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.
“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.
- O’Brien to Winston Smith in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four
Seventy years ago, on August 29, 1949, the Soviets successfully tested their first nuclear bomb, and became the only other state power on the planet, after the United States, with nuclear WMD. Thus commenced an ever-expanding arms race between the two global powers in what became known as the Cold War. Democracy versus Totalitarianism, duking it out, like rock’em-sock’em robots (sold in America; means of production: Marx!), in proxy battles from Central America to the Middle East to Vietnam — held in check by one lone term of engagement: MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction. America has been at war with Russia my entire life. That year also saw the publication of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, which enacts a future where such forces — Oceania and Eastasia — have gone from Cold to Hot.
Thirty five years later, the real-world Oceania and Eastasia, flashed hot eyes at each other, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev not blinking. Reagan was all Bonzo giddy, feeling oats he hadn’t felt since his Hollywood Western days, pressing a presumed advantage — telling Gorby to “tear down that [Berlin] wall,” touting Star Wars (an ICBM missile shield defense system), and waxing so jocular, at one point, that during a break in a radio interview Reagan’s flippant words (“the bombing begins in five minutes”) put the Soviets on edge — and red alert. (An even more flippant NBC commentator quipped that the alert may have been triggered by a lone drunken Russian officer).
But it wasn’t all a Deep State chucklefestival. Two graphic films depicting nuclear annihilation, Threads (1983) and The Day After (1984) reminded everybody just how close to MAD Oceania and Eastasia were getting. Tensions were ratcheted to the breaking point: The Soviet economy was teetering; the Berlin Wall fell five years later; the USSR crumbled and Gorbachev eventually gave way to the Russian Trump — Boris Yeltsin. Oceania giddyupped into Eastasia with strings-attached das kapital shortly thereafter. Not every Muscovite was gleeful to see the Golden Arches roll into town, driven by the clown-Christ of capitalism, Ronald McDonald. Nyet, some nationalists griped, while scarfing down a Quarterpounder™ with cheese — and borschtroot — and condemblating how to meddle in future American helectoral process.
Thirty five years later, we have our own clown-Christ of capitalism, pre-kompromised, installed in the Oval Office, the result of, US intelligence agencies allege, Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Since then, a form of sado-masochistic paranoia seems to have gripped the nation — the president (“Fake News”), the MSM (“Putin’s Puppet”), the People (“they looked left, they looked right, but they couldn’t tell the difference”). In his new biography, The Ministry of Truth, Dorian Lynskey notes that just four days after Trump’s 2017 Inauguration, “US sales of [Nineteen Eighty-Four rocketed] by almost 10,000 per cent, making it a number-one best seller.”
Lynskey attributes this panic-driven sales soar to claims by the new administration that Trump attracted the “‘largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.’” It was a wild claim, immediately debunked by the MSM, but doubled down on by Trump adviser, Kelly Anne Conway, who dismissed the glaring evidence and pronounced that the new administration would be opting to go with “alternative facts.” Alarm bells went off across the media frontier. As Lynskey’s citing of the statistic suggests, this sounded an awful lot like the “doublethink” gobbledygook of Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare, Nineteen Eighty-Four. If people were going to be living in a parallel universe, they wanted to know what to expect.
Like Dorian Lynskey’s previous work, 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, in The Ministry of Truth the author shows he is adept at showing the confluence of ideas expressed by the voices of myriad protest leaders, whether through song or, if you will, dystopian visions. Ministry is a biography limited to an exploration of the etiology of Orwell’s masterwork, Nineteen Eighty-Four (and to some degree, Animal Farm).
In Part One, Lynskey traces the roots and evolution of Orwell’s creative and political ideas, his experiences fighting fascists and communists; and, the literary influence of H.G. Wells, Eugene Zamiatin, and a wealth of others in a cross-pollination and intertextuality that not only help define the genre but demonstrate the interpenetration of human ideas in general. In Part Two, Lynskey traces “the political and cultural life” of the novel, from Orwell’s death to Trump’s Inaugural.
Like so many other European and American Lefties who signed on as mercenaries to fight against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War from 1936-39, George Orwell came away from the shattering experience thoroughly disillusioned, his ideals in disarray. “The fascists had behaved just as appallingly as he had expected they would,” Lynskey writes, “but the ruthlessness and dishonesty of the communists had shocked him.” He’d come to fight in a great battle of Good versus Evil — writers like Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gelhorn and John Dos Passos had come to bear witness — but “[w]hat he found was ‘a bad copy of 1914–18, a positional war of trenches, artillery, raids, snipers, mud, barbed wire, lice and stagnation.’”
Further, reading battle reports, Orwell discovered “that the Left-wing press [was] every bit as spurious and dishonest as that of the Right.” However, aside from the usual horrors of the war and the way they were reported, Orwell did experience moments that would prove useful in his writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Lynskey writes, “Orwell found in the trenches a superior version of the cleansing egalitarianism that he had found among the tramps, and it made him a socialist at last.” A ‘cleansing egalitarianism’ (Brotherhood) is a key theme in his dystopian novel.
In another incident helpful to his fiction, he refused to shoot a fascist with his pants down, mooning melancholically, and noting of the brotherly Francophile that he was “visibly a fellow creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him” while he’s shitting. But in a later incident, Orwell is so rattled by a rodent that he opens fire, “thus alerting the enemy and triggering a fierce firefight,” that was nearly catastrophic to his comrades in arms. Rats turn out to be Winston Smith’s greatest fear, at the end of the novel, and the means to breaking down his ego.
Probably the biggest disappointment Orwell took away from the war was the behavior of the communists; he’d served with a Marxist militia unit (POUM) and saw their atrocities close up. Lynskey wonders:
Why did Orwell criticise communism so much more energetically
than fascism? Because he had seen it up close, and because its appeal was more treacherous. Both ideologies reached the same totalitarian destination but communism began with nobler aims and therefore required more lies to sustain it.
The left hand of the Right clasped, behind the back, the right hand of the Left, in any photo shoot together — if you looked hard enough.
