By John Kendall Hawkins
…but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
– W.B.Yeats, The Second Coming
Hive-mindedness seems to be growing — at the same time that bees are heading towards kaputzville. DARPA’s got a fix for the bees, they say. Then again, (D)ARPA gave us the Internet, which is where the hivemind is located. On the other hand, Al Gore ‘claims’ to have invented the Internet. Some people say he invented Climate Change, too. Riddle me this: If a guy can be that clever, then how come he can’t win his home state in 2000, without the need to blame Nader? And how come Watergate felon Charles “Dirty Tricks” Colson can be given back his voting rights by Jeb, but not all those Black voters? Is there a koan in a haystack locked up in all this? Or is it all rhetorical?
End Days thinking really, isn’t it? You gotta tamp that bong shit down. Anyway, I was thinking if Christ came back to Earth today, all swaddled again, which three Wise Men would show up in Bedlamhem to report on it. Would it be Old Schoolers like the New York Times, The Guardian, and The Washington Post? Or would it be the Upstarts — Amazon, Google, and Facebook?
Some things are certain: they are all pushers, dealing in cut info, trying to slide you into that crystal blue persuasion dream; and they are all in it for the frankincense and myrrh, baby. And all of them are spies for the Mighty Whitey, either directly or in- in- indirectly. And God help us if He came back black: They’d up and lynch Love all over agin’. Eternal recurrence, amor fati, my ass, Mr. Nietzsche.
By John Kendall Hawkins
Australia’s the kind of place where, after twenty years here, you can wake up one morning to a sucker-punch epiphany — wow! This is what it would be like if the South had won the Civil War. No slavery, but a mindset, sometimes an arrogance that comes at you like Dylan’s twisty freight train. Not a place to feel like an outsider. It can seem a bit surreal, a place where, from coast to coast, they can force their children to read To Kill A Mockingbird in the day to educate them on the banality of injustice, but then bring them along to the lynching of an Uppity that night. These are dangerous, Sam Kinison-like thoughts, and as Bobby would say, “If my thought-dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” So I cool it.
On the other hand, by comparison to America, Australia has a model social safety net in place. Bernie Sanders would be envious. Socialist Democratic values work. You can provide backbone support for public needs, and still leave plenty of elbowing room for capitalism and getting obscenely rich. They have Medicare-for-all here; while the system needs tweaks, nobody goes without necessary medical care; just make an appointment. Tertiary education can be paid for through generous government loans paid back through a sensible income-indexed scheme. (Once upon a time, tertiary education here was free.) And there is government assistance with income and housing for those in need.
It’s a self-described “clever” and “lucky” country, but also, like many other countries, full of strange and sometimes dark contradictions. Waltzing Matilda laid back, but Sam Kinison in your face, too.
Julian Assange is from this place. He spent part of his early childhood on Magnetic Island, off the coast of Queensland. One account describes his “wild…Tom Sawyer-like” childhood. And there is even a Jumping Frog of Calaveras County atmosphere to the place that Mark Twain would have smiled at. Later, he moved to the mainland and had a sturm-und-drang childhood, featuring the misfit blues and loneliness, but also self-education and computers — just as the Internet was mainstreaming. Then Dennis the Menace grew up to become an Enema of the State.
He’s a kind of Libertarian (and libertine) who wants limited corporate and governmental influence on individual lives; he loathes all the strutting, data-driven Machiavells, and champions the dying light of simple privacy, even if it must be decked out in the chainmail of be-knighted encryption. He seems to repel both Democrats and Republicans these days — leaks and hacks, hacks and leaks: the Democrats hate him for undermining Hillary; Trump seems to hate Assange for helping him get elected and seems in a hurry to get him imprisoned for espionage before Wikileaks can release the president’s tax records.
It can seem shocking at times — the mind double-takes — to think that this guy came from a nation that doesn’t especially value the freedoms he pushes on the rest of the world. Unlike most modern democratic countries, there is no Bill of Rights, or the like, to fall back on in Australia if the government decides to “crack down” on freedom. Aussies largely see themselves as “egalitarian,” and the aforementioned solid social safety net is a great quietener of political passions, but the American-driven War on Terror has begun to expose just how few protections people have here, should that ever matter to them.
Thus, a few years back, Australia passed an anti-terrorist measure in parliament, which, while providing for the necessary means to deal with incidents, used language that left open the possibility that the law could lead to serious abuses, such as torture and the undermining of the preumption of innocence. More recently, anti-encryption legislation was passed that has alarmed some citizens, who see it as an assault on privacy and journalism. And even more recently, a legislative amendment to the espionage act made trafficking in top secret information illegal — a virtual shutting down of whistleblowing in Australia.
As Senator David Leyonhjelm, expressed in a Melbourne Age article recently, “These provisions are shameful. As a nation we should be better than this. Australia is engaged in a fight against barbarism, but that does not justify becoming barbarians ourselves.” As in most places, many Australians would just see the sum of such legislation as a matter of having a contingency plan in place to prevent horrific terrorist events from happening and for dealing with them efficiently if they do. However, there are some troubling signs of suppression already at work.
Recently, the Sydney offices of the national ABC network were raided by Australian Federal Police and a huge trove of data was seized, including leaked documents, images and videos, knowns as The Afghan Files, purporting to contain evidence of the murders of civilians and their cover-up. The ABC had produced and aired a seven-part story in 2017. Two years later: No story in the future — or the past — is safe from prosecution, it seems. The ABC believes the public interest is established; the exposed events being a revelation of military war criminality gone uninvestigated. When asked for a response, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison was “dismissive.”
