by John Kendall Hawkins
The System is the Solution.
– AT&T slogan circa 1970
If you look too long into the deep state, the deep state also looks into you.
– Variation of a Nietzsche cliché
Fifty years ago, from a cell in Chicago, Abbie Hoffman wrote in his introduction that “Steal This Book is, in a way, a manual of survival in the prison that is Amerika.” Infused with his infectious levity and intelligence, the book seemed to follow up on his 60s walk-the-talk credo: “Democracy is not something you believe in or a place to hang your hat, but it’s something you do. You participate. If you stop doing it, democracy crumbles.”
The Military-Industrial conspiracy that President Eisenhower theorized about to Americans as he left office in 1960, has taken over, and spread its tentacles, and turned the country into a prison — until, the only way you can determine if you have a parole in the offing any time soon is by checking your Credit Report (and even that checking is held against you).
So, the first thing Steal This Book represents is a moral and political confrontation. Steal the fucking thing. When you can set off a revolution in someone’s head — or at least make it spin — just from reading the title, and forcing the would-be reader to consider their imprisonment in the system where they and their desires exist solely to feed The Man, then you are some kind of agent provocateur.
Abbie was pssst-ing that he’s on a jailbreak and would you like to come along. Liberate the fucking thing and join him in survival mode in the wilds of freedom, the book would tell how to tunnel through — dumpster-diving is in the offing, snatching clothes from Goodwill boxes, hitchhiking across Amerika, and even enjoying the occasional fine dining — but lo! “halfway through the main course, take a little dead cockroach or a piece of glass out of your pocket and place it deftly on the plate.” Then scream bloody Mary. (And put that on the tab, too.) Abbie’s kind of theatrical democracy was being-in-the-world, or being-as-activism, not just surfing and burfing,
I was reminded of Hoffman’s Steal This Book when I began reading the recently released ‘survival manual’ A Public Service: Whistleblowing, Disclosure and Anonymity by Tim Schwartz. Like Abbie’s book, the title presents a concept that would rattle most people today: public service: whoa. From the circus in D.C. to the oligarchical masters we call the 1%, you’re not seeing much public service these days.
If Abbie blew the whistle loudly and often from the outside, Schwartz is calling for a sneaky insurrection from the unknown interior of the MIC that we call today the deep state (DS). In a globalized world, the DS is virtually unfathomable. Scary stuff to go up against, but A Public Service explains in great detail how to do it. “If you see something you think is wrong but don’t know how to do anything about it,” Schwartz writes in very Ralph Nader-like prose, “let this book be your guide.”
Schwartz doesn’t challenge us to steal his book — at least not explicitly — but he does admonish the would-be reader, “If you can, purchase this book anonymously or gift it to a friend anonymously.” Why? Because, in the world we inhabit and in the system we belong to, every purchase is databased, and presumably — Schwartz’s implicit warning — whoever purchases a how-to book on whistleblowing will be referred, algorithmically, to a list of potential state threats requiring further eyeballing — a disposition matrix, if you will. So, like Hoffman, Schwartz might as well be telling the would-be reader to steal the fucking book.
A Public Service: Whistleblowing, Disclosure and Anonymity is not just a how-to book on exposing corruption and wrong-doing; it is also a very important snapshot of our era. If Abbie was all about liberating the mind to open up a world of adventure in being and getting stuff free, Schwartz is all about “compartmentalization,” of living two lives (at least) in a System that hungers for your privacy: you need to offer up an effigy-self to keep the data-deus ex machina types at bay. Schwartz makes it very clear: If you want to whistleblow you could be risking family, career, marriage — even your life. “Frankly,” he writes, “we’re still just at the beginning of this era of privacy invasion.”
You should never judge a book by its title, but with whistleblower Edward Snowden’ s Permanent Record the reader gets as close s/he can possibly get to the soul of a narrative before actually reading it. He means it: The American government, with the help of its data-gathering 14 Eyes partners, is gathering up information on every mobile or Internet-connected individual on the planet. They have a permanent dossier on each and every one of us. Snowden writes, “We are the first people in the history of the planet for whom this is true, the first people to be burdened with data immortality, the fact that our collected records might have an eternal existence.” This is germaine to Schwartz’s world view, and cites Snowden regularly.
There are three main sections of A Public Service, roughly corresponding with the sub-title of the book: Whistleblowing, Disclosure and Anonymity. In the first section, Schwartz provides a cultural and linguistic context, as well as the work (and life) of whistleblowing. Different cultures have different words and connotations. The Finns, for instance, say ilmiantaja, which suggests fink or rat. A google search of klokkenluider, from the Dutch, “evoking the idea of someone ringing the church bell to warn the town of danger.” In America, Ralph Nader gives the term whistleblowing “a meaning of moral courage.” He should know.
Though Schwartz acknowledges that Snowden meets the criteria of what he would call a ‘whistleblower’, he goes out of his way to put the emphasis on action throughout the book. He writes, “As an example, instead of saying ‘whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg,’ we might simply say, ‘Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.’” Thus, we would say, Katherine Gun, who revealed that the NSA had hit on GCHQ to gather kompromat on UN security members to blackmail into supporting the Iraq war. And, as Schwartz cites in his introduction, Peter Buxtun, who documented how a Tuskegee study on syphilis in the 60s intentionally neglected to treat African-American volunteers with the venereal disease — even though treatment was available.
With the emphasis on action rather than labels, Schwartz is hoping that a person will keep in mind the overwhelming value of the public service they are providing, rather than dwelling on how they will be perceived with the label. Whether the revelations will come from the Corporate world (Du Pont, Monsanto) or the U.S. Government (Stellar Wind, “Collateral Murder”), and no matter what the issue — sexual abuse, electoral fraud, pay-to-play, high crimes and misdemeanors — Schwartz emphasizes the importance of guarding your identity. Though it seems, at times, that whistleblowers are coming out of the woodwork all over the place, it’s important to acknowledge the malevolent partisan atmosphere that defines the political theatrics in Washington these days and the tone it sets nationally.
There is a very specific set of procedures for gathering documentation to support your proposed revelations, which, in the compartmentalized life Schwartz alludes to earlier, may involve purchasing a second computer device (say, a Tablet), staying away from SIM cards, using encryption, amping up your discretion, wearing disguises when you purchase, transacting with cash, going to free wi-fi, purchasing small denomination VISA gift cards, stalking yourself (to see what they have on you already). “You are your data,” he writes, echoing Edward Snowden in Permanent Record, and, again, “Your data will be used against you.”
Frankly, it sounds like a conspiracy theorist’s kit, in some ways, but if you choose to blow the whistle, expect to be hunted down, retaliated against, and be dealing with paranoia. One side or the other will want to get you. Compartmentalization is key. Schwartz writes, “We are in a digital arms race. The surveillants have more time, money, and power. The only way to win this war is by adopting an alternative frame of mind: compartmentalization.” I’m thinking: Joseph Conrad: “The Secret Sharer.”
This raises another crucial point: “find a partner.” Schwartz advises that it is always best to seek out the counsel of a lawyer first — but, he says, “It’s important to find a lawyer who understands the intricacies of your situation and who aligns with your ethics..” Better not just call any ol’ Saul. Another potential partner to release your documentation to is a journalist. Schwartz says you need to do your homework on a journalist. He writes, “Beyond having an understanding of the topic, a journalist partner should be able to convey the issues involved to the public. Edward Snowden was very deliberate in approaching Glenn Greenwald.”
You should be very careful in trusting someone internally, whether in the government milieu or corporate. “Once you tell someone internally,” writes Schwartz, “your anonymity and the protection that comes with it have the potential to be lost forever.” And, he adds, driving home the danger here, “In 2018, the Global Business Ethics Survey found that 40 percent of the time that an employee exposed wrongs, they were retaliated against.”
Perhaps the most difficult area of government to blow the whistle on is the one needing it the most: the Intelligence Community. As Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said, after Trump lashed out at the IC, “Let me tell you: You take on the intelligence community — they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.” Further, the only CIA whistleblower to ever go to jail for leaking, John Kirikaou, has said that IC whistleblowers are unfavorably looked upon and can expect their careers to end suddenly.
If you can accept the discretion required for partnering and the need for compartmentalization, then maybe you’re ready for the most difficult part: mastering the technology involved in keeping you and your documentation hidden and protected. Schwartz reminds, “Protecting your identity is the priority, and anonymity is the key to success.” As indicated earlier, it can require the care and dedication of having a second life. These are dangerous times for whistleblowing. Be anonymous and encrypted. Schwartz insists: “Go install Signal right now. Go install Wire right now. Try them out!” AND “Email is not a recommended communication technique!” And, by the way, make sure you tell yourself you won’t become a film star — it’s for the public service, and you may have to settle for knowing your revelations helped right a wrong.
Speaking of films, if you need or want Hollywood inspirations for pursuing the second life of whistleblowing, dozens of movies have been made on the subject.
It’s hard to tell whether this is a sign that whistleblowing works, or we’re so fucking corrupt that the best we can hope for is to see a decent movie produced from the revelations with an IMDB rating of 7 or above.
A Public Service: Whistleblowing, Disclosure and Anonymity contains a number of other sections that would prove valuable. There’s a section on Risk Assessment, where you ask yourself such questions as: “Who doesn’t want you to disclose this information? Who is your adversary?” There’s a section that suggests several starting point questions you can ask your partner once you’ve settled on one. There’s some example scenarios to coax your situation. There’s even Edward Snowden’s initial letter to Laura Poitrast to get his 2013 revelations going.
The Appendix includes a “social contract” offered to the reader, including, “In writing this book, I have tried to provide usable information on tools, techniques, and systems allowing the reader to be anonymous, private, and secure.” AND “I will never intentionally harm you, the reader.” All of this nice and reassuring, but unnecessary. In fact, it might even be a little disturbing that a writer feels the need to assure us he’s not out to fuck with us.
It’s an excellent book for the task it sets itself. Sane, sober advice. No jokes, no sarcasm. The book not only tells you how to prepare and succeed as a whistleblower, but gives a heapin’ helpin’ of sage advice. If you’re going to be a critical thinker in the current era, guard your privacy and integrity with your life: beware the eyes all around you and the shivs sheathed (shhh) but ready everywhere. As in the film Network, a whistleblowing about the MSM’s endless blatherscheissen, we should all be mad as hell now, with our heads out our windows, and whistling madly that we’re not gonna take it any more.
By John Kendall Hawkins
“He could see it comin’ through the door as he lifted up his fork.”
Bob Dylan, “Joey” from Desire (1976)
Thirty-five years ago, Sergio Leone’s long, brooding masterwork, Once Upon A Time in America, was released and received mixed popular and critical responses (depending upon which version was watched — the long European version or the much shorter American version). Like his previous award-winning Civil War saga, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, 18 years earlier, themes of brotherhood and betrayal, the fragility of civilization, and the ultimate moral bankruptcy of pursuing money at the cost of humanity.
The one Leone gem ends in a graveyard showdown — imagine the greed implicit in knowing that a pot of gold is buried under one of those graves at, say, Arlington Cemetery and you stand there with a spade determined to dig up every grave to find it; the other ending, a black Mack garbage truck, an implied suicide, and 35 years of shared memories laid to waste. A young Robert DeNiro, playing an old jaded man, looks on, and you can see it sinking in — in to you, the viewer, an epiphany you don’t even want to think about, amplified, in each film, by an almost-cruel Ennio Morricone soundtrack. DeNiro looking to where friend James Wood used to be: You talkin’ to me?
As I watched an old DeNiro, playing an old Frank Sheeran, at home processing his betrayal of old friend Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) — the betrayal amplified by Peggy, his knowing and unforgiving daughter — in Martin Scorcese’s new Netflix film, The Irishman, I remembered that face stare after the garbage truck receding into the darkness. Sheeran had lost his best friend and daughter forever in one action, the murder of Hoffa, a psychic catastrophe so profound that, though a lapsed Catholic, he seeks out confessional absolution — in the end, a stand-up guy kneeling before the ear of an inscrutable God. The mystery of faith. Why have you forsaken me.
That look of unbearable sin, coming after more than three and a half hours of rapt viewing, opened up the caskets of a lot of old memories, related tangentially to the film’s themes. I recalled an early childhood growing up in Boston, the hoodlum “Whitey” Bulger calling the shots in the Irish-American neighborhoods of Charlestown and Southie, depicted in the media like the Nicholson character from The Departed, and his brother, Billy, calling the shots, and packing the groceries, in the Massachusetts senate. There was the morning in the late 60s when, a la Stand By Me, I discovered a bullet-riddled body in the mud behind a bar, a target of the city’s gangland violence, as I walked up Bunker Hill Street to school.
After moving, I remembered briefly attending the Michaelangelo school, not far from that beacon of revolution, the North Church, in the Italian-American neighborhood known as the North End. A kid in one class, a clown, danced around like James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, and reminded me years later of Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs. Dove la biblioteca? I repeated, in my best Brad Pitt accent, when my sexy teacher said, “Ripeti dopo di me,” and threw the book at my accent with those deep brown eyes. They were coming by land and sea.
Occasionally, I played street hockey there, in a playground, next to the garage where the Great Brink’s Job was done in 1950, until I wore out my welcome, by returning a hip check up against a chain link fence, delivered by a bully-in-the-making, who thought he was a Bruins enforcer. Turned out he wasn’t, but hadn’t gotten the message. At least, that’s what I tell myself, and what good’s memory if it doesn’t flatter. Rhetorical.
The Irishman is a movie about storytelling, myths, history and memory. Like Leone’s Once Upon A Time, which is based on Harry Grey’s autobiography, The Hoods, which chronicles the doings of Jewish mobsters in Manhattan during the Prohibition, The Irishman is adapted from a nonfiction account of mafia hitman Frank Sheeran’s time with Jimmy Hoffa, titled I Hear You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. These emphases on Jewish and Irish psyches is a welcome change from the long-stereotyped “thinking” Italian-American hoodlums are dressed in on screen. And Bogart, Cagney, Edward G., and John Garfield drilled each other with cardboard gats throughout my childhood. Still, they could be nasty.
But The Irishman is a story within a story within a story, and then some: There’s Scorcese’s tale to us, the viewer (with our unique responses); there’s Sheeran’s reluctant confessions to Brandt (for a book) and to a priest (for his soul); there’s the memory of confessionals as places of stories that priests (mere humans) must hear and collect (how did they do it?) and absolve (for a week, until the sinner and his voice returns with more); there’s the narrative tension of mafia omerta juxtaposed with Jimmy Hoffa’s bluster, and Sheeran’s agony of being that tension’s middleman; there’s the story of what criminals tell their families and the implicit weight of those stories carried out into the “real” world by the ones they love; intertextuality meets intratextuality; and, there’s the story of all these old actors reuniting for this film, like family.