Orwell began reading up on Stalin’s regime, including American journalist Eugene Lyon’s description of Stalin’s Five Year plan, which included “the nose-thumbing arithmetic” of “2+2 = 5,” which is so crucial to Winston Smith’s brainwashing. He read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, whose depictions of purges and show trials (think, Goldstein, and, later, Winston Smith) further amplified his contempt for Stalin and his fear of totalitarianism. The two world wars, I and II, with the Great Depression in between, had drained civilization of its hope, vitality and wherewithal. Out of the morass rose ogres — Franco, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, and arguably even Truman (if you counted the dread that the questionable use of the Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki represented) — as if to finish us off.
However, no one had a greater influence on Orwell’s generation than the literary colossus, H.G. Wells. Prolific, prescient, extraordinarily innovative, and widely regarded as the father of modern science fiction (Mary Shelley just rolled over in her grave, uneasily), in some ways Wells was the perfect tonic for an age that had torn humanity apart with with world wars, tyranny, and economic misery disseminated across the globe.
“Wells predicted space travel, tanks, electric trains, wind and water power, identity cards, poison gas, the Channel tunnel and atom bombs,” writes Lynskey, “and popularised in fiction the time machine, Martian invasions, invisibility and genetic engineering.” He also developed notions of a “World Brain” and anticipated the World Wide Web (sorry, TimBL). Further, he was a force behind the establishment of the League of Nations. Wells was an inspiration in a time stuck in the human morass described by T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland.
Wells, in turn, was inspired by early readings of Plato’s Republic, Thomas More’s Utopia, and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, all of which required the reader to imagine with the narrator an alternative or new-and-improved world. Thus, Wells bequeathed us The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Outline of History, The Shape of Things to Come, and an enormous trove of essays and other public writings with enormous influence. All of these were enormously important to Orwell as he developed his own utopian visions.
But Orwell had seen what he’d seen in Spain, and knew the dark heart of Uncle Joe Stalin, and was, writes Lynskey, like “many writers [of his generation] consumed by the idea of decadence and decline.” H.G. Wells’ cautionary utopianism didn’t quite cut it for the lot of them. “It is no exaggeration to say that the genre of dystopian fiction evolved as it did because so many people wanted to prove H. G. Wells wrong,” Lynskey writes. There seemed to be something of the Wagner-Nietzsche competitive intimacy in Orwell’s approach to the Genius; while Wells emphasized Siegfried, Orwell and friends were all about the Götterdämmerung.
Orwell was a social democrat at heart, but he longed for something deeper and more radical, which seems to be why he was so devastated by the failures of communism. Plato had taught him that if humanity could see the Good, and the error of their ways, uncovered by dialectical reasoning, they would pursue it naturally, out of self-interest. This melancholic view (that would later infuse Winston Smith’s experience of his world) gets reinforced when he comes across the work of American Edward Bellamy — specifically, Looking Backward — 2000 – 1887.
As Bellamy’s title suggests, the novel moves backward, progressively, towards the squalor and dehumanization of the early Industrial Revolution. Lynskey notes:
When he looked around at the United States of America in the Gilded Age Bellamy saw a “nervous, dyspeptic, and bilious nation,” wracked by grotesque inequality. Millionaire dynasties controlled the industrial economy, while the labouring classes worked sixty-hour weeks for low pay in unsafe factories and sweatshops, and lived in foul slums.
In the novel, the protagonist Julian West falls into a Rip Van Winkle-like sleep in 1887 and wakes up 113 years later in a “socialist utopia,” where crime is regarded as a medical problem treatable with drugs. This got Orwell thinking.
But perhaps the single most influential piece of literature that Orwell came across, in the lead-up to writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, was Eugene Zumiatin’s We. As Lynskey points out, by coincidence Orwell had already completed an outline for his dystopian novel when he discovered Zumiatin’s work. They share some structural similarities: each features a fall guy who becomes the focussed target of hivemind hatred; a shy protagonist driven astray from his social programming by flashes of free thought and a sexually-liberated female; thought police (Guardians for Zumiatin), and forced mind-mending (from ‘I’ thinking to ‘We’ thinking). Orwell believed that Aldous Huxley nicked some ideas from We.
But Orwell had a turn at the accusation as well. Lynskey writes, “Karma came for Orwell in the form of several critics who accused him of plagiarising We.” But Lynskey dismisses them, insisting that the genre itself is rife with such borrowings and intertextuality. He answers historian Isaac Deutscher’s claims thusly:
[Deutscher] accused the author of borrowing “the idea of 1984, the plot, the chief characters, the symbols, and the whole climate of his story” from We… [but] Deutscher wildly overstated the similarities between the novels. Two: as we have seen, Orwell had already written his outline months before he read We. Three: Orwell made repeated efforts to get Zamyatin’s novel republished in English…. surely not the kind of thing that plagiarists usually do.
So there. “Originality is a vexing concept in genre fiction,” Lynskey adds.
But Lynskey is even more caustic with Ayn Rand, one of Orwell’s more vocal critics. Writes Lynskey, “There are critics who insist that Ayn Rand could have written her 1938 novella Anthem without ever having read We, and good luck to them.” Rand penned the novella “in three weeks,” and, Lynskey claims, it “is We rewritten as a capitalist creation myth, with paradise as a building site…The book’s working title was Ego.” He clearly objects to her Objectivism. Talk about getting hoiked into your own spittoon.
Later in his life Orwell faced more pressing criticism than the question of whether he plagiarized Zumiatin. Perhaps, so traumatized by what he’d seen in Spain and saw happening in Stalin’s Russia, Orwell developed a list of 38 writers — communists or sympathizers — that he turned over to the Information Research Agency, a government agency, that he recommended they not hire because of questionable allegiance to the Labour party. Apologizing for this behavior, Lynskey writes, “It is legitimate to be disappointed by the very act of sending such a list to a government agency (even a Labour one), but the edited version was at least largely accurate.” Hmm.
Some critics were having none of that apology. Lynskey quotes Marxist historian Christopher Hill who opined, “I always knew he was two-faced. There was something fishy about Orwell…it confirms my worst suspicions about the man.” But the late great polemicist (“Beat the Devil”) Alexander Cockburn “couldn’t disguise his glee: ‘The man of conscience turns out to be a whiner, and of course a snitch, an informer to the secret police, Animal Farm’s resident weasel.” (His full article is a fun read.) Does this spell the end of Orwell’s Truth? Should we never read him again? I don’t know, but, when you think about it, Winston Smith’s character takes on new dimensions with this incident — that final betrayal of all you love and everything, and all its implicit future snitching to protect We.
