In its second installment, Slate’s new must-read series If It Happened There — which covers US events like our media covers other countries — chronicles the end of Michael Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor. “Bloomberg has made no secret of his ambitions for higher office, though experts believe he has limited appeal in America’s less-developed but politically influential agricultural regions, where powerful armed groups have bristled at his suggestions for limiting their access to advanced weaponry and munitions.”
As the Bradley Manning trial moves to sentencing — I wrote about the case here in March — Esquire’s Charlie Pierce wonders again how we got so far down the rabbit hole. Honestly, we should have a pretty good sense, at this late date, that prosecuting anyone under the godforsaken Espionage Act is generally a terrible idea.
Referring to the most venomous of the charges, which Manning thankfully escaped — that he was willfully “aiding the Enemy” by blowing the whistle on Army misdeeds — Pierce writes: “That anyone in this government thought this is a good idea is something worth studying. Manning’s going to go to jail from now until Christ alone knows when. The people who thought this up are still going to have good government jobs. Something’s not right with that.” Amen.
“Well I never knew it was a man’s world! I never accepted that. I thought I had an education just as good as a man’s. I deserve to have the same opportunities and advantages. So I antagonized a lot of people, but I fought for women’s rights and blacks’ rights and civil rights. Discrimination against women was very bad. There was no reason to accept discrimination. No reason.” Helen Thomas, 1920-2013.
“‘My personality was formed by Chicago,’ he told Cigar Aficionado magazine in 1999. ‘It’s very American, very straightforward. If you can’t find it, or make it there, you won’t make it anywhere. It’s a very honest place.’” Dennis Farina. 1944-2013.
“I was the Knicks’ third-leading scorer [8.1 ppg], I also finished third in the league in assist average [2.0], and my salary was 60 dollars per game. Ha! These days, the players make about sixty dollars a minute. Don’t get me wrong, though. I have no jealousy or resentment over how much money these guys make today. I think they’re the best athletes in the world, and they’re worth every red cent. I’m just proud to have been one of the NBA’s pioneers.” Ossie Schectman, 1919-2013.
As scholars Jennifer Stisa Granick and Christopher Jon Sprigman remind us in the NYT, make no mistake: the NSA’s current surveillance regime is entirely illegal. “We may never know all the details of the mass surveillance programs, but we know this: The administration has justified them through abuse of language, intentional evasion of statutory protections, secret, unreviewable investigative procedures and constitutional arguments that make a mockery of the government’s professed concern with protecting Americans’ privacy. It’s time to call the N.S.A.’s mass surveillance programs what they are: criminal.”
As I said last time, this shouldn’t even be in dispute. But far too many ostensible Democrats seem to assume this culture of lawlessness is ok now that Obama’s at the helm. Once again, we have lost our way.
“If convicted on all three counts, the former N.S.A. contract-systems administrator could face thirty years in jail. On the Sunday-morning talk shows I watched, there weren’t many voices saying that would be an excessive punishment for someone who has performed an invaluable public service.” In related news, The New Yorker‘s John Cassidy laments the cowardice of today’s media with regards to the fate of Edward Snowden: “The Obama Administration doesn’t want him to come home and contribute to the national-security-versus-liberty debate that the President says is necessary. It wants to lock him up for a long time”
The mantra of good journalism should be to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, but, here again, our broken, trivia-obsessed, lapdog-riddled fourth estate has it exactly backward. It is infuriating to behold.
Still, at the very least, Frank Rich has ably summed up all you need to know about NBC’s David Gregory, who recently queried on-air whether Glenn Greenwald should be jailed for breaking the Snowden story:
“Is David Gregory a journalist? As a thought experiment, name one piece of news he has broken, one beat he’s covered with distinction, and any memorable interviews he’s conducted that were not with John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Dick Durbin, or Chuck Schumer…In any case, his charge is preposterous…I propose that Gregory be full-time on Today, where he can speak truth to power by grilling Paula Deen.”
Another reason I’ve been stepping away from the politics posts – the estimable Charlie Pierce has this beat covered. Here he eviscerates the Politico-Industrial complex’s continued infatuation with gasbag Newt Gingrich. “Not to stick up for Karl Rove but, Jesus H. Christ on a special episode of Blossom, there is no serious comparison to be made.” Naturally, CNN — home of Serious People™ like David Gergen — has recently picked him up as a political correspondent.