Early in The Irishman you could almost believe you’re watching an Oliver Stone film, as a case is made that the truth of John F. Kennedy’s assassination is finally being revealed: Mobsters delivered the Illinois vote Kennedy needed in 1960 to win the presidential election, and when his brother, Robert, the attorney general, went after mobsters responsible for his victory, something had to be done. We see these same mobsters, working with the CIA and Cuban exiles in Miami, working to overthrow Castro, to make Cuba safe for casinos and capitalism again, angrily blaming Kennedy for the lack of air support that would have made the Bay of Pigs invasion a success. Something had to be done.
But then you realize Scorcese’s just messing with us, reminding us: It’s only a movie. It didn’t really happen that way. Kennedy had enough electoral college votes to win the presidency– without Illinois. So he owed the mobsters nothing on that account. And according to some plausible historical accounts, regarding the Bay of Pigs invasion (Ike’s idea), Kennedy refused to risk escalating World War 3 we’re in, from a cold war to a hot one by bombing Cuba, so no air support.
And this, too, is just a story — my take on what Scorcese was doing with a screenplay adapted from a book, written by a prosecutor, with an agenda, based upon the ‘confession’ of a conflicted hitman telling tales, drawn from omerta hearsay infused with goombah mysticism. It’s only a movie, but Scorcese is an old man looking back, like DeNiro, at a garbage truck receding, carrying away the past, and you the viewer, if old enough to remember, stuck with that WTF feeling. The nostalgia for a nostalgia you can no longer feel.
Along with DeNiro and Pacino, The Irishman features Joe Pesci (playing a marvelously subdued mobster, Russell Bufalino), Harvey Keitel (mobster Angelo Bruno), Ray Romano (Bill Bufalino), and Ann Paquin (as grown up daughter Peggy Sheeran, who does an excellent job expressing her rage and disgust at what her father represents). The film purports to tell us, finally and definitively, who killed Jimmy Hoffa. But it’s only a story that may or may not be true. Charles Brandt, while convinced that Sheeran killed Hoffa, spends some time in his Afterword and Epilogue somewhat defensively looking for corroborating evidence that his confession was true. Scorcese does the same. I Hear You Tell Stories. Despite Scorcese’s adaptation of Brandt’s account, there are alternative views out there.
The Irishman is about the fall of Jimmy Hoffa; about his charisma and power over the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; and, about how he wielded enormous influence by using the union’s pension fund to get things done, such as start-up money for Vegas casinos. But Scorcese’s Hoffa has serious animus in his dealings with mobsters who con, blackmail and extort their way into power plays. Jimmy believes he’s paid his dues in the Just Is system; he’s climbed to the top through will and skill, without compromising. Pacino plays Hoffa as a tragic figure, full of hubris, going up against the underworld deus ex machina, also uncompromising. Something had to give.
For all intents and purposes, Hoffa effectively disappeared from public consciousness 52 years ago, when he was sentenced to 14 years for jury tampering, fraud and bribery, and that disappearance has become, like Who Killed JFK?, bigger than the man himself. The charges against Hoffa don’t have a lot of moral or operational separation from the mobsters he cinematically despises. Richard Nixon commuted his sentence in 1971 (arguably, because Hoffa’s unions supported his presidential candidacy in 1968), but he was forbidden from pursuing a return to his throne before 1980. By then, it wasn’t his union anymore. He just wouldn’t accept it. But so what. For a young Netflix generation, Hoffa’s rage against the dying of his light only works as Story. We postmoderns can’t relate to it as reality.
And yet, since the days when Robert Kennedy made the dissolution of gangsters his priority, beginning in the 60s under JFK, there seems to have been a steady decline in their influence, or else they’ve changed their game. By the time Frank Sheeran took out “Crazy Joe” Gallo, while he was lifting up his fork at Umberto’s Clam Bar in New York on April 7, 1972 (depicted in The Irishman, and deepening my understanding of the Dylan song), mobsters were already at each others’ throats, having more than their usual intramural gunplay fun, thanks, in part, to the turmoil caused by the passage of the RICO Act, signed into law in 1970 by none other than Richard Nixon.
In 1984, then U.S. Attorney Rudy Guliani went Eliot Ness (channeling RFK) and, setting up a 450-officer task force, went after the so-called “Commission” — five families, based in New York, in charge of organized crime throughout America, including Lucchese, Gambino, Columbo, Bonanno and Genovese. Many high profile arrests and convictions were painted across the pages of the press, some more lurid than others. Guliani even claimed he had the RICO goods on the Clintons. Such RICO convictions paved the way for Guliani’s mayoral ascension. Once his “stoic calm” during the collapse of his city, all around him, on 9/11, made him a hero (somehow) and he was dubbed “America’s mayor,” his reputation was bound to free fall when he became Donald Trump’s legal mouthpiece.
Jimmy Hoffa wasn’t around to watch the collapse of union power in America in the 80s. The idea of “union” seemingly crash-landed in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan, former head of the Screen Actors Guild, fired 11,000 air traffic controllers who went on strike illegally. Rather than planes falling out of the sky, Americans saw Reagan replace the lot of them with new controllers immediately and without much fuss: bringing ka-chingaling on the political cachet front for the newly-elected Reagan, who seemingly manhandled the Left in one fell swoop.
As financial magazine The Motley Fool, put it a few years back:
When Reagan led the Screen Actors Guild walkout in 1952, roughly a third of the entire American workforce belonged to a labor union. Today, about 12% of the workforce is unionized. Corporate profits are at an all-time postwar high as a percentage of GDP, and wages as a percentage of GDP have fallen to an all-time low….
About the only place unions seem to have any real clout any more is in professional sports. Fiscal conservatives have been calling the shots since Reagan.
I’m haunted by DeNiro’s face, as it watches things recede and disappear, not sure if the quiet despair is his projection as an actor, or my projection, looking back at increasingly fathomless memories, as I grow old. The Irishman seems a kind of swan song, not just for the talented ensemble — Scorcese, DeNiro, Pacino, Pesci and Keitel — but for looking at the past. It’s over. America is no place for old white men. No value judgement: Just a fact.
But more, we ignored Ike’s warning: he’d have been dismissed as a conspiracy theorist if he were alive today, saying the same thing. The MIC has won: we are in a virtual coup, with so much of the budget (and so much of that secret) delivered to the Masters of War in endless battle against Terror (Man’s oldest nemesis), and the predators of Wall Street becoming the eyes on the pyramid schemes depicted on every dega dollar. Now there is the Deep State that Snowden says controls us all. We have a president, likened to a mobster (and familiar with mobsters depicted in Scorcese’s film), and once having been sued under RICO for a scam. He is half-assedly befriended and legally protected by Rudy Guliani.
If there’s a black lining to this silver screen gem, it’s that this might end up being one of Donald Trump’s favorite films, despite the fact that it doesn’t feature him in any way. But he’ll be able to read between the lines and express fond reminiscing about broking power, him and Rudy working the postmodern mob.
But Lo! Lady Liberty with her torch was there a moment ago, but disappeared into that black Mack truck passing by, out of which no light can escape.
By John Kendall Hawkins
“Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.”
-from The Manchurian Candidate (1959) by Richard Condon
When you think about it, after 9/11, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush did Americans a favor by “taking off the gloves,” so that we could wring our hands to the toll for freedom in the upcoming dark battle against Terror and Reality-based thinking. Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls, we thought, it tolls for Us. The torture trills and flourishes that followed, poor Abu rolling over in his shallow Ghraib, and the mad scientists brought in to offer up new, frightful concepts in torture, such as waterboarding, were the American equivalent of Chinese drip-drip-driven insanity, but, in our shock and aweful style, we wrung out the entire black cloud — the whole inshallalah — on one tormented “terrorist” after another.
We video-taped the “enhanced interrogations techniques” (EIT), but later destroyed the tapes, much to Congress’s quiet chagrin, because they would have shown that the methods were excessive and the results meaningless. Later, much later, in 2014, Senator Diane Feinstein’s intelligence committee found that EIT were ineffective — and consequently illegal. (See the Senate’s The Torture Report and the recent film, for more details on the committee findings, and CIA head John Brennan’s illegal attempts to quash the report by spying on the Senate.) In effect, her committee found, we tortured some terrorists who provided no valuable information, and tortured many, many others who turned out to be not terrorists at all. We rang dem bells some more.
The only CIA officer who ever went to jail for revealing the excesses of EIT, John Kirikaou, admitted, in a 2007 interview (pages 15-18 especially) with ABC’s Brian Ross, that enhanced interrogation “amounted to” torture, and that he and colleagues thought it “necessary at the time,” and that “it worked,” leading, he said, to countless heads-up details that led to Jack Bauer-like last minute interventions in new al Qaeda plots. It almost sounded like an apologist’s gambit.
Kirikaou went to jail, became dubbed a whistleblower (by the likes of Glenn Greenwald), and was in jail when the Torture Report came out — and contradicted his assertions about the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation. (He’d known about its ineffectiveness a year or so before his 2007 ABC News interview. In February 2015, he told Amy Goodman, “It wasn’t until something like 2005 or 2006 that we realized that that just simply wasn’t true—[it] wasn’t producing any information—and that these techniques were horrific.” So, he knew a year or so before the Ross interview). Despite this apparent contradiction, and its implications, the MSM were supportive of his ‘conversation starter’ about EIT — especially waterboarding.
Reading Stephen Kinzer’s new book, Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control, you could find yourself believing that there were parallel Americas. The list of grisly murders, lethal cover-ups, assassination mindedness, and graphic details of super-enhanced interrogation techniques that made up the CIA’s approach to handling the Fifties demonstrate unequivocally that the gloves were off way before Dick Cheney publicly stated the Bush administration’s intended approach to those that done us harm on 9/11. If anything, Kinzer shows in Poisoner in Chief, that, by comparison, Cheney may have put the gloves back on to fight al Qaeda. The stuff Kinzer details about CIA operations, especially in the Sydney Gottlieb era, is so depraved you wonder if you’ve been conned by Bush and company.
Americans have been in a cold war with Russians since 1949, the year they successfully exploded an atom bomb of their own and the nuclear arms race began. It has been a relationship powered by fear, paranoia, and not a little madness, as America sees her ambition to be an empire partially checked by Russia and her potent missiles. If Kinzer’s read of the Fifties was accurate, it was an era marked, for Americans (and maybe the Soviets) by the terror of instant nuclear annihilation. There were fall-out shelters, procedures for hiding under your desk, and the occasional TV and radio transmission interruptions by the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS). Kinzer repeatedly emphasizes that this fear of annihilation was so often proffered as the motivation for the actions early covert operators.
George Orwell’s 1948 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was not only a look to the future but a pulse-taking of his zeitgeist. The Spanish Civil War and the Great Depression sandwiched between two world wars crushed the spirits of millions. The kind of nihilistic impulses described by Erich Fromm in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness or even in The Waste Land poetry of T.S. Eliot seemed manifest everywhere. Ideologies duked it out: Capitalism, Communism, and Fascism. Out of one nation fearing another’s impulses, weapons of mass destruction had evolved — from brute force to chemical weapons to biological weapons to LSD and other psychoactives to nuclear weapons. This is what was on the minds of writers, politicians, soldiers, and the CIA, back in the day.
So when the Soviets exploded their first atomic weapon in 1949 and then followed that up with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, American spies felt that they were dealing with a race against time. They started gathering German scientists, Nazi eugenicists, Japanese torturers, and others of twisted scientific persuasion who could lead military programs — especially in mind control. Kinzer cites CIA director Allen Dulles’ mission statement as the basis for what the agency did:
By the early 1950s he had concluded that mind control could be the decisive weapon of the coming age…Any nation that discovered ways to manipulate the human psyche, he believed, could rule the world.
The CIA has always wanted to rule the world in the name of ‘national security’.
Operation Paperclip was the means by which totally unpalatable scientists — mostly from Nazi Germany — were allowed to escape post-war justice at Nuremberg, in order to help the Cold War effort against the Soviets. So, what was supposed to be a patriotic fervor to keep Mama America safe for baking apple pies, soon led to the recruitment of war criminals.
Most prominently, from Nazi Germany, came Kurt Blome, who had been director of the Nazi biological warfare program. Kinzer writes,
They had learned how long it takes for human beings to die after exposure to various germs and chemicals, and which toxins kill most efficiently. Just as intriguing, they had fed mescaline and other psychoactive drugs to concentration camp [especially Dachau] in experiments aimed at finding ways to control minds or shatter the human psyche.
He fit right in with Dulles’s vision. Their thinking was, writes Kinzer, “instead of hanging Blome, let’s hire him.”
But the most important decision Dulles made regarding his desire to find a way to reach his Mission Accomplished goal was to hire Sydney Gottlieb to run his research and development umbrella program in mind control. As head of the Technical Services Staff headquartered at Fort Detrick in Maryland, Gottlieb coordinated the hundreds of myriad sub-projects and experiments that made up the notorious MK-ULTRA program. Though many twisted details would eventually be disseminated about the doings of these experiments, Gottlieb himself was regarded as a quiet and unassuming man. Kinzer describes him: “[He was] a psychic voyager, far from anyone’s stereotype of the career civil servant. His home was an eco-lodge in the woods with outdoor toilets and a vegetable garden. He meditated, wrote poetry, and raised goats.”
Nevertheless, one of the first things that Gottlieb did was to not only hire Nazi scientists, but head East, to Japan, to confer (and hire) General Shiro Ishii, a possibly criminally insane Japanese army surgeon who had headed Unit 731, a horror camp in Manchuria, where Ishii went to work on internees. Kinzer describes prisoners
slowly roasted by electricity…hung upside down…locked into high-pressure chambers until their eyes popped out; spun in centrifuges infected with anthrax, syphilis, plague, cholera, and other diseases; forcibly impregnated to provide infants for vivisection; bound to stakes to be incinerated by soldiers testing flamethrowers; and slowly frozen to observe the progress of hypothermia.
Blome and Ishii were model types of the vision the CIA sought in order to gain an edge on similar Russian experimenters looking to create ‘Manchurian candidates’.
Black sites, East and West, were set up, where “expendables” were brought to be mercilessly and brutally tortured, sometimes in such ways that they could not be identified as humans anymore. These sites were intentionally beyond US accountability, not set up to interrogate terrorists but to experiment on the mind. Such experiments were not carried out only overseas, but, also, stateside people were unknowing participants in CIA miscreance.
Project Bluebird, for instance, called for an ‘experiment’ on everyone in San Francisco. Kinzer describes how a psychiatric team performed Operation Sea Spray:
scientists from Camp Detrick directed the spraying of a bacterium called Serratia marcescens into the coastal mist. According to samples taken afterward at forty-three sites, the spraying reached all of San Francisco’s 800,000 residents and also affected people in Oakland, Berkeley, Sausalito, and five other cities.