In a separate incident, an ABC journalist’s home in Canberra was raided in an effort to secure sensitive documents obtained by reporter Annika Smethurst which she used in a 2018 story to show Australian Signal Directorate plans to enhance its domestic spying capacity. News, because, like the CIA in America, they’re not empowered to spy domestically. So, again, it’s definitely news of public interest. The government just wants to know who leaked the story.
The besieged and shrinking media in Australia has been intimidated by legal constraints for years — even away from national security issues. For instance, back in 2014 the Israelis bombed Gaza in a much-publicized incident that brought international outrage. Israelis were captured by photographers at a Sderot hillside watching the carnage and “treating the bombing as a spectator sport.” A Sydney Morning Herald cartoonist, drawing information from various photos, depicted the scene in such a way that Jewish defamation groups attacked the cartoon as “anti-semitic” because the cartoonist used religious symbols (star of David, kippah), as well as showing an Israeli holding a TV remote control, as if viewing a Netflix streaming movie. Cowed editors pulled the cartoon, despite the political accuracy of its depiction. (Still at it. Just saying.)
Australian politicians are on record as regarding Julian Assange as a criminal; one former attorney-general even went so far as to suggest cancelling his passport and charging him with treason, and, if convicted, of imprisoning him for life. Under present laws, even possession of the brief that suggested he be charged with treason could be criminalized and a journalist reporting on it charged. In this political milieu it is amazing that Julian Assange ever grew up to be a defender of freedom — the press, individual public rights, human privacy. Amazing. Probably it helped enormously that he just didn’t fit in.
Julian Assange, like most journalists, just wants to keep the Bastards honest. It’s the job of the Fourth Estate. Like it says over the masthead of the Washington Post, (maybe ironically) “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” We need to know about atrocities committed overseas in our name (see flag). We need to know when elected representatives who promised the moon landing to put them in office are lying ot hiding facts that would interest the people who them there. And we need to know when they are “cracking down” on freedom in Australia every bit as much as when they are “cracking down” down on freedom of expression in Tiananmen Square.
In September, Scott Morrison will become the first Australian Prime Minister to visit the White House since John Howard. (Howard, no fan of a Bill of Rights at home, once demanded that the Iraqis include such a Bill in their own constitution. That’s kind of the way it is here.) Who knows what Scott and Donald will talk about. But one likely subject is immigration policy. Morrison, the architect of Australia’s current No Boat People Will Ever Become Citizens Here policy, can talk Trump through how to make Guatemala his own Manus Island, complete with compounds overflowing with toilet shit – you know, so they get the message.
Looking back, it’s almost as if President Dwight D. Eisenhower were trying to warn the American public, in his Farewell speech of 1961, of mad doctors at work in the labs of our exceptional democracy — what we’ve come to call the Deep State. Said Ike: “We should take nothing for granted: Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Then, in the fall of 1963, came the Big Bang of Dallas, re-constellating the bright and shiny firmament of the American Dream. All we Americans who came of age in the Sixties know that the afterglow of the Baby Boomer years came to a shocking end the day John F. Kennedy was blasted onto Abraham Zapruder’s 8MM movie camera. Good night, Camelot. It was as if from that moment on, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, “the broken mirror of innocence” could be seen in each and every face.
American journalists spent the next generation trying to dig up a presumed government cover-up of the who, what, why, where and how of that dark Dallas day, leading to no definitive resolution decades later. The manifest destiny of American Exceptionalism has been weighed down with pathogenic cynicism and paranoia ever since. One measure of this is suggested by the exponential rise of guns owned in America, from approximately 80 million in 1960 to a whopping 400 million today, as well as a complementary rise in right-wing militias — estimated to be 500 groups. Underneath it all, Americans know something is happening, but they don’t know what it is.
One senses this growing cultural angst, while plodding through the first 100 slushy pages or so of Seymour (Sy) Hersh’s recently published memoir, Reporter. Given that he is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, as well as a five-time winner of journalism’s most coveted award, the George Polk, I expected Hersh to jump right in medias res, with, say, a previously unknown anecdote about his My Lai massacre coverage, or, perhaps, an analysis of the state of journalism in these reactionary “fake news” days of the Trump era. But Reporter is a memoir, a story about a life, not just reporting. Re-performing those pages according to the rhythm Hersh intended reveals to this reader a deeper understanding of his ideological roots.
It’s important to know that Sy is a first generation son of immigrant Eastern European parents come to America to escape the persecution of the Nazi death-machine. It’s telling information to learn that he had relatives who perished in a concentration camp. You can see how he sees: the excesses of unrestrained power have devastating effects on the lives of ordinary people. One can imagine his exposure to people from all walks of life as he worked long hours in his father’s dry cleaning business. It’s instructive to trace his kindled desire to write for the public, from his copy boy days, to a stint in the Army as a journalist, to his luck-laden climb up the ranks of wire service work — re-writes mostly, but also the first signs of his investigative instinct coming to fruition. His first major publication, a piece on the US government mistreatment of the Oglala Sioux on their reservations, made it to the Chicago Tribune in 1963.
And so these many pages go, an account of a young man’s growing consciousness of the workings of the world that parallels the social and political awakening of the general population after the first Kennedy assassination. It’s a truism, but Hersh writes, “It’s the core lesson of being a journalist — read before you write.” Hersh did plenty of that: he has a law background; he’s history buff; and he knows the value of fiction for relating facts, as attested to by some his favorite reads – – Saul Bellow, William Styron, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Nelson Algren, James Farrell.
He continued down the Road to Erudition, moving from Chicago to Washington in the process, where he met legendary journalist and mentor I. F. Stone. The “kindred spirits” took long walks together. Hersh writes, “We talked incessantly about how to do better reporting, and I was in the hands of a master; it was to the shame of the mainstream media—and my pipe smoker colleagues in the Pentagon pressroom—that his bi-weekly reports and analyses, as publisher of I. F. Stone’s Weekly, were viewed as little more than a nuisance.” Hersh has met with similar disdain from the MSM, despite once having been part of it.