Given how often I complain about lazy and terrible media practices here at GitM, I should also give credit where due: Interviewing longtime GOP hack John Sununu yesterday, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien did exactly what a good journalist is meant to do — respond to obviously false talking points with an appeal to the facts. (To see how these things usually go at CNN, see this classic Candy Crowley riff.) More of this, please.
At the same time, I found Ides‘ depiction of contemporary politics to be totally theatrical and unrealistic, and its messaging rather muddled. (For a Phillip Seymour Hoffman movie that does get politics right, despite its occasional Sorkinisms, check out Charlie Wilson’s War.) The basic conceit here is All the King’s Men, basically (or, if you’re new-school, Primary Colors) — No man is a hero to his valet and all that, especially in politics. But by having the feet of clay of Clooney’s Obama-esque candidate, Governor Mike Morris of Pennsylvania, here be (yawn…oh, and major spoiler, I guess), in the parlance of politics, a “bimbo eruption,” Ides not only makes itself seem relentlessly dated. It seems to flinch from the problems in contemporary politics that people are actually and justifiably cynical about.
So, now that I’ve spoiled one of the major “twists,” let me roll it back for a moment. It’s the final days of the Ohio Democratic primary, and Governor Morris is in a neck-and-neck race with Senator Ted Pullman of Arkansas (Michael Mantell, not a factor here.) Running the respective campaigns are Hoffman and Paul Giamatti — although, don’t get your hopes up, they have maybe 30 seconds of time together.The kingmaker of the entire race could well be Senator Thompson of North Carolina (Jeffrey Wright), who has recently dropped out and has delegates to spare — although, again, don’t get your hopes up, Wright is here for maybe five minutes tops. And the ace in the hole is Morris’ wunderkind campaign aide, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling). He does…messaging? Voter outreach? It’s totally unclear, and we never see him do anything important. But the film depends on him being considered an amazing and indispensable political genius, so let’s presume he is. (Yes, yes, more Gosling haterade. He’s actually fine here, FWIW.)
In any case, Meyers is apparently such an earth-shattering asset that, one day, the opposition (Giamatti) asks to do lunch in a possible bid to get him to switch sides. But when word of this (totally innocuous) barroom meet leaks to an enterprising NYT reporter (Marisa Tomei), the story threatens to tank Meyers’ relationship with his boss (ok, maybe) and develop into a full-blown, campaign-sinking media sensation (Really? Why? They’re both Dems. And are all Ohio voters meant to be such political junkies that they would devote extreme import to an aide on one campaign having lunch with another? This is an inside-the-Beltway, Lloyd Grove tidbit at best.) And then there’s the complicating matter of Meyers’ new fling, a young and exceedingly friendly campaign intern (Evan Rachel Wood). What was it Chekhov said about comely interns in the first act of a political play…?
So you can basically tell where The Ides of March is going from relatively early on. (If not, every Obama-esque utterance by Morris, who’s a pro-gay-marriage, secular humanist liberal dream candidate, also gives the game away. There’s gotta be something up the man’s sleeve or there’s no movie.) Still, I admired some of Ides‘ visual conceits — for example, having the climactic, idealism-deflating tete-a-tete occur in a hotel kitchen. (In US politics, really horrible idealism-deflating things have happened in hotel kitchens.) And, thanks to its actors and crisp direction, the film mostly sustains an impressive dramatic heft even when the story seems more than a little implausible.
But here’s the trick [back to the big spoiler, if you want out]: So Governor Mike Morris, as its happens, has a failing for the interns. To which I say…Honestly, who cares? This is the sort of thing that destroys your political idealism? We had an impeachment crisis over exactly this issue, and 60% of America shrugged and backed the president at the time. And, ten years after the Bill Clinton era, the sin of his administration that rankles isn’t his dalliances with Monica Lewinsky — It was the final removal of Glass-Steagal, which helped pave the way for the (unpunished) economy-imploding blowout of our times. Similarly,the thousands hitting the bricks for #OWS in various cities right now don’t particularly care who Obama, or anyone else in Washington, is screwing at any given time. They care who they’re screwing over.