However one feels about Orwells’ late-life failures, Nineteen Eighty-Four has exerted its familiarity and gravitas since his death in 1950. We are all familiar with the terms of our engagement with his work. Lynskey writes:
The phrases and concepts that Orwell minted have become essential fixtures of political language, still potent after decades of use and misuse: Newspeak, Big Brother, the Thought Police, Room 101, the Two Minutes Hate, doublethink, unperson, memory hole, telescreen, 2 + 2 = 5, and the Ministry of Truth.
Of those terms, perhaps the answer to the equation “2+2=” may be the most pertinent to the contemporary political situation we find ourselves facing in Washington and around the world. How would you answer, brother?
Nineteen Eighty-Four’s principal concerns have been reprised in Western culture, in one form or another, for decades. For example, Lynskey describes the “aviphobic” David Bowie’s fall into “paranoia and panic” in the 70’s and how it affected his work (his Diamond Dogs album was originally meant to be called 1984.) Bowie was not alone in his feelings of demise. “IRA bombs…stagflation…a miners’ strike…an Arab oil embargo…blackouts, petrol rationing, reduced television service, and non-functioning elevators, Britain began to feel like the opening pages of Nineteen Eighty-Four,” writes Lynskey. In the 80s, with the advent of personal computing, even commercials, such as Apple’s highly controversial ‘1984’ Super Bowl Ad, were produced to reflect a desire to break free from mind-imprisoning Conformity. In 1990, a film version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was released, which extends the Orwellian vision into what could be a near-future reality.
Today, Oceania is otherwise known as Five Eyes, and Oceania moves in history in a world of the wars, never-ending, destruction by remote drones and online corporate-government profiling, leading toward neo-fascism or some new unthinkable form of totalitarianism. It remains to be seen when the public should have begun its Orwellian panic, whether it was in the aftermath of 9/11 — or sooner — or with the Carnivalesque decay of Exceptional Democracy. “We are an empire now. We make our own reality,” is attributed a coy Karl Rove, and it sounds like a celebration of doublethink, a movement in the direction of 2+2=5.
Lynskey wants to locate it with the Trump Inauguration, with the return of Doublethink and Newspeak. But he does remind the reader:
Orwell’s fear that “the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world” is the dark heart of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It gripped him long before he came up with Big Brother, Oceania, Newspeak or the telescreen, and it’s more important than any of them.
Lynskey’s words are well-taken, but I believe we must beware that Trump might be Goldstein and that hating on him has been preordained.
Toward the end of his life H.G.Wells lost his mojo for mankind. In his last published work, Mind at the End of its Tether, Wells wondered aloud, as it were, if it wasn’t time to replace the human species with something more evolutionarily desirable. Like Nietzsche, Wells seemed to long for a Zarathustrian Übermensch; he tired of being a tightrope walker in the largely indifferent marketplace of conventional ideas.
Five more years of Two-Minute hating on Trump should do it (maybe even just one). Like a soul orphaned in a mechanized world — like Winston Smith — I can almost hear a fat lady singing as it all comes out in the wash she’s hanging on the line:
I love ya
By John Kendall Hawkins
Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to BELIEVE that black is white, and more, to KNOW that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.”
– George Orwell, 1984
Fuck Orwell. He’s another one. Always dispensing with the dyspeptic dystopias, but, when you’re not looking, he’s gathering names of Commie suspects and handing them off to the government, like a rat on someone’s face, forever. You get overwrought, in these days of bad wine and paper roses, trying to figure out who’s on the up-and-up, and who’s trying to bring you down real low. If you read the news too carefully, you risk spinning your mind right off its axis. Who is a whistleblower and who is not? What are they really whistleblowing about? Is it fake news you’re reading? Or is real news the one with the paywall? Is it all a conspiracy? Or just a theory about conspiracies? Maybe Notre Dame committed suicide in some kind of defiant Nietzschean act of spontaneous combustion.
Anyway, some old stale Marx crept back into my thinking, not that I ever understood him very well anyway (which is probably why we could never make him work (he became more a battle of hermeneutics than a sustainable philosophy (we argued till dawn in our Che tees and khakis, passing round the bong))), and I wondered, while reading the Guardian, about the means of production, about who controls the past controls the future, and who controls the present controls the past, and and my head began spinning again. The fuck, if Orwell was any help — at all.
Because there it was yesterday in the Guardian, journalist Carole Cadwalladr announcing the imminent release of thousands of documents detailing “the inner workings” of the now bankrupt data firm, Cambridge Analytica (CA). Cadwalladr broke the story about how Facebook was colluding with CA in an effort to manipulate the emotions of users to modify their behavior — specifically, during the Brexit referendum and during the 2016 US presidential election. Did CA machinations force Brexit on the UK? Did CA con enough bumpkins in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to hand the electors to Trump? A Netflix film, The Great Hack, was streamed and introduced us to self-described whistleblower Brittany Kaiser, who took us on a two-hour tour of CA’s data chambers and Brittany’s conscience. It’s hard to say which was scarier, but The Great Hack is a worthy watch.
CA and Brittany Kaiser have been in the rear view mirror for awhile now, as we’ve settled into the long impeachment season, and are all, more or less, preoccupied with the imagined horror of His reelection and four more years of ‘substance’ abuse in Washington. And yet, here Brittany was again, in the Guardian, caterwauling about more data devil dogs, and providing, through Twitter, Wikileaks-like access to a trove of further evidence of CA’s ‘Machiavellian’ shenanigans. I bit. I downloaded zips on John Bolton, Brazil, and Iran, and was so underwhelmed by the offerings that I felt I’d been had. Targeted emotions — now with psychographic datadazz; age-old, so what, meh.
The headline of Cadwalladr’s article is: Fresh Cambridge Analytica leak ‘shows global manipulation is out of control’. But there’s no evidence of that in her Twitter ‘release’. And the promise that more information will be released “in the coming months,” seems like a self-serving pronouncement to keep her relevant, leading up to the 2020 election. It’s almost like she’s still working for CA and wants to use their data (but not as originally intended) to shape voter thinking and to sell more copies of her recently released memoir, Targeted, which the New York Times implicitly panned (along with her claim to whistleblowerhood).