Taking after Stone’s exposure of the CIA false flag operation in the Gulf of Tonkin that precipitated a full scale military ‘retaliatory’ bombing of Hanoi (an operation Stone points out that was previously tried out in Yemen by the British), Hersh continued his muckraking work at the Pentagon, until it lead him to his own first major investigative journalism piece on the not-so-stars-and-stripey machinations of the military — specifically their handling and cover-up of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) stockpiles scattered throughout America. The piece, “Just a Drop Can Kill,” appeared in the May 1967 issue of The New Republic, and announced to the Journalism world that a new sheriff was in town and, like Stone, he had no intention of looking the other way.
As his reputation for integrity grew in Washington, especially amongst the more-honorable officers in the Pentagon, more and more information was leaked to him. One of his favorite targets was Robert McNamara, who was the embodiment of the MIC, being both the Secretary of Defense and the former president of Ford Motors. Who would know better than Bob about assembly line wars? Today, it’s America’s biggest export.
Just before his career as a top-notch investigative reporter took off, he met up with the somewhat taciturn Mr. Deeds-like character, Ralph Nader. The two got together regularly. Writes Hersh,
“My [office] neighbor a few doors down was a young Ralph Nader, also a loner, whose exposé of the safety failures in the American automobile industry had changed the industry. There was nothing in those days quite like a quick lunch at the downstairs coffee shop with Ralph. He would grab a spoonful of my tuna fish salad, flatten it out on a plate, and point out small pieces of paper and even tinier pieces of mouse shit in it. He was marvelous, if a bit hard to digest.”.
Together, they were like two Davids forming a tag-team tandem up against the Goliath forces of the public government mask of the Deep State, which is to say, the military-industrial complex that Ike had admonished the nation could only be restrained by “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry.” (Nader is still pointing out turds to this day.)
Reporter gathers pace as Hersh recounts the background details leading to the richest years of his investigative career. After leaving Pentagon officials aghast with the CBW revelations, he gets wind of a hushed-up massacre that took place in a Vietnam village in which a captain is accused of being responsible for the murder of 109 unarmed civilians, including women and children. The My Lai Massacre happened 50 years ago. Thanks to Hersh’s reporting of the event, the so-called Noble Cause in ‘Nam was seen differently by the appalled public, who reading Hersh’s freelance account and gazing at lurid Life magazine photos, realized they were supporting war criminality on a scale even Exceptionalist Americans found unacceptable. Hersh’s report flamed the already growing fiery anti-war protests. “I knew it would end the war and win prizes,” he writes. Hersh was right about the prize (1970 Pulitzer), but not about the war.
One of the best things about his memory of his My Lai investigation is his description of the nuts and bolts of how he went about uncovering facts. After Hersh tracks down a lawyer for Lt. William Calley, the officer scapegoated for the massacre, he humanizes with his source to ease the way to the information he seeks: “It was an extreme example of the Hersh rule: Never begin an interview by asking core questions. I wanted him to know I was smart and capable of some abstract thought. And I wanted him to like me and, perhaps, trust me.” After years of reporting, Seymour Hersh has many trusting sources.
Following his freelance work alerting citizens about My Lai, Hersh accepted an offer from the New York Times, where he went on to tackle Watergate issues, his work as important and groundbreaking as the more celebrated duo Woodward and Bernstein at the Washington Post. Hersh also revealed the secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, which led him to look into the power relationship between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Hersh details how the two plotted to take down the democratically elected government of Chile.
Pertinent to our times, Hersh also reported on the Kissinger-ordered wiretapping of political foes and, more importantly, the secret surveillance and infiltration by the CIA of domestic groups, including anti-war protesters, a gross violation of their charter (not to mention illegal). Such activity seems quaint today, given the global surveillance of people everywhere by the NSA and 5 Eyes, as revealed by the courageous whistleblowing of Edward Snowden.
Hersh has even reported on the danger, in the closing days of the Nixon Watergate crisis, as he was getting set to be impeached, that Nixon might call in the military to surround the White House in order to stay in power — in short, a coup d’etat. What might Trump do, if his presidency were similarly pushed?
Such investigative work would be enough for one career, but Hersh went on from there to provide hidden details in a number of other cases. In Reporter he discusses his 9-11 reporting and its aftermath, including the failures of communication in the Bush administration leading up to terrorist attack, as well as the abuses at Abu Ghraib, and the failures of the Osama bin Laden story following his execution in Pakistan. He’s even reported on the shortcomings of the John F. Kennedy legacy in The Dark Side of Camelot. (Interestingly enough, Kennedy didn’t come up once in the first 100 pages.) Hersh’s career represents a mountain of momentous public service work.
But Reporter is not a retirement account; Hersh is still at work, digging, revealing and not only continuing to provide important information to keep the public ‘alert and knowledgeable’ about Deep State machinations, but, perhaps more importantly, acting as a crucial gadfly to the shortcomings of the mainstream media, which has largely abrogated its responsibility to be adversarial advocates for the greater democratic good. It turns out that not only the bastards in Congress and the White House need to be kept honest by good reporting, but also the Fourth Estate. Trump’s view of the MSM’s reportage as “fake news” is not as false as it should be. While Reporter makes one nostalgic for the good ol’ days of real ‘resistance’ to the bastards in power, one wonders whether there is enough wind left in the sails of the ship of state to move forward, or are we headed for the militias? Will be ‘allowed’ to keep an eye on the deep Surveillance State?
Late in April 70 years ago, Allied forces, mopping up at the end of World War II, began entering the hundreds of Nazi death camps sprinkled throughout Europe, near metropolises and in countrysides alike. Their emanating scents ignored, their in-plain-sight locales hidden in the vile unconsciousness of ideological righteousness, you might say they were as ubiquitous as McDonalds franchises.