And, in the end, the intern problem here is only the icing on the cake. The Ides of March is a film that’s almost entirely about the process of politics — scoops and polls and leaks, campaign managers and endorsements. It has almost nothing to say about the actual content of politics — jobs and schools and taxes. I don’t even remember, other than the aforementioned litany of hot-button cultural issues, any actual, honest-to-goodness questions of political import coming up. One of the main reasons, I’d argue, why the American people are sick-to-death of politics and politicians today, is all the useless, inside-baseball, endless-horse-race media coverage, when all folks really want is a good, well-paying job and a decent school in the neighborhood. In this respect and despite its good intentions, Ides is less a diagnosis of the disease afflicting the body politic and more just another manifestation of the symptoms.
For the benefit of the willfully dense — i.e. all the telegenic denizens of the Village — Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick explains the basic meaning behind Occupy Wall Street: “They are holding up signs that are perfectly and intrinsically clear: They want accountability for the banks that took their money, they want to end corporate control of government. They want their jobs back. They would like to feed their children. They want–wait, no, we want– to be heard by a media that has devoted four mind-numbing years to channeling and interpreting every word uttered by a member of the Palin family while ignoring the voices of everyone else.“
And here, via Shani O’Hilton of City Paper, is how the WP covered the #OccupyOakland clash:
Another scalp for the War on Whistleblowers: Strapped for cash thanks to Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, and Western Union blocking transactions, Julian Assange warns that Wikileaks may have to close its doors soon. That would be a shame: In this day and age, we need something approaching real and undomesticated journalism. (Pic above via, ironically, Facebook.)
“A few days ago I was watching Touch of Evil, Orson Welles’ fevered monument to America’s fear of and fascination with the Border, which opens with that famous three-minute tracking shot…It hit me (weirdly, I guess, but I spent way too much time thinking about sports) that this shot contained everything you needed to know about the U.S.-Mexico soccer rivalry.“
In Grantland, Brian Phillips looks to the border for insights into the US and Mexico soccer teams. To be honest, I’m not really sold on ESPN’s Grantland experiment just yet. Too much of the site exudes the terrible taste and fratgeek sexism of its editor-in-chief, “Sportsguy” Bill Simmons. Frequent contributor Chuck Klosterman is another red flag to me, for the same reasons. Both consider themselves pop culture arbiters and both are compulsively readable but – Simmons on the NBA notwithstanding — they’re also usually irritating and often wrong.
Still, Grantland does publish worthwhile culture pieces now and again — Hua Hsu on Watch the Throne today is another good one. And, speaking of good Watch the Throne commentary, Matt at Fluxblog has a particularly keen observation on it: “Kanye can’t help but project his intense insecurities – he’s emotionally transparent at all times, and it’s part of what makes him such a fascinating and magnetic pop star. Jay-Z, however, is the radical opposite – his every word and movement is focused on controlling your impression of him…In this way, Kanye is analogous to the Marvel Comics model of whiny, introspective, persecuted superheroes [Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk] and Jay-Z is more like DC Comics’ Superman and Batman, who thrive when creators trade on their stoic, iconic qualities.“
“‘Trump’s presidential run is no longer being treated as serious by the easily distracted and resolutely frivolous political press that covered it so thoroughly just a few short weeks ago. While it was always an unamusing joke…we had what felt like a lifetime of New Hampshire trip coverage and Piers Morgan interviews and ‘President Trump? It might be more likely than you think!’“
With last month’s embarrassing Trump boomlet seemingly run its course in the Village, Salon‘s Alex Pareene comes to bury, not praise, the Donald. “[T]ransparent idiocy didn’t cause the press to take Trump less seriously, but it did lead people to gradually grow to hate Trump, which made his ratings suffer, and the exposure of the artifice of the Trump persona was decidedly damaging to his ‘brand.’ Once your ‘brand’ has been damaged, say goodbye to credulous political press coverage!“
To be honest, I couldn’t care less about Trump, and mostly avoided all of his Birther shenanigans as they were unfolding two weeks ago for the same reason I try to avoid any political coverage — from right or left — of the “You won’t believe what Sarah Palin just posted on Facebook!” variety. It’s lazy, it’s boring, and it’s actively pernicious given all the real problems we face right now. (But at the very least, both Trump and Palin are noteworthy indicators of how far the GOP done fell.)
I’m only posting on this now to point out that the Trump boomlet was by no means a one-time-thing. When the President of the United States actually had to come on TV two weeks ago to prove he was an American citizen, there was much pearl-clutching by the Village press about what a travesty this had all become. “What a sad day in American political history,” lamented MSNBC’s Chuck Todd. Meanwhile, the Washington Post opined that the release “says something embarrassing — actually, make that disturbing — about the state of American politics” — soon after that newspaper of record invited Trump to the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. (An evening, by the way, that’s as good as reflection as any of how desiccated and domesticated today’s establishment press has become.)
For his part, ABC’s Jake Tapper — a fellow who, let’s remember, got his big break as a hard-hitting journalist by kissing-and-telling on Monica Lewinsky back in the day — tried to defend the press by pointing to a Pew study which found that the deficit debate was actually the most-covered news story of the week. The problem with this line of argument is that conducting lousy journalism in one arena does not absolve you of conducting lousy journalism in another. And in fact, Village criers have been just as incompetent and/or duplicitous on the deficit.
For months, as you all know, the Serious People in the media have been banging the drum of the deficit witchhunt even though, from an economic perspective, austerity at this hour makes about as much sense as Birtherism. And, in the past few weeks, they have doubled down on this idiocy by trying to elevate the most recent flavor of the month, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, as a Serious Man, come to tell us hard truths about the need for sacrifice.
In fact, Congressman Ryan is scarcely any less of a huckster than the Donald. This is a guy who laments the intrusions of the welfare state at every turn, but only made it to college thanks to Social Security benefits received upon the passing of his father. (To be fair: Ryan is only emulating his hero with this sort of hypocrisy.) This is also a guy who, when confronted with the Clinton budget surpluses of a decade ago, then lamented that the debt was too small.
And this is a guy whose budget proposal — which he was quick to deem not a budget, but a cause — is basically the same vile, stale concoction of malice and magical thinking that the right has been peddling for decades. It uses made-up numbers to argue that privatizing Medicare (and leaving seniors with the bills), slashing the social safety net, and lowering taxes on the rich will somehow end deficits and save America. (Short answer: It won’t.)
By any reasonable standard, the Ryan budget should have been laughed out of the room as soon as it dropped. But, no, the press needed A Serious Man™ on the right for its lazy he-said, she-said approach to any political story. And, so Ryan got the Trump treatment and the rest is history. Ostensibly liberal pundits fell over themselves praising Ryan’s budget. In response, the president eventually drew progressive kudos for pitching his own deficit reduction plan. (More on that in a sec.) With both sides established, the press can now continue to happily indulge in the usual medley of content-free, he-said, she-said inanities that, to them, constitutes political journalism. And everyone in Washington can continue to ignore the fact that, actually, more spending, not cutting the deficit, is what is needed to fix the economy right now. Win-win!
Regarding President Obama’s deficit proposals, he delivered an eloquent speech on the subject last month, to be sure — one of his best as president. But, even if we hadn’t already been burned far too many times by his rhetoric not matching up to his policies, it’s hard for me to take his remarks as some great moment of the left just because he finally articulated what should be pretty basic principles of American government. Particularly when you consider that the Obama plan is, of course, center-right-leaning, and yet it has nevertheless become the left pole in an exceedingly narrow economic debate.
(By the way, if you’re really worried about the long-term deficit, the answer isn’t rocket science. Try raising taxes on the rich. Or passing real health care cost controls. Or going where the money’s at. Or growing the economy and putting people back to work. Or, y’know, doing nothing — that would work too.)
In sum, the Trump boomlet of last month was not the exception. It was a clear and distilled expression of the rule, a sideshow to a sideshow. And because the Village press is so terrible, our entire politics is distorted — We are living out the consequences of this disaster yet again in the deficit debate. Only the sheer amount of money flooding the system right now is a bigger political problem than the broken state of the newsmedia.
So, apparently, a stammer was the least of King George VI’s worries. As the Oscar field is announced with The King’s Speech at the head of the pack, Martin Filler muckrakes the rest of the King George story in The New York Review of Books, and Christopher Hitchens piles on over at Slate: “The King’s Speech is an extremely well-made film with a seductive human interest plot, very prettily calculated to appeal to the smarter filmgoer and the latent Anglophile. But it perpetrates a gross falsification of history.“
After another embarrassing document dump by Wikileaks — this time diplomatic cables, next time Bank of America? — Attorney General Holder threatens the prosecution of Julian Assange, an Australian citizen — most likely under the Espionage Act, the same catch-all 1917 law used to lock up Eugene Debs back in the day.
First of all, Gawker‘s John Cook has already explained why this attempted line of prosecution doesn’t work. However docile the “nation’s watchdogs” remain on any other given day, the newspapers that published these leaks would have to be considered co-conspirators in any Espionage Act-related indictment. “We think its fairly obvious that the Department of Justice won’t go after the Times or any of the other papers involved in the story. But if it doesn’t, that’s just evidence that its attempt to use the Espionage Act to go after Assange isn’t about enforcing laws: It’s about retribution, harassment, and rattling sabers.“
Secondly, if Assange wants to avoid federal prosecution, perhaps he should just…I dunno…torture somebody? Or maybe rip off the American people for trillions of dollars? Or how ’bout just spying on Americans via warrantless wiretap? Apparently, disclosing those kinds of secrets is one of those look-forward-not-backward kinda things.
Let’s get real here. There’s no threat to our troops in these leaks — Even the Pentagon admits that. (A more overlooked problem, as a friend pointed out, is what this leak might mean for human rights workers.) Wikleaks’ methods are of the blunderbuss variety, yes. (That probably speaks in their favor: They don’t seem to tailor their leaks to suit a predetermined spin. They just dump data. And, hey, somebody should be doing the media’s job.) And, sure, Assange comes off as more than a bit pretentious, but what of it? If being a jackass were a crime, our prison system in this country would be completely broken…oh wait, it already is.
In the end, as Glenn Greenwald well put it, “our government and political culture is so far toward the extreme pole of excessive, improper secrecy that that is clearly the far more significant threat.” You’d think an administration that ran on unparalleled transparency in government might feel the same way. But, sadly, like its predecessor, the only crime this administration really seems to hate is whistleblowing.
“The War Room Hack Thirty is a list of our least favorite political commentators, newspaper columnists and constant cable news presences, ranked roughly (but only roughly) in order of awfulness and then described rudely. Criteria for inclusion included writing the same column every week for 30 years, war-mongering, joyless repetition of conventional wisdom, and making bad puns.”
Another enjoyable and illuminating recent list: Salon‘s Alex Pareene chooses America’s thirty most hackadocious pundits. The sad thing is, not only is every entrant on this list more than deserving of the scorn they receive here, but Pareene could easily have knocked the list up to fifty pundits with absolutely no diminution in lack-of-quality.
“When you can read an entire column by the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz and never once feel the urge to cut out your own heart with a dull knife, you know that you no longer have the sense of outrage that is essential to reporting from our nation’s capital.” In related news, and via Glenn Greenwald, Harper’s editor Ken Silverstein bids a pithy farewell to his DC beat.
Thanks to one small clerical error, the Memphis Commerical Appeal uncovers the hidden life of famed civil rights photographer Ernest Withers, who apparently doubled as an FBI informant. [Reaction.] “‘He was the perfect source for them. He could go everywhere with a perfect, obvious professional purpose,’ said Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow, who, along with retired Marquette University professor Athan Theoharis, reviewed the newspaper’s findings.” Shady.
“[T]o the extent that the ‘liberal left’ is upset at the President, it’s because they are seeing a great opportunity slip away in real time. The only one that told the base that they could change America from the bottom up and bring forth a transformative new era of leadership is Barack Obama. If he didn’t want one, he shouldn’t have said anything.“
In response to the most recent disparaging of liberal and progressive blogs by “senior administrative official” to his or her media lap dog of choice, FDL’s Dave Dayen gets to the heart of progressive consternation with Team Obama: “Nobody had a bigger challenge coming into office than Barack Obama but nobody had a bigger opportunity. And liberals like myself are generally peeved that the opportunity has been squandered. Yes, squandered.” Yep, sounds about right.
In very related news, with the passage of financial reform in the Senate today, The Prospect‘s Kevin Drum gets off a zinger about Obama’s legislative accomplishments thus far. I think, overall, this president could have accomplished much more than Drum’s biting joke suggests — most obviously on executive power issues like torture and indefinite detention. (Or, put another way, I just get irritated with people who throw up their hands and say the problem with our politics is entirely structural when you have an ostensibly-lefty president saying patently dumb things like this. Choices matter, and this administration makes terrible ones.) All that being said, Drum’s comment was still worth a (rueful) laugh regardless.
“From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002-2008…The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63).“
By way of Greenwald and Sullivan, a Harvard study documents exactly how absurdly our national media carried water for the Dubya-era torture regime. “In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator.“
This story, along with Politico’s gaffetastic reaction to Rolling Stone‘s Michael Hastings doing real journalism on the McChrystal story — (“Hastings would be considered a bigger risk to be given unfettered access, compared with a beat reporter, who would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks” — See also Lara Logan) and Joke Line deeming Glenn Greenwald a traitor because he dared to call unrepentant Iraq war evidence-falsifier Jeff Goldberg a horrible journalist (“Greenwald…so far as I can tell, only regards the United States as a force for evil in the world.“) pretty much tells you everything you need to know about our broken and corrupt Village media. And this is all just in the past week. Rinse and repeat, over and over and over again. (Pic via here.)
“Ever since 1987 and the end of the Fairness Doctrine, which freed station owners from having to provide any balance on the air, conservatives have dominated talk radio. To the point where today, according to a 2007 report of the Center for American Progress, there are at least 10 hours of right-wing talk for every one hour of progressive talk. And that’s a real problem. Not simply because this torrent of hate is unpleasant for most people to listen to. But because it also debases the level of political discourse in this country, at a time when we need it the most.“
Personal plug: Bill Press’ Toxic Talk: How the Radical Right Has Poisoned America’s Airwaves, which I worked on in a research and editing capacity last year, is hitting bookstores today. (As longtime readers may remember, this is our fifth book together, along with Spin This (2001), Bush Must Go (2004), How the Republicans Stole Christmas (2005), and Trainwreck (2008).) In any case, I suspect regular readers here — all ten of you! — should be sympathetic to its central thesis: Right-wing talk radio is bad for our politics and for our country. (And hat-tip to Media Matters, a key resource for this book, for watchdogging these blustery carnival barkers on a full-time basis.)
“Particularly in the younger generations, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster — indeed, have actively opposed — a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.“
Making the rounds this week, and making a break from his former boss Marty Peretz, former TNR editor Peter Beinart laments the “failure [re: conservatizing] of the American Jewish establishment.” (See also the follow-up interview.) An interesting piece, but Beinart — who, by the way, is wrong often — seems to have neglected to mention the very welcome formation of J Steet. They seem to be way ahead of him on this.
Sigh. We’ve come a long way from “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” In a commencement speech at Hampton University over the weekend, President Obama channels his inner grumpy-old-man (Roger Ebert?) to warn new grads about the perils of gaming and gadgetry. First off, it’s a ludicrous statement on its face: iPods are not particularly hard to work — and, if they’re really insidious Weapons of Mental Distraction, why give one to the Queen (who, by the way and to her credit, has fully embraced the Wii?)
Speaking more broadly, misinformation has been around as long as the republic — go read up on the Jefferson v. Adams race of 1800. If anything, today’s information society allows people to more easily hear the news from multiple sources, which is a very good thing. In fact, the reason our political culture these days is constantly bombarded with irrelevant, distracting, and inane mistruths has nothing — none, zip, zero — to do with iPods, iPads, Xboxes, or Playstations. It has to do with ABC, CBS, WaPo, Politico, and the rest of the Village, i.e. the very same people the President was noshing with a few weeks ago at the ne plus ultra of “information becoming distracting entertainment“, the White House Correspondents’ DInner.
Finally, while the “multi-tasking is distracting” proposition does seem to hold water, scientifically speaking, the jury’s still out on the pernicious effects of Xbox’s and the like. In fact, there are plenty of studies suggesting that video games improve vision, improve reflexes, improve attention, improve cognition, improve memory, and improve “fluid intelligence,” a.k.a. problem-solving. So, let’s not get out the torches and pitchforks just yet. It could just be that the 21st-century interactive culture is making better, smarter, more informed citizens. (And, hey, let’s not forget Admongo.)
To get to the point, while it’s not as irritating as the concerned-centrist pearl-clutching over GTA in past years, it’s just a troubling dynamic to see not only a young, ostensibly Kennedyesque president but the most powerful man in the world tsk-tsking about all this new-fangled technology ruining the lives of the young people. Let’s try to stay ahead of the curve, please. And let’s keep focus on the many problems — lack of jobs, crushing student loan and/or credit card debts, etc. — that might be distracting new graduates right now more than their iPods and PS3s. (Also, try to pick up a copy of Stephen Duncombe’s Dream — Video game-style interactivity isn’t the enemy. It’s the future.)
On one hand, the film makes for an interesting moral counterpoint to The Fog of War: Ellsberg’s actions put the lie to a lot of McNamara’s convenient post-hoc rationalizing therein — clearly, SecDef could’ve done more at the time to end the war in Vietnam.) On the other, Ellsberg also works as a prequel of sorts to All the President’s Men — to say nothing of a generation of seventies paranoia epics like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. But in the end, The Most Dangerous Man in America probably works best as an eloquent testament to the words of the late Howard Zinn (who appears here as an old friend of Ellsberg): “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.“
Like Man on Wire, Ellsberg starts here in media res, and at the scene of the history-making crime. Furtive eyes scan back and forth as an old-school Xerox copier whirrs in the dark, its green light illuminating maps of Southeast Asia and the ominous words “Top Secret” from below. With no zip drives or electronic files to speak of, analyst Daniel Ellsberg is forced to copy the 7000 pages of the Pentagon Papers page by painstaking page. It’ll take months (and eventually he enlists the aid of his kids.) As the Xerox churns, we get up-to-date on the ramifications of the document being processed — bombs fall from the sky over North Vietnam and Cambodia, weary troops patrol the hot, fetid jungle, and Nixon and Kissinger obsess over the leaks in their war machine (with Kissinger giving Ellsberg his moniker: “the most dangerous man in America.”)
Cut back to several years earlier, when the future leaker of the Pentagon Papers seemed quite a different man indeed. A fresh-faced young ex-Marine with a crisp, no-nonsense Kennedy era haircut, Ellsberg began his tenure in government as one of the Best and the Brightest, with an enthusiasm for his 80-hour workweek matched only by his hawkishness. As one of McNamara’s boys, Ellsberg concedes to helping massage the data to create a casus belli for the war. His first day on the job is the Gulf of Tonkin incident that wasn’t, and he spends subsequent weeks trying to dredge up some, any, horrible atrocities in the region that might involve Americans.
But, over time, the scales fall away from Ellsberg’s eyes. In part because he makes the acquaintance of a luminous lefty-leaning journalist named Patricia, who eventually becomes his fiancee…twice. (Ellsberg has a great line about a guy he meets at a peace rally who’s a Trotskyist. He asks this fellow how in Hell he ever became a Trotskyist. The answer: “The same way anybody becomes anything. I met a girl.”) And in part because, driven with an analyst’s overriding compulsion to find the right answer, he starts going to Vietnam himself to lead recon missions on the side and get a better sense of the situation on the ground. Simply put, the Ground Game is not going well.
The rest, as they say, is history. Moved to throw a shoe into the gears of the war machine he had helped nurture into existence, Ellsberg goes rogue and decides to publish the top-secret history of the war. But, even if you feel like you know the story of the Pentagon Papers pretty well, and I thought I did, there are some fresh and intriguing insights here. For example, I’m not really one for Freudianism or overthinking coincidences, but it turns out Ellsberg suffered a tragedy at the age of 15 that made him uniquely primed to play the role in history he ended up playing. (His father fell asleep at the wheel during a road trip, prompting a crash that sheared the car in two and killed Ellsberg’s mother and sister. In other words, watch the authority figures at the wheel verrry carefully.)
And then there’s the man himself, who’s an engaging presence throughout (if perhaps with a touch of monomania — I could see him being a hard guy to get along with.) If The Most Dangerous Man in America has a flaw, it’s that the movie is quite one-sided in the end — Ellsberg even narrates much of the story, and you get the sense at various points there may well be some whitewash being applied. (Ellsberg has an ex-wife, and kids, that aren’t even mentioned for the first 45 minutes or so.) Still, I’m inclined to give Ellsberg — and Ellsberg — the benefit of the doubt (and not just because the man loves his movies.) Ever since George and the cherry tree, we’ve been smoothing the edges of our patriotic tales. And, whatever his misdeeds as a man, Daniel Ellsberg, the film makes clear, is a patriot, through and through.
I use this Cornel West quote rather often, but that doesn’t make it any less true: “To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as how it is, however is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America – this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes, needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it.“
Daniel Ellsberg is one of those citizens. He saw an obvious crime being perpetrated by our government across multiple presidencies, and he did his part to help put a stop to it. In many ways, the story told in The Most Dangerous Man in America seems quaint: Johnson actually asked Congress for authority to bomb Vietnam? The press wasn’t rolling over like a lapdog in the wake of obvious propagandistic lies? (In fact, the media types who show up late in Ellsberg clearly possess some of the narcisstic sