Written by Chris Floyd
Saturday, 05 April 2014 23:32
One last word on the recent contretemps here involving Glenn Greenwald. I want to own up to a misstatement I made in my reply to Glenn. It was, literally, a parenthetical comment made in passing, not a main part of the argument, but it did contain a misstatement of fact, for which I apologize, and which I can only ascribe to the failing memory of an aging brain. The comment was this:
... (I have never advocated a "total dump" of the data, by the way; in fact, I don't know anyone who has.) ...
This is not factual. A writer I've quoted very often here -- Arthur Silber, whose medical crisis was in fact the subject of the original post that sparked another post that eventually led to Greenwald's comment -- has indeed called for a "total data dump," and has done so for a long time. Being familiar with his work, I knew this, of course, but in writing my somewhat hurried reply to Glenn (hurried because, for god's sake, one can't spend untold hours chewing blogospherical cud when there is a real life to be lived out there in the real world), I forgot Silber's very powerful and penetrating arguments for, yes, opening all the secrets of the national security state -- or as he terms it, more accurately, the Death State -- to the eyes of the world.
Silber has usefully reminded us of this fact in a new post, which takes off from my erroneous statement and lays out once more his compelling case for exposing all of the corrupted innards of our national security apparat. In addition to his own arguments -- which directly address the various objections to this course -- he also brings in a searing quote from Hannah Arendt on the issue of "irresponsibility" when confronted with the implacable power of a state based on fear, violence, conformity and "projecting dominance." I recommend anyone interested in these issues to read Silber's piece in full.
Please keep in mind that we are dealing with a state that believes it has the arbitrary, unchallengeable right to kill any of its citizens, at any time, without any judicial process whatsoever, simply at the whim of the president -- or any of the innumerable agents he empowers to kill on his behalf as they see fit. This is the reality we live under -- a reality reconfirmed just this week by a federal judge, who ruled that the families of American citizens murdered by their own government have no standing to challenge this action in a court of law. And of course, this system extends its arbitrary license to kill to every human being on earth. It claims the right to kill anyone, anywhere, at the order of the president -- who meets every week with his advisers to pore over hit lists, just as Stalin did with the Politburo, and decide which of the targets will live and which shall die.
Now, you may be happy with such a system policing itself with a few "reforms" which are devised and supervised by the system itself. A system which remains, at every point, completely hidden to the public that pays for it, and which at every turn, day after day, year after year, exacerbates the very extremism, violence, instability and chaos it purports to combat. (When it doesn't just fund it and arm it outright, as it is is doing in its backing of violent, head-chopping, heart-eating extremists in Syria, for example.) You may be comforted by the thought that a small number of legislators whose careers are funded by this system -- and very often directly by war profiteers and "security" profiteers -- will be "overseeing" whatever "reforms" of the system eventually become law (assuming that any of them actually do).
But some people aren't comforted by this. Some people continue to believe -- or hope against hope -- that we can do better than this. If such people see promising openings -- like the exposure of NSA documents -- falling short of the effect they could have, if they see these opportunities slowly being swallowed up in toothless "reforms" and "debates" by the very system they hope to break down and do away with, can they not question, criticize, even rail against this state of affairs, without being accused of envy, personal pique or irresponsibility? Why can't they, like Robert Kennedy, "dream of things that never were, and ask, why not?"
UPDATE: Greenwald and Snowden appeared, via video link, at an Amnesty International conference in Chicago on Saturday. They rightly decried the weakness of the NSA "reforms" proposed by White House, pointing out that this pig-lipsticking exercise by the powers that be allows for -- among many other sinister activities -- the continued harvesting of meta-data. And meta-data, as the duo note, is actually more useful to the nefarious activities of the surveillance state than the content of individual phone calls. As Snowden put it: "Metadata is what allows an actual enumerated understanding, a precise record of all the private activities in all of our lives. It shows our associations, our political affiliations and our actual activities."
Greenwald also promised new dynamite revelations that will finally rouse the people to anger, as the Guardian reports:
Greenwald, who met with Snowden 10 months ago and wrote about the leaked documents in the Guardian and other media outlets, promised further revelations of government abuses of power at his new media venture The Intercept.
"My hope and my belief is that as we do more of that reporting and as people see the scope of the abuse as opposed to just the scope of the surveillance they will start to care more," he said.
"Mark my words. Put stars by it and in two months or so come back and tell me if I didn't make good on my word."
It's good to hear that we will eventually see more revelations -- especially ones that provide details on specific crimes and abuses being perpetrated by the USSA (United States Stasi Apparatus), as opposed to stories on, as Greenwald says, "just the scope of the surveillance," which most people already assumed was vast and pervasive. (Not that it isn't useful to have details on this as well -- which is sort of the whole point: the more we know, the better.) I don't know if questions were allowed or even technically possible at the Chicago link-up, but if they were, I would have been interested in hearing Greenwald's response to a few follow-up questions, such as:
1. If you have in hand revelations that you know will actually rouse people to anger and action, that will make them "start to care more" and demand genuine changes, not just the cosmetic efforts you have rightly criticized today, could you explain why you have waited 10 months -- and might wait a couple more -- before releasing these explosive revelations?
Obviously these stories lie within the agreement you and Snowden made on which parts of the truth that the public should be allowed to hear and which parts should be kept from them; otherwise you wouldn't be promising to publish the coming new material. So if your agreement with Snowden has not prevented the publication of these secrets, what is the reason for keeping back these shocking and galvanizing revelations for so long?
2. You and Snowden today forcefully pointed out the weakness of the "reforms" proposed by the White House and Congress. What does this situation say about the strategy of withholding the vast majority of the NSA secrets? If 10 months of the trickle-down strategy has produced nothing but these transparently cosmetic reforms (which, as you note, will actually further entrench and 'legitimize' many sinister practices), and what's more, has also left the public unmoved, is it unreasonable to consider reassessing the current strategy and consider other options that might prove more effective?
3. Finally, on a somewhat lesser matter: Given the reality that you have described today -- a public unroused, still needing "to care more" after 10 months of trickle-down, a government offering cynical jokes as "reform" etc. -- can it really be true that all questions or criticisms of the current strategy should be summarily dismissed as nothing more than "moral cowardice" and personal animus? Is it really impossible that there might be at least a modicum of objective substance to at least some questioning of the strategy thus far employed?
And do you honestly think that people who raise such questions -- because they would like to see even more damage done to the monstrous imperial machine of death squads, drone bombs, military aggression, oligarchy, lawlessness, intervention, subversion and "total information awareness" by predatory and clandestine security services -- can actually be equated morally with "neocon warmongers" who support all these things?
Then again, perhaps it wouldn't have been all that interesting to hear the response, because one can be fairly certain what it would be: a ripping attack and character assassination of anyone who dared raise even these very narrow and circumscribed questions. As for other issues, I think it would have been pointless to ask Greenwald about, say, any concerns he might have over his new system-challenging enterprise being funded solely by someone whom the system has made one of the richest people on the planet, and who has eagerly cooperated with the national security state, most recently in its interesting activities in Ukraine. Greenwald has made it clear that this does not trouble him at all.
Written by Chris Floyd
Wednesday, 02 April 2014 01:44
Glenn Greenwald stopped by the place Tuesday to respond to my last post. I thought I would bring his reply out of the comments and feature it here, along with my response. Glenn's statement is a lengthy and, to my mind, remarkable document: a powerful piece of emotional invective put together in the guise of an argument, based on wild and sometimes bizarre leaps of illogic that pack plenty of heat but tend to be short on substance.
Although he begins in friendly tones, and says he welcomes good-faith criticism, especially from the left, the piece becomes fiercer -- and more personal -- as it goes on, until it is abundantly clear that, in his eyes, it is impossible to offer any criticism of the handling of the NSA documents in good faith. Anyone who questions any aspect of the enterprise is a moral coward on a par with the neo-cons of "circa 2002/2003" who supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but didn't want to go fight them. (It might not have been entirely wise for Glenn to refer to this particular stance during this particular time period, but more on that later.) Such critics also secretly wish to see Snowden put in more danger, and disparage his bravery.
There is a great deal more in this vein, some of which touches upon things I have actually said, and many of which do not. But enough intro. Here is Glenn's statement in full, to be followed by my reply.
Glenn Greenwald writes:
Hey Chris – I’m visiting “these run-down precincts” to address a couple points you’ve made here and elsewhere because, as you know, I’ve respected your work for a long time, and that hasn’t changed despite the barrage of intense (and, I think, often unfair) criticisms you’ve directed at me over the past several months. I’m sure I’ll be attacked for responding here on the grounds that it shows how “thin-skinned” or “obsessed” with criticism I am or whatever, but I prefer that to being insular, non-responsive and unaccountable, which are the adjectives I think apply to those who ignore criticisms simply because they can. I actually do believe that one responsibility that comes from doing things that affect others is that you engage rather than ignore valid criticisms that are made in good faith, even if those criticisms aren’t made in some huge media venue.
Nobody contests your right to criticize how I’ve reported these leaks, or the propriety of voicing such criticisms, nor should Edward Snowden be immune from being criticized. To argue against any of that is to engage a strawman. I’m personally glad that at least a small fraction of the critiques I hear come from the pro-transparency left rather than the trite, predictable, dreary sloganeering of the pro-national-security-state authoritarians about how we’re Endangering Lives and Helping the Terrorists. I’m glad that the uber-nationalistic fear-mongering about our actions from the Michael Haydens and David Frums of the world at least have some counterpart, even if much less amplified, in the form of “publish-more!” missives from the Chris Floyds.
As I’ve said many times, I consider the criticism that we haven’t published enough (or quickly enough) to be far more valid and serious than the accusation that we’ve published too much or recklessly. I am certain that if someone else were doing this reporting, I’d also be questioning why more hasn’t been published by now. For 10 consecutive months, I’ve put a huge amount of pressure on myself to publish as much as possible and as quickly as possible and in as many countries around the world as I possibly could (which is why I’ve published far more documents on my own than anyone else with access to large troves of Snowden documents has, including the largest media institutions, and why this has been the largest leak of Top Secret documents in US history, with plenty more to come), but I’m still glad for the external pressure to publish more.