Though I like to consider myself conscientious about Jewish questions, I hadn’t actually thought about the death camps for quite some time. However, as a subscriber to the PBS Frontline newsletter, into my Inbox recently arrived a link to Memories of the Camps, an hour-long film depicting the discovery of the camps and their internal combustions, more often than not a confluence of the banal and the grisly.
Narrated by a wizened Trevor Howard, the viewer is brought through a quick history lesson, including the rise of the Nazi party to power in a politically divided Germany. Many people have assumed that the Nazis rose in an overwhelming groundswell of nationalistic pride, but actually, as Howard points out, though the Nazi party garnered some 17 million votes in the 1933 election, other parties collectively received around 20 million votes and would have come to rule had they been able to form a coalition against the Nazis.
One gets such nuggets of tragedy while the film flows with scene after scene of carnage and depravity, although, to be sure, not on the scale of, say, Shoah. The film reinforces the Hannah Arendt ‘banality of evil’ meme throughout — and very effectively — depicting every day Germans going about their daily business as if the camps were merely places of employment with bad workplace ethics, and the stench of burning human flesh merely another collateral industrial pollutant.
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film’s production is its direction by a young Alfred Hitchcock. You might argue that Hitchcock later became the master of the banal and grisly oleo, and after watching Camps one imagines a young director deeply traumatized by the scenes of ghastly horror he found mixed in with the nonchalance that people come to treat even such camp experiences.
And in one scene it is rather disturbing when Hitchcock shows the shock on the faces of post-war German villagers forced to visit one camp where a table is set up and on which are table lamps with shades made of human flesh. The genuine awe that explodes their naivety is a recurring theme throughout Hitchcock’s later work.
However, the most compelling images are those of the faces of corpses in the piles being bulldozed toward open mass graves. In some of them (and we see a few such moving piles) there are women, their mouths open in Edvard Munch-like screams, the beauty of their facial details mocked by the pale mascara of death. Indeed, the opening scene could have inspired the shower scene in Psycho, after the deed is done, the striking music silent, the beautiful visage still in an eddy of bloody water swirling around the vertiginous drain. A life stilled.
It is now known that the death camps were the Nazi solution to the Jewish Question. I’ve given more reflection to the Jewish Question than most gentiles I know. Though I was christened a Catholic and made it into the orthodoxy so far as making my confirmation, I lapsed rather regularly, until my lapse became agnosticism. The fact is most of the formative influences on my life were Jews. I frankly don’t see how I’d be alive today without the benign, though indirect, influence of Jews in my life.
The first foster home I was in the care of the Rosenbergs, a Jewish family, with three older girls, from the Boston burbs, who had a pond out back with ducks and a willow, peanut butter in giant tins, and who wanted to adopt we three brothers.
Back in 1965, when my single mom had no phone, an old Jewish person next door saved her life when she cut her wrists with mirror shards. Bennett Cerf and Ogden Nash filled me with the delight of puns and language play that became the essence of my lingual shtick a half century later.
Early Woody Allen standup sharpened my sense of society’s farcical relativism, and his early films — Bananas: the decree: the revolutionary dictator’s first announcement to his people: “from now on everyone must wear their underwear on the outside of their pants.” A revolution in humor. Plus, I actually liked the idea.
But there was also Lenny Bruce and his savage humor, all of it on the mark and unwelcome, a kind of anti-hero, a Jewish James Dean, creating the very cliffs he would later be chased toward and driven off by bigots and fascists. Bob Dylan captured the sentiment in his song from Shot of Love.
The first Holocaust narrative I ever read came at 10 years old: Elie Wiesel’s Night, a memoir that moved me so profoundly that many years later I sought admission to BU just to get a chance at being a student in his class.
Saul Bellow’s Herzog is my favorite novel; each letter therein a layer of being, a nuance of consciousness; unmatched profundity from small things to all the great concepts. Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead. And Philip Roth. His story, “The Conversion of the Jews,” was not only funny, but recalled the time when my family was the only Catholics in the all Jewish Boston neighborhood Mattapan.
It was in there that I felt my first burn of shame after slapping one Jeffrey Rosenbaum across the face following a kickball dispute and watching him not strike back but weep. The Jewish mother on the first floor of our three-decker watching, becoming the inspiration, I’m sure, for my later pursuit of philosophy, asking me as I sat alone on the steps, “I’d really like to know what makes you tick.” A question I have pursued in every direction since.
There was Nat Hentoff, my first writing mentor. Abbie Hoffman, my first vision of beauteous political theater, who directly inspired my later application (and admission) to BrandeisUniversity. Revolution for the hell of it, indeed. Why not? The universe does.
There was Lu, my shack-up lover for three years of university life, and now my best friend. Her mother, who gave me prints of the Thames and a vision of a mapped out infinity.
Emily Meyer, for whom I was a teaching assistant, and who later became my most prolific correspondent as I made my way around the world like a Don Quixote without windmills.
There’s Lloyd Schwartz, my best poetry instructor, a man of immense culture and humanity and beauty, who nurtured my raw emotional energy into an Academy of American Poets prize.
Have I had a greater aesthetic/cultural influence on my life than Bob Dylan? I’m tempted to say Marley, but Dylan remains that beautiful mystery and revealer. Doesn’t he? My favorite song is “Love Minus Zero.”
There was Steve Satell, who taught me the leg-hand hook shot. Heinrich Heine, the first poet I ever translated from German. Arthur Rubinsteing, Felix Mendelsohn, Leonard Bernstein, Susan Sontag, Seymour Hersch.