Scores of people had to seek help at a hospital, a few people died from toxic reactions, but these psychiatric scientists proved that the Bay Area was vulnerable to germ warfare. Just in case anyone was wondering.
Gottlieb kept adding shadier characters to perform more and more outrageous tasks, in his effort to nail down how humans tick, deep down inside. But nobody was shadier than ex-cop George Hunter White, who, writes Kinzer, stood out “even in the dazzling MK-ULTRA cast of obsessed chemists, coldhearted spymasters, grim torturers, hypnotists, electroshockers, and Nazi doctors.” Gottlieb had him open up a “safe house” in Greenwich Village where he lured unsuspecting expendables and others to parties where they could be doused with LSD for study (think: the psychedelic scene from Midnight Cowboy). In 1949, he arrested Billie Holiday for opium possession, which she claimed was “planted” and which put her through an “ordeal” that Kinzer says led to “her decline toward early death.” He later worked for Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Later, White was transferred back to his hometown of San Francisco, where he expanded on his doings in Greenwich Village, starting up a safe house that added the full gamut of sex acts to LSD studies, including Operation Midnight Climax. He leaned toward fascist leathers and stilettos and provided prostitutes with “get out of jail free” assurances for assisting in the experiments. There were kundalini-driven orgies, whips and chains, acid trips, and gentle Gottlieb with White’s wife, “humping her brains out,” while he recovered from tripping.
Gottlieb was originally employed as a master chemist. But the mild-mannered meditator also had a covert killer side to him. Kinzer describes the Poisoner-in-Chief’s hand in the assassination of world leaders. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai escaped one of Gottlieb’s plots with a last-minute change of plans. Gottlieb was put in charge of killing Cuban leader Fidel Castro with poison, both directly (cigars) and indirectly (causing his beard to fall out so he’d ‘lose face’ with his people). He was involved in the takedown of Congo Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, personally concocting a poison that “ if it didn’t kill Lumumba outright,” writes Kinzer, “would leave him so disfigured that he couldn’t possibly be a leader.” Lumumba managed to evade the poison, but was eventually assassinated by the more traditional firing squad.
And the craziest characters kept joining his subprojects. At McGill University in Montreal, Dr. James Hebb studied “the isolation technique [that] could break any man, no matter how intelligent or strong-willed.” In another subproject he brought Ira Feldman, a master of “old-fashioned” interrogation techniques who observed, “If it was a girl, you put her tits in a drawer and slammed the drawer [and if] it was a guy, you took his cock and you hit it with a hammer. And they would talk to you. Now, with these drugs, you could get information without having to abuse people.” Feldman was welcomed with open arms.
In New York, John Mulholland, a professional magician who’d worked with Houdini, joined MK-Ultra subproject 4, taught sleight of hand and misdirection to the CIA, and even developed a manual for them, The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception. The crazies and subprojects of MK-ULTRA just kept piling up. Under Subprojects 9 and 26, Gottlieb studied ways that “various depressant drugs” can shake a person’s psyche…Subproject 28 was to test “depressants” ..Subproject 47 would “screen and evaluate hallucinogens,” Subproject 124 tested whether inhaling carbon dioxide could lead people into a trance-like state, and Subproject 140 tested the psychoactive effects of “thyroid-related hormones.”
It wasn’t until Dr. Harold Wollf came along in 1954 that CIA methods took a turn toward the ‘ways and means’ we wring our hands over today. Wollf had treated Dulles’s son – a soldier who’d suffered a significant shrapnel injury to his brain. “Wolff shared Dulles’s fascination with the idea of mind control,” writes Kinzer. Wollf headed up the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology. He proposed placing subjects in inescapable situations that eroded their psyches to the point where, desperate to escape,
doctors could “create psychological reactions within them.”…to test “special methods of interrogation, including “threats, coercion, imprisonment, isolation, deprivation, humiliation, torture, ‘brainwashing,’ ‘black psychiatry, ’hypnosis, and combinations of these with or without chemical agents.
Hello, Gitmo. Hello, Abu Ghraib.
Gottlieb’s reputation for dark art intrigues was at its height in 1953 when CIA operative, Frank Olson, suffering from acute anxiety and having reportedly confided to a colleague that “he’d made a big mistake” being part of MK-ULTRA, either fell or dove from the 10th floor of the Statler Hotel in New York. MK-ULTRA almost went down with Olson. Was he heave-hoed out the window by CIA bouncers, or did he somehow somnambulate through a closed curtain and plate glass window? It was a mystery that investigative journalist Sy Hersh looked in to and opined that, based upon uncorroborated information he’d been made privy to, Olson was murdered. A 2017 six-part Netflix series — Wormwood — was produced and does an excellent job of recreating the vibe of the 50s and the somewhat hallucinogenic event.
In the end, as unfriendly changes and unwanted scrutiny took place at the CIA in the wake of changing times, Gottlieb retired. And he and his wife travelled by freighter to India where they volunteered at a leper’s colony. Did he spend much time, in retirement, recalling his Jewish roots? Maybe thinking, there but for the grace of God (his name suggests ‘love of God’) might my Hungarian Jewish parents have gone — and me with them — into some death camp, where I might have been ‘done’ by Nazis in ways very similar to the methods I myself employed? We’ll never know. Even the Congressional hearings that called him back from India to account for his MK-ULTRA doings don’t suggest much rueful ruminations. He was essentially a Holocaust Denying Jew. Netanyahu would have called him “a self-loathing Jew,” then hired him to mow lawns, in new ways, on the West Bank, returning at night to his leafy kibbutz.
So, what’s the future of mind control? Kinzer doesn’t speculate much. But it’s clear, without a lot of thinking, that the more we humans become addicted to the honey of the Internet’s hive mindedness, we become more vulnerable. Edward Snowden has already warned about the mere collection of dossiers (Permanent Records) on every person connected. But there is also the risk of ‘contagions’ brought on by manipulations of algorithms and newsfeeds. Think of the online white blood cell mobbing of Joseph Kony back in 2012 that created a massive fever to capture the black cancerous leader of child soldiers, only for the fervor to die suddenly, when it was discovered he hadn’t been in the country of intended capture — for years.
Gottlieb is said to have abandoned his pursuit of the Grail for mind control in the end. But there is no question that the dark Quest to control minds is still active, as there are still Rove-Cheney-Bush type people out there who believe, as Allen Dulles did, that “Any nation that discovered ways to manipulate the human psyche…could rule the world.” And, ‘we are an Empire now’.
We are in the middle of a new brain warfare, as Kinzer puts it, without knowing it, because these manipulations and brain hacks are kept from us. As Kinzer suggests,
The target of this warfare is the minds of men on a collective and on an individual basis. Its aim is to condition the mind so that it no longer reacts on a free will or rational basis, but a response to impulses implanted from outside … it is proving malleable in the hands of sinister men.
We are the “black sites” of future interrogations, by machine-like men, who, if they have their way, will not be out to make AI androids of the future more human, but, rather, humans more machine-like. It might be as simple as a tiny gizmo implanted in the brain to take the free will away and leave us open to the programming of remote, sinister forces.
Think about it.
The Terror Report You Weren’t Meant to See
By John Kendall Hawkins
“If it works, why do you need to do it 183 times?”
- Senator Dianne Feinstein
In 1953, they deposed Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadiq, with the help of the British. In the 60s, they were there at the Gulf of Tonkin, false flagging the North Vietnamese; and there pushing exiles onto the shores of the Bay of Pigs, shouting “Cuba Si, Castro No.” In the 60s and 70s, they spied on American activists, violating the Agency’s charter against domestic surveillance, and in 1975 were chastised by Frank Church’s committee. They fomented regime changes in Central America throughout the 80s, leading to Irangate and the Contra-Sandinista standoff. The Gulf War, economic sabotage, MK-ULTRA, intellectual property theft, 70 years of war with Russia (with two-way electoral interference), and spook Duane Clarridge, who helped bring down Chile’s Allende, telling us to “lump it.”
On and on the scofflaws went. Even when they were running drugs, murdering people, or doing porn films with Dolly Treason, nothing seemed to stop them or slow them down. By the time the 80s rolled around I was steeped in Existentialism and throwing away what was left of my faith — attending drive-in movies, with double-bills like: The Passover Plot, followed by Executive Action. You felt like you were sitting in the dark among moral desperados, glocks to their own heads, as, first, Jesus got double-crossed by post-modernism and then Democracy went limp, like a blow-up doll.
And then, in November 1986, while looking for my Lo and Behold, as Bobby Dylan would say, Abbie Hoffman, all grizzled from his underground years, arose like a Finger from the grave, and joined Amy Carter, and 13 others, to fight the CIA recruitment effort at UMass-Amherst, my alma mater. They staged a sit-in and/or blocked the police bus taking protesters away after being arrested for trespassing and disorderly conduct — misdemeanors. Five months later, in April 1987, Abbie, reunited with lawyer Leonard Weinglass from his Chicago 8 days, successfully employed the “necessity defense,” and paraded before the jury such luminaries as Howard Zinn, Daniel Ellsberg, Amy Carter and Abbie Hoffman, who testified about the moral need to protest against the CIA’s felonious actions abroad.
But, according to the now-defunct Boston Phoenix, the stars of the show were former Contra Edgar Chamorro, who enumerated the Agency’s terror tactics, handing out Psychological Operations, a how-to on how to scare the shit out of ordinary people to gain their “respect” and cooperation. The Contras were told to “create martyrs of our own followers, someone who is well-liked that gets killed in a way that looks like the government did it.” Contra what? Contra anything you please.
Chamorro was followed on the stand by CIA tell-aller (in retirement) Ralph McGehee — who catalogued his personal experiences of the Agency’s atrocities, including torture, rape, murder, disinformation, propaganda, and general deceit. The gloves were off — way off — long before the aftermath of 9/11. The Phoenix describes McGehee’s testimony: “[He] told a CIA joke comparing the Agency’s treatment of Congress to mushrooms. ‘You’re kept in the dark and you’re fed manure,’ he said.” The arrogance and disdain are trademarks — sentiments echoed in Snowden’s memoir, Permanent Record, when he describes how intel operatives saw themselves, a generation later as: “a hermetic power-mad cabal that controlled the actions of America’s elected officials from shadowy subterranean cubicles.” In short, Clarridge-On-Line.
Then the 60s were all over again, the Finger wilted one last time. Abbie sank into a funk and let himself die in April 1989. Why? Who knows. But it may or may not be a coincidence that his death came just after GHW Bush became the first former CIA chief to be inaugurated as president. It must have depressed a lot of activists, when you think about it. I’m still depressed — and increasingly inactive.
The Gulf War followed shortly thereafter, when Sad-um Hussein rebuffed American efforts to make him their “little shoe shine boy” in the region. Other Arabs were offended; things started to happen; Khobar Towers was blown up, producing more than 500 US military casualties; bin Laden was credited with his first Tower take-down. Then, the shoes came back to haunt in 2008 when an Iraqi journalist, uttering epithets better left off family TV (something about Bush’s pet goat), bared his soles at GW Bush during a 2008 post-Shock and Awe Baghdad press conference. Americans took off their gloves; Iraqis took off their shoes; al-Qaeda became ISIS; now look at the world.
The Hell on Earth misery that the CIA served up for so many people overseas, according to the sworn testimony of Chamorro and McGehee, was just a warm-up for the Apocalyptic crusade that has taken out large swathes of the Middle East (and Afghanistan) since, and promises to take out more (Syria, Iran), since the Pearl Harbor-like event that was 9/11. Not only did Cheney try to take off his glove, but the revenge America has wreaked on Terror since has included not just the evil Arabs the CIA says are dashing all around the world wearing suicide vests and clutching children, in a mad dash effort to make Zionist Islam (go with it) seem as bad as — Communism!
The long established 9/11 narrative says that it was CIA head of Counter Terrorism Cofer Black’s dire warnings to Bush of an imminent attack by al-Qaeda that were ignored; he was put in charge thereafter of tracking down bin Laden; he set up the renditions and black sites and torture enhanced interrogation program that followed; he helped found the private CIA group, Blackwater, who are, essentially, a private deployable army ready to act without government oversight, but doing their bidding, like the homo contractus virus Snowden describes, from firsthand experience, in his memoir.
There has been plenty of blowback from the events of 9/11, but perhaps nothing was more controversial than the bear-hug embracing of enhanced interrogation, which, under the guise of righteous vengeance, has brought American consciousness over to the dark side wholesale. We opened Guantanamo Bay and falsely imprisoned and interrogated many people for years having no links to terrorism. We’ve graphically degraded our humanity, and that of others, at Abu Ghraib. We’ve corrupted psychology by trying to spin enhanced interrogation as a scientifically valid method. We’ve allowed the CIA to cover it all up, by destroying videos of the ordeals that would have put the lie to science.
Luckily, it has turned stomachs within the ranks of the CIA. Analyst John Kirikaou was the first to blow the whistle on the evil doings of his agency. In his now well-known 2007 interview with ABC newsman Brian Ross, he wrings hands on behalf of conflicted colleagues, which has resonance for torture-abhoring viewers. He describes how presumed conspirator of 9/11 events Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times, admits he came to see it as not enhanced interrogation but torture, but that it was “necessary” to extract valuable information, and that old “rapport” methods wouldn’t work. Said Kirikaou, “They hate us more than they love life,” and would never give in. Kirikaou told Ross enhanced interrogation worked. Tapes of Zubaydah’s ordeal were illegally destroyed.
Kirikaou’s seeming equivocation — that the enhanced interrogation program worked — flies in the face of the findings by the Senate Intelligence Committee chaired by Dianne Feinstein , which concluded in 2014 that the CIA’s much-ballyhooed enhanced interrogation methods did not work — at all. The most valuable information that may have come from the Zubaydah waterboarding is the purported poetry that Z. wrote to his interrogator’s wife.
Torture by any other name is the subject of the newly-released film, The Report. The film recounts the aftermath of 9/11 and the mobilization of Cofer Black’s gloveless forces as they spread around the globe looking for “terrorists” to round up and/or identify for entry in the disposition matrix that could lead to later CIA drone strikes during the Obama administration. In one scene, Black (played by Ian Blackman) utters his famous quip the scope of American vengeance, “We will not stop until flies are walking across their eyeballs.” And then the superheroes are on their way.
The Report opens by showing how the so-called enhanced interrogation program was put together, and introduced to CIA officers, by contractors. Two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, using powerpoint slides and without previous interrogation experience, bring “learned helplessness” to the table, achieved, they claim, by techniques including sleep deprivation, stress positions, loud and long noise, insects, and waterboarding, sounding like salesmen for Orwell’s Room 101 Experience (not to be confused with the Jimi Hendrix experience).