For all the accusations of “profiteering” and the like, I could easily have stopped after the first few stories, collected all the accolades and prizes, written a lucrative book, and – in the process - been threatened with far fewer dangers and recriminations for myself and the people closest to me. I didn’t choose that far more limited course because – as my work over the last 8 years demonstrates – my commitment to opposing the grand excesses of the Surveillance State specifically and the American National Security State generally are authentic. I didn’t need to publish story after story, document after document, in country after country, month after month, in order to get the personal benefits: if anything, doing all that has created more enemies and increased the threats. I know what motivates me and so I sleep very well at night, with a clear conscience. Still, critics keep one honest, and I’m glad for the better ones I have.
All that said, there are two vital points I think are most often overlooked, in your critiques:
(1) When Edward Snowden came to me as a source with the documents he had, he had very strong opinions on how they should and should not be published. We spent a good amount of time talking about that, but ultimately, there were several conditions on which he insisted and to which we, as journalists, agreed.
I think it would be unconscionable – despicable even – for me to violate my agreement with him in how I publish these materials. To do so would be to subject him to a wide array of legal and other risks he did not choose to undertake. It would be an act of great treachery to accept these materials based on an agreement that I then just disregard. It would ensure that no source in their right mind would in the future take these hugs risks to come forward to me – or other journalists – with classified materials if they know journalists are willing to violate agreements the minute it becomes convenient to do so.
The terms Snowden insisted on are not a mystery. They’re not secret. He’s been very clear publicly - both through his representatives and himself - about what they are:
He did not want all the documents uploaded to the internet (had he wanted that, he could have just done that himself: he did not need us for that). He did not want many of the materials he gave us to ever be published because their publication would harm innocent people in all sorts of serious ways (he gave them to us for background, or context, or in some cases because he thought they were borderilne cases). He wanted certain types of documents withheld. He wanted the documents published one by one, in a journalistic context, for both legal and strategic reasons: he primarily believed that an incremental release would be far more effective for generating a sustained global debate than a massive, indiscriminate dump or even a series of massive simultaneous releases. He left it up to us to decide what to publish and how and in what order, but this was the framework he created at the start.
Obviously,anyone should feel free to criticize him for those assessments. For multiple reasons, I happen to agree with him that this has been by far the optimal strategy in this case. As someone who spent years defending WikiLeaks and Chelsea Manning, I know that the most effective tactic used to demonize them and distract from the substance of their revelations was to focus the public on a few snippets of disclosed information that could be said (falsely but to many people persuasively) to put people in danger.
Snowden wanted to render that tactic ineffective, and to keep the public – and the media’s – interest high for a long period. I think he achieved both goals because of the method he wanted, certainly far more than a one-time dump of all the documents would have achieved.
But it’s of course reasonable to contest Snowden’s assessment, to have a different view. One can, if one really wants to, also argue that I should use a different method for reporting these documents, even though I entered into an agreement with Snowden about what I would and would not do here.
But those who want to criticize the method I’ve used should have the intellectual honesty and courage to expressly state exactly what they are actually advocating: namely, that I purposely violate my agreement with my source; that I subject him to massively increased legal risks and political attacks that he did not and does not want for himself; and that I override the agency and autonomy of the person who actually risked his life and liberty to make these documents available.
You made a point of saying that you’ve almost never criticized Snowden. That’s exactly the point: you can’t rationally criticize the methods I’ve used to report these documents without criticizing Snowden. That’s because the methods I’m using are the ones he insisted upon.
If you want to argue that I should release all the materials, or publish them outside the context of journalistic outlets, then at least have the honesty to admit that what you’re really advocating is that I violate my agreement with him. If you want to depict the methods we’ve used as some sort of pro-state, obsequious, insufficiently radical servitude to American empire - as you've done - then it’s necessary to acknowledge that these are Snowden’s methods for the disclosures. And that’s why critics like you don’t want to acknowledge that: because it’s facially absurd to try to depict Edward Snowden – facing multiple felony charges and decades in the US Prison State –as some sort of cowardly, government-subservient patsy. So you just pretend that it’s all my doing because that critique is easier.
(2) I won’t speak for Carl Kandutsch, whom I don’t know, but his criticisms of your post resonated with me (not the part about Arthur Silber’s fundraising, but the substantive points about your arguments). But in responding to him, I don’t think you fairly characterized his points, opting instead to fight against easy strawmen.
Again, nobody contests your right to criticize me, or Snowden, or anyone else involved in this matter. Nobody thinks you should have to first take similar risks yourself in order to have a perfect right to criticize. What we’re doing is public and has an effect on others, so everyone has the full right to articulate whatever criticisms they have, no matter what they have or have not done themselves.
He was addressing one particular line of attack: the notion that Snowden’s actions (and ours as well) are insufficiently radical, cowardly, too subservient to the state, etc. etc. That’s the critique for which I harbor particular scorn when voiced by people who refuse to take any risks themselves. It reminds me exactly of the neocons circa 2002/2003 who demanded that others go fight their wars and then pranced around as though they were tough, stalwart Churchillian warriors because of it: I wrote a whole book about those people: demanding that others take risks for a Cause rather than taking those risks themselves, and then feeling good and pure about themselves because of it
Edward Snowden is charged with multiple felonies, faces an almost certain prison term of decades if he returns to the US, and has been condemned as a traitor by America’s most influential factions. Senior national security officials and other influential figures have repeatedly and publicly called me (not Bart Gellman, not the NYT, but me) a criminal and an accomplice; argued that I should be prosecuted; detained my partner for 9 hours under a terrorism law and took all of his possessions; and are actively threatening criminal prosecutions under that terrorism law against him and me and Laura Poitras and others. Our lawyers have repeatedly told David that it’s not safe to travel to the EU and told us that it’s a big risk to try to return to the US.
To claim, in the face of all that, that we’re performing some sort of subservient service to the US National Security State for which they are grateful strikes me as a joke. The claim from Arthur Silber and others that we only publish what the government says we can is an outright lie: at least for the stories that I’ve worked on, the NSA and DNI’s arguments about why we shouldn’t publish – often made vehemently and threateningly - have been rejected in almost every case. Whatever else anyone wants to say, we have been subjected to all sorts of threats,
recriminations, and attacks by the government and its apologists. That’s especially true, obviously, of Snowden.
So yes, there is something ugly and untoward about having a bunch of people who don’t take any risks themselves castigating the risks we’ve taken as insufficient and insubstantial. To be told by people who are too afraid even to use their real names on Twitter that we are cowards or state-servants for not taking even more risks is mind-boggling in its self-delusion.
It’s so incredibly easy – and cheap - to sit around demanding that others be more radical and risk-seeking. It’s a lot harder, but more valuable, to lead by example. The very ordinary and powerless people who broke into the FBI in 1971 and exposed COINTELPRO took matters into their own hands. That, to me, is what actual radicalism is about: not running around beating one’s chest proclaiming how radical one is, but taking actual steps to challenge and undermine corrupted power factions.
None of these radical heroes threw caution to the wind. The 1971 burglars didn’t take all FBI files: they only took what they thought the public should know. Chelsea Manning talked about her goals as sparking “debate” and “reform”, the same terms that prompt ridicule from self-proclaimed Super Radicals when used by Snowden. Aaron Swartz, if he were alive, would be mocked endlessly for his reformism by many of the same people who now exploit him as a martyr because he's dead. Dan Ellsberg made all sorts of arguments back then that would now be castigated by our self-proclaimed Super-Radicals as piecemeal and incrementalist. WikiLeaks redacted materials and sought the government’s advice on what to withhold. Tom Drake and other people I admire, who have been viciously persecuted, took very partial steps within all sorts of existing structures.
I spent years defending those people (and engaging in activism for them), not castigating them as insufficiently radical, because whatever else was true, they took a lot more risks than I was taking, and did more than I was doing, to challenge those I thought needed challenging. I felt free to criticize them, but not to attack them as cowardly servants of the state. That’s because I knew that doing so would be absurd until I was prepared to take similar action myself, and that ultimately, the real test of one’s convictions is not a willingness to sit around disparaging other people’s risk-taking as insufficient but rather a willingness to take those risks oneself.
Chris Floyd replies:
Well, that's a fine settling of hash, and no mistake! It begins with professions of continuing respect and ends with vitriolic personal denunciations. Along the way it attacks me for several things I haven't said or done -- often, as I noted earlier, in a bizarre fashion.
For example, what is this about "people who are too afraid even to use their real names on Twitter" when launching attacks? There certainly are creatures like that out there, but what has that got to do with me, or with anything I have said, in my own name, about the Snowden archive or First Look? Glenn knows perfectly well that everything I have ever written on the internet or in print has been under my own name. I've been doing this since I first began writing critically about politics and the national security state many years ago. This includes the earliest days after 9/11, when I received several death threats for harshly criticizing the Bush administration -- at a time many other people were "ready to stand behind President Bush" and "strongly approved of his performance," as Glenn wrote of himself in his book, How Would a Patriot Act? These death threats included a couple that were more serious than the usual anonymous sputterings and had to be investigated more formally; one ardent supporter of the president in those days was stalking my elderly parents, staking out their house, even learning of its internal layout and dropping heavy hints to me about what would happen to them, and where in the house it would happen, if I kept writing.
This was also during the time when I was, to my knowledge, one of the very few people writing in a mainstream publication about the Bush Administration's creation of arbitrary death squads. I stated plainly that this was murder and that the government was now morally illegitimate. Again, this was when Glenn's "confidence in the Bush Administration" was growing, "as the president gave a series of serious, substantive, coherent and eloquent speeches." I was calling Bush a murderer, denouncing an out-of-control national security apparatus, in print -- and being threatened by the US Embassy in Moscow (and threatened with specious but crushing lawsuits from plutocrats connected to the Bushes) for doing so -- while Glenn was, by his own admission, growing ever more supportive of Bush and "wanting an aggressive response from our government."