But the Cadwalladr piece is interesting for another whistleblowing reason: She cites, authoritatively, none other than Christopher Steele. She writes of Kaiser’s cache:
It comes as Christopher Steele, the ex-head of MI6’s Russia desk and the intelligence expert behind the so-called “Steele dossier” into Trump’s relationship with Russia, said that while the company had closed down, the failure to properly punish bad actors meant that the prospects for manipulation of the US election this year were even worse.
Has she failed to read the Horowitz Report, which cites the judicial mockery of the FBI’s use of Steele’s long-debunked dossier to falsely obtain FISA warrants to spy on the Trump campaign? How he sat the MSM down for an off-the-record chat about his ‘findings’ in July, while pushing his compostings at Mother Jones and the ‘progressive’ Left in late October 2016?
There are a lot of outstanding questions about Steele and his dossier that have yet to be answered. Like how has he been allowed to declare himself a whistleblower? Is that all that’s required, self-declaration? And a pun-like statement to Vanity Fair: “The greater good trumps all other concerns.” Then why the anonymity? Why the resistance to visiting America, for whom you, a Brit, have so much concern? Why did Cadwalladr drop his debunked authoritative voice in the middle of her piece?
At the time of his dossiering, our man of Steele had not been to Russia, where his ‘contacts’ were left behind, in years. And he left in fear for his life as “an enemy of Mother Russia.” The more you think about this election-meddler the more he sounds like a British version of homo contractus; the kind of still-connected (private) spy GCHQ might have called upon to develop kompromat on, say, UN Security Council members, as depicted in the whistleblowing film, Official Secrets, to manipulate their votes.
Yesterday, after I carefully considered the value of the Cadwalladr piece and its terrifying premise that global manipulation was out of control and Trump might win again if we didn’t put up force fields against Facebook ads by November, I watched a movie on Vimeo: Spinning Boris. The humorous 2003 film, starring Jeff Goldblum, Liev Schreiber and Anthony LaPaglia, recounts the ‘true story’ of Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 reelection.
By 1996, few government workers were getting paid on time and there were long lines for food, especially fast-food. Then Yeltsin invaded Chechnya, and everyone hated him. According to “Yanks to the Rescue,” the Time magazine article that the film’s script seems to be based on, Yeltsin was “favored by only 6% of the electorate and ‘trusted’ as a competent leader by an even smaller proportion” and sure to lose to the Communists, when American political consultants were brought in to get him re-elected.
They brought with them the usual American kit of topical polling, focus groups, people-touching, and image manipulation (re-packaging). The taciturn Boris Yeltsin began kissing babies and dancing like a bear on stage, his white coif was moussed, ads smiled, and a drunken karaoke Elvis impersonator (late stage) slurred, in EFL-English, the Commies’ “secret maximum plan” to bring Mother Russia “back to the Middle Ages” and round up democratic reformers if they won, which was used in an eventual negative ad campaign.
They also used gizmos, such as the perception analyzer, an early algorithm device, that helped the consultants to track patterns of response to emotional stimuli. But, at the end of the day, they realized they were dealing with what Americans have had to suffer through for decades — lesser-of-two-evils voting. Despite his bad numbers, all the consultants had to do was make sure voters understood that Yeltsin was the only alternative to Communists (in the lead with 21%), and to then undermine the Commies.
One thing the movie plays up, and the Time piece ignores, is that US President Bill Clinton, and the CIA were, at the very least, “watching” the consultants in action. It’s the CIA that wants to know what the “secret maximum plan” of the Commies is, and we can be sure that wouldn’t have been okay with what they heard. We can be certain that the long lines at Mickey D’s were seen by the CIA as symbols of the Russian hunger for American-style drive-through freedom — not to be dis-enfranchised by Commie indifference. Maybe these consultants were cover. And God forgive my cynical, conspiratorial vision, but I can’t help but wonder how many people in that long, long, long line at the Golden Arches received quid pro quo coupons for voting Yeltsin.
So, what does all of this have to do with Cambridge Analytica, Brittany Kaiser, Christopher Steele, and the 2020 US presidential election ahead? I’m not sure — I haven’t been convinced — that interfering in an election requires anything more than all the usual suspect techniques we’ve seen in the past: Bill Clinton heckled GHW Bush with a guy in a chicken suit for ducking debates; political ice cubes were said to have been embedded with ‘sex’ by Hidden Persuaders; handing out free Wendy’s coupons might make a difference in a lesser-of-two-evils election choice. Even Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix, caught on a hidden camera, seems to have conceded that blackmail, not data, might be the most efficient method.
I’m uncomfortable when I hear the MSM pushing the concerns of pseudo-whistleblowers like Kaiser and Steele, who have fucked with previous elections, and are now seemingly using their own previous deceit to market themselves as consultants in upcoming elections. (You could even say that Kaiser and Steele’s work offset each other in the 2016 election.) Where’s the proof that Cambridge Analytica, through Facebook, manipulated enough voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, to swing the 2016 presidential election Trump’s way? Or fixed Brexit? None of what CA purports to do is as effective as good old voter disenfranchisement in select districts.
Now that we have people ‘coming out’ as whistleblowers all over the place, like it’s the latest trendy lifestyle, to control the narrative, to raise the authoritative value of Big Data, especially when it comes to human manipulation, and require tools of the government (contractors) to interpret and confirm the value of the data bits, it’s beginning to smell like Orwell all over again — an attempt to control the Now, and he who controls the Now controls the Past and… It’s that Black and White. Snowden warns in Permanent Record: Big Data as an Old Testament God with a New Testament Judgement Day for each and every one of us.
I had a vision recently, of the Russians and the Yanks getting into a spy vs. spy tussle for the ages — a WWE grudge match in a cage — with a competition to take out political leaders everywhere, despite their worth, and replace them with harlequins, so that at species end, Nero fiddling while climate change burns, everywhere we looked it becomes a case of clowns to the political Left of me, Jokers to the Right, stuck in the middle finger.
Doublethink about it.