Douglas Hodge, who was recently played the evil proprietor of the Black Museum (where torture is also the principal focus) in a Black Mirror episode, is especially effective as sick psychologist James Mitchell. The learned helplessness that Mitchell touts to officers, based on experiments torturing dogs, draws skepticism from the gitmo. Mitchell smiles on, and as he exhausts his techniques, none of them working. He settles on mostly waterboarding, and is involved in the blubbooling of Khaled Sheik Mohammed, the preferred mastermind of 9/11, who is “drowned” 183 times. Desperation sets in as the CIA realizes loud and clear that “enhanced interrogation is only legal if it works.” Despite Kirikiaou’s odd assertion that it worked (Ross interview p.16), the facts speak otherwise.
The money spent on “learned helplessness” amounted to $81 million, plus another $5m as a defense fund, should the psychologists be sued. The program was originally contracted for $181 million, but was terminated due to ineffectiveness. As noted earlier, the CIA videotaped the interrogations and then, when it was clear they were to become the center of inquiry, destroyed them. As with Snowden, it’s almost as if a contractor was brought in to provide plausible deniability should something (inevitably) go wrong, although this angle is not explored in the film. But what’s actually surprising is that, given what Chamorro and McGehee expounded upon about CIA techniques (back when torture was called torture), the CIA ever fell for the crazy-eyed psychologists’ proposed shtick to begin with.
Mitchell and Jessen were never going to be tried and held accountable, because the CIA would claim “national security” interests and close the case down. We know this because that’s what they did to the investigation into the destruction of the interrogation tapes — they quashed the report. And they were determined to do the same to Feinstein’s report on enhanced interrogation techniques — and how they miserably failed. And, consequently, were illegal. The CIA had argued that EIT was the only means to obtain time-critical information from detainees, and wanted to claim, desperate to demonstrate its legality, that countless attacks had been averted thanks to information extracted by EIT. Feinstein (played by Annette Bening) called it all a lie, pissing off John Brennan, who tried to sabotage the Report.
Monk veteran Ted Levine (who is wonderfully remembered for his role as Captain Stottlemeyer in an episode where he shows us how to interrogate a suspect with a potentially smoking gun) does a bang-up job playing John Brennan. Obama’s CIA chief tries to undermine Dan Jones (played by Adam Driver), lead investigator for Feinstein’s committee — and at one point Jones is confronted with imminent criminal action against him when it’s discovered that he has on his computer a classified document. This stratagem backfires and Feinstein realizes that the CIA has hacked into the Committee’s computers (and, later, break into a Committee office, recalling Watergate) in a clear breach of the separation of powers, criminal B&E, and cover-up, for starters. Definitely impeachable offenses.
One has to presume that a breach that serious would have had the approval of President Obama. Since Obama curtailed the EIT shortly after taking office, one wonders what reason he would have had for covering the back of George W. Bush. Maybe it’s because Obama continued the enhancements in the War against Terror in other ways — drones. Instead of rounding up suspected terrorists and housing them in uncomfortable controversial facilities that create a legal and moral crisis for an administration, just pick a kill out of a disposition matrix and joystick command the murder remotely. Just as a lot people never belonged at Gitmo, so, too, a lot of innocent people have been killed because a baddie was in their midst.
The Report closes out on a poignant note, Senator John McCain’s address to Congress following the release of Feinstein’s report. With eloquence and insight, the former POW, and the only Republican who stood by Feinstein’s investigation, reminds Congress and his fellow Americans of their core values — the one’s worth fighting and dying for. Here is his December 9, 2014 speech.
The Report, directed by Scott Burns, is good story-telling. Other than Driver, Bening, Levine, and Hodge, the film’s other stars include John Hamm, Maura Tierney, and Tim Blake Nelson. It appears that for many of the actors it was a virtual gift to the public, as last minute cuts to the budget saw next-to-nothing wages paid to the actors. Director Burns told Vanity Fair, “[The Report]went from having a 50-day schedule to a 26-day schedule, and its $18 million budget was slashed to $8 million…getting Hollywood to get behind a movie like this was difficult.” Like the other recently released film about Deep State corruption, Official Secrets, a film about whistleblowing at the GCHQ (although, ultimately, it’s a whistleblow on the NSA’s role in getting America into Iraq in 2003), The Report takes some of the edge off of one’s cynicism.
Is it enough? Not with Trump, a vocal proponent of torture (not enhanced interrogation) at the helm of the leaky ship of state, and ultimately in charge of the CIA and their policies. But it is a start.
More information on the CIA’s doings over the years can be found in William Blum’s Killing Hope. Here are some chapter samples from Blum’s website.
By John Kendall Hawkins
I’m Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world. I’m black. They never let me forget it. I’m black all right. I’ll never let them forget it. – Miles Davis, A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971)
One of the more interesting sub-narratives of Edward Snowden’s recent memoir, Permanent Record, is his discussion of his heritage. His mother descended from the first Pilgrim child born in the New World, not long after their arrival on the Mayflower in 1620. His father’s side featured seafarers, merchants and adventurers. Eventually, his more direct relatives settled in Maryland and with the 1900 acres given them by King Charles II and opened up the Patuxent Iron Works, whose manufacture of cannonballs was later crucial to the War of Independence, and Snowden Plantation, a farm and dairy operation manned by slaves.
As Snowden puts it, “After serving in the heroic Maryland Line of the Continental Army, [my forebears] returned to the plantation and—most fully living the principles of independence—abolished their family’s practice of slavery, freeing their two hundred African slaves nearly a full century before the Civil War.”
The Snowden legacy would take on more irony later when Snowden Plantation was bought out (Ed thinks it may have been “expropriated”) by the government, and Fort Meade, home of the NSA, was built upon it. Permanent Record, in turn, describes the Deep State’s plans and doings to make data slaves of us all. (Snowden confirms that there is, indeed, a Deep State, and that he was once a happy surveillance slaver in it, until he realized the extent of state criminality involved and declared his own war of independence.)
In 1619, about a year before the Mayflower is said to have bashed up on Plymouth Rock, with Snowden’s unmarried relative fending off male Pilgrim gazes, another ship, the White Lion, arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, carrying the first slaves into the New World. These first slaves, some 20 of them, were war-booty from the Congo and Angola. They were put to work farming tobacco and cotton, the New World’s most important products, until sugar boomed about a century later.
According to Timothy Winegard, author of The Mosquito, African slaves,
were ,blockquote>relatively unafflicted by malaria and yellow fever, and simply did not die at the same rate as non-Africans. Their genetic immunities and prior seasoning made Africans an important ingredient of the Columbian Exchange and indispensable in the development of New World mercantilist economic markets.
Sickle cell anemia, Winegard and others point out, the bane of so many African-Americans, was an evolutionary adaptation to malaria that made their resistance valuable to labor-hungry farmers in the New World. The more tobacco, cotton and sugar into signature global products from America, the more African slaves were shipped in to help grow the industries with their free labor.
Around 1820, Harriet Tubman was born to such slaves on a plantation — not terribly far from the Snowden Plantation — near Bucktown in Dorchester County, Maryland. In fact, Maryland was regarded as the then-premiere slave state, prior to Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin, which revolutionized the cotton industry and exponentially increased the need for more labor in the Deep South. In Maryland, writes Catherine Clinton in Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, “Cotton was not a cash crop in Maryland, but its plantations produced one of the most invaluable crops for the southern antebellum market: slaves.” Maryland was where future “free” laborers were grown and offered up later for sale to Deep South industrial farmers.
Harriet Tubman had started out her career of resistance to slavery by standing up to a Georgian’s attempts to take her child and flee south. Clinton cites fellow slave Emma Telford’s memoir in describing Tubman’s reaction to such events: “‘She had watched two of her sisters carried off weeping and lamenting.’ Tubman was permanently affected by this episode, as she witnessed the ‘agonized expression on their faces.’” As Clinton draws the picture, when Brodess, the Georgian, approached Tubman’s cabin, “[Tubman] threatened, ‘The first man that comes into my house, I will split his head open’… Such family lore … would have provided Tubman with a powerful example of the possibilities for resistance.”
In the recently released film version of Tubman’s life, Harriet, we are given the merest of glimpses into the horror of these child-parent separations for commercial purposes — the view of humans as chattel, a degradation so dark it represents a kind of core essence of fascism and objectification, later rationalized into a form of guiding principles by such hornéd luminaries as Ayn Rand, Minervan Owl to the neocons. The film would have benefitted from more literally wrenching scenes to establish how recklessly families were destroyed for slaver profit by these evil fools.
While the Tubman story is certainly well-intentioned, Harriet, the film production, seems to have been a mostly profit-driven exercise itself — given the inexplicable pre-production consideration of casting Julia Roberts as Tubman. Or it may have been an even more cynical exercise — creating a controversy to get eyeballs to the cinema so that they could later ‘weigh in’ (for the advertizers) on social media, and in the process drive the film toward a profit. But an essential starting point was missed: international slave trading ended in 1808, and afterward Southern landowners relied on domestic slave production; it became an American phenomenon. According to Clinton, after the law went into effect, the slave population went from 2 million to 3.5 million. Business was booming. There’s the story.
Maryland was the major supplier of homegrown slaves after 1808. Leading up the Civil War it was a growth industry. Harriet Tubman was running away from a farm that derived at least some of its revenue from ‘growing slaves’ and selling them. Tubman refused to live in a reality that destructive. Harriet provides a hint of her sheer determination and will to survive, without real shelter or food, for the 100 miles of her northward pursuit by her owners. The film concentrates on depicting Harriet the character, rather than Harriet the action figure, although there’s plenty of chase scene action. A lot of reaction shots without any direct action. While this helps manage the film budget, it’s not especially effective story-telling.
The film does a rotten job setting up a picture of the Underground Railroad on which Harriet “Moses” Tubman was supposed to be a principal conductor. Many people-stops (safe houses) made up the railroad; people, black and white, willing to risk fines (up to $1000) and jail time (up to 6 months) to help slaves escape to the “free” North. But in the film, Tubman seems to go back and forth from north to south as if by magic: one minute she’s on a plantation pulling people out, the next she’s in Delaware with her charges (70 runaways, by the end). More scenes about the Railroad and its people would have been a good way to build tension toward the fast-approaching Civil War.
In fact, you could argue that the Civil War actually commenced with the congressional passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Essentially, the law allowed slave-owners to go after runaways and retrieve them, like stolen property, in northern, non-slave states — mostly in New England. It provided for harsh penalties for aiding and abetting runaways — again, making a stronger depiction of the Railroad essential. The insidious law was justified by the Constitution, in which Blacks were not regarded as citizens, and which stated that “no person held to service or labor” could escape their servitude by merely running to a free state. Such hostile ‘repos’ had implications for the separation of powers between the feds and states. Harriet barely explores this terrain.
(Indeed, some mention might have been made about Florida, the territory of choice for Deep South escapees until it was purchased from Spain in 1821 — a purchase motivated in large part to stop Florida from being a refuge. With a little sly dialogue, Florida’s present day disenfranchisement of Black voters might have been squeezed in.)
The film also falls short in the Big Picture department, with no explicit mention of the approaching formal declaration of Civil War that Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery, would have seemed to Southerners. Towards the end of the film though, Harriet does make an emancipation proclamation of her own to her former owner, Gideon, who has been tracking her through some woods, arrogantly hoping to finally repo Harriet, but she surprises him and forces him to drop his rifle, dismount from his high horse, and fall to his knees.
It’s an interesting scene:
GIDEON: You bitch! You destroyed my family!
Harriet swings herself onto the horse’s back. She speaks in THE VOICE – it’s her own, maybe it always has been.
HARRIET: You tried to destroy my family, but you can’t. You tried to destroy my people, but you won’t. God has shown me the future, and my people are free. MY PEOPLE ARE FREE!
Gideon watches as Harriet rides off, into the glare of the setting sun.
We don’t know if Gideon repents, as he did in the Bible (something the religious Harriet would have been aware of), and goes back South to help destroy the Baal of the day — the wealth created by slavers off the backs of free labor.
And I guess it would have been asking too much, it may have over-stretched the budget, to at least allude to the complex moral ambivalence of Northerners in the fight to relieve white Southerners of their sinful slaver burden. Not everyone up there wanted to fight in a war to free slaves down under. Lincoln was forced to employ America’s first draft. New Yorkers, for one, rioted: rich people could, and did, purchase there way out of conscription, sending proxies in their place; and, the vast majority white New Yorkers depended on jobs manufacturing raw cotton, sugar and tobacco. Freed slaves were at the vanguard of volunteers to fight the South. Even then, Lincoln had to make them people before they could wear uniforms and carry guns.
It was a Republican who freed the slaves. Some vocal Democrats were against a Civil War, even when they felt animosity toward the character of Southern slavers, whose attitude seemed to be: ‘Keep your hands off my cotton-pickin’ slaves.’
Congressman Clement Vallandigham, for instance, said of the Southern mentality:
And now, sir, is there any difference of race here so radical as to forbid reunion? I do not refer to the negro race, styled now, in unctuous official phrase, by the President, “Americans of African Descent.” Certainly, sir, there are two white races in the United States, both from the same common stock, and yet so distinct — one of them so peculiar — that they develop different forms of civilization, and might belong, almost, to different types of mankind [my emphasis]. But the boundary of these two races is not at all marked by the line which divides the slaveholding from the non-slaveholding States. If race is to be the geographical limit of disunion, then Mason Dixon’s can never be the line.
Meet the Crackers. (But even the way Vallandigham says, ‘unctuous’, is disturbing.)
Lincoln banned public speeches against such a war, and Vallandigham excelled at them. He encouraged draft dodging. He was tried for treason (speaking out), exiled to the South, where rebel soldiers, realizing that he wasn’t opposed to slavery in their states, sent him north, to Canada. He later became the inspiration for the short story, “The Man Without A Country,” by Edward Everett Hale, an evil little tale every American school child learns, without the details. No teacher I can recall ever asked aloud, to pre-pubescent befuddlement, how the fuck could they give the guy 56 years for freely expressing his dismay at his government’s actions? No chance to recant? No mercy? No shore leave? Go figure, she’d say, shaking her head. Kids’ hands over their flag-driven hearts, slowly slipping away.
Four hundred years after the first slave ship arrived at Jamestown, the legacy of slavery endures with all the racial complexities it brings, the endless, almost Sisyphean, fight for social and economic justice, and the ever so subtle battle (and sometimes not so subtle) between accomodation and assimilation — a kind of postmodern master-slave dialectic. Jordan Peele, arguably developing a new film genre — Black political horror — seems to have his hand on the current pulse of that dynamic in Get Out: Blacks still trying to fit in with Whites and their masks (spoiler: the liberals might even be more insidious), and Whites definitely, um, trying to fit into Blacks and their cool-cuz-they-suffered-so-muchness.
There is a darker side to it (as if Peele’s weren’t dark enough) that shows up in “Black Museum,” a recent episode of Black Mirror captured in all its horrific spectacle. It’s almost as if the Cracker that Vallandigham describes opened a museum-cum-arcade that features his sadistic fantasies of domination — an encased holographic Black man being electrocuted over and over forever (like that fascist face-booting Orwell describes in 1984). And white people come from miles around to drop a coin in the slot before the cage to watch him fry. Given the shambles that the health-education-welfare system is for Blacks in America today, as well as their record incarcerations in for-profit prisons, and the debt slavery so many labor under, Black Mirror can seem the truest reflection.
So, there’s no extended vision to Harriet, the movie. It’s a character study on a comic book level — Freedom Illustrated — and you may find yourself comically picturing Julia Roberts in blackface as the lead (Gere as Gideon?), or wondering how different Tarantino would have handled Tubman’s role. There would have been a lot of crumbled Crackers. Would he have featured The Delfonics in the soundtrack? In short, it’s not a riveting film; your mind might wander. But with any luck you’ll spend hours researching all the pertinent historical details left out of the film.
And getting out some Miles for a listen. Because your cool.
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked
— Bob Dylan, “It’s Alright, Ma”
SPOILER ALERT — Plot lines of the film Official Secrets revealed.
In May 1989, just a few months before the Berlin Wall fell, the United Kingdom upgraded its Official Secrets Act (OSA). Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, unhappy with the way embarrassing classified information had been leaked to the press during the Falklands War, saw to it that the OSA was tightened up to such a degree that future breachers of government non-disclosure agreements would face serious jail time.
Future whistleblowers would even be limited in their legal defense, as they would be unable to discuss the confidential leak with an attorney. The OSA of 1989 was the stuff of police states.
From John F. Kennedy (“Ich bin ein Berliner”) to Ronald Reagan (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”), the Berlin Wall had been regarded by the West as the symbol of the Iron Curtain separating free democratic societies and closed totalitarian regimes controlled by Moscow.
But the OSA suggested that the West had learned the value of deep, unnecessary secrecy. As the East opened up, the West began its movement toward clamping down on privacy and freedom, through the growth of the Internet, leading to the surveillance state we have today.
In 2016, NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, noted this catastrophic irony. Speaking before the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, a disillusioned Drake said,
I never imagined that the US would use the Stasi playbook as the template for its own state sponsored surveillance regime and turning not only its own citizens into virtual persons of interest, but also millions of citizens in the rest of the world.
Of course, it’s not only America that’s gone this route, but the UK (which has the most surveillance cameras turned on its public than anywhere else in the world, bar China), Australia, New Zealand and Canada — the Five Eyes that control world surveillance.
But long before Drake, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and many other whistleblowers and reporters drew our attention to the secret criminal activities of our governments, in our names and against our democratic interests, in 2003, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) translator and analyst Katharine Gun refused to stay silent — non-disclosure agreement or not — while her country was ‘special-friended’ by the US into illegally going to war against Iraq.
Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers that detailed the active US criminality of the Vietnam War, said of Gun’s leak that it was “The most extraordinary leak … of classified information that I’ve ever seen, and that definitely included and surpassed my own disclosure of top secret information….” Gun was trying to stop a war, not end one.
The newly released Official Secrets is a docudrama that tells the story of Katharine Gun’s heroic decision to risk everything (career, marriage, freedom) to blow the whistle on Great Britain’s collusion in blackmailing UN Security Council members into supporting an illegal war (the US and the UK knew there were no WMDs) against Iraq in the spring of 2003.
The US was looking for “legal” cover and was willing to use the NSA and GCHQ’s extraordinary surveillance abilities to find kompromat on UN members to force them to vote Yes on war. This is war criminality — the kind the UN was established to prevent and punish.
Official Secrets is directed by Gavin Hood, whose last major film was the British surveillance thriller, Eye in the Sky (2015). The film stars Keira Knightley, MyAnna Buring, and Ralph Fiennes. It is one of those must-see films that seems almost impossible to find. Cinema runs seem limited. It’s available through Apple, Amazon and Vudu, but, of course, online, your viewing is duly noted and databased.
In a flashback, very early in the film, we see Gun lounging at home watching British journalist
on TV in an with interview Prime Minister Tony Blair. Frost is pushing Blair to come clean about war path allegations that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, and therefore represents a clear and present danger to America and her allies.
The film has very effective editing. Once the viewer is reminded of Blair’s criminal collusion with the Bush administration about WMD in Iraq months before the invasion (here, Gun is heard shouting from the couch in protest of Blair’s lies), we cut to the GCHQ office Gun works in and watch as she reads, for the first time, the document she will leak to the press. The scene enacts two colleagues unhappy with the contents of the document from the NSA, and the first stir of conscience for Gun.
As the memo indicates, the push to go to war with Iraq in 2003, brought in a variety of actors, including “good guys” like Colin Powell, whose favorability among the American populace — Democrats and Republicans alike — was leveraged; he was the lipstick on the flying pig. Still unaccountably, he allowed himself to be the ‘credible’ salesman for a criminal lie. It was a mistake that cost him the chance to be the first Black American president. (Even during the 2016 presidential election, three electors ignored the public vote and chose him for president. Which tells you something about the electoral college process.)
There are a lot of anxious moments depicted in the film — people just not knowing what to do: friends are afraid of being caught up in a situation that could amount to treason; Gun’s husband, a Kurd, is threatened with deportation; newspaper staff fear giving up a cozy relationship with the government; lawyers who tell their clients, ‘I think you might be fucked.’ This is what the criminals exercise and leverage. All the people who signed on to do the right thing as friends, lovers, reporters, and lawyers wring their hands in anguish, while the lying leaders sleep. And Official Secrets makes certain that the viewer knows that the prospect of war with Iraq was “historically unpopular.” It’s a war crime from the onset.
After Gun secrets the NSA memo out of GCHQ she calls a friend, Jasmine, an anti-war agitator, who she knows has press contacts, so that she can get the word out. This is a poignant moment, because implicit is the proposition before the viewer: What would you do? And you can feel Jasmine and Gun’s terror at being caught.
Drake knows how Gun is feeling when it comes to the conflict she has between holding to her non-disclosure agreement and her responsibility to make government accountable for criminal behavior. In a 2014 interview with Federal News Network, Drake said:
Is your non-disclosure agreement, which involves what’s actually classified, does that somehow trump the Constitution and First Amendment? Is secrecy, in this case the trust, even if it’s misplaced where trust becomes loyalty and if you break loyalty, then you get punished, which is sort of like the Omerta pact?
How the film depicts the press is amusing, suggesting a low-level of interest in rocking the ship of state. An Observer journalist named Ed Vulliamy (played by Rhys Ifans) is already working on a lead that supports the suspicion that George W. Bush is aching for an excuse to polish off Saddam Hussein. Nobody wants to touch his copy at the then pro-war Observer. Heading back to the States to track his lead, Ed yells over his shoulder at colleagues, “We’re the press, for God’s sake, not a fucking PR agency for Tony Blair.” Hear, hear.
Later, once the memo gets to the Observer, they muddle over what to do, as the document has come not directly from a GCHQ source but through a notorious intermediary, casting doubt upon the veracity of the memo. When they finally run the story, it is discovered by the Americans that the NSA memo uses British spelling — a secretary’s mistake, it turns out — making American media nervous about picking up on the Observer’s exclusive story. The story founders on the ‘typo’ and causes high anxiety at the paper. Even Gun begins to fear that she risked everything for nothing. Before the newscycle spits out the shaky story, Gun confesses to GCHQ: “I did it. It was me,” Gun says.
After that Official Secrets moves towards Gun’s legal defense. The Official Secrets Act is further spelled out. The harsh realities of the non-disclosure agreements signed amplified by the war with Iraq now underway and the indifference to Gun’s plea for understanding her rationale for whistleblowing become apparent. In the end they come up with a plan: necessity defense.
The necessity defense is a difficult argument to make, because, among other things, the defendant has to make the case that their action clearly supersedes an executive decision, often built upon confidential information the defendant might not be privy to. The defense had to show that by changing the Official Secrets Act in 1989 the Thatcher administration essentially locked in immunity from criminal executive behavior in the future. Further, they could demonstrate that the invasion of Iraq, which the Blair government signed on to, was predicated upon lies (WMD). Further, the NSA memo, with its request for British intelligence-gathering on UN Security Council members, for the purposes of blackmail, left the government open to criminal responsibility for the doings in Iraq.
Gun’s case was dropped by the government.
Gun’s experience and its aftermath raises a couple of important questions still relevant today. How do we strengthen whistleblower laws — internationally — so that otherwise decent, law-abiding government workers, like analyst Gun, are not forced by NDAs to become silent accessories to crime committed by their superiors. Gun was faced with having to live with doing nothing amid reports of the slaughter that Shock and Awe caused. Necessity defenses are not frivolous and should be an option for whistleblowers. Snowden would have a legitimate appeal to such a defense. Also, such trials should be held in neutral jurisdictions, such as The Hague. Real whistleblower trials are political events, not criminal.
Also, it should be noted that so much of what Snowden says in his memoir, Permanent Record, of his self-described Deep State career has the golden ring of truth to it. But his title says it all, really. The government wants to keep a permanent record — a dossier — on every person on the planet connected to the internet. (And the pressure is there to see that just about everyone is enrolled eventually.) As Snowden writes in Permanent Record:
At any time, the government could dig through the past communications of anyone it wanted to victimize in search of a crime (and everybody’s communications contain evidence of something). At any point, for all perpetuity, any new administration — any future rogue head of the NSA — could just show up to work and, as easily as flicking a switch, instantly track everybody with a phone or a computer, know who they were, where they were, what they were doing with whom, and what they had ever done in the past.
This is invasive surveillance capacity almost beyond belief; totally undemocratic — and all kinds of criminal. The NSA attempt to blackmail UN security council members is, as Gun knew, an example of their potential for evil deeds that nobody can stop.
The UK is saturated with surveillance cameras aimed at its population — by one estimate there are at least 4,200,000 cameras or one for every 14 citizens. At one point you could sign on to a now-defunct service (Internet Eyes) to monitor activity online and be paid for it. It’s not just the UK though — in America, there is a site where you can sign up to become an online ‘deputized’ set of eyes on the look-out for immigrants crossing the Mexican border. It’s even worse: another service invites presumably insomniac viewers to check out the live CCTV feeds from IP cameras around the world. We are becoming the beast with seven billion eyes.
Another important point Snowden makes in Permanent Record is that his is the first generation growing up in the post-9/11 world. A world of young people that has lived with mass surveillance its entire life. It has become normalized, institutionalized — a part of keeping Freedom ‘safe from harm’. Sounds sensible, but it’s scary — especially in the scoundrel patriotism it requires you to take refuge in. Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, former Stasi employees must look on at Five Eyes with penal envy. And we are in danger of getting to that point we see in another film, The LIves of Others, portraying the sinister brutalities of the Stasi, where the logic of our imprisonment is expressed as a contradiction in our introjected daily interrogation by the algorithms of our collective demise.
Meanwhile, speaking of smoking guns, Donald J. Trump continues to dog-whistle his basket-case full of deplorable supporters as he publicly savages the whistleblower who may spell his demise and lead to his impeachment. The unleashed press hounds are baying at the blood-red moon. Ukraine, not Russia, may bring his presidency down. And it remains to be seen whether the spy is a whistleblower or merely another a politically motivated leaker.
Official Secrets is the story of a hero. Like Snowden, Drake and Manning, and all the others who brought attention, at great risk to themselves, we need — of all things — more vigilance when it comes to our freedom and privacy. For inspiration see the film.
NOTE: excerpts from Official Secrets used as part of Fair Use act.
Book Review: Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World by Belén Fernández
By John Kendall Hawkins
Domestically, there was the Homeland Securitization of everything…the steady erosion of civil liberties, the very liberties we were allegedly fighting to protect. The cumulative damage—the malfeasance in aggregate—was staggering to contemplate and felt entirely irreversible, and yet we were still honking our horns and flashing our lights in jubilation.
- Edward Snowden, Permanent Record
At the end of his court martial for treason, the fictional character, Lieutenant Philip Nolan, was asked if he had anything to say to the court before sentencing. Rashly, he blurted out, “Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!” A stunned judge granted his wish and Nolan became the legendary ex-pat described in the short story, “The Man Without A Country,” by Edward Everett Hale. He was condemned to live at sea his remaining days (56 years) without ever again being vouchsafed a single word of his beloved country. The teary tale of patriotism was required reading back in the elementary days when it was also mandatory to stand-up (no knees) for a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, right hand across the heart.
I thought of Nolan’s plight as I read Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World, Belén Fernández’s travelogue, beefed up with op-ed riffs on local and global politics. It’s not an easy comparison; there are many complicating factors to their respective exiles — beginning with the fact that Nolan’s is involuntary (he really didn’t mean what he shouted), while Fernández leaves thoughtfully rejecting America.
The other thing they have in common is that their views on American militarism are not welcome by the mainstream patriots of their times. Nolan’s “treason” was that he had spoken out for peace during the Civil War, at a time when the Union was having difficulty recruiting soldiers, while Fernández openly rejects the War on Terror and its rootedness in what she regards as a drive for world domination
It was a view her parents shared, too, ditching America for Spain, once they got past their “mercifully brief…patriotic sentiment” and came to realize that, after the bellicose presidency of G.W.Bush, “the ensuing reign of Obama—the king of drone strikes, deportations, and other damage” was just more of the same. There was no real difference in the policies of Republicans and Democrats. Fernández’s dad, once settled into Barcelona, spends time writing postcards to the warmongers of the Middle East — “Beelzebub” (Obama) and “Mephistopheles” (Netanyahu), which probably put him on at least a couple of watchlists.
Early in Exile, Fernández makes clear her disdain for American-style hypocrisy — its willingness to force its brand of Exceptionalism, an olio of neoconservative militarism married to debt-inducing neoliberalism, while allowing its own domestic policy-making to so erode confidence in the American Dream that the country entered social and economic crises, so catastrophic that citizens risked everything to elect a populist clown as president. As Fernández puts it,
Lest folks start to view the state itself as public enemy number one, however, more convenient menaces are regularly trotted out. In addition to the usual domestic suspects—blacks, poor people, immigrants, and so on—the wider world has proved fertile terrain for the manufacture of any number of freedom-imperiling demons.
They say, ‘America, love it or leave it’: She left.
But it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love America — it’s just that, like Nolan, her voice goes against the grain of the times, her tone sounding treasonous (see Susan Sontag) in the ongoing narrative of vigilance against terrorism at any cost, even if the price is compromised freedom. Fernández grew up hearing her fair share of soldierly tales of foreign deployment in the service of setting people free. Her grandfather “facilitated patriotic assimilation by joining the armed forces, thanks to which he was able to participate in not only the D-Day landings at Normandy but also the Korean and Vietnam wars.” And she has a brother who was in Special Forces who discovered through tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria that he liked to kill Arabs.