The Israeli brothers who I shared a house with in Rockville, where I worked for the Social Security Administration, and had to be nice processing retirement claims from barbed eyes CIA agents and a German woman who came in one time with a number tattooed on her wrist that broke my heart and made me quit my job.
There was the time I was an Israel commando in the Raid on Entebbe.
These are just a tiny fraction of the Jews who have meant something in my life.
So when I think of the commemoration of the Death Camps, it is not abstract. I think of these, my friends and mentors and influences who have made me who I am — all of them tumbling, rolling, stiff and lifeless piles of love and humanity bulldozed toward an open mass grave by the military industrial complex that was Nazi Germany.
And even as I deplore most contemporary Israeli policy toward Palestinians in the occupied lands, I comprehend with a passionate heart the Jewish proclamation of “Never Again!”
The PBS film is free to all, and is an understated and intelligent glimpse into the thinking and consequences of Nazi imperial insanity, which still has considerable resonance for our times. It was never about Jews, but the endless fight for civilization against all the cancers and malignant angels of human nature.
Lots of people when they think of journalism have in mind the mum-and-pop variety — car crashes and the latest gossip, local politics, sports, all the little details about “the time the doorknob broke,” to trot out an old Bob Dylan lyric. A step up from this layer of short and punchy news bits is that more ‘literate’ class of journalism traditionally associated with the New York Times and Washington Post, the so-called newspapers of record, which publish only the most polished, scrupulous pieces by the most ethical journalists. Or so the story goes.
But there is a third layer, the most important one, compared to which all other reportage is mere puff piecework, and this reified sphere is known as investigative journalism, often occupied by paunchy supermen and lithe linguists, such as Benjamin Franklin, H. L. Mencken, Martha Gellhorn, Jack Anderson, George Washington Williams, Seymour Hersh, Woodward and Bernstein, Hunter S. Thompson (if you quick-toke a doobie, this example will seem more obvious), Mike Tabibi, and even Ernest Hemingway – the list is long and legendary. What sets their work apart is its adversarial engagement, the refusal to take things at face value or as laid out by the spokespeople for the rich and powerful, the relentless willingness to dig deeper and deeper until the truth is exposed.
Such investigative journalists are the vanguard of the so-called Fourth Estate, bearing the formidable task of watchdogging the other three estates – the Executive, Judiciary and Legislative – to ensure that they remain ‘checks and balances’ to each other in their assigned constitutional tasks of maintaining the Democratic Republic’s integrity and vibrancy. While such journalists are often associated with a ‘paper of record’, their work is so crucial that sometimes some separation even from their publisher is necessary, since publications are owned, and owners have political agendas, and those agendas may conflict with the findings of deep journalism. Recall, for instance, the New York Time’s decision to hold back, on the brink of the November 2004 presidential election, an explosive investigatory report on the Bush administration’s use of the NSA for warrantless domestic wiretapping (shocking revelations that beat Snowden’s by years) – a delay with serious repercussions for the Times’ reputation.
Prior to Glenn Greenwald’s in-depth journalistic interpretation and analysis of Edward Snowden’s raw NSA revelations last year, undoubtedly the most significant investigative journalism in US history came with the publication and analysis of the Pentagon Papers, released to the press by ex-Rand analyst Daniel Ellsberg back in 1971. Of the three branches of government, the Executive is the one that requires the most watchdogging because it is the branch wherein a single individual – the president – has a disproportionate and unilateral power at his disposal, compared to the Judiciary and Legislative, where decisions must come as the result of conference and consensus. The president can potentially become another form of king, if not checked. What the Pentagon Papers uncovered was the history of America’s secret presidential war-mongering in Viet Nam, beginning with the Eisenhower administration down through Nixon’s utterly corrupt regime – a history of unilateral and illegal foreign policy decision-making that by-passed Congress and the people they represent.
This is not merely academic or specious. It seems that very few people recall now that when the chips were down for Nixon, he was actively considering a military coup to stay in office. As legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh wrote in a long-form piece for the Atlantic in 1983,
The notion that Nixon could at any time resort to extraordinary steps to preserve his presidency was far more widespread in the government than the public perceived in the early days of Watergate or perceives today.
Nixon’s Kool-Aid drinking (and secret bombing) buddy, Henry Kissinger, had once said that “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” which would suggest that in the end the jowly president was akin to Onan the Barbarian.
This is the kind of outcome that makes the ill-defined, open-ended “War on Terror” so dangerous to global democracy and liberty, especially as its execution is melded to the most comprehensive and intrusive state surveillance apparatus the world has ever seen – an eavesdropping system designed to not only ostensibly catch ‘terrorists’ before they act, but to treat all citizens everywhere as potential suspects, but especially policy dissenters and journalists who might look into the hidden agenda and expose Administrative (which is to say, Executive office) lies and corruption, with their clear and present danger to the Bill of Rights and the Rule of Law. In this respect, many people regard the Obama administration as a far greater threat to constitutional stability than Nixon ever got to be. Indeed, there are some who would argue that we currently live under a military coup, given that even our privacy has been militarized (and/or corporatized).
Consequently, it is no small deal that the Obama administration is trying to force James Risen, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist for the New York Times, to divulge his sourcefor the revelation that the CIA attempted to sabotage an Iranian nuclear facility by planting false blueprints through a double agent, which is an act of war and a crime. But Risen and his source have been under surveillance for a considerable period of time, and, given the comprehensive nature of the national surveillance dragnet, they almost certainly already know who Risen’s source is and could proceed with prosecuting him without the reporter’s testimony. But Risen has a family, and together they have a life, and Obama is hope a-dopin’ that Risen will cave in under the weight of what he’ll lose and will acknowledge who his source was. And so he waits, now that the Supreme Court has refused to hear his case, to see whether Obama’s Justice Department will have him jailed for contempt or, perhaps worse, fine him into penury.
