame, though, and it troubles me how eager everyone seems to throw the first digital stone.


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