In his comment above, Glenn likens me -- equates me -- with "neocons circa 2002/2003 who demanded that others go fight their wars and then pranced around as though they were tough, stalwart Churchillian warriors because of it." But in that exact period, I was writing frantically, relentlessly about the obvious deceptions the Bush Administration was using to push the country into a criminal war of aggression. I wrote of this in newspapers in Russia and America, drawing almost exclusively on published reports in mainstream sources available to any journalist, or any citizen. I was one of the very first writers in an American newspaper to detail PNAC's long-term plans for provoking war with Iraq and a vast militarization of American policy.
What was Glenn doing at that time? Well, despite some doubts, he tells us that "I had not abandoned my trust in the Bush Administration. ... I believed then that the president was entitled to have his national security judgment deferred to, and to the extent that I was able to develop a definitive view, I accepted his judgment that American security really would be enhanced by the invasion of this sovereign country." He didn't, however, sign up for the war. He was then, at that time, "exactly [like] the neocons" of that era, happy to support a war that he wasn't going to fight.
I am sincerely glad that Glenn later repudiated these beliefs, and now, after many years, no longer defers to the national security judgment of the president. I wish he had added his obviously passionate voice and ferocious energy to those of us who felt that way before the serious, substantive, coherent and eloquent President Bush set in motion the pointless destruction of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. I'm sorry that it took the instigation of mass murder on this scale to shake Glenn's patriotism and turn him toward dissent.
I do not mean in any way to compare the relatively few, sporadic and unsystematic risks I faced in those days -- the threat of my parent's murder, my murder, the destruction of my livelihood, the ruin of my family -- with the dangers faced today by Edward Snowden, Glenn and David Miranda, and others, who face not a few lone nuts or wild Bush cronies but the full weight of a national security state that is now much bigger and more sinister than the one Glenn supported a few years ago. The risks they face are deadly serious, and their courage in facing them is unquestionable. And I have never questioned it, despite Glenn's wild imputations to the contrary. To question the efficacy or decisions of someone at risk is not all the same as questioning their courage in facing that risk -- although almost all of Glenn's "arguments" are based on this false premise.
But I bring up all this ancient history because I resent, with every fiber of my being, the accusation that I am or have ever been some kind of sniveling coward hiding behind anonymity, afraid to put my name or my person on the line for my political beliefs. I especially resent it coming from someone who -- at the very time I was facing my admittedly minor threats (although the murder of my parents was not a minor thing to me personally) for attacking the national security state -- was himself blithely ignoring the mountains of evidence about that state's crimes and giving it "the benefit of the doubt" as it planned and carried out mass murder.
I don't think Glenn's thunderous claiming of the moral high ground is appropriate in this case. Even if I were guilty of every wild accusation he throws at me, every imputation and insinuation, what, in the end, would I really be guilty of? An egregious failure to appreciate the courage and sacrifice of some people trying to do good. Well, that is indeed a serious failing. If I were guilty of that, I'd feel bad about it. But not as bad as I would feel if I had supported aggressive war and mass murder by "deferring" to the judgment of a blatant fool surrounded by a sinister clique of known warmongers. Now, I don't think that supporting such a thing is some kind of unforgivable sin; people can come to new understandings, and thank goodness they do, and thank goodness Glenn did. But had I been that morally blind as a full-grown, highly educated adult -- especially when millions of people around the world saw the obvious evil of this action, and stood up against it -- I think I might be somewhat more circumspect today about berating others for their moral failings.
To cut more quickly to the chase. In regard to any criticism about the way the NSA documents are being disseminated, Glenn refers to his agreement with Snowden. It's a valid point, up to a point. I would never want any journalist to dishonor an agreement they've made with a source, especially a whistleblower in grave danger -- and I'm not aware of ever calling on Glenn or anyone else to do so. However, such agreements are not set in stone. In his early interviews about the NSA material, Glenn stated that he was in touch with Snowden every day. Presumably he can still get in contact with him. It would be entirely possible to try to renegotiate terms in a way that still addressed Snowden's concerns, if Glenn felt there was now a better way to disseminate these documents. Glenn here states very plainly that feels that the initial agreement is in fact the best way to handle the material. That's fine. It all seems straightforward, and Glenn says that people of good faith can disagree on this. And that's true too.
But then he goes on almost immediately to say that anyone who criticizes the current method is guilty of intellectual dishonesty and cowardice, because they won't "admit" that what they're "really doing" is asking Glenn to violate Snowden's trust and put him in further danger. This is an example of emotional invective masquerading as an argument. It's such a bizarre piece of non-logic that it's hard to frame a coherent response to it. But let's try, slowly and simply.
I feel that, on balance, the method of dissemination has not been as effective as other approaches might have been. (I have never advocated a "total dump" of the data, by the way; in fact, I don't know anyone who has.) I feel that it is regrettable that the current course was the one that was chosen. I believe it would be possible for the custodians of the data to try to renegotiate those terms with Snowden, if they felt it was best, and always bearing in mind his very legitimate concerns.
There is absolutely nothing in these statements that calls for anyone to act dishonorably, or to betray anyone's trust. It is entirely possible to hold the positions stated above without secretly wanting Glenn to "violate my agreement with my source" or "subject him to massively increased legal risks" or override the agency of someone who risked their life and liberty. Such a thing never crossed my mind, and I have never seen anyone else advocate such a thing. Nor is it the logical conclusion -- or, in Glenn's strict binary world, the only conclusion -- one can draw from criticism of this methodology. Glenn berates me for attacking "straw men," but the amount of fury and space he expends on this single wisp is astonishing. He has whupped it good and proper; but as it is not a position I have ever held, I don't quite see the point.
This sort of furious illogic runs all through the comment. He says: "You made a point of saying that you’ve almost never criticized Snowden. That’s exactly the point: you can’t rationally criticize the methods I’ve used to report these documents without criticizing Snowden." Well, I didn't make a particular point about it; I was merely replying to the accusation of Carl Kandutsch that I had "repeatedly disparaged" Snowden. I said, no, the only direct criticism I've made concerned his recent remarks to the EU about the need to cooperate with "government stakeholders" in dealing with whistleblower revelations. Given the fact that he is now being hounded by the relevant government stakeholders in our national security system, I felt this might not be the wisest course. I did agree with Arthur Silber that if the state was brought into the loop on such revelations, then we could indeed end up with what are, in effect, state-sanctioned leaks.
However, if Glenn insists that to criticize the method of disseminating the NSA archive is to also criticize Snowden, then yes, I will plead guilty of questioning Snowden on this point as well. But as I said above, criticizing an action or decision of someone in danger is not at all the same thing as disparaging them or denying their courage or anything of the sort.
I am glad that Glenn disputes the notion, implied by Kandutsch, that only those who are at risk themselves can criticize others under threat. Glenn says that "everyone has the full right to articulate whatever criticisms they have, no matter what they have or have not done themselves." This is certainly gracious of him. Yet he immediately says that if anyone actually exercises this freedom, and says, for example, that they wish Glenn and Snowden had been more radical in their approach, then such critics are "exactly" like the armchair neocon warriors of 2002/2003 who joined Glenn in supporting the invasion of Iraq.
In other words, anyone is free to criticize Glenn -- as long as they don't actually criticize him. If they offer their opinion that Glenn isn't radical enough, then they are just like the moral cretins who supported the Iraq War without fighting in it. If they criticize the methodology, then they secretly want to put Snowden in more danger and make Glenn betray his word. If they advocate radicalism, but aren't actually handed secret documents by a whistleblower and given the chance to put their convictions to the test on a public stage (as opposed to the many unheralded ways that someone offering an opinion about radicalism on a blog might actually be practicing their radicalism in their lives and communities), then they should just shut up. If they express their concern that the national security state will try to turn the revelations to its own advantage, despite the sincerity of its challengers, then they are being cheap, ugly, untoward and delusional. As far as I can see, there is literally no criticism that can be offered of any aspect of this enterprise that is not, in Glenn's view, a mark of bad character, bad faith or cowardice.
Again, one is not even allowed to wish that the keepers of the NSA secrets were more radical in their attack on the war-making national security state -- without being "exactly" equated with the most ardent champions of the war-making national security state. The irrationality of this position boggles the mind. It is impossible to argue with, because it is a closed circle -- a circle of impenetrable and unchallengeable virtue.
Glenn makes several other points and accusations which deserve answering or debating, but I'm too exhausted to go on throwing myself against that ironclad cueball of virtue. And I'm sure anyone still reading is exhausted as well. But it is a strange experience to see a cartoonish misrepresentation of one's views set up and gnawed to pieces in this way.
But so what? I think that over the years I have established a record that can withstand the bizarre charges of cowardice and anonymous Twitter attacking and similarity to neocon warmongers and the rest of the katzenjammer Glenn has tossed around here. I know what I've done in challenging corrupted power factions, and the many ways I've fallen short. (I'm afraid I'm not possessed with the invincible moral superiority that Glenn so obviously enjoys.) I know what I stand for, and what I strive for. I've never denigrated Snowden's courage, or that of Glenn Greenwald or Laura Poitras or anyone else "taking actual steps to challenge and undermine corrupted power factions." (Some of my views on people like Chelsea Manning and Snowden can be found here.) But enough -- more than enough -- of all this for now.
Written by Chris Floyd
Tuesday, 01 April 2014 00:22
Mr. Carl Kandutsch, a business lawyer down Plano way (and, it turns out, a fellow CounterPunch contributor), writes in to take issue with a recent post I put up here in these run-down precincts. I had written what I thought was a straightforward piece asking readers to consider giving some support to a writer I admire -- Arthur Silber -- who is going through a serious medical crisis. I must say I was a bit taken aback by some of the responses, which seemed to come from the Paul Ryan school of social compassion: "Losers who are sick and low on money don't deserve any help because they want to be sick and low on money. They're just ungrateful malingerers, fakers, takers, they like to beg." And so on. Pretty depressing stuff. But as I noted in the comments, this is just the zeitgeist of the age: a hard, mean spirit blowing through our times, where compassion has curdled and vulnerability is considered a cause for scorn and suspicion.