By John Kendall Hawkins
Living near London back in 2001, several months before 9/11, I took my family on a driving tour to Northwest England, up to Windermere in the Lake District. We spent a night in a quaint thatched cottage and drank deep wine by a smoky fire. We trod on trails, along with a multitude of others, along the lake Wordsworth was said to have wandered lonely as a cloud. On the drive home, we stopped at the Ruskin museum, and I, despite tired protests from the kids, went inside and considered the exhibits of his genius, and revelled in flashes of the cathedral moments Ruskin once inspired in me.
But the highlight of our trip, not so far from home, was stopping in at Stratford-on-Avon, birthplace and burial site of William Shakespeare. We strolled the streets, checked out Anne Hathaway’s digs, and watched, inside Holy Trinity Church, as my young son slipped under a barrier and commenced a horrid iambic tapdance on Shakespeare’s grave, if it was Shakespeare’s grave: a sign read his skull was missing, which made me picture some nob out there playing Alas, Poor Yorick with the Bard’s head. I thought I recalled some cheekery out back in the yard, facing the Avon, another sign, near a pauper’s grave, suggesting that Will had been given the ol’ heave-ho into the lesser bric-a-brac of bones — a la Mozart.
More recently, I’ve learned that a ‘non-intrusive’ radar scan has been done of his grave — and that nothing’s there under the slab my son had jigged on, not even iambic dust — a whole TV special was done on the anniversary of his supposed mortal death 400 years earlier. Nobody really seems to know where his restless bones reside. Other scans have followed — both science and psychological: An anthropologist thinks the Bard must have been smoking “compounds strange” when he wrote; some homosexuals require that the Bard be gay (“Google any famous name plus the word gay and you’ll find that someone’s beaten you to the speculative punch.”!). Agendas everywhere.
Postmodernism used to be fun. I felt privileged, as an undergrad, to be part of the carnival of delight that academic relativists brought to course methodology, freeing minds everywhere from the cultural battlefields where once they were mere Canon fodder in shoot-outs between Great Men too big to fail. Once unheard, unsung voices from the wilderness were emerged from a countercultural revolution — Black voices, Feminist dialectics, multiculturalism up the ya-yoo, and new ways of seeing — helpful critiques of the male gaze and reader-response theory — all for the betterment of humankind. I loved the way Angela Carter made a basket case of the Big Bad Wolf. Who doesn’t like claiming to have read Foucault? We hate torture, because it’s not who we are, but academics spend all their time interrogating geniuses to get at their dirty little secrets.
No canonized writer has suffered more up-digs over the centuries than the Bard. Was he really Christopher Marlowe (or versa visa)? Could a working class kid really write about the Royals? Really? Did he rely too much on Plutarch when he penned Henry V? Shakespeare Analysis became a thatched cottage industry. A lot of it legitimate scholarly interest. As Harold Bloom, and others, have pointed out, there was a “School of Resentment,” overcompensatory in its nature, that rigorously stripped ‘the Greats’ of their excessive influence on culture, and became the new orthodoxy. But things really got going when the resentimentalists unloaded on Shakespeare and the Western Canon shot its last wad.
Speaking of cannons shooting worthy wads, the Globe Theatre burned down in 1613 during the premiere of Henry VIII — originally known as All Is True — after a cannon was fired marking the entrance of Henry VIII and a bit of wad landed on the thatched roof and started a fire that consumed the Globe. Shakespeare had begun collaborating with a writer named John Fletcher, accounting for the inconsistencies of language in the reading of Henry VIII.
Most recently, Smithsonian magazine reported on Petr Plecháča, a Czech Republican scientist, who took a special interest in identifying the separate threads of language between Fletcher and the Bard in All Is True, and, using artificial intelligence (AI), he was able to determine their separate voices. Kind of like an academic exercise in intertextuality. Except using a Support Vector Machine to scan and deconstruct the play instead of relying on scholarly conjecture. In essence, the AI performed a danse macabre across Shakespeare’s grave and found two sets of bony algorithms. Hackles happened. I went to Plecháča’s study and ran for my life when I seemed to be reading that Henry VIII aside, the SVM may have proven that Fletcher virtually wrote The Tempest alone. Gulp.
I wrote a letter to Petr:
Recently I read an article that featured your algorithmic study of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. Interesting.
Sounds a lot like the plagiarism application Turn It In and its scanning features. Is there a difference between your method and the method used by software to analyze the typical suspicious (and they all are all plagios until proven original by Turn It In) undergrad?
Can we expect a comprehensive scan now of the Bard’s entire works? In short, will you be taking off his gloves? Where does Christopher Marlowe fit into all of this?
Also, many academics (with agendas) have been making passes at the notion that Shakespeare was a homosexual onaccounta his sonnets and certain coy-boy references in his works. Can we expect an algorithm to “out” the Bard once and for all?
Thank you so much ahead of time for your consideration of my thoughts (I claim) on the matter. I look forward to your keened and advanced counterpoint.
He never replied.
O, the evil that algos do. Like postmodernism (and maybe only possible because of such thinking), algorithms possess a kind of built-in scientific rationalism that denudes human perception, even as it unravels the mystery of our discrete object of desire. Imagine looking at a rose, wafting in your nose, absorbed by its mystical complexity — when you are interrupted by a voice in your head that describes that object as a function of parts, a mechanical plaything of your synapses, and nothing more. You can have it both ways, but only one way seems human. Call me a romantic if a rose has me swimming with endolphins and giddy with new porpoise.
If Google, Amazon and Facebook, along with the surveillance state, have shown us anything with their algorithms, we are in danger of passively accepting our human processes as mathematical formulas controlled by centralizing forces that shape the way we see and feel. Control us, by knowing how to stimulate us, bespokenly. It’s subtle now, but it’s there, in the tea leaves of the time we spend on line, our synapses symbiotically fired by the ons-and-offs of the InterMind. Are we the assimilatos for, or the accommodators of, the New Machine Age?
I wonder what Shakespeare, if he were alive today, would make of our burning globe. Would he be able to handle the rhythms of modern English — its natural mythopoesis absorbed into the jingles and jibes of end-stage capitalist decline? Or would he, like Abu rolling over in his shallow Ghraib, be just another voice lost in the Age of Terror?
No wonder his grave is empty.