That’s why Daniel Ellsberg has come out in defense of Risen. As was the case when he released the Pentagon Papers, this is yet another attempt to codify Executive secrecy in defiance of the Constitution. As Ellsberg told the ACLU,
“The pursuit of Risen is a warning to potential sources that journalists cannot promise them confidentiality for disclosing Executive Branch criminality, recklessness, deception, unconstitutional policies or lying us into war. Without protecting confidentiality, investigative journalism required for accountability and democracy will wither and disappear.”
But Eric Holden, whose Justice Department would oversee Risen’s imprisonment on contempt charges has told confidantes that no reporter would be jailed “as long as he was attorney general,” which sounds almost heartening until you remember back to how many people resigned or were fired during Nixon’s long demise.
However, even if the Obama administration lets Risen off the hook, the message has already gotten out to potential leakers and whistleblowers that this president will destroy anyone who reveals the lies and strategies of the Executive and his MIC handlers. As New York Times investigative reporter Scott Shane – the journalist whose piece on illegal NSA wiretapping was pulled before the November 2004 election – told the Committee to Protect Journalists:
“I think we have a real problem. Most people are deterred by those leaks prosecutions. They’re scared to death. There’s a gray zone between classified and unclassified information, and most sources were in that gray zone. Sources are now afraid to enter that gray zone. It’s having a deterrent effect. If we consider aggressive press coverage of government activities being at the core of American democracy, this tips the balance heavily in favor of the government.”
So, again, it would be optimum for Risen to crack and sing; that would have a quick, decisive and probably irreversible chill on future investigative journalism, but the Obama administration, or the next one (these precedents get passed on) can still get the effect they require by scaring the bejeezuz out of leakers. Not only must the Obama administration be stopped, but there needs to be some Bastille-storming, followed by the roll of fat political heads down the red carpet, in order for this systematic en-Gaza-ment of the world to be reversed.
And there may be nations out there, maybe even ‘friendly’ ones, rubbing their collective hands in either schadenfreude or in their own Machiavellian anticipation of purges to come. As goes American democracy, so goes the world – call it American Inclusionism. Certainly Europeans are not immune. The Czech Republic, to take a free-thinking European example, while enjoying a high rating for freedom of the press from Reporters Without Borders (currently ranked 13, just ahead of Germany), was also regarded according to a Gallup poll as having one of the most corrupt governments (94% of Czech respondents regarded their government as corrupt, second in the world behind only Tanzania). Such corruption is all that’s required to turn-key a free press into one that is critically constrained. And as the Gallup poll suggests, there’s plenty of corruption to go around: eventually capitalism doth make cowards of us all, it seems.
No doubt the so-called War on Terror will one day end. All wars end eventually; even wars conducted against an abstract noun. In this case you might have more luck guessing than normal. Look for a cease-and-desist just as soon as Syria and Iran are seized, their gas and oil accounted for; Afghanistan has been made safe for the TAPpipeline, which energy execs hope will run through Iran to the Persian –er, Arabian –Gulf; the Russians and Chinese have been neo-liberated, with Putin piked, Snowden rendered, the Great Wall: keychains; and two secretly negotiated sovereignty-crushing treaties – the TTPT and the Trans-Atlantic trade deal – are installed, along with the dissolution of net neutrality. Then, suddenly, the Apollonian sun will rise and shine once more, the doves will chirp like vultures of leathery love, and Walmarts will hold a 3-day only sale of Google Glasses (don’t be seen without them).
There will always be nuts-and-bolts journalism about the time the doorknob broke. It’s safe; no power is threatened. Obama will be free to tell his updated jokes about drone strikes to the White House press corps, perhaps adding colourful descriptions of cluster munitions ballet, and they will laugh, as they always do, champagne in hand, all excited for a future as crazy as they all are.
I have sometimes wondered how some Johnny Journo, transported back into biblical times, might have reported on, say, the Massacre of the Innocents, or one of the many other atrocities which spice up the prolific stir-fried testaments to depravity that was the human condition prior to the arrival of the Enlightenment and the saving grace of Reason. Of course, most biblical historians now suggest that many of these kinds of atrocities were apocryphal or metaphorical, and somehow designed to push a meme or conceit about ancient justice. It probably never happened, scholars say; they weren’t those kinds of people.
And then you flash way forward to the 20th century, way past the Enlightenment and all its lessons and admonishments, and read that, according to a Cornell University study, some 231 million people were “killed or allowed to die by human decision” in the century. And that such a new testament to the dark side of the old human condition seemingly reached its abysmal bottom with Stalin’s purges (estimated to have led to 20-60 million deaths) and the Holocaust, which resulted in the genocidal extermination of some 6 million Jews. Summing up this moral cataclysm, Robert Jackson, U.S. chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials opened with,
“The crimes which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating, that a civilisation cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.”
The obvious lesson that comes out of this is that we must guard against wilful ignorance, that we must educate ourselves and be active citizens, and avoid becoming Good Germans or Good Sheeple who look the other way as the banality of evil deeds have their corrosive way with our moral consciences. Never again should one people be allowed to obliterate another with impunity – because, implied Jackson, civilisation will just crack up if we let this shit go.
Thus, when we pull Johnny Journo back through the time tunnel, back into the now, him dragging back tales of fanatical religious zealotry leading to horrific unilateral interpretations of justice, we needn’t insist that he look upon the current doings in the middle east “objectively.” After all, even ideally, only four of the five Ws of basic journalism – Who, What, When and Where – can be addressed objectively, and usually in a lede of some 25 words or so. The fifth W – Why? – has frequently proven to be a devil’s detail work of word-framing. The best the beat journalist can ever do is present a sense of balance to the reader. There are at least two sides to every story.
But the reporting that takes place under normal conditions is significantly different than the reporting that takes place in the face of atrocities. The blown up or dismembered limbs and body parts of women, children and non-combatants require not so much dispassionate observance, if such were possible in the instance, but documenting and keen witnessing, the sounding of the alarm that, as prosecutor Jackson suggested at Nuremberg, civilisation is under threat.
We all know an atrocity when we see one, even if our collective responses to them have been dimmed by years of exposure to the conscience-defiling phantasmagoria of cinematic excess, bodies blown apart, specially effected and disintegrated in more imaginative ways than creation can keep up. And then uploaded to YouTube. Vile snuffs, rapes, beheadings gone gleefully, secret-sinfully viral. We live in a world of textual irony shotgun-married to visceral imagery, of endless subtle smirks delivered in the serial gyrations of market-driven, in-your-face twerks. But long after the sarcastic are exiled to Sardonia, where each man wanders Lear-like, an island entirely unto himself, cast away by the inevitable irrelevance that time brings to all the things that occupy space for the length of a human memory.
But how do we report on such atrocities? If we could send Johnny Journo back to the Auschwitz-Birkhenau on the day of its liberation, to report on the stenches and smoke, the trenches and piled-up drained-to-the-bone bodies, the barbed wire and abattoir-like facilities, would we expect objectivity and balanced reporting from Johnny in that situation? Could we reasonably demand that he detach his subjectivity from the naked horror before him, interview first a zombie-like survivor, followed by asking a captured prison guard, “Jeez, Sergeant Schultz, just what were you guys thinking?” And, of course, no matter how moving what Johnny wrote was, it could not compete with the beckoning, come-and-see moving images of that bulldozer pushing those emaciated bodies into a mass grave, bodies so denuded of humanity that you could not even tell that this batch was once the string section of the Warsaw symphony. The image of these piled up bodies have become a searing universal symbol of barbarity, but also a trademark of the Jewish diaspora, an image always accompanied by the righteous slogan: Never Again. And if the 20th century could have minted a coin to bequeath to the 21st it might have had a depiction of the Golden Rule on one side and the bulldozer pushing bodies on the other.
While Gutenberg may have revolutionised the technology of language, bringing it from the chattering teeth and tongue palate of the oral tradition to the moveable type and ink plate of the press, one could argue that it was the evolution of the camera obscura, from its still box of shadow-lit light to today’s restless high def digital pixilations, that has made us understand our collective reality a different way. Nevertheless, in the continuing battle ‘for hearts and minds’ that is the coliseum of the politicians and Google ad-sensors, even the most graphic and disturbing images require the contextualization of reportage.
When it comes to the atrocities of war, which include the “human decisions” that lead to unnecessary deaths (the so-called collateral incidentals), the best example of the melding of context and image into one package of psychological influence is the reportage of the My Lai massacre by young investigative journo Seymour Hersh back in 1969. I was just a teenager back then, and, like most people, did not actually read the Hersh pieces, but had his findings summarised by a newsreader while an iconic still image of naked terrified children running down a dirt road lined with bodies machine-gunned by US military forces screamed out from the TV set: atrocity. Even as a youngster, the report was deeply disturbing, the way it would be if you were suddenly informed that your favourite uncle had just been arrested for chopping up his entire family.
The response went deeper amongst the policy-makers, academics and student activists who had actually read Hersh’s St. Louis Dispatch account of Lt. Calley and the events leading up to the March 1968 massacre. And while Hersh’s reportage did not by itself effect immediate changes or prevent further American atrocities (the Nixon-Kissinger secret bombings of Cambodia and Laos were still yet to come), it certainly stirred up and catalysed the anti-war movement, which eventually led to bad plumbing and Nixon being shit out of office in shame in 1973.
But the American military learned from the journalistic coverage of the Viet Nam war, the so-called ‘first TV war’, and adjusted, and have controlled, as best they can, the imagery and contextualization of all the many big and small conflicts and engagements they have been involved with since. And after the three towers came down in Manhattan in near-freefall speed on September 11, the War on Terror has been prosecuted with a virtual gag order on the MSM. The invasion of Afghanistan; the blatant, criminal lies that led to Iraq’s evisceration; the regional chaos created in Libya, Syria and Yemen, with plans still progressing for taking out Iran; the crisis fomented in the Ukraine seemingly to pay back Putin for his interference with Obama’s careful planning to explode Syria on the pre-text of chemical weaponry; the Asian pivot that is already an undeclared war on China – all of this gets short shrift by the MSM, while American Exceptionalism is ballooned in a con-flatulence of false patriotism and criminal neo-liberal predation, a gifted whoopy cushion to a world and civilisation all too happy to have a sideline seat to the carnivalesque festivities.
Indeed, under the cover of fighting a War on Terror, America has taken the lead in doing its best to eliminate all efforts to reveal the many atrocities it has committed in the last decade. When Private Bradley Manning went public, through Wikileaks, with the secret cables, but especially with the release of the video depicting an Apache gunship atrocity in Iraq, in which children and a Reuters reporter were murdered, he had to be crushed (along with Julian Assange). When Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye demonstrated with his reporting that US forces were responsible for a cruise missile attack that horribly wiped out 14 women (5 of them pregnant) and 21 children with a cluster bomb, Obama personally arranged for his imprisonment. When Anwar al-Awlaki ’s family went before the Justice Department and begged them to bring their son to justice through long-established rules of law, they droned to death the American citizen son anyway, and, for good measure, droned to death Awlaki’s son, who’d been accused of nothing, a few weeks later, thus setting a precedent for assassinating citizens per order of the Executive alone. And more recently the military-backed government of Egypt has sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to prison for their reporting, a decision that drew puffy ire from US secretary of state John Kerry (though no ultimatums), puffs of smoke that mean little given the American role in installing Egypt’s latest repressive regime.