Mr. Kandutsch is not in the giving vein either -- but thankfully, his response is not decked out in Paul Ryan drag. He doesn't object to Mr. Silber being poor and sick as such. (Well, he does throw in a bit of Ryanish "snark" -- to use his own eloquent terminology -- about Mr. Silber "begging for money." You see, "begging" is what we call it nowadays when a writer asks readers if they would like to consider paying him for his work. I wonder if Mr. Kandutsch regards the fees that he receives from the landlords and cable companies he proudly represents as "begging." Somehow I think not.) No, what gets Mr. Kandutsch's goat is the apparently disrespectful tone that Mr. Silber -- and I! -- have taken toward Glenn Greenwald. But let's let Mr. Kandutsch -- who, as his CounterPunch bio tells us, has a Ph.D in Comparative Literature from Yale -- speak eloquently for himself:
I can't help but notice the snide and snarky poke at Glenn Greenwald ("No oligarchs are paying his way...."), who (along with Edward Snowden) is repeatedly disparaged by Floyd and Silber for having co-founded a platform that will allow him to actually and effectively challenge the national security state -- i.e., for doing something more than writing an obscure, whiney blog that almost nobody reads while begging for money. Also hard not to notice that while Floyd and Silber criticize Greenwald and Snowden for not being sufficiently radical, it's the latter duo and not the former who are forced to live in exile abroad. ... Snowden's NSA leaks published, summarized and analyzed by Greenwald present an actual and effective challenge to the national security state, as demonstrated by the government's response to those revelations and by the fact that neither Snowden nor Greenwald may return to their country without great risk to their respective persons. None of this can be said of those who snipe at them from the safety of their living room bunkers concerning the methods used by those who bear all of the risk.
I for one consider myself well and truly pwnd. Of course, I could quibble over a small point here and there, such as the fact that Mr. Kandutsch's synataxical dexterity in his opening sentence seems to say either that Edward Snowden co-founded First Look Media or that Mr. Silber and I have "repeatedly disparaged" Edward Snowden. Neither of the implications that emerge from this rhetorical efflorescence are true. (I've taken issue with Mr. Snowden directly only once, for his recent statement to the EU that revelations such as his should only be "safely disclosed to responsible journalists in coordination with government stakeholders," i.e., the same government that is perpetrating the crimes being revealed.) But hey, a blog comment is not a comparative literature seminar, is it? We know, or sort of know, what Mr. Kandutsch means: Mr. Silber and I are disreputable characters who have disparaged better men than ourselves.
I could also point out that Mr. Kandutsch's characterization of Mr. Silber's platform as "an obscure, whiney blog that almost nobody reads" does not really partake of the kind of empathy for those in need -- and for those whose voices have been marginalized -- that one usually associates with writers who submit their work to CounterPunch, or indeed, those who align themselves with efforts to "challenge the national security state." Mr. Kandutsch seems to imply that Mr. Silber's lack of a mass audience is itself a sufficient cause to dismiss him with a rather crude scorn. But I'm so old I can remember when even Mr. Greenwald had an "obscure blog that almost nobody read." Did this fact vitiate any insights he had to offer in those days? Were his opinions only validated when he reached a certain level of popularity? Is popularity really to be regarded as a measure of worth for writers? Is Dan Brown a better writer than, say, Cormac McCarthy? Is that what they teach at Yale? Surely one cannot believe such a thing of a university that produced one of the great leaders and towering intellects of the 21st century, George Walker Bush.
What's more, I can even remember the many, many times that Mr. Greenwald himself used his blog to -- gasp! -- ask readers for contributions. He did it regularly, even when he had become successful and popular enough to earn the respect of people who have doctorates. Was this also some kind of disreputable "begging for money"? Or is it not simply a perfectly acceptable practice for any writer who puts an enormous amount of time and effort into the writing they publish on the internet, and who, as Mr. Greenwald did and Mr. Silber does, depend largely or solely on that writing to support themselves? Is this not the case for any writer who seeks payment for his or her work? When Cormac McCarthy asked Alfred A. Knopf to pay him for writing The Road, was he "begging"?
No, if I had not been properly chastised and humbled by Mr. Kandutsch's righteous rebuke, I would almost venture to say that his remark about "begging" on "an obscure, whiney blog that almost nobody reads" could possibly come across -- to an untutored, undoctorfied reader, of course -- as a haughty, sneering, elitist put-down of someone whose poverty and "obscurity" have rendered them déclassé, beneath notice. "You're a nobody; who are you to question your betters?" Doubtless that wasn't his intention; after all, his opening sentence showed that one must carefully tease out the meaning from Mr. Kandutsch's artful prose, as one would with a passage from Finnegan's Wake, for example, or Decision Points. So perhaps we should charitably ascribe what on the surface seems to be the obvious reading of Mr. Kandutsch's phrase to our own unenlightened misapprehension.
As for the meat of the matter, I take Mr. Kandutsch's point entirely. No one who is not facing "great risk to their person" should criticize in any way the methods or financial backing of anyone who is. I apologize for not realizing this before. You see, unfortunately I don't live in the Homeland these days, and I have forgotten one of the sacred tenets of our society, enunciated so memorably by the great Warren G. Harding: "Don't knock; boost!" And of course there is the absolute taboo against criticizing "our boys in the field" when they are facing danger. As we were told so many times during the Iraq War by our conservative bretheren, no one who is not a serving soldier can criticize the actions or methods of anyone who is.
And this is the lesson Mr. Kandutsch imparts: do not criticize anyone who might be in danger, if you yourself are not in danger. Whatever they do is beyond reproach, while the slightest demur you might make is just the whining of a snarker (or the snarking of a whiner) sitting in his bunker. Now I feel bad that I wrote all that stuff about the war crimes committed by US soldiers in Fallujah and elsewhere; after all, there I was criticizing them from the safety of my "bunker" when they were facing great risks to their persons. How can I have been so thoughtless?
I thank the counselor for this good advice. I will of course immediately repress my concerns that an enterprise which I have actually praised highly -- the revelation of nefarious state secrets by Edward Snowden -- is being rendered less effective than one hoped due to the way the data has thus far been controlled and disseminated. And by the fact that these revelations have now become tangled up in the affairs of a plutocrat who has hitherto used his charitable activities to pursue what I believe to be unseemly ends; i.e., the 'monetizing' of philanthropy (turning it into a source of rapacious profit for elites while hurting those it professes to help), and involving himself in dubious efforts at "regime change" in democratically elected governments overseas. In my ignorance, I thought these were reasonable questions to raise. But I can see now that to air one's opinions freely on these matters is no longer acceptable, even among savvy dissidents who laud challenges to the national security state.
So I will go and sin no more. Because I sure don't want to be left languishing in obscurity. I sure don't want to be a nobody. When I walk into a room full of landlords or Yale men, I want to hear them say, "We like the cut of your jib!" I want to be acceptable. Let those who are sick, those who are in need, look after themselves. After all, it's the spirit of the age, right?
Written by Chris Floyd
Sunday, 23 March 2014 18:11
Arthur Silber continues to reel from crisis to crisis in his long battle with deteriorating health. Every few months, a new front opens, or else lingering ailments flair up with malevolent force. Right now, he is facing hundreds of dollars (at least) in bills to treat a serious eye ailment, while struggling to meet basic expenses for survival.
Silber, one of America's finest writers and political analysts, lives solely on contributions from readers of his blog. That he continues to write at all, through incessant physical pain and the many crushing burdens of life on the financial margins, is remarkable; that he writes at the level of excellence he constantly achieves, over and over, is genuinely mind-boggling. In a world drowning in tidal waves of falsehood pouring in from every side, we can ill afford to lose such a rare voice of living, human truth.
No oligarchs are paying his way, no parties, factions or foundations; Silber is sustained only by those who read and appreciate his work. If you are among that number -- and you certainly should be -- then please got to his site and give what you can, if you can.
Written by Chris Floyd
Saturday, 22 March 2014 00:39
The "Global War on Terror" may have been semantically erased by the propagandists of the Obama Administration, but on the ground, it is still going on -- and still spawning a multititude of malevolent consequences, as Patrick Cockburn details in a powerful series of articles. Cockburn's look at the historical record doesn't begin with 9/11, of course; the fatal alliance between Washington and the most retrograde and repressive forms of Islam -- which gave rise to the Terror War and its present reality -- go back several decades. [The first three parts of the series are here, here and here.]
But as Cockburn rightly points out, the ostensible enemy that America's national security state is ostensibly fighting -- violent, hidebound, Sunni extremism -- is now more powerful and deadly than ever ... and has been made so at every turn by the actions of America's national security state.
Cockburn's series is a shattering read. Not much of it is new to anyone who has been paying the slightest attention to reality in the past 10 to 20 years, but it is still a very useful reiteration of what is really going on behind the torrent of blather and bullshit that constitutes our "public debate". Reading it, one can't help but think of those chilling lines from T.S. Eliot, which have echoed in my head for years as I've watched our bipartisan political (and imperial) elite lead us from disaster to disaster:
I think we are in rat's alley,
where dead men lost their bones.
Read it and weep -- if you have any tears left in you.
Written by Chris Floyd
Wednesday, 19 March 2014 00:37
(This is an expanded version of my most recent column in CounterPunch’s print magazine.)
O the horror, the horror. To see the "shameless descent" of the "one-time countercultural figurehead" -- who had made his name as a bold stylistic innovator and powerful voice of authenticity -- now reduced to a corporate shill, parading himself, hussy-like, in a national advertisement.
How it had it happened? He had been a rawboned kid from the Midwest, a seeker and searcher who burst out of the stifling confines of bourgeois life and made his way to the very heart of the revolutionary artistic ferment raging in one of the world's great centers of countercultural bohemia. He had thrived there, magpie-like, picking up tricks of the trade, learning from mentors, stealing riffs from rivals; a little seedy, a little needy, passionate, faithless, bursting with talent. In the end, he forged an original voice that made him a towering figure in American culture and one of the most famous people on the planet, influencing generations of artists who came after him. Every year, there was serious talk of him winning the Nobel Prize -- and now this.
There he was -- posturing for the camera, an aging, taxidermy caricature of his dynamic younger self. There were his words -- his own words! -- once regarded as blazons of truth, now gummed into dim banality just to push some product to the rubes.
Sad, surreal, shameless -- yes, who can forget that awful moment when they first opened their new copy of Life magazine and saw Ernest Hemingway's ad for Ballantine Ale?
Surely, all right-thinking people condemned this act of crass hucksterism, an ugly spectacle that cast a tainted shadow over all his earlier achievements -- which could now be seen merely as sly ploys on the way to the inevitable sell-out …
In fact, literary history does not record any such reaction to the 1951 ad. Or indeed, any reaction at all. (Except perhaps from John Steinbeck, who obviously thought, "How can I land me one of them Ballantine ads?" -- and did so a couple of years later.) But such has been the blowback in many quarters to Bob Dylan’s recent Super Bowl ad for Chrysler. In some ways, it’s sort of sweet; who knew Dylan could still touch such a nerve? But mostly the imbroglio has itself been a “surreal tableau,” as one of its more scathing respondents called the ad. It’s as if an historical moment frozen in amber – the “Dylan/Judas sell-out to pop music” scandal of 1965 – has suddenly been melted by the Super Bowl klieg lights, releasing its undiluted fury into the present day.
Of course, people are free to despise Dylan for doing an ad, on whatever grounds they please: moral, political, philosophical, aesthetic. But reading the fresh shock and angry surprise of the denouncers, one has to wonder: where have they been for the past 50 years? For a full half a century, Dylan has been insisting that he is not a protest singer or a ‘countercultural figurehead’ or anything of the sort. And he has behaved accordingly. Where was the rage when he did a Cadillac commercial a couple of years ago? Or the lingerie ad before that? Or the Fender guitar ads he did at the height of his countercultural figureheadom in the mid-60s?
As a “Columbia recording artist” (which is how he is always introduced in concert), Dylan has been taking money from – and making money for – corporate interests since 1962. He is no more or less a “sell-out” in 2014 than he has been throughout his entire career, including his days as a folk singer. Again, dismiss him for that if you like. But why rage at his “betrayal” of a media-hyped, fantasized “countercultural figurehead role” that he has spent a long lifetime refusing? You’re not angry with Bob Dylan; you’re mad at an imaginary friend you’ve created in his image.
Dylan’s “shameful sell-out” has been contrasted with the moral integrity of Pete Seeger, who died just before the Chrysler commercial aired. Fair enough -- although Seeger himself didn’t mind appearing with Harry Belafonte last year after the latter’s “shameful descent” into corporate ads for Gap. Nor did Seeger scruple to sing for many years with Woody Guthrie, who lent his name and voice to many an advertisement – and once even let a tobacco company adapt one of his hard-travelin’ songs for a perky jingle. Nor did Seeger blanch at singing a song by Dylan – long after the little weasel had been hawking underwear and Cadillacs – in the only music video the folk patriarch ever made: a rendition of “Forever Young” for Amnesty International in 2012.
Maybe Seeger, in his wisdom, took a broader view of such matters than the angry Amberists. Perhaps he didn’t dismiss an artist’s output or idealism or authenticity just because they did the occasional spot for commercial sponsors – the way Dylan hero Hank Williams did throughout his career: for Mother’s Best biscuit flour, for Haldacol (a snake-oil “health” tonic he pitched in a traveling commercial “caravan” that also featured Milton Berle, Jack Dempsey, Chico Marx and James Cagney), and many other concerns. At one point, Hank even styled himself “the Ol’ Syrup Sopper” in a campaign for a Shreveport syrup company.
In 2008, yet another Dylan TV ad appeared across Europe, although it apparently escaped the notice of the Amberists. This time the shameless huckster was shilling for … an international mission to “make water safe and clean for every human being living in this world” and head off the looming conflicts over resource scarcity due to climate change. Then the next year saw ads for his much-hooted Christmas album, with all proceeds, in perpetuity, going to food banks in the US and Europe; in the first year alone, Dylan’s contribution fed an estimated 1.4 million people in the U.S, according to the American charity involved.
And of course, long after he abandoned the progressive purity of “protest” music, for decades the tainted figurehead has kept popping up to sing for (or give his music to or donate concert profits to) a plethora of causes: in aid of Salvador Allende in his struggle against CIA subversion; for Bangladeshi flood victims; against apartheid; for Hurricane Carter; for inner city children in California; for handicapped children; for nuclear disarmament; for starving people at Live Aid; for ruined farmers at Farm Aid (inspired by a remark he made at Live Aid); for Amnesty International; for gun victims in Scotland; for typhoon victims in the Philippines; for tsunami victims in Japan; for earthquake victims in Haiti; for cancer research in the US; for cancer research in the UK; for literacy in Canada; for skate-board parks in low-income communities; for children in war zones … and perhaps more out there beyond a 10-minute Google search.
But all of this is obliterated by a two-minute commercial focused almost entirely on factory workers in America’s most economically ravaged city. Yes, how the mighty have fallen. Thank god we don’t have to listen to this sullied ol’ syrup sopper anymore. We can stay pure in our amber ... while the old man keeps rolling on, neither a figurehead or a spearhead or paragon or a hero, but nothing more or less than what he's always claimed to be: a singer of songs.
Written by Chris Floyd
Monday, 10 March 2014 00:54
Has it only been 10 months since Edward Snowden's NSA revelations changed the world? Can you even remember what the world was like, before he gave 50,000 -- no, 200,000 -- no, wait, 2 million-- secret documents to Glenn Greenwald: smoking guns that exposed Washington's global surveillance state, which far outstripped the wildest, wettest dreams of the Stasi, of Stalin, yea of Orwell himself?
Try to recall those dark days -- now long since banished, thank God! -- when the American imperium thrust its grubby hands and greedy eyes into every single digital pie available, scarfing up emails, URLs, locations, even webcam shots, of anybody and everybody, then storing them all in gargantuan data silos, to sift through and fondle for years on end. Remember that? Remember how this surveillance state, this über-Stasi, was put to the service of a regime that was actually going all over the world and murdering people -- without charges, without due process, without defense, without warning. Just circling the world, blowing up a wedding party here, a couple of teenagers there, a village, a funeral, a farm, an apartment block, day after day, week after week, year after year? Innocent people, "guilty" people; guilty of something or other, that is -- maybe just behaving in a "suspicious manner" in the eyes of unaccountable officials acting arbitrarily in secret, on the basis of screenshots sent by back by robots, and rumors and vendettas gathered, for pay, by secret agents.
Do you remember how this brutal, barbaric, ugly, inhuman regime would then go around the world condemning other nations for not being moral, holy, freedom-loving and strictly adherent to international law? Do you remember the base, sickening hypocrisy of it all? State murderers -- proud state murderers, murderers who would go before legislators and under oath to God Almighty swear how proud they were to be murdering people -- telling other nations how to order their affairs according to the principles of law and justice and human rights?
Isn't it wonderful how much has changed since those days, when we discovered the spine and musculature of the surveillance regime that undergirded this ghastly system of murder and corruption and domination?
What? What do you mean nothing's changed? What do you mean that this barbaric system is still firing on all cylinders? What do you mean that the surveillance state has not been crippled or even slowed for a single instant by all these world-changing revelations? What are you saying? That those who facilitated the exposure of the NSA documents, like Greenwald, are now working for techno-oligarchs who fund rapacious, elite-enriching, regime-changing "philanthropic" enterprises all over the world? Whose companies actually helped strangulate Wikileaks in its greatest hour of need by cutting off its venues of funding?
Are you trying to tell me that even Snowden himself -- who risked so much to bring these crimes to light -- now declares forthrightly "that spying serves a vital purpose and must continue"? That he has taken great pains to declare that his incendiary material should only be "safely disclosed to responsible journalists in coordination with government stakeholders," as Arthur Silber pointedly points out? In coordination with "government stakeholders?" The same "government stakeholders" who are murdering people around the world and sticking their webcams into our underwear? Is that what you're trying to tell me?
What next? Are you going to tell me that even Jeremy Scahill, Greenwald's partner in the oligarch-funded venture, First Look, which is going to transform journalism as we know it for all time to come, has also declared that their transformative operation will dutifully submit its work to government scrutiny -- with the caveat, of course, that they may not follow the government's advice on how 'dangerous' it might be to publish the dutifully submitted material? (Which is, of course, the same way that every other non-transformed journalistic entity in the Western world operates.)
Is that what you're trying to say? That the murder goes on, the surveillance goes on, the crime goes on, and that even our most cutting-edge, transformative, dangerous and subversive journalists and whistleblowers are committed to acting "responsibly" in "coordination with government stakeholders."
Well, if I may once again quote the great Mel Brooks quoting the great Joe Schrank: "I can hardly believe my hearing aid!"
Maybe I need new batteries for this thing. Everywhere I hear unstinting -- and unquestioning -- praise for these developments; but nowhere do I see any genuine effect. I mean, yes, of course, it's good to see "progressive" hero Rachel Maddow expressing umbrage at the revelations that Barack Obama's Stasi-State is now brazenly spying on their own putative Congressional overseers. Maddow even goes so far as to call this "End of the Republic stuff." But is this followed by a call for the impeachment of a president that is "ending the Republic" with a security apparat run amok? Of course not. The main progressive goal, as always, is to express a bit of marginal outrage while devoting one's main energies to ensuring that whatever "centrist" suit of clothes the bought-and-sold Democratic establishment puts up as a candidate is elected. (Next up: Hilary "Annihilate the Iranians" Clinton in 2016.)
But what of these 2 million documents that Snowden has bequeathed to a few chosen journalists who maintain their iron grip on the revelations, doling them out as they alone see fit - after, of course, submitting them to the scrutiny of "government stakeholders"? Let us return to a salient fact that Arthur Silber keeps pointing out: that only 1% to 2% of this vast trove has ever been seen:
Given all the publicly available evidence, when reporting on the Snowden documents is completed, the general public will have seen only 1% to 2% of all the documents involved. I've analyzed in detail how deeply problematic this is. That's putting it mildly, and with excessive politeness. In fact, this highly selective publishing of leaks is insulting, disgusting, and profoundly offensive ...