By John Kendall Hawkins
Those of us who care about the criminal excesses of the Orwellian dystopia that we find ourselves thumb-driven under by predatory algorithms that ferret out our alpha waves for “security” and commercial purposes, might want to remember that if not for legitimate whistleblowers we would know next to nothing about what the Bastards are up to. It’s a far more depressing world for the knowing, but like climate change, we’re no better off for the ignorance. So, here’s to Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning — all of whom have given up their freedom in order to reveal the criminality and deceit of the Masters of Endless War and pocket Marshall plans (Rebuilds ‘R Us). Here’s to our Three Amigos in this festive season of convenient whistleblowing.
First, thanks to Julian Assange, who told us years ago that the Bastards just wanted him to be put on a plane to Sweden so that he could be put on another plane to America — against his will. He rightfully sought asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid such extradition that would have made him a circus clown before a politically-motivated ‘national security’ trial in America that would have seen him jailed for life. The MSM took his wiki goodies and made money selling papers with them, but bailed on him when the government told them to attack his character. Now, out of self-interest, the MSM will be forced to begrudgingly defend Assange’s journalism credentials should he be forwarded, like a soccer ball, to America’s fascist foot.
It looks grim for Julian. He will be tried, if brought to America, under the Espionage Act, a version of which has been shored up under each of the Five Eyes super-surveillance partners. His best chance at avoiding being putsched before a show trial is for lawyers to show that Spanish security company, UC Global, hired by Ecuador to provide security for its London embassy, actually spied on Assange and his visitors with mikes and cams, and handed their work over to the CIA. This would (or should) demonstrate that Assange can’t receive a fair trial in America (again, the reason he took refuge in the embassy), and provide lawyers with the ammo they need to knock back the extradition.
Now would be a good time to catch up on the issues surrounding his case, and, really, the best way to do that is by reading the collection of supporting voices — from computer technicians to philosophers — put out by OR Books, an independent publisher, In Defense of Julian Assange. Next, write to him. You might actually be able to get a message to him, in this festive season, if you go online and send him a letter — either through L-Mail, which takes your e-message and snail-mails it to him, or, more conveniently, you can use Email A Prisoner (don’t forget to use a VPN). He’s said he wants messages short and sweet. Maybe send him a joke or limerick. I sent him a poem.
And there’s Edward Snowden to salute. Others have made zoodles of dollars explaining the importance of his 2013 revelations, including Glenn Greenwald, who won a well-deserved Pulitzer for his details of Snowden’s global surveillance revelations and his subsequent escape to Russia. Then Snowden put out Permanent Record, his memoir full of insider details of the deep state (his words) that he worked for as a kind of demi-god of data — before its criminality (his words) made him unable to go on lying and collecting for the government. He revealed, with diagrams, how the US government spies on everyone connected to a communications system — Internet and mobile services. Importantly, he shows how contractors (see chapter, Homo Contractus) are the ball carriers of the deep state.
Unfortunately, but predictably (his words), the US government sued his publisher to take his book profits away — and they won. Snowden, now larfing as a much-sought-after six-figure online speaker, has suggested that the public buy a copy and hand it off, when finished, to a friend. Great idea (remember the days of file-sharing)! A short cut to obtaining a free copy of his memoir is to visit the wondrous Internet Archive where several borrowable copies are there for downloading. “I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how,” he writes of his decision to whistleblow. “I’d had enough of feeling helpless, of being just an asshole in flannel lying around on a shabby couch eating Cool Ranch Doritos and drinking Diet Coke while the world went up in flames.”
Thanks again to Assange and Wikileaks, for risking further criminal abuse, by helping Snowden escape from Hong Kong. And remember that the audacious Obama would have nailed Snowden had he been on the Bolivian president’s airplane when it was forced down. This gangster cut-him-off move might have led to a hot WWIII had the plane been Putin’s, instead of Evo Morales.
Edward can be reached in his exile, either by mailing him at Freedom of the Press Foundation or through his account at Twitter: @Snowden .
And finally, thanks to Chelsea Manning, for getting the ball rolling back in 2010 with the Iraq Logs and Afghan Logs, but, most devastatingly, the so-called Collateral Murder video that not only showed s double-tap helicopter gunship attack on civilians, including two Reuters reporters, but provided the gunship audio that suggested jolly titillation as bodies fell. The video demonstrated, among other things, that the so-called War on Terror was going to involve its own moments of terrorism, with not a lot of hand-wringing, once the gloves were off.
Chelsea was court-martialed and sentenced to 35 years for delivering classified information to Julian Assange and Wikileaks. President Obama commuted Manning’s sentence (after six harsh years in the slammer) — just before the Trump inauguration in Jan 2017. In February 2019, she was found in contempt of court for refusing to testify before a grand jury looking to gather evidence on Julian Assange and Wikileaks and put back in jail. Then, upon release, told a new grand jury to fuck off, and is back in prison again on contempt charges. She reasoned that, “[T]his grand jury seeks to undermine the integrity of public discourse with the aim of punishing those who expose any serious, ongoing, and systemic abuses of power by this government.”
As with Assange above, Manning can be reached through a convenient write and snail-post system, called Jmail. She can be reached by post at:
The William G. Truesdale Adult Detention Center
2001 Mill Road, Alexandria, Virginia 22314
You’ll have to call the switchboard to get her prisoner ID number.
In this festive season, as we ready ourselves for the short-lived Senate dismissal of the House’s impeachment of Trump (yawn), just in time for the presidential primary season, let’s remember that there are still other things that we can do to bolster the defenses of Assange, Snowden, and Manning, as they ready for consequential appearances before judges in the next few months. We can, for instance, put our heads together and try to force the government into ‘necessity defense’ legislation that Assange and Snowden could use in the future to defend themselves. And we could also file, online, Freedom of Information Act requests, say, the Rogers-Brennan-Clapper emails leading up their DNC hacking assessment in 2016.
Me, a couple of days ago, I filed a FOIA for access to the poems Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was said to have penned to his interrogator’s wife after 183 waterboardings. I very much look forward to reading these ‘Sufi sonnets’. Talk about curing writer’s block, huh?
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.