Indeed, times have never been so precarious for investigative reporters or adversarial journalists. Not if the stats are any indication. According to Reporters Without Borders, 40 journalists have been killed while reporting so far this year. Another 179 have been imprisoned. Almost all of them have come in regions where atrocities are taking place – not just in the middle east, but also in Brazil, Ukraine, and many other places. And where reporters are not being killed outright, in many places, including such bulwarks of democratic liberalism as Australia, are passing new laws designed to suppress dissent and revelation.
So that when we come to how Johnny Journo should cover the atrocities resulting from the recent Gaza invasion by IDF forces, we may need to update our expectations to reflect the reality of what civilisation is up against. If the US, with its pushy Pax Americana, were still pushing its Cold War memes about the importance of installing the institutions of democracy worldwide, including most notably an adversarial journalism that challenged from within regimes the US was disenchanted with, then it would be almost unthinkable that Israel could have gotten away without anything so much as an official rebuke after shooting up the offices of al Jazeera in Gaza and blowing up two al Aksa TV reporters in Gaza recently, who, as “propagandists,” Israel simply regarded as enemy combatants. The American Exceptionalism that once at least pretended to lead the way for moral good, most certainly now leads the way for the atrocious and reprehensible. Everywhere thugs are taking note.
We all know what atrocities look like, and what the world has seen taking place in Gaza over the last few weeks is atrocity, war crimes by any measure. Hundreds of already barely surviving women, children and other civilians were murdered willy nilly by drone missiles and the bombs of supersonic jets supplied by US taxpayers. The US Senate weighed in on who they support in the one-sided slaughter by voting 100-0 in support of Israel’s over-the-top response. The Western mass media has been once again meek and compliant, just as they were back in 2008/9 when the previous set of Israeli atrocities on this scale took place. While there has certainly been popular outrage expressed over the latest merciless barbarity, the MSM has mostly gone along with the same old Israeli shtick of ‘provocation will be met with annihilating force’. Oh well, Atlas shrugged.
But this time the cynicism and suppression of dissent has taken on new dimensions. While Overland literary journal online published without incident “Watching the bombs,” a narrative which described how Israel residents of the hilltop enclave of Sderot set up chairs and munched down snacks as they watched their military rip the bejeezuz out of their occupied territorians, a narrative accompanied by a provocative image depicting a theatre crowd wearing 3D glasses, hysteria knew no bounds just a couple of days ago when a Sydney Morning Herald column on the Gaza mayhem by Mike Carlton was accompanied by a cartoon depicting the scene of carnage with an image of an old man with a long nose, wearing a skullcap and sitting in a seat adorned with the Star of David. While one could certainly understand how the use of religious symbolism could be construed as somewhat insensitive, the fact of the matter is that the inspiration for the cartoon was a photograph of Israelis on the Sderot hillside overlooking the bombing fun, some wearing skullcaps and flaunting the Israeli flag. Anti-Semitism, screamed the Israeli lobby, and forced the newspaper to apologia and retract the cartoon. The response from the Australian government was telling. Senator George Brandis, coincidentally overseeing legislation that will considerably clamp down on whistle-blowing journalism, said of the cartoon that it’s “the kind we haven’t seen since Germany in the 1930s”. And just like that, the scathing, revelatory column on Israel’s atrocities in Gaza, which could have been just as easily penned by the enlightened Jewish Robert Manne, as the gentile Carlton, was buried beneath the controversy over the cartoon.
And this, too, is American-inspired. Indeed, not long ago, when Daily Show comedian Jon Stewart expressed, for the first time, sympathy for Gaza residents undergoing the bombardment, he was lambasted by rabid defenders of Israeli policy. But it’s not just comedians who are subject to scurrilous attacks after daring to criticise Israeli hubris and war criminality, Jimmy Carter, who some would argue was the last actual Democratic president, Clinton and Obama being stooges for the neo-liberals, found himself attacked by his interviewer when he told it like it was about the roadblock to peace in Palestine which has been deliberately constructed by radical Zionist expansionists with a view to eventually evicting or destroying every last tenant’s hold on the land, a kind of terror nullius . As investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill noted in a recent Huffington Post live interview, “”Israeli propagandists are largely given carte blanche to say what they want on American television with very little push-back.”
One might get the impression that Israel citizens are as united behind their government’s actions as the US Senate has proven to be, but that would be wrong. There have been multiple demonstrations within Israel of people fed up with the war in general and with the occupation in particular. There is vigorous debate within the media and plenty of outrage voiced for the atrocities that have taken place. But these views and this debate are largely suppressed by, one imagines, the manipulation of search engine and ranking algorithms.
Whether adversarial and investigative journalism can even survive 2014, given the enormous pressure it is under from the US government, is anyone’s guess. Consider that New York Timesinvestigative journalist James Risen who may go to jail for contempt rather than reveal the identity of a whistleblower who provided Risen with classified information about a CIA plan to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. Formerly prominent whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers back in 1971, which initiated Nixon’s long, drawn-out demise, said recently,
“The pursuit of Risen is a warning to potential sources that journalists cannot promise them confidentiality for disclosing Executive Branch criminality, recklessness, deception, unconstitutional policies or lying us into war. Without protecting confidentiality, investigative journalism required for accountability and democracy will wither and disappear.”
And that would be the final atrocity for Democracy, with no one left to witness the bulldozing of our emaciated truths about unbridled power into a shallow grave.
 Milton Leitenberg, “Deaths in Wars and Conflicts in the 20th Century,” Cornell University Peace Studies Program, Occasional Paper #29, 3rd Ed., August 2003.