In short, the methodology adopted by Snowden and the favored journalists is leading straight to complete and utter disaster.
It is also necessary to mention that many of the published documents are offered only with redactions, which are sometimes substantial. Not only that but, as a rule, no explanation is offered as to why particular information has been redacted. Similarly, we are offered only the most general of explanations, if that, for why roughly 98% of the documents will never see the light of day. This presents the general public -- for whose benefit all this heroic work is allegedly undertaken -- with an insurmountable problem of evaluation and understanding.
Well, hold on there a minute, Arthur, you incorrigible skeptic you. What about the latest revelation from The Intercept, the flagship enterprise of First Look? Just last weekend, the Interceptors dug into this vast trove of criminality to inform us that ... the NSA's newsletter has its own Dear Abby column (or "agony aunt," as the Brits would say). Now how about that! The NSA has an internal advice column offering tidbits on personnel issues. Now that's transformative journalism with a vengeance! Just think how many innocent lives now doomed to die from Washington's surveillance state-supported death squads will now be saved because of this revelation!
Back to Silber:
Snowden has always been at pains to assure everyone -- and most particularly, to assure the State -- that he doesn't want to threaten the State in any serious way. And even though his major concern is with mass surveillance, that, too, would be acceptable to him in general terms, provided it is sanctioned by "informed public consent," and even though he himself would choose differently.
But look again at those concluding remarks to the EU. "[T]here are many other undisclosed programs that would impact EU citizens' rights..." Many other undisclosed programs that affect tens of millions of people. Maybe they'll find out about them, maybe they won't. And Snowden himself won't make that decision. "Responsible journalists in coordination with government stakeholders" will decide. We've witnessed this game for nine months; we know how it's played. The "responsible journalists" and "government stakeholders" will allow us to see perhaps 2% of all the documents Snowden gathered up. With redactions, and without explanations of the redactions or explanations, even in general terms, of what we will never be told.
But honestly, it's more than slightly ridiculous to parse these statements further. Snowden's formulation, and the adoption of his methodology by the "responsible journalists" involved, mean only one thing: these are, ultimately, State-sanctioned leaks. This is State-sanctioned whistleblowing. Whatever dangers much wider, and much more rapid, disclosure might have carried have been entirely obliterated. What remains constitutes no threat of any remotely serious kind to the States implicated. Yes, there will be hearings, some "reforms," and life for the States will go almost exactly as before. Your life, on the other hand ... well, who gives a damn about your life.
Of course, we are glad to have any little fragment of truth we can get our hands on in these dystopian times. As T.S. Eliot said: "these fragments I have shored against my ruins." And most assuredly, we are in ruins. But I continue to be amazed at the nugatory effect of the Snowden revelations. I continue to be shocked at the way these revelations are being handled -- kept tightly under the control of a handful of responsible figures who happily submit them to "government stakeholders," while effectively repressing 98 percent of the evidence of criminality and moral turpitude on the part of those same "government stakeholders." So I agree with Silber's conclusion, with which I'll conclude here:
I have one request, in the nature of truth in advertising. I want to see all future stories relying on the Snowden documents accompanied by a stamp in which appear the following words. We are provided similar guarantees in connection with food and drugs, for example, and I see no reason not to adapt the practice to "journalism," given what that term now appears to mean. Each such story should carry this ironclad assurance:
This story contains those facts, and only those facts, that we and the State have determined it is safe for you to know. We will never tell you anything else, and we will most certainly never tell you anything more.
Written by Chris Floyd
Monday, 03 March 2014 15:36
While Russian barbarians violate the sovereignty of another nation in an unconscionable show of force, American agents of peace and light make nice with friendly locals overseas:
American Special Forces troops … scaled his walls with ladders on Thursday, arresting [Qazi Nasir] Mudassir and two other employees of [his] Radio Paighame Milli. … They were apparently unaware, he said, that his radio station is supported in large part by pro-government, pro-coalition propaganda advertisements paid for by the American military.
Mr. Mudassir said a force of more than two dozen Americans carried out the raid, ransacking his premises and damaging much of the broadcasting equipment, as well as seizing computers, phones and recording gear. “They even put that black hood over my head and slapped me and beat me,” he said.
“They treated us inhumanely even though we were very pro their presence, and pro-government,” Mr. Mudassir said. He said that he had been taken to the United States Army’s Special Forces base in Logar and held overnight, and that interrogators had tried to get him to identify photographs of people suspected of being insurgents. “They said, ‘You better tell the truth because you know if we want to kill you we can.’ “
And there you have it, American foreign policy stripped down to its quintessential core: "If we want to kill you we can."
We now return you to our regularly scheduled 24/7 coverage of Russian atrocities in Crimea.
Written by Chris Floyd
Monday, 03 March 2014 01:29
The Western intervention in Ukraine has now led the region to the brink of war. Political opposition to government of President Viktor Yanukovych -- a corrupt and thuggish regime, but as with so many corrupt and thuggish regimes one sees these days, a democratically elected one -- was funded in substantial part by organizations of or affiliated with the U.S. government, such as the National Endowment for Democracy (a longtime vehicle for Washington-friendly coups), and USAID. It also received substantial financial backing from Western oligarchs, such as billionaire Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay and sole bankroller of the new venue for "adversarial" journalism, First Look, as Pandodaily reports.
Yanukovych sparked massive protests late last year when he turned down a financial deal from the European Union and chose a $15 billion aid package from Russia instead. The EU deal would have put cash-strapped Ukraine in a financial straitjacket, much like Greece, without actually promising any path for eventually joining the EU. There was one other stipulation in the EU's proffered agreement that was almost never reported: it would have also forbidden Ukraine to "accept further assistance from the Russians," as Patrick Smith notes in an important piece in Salon.com. It was a ruthless take-it-or-leave-it deal, and would have left Ukraine without any leverage, unable to parlay its unique position between East and West to its own advantage in the future, or conduct its foreign and economic policies as it saw fit. Yanukovych took the Russian deal, which would have given Ukraine cash in hand immediately and did not come with the same draconian restrictions.
It was a policy decision. It might have been the wrong policy decision; millions of Ukrainians thought so. Yanukovych, already unpopular before the deal, would have almost certainly been ousted from office by democratic means in national elections scheduled for 2015. But the outpouring of displeasure at this policy decision grew into a call for the removal of the government. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Washington was maneuvering to put their preferred candidate, Arseniy Yatseniuk, in charge of the Ukrainian government, as a leaked tape of a conversation between Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state, and Geoffrey Pyatt, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, clearly showed. It is worth noting that when Yanukovych was finally ousted from power -- after the opposition reneged on an EU-brokered deal for an interim unity government and new elections in December -- Arseniy Yatseniuk duly took charge of the Ukrainian government, as planned.
By all accounts, Viktor Yanukovych was an unsavoury character running an unsavoury government, backed by unsavoury oligarchs exploiting the country for their own benefit, and leaving it unnecessarily impoverished and chaotic. In this, he was not so different from his predecessors, or from many of those who have supplanted him, who also have oligarchic backing and dubious connections (see addendum below). But in any case, the idea of supporting an unconstitutional overthrow of a freely elected Ukrainian government in an uprising based squarely on the volatile linguistic and cultural fault-lines that divide the country seems an obvious recipe for chaos and strife. It was also certain to provoke a severe response from Russia. It was, in other words, a monumentally stupid line of policy (as Mike Whitney outlines here). Smith adds:
[U.S.] foreign policy cliques remain wholly committed to the spread of the neo-liberal order on a global scale, admitting of no exceptions. This is American policy in the 21st century. No one can entertain any illusion (as this columnist confesses to have done) that America’s conduct abroad stands any chance of changing of its own in response to an intelligent reading of the emerging post–Cold War order. Imposing “democracy,” the American kind, was the American story from the start, of course, and has been the mission since Wilson codified it even before he entered the White House. When the Cold War ended we began a decade of triumphalist bullying — economic warfare waged as “the Washington Consensus” — which came to the same thing.
American policy is based upon -- dependent upon -- a raging, willful, arrogant ignorance of other peoples, other cultures, history in general, and even the recent history of U.S. policy itself. The historical and cultural relationships between Ukraine and Russia are highly complex. Russia takes its national identity from the culture that grew up around what is now Kyiv; indeed, in many respects, Kyiv is where "Russia" was born. Yet one of the first acts of the Western-backed revolutionaries was to pass a law declaring Ukrainian as the sole state language, although most of the country speaks Russian or Surzhyk, "a motley mix of Ukrainian and Russian (sometimes with bits of Hungarian, Romanian and Polish)," as the LRB's Peter Pomerantsev details in an excellent piece on Ukraine's rich cultural and linguistic complexity. This is not to say that Ukrainians are not justified in being wary of Russia's embrace. Millions of Ukrainians died in the 1930s from the famine caused by inhuman policies imposed by a Moscow government (although that government was itself headed by a Georgian, in the name of a trans-national ideology). The complexity and volatility is always there. Today, as Smith puts it, "many Ukrainians see room for closer relations with the West; the more sensible seem to favor a variant of “third way” thinking, no either/or frame. Many fewer desire a decisive break with Russia."
Yet at every turn, the new Western-backed government in Kyiv has stomped hard on these volatile fault-lines, pushing stringent anti-Russian policies, with Western governments pretending that this would have no consequences, no reverberations in Moscow. What's more, the neo-fascist factions that played a leading role in the uprising are now calling for Ukraine to become a nuclear power again, having given up the Soviet nuclear weaponry on its territory in 1994. Indeed, hard-right leader Oleh Tyahnybok made nuclear re-armament one of the planks of his presidential race a few years ago. Now the party is sharing power in the Western-brokered government; will we soon see Ukraine added to the ranks of nuclear nations? With a bristling nuclearized frontier with Russia -- like the hair-trigger holocaust flashpoint between India and Pakistan?
Again we see the blind stupidity of arrogance, of entitlement, as the "Washington consensus" of elitist neo-liberalism continues its blundering away around the world.
Now we stand on the brink of war over Crimea. Here too there are historical complexities entirely ignored by the media narrative. The Crimea was not considered part of Ukraine until it was simply tranferred by administrative edict in 1954 by the Soviet government, removing it from the Russian "socialist republic" to the jurisdiction of the Ukranian "socialist republic." When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Crimea became an autonomous republic operating under the constitution of Ukraine. Its population is about 60 percent Russian, yet this majority has had its language stripped of official status by the government in Kyiv which took power outside of constitutional means.
None of this justifies the heavy-handed muscle-flexing that Putin has been engaging in. But Russia, in post-Soviet times, with no trans-national ideology, has become a highly nationalist state. Putin is an authoritarian leader who now bases his threadbare claims to "legitimacy" -- and the dominance of his brutal clique -- on his championing of Russian nationalism and "traditional values". It is inconceivable that he would not consider the West's blatant interference in Ukraine to be an act of provocation and brinkmanship aimed at him and his regime, and that he would react accordingly.
So here we are. Chaos, strife, the threat of war -- and the heavy smoke of ignorance covering it all. Sleepwalking once more toward disaster. Deliberately setting tumultuous events in motion without the slightest concern for their ultimate consequences, or the suffering they will cause, now and perhaps for generations to come. (Think of Iraq, for example, or the spread of violence and chaos that has already flowed to many countries from the intervention in Libya's internal affairs.)
But why are we here? Greed. Greed and the lust for dominance. Let's not say "power," for that word carries positive connotations, and can also include an element of responsibility. But the oligarchs and ideologues, the militarists and ministers involved in this episode of Great Gamesmanship don't want power in any broader, deeper sense. What they want is dominance, to lord it over others -- physically, financially, psychologically. Among those at the top in this situation, on every side, there is not the slightest regard for the common good of their fellow human beings -- not even for those with whom they share some association by the accident of history or geography: language, nationality, ethnicity. The lust for loot and dominance outweighs all the rest, regardless of the heavy piety oozing from the rhetoric on all sides.
And if war is avoided, what is the likely outcome for Ukraine (aside from living in eternal tension with an enraged, threatened, authoritarian neighbor to the North)? Smith tells us: betrayal.
Instantly after Yanukovych was hounded from Kiev, seduction began its turn to betrayal. The Americans and Europeans started shuffling their feet as to what they would do for Ukrainians now that Russia has shut off the $15 billion tap. Nobody wants to pick up the bill, it turns out. Washington and the E.U. are now pushing the International Monetary Fund forward as the leader of a Western bailout.If the past is any guide, Ukrainians are now likely to get the "shock therapy" the economist Jeffrey Sachs urged in Russia, Poland and elsewhere after the Soviet Union's collapse. Sachs subsequently (and dishonestly) denied he played any such role -- understandable given the calamitous results, notably in Russia -- but the prescription called for off-the-shelf neoliberalism, applied without reference to any local realities, and Ukrainians are about to get their dosage.
It is wrong, as ahistorical thinking always is. Formerly communist societies, especially in the Eastern context, should logically advance first to some form of social democracy and then decide if they want to take things further rightward. Washington;s fear, evident throughout the Cold War, was that social democracies would demonstrate that they work -- so presenting a greater threat, paradoxically, than the Soviet model. Ukrainians favoring the Westward tilt, having idealized the E.U., appear to assume they are to evolve into some system roughly between the Scandinavians and Germany, as East Europeans earlier anticipated. They will thus find the I.M.F.'s deal shocking indeed. It will be bitter, after all the treacherous, carefully couched promises.
Whatever happens, it seems certain that oligarchs -- Western, Ukrainian, European or Russian, will continue to exercise dominance -- although some who backed the losing side too prominently may be cast down. Then again, most oligarchs, in every nation, are usually expert at playing both sides, or changing sides as necessary.
One is tempted to see this principle at work in the case of Pierre Omidyar, a prominent private backer of American efforts to fund and guide the Ukrainian opposition to power, as Pandodaily reported. Omidyar, who founded eBay and now owns PayPal, has recently become widely known -- and universally lauded -- for committing $250 million to fund First Look, a publishing group dedicated to adversarial journalism. He has assembled an all-star team for his venture, including Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Jeremy Scahill, Marcy Wheeler and others of similar reputation. It is no exaggeration to say that he has become a bonafide hero of the left, which has tended to dismiss all criticism or questioning of his new enterprise, or his wider operations, as the grumbling of jealous losers -- or even as covert actions of the State, trying to derail this dangerous new threat to elite rule.
Yet the fact remains that Omidyar's wider operations -- including those in Ukraine -- sit uneasily with the image of an adversarial paragon and danger to the system. Putting aside the troubling circumstance of adversarial activism being dependent on the personal whims of a billionaire, there is the fact that Omidyar's philanthropic vision lies largely in the monetizing of poverty relief efforts -- of turning them from charitable or government-based programs into money-making enterprises which reward investors with high returns while often leaving the recipients worse off than before. As nsfwcorp.com reports, these include micro-financing initiatives in India that have led to mass suicides among the debt-ridden poor, and "entrepreneurial" programs which bestow property rights on the small plots of slum-dwellers -- who, still in dire straits, sell them, for a pittance, to large-scale operators who then clear the ghettos for profitable developments, leaving the poor to find another shanty-town elsewhere. In this, Omidyar has partnered with Hernando de Soto, a right-wing "shock doctrinaire" and one-time advisor to former Peruvian dictator, Alberto Fujimori; de Soto is also an ally of the Koch Brothers. Omidyar has also poured millions of dollars into efforts to privatize, and profitize, public education in the United States and elsewhere, forcing children in some of the poorest parts of the world to pay for basic education -- or go without.
Thus Omidyar seems very much a part of the "neo-liberal order" which, as Patrick Smith noted above, the United States has been pushing "on a global scale, admitting of no exceptions." So it is not surprising to see him playing a role in trying to spread this order to Ukraine, in tandem with the overt efforts and backroom machinations of the U.S. government. Omidyar is, openly, a firm adherent of the neo-liberal order -- privitazing public assets for individual profit, converting charity and state aid to profitable enterprises for select investors, and working to elect or install governments that support these policies.
None of these activities are illegal. None of them necessarily preclude him also funding independent journalism. But I can't see that it is unreasonable to bring up these facts and point them out. I don't think it's unreasonable to apply the same kind of considered skepticism toward this billionaire oligarch that you would apply to any other. For instance, if one of First Look's websites publishes some blistering expose on the nasty machinations of some other oligarch or corporate figure, I don't think it will be unreasonable for people to look and see if the target happens to be a rival of Omidyar's in some way, or if his or her removal or humbling would benefit Omidyar's own business or political interests. One does the same with the New York Times and its obvious pro-Establishment agenda, or with Rupert Murdoch's newspapers, and so on; the wider context helps the reader put articles in perspective, and weigh them accordingly. It doesn't mean the facts of this or that particular story are untrue; it does mean they aren't swallowed whole, uncritically, without awareness of other agendas that might be in play.
This seems so elementary that it's almost embarrassing to point it out. Yet for the most part, anyone who raises these kinds of questions about Omidyar's media enterprise has been immediately shouted down, sometimes vociferously, by those who otherwise evince a savvy skepticism toward Big Money and its agendas. Many of those assailing the Pandodaily report about Omidyar and Ukraine pointed out that "this is the world we live in" -- a world dominated by Big Money -- and you have to make the best of a bad lot. And anyway, news outlets have always been owned by rich and powerful interests, and First Look is no different.
Well yes, exactly. And thus First Look -- owned solely by a neo-liberal billionaire, who, as Jeremy Scahill has pointed out, takes a very active interest in the daily workings of his news organization -- should be subject to the same standards of scrutiny as any other news outlet owned by the rich and powerful. But this doesn't seem to be happening; quite the opposite, in fact.
I think perhaps there might be a category mistake at work here. Because of the reputations of those who have signed up with Omidyar, the idea has taken hold that Omidyar is dedicated to throwing a broad light on the secret machinations of the national security state and its imperialist rampages around the world. But Scahill's statement intimates that Omidyar's "vision" is actually much more limited. The interview that Scahill gave to the Daily Beast, quoted by Pandodaily, is quite revealing. Below is an excerpt, somewhat longer than the Pando quote:
The whole venture will have a lower wall between owner and journalist than traditional media. Omidyar, he says, wanted to do the project because he was interested in Fourth Amendment issues, and they are hiring teams of lawyers, not just to keep the staff from getting sued, but to actively push courts on the First Amendment, to “force confrontation with the state on these issues.”
“[Omidyar] strikes me as always sort of political, but I think that the NSA story and the expanding wars put politics for him into a much more prominent place in his existence. This is not a side project that he is doing. Pierre writes more on our internal messaging than anyone else. And he is not micromanaging. This guy has a vision. And his vision is to confront what he sees as an assault on the privacy of Americans.”
Omidyar is passionately concerned about government encroachments on privacy, Scahill says, while noting -- somewhat ominously -- that the enterprise will have "a lower wall between owner and journalist than traditional media." You might think this would set off alarm bells in a longtime adversarial journalist like Scahill, but apparently not. In any case, Omidyar's entire neo-liberal ideology is based on the ability of wealthy individuals to operate free from government control as they circle the world in search of profit. (And also, if it happens, some social benefits by the way; but if one's profit-making initiatives turn out to drive hundreds of people to suicide, well, c'est la vie, eh?) Naturally, wealthy individuals also want to be free from government spying as they go about their business. They are happy to cooperate with the National Security State when there is mutual benefit to be had, as with Omidyar and his government partners in Ukraine -- but they want it to be on their terms. They want their own information to remain within their control. The overthrow of foreign governments, the invasion of foreign lands, the extrajudicial murder of people around the world, the militarization of American policy and society -- this does not really concern them. In fact, it helps them expand the parameters of their business and extend their neoliberal ideology. But the idea that the government might also be spying on them -- well, this is intolerable. This must be resisted, there must be a "confrontation" about such behavior.