However, she really takes after her journalist father — she, too, writes op-eds (for Jacobin magazine) that question the motivations of various heads of state. She also seems to carry his romanticism. He reads and re-reads Don Quixote, resulting in a memoir that took 17 years to complete. One can see how Fernández’s travels seem quixotic, although, rather than chasing after windmills, she tends toward tracking down the nearest winebar, with her sidekick Polish-American friend, Amelia.
In her travels with Amelia through Lebanon, Turkey, and Italy, Fernández’s quirky humor is especially effective in painting a droll picture of her locale or situation. While hitchhiking she discovers “some damn fine people,” and “Relatively rare was the occasion on which we had to leap out of a moving vehicle to thwart molestation….” And when things did go bad that way, luckily they went comically bad, such as the time when hitchhiking near the Black Sea, they were picked up by a drunken Turkish doctor, who brought them to a remote locale, then got aggressive and chased them, “leaving us no choice but to hide dramatically beside a stream—facedown—until the coast was clear.”
She has a flair for describing scenes that can seem comically self-indulgent, such as when she writes of jogging, “clad in a hideous pileup of sweaters, scarves, and socks,” through the mortar-pocked streets of snowy Sarajevo which remind her of “the siege of Sarajevo in the mid-1990s.” She ends up in an apartment “not far from the bridge where the 1914 assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand sparked World War I,” being attended to by a girl who teaches her “essential Bosnian words like ‘wine,’ ‘spinach-and-cheese pie,’ and ‘catastrophe.’” It’s an attractive observational humor.
Similarly, when she writes “ …Italy may not always be the most helpful society on the planet—witness the boatloads of refugees left to drown in recent years by the Italian coast guard—the ubiquity of cheap wine made it a suitable spot to sit out the inaugural year of the War on Terror…,”one pictures a blogger sitting at a cafe table overlooking the sea, getting their post in for the day, while people drown — all recalling the tone of W. C. Wiliams’ Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (“a splash quite unnoticed”). Her arch, but jocular attitude seems like the right approach for a disgusted, opinionated feminist turning her back on America’s fatwa against the Shia world.
In Lebanon, Fernández’s passions are aroused by the politics of the region and her meeting up with a Palestinian-Lebanese character named Hassan. “Amelia and I first met Hassan,” she recalls, “while hitchhiking in Lebanon shortly after Israel’s 2006 assault—not to be confused with Israel’s 1978, 1982, 1993, or 1996 assaults, or its 22-year occupation of the southern part of the country.” She talks with Hassan and discovers that he’s a kind of jack-of-all-trades — a hustler after mysterious scams, a bus guide for refugees, a blackmailer, a poor man’s private eye, and a car rental agent in Tyre (“former stomping ground of Alexander the Great”). He needs a bride to obtain an American passport to visit relatives, he says, in Israel; she obliges, but eschews “the premarital virginity test.”
Fernández has significant animus for the seemingly unrepentant fascism of some Israeli policies, especially when it comes to Palestinians. She notes Israel’s bombing of roads and bridges, and discusses Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon; its management by the Southern Lebanese Army (SLA). And, no doubt, Hassan’s tales of loss amplify her empathetic rage: He has “lost three sisters, who had been killed by Israel, a sniper, and a car, respectively.” As Fernández and Amelia accompany Hassan, and his pal Mo, on “the high-speed running of unspecified errands in the rubble of Dahiyeh, Beirut’s southern suburbs,” you get the feeling he’s on a watchlist somewhere. And she could be playing Ilsa to Victor Laszlo’s resistance fighter — drones overhead be damned, she has her own sassy hellfire.
Fernández is generally unimpressed with Lebanon. She finds the government useless: “[T]he Lebanese state doesn’t do jack shit for the majority of its own population—some of whom have been known to contend with a mere two hours of government electricity per day, [and] the near-total lack of affordable health care options or other basic needs.” Syrian and Palestinian refugees are marginalized. Meanwhile, the elite bronze themselves at Zaitunay Bay, content to think of Lebanon as “the Paris of the Middle East,” and keen to keep the masses, and their needs, suppressed. It’s a theme she will find everywhere she goes.
Fernández arrived in Honduras a month before the ‘pajama coup’ of President Manuel Zelaya in the wee hours of June 28, 2009. Zelaya was flown to Costa Rica — illegally — and, effectively, exiled from Honduras. Zelaya had tried to introduce “a nonbinding public opinion survey” meant to gauge voter interest in future constitutional reform. The Supreme Court found the survey illegal and told Zelaya to cease. He refused and was ordered arrested for treason. But many outside observers, including the UN and the OAS, saw it as a coup — including Fernández:
…Zelaya had stepped on the toes of the entrenched Honduran oligarchy, whose members had long ago pledged allegiance to the predatory capitalism endorsed by their benefactors in the United States.
The elites at work again.
Months later she interviews Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, the general who’d led the coup, a fatter, more fatuous version of Captain Renault. He gets all gleeful relating how he once “saw” Jennifer Lopez; they talk the zaniness of Honduran politics; and then:
“Vásquez warned,’there will always be people who want to attain power through ways other than the proper way of being elected’—although it was not clear that he had fully thought through the implications of this line of reasoning given that he himself had just perpetrated a coup.”
She listens to him liken Honduran security forces to “armed cherubs” and say that the real problem is there’s “too much freedom.” After the interview, he ‘sees’ her and says “he wouldn’t mind a second wife.”
In keeping with her family tradition, Fernández makes an effort to castigate the US response to the removal of Zelaya — their refusal to call it an official coup because, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the time, a coup would require cutting off US aid to Honduras. Fernández regards this as merely protecting America’s elitist friends, the same friends, she says, who were so cooperative with the CIA during the drug-trafficking Contra years. Later, under pressure, the US does cut off some aid — to works projects — while continuing to gift the security forces millions of dollars.
And on and on it goes, everywhere she goes: the wretched of the earth providing her with reminders of the salving touch of abiding humanity, while male authoritiy figures fuck up — hungry-like-a-wolf male gazes, unassisted drowning refugees, machine-gunned Kurds, Monsanto-driven farmer suicides in India…. Fernández seems to cope with it all by drinking massive amounts of cheap wine and blogging about it for Jacobin. The turmoil she thought she left behind when she rejected America and went into “exile” follows her everywhere, as effect follows cause.
And if that weren’t dismaying enough, she’s got a hang-up about New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s “imperial lapdog” justifications of bad American foreign policy. Fernández had taken issue with his description of “bikini-clad Lebanese women leaving little to the imagination” as a vulgar deflection from the awful reality for most people there.
But when Friedman describes himself in a column as an “environmentalist,” that’s when Rolling Stones journalist Matt Taibbi is trotted in for a cameo take-down:
Where does a guy whose family bulldozed 2.1 million square feet of pristine Hawaiian wilderness to put a Gap, an Old Navy, a Sears, an Abercrombie and even a motherfucking Foot Locker in paradise get off preaching to the rest of us about the need for a “Green Revolution”?
For Fernández, as with Taibbi (and so many others), the NYT columnist represents all that’s wrong with the integrity of the Fourth Estate in America. Subservience in the suburbience. Never risk your comfort zone.
Belén Fernández quotes James Baldwin at the beginning of her travelogue — “perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition” — but you wish she’d said more. Baldwin lived for years in Paris, and wrote a lot of his best work there, ‘unhappy in his skin’ back in America. Every Black man in America is an exile, the true legacy of slavery.
Fernández spends 15 years as an expat, leaving clothing markers everywhere (it comes across a bit like a Wind Song ad, frankly). Her conclusion is inconclusive, as is her idea of what ‘home’ has come to mean. She ends by talking about sciroccos in Puglia and “the desire to suspend one’s entire existence until the wind had blown its course,” making one wonder if that’s not what her exile amounts to.
She’s been described as a Martha Gellhorn, but I think ‘intrepid blogger’ is a better description. She does one thing that all Americans should be required to do: live in the moccasins of foreign cultures for awhile, before you remotely drone them. Exile is an excellent book to read on the plane over for a slumming summer abroad.
In fact it seems to me quite possible that the 1960s represented the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished. That this is the beginning of the rest of the future, now, and that from now on there will simply be all these robots walking around, feeling nothing, thinking nothing.
– My Dinner with Andre (1981) by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory
Consciousness comes in all kinds of flavors — political, ecological, historical, psychological, etc. Even an awareness of unconsciousness can be a kind of consciousness, such as when we refer to, say, the archetypal realm of the Collective Unconscious, which is a kind of consciousness of gene-level symbolism. In fact, a good place for understanding what consciousness is may start with what it isn’t — unconsciousness. I guess it depends on what your definition of isn’t isn’t.
A few years ago I was in a coma for a week. I was an Isn’t — and yet I was. (Kinda like that catchy Donovan song.) While the functions of my biology were artificially maintained by machines, my brain activity had flat-lined. My consciousness slowly returned, and I came out of a void, without emotions, doing my best imitation of Lazarus. What did I bring back with me — Light at the end of questioning tunnels? Myopic insight into the realms of the beyond? Nothing. I brought back nothing. A week had been cut from my life, no memories, no resonances, no nothing. If that was death, then there is no Inferno, Purgatorio, or Beatrice. However, I regained full “consciousness,” as far as I am aware.
So, consciousness requires you to be awake and aware, and then you go from there. The world opens up before you and you read it, experience it, with your agenda, your style, your orientation, within the context of the circumstances that govern your milieu. Consciousness. How would you approach the question? Well, I tried taking the online Jung Typology Type test — that proved to be uncannily accurate, in some respects. Of course, this doesn’t answer the question of what consciousness is, but it does provide some insight into what filters you might use in your approach, and puts you in the starting “subjective” position to relate to the “objective” world. The ol’ In/Out of experience.
Arguably, an understanding of consciousness has never been more important to humanity as we creep further into what may be the final frontier: artificial intelligence (AI) and the so-called Singularity. Certainly it’s a frontier that Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks are fully cognizant of as they work their way, two guys talking, through Dialogues on Consciousness. In the preamble to their opening chapter, Parks writes, “Hardly a day goes by without some in-depth article wondering whether computers can be conscious, whether our universe is some kind of simulation, whether the mind is a unique quality of human beings or spread out across the universe like butter on bread.” Manzotti and Parks make it clear rather quickly: This is not your father’s Consciousness.
The authors both live and work in Milan, and while they come from distinctly different backgrounds, they share a fascination with consciousness.. Riccardo Manzotti teaches Psychology of Perception at IULM University. He has a PhD in Robotics and specializes in AI, perception, and consciousness. Dialogues on Consciousness is a follow-up to his study of 2017, The Spread Mind, in which he lays out his philosophy of externalism — a belief that the mind is not just the brain or functions of the brain. Tim Parks is a prize-winning novelist and essayist. He has also put out a non-fiction meditation on consciousness, Out of Mind: On the Trial of Consciousness.
As I followed their dialogue in the book, I was reminded of the pair, Wallace Shawn (Parks) and Andre Gregory (Manzotti) from My Dinner with Andre. The dinner pair’s discussion anticipates many of the issues that trouble humanity today — especially the effects of science and technology. It’s a great philosophical film, part of the Criterion Collection (so you know it’s been vetted), and you can well imagine how the two might actually have sat down for dinner one time and wrote the screenplay while eating knishes and noshes in Soho.
While Manzotti and Parks provide plenty of food-for-thought in Dialogues on Consciousness, their discussion is not saturated in existential angst and ennui the way it is for Shawn and Gregory. It’s more of a straight-up cerebral set of conversations about the mind. However, it is a scripted exercise in which each chapter of the book represents a “session” for the day. It’s a cumulative process, each of the 15 days, or chapters, building on the last. Parks acts mostly as a kind of good-natured set-up guy for Manzotti’s project on Externalism. Their dialogues have the feel of having been recorded in a university department office, a coffee plunger between them.
For the most part, except for Manzotti’s Externalism, most of the philosophy discussed (and/or referenced) is familiar ground to anyone with a bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts. Thus, there are mentions of Plato’s Cave, Descartes’ Cogito, Bishop Berkeley’s If A Tree Falls in the Forest problem, B. F. Skinner’s Behaviorism, et alis. Later, when sufficient dialogical momentum has built more modern philosophers are introduced. Manzotti has a particular hair across his ass for Australian philosopher David Chalmers and his ‘internalism’ — a position that sees all operations of the mind as processes of neurons and brain chemicals.
What’s inside the mind? What’s outside? What is the difference, if any, between subjects and objects? These are the familiar questions raised in Dialogues on Consciousness. Manzotti and Parks want to wake up the sleeper cells of dogmatism that may have been snoring since the undergraduate years, in order to accompany the pair as they discuss Externalism. It can get hairy (remember Woody Allen’s Love and Death?), but the pair expect that the reader possesses the skills necessary to understand.
Despite millenia of moonful ponderings by the best minds evolution has flowered, Riccardo Manzotti is not ready to accept that an understanding of consciousness is a given. “For most people ‘consciousness’ will have various meanings and include awareness, self-awareness, thinking in language,” he tells Parks in the opening chapter, “but for philosophers and neuroscientists the crucial meaning is that of feeling something, having a feeling you might say, or an experience.” It is this ‘experience’ — the relationship between the subject and an object — that is key to understanding Manzotti’s thesis, and he feels it is far from a settled project. “The truth is that we do not know what consciousness is,” he posits.
As Manzotti sees it, scientists are snobby and regard fellow humans as “trapped … watching shadows on the wall, while reality is outside, beyond [their] grasp,” a la Plato’s Cave. So that, in the latter day version, when some nerdy Socrates returns from the “real” world to the Cave to announce — “Multiverses are everywhere! Come see!” — one feminist looks up from her read of the Guardian and groans; the male next to her goes back to gazing at his porn; all the others, but one, are glued to El Camino, and that one hands Socrates a vial of hemlock, saying,”Fuck off.” Socrates eschews (gesundheit) the vial, and traipses, like some 3D Ezekiel, back to the coggy wheels of reality.
The elitism suggested by the Allegory persisted all the way to Descartes and his Cogito — the notion that there’s an In and Out of experience. As the two put it:
Parks: It really does seem impossible to think about consciousness without falling back at some point into this Cartesian view, the real world out there and a representation of it in the head.
Manzotti: You can see why everyone is willing to give so much credit to the neuroscientists, or just scientists in general, hoping they will come up with something that will solve the dilemma, some as yet unknown aspect of the material world that will explain why consciousness is indeed in the head, but has nevertheless managed to remain invisible up to now.
But Manzotti rejects such Internalism, and doesn’t believe science will ever crack the nut of consciousness.
There’s an operational or even mechanistic aspect of the Internalist argument than seems to offend Manzotti. You can see this most clearly in the so-called Computer Model of the human mind that likens the processes of the brain to the functions of a computer. We are processors with long (hard drive) and short-term memory (RAM). We ‘keyboard’ our experiences and watch the results of old and new data come together on the monitor of our minds. As Manzotti puts it, “Words like ‘input,’ ‘output,’ ‘code,’ ‘encoding,’ and ‘decoding’ abound. It all sounds so familiar, as if we knew exactly what was going on.” But Manzotti senses dangerous implications (and applications) as we move forward into AI with our mechanistic assumptions about human consciousness.
As mentioned earlier, the Internalist views of Australian philosopher David Chalmers are especially irksome to Manzotti. He is, says Manzotti, “the man who more than any other has determined the way in which we think about consciousness for the last twenty years.” And not in a helpful way. For Chalmers, it’s all a movie-house-in-the-mind (neurons supplying the popcorn) — and there is no out there. But it’s hard to pin Chalmers’ views down with precision. Seethes Manzotti, “Chalmers has dabbled with panpsychism, dualism, emergentism, physicalism, Russellian monism, and even computationalism.” (“That’s a lot of -isms,” chimes Parks.) In essence, Chalmers seems to be all over the place.
But it’s Chalmers’ presumptuousness that seems to drive Manzotti up around the bend. His own Mind-Object externalism is diametrically opposed to what Chalmers stands for:
Essentially, when Chalmers so dramatically announced “the hard problem,” insisting that we had no solution to the question of consciousness, he simultaneously assumed that the constraints governing any enquiry into it were already well defined and unassailable.
Chalmers seems almost arrogant — does he think he’s the only one who can crack the Hard Problem? Bring it over, Manzotti seems to say to Chalmers.
So, if Manzotti rejects Internalism, including the movie house model and the neurons-and-brain-chemistry model, while at the same time he rejects that there’s an external world that is removed from the experience of consciousness, then what does he argue? For Manzotti, it’s pretty easy, and can be summed up: When I see an apple on a table, I am the apple. In short, there’s not an internal subject observing an external object. Rather, in the moment of perception they merge and are one. Manzotti provides further explication here.
Even Parks, who has a background in Consciousness himself, is seemingly a-reel at this metaphysical development:
Parks: So I am the apple.
Manzotti: Of course that sounds absurd because you identify your conscious self, the subject, the I, with your body, and your body is clearly not the apple. But what if I were to say that the very idea of consciousness was invented to explain how you could experience an apple when there is no apple in your head? So we have to have this consciousness apple.
This sounds sensible, although one wonders ‘who’ did the inventing.
While he garners no more than a mention in Dialogues, Manzotti does seem to support the thesis put forth by Princeton professor Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. This bicameral approach posits that, long ago, in ancient days, the right side of the brain dialogued with the left (two hems talking), in a manner descriptive of modern voice-hearing schizophrenia (the ancient gods being a product of this bicameralism) — until a breakdown of that system led to a unified consciousness. Fascinating, as Spock would say.
But perhaps the best help for visualizing Manzotti’s concept comes from the aesthetic realm (which Manzotti largely ignores at his peril). French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty in describing a painter’s vision comes very close to bringing Manzottis’ apple concept to life. In “Eye and Mind”, M-P writes, “Since things and my body are made of the same stuff, vision must somehow come about in them; or yet again, their manifest visibility must be repeated in the body by a second visibility.” (One recalls Carl Sagan’s amazing observation: “We are star stuff.”) And there’s no question that Manzotti and Parks would agree with M-P’s assertion, “Science manipulates things and gives up living in them.” It’s this “living in” that humans are capable of and machines are not.
In the end, it’s the ol’ In-Out, or as Manzotti and Parks explain it:
Parks: Essentially, you’re turning everything inside out. The experience I thought was inside is outside.
Manzotti: That’s the idea. Look at the world, and you’ll find yourself. Look inside your experience, and you find… what? The world that surrounds your body.
It’s not a paradigm shift, but it’s a welcome alternative view to the operationalism that currently prevails. Kinda like the White Album.
If Google’s recent pronouncement that they’ve had a breakthrough in quantum computing is any indicator of the shape of things to come, then we’ve already entered a strange new world, where we can use all of the thinking about consciousness that we can conjure up. Let’s not leave the future to the likes of Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt and the visions they pitch, such as the weird scenario they offered up in The New Digital Age (originally titled The Empire of the Mind). Talking about the future of entertainment and holograph boxes you could set up in your living room, they ask us to imagine, “Worried your kids are becoming spoiled? Have them spend some time wandering around the Dharavi slum in Mumbai.” Hmph.
Dialogues on Consciousness is a short easy collection of sessional dialogues. It would be a good book to bring on a long train or plane journey. You might find all those Philosophy 101 thought-experiments reactivating in you and casually preparing you for Manzotti and Parks’ near-quantum paradigm-thinking — about you and apples. You might try to recall how you answered Bishop Berkeley’s query: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Before you fall into a comatose sleep, and wake up hours later, suddenly…
By John Kendall Hawkins
Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream
It is not dying
It is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void
- The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows” (1966), inspired by Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead
I was recklessly musing about Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, and how, there but for the disgrace of God, and Barack Obama, they would have gone to Ecuador and been on the lam, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — legends in a lot of minds, including their own. But now, with Lenin on the loose, they would have seen la caca hitting el abanico in Quito and thought: Yanquis have arrived to abbotabad us and we must huyeron por todos lados. In other words more familiar, Butch and Sundance panicked, and hied to hide in the jungle of writhing anacondas. “That way,” pointed a future ‘espalda mojada’ (wetback), seizing a proffered C-note from the nice Machine-Gun Man with No Eyes. The chase was on.
Recently, I butched and sundanced my way through the thickets and vines of When Plants Dream by Daniel Pinchbeck and Sophia Rokhlin, until I came to what I was looking for in the clearing of an appendix: The How-to of cooking up some ayahuasca stew and of determining if it’s right for you. I mostly enjoyed the narrative trek through vistas I might never have considered — histories, cultures, exotic rituals of the Amazon — and their depiction of the shamanistic plant culture revealed and the return of the psychedelic experience to the mainstream.
Coincidentally, when this book popped up in my email from Penguin Books, I was (and am) enrolled in a free online science course, What A Plant Knows. Taking the course and reading When Plants Dream, reminded me of my early undergraduate days at an evangelical college in the Boston area, where my Biology 101 class was taught simultaneously in gospel-speak and the scientific method. I learned along the way that the scientific method was only included for accreditation purposes. I truly got into the spirit of the biblical interpretation of biology, egged on, out of class, by Bobby Dylan’s foray into the waters and fires of rebornation. Those lines from “Precious Angel” still kill me: Can they imagine the darkness….
Reading When Plants Dream felt like it was suffused in cultural darkness, or rather like it describes an escape from the darkness the Digital Age has wrought, rather than a committed movement toward any kind of enlightenment. In an era when going without the internet and text-messaging for a couple of weeks might lead most people to a hallucinogenic experience (in the vacuum opened up by the absence of electro-stim), Pinchbeck and Rokhlin offer the reader an introduction to an experience with forces that, by the end, they describe as the potential salvation of the human race against itself. We’ve been hollowed out by technology, they contend, and we need a new consciousness, and ayahuasca, “a living intelligence,” can help with the quantum paradigm shift ahead.
When Plants Dream is a short, easy-to-read book (218 pages) that is sectioned into four parts: The Queen of the Forest (ayahuasca is felt as female); On Curanderismo (shamans and their link to an alternate cosmological consciousness); The Vine Spreads (ayahuasca’s impact on medicine, religion and the law); and, Ayahuasca Today and Tomorrow. It is a well-researched book, with many judiciously chosen excerpts from leading proponents of the altered consciousness experience, including Michael Pollan (The Botany of Desire), Benny Shanon (The Antipodes of the Mind), Jeremy Narby (The Cosmic Serpent), and Michael Harmer (The Way of the Shaman), among many others. It’s rich, but intense reading, covering aspects of everything the subtitle of the book suggests — Ayahuasca, Amazonian Shamanism and the Global Psychedelic Renaissance.
Pinchbeck and Rokhlin discuss the Amazon Rainforest milieu in which the ayahuasca vine thrives. The authors remind us that the forest encompasses seven countries, including Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador. It covers the size of the continental United States. It’s called the ‘world’s lungs’, due to the vast proliferation of photosynthetic foliage. Pinchbeck and Rokhlin claim that there are still tribes in the forest who have not met ‘outsiders’, and that you could get lost in its lush underbelly and never be seen again.
What exactly is “the bitter brew”? Where does ayahuasca come from? The word comes from Quechuan, one of the oldest indigenous languages of the Amazon. The word breaks down into “aya,” meaning body, soul, or deceased; and “wahska,” meaning rope or vine. Thus, Pinchbeck and Rokhlin write, ‘ayahuasca’ is often translated as “vine of the soul” or “rope of the dead”. Its “double-helix-shaped curlicues” might vaguely attract the attention of a tourist also interested in the Human Genome Project (HGP) and its implications. You could see how a bit of mysticism would be built in to the stew-driven proceedings.
They write, “The psychoactivity of ayahuasca kicks in 30–45 minutes after ingestion” and “The brew is a famously intense purgative. For most, it causes shivering, sweating, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.” Reading this, I recalled a time I was carried out of a junior high school on a stretcher with severe food poisoning, double-helix turds coming from the out-hole, everything I’d ever eaten coming out the in-hole, and was having assorted gothic hallucinations. Holy shit, I wasn’t sure I could travel to the Amazon to experience the equivalent of said-same. Still, I read on. And, I guess, I probably would have tread on, if I’d gone there to relieve my blues.
Pinchbeck and Rokhlin admire the work of Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire. Pollan has boldly pronounced that our plants call the shots, and we obey. Did bears shit in the woods of Kazakhstan? You bet they did, and it’s a good thing, too, because they carried, in their turds, the first bitter apples from Central Asia all the way to Europe, sweetening as they came by natural selection, and delivering up from apple Eden what you might call the Almaty Whitey. Anyway, you can see how this symbiotic relationship works for Pinchbeck and Rokhlin, as they see ayahuasca not merely as an object to be devoured, but as a “kind of intelligence … trying to communicate with us, coming from the heart of nature.”
In the chapter, “The Yagé Organ,” the authors relate the strange ayahuasca correspondence of two famous American writers, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsbetg, who had separately ventured to Columbia to experience the psychedelic brew. Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch and Cities of the Red Night, who hailed from a pampered mighty whitey clan, trekked to the Amazon not long after he’d accidentally shot his wife dead in a famous William Tell debacle (immediately ending his heroine addiction). “Unable to kick his junk habit, guilt-ridden, crestfallen and junk-sick,” the authors write, “Burroughs traveled down to Colombia in search of yagé [ayahuasca]. He had heard that yagé was ‘the ultimate fix’ – as well as a miracle cure for [his heroin] addiction.”
Ginsberg traveled there years later and set up a correspondence with Burroughs that became The Yagé Letters (1953). Ginsberg describes his phantasmagorical experience to his favorite junkie,
I felt faced by Death, my skull in my beard on pallet and porch rolling back and forth and settling finally as if in reproduction of the last physical move I make before settling into real death – got nauseous, rushed out and began vomiting, all covered with snakes, like a Snake Seraph, colored serpents in aureole all around my body, I felt like a snake vomiting out the universe …
It kind of enriches one’s perspective on Ginsberg’s later Howl, in which he looks around and sees the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness.
If you go to the Amazon in search of ayahuasca, you’re going to want to find a curanderismo (shaman). “The word ‘shaman’ originally comes from the reindeer-herding nomads of the Siberian steppes,” the authors write. They’re social roles are ancient — they’ve been healers, mystics and even “dark” sorcerers. “Today,” write Pinchbeck and Rokhlin, “the various roles originally belonging to the shaman are divided into the functions performed by the artist, novelist, priest, scientist, doctor, psychologist and gardener.” But, paradoxically, these same modern cultural practitioners of altered states, are the ones most likely to hop on a plane to seek out forest healers to replenish their exhausted digitlized spirits. The pair claim, “There may be more ayahuasca practitioners now than ever before in history.”
To further clarify the role of a shaman in contemporary life, Pinchbeck and Rokhlin argue that the “archetypal path of the shaman resembles, in some ways, the hero’s journey outlined by Joseph Campbell … or like the training of the Jedi from Star Wars or the rebels from The Matrix.” The authors want to connect back to the counterculture psychedelic experiences of the 60s, and write, “According to the media hype, ayahuasca is for our time what LSD was for the 1960s: A mind-opening, catalysing, transformative agent that changes the world as it awakens and heals people.” But while this is true, the authors don’t emphasize enough the power and impact of the internet, and its paradigm-shifting influence on all aspects of our lives.
The third part of the book, The Vine Spreads, discusses the influence of ayahuasca, and the psychedelic experience in general, on other areas of our lives — medicine, religion, and law. “[T]here is increasing evidence that the methods used by curanderos have efficacy for many conditions that Western medicine cannot cure.” We seem increasingly more willing to trust such alternate approaches to healing chronic conditions — they cite breast cancer — that are resistant to Western medicine. And, “As we leave behind the antiquated parts of religions based on ancient text and received wisdom, we can access a new form of experiential mysticism based on the gnosis attained in visionary states of consciousness.” Laws, too, they suggest, are beginning to accommodate the growing desire for psychedelic experiences.
The authors like to play up the practical benefit of ayahuasca. “Shamanism is not essentially concerned with ‘enlightenment’ in the Buddhist sense or ‘beatitude’ in the Christian sense: shamanism is about knowledge – of the unseen worlds – and power, which can be used to heal, harm or transform.” The psychedelic experience should enhance your ordinary life somehow — maybe as depicted in the film Limitless. “The psychoactive effects of DMT [ayahuasca’s main compound] can be directly accessed by smoking a powdered extraction from the plants – the ‘business man’s trip’, which sends users on a 10-minute plunge into another reality that some find harrowing and others delightful.” What’s more, “Business Insider pronounces it ‘the latest craze among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs’”. What could be more ominous or depressing? Imagine watching Jeff Bezos puke in some back alley junkie jungle to gain enlightenment during his lunch break. Hmph.
One interesting side note in the book is the allusion to the film Avatar, which the authors raise in the context of its background story. In the film, there is an important tribal tree called Eywa, which, according to Pinchbeck and Rokhlin is “uncannily close to ‘Aya’. The story told by the film bears more than a passing resemblance to one of the worst environmental disasters in modern history, caused by the fossil-fuel company Texaco, which merged with Chevron in 2000. In 1964, Texaco discovered substantial oil reserves in the remote Ecuadorian Amazon.” No lessons have been learned: destruction of the world’s lungs continues apace. A deleted scene from the film, “Eye of Eywa,” depicts a hallucinatory experience.
Full disclosure: I have no ayahuasca experience. However, in my undergraduate college years, I have eaten magic mushrooms and downed mescalin, and, under the influence of the shrooms went to a drive-in with some buddies and hallucinated to The Life of Brian and Altered States. I have grooved under the influence inside a cathedral. And I have had a multitude of naturally-occurring hallucinations, aural and visual. Though I don’t expect to get around to trying ayahuasca soon, I am open to the experience, and could certainly see how it might be beneficial, while also am keenly aware (following an opiated-pot session gone bad) of how these enlightenment things can go dark. The authors wisely urge full caution in their appendix how-to.
While Pinchbeck and Rokhlin offer plenty of factual information and anecdotes to help newbies and veterans of psychedelics decide if they want to seek out and try ayahuasca, there are many other places to go to understand the dimensions of the proposed self indulgence. There’s appropriate shamanistic music available to get the right ambiance going. More importantly, I found ayahuasca feed at Reddit very useful, as it has a lot of personal tales of encounters with DMT that are fresher than what a published book can offer. It also has a great deal of information about users, abusers and shamans.
Overall, When Plants Dream is a useful introduction to what Pinchbeck and Rokhlin claim is a “renaissance” in psychedelic experience-seeking. But maybe more important than anything, if maybe a bit too late, is the enthusiasm it expresses for seeing things through the ‘eyes’ of plants. We need that need that ‘view from the perspective of others’ now more than ever. Personally, I believe that if we must go extinct as a species, as we seem determined to do, that we head not in the direction of man-machine AI systems, but toward the development of photosynthetic people — chloroplasts added (along, if you don’t mind, a dash of THC), and at life’s end, instead of wasteful cremation, we smoke ‘em cause we got ‘em. Excuse me while I light my spliff.
Too much Cheech and Chong, I guess.
Book Review: In Defense of Julian Assange eds. Tariq Ali and Margaret Kunstler
By John Kendall Hawkins
Crikey, he gives them the shits.
Hillary once said — even before the 2016 election — “Can’t we just drone him?”
Maybe you’re thinking she was just joking, like Obama that time at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2010, when he cracked that he’d take out the Jonas Brothers with a Predator drone strike, if they got grabby with his daughters. Laughter all around. Of course, the joke was on them, because there was no drone warfare program at the time, WINK. Obama wouldn’t acknowledge the existence of such drone usage until he zapped out Anwar al-Awlaki a year later, and his 16 year-old son, Abdulrahman, shortly thereafter, both Americans.
The MSM darn near bust a gut. (The joke’s been told over and over since. Punch line here.)
Julian Assange had warmed the Press up nearly a month earlier when he released the top secret “Collateral Murder” video into the wilds of the public imagination. You could hear all kinds of laughter from the gunship soldiers machine-gunning away at civilians, like Chuck Connors, Russian mole, in the film Embassy. Rat-a-tat-tat! Who knew the War on Terror could be so funny? You don’t even want to call The Hague and file a report, you’re laughing so hard.
And Assange followed up that gag with a bing-bang-boom fusillade: the Afghan War Logs (all those unreported haw-haw casualties); the Iraq War Logs had Abu rolling over in his graib, with laughter; Cablegate released all that global goss and started the Arab Spring (Tunisia 2011); the Guantánamo Files — so many Code Reds the bulls went insane; the Spy Files demonstrated “the industrialization of global mass surveillance” — what an effing hoot; the Syria Files made Assad shoot off laughing gas at the rebels; elites fell over themselves, like drunken clowns, when Assange published “the secret draft of the TransPacific Partnership (TPP)”; the Saudi Cables brought on the Curly Shuffle in Riyadh.
You almost couldn’t believe that a guy who one wag described as having had a “wild…Tom Sawyer-like” childhood could cause so much angst. Why, he even spent his early years in an honest-to-goodness Jumping Frog of Calaveras County atmosphere on a small island, called Magnetic. How could he be found so unattractive by so many? When he moved to mainland Oz for his teen years he became John Connor, where he had his whole future in the rearview mirror, and spent his time in MILNET “hacking Pentagon generals’ emails,” he tells Ai WeiWei in the new collection of testimonials and supportive documents that make up In Defense of Julian Assange edited by Tariq Ali and Margaret Kunstler.
Assange was determined to rip off the veil of the Military-Industrial Complex (MIC) from an early age. And it’s another peculiarity that he, along with fellow Aussie John Pilger, have been so successful in penetrating to the core of the fascist heart that drives American foreign policy. Peculiar, because Australia, unlike America, has no Bill of Rights, so no fire in the belly for constitutional protections, and the press here is weak and getting weaker — thanks to the recent passage of “retention” laws that seem very much like the US Espionage Act that Assange will face in America. Yet, Pilger, in an interview with ex-CIA operative, Duane Clarridge, has totally exposed the ugly, roaring heart of Empire. Assange has laid out its blueprints.
So much has been written, movies have been made, you could make the case that Assange’s life is over-exposed, and that, ironically, this champion of personal privacy and governmental transparency, hasn’t had any real alone-time for quite awhile and has been swarmed with layers of surveillance designed to break his spirit. Outside the Ecuadorian embassy police spent years poised to pounce. Inside, there were microphones and cameras everywhere. “It was the Truman Show,” Assange is quoted in the book.
In the introduction to In Defense, Nils Melzer, a special UN rapporteur on torture, declared after visiting Assange in May at Belmarsh that:
In 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political persecution I have never seen a group of democratic States ganging up to deliberately isolate, demonize and abuse a single individual for such a long time and with so little regard for human dignity and the rule of law.
Clearly, the State intends on having the last laugh. Sadists like their punch lines.
The great virtue of In Defense is that it collects all the controversial bits and pieces of Assange’s situation into one volume and mounts a fierce support for his personal and professional crises. A cogent introduction summarizes key segments of his current entrapment in a web of intrigue. There’s an impressive chronology of Wikileaks’ publications, from “Collateral Murder” to the Vault 7 CIA hacking tools. You wonder aloud if he’s more courageous than nuts, given the likely repercussions. The book is broken up into four parts: Expulsion; Confinement; the Internet, Censorship, and Scientific Journalism; and the Legacy of Wikileaks and Assange. A helpful point-by-point defense to Assange’s critics by Caitlin Johnstone lends focus. An appendix contains the superseding indictment for which he faces extradition to America.
Out of all that, In Defense attempts to answer three main questions: One, is Assange a terrorist or a journalist? Two, Is he a rapist? Three, What happens next? In Defense is unusual in that it transparently addresses all the questions Assange is likely to face in a courtroom, and summons forth the kinds of witnesses and evidence that will manifest in the proceedings. We hear from lawyers, technologists, whistleblowers, ex-spooks, radical feminists, government officials, and Assange himself — in a kind Open Source trialing of ‘discovery’ materials. The gambit in play appears to be that Assange is hoping to win people over to create a swelling base of support/protest once the secretive political trial begins.
Is Assange a terrorist or a journalist? As Tariq Ali notes in the introduction, “Assange and his colleagues made no secret of the fact that their principal subject of publication was the American Empire and its global operations.” Through his Wikileaks publishings, Assange has demonstrably established his intention to ‘document’ the dark agenda of Empire — and to oppose it. In this sense, he is an activist publisher, no different than, say, Ramparts, Counterpunch or Harper’s. But the material to support his opposition is primary documentation, procured through hacks and leaks. Like Socrates the “gadfly,” he wants people to make up their own minds. He sees himself as an Ethical Hacker, and an ethical leaker.
While he may not be able to use it as a defense tactic, WikiLeaks reminds me of the “necessity defense” that Abbie Hoffman and Amy Carter successfully argued in 1987 at their trial for criminal trespassing that followed their disruption of CIA recruiting efforts on the campus of the UMass-Amherst. They were able to convince the court that their ostensibly ‘illegal’ actions were to stop bigger crimes from happening on foreign soil, in the name of Americans, who were never consulted. Thus, when a Kissinger can advise a Nixon that he doesn’t see why America should sit by while a Chile elects an Allende, when there’s a Duane Clarridge ready to fix the problem, people needn’t accept it as the American Way. Wikileaks is necessary.
Because they control the narrative arc of “The Global War on Terror,” the US government can characterize its antagonists any way it pleases. The Americans, deeply learning from the tactics of the Viet Cong who gave them the shits in ‘Nam, labelled al Qaeda (who they’d helped set up to give the Russians a taste of their own ‘Nam quagmire in Afghanistan), after 9/11, “unlawful non-state enemy combatants.” They didn’t wear pajamas, had no central command, and, thank Christ, were a wonderful reason to slap boots down in multiple countries in search of naked sleeper cells who might wake from their dogmatic slumbers and hate on America for her Human Freedom Project™.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described Julian Assange and Wikileaks, as “a hostile non-state intelligence service.” This clown’s description of Wikileaks could include almost any left wing publication. Curiously, even the New York Times, a publication that has in the past spinached up its circulation by featuring stories based on Wikileaks documents, has turned on him. In April, the editorial board called him “a “foreign agent seeking to undermine the security of the United States through theft.” Pompeo would like to see Assange as akin to al Qaeda, then maybe honeypot him to some remote location, and, as Bobby Dylan would say, he could be caught without a ticket to the dance “and be discovered beneath a truck.” What, you think Empire is joking?
In a column for the volume, “The Naivete of Julian Assange,” Margaret Kimberly, a senior writer for Black Agenda Report, chides Assange for his ignorance of American domestic issues. Australia, while still dealing with aboriginal issues, has no legacy of slavery, and no Bill of Rights, and these deficits mean Assange lacks depth when it comes to American domestic political passions. She takes issue with a Tweet exchange he had during which “he questioned the need to fight the American Civil War” and seemed “unaware that the Confederacy started the war and steadfastly refused to end slavery.”
Nevertheless, she conceded, “His willingness to show us what war looks like or how trade agreements deprive millions of people of their rights make him an ally not just as a person but an ally of the principles Americans claim to care about.”
Her observations are a reminder that a lot of what’s going on is a bunch of white people fighting over power, with no sign that minorities are included in the conversation or will benefit from the process.
Is Assange a rapist? In Defense recounts the investigatory details that keep Assange tied to the Swedish justice system. The even reference a helpful YouTube animation that brings a viewer through the specious semi-allegations. The fact is that Assange would not be regarded as a potential rapist for ‘what happened’ in any other part of the world but Sweden, as the sex was consensual. He was investigated because a woman he slept with feared an alleged faulty condom might have allowed the transmission of an STD. As Caitlin Johstone writes in one of her mythbuster segments, “[One of the woman] admitted she had been ‘railroaded by police and others around her’” to pursue Assange. She reminds: He hasn’t actually been charged with anything in Sweden.
The US government doesn’t mind if Sweden takes its sweet ass time with its version of due process — the longer the better; they may even be behind the delays. Assange’s instincts were right about seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy to avoid extradition to the US; the chances are they were right for the same reason had he returned to Sweden. Meantime, as long as the ‘investigation’ goes incomplete, he gets to be painted by the MSM as a sexually aggressive hornball who intentionally ‘leaks’ without regard for his partner. As he’s been accused of by the CIA with his Wikileaks. This helps sell him as a predator. We got drones for that.
The breach of the servers at the DNC during the 2016 presidential campaign changed everything about how Assange has been perceived in the US.
The Obama intelligence community successfully sold Americans — through a compliant MSM — on the still unsubstantiated claim that the Russians interfered in the 2016 presidential election, foisting Trump on us, effectively paying us back, clown for clown, for giving them Yeltsin in 1991. Obama then wanted to connect Assange to the Russian mischief by claiming he either worked directly with them to hack the DNC, or else worked indirectly by posting to Wikileaks emails received from Russians.
But understated is how irate Obama was in 2013 when Assange sent an emissary to Hong Kong to help Edward Snowden avoid being taken by the CIA, after he was outed by the mainstream media as the greatest top secrets leaker of all time. Recall that Obama’s unprecedented forcing of the plane of a head of state to land in Austria when he thought Snowden was aboard. Virtually an act of war, and something that should have been condemned by the paper tiger United Nations, who exist to keep nation-states from crossing the line with each other..
As Kevin Gosztola points out in the book, “[T]he Obama administration realized in 2013 that it … could not prosecute Assange without exposing journalists at the Times or Washington Post to potential prosecutions for publishing classified information.” But all of that changes if Assange can be re-classified as an agent of foreign powers, a kind of enemy combatant, rather than a journalist. Thus, as Gosztola suggests, Democratic leaders started referring to him as an enemy. Joe Biden called him a “high-tech terrorist” and Diane Feinstein referred to him as “an agitator intent on damaging our government, whose policies he happens to disagree with, regardless of who gets hurt.” Oh, those condomnations.
The Russian-DNC-Guccifer thing has all the hallmarks of a set-up. Tariq Ali points out in the intro, “The finding that the DNC documents were hacked from seven separate accounts by agents of the Russian state rests on the assertions of private cybersecurity companies, CrowdStrike, Fidelis, and Mandiant, rather than of the FBI, which was denied access to the DNC server.” And as Craig Murray adds, “[The Mueller Report’s] identification of ‘DC Leaks’ and ‘Guccifer 2.0’ as
Russian security services is something Mueller attempts to carry off by simple assertion.” You gudda pwobwem wid dat?
It is still an open question whether emails taken from the DNC servers were the result of a hack or an insider thumb drive. Former NSA techie and whistleblower William Binney says it was a thumb. Craig Murray reminds the reader of In Defense that he personally met the thumb. Assange has named DNC insiders as sources for his cache. None of them were sought out by Mueller.
The IC says the Russkies did it and that the Guccifer 2.0 WordPress site from which Assange got some emails was a Russian site. But an email address can be acquired in seconds, a wordpress site set up in minutes, and the site populated with all kinds of blog posts — like the one that tells about how to spoof a foreign power during a hack. Even “Guccifer” has the smell of the kind of spook nomenclature that Edward Snowden describes in detail in his memoir Permanent Record — Gucci Lucifer = Guccifer. Get it?
Who knows what kind of an environment Assange will be immersed in when he comes in chains to the Land of the Free. The current business with Trump could make a conspiracy-fearist out of anyone. Yeltsin may not even be president by the time Assange is tried — what with whistleblowers climbing over each like a Ukrainian sitcom to put an end to corruption as we know it. You can almost see CIA analysts lounging in the coffee room, mooning over the days of yore, and wondering aloud, “I don’t see why we have to sit around and watch this country go banana republic due to the irresponsibility of its people. Who wants to whistle dixie next?”
In a world that doesn’t seem capable of giving a shit any more (see climate change), we have been blessed with some people willing to do the dirty work of keeping the plumbing of the people running. Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange, along with the many whistleblowers, VIPS, and voices of outrage and clarity that make up this volume, could be seen as a kind of superhero group in a future comedic movie: The Empire Turns Its Back. Assange as a Tom Sawyer figure — radicalized — the movie poster boasting: He didn’t just want a piece of the Empire, he wanted the whole Inshaallahllah.
Coming soon to a ‘reality-based’ cinema near you.