By John Kendall Hawkins
In these musical times, it’s important to distinguish between a whistleblower and a leaker. Probably the last place to look for the difference is the Main Stream Media, which is caught up in partisan politics and often blurs the line between the two, guided not by public interest but corporate self-interest. What does the term “whistleblower” mean to you? Take a moment, divest yourself of the MSM brainwash (all the same news all the time), the same way you divested yourself of those South African apart-hate stocks back in the day. Can you feel a jaunty Johnny Nash song coming on?
Personally, I like the comparison Edward Snowden draws in his recent memoir, Permanent Record (a title meant to bring attention to the fact that the US government now has an illegal dossier on every netizen in the world, and, he says, is willing to use it to take down its enemies — and we’re all suspects). It’s a straightforward distinction: “A ‘whistleblower’ … is a person who through hard experience has concluded that their life inside an institution has become incompatible with the principles developed in…the greater society outside it, to which that institution should be accountable.” Snowden compares this to leaking, which refers to “acts of disclosure done not out of public interest but out of self-interest, or in pursuit of institutional or political aims.”
The problem is, as Matt Taibbi so eloquently lays out in Hate Inc., his take on the Washington bread-and-circus shenanigans of the last few years, the MSM has abrogated its Fourth Estate duty as Bastard-Outer for the republic, because they’ve become caught up in the often-juvenile partisan snark attacks. Taibbi argues that the Press seems, more than ever, driven by profit motives, acceding to jingos, character assassination and sensationalism, rather than following the rules of journalism, as they close down and are forced to move online, where they don’t call the shots on what’s news (and not) any more. In short, the Press (and MSM) will name anyone a ‘whistleblower’ if it helps them sell ads, on paper or online.
Take, for example, Citizen X, the Ukraine quid pro quo whistleblower. The MSM has released very little information about him, other than acknowledging that he’s a CIA officer, because they don’t want to publish details that would inevitably allow free-thinking individuals to work out who he is. Why? Because their agenda is to kill, kill, kill Trump’s presidency. Foot soldierin’ for the Intelligence Community may be a noble cause, but it’s not very honest (balanced) journalism. The name of the whistleblower has been circulating for weeks in alternative-to-MSM publications, such as realclearinvestigations.com, run by, ahem, a former NY Times editor. There’s a lot of that going on: The Intercept is staffed with star reporters from the MSM who couldn’t hack it anymore.
If our third-hand-wringing whistleblower is who these altos say he is, then he doesn’t fit the criteria that Edward Snowden sees — a Daniel Ellsberg type — but rather a pawn in the Deep State game. The one-and-only CIA analyst to ever go to prison (albeit deeply minimum) for whistleblowing, John Kiriakou, has weighed in on the master debate. “If he’s a whistleblower,” writes Kiriakou, “and not a CIA plant whose task it is to take down the president, then his career is probably over.” Elsewhere, he says, “[I]nside the CIA, I guarantee you that people are saying, ‘Well, if he’s willing to rat out the president, he’s probably willing to rat out us.’ And so no one is ever going to trust this guy again.”
Spooks don’t rat. Snowden brought this reality home in Permanent Record when he describes LOVEINT, a computer interface that allows analysts to snoop and stalk love interests. But even though there were penalties in place for such abuses, nobody was ever even chastised, writes Snowden, a self-acknowledged abuser, because “you can’t exactly convict someone of abusing your secret system of mass surveillance if you refuse to admit the existence of the system itself.” Ostensibly, girlfriends would look at their Snowdens, their menfolk having the look of someone who’s been looking at them already. And for the Snowdens, their love interests “had the look of flowers that are looked at,” as that old mermaid whisperer TS Eliot puts it, referring to his wastrel years.
Unfortunately for the fused agendas of the MSM, our intrepid Deep State Throat, if the alt media information holds up, was a confidante of Joe Biden when he was the “point man” for Ukraine affairs after the CIA-encouraged coup there in 2014. In fact, according to the Real Clear whistleblow on the ‘whistleblower,” he was more than that: Deep State Throat was Obama’s NSC director for Ukraine. I’m a former newspaper journalist: This possibility is worth checking out, as it resounds with implications.
Even worse, and more heartbreaking for our nation’s future prospects, according to the report, he worked for serial liar and criminal John Brennan, who recently said of al-Bagdadi, as he was being chased by ungloved US forces, suicide-invested and clutching kids, “He died like a dog, he died like a coward…He died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way…The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread.” Oh, wait, I was thinking of Brennan’s retractable account of the bin Laden take-down he witnessed in the situation room. I dunno, maybe Trump was having a go at Obama again — some kind of conspiracy-theory riff.
There’s something wrong in America; you can tell, outside looking in. Elections, the heart-and-soul of democracy, aren’t working and nobody wants to fix them (electoral college issues, continued voter disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, and voter box hacking). The MSM, once the champion of Keeping the Bastards Honest, has settled into a selfish, stenographic funk, and has abrogated the moral authority embodied in the principles of sound journalism. They let evil, criminal doings off-the-hook with a warning, and blow up the bullshit and keep all eyes on the fan.
Those of us who still have marbles rolling around in our heads know George W. Bush probably stole the 2000 election, and maybe even 2004 (when the NYT quashed an October surprise story by James Risen that was a heads-up, eight years before Snowden’s revelations, about the NSA’s illegal dossier-building on everyone). When Bush called on the NSA to talk British intelligence into surreptitiously obtaining kompromat on UN security council members to sway their votes on the question of war with Iraq, as described in the recent whistleblower film, Official Secrets, he should have been brought before The Hague. When the WMD ruse was revealed, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld should have been imprisoned. Hell, I’d have thrown in Kissinger, too, Nobel peace prize with him.
And Obama, who all we Lefties once praised, with hopeful audacinations, went dud so fast, even before his Inauguration, when he had to bail out too-big-to-fail Wall Street bankers, who’d tried to make zillions and zillions off the housing bubble that were little more than cynical bets that mortgages granted to millions of Black and poor people would fail. It almost qualified as a pyramid scheme. Bush came at Obama like Wall Street was a Twin Tower that terrorists missed that September morn and had come back around for, six years later. Neo-cons everywhere must have laughed to see that Mandela-like bounce of Obama disappear, as Bush whispered Dixie in his ear.
Well, some character whistleblowers say he was an asshole anyway, and his breaking bad had nothing to do with the Bail Out. It’s hard to say. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I could see some IC guy sitting him down and pushing a dossier of his secrets across the table at him, with a wink, and walking away. Or maybe Donald Trump’s birther hallucination unnerved the Big Guy (he did feel obliged to post the b/c to the White House website). Whatever it was that turned him, he turned to a life of crime.
You could start with an investigation of the legality of his secret wars. His indiscriminate use of drones (secretly, at first), and then, later, setting the criminal precedent of droning American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, and, more, of drone-murdering Abdulrahman, his 16 year old American son. Forcing down the plane of a head of state in the mistaken belief that a fugitive was on-board. He expanded the Orwellian surveillance machine. And the impeachable offense (separation of powers) of ordering the CIA to break in to the Senate intelligence sub-committee that was investigating the CIA for its illegal abuses during the Bush torture regime. And his overwrought prosecution of whistleblowers, under the Espionage Act, perhaps with the intent to obstruct justice.
Ironically, if we may be loose, Barack Obama was the first to blow the whistle on Trump’s presidency — even before DJ was inaugurated. You consider the source, of course, but Trump has been largely correct when he says that the Obama administration did, indeed, spy on him while he was a candidate. There’s even some evidence that Obama state department officials acted as go-betweens for ex-UK (now contract) spy Christopher Steele and, later, the Clinton campaign. It may even be that, as with Edward Snowden “working” for Dell Computers, Steele may have been a “contract” worker for MI6 at the time of his dossier-building on Trump, doing their business disguised as Orbis. In each collection of data, the president’s and the ex-secretary’s, the intention was to give Hillary a political edge in the 2016 presidential election. Why, that sounds criminal.
You could argue that the Trump campaign’s alleged “collusion” with the Russians, as “assessed’ by the four intel agencies, after a finding on the alleged DNC hack, was a form of cover-up for Obama’s lame-duck moves, and an attempt to lock in a political posture on Russia before leaving office, effectively sidelining Trump’s presidency, and keeping eyes off the American doings in Ukraine. If the CIA was used, on a phony pretext, to gather data on a presidential candidate in America, for the purposes of helping the opposing candidate win, as they’re so famous for in banana republics, then they broke the law and should have been (should be) tried. Maybe we could try them on the Espionage Act of 1917.
The forensic analysis done by the DNC’s computer security, Crowdstrike, was an online job; nobody seems to have bothered checking the servers physically — not even the FBI, who were told in almost hysterical terms that our Democracy had been ravaged by those Viking-like Russians. Yet, the Mueller Report, like James Comey’s FBI, relied on Crowdstrike’s hands-off analysis. Maybe because Crowdstrike has FBI connections, including Shawn Henry, who “joined CrowdStrike in 2012 after retiring from the FBI, where he oversaw half of the FBI’s investigative operations, including all FBI criminal and cyber investigations worldwide….” Again, this is the homo contractus stuff Snowden warns us of.
Further diminishing the ‘slam dunk’ evidence that Mueller relies on to call the DNC server breach a hack is Julius Assange’s August 3, 2016 revelation on the PBS NewsHour that the emails he published were leaks, not hacks, and that he knew who the insiders were. He went on to name them. All of which, the Crowdstrike association with the FBI and the Assange assertion, put the IC “findings,” upon which an indictable case against Russian hackers is drawn, in reasonable doubt. Who knows, maybe the server isn’t even at the DNC. You could turn a laptop or even, potentially, a mobile phone into a server, if so inclined; just download and configure a mail server app. After all, just because someone works at the State department doesn’t mean that’s where they have their mail server.
(Funny side speculation, Russia is said to have meddled in Ukraine’s recent presidential election, maybe giving them Volodymyr Zelensky, a comic actor, and political apprentice, as a way of further tweaking the nose of the CIA, and showing them how it’s done. Check out the Ukraine president’s IMDB rating!)
All red flags point to Ukraine still, not Russia. The latter’s many LNG gas lines to Europe all currently go under Ukraine, and it’s known that America wants to disrupt that flow. The obvious criminality of Trump’s quid pro quo telephone conversation with his fellow apprentice Zelensky, aside from whether it leads to Trump’s impeachment, had as its focus the continuation of the investigation of Burisma Gas Holdings, whose fields lie mostly under Crimean soil.
There may or may not be anything to the Joe Biden quid pro quo he successfully executed in 2016 and bragged about on live TV, with minor hand-wringing by the MSM, but it is worth noting that the continued investigation into Burisma that Trump was pushing would also have resulted in the question: Why is Cofer Black on its Board of Directors (since just after Trump’s inauguration in 2017)?
It’s speculation, but not wild, that Deep State Throat, Obama’s former NSC liaison for Ukraine, received a call of his own, perhaps from the American embassy anxious to continue the anti-Russian work of the previous administration. As Edward Snowden writes in Permanent Record, “The worst-kept secret in modern diplomacy is that the primary function of an embassy nowadays is to serve as a platform for espionage.”
This might help explain Cofer Black’s presence. The long established 9/11 narrative says that it was Cofer’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 program that followed; he helped found the private CIA group, Blackwater, with its basket of mercenary deployables; he is chairman of Total Intelligence Services, likely the homo contractus version of the Deep State’s Total Information Awareness program. Who knows, maybe he swaps secret men’s spit with Christopher Steele. It’s a small world when you’re a small man. Surely, with Black in town, it won’t be long before heads of departments are on sticks in Kiev and flies are crouch dancing across eyeballs in the Crimea. Metaphorically, of course.
Because Western democratic citizens live in a politically dysfunctional world — Five Eyes nations are enforcers for nation-state gangster goons guarding their ever-acquisitive interests — without a respected unifying governmental agency, such as a real league of nations, we get nothing crucial done as a globe — see climate change. We’ve become hive-minded, interconnected in uncomfortable ways, and seem to be suffering from some kind of colony collapse of consciousness.
This would help explain how these things keep happening under our noses, while the MSM looks the other way. Or leads us in a rendition of Two Minute Hate. Tiny cornball characters who see themselves as swaggering Gods. As Bobby Dylan sings,
They all play on the penny whistle
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row
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.