I'm sure the writers hired by Omidyar's quarter of a billion dollars will produce work of value, dig up some useful facts. So does the Times, so does the now oligarch-owned Washington Post, so do Murdoch's papers on occasion. But I don't think Omidyar's enterprise has been set up to challenge the status quo or pose the "threat" to the system that its hero-worshippers are looking for. Indeed, even Greenwald calls only for "reforms" of the system, for "real oversight" of the National Security State by legislators -- the same legislators bought, sold, cowed and dominated by Big Money. I honestly don't think that the powers-that-be feel threatened by an enterprise set up by one of their number that confines itself to calls for "reform" from "within" -- especially when its sole owner continues to cooperate with the Koch Brothers, hard-right ideologues like Hernando de Soto and indeed with the National Security State itself in subversive adventures overseas.
Omidyar's goals are limited: to protect the privacy of the individual from government. This is a noble, worthy aim. But based on his own actions, he is perfectly content for that privacy-protected individual to advance a punishing neo-liberal agenda on the rest of the world, and at home, in collusion with the National Security State if need be. Whether Greenwald, Scahill, Taibbi, Wheeler and the rest are equally content with this agenda is something we will find out in the months to come.
Addendum. Below is a passage cut out of the original text above, giving more detail on the opposition forces that the intervention by Omidyar and the U.S. government helped bring to power.
The occupation movement -- now the government -- is led by three main factions, one of which contains openly neo-fascist groups who -- while the protests were going on -- mounted a torchlight procession through the city of Lviv in honor of Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian fascist leader who joined with Nazi invaders in World War II and took part in mass murders of Jews. As Max Blumenthal reports:
After participating in a campaign to assassinate Ukrainians who supported accommodation with the Polish during the 1930’s, Bandera’s forces set themselves to ethnically cleanse western Ukraine of Poles in 1943 and 1944. In the process, they killed over 90,000 Poles and many Jews, whom Bandera’s top deputy and acting “Prime Minister,” Yaroslav Stetsko, were determined to exterminate. ... Lviv has become the epicenter of neo-fascist activity in Ukraine, with elected Svoboda officials waging a campaign to rename its airport after Bandera and successfully changing the name of Peace Street to the name of the Nachtigall Battalion, an OUN-B wing that participated directly in the Holocaust. “’Peace’ is a holdover from Soviet stereotypes,” a Svoboda deputy explained. ...
After participating in a campaign to assassinate Ukrainians who supported accommodation with the Polish during the 1930’s, Bandera’s forces set themselves to ethnically cleanse western Ukraine of Poles in 1943 and 1944. In the process, they killed over 90,000 Poles and many Jews, whom Bandera’s top deputy and acting “Prime Minister,” Yaroslav Stetsko, were determined to exterminate.
Svoboda is the name of the top nationalist party. As Blumenthal notes:
Svoboda's leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, has called for the liberation of his country from the “Muscovite-Jewish mafia.” After the 2010 conviction of the Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk for his supporting role in the death of nearly 30,000 people at the Sobibor camp, Tyahnybok rushed to Germany to declare him a hero who was “fighting for truth.” In the Ukrainian parliament, where Svoboda holds an unprecedented 37 seats, Tyahnybok’s deputy Yuriy Mykhalchyshyn is fond of quoting Joseph Goebbels – he has even founded a think tank originally called “the Joseph Goebbels Political Research Center.” .... Svoboda’s openly pro-Nazi politics have not deterred Senator John McCain from addressing a EuroMaidan rally alongside Tyahnybok, nor did it prevent Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland from enjoying a friendly meeting with the Svoboda leader this February.
In a leaked phone conversation with Geoffrey Pyatt, the US ambassador to Ukraine, Nuland revealed her wish for Tyahnybok to remain “on the outside,” but to consult with the US’s replacement for Yanukovich, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, “four times a week.” At a December 5, 2013 US-Ukraine Foundation Conference, Nuland boasted that the US had invested $5 billion to "build democratic skills and institutions" in Ukraine ...
As Smith puts it, the "the Nuland tape is the Rosetta Stone of the Ukrainian riddle. It was an early advisory that we were about to watch Washington at work corrupting the affairs of another nation, exactly as it has for the past 60–odd years elsewhere. Nothing new under the American sun, even as the afternoon light starts to fade."
Blumenthal has much more on the history of Ukrainian fascism, including the extensive and highly connected network established in American politics after WWII, when many of Bandera's party members -- Nazi collaborators and killers of Jews and Poles -- were funneled to the US, often with the CIA's help. He also notes that former Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko, the Western-hailed hero of the "Orange Revolution" that brought regime change to Ukraine 10 years ago, had named Bandera "National Hero of Ukraine" in 2010.
Written by Chris Floyd
Friday, 28 February 2014 11:43
The title of Isaac Bashevis Singer's story came to mind when I read of the death of Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest known survivor of the Holocaust. She was 110, and grown up in Prague, where both Kafka and Mahler had been friends of her family. Herz-Sommer had gained some fame in her last years for her remarkable spirit, and her dedication to the music of Chopin, which helped sustain her during her time in a Nazi camp -- and probably saved her and her son from death.
She was in the "model" camp at Theresienstadt, used by the Nazis as a showcase for the Red Cross, to show their 'humane' treatment of prisoners. (Although the very fact of imprisoning, say, a young woman and her young child simply because they were Jewish perverts the very notion of "humane," however the prisoners might have been treated.) And of course,in reality, the regimen in Theresienstadt was harsh -- tens of thousands died there -- although it was lightened from time to time in preparation of a Red Cross visit.
Herz-Sommer was part of the camp orchestra. The New York Times recounts her experience with the orchestra, and how it saved her from the fate of many others in the camp, including her husband:
“These concerts, the people are sitting there — old people, desolated and ill — and they came to the concerts, and this music was for them our food,” she later said. “Through making music, we were kept alive.”
Terezin was a transit camp. From there, Jews were deported to forced-labor and death camps; of some 140,000 Jews who passed through Terezin, nearly 90,000 were deported to “almost certain death” at such camps, according to the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Some 33,000 died in Terezin itself.
One of the prisoners transported from Terezin was Leopold Sommer, who in 1944 was sent to Auschwitz, and on to Dachau. He died there, probably of typhus, in 1945, a month before liberation.
Music spared Mrs. Herz-Sommer a similar fate. One night, after she had been in Terezin for more than a year, she was stopped by a young Nazi officer, as Ms. Stoessinger’s book recounts. “Do not be afraid,” he said. “I only want to thank you for your concerts. They have meant much to me.” He turned to leave before adding: “One more thing. You and your little son will not be on any deportation lists. You will stay in Theresienstadt until the war ends.”
Thus she survived, due to the sentimental caprice of a Nazi officer, who had doubtless facilitated (or even directed) the transport of thousands of others to death camps. This is always the face of power, of dominance and control: we give, or we take away, we spare, or kill, at our own whim; there is nothing you can do about it.
By a bitter irony, the story about Herz-Sommers' death appeared on the NYT website alongside a story about the Obama Administration wrestling with the "thorny question" of whether they should murder an American citizen in cold blood or not. It was the usual fluffy "process piece," where White House insiders relay the thoughtfulness and moral struggle of the noble president and his death advisers as they pore over their "kill lists" each week. The Times has become the primary 'normalizer" of this unbelievably hideous, barbaric and inhumane practice, which of course extends not only to named, specific targets like the American in question here, but to unnamed, unknown individuals who are murdered by the president and his agents in "signature strikes," attacks based on certain ill-defined "behaviors" recorded by robot drones.
The president and his agents kill people -- or spare them -- without any due process of law, any oversight, without giving their victims a chance to defend themselves or even prepare themselves for death. They decide, they strike -- out of the blue, with drone missiles, inhuman, implacable, and very often killing other people in the vicinity of the impact. They kill in perfect safety, without the slightest threat to their own person, inviolable, completely dominant, striking down defenseless victims who have no power to strike back. In this they are no different from the officers in the Nazi camps.
It may be that on occasion President Obama is moved by a sentimental whim to spare some potential victim. Perhaps he's had a touching moment with one of his daughters at breakfast, or seen a photo that called up a piercing memory of his mother -- or perhaps he's just been listening to a piece of music that moved him. And so, on that particular "Terror Tuesday," when he sits down with advisers to go over the list of "extrajudicial killings" they should authorize that week, Obama hears the intelligence report on a target -- a young man, say, who had (allegedly) joined a jihadi group after his mother had died -- and, still under the influence of his sentimental mood, says, "Let's hold off on this one, fellas. Let's get a little more data on this." Thus the young man is spared, and they move on to other targets, most of whom are not so lucky, and are marked for death.
Obama and his advisors don't see themselves as monsters, any more than the Nazi officer who saved Herz-Sommer did. They see themselves, as he did, as moral men, carrying out difficult but necessary duties yet still retaining their humanity, their compassion, their capacity for kindness and empathy. But of course none of that matters. What matters is not how we regard ourselves, for good or ill, but how we actually treat others, the actuality of what we do.
History records saints of many religions who spent their entire lives in a paroxysm of self-hatred -- for their unseemly lusts, murderous rages, sickening thoughts and urges, their inner madness -- yet acted toward others with love and self-sacrifice, humility and service. If they acted with love, what did it matter what they might have felt or thought in the always-churning, flowing, passing mental and emotional streams that pass through our minds? And similarly, what does it matter how righteous and self-regarding we feel, how deeply we might be touched by some affecting situation or work of art, if our actions lead to evil?
The sentimentality of brutal power spared Herz-Sommer, but the life of deep meaning she made in the aftermath stands as a stark rebuke to the very notion of domination.
While writing this, I thought of another piece I did a while back that touched briefly on some of these themes -- the dichotomy between inner life and outward action, malevolent currents and ordinary goodness, etc. It even mentioned a 'grand lady' of ancient age. Of course this wasn't a reference to Herz-Sommer, but the piece did seem somewhat apt in this context, so here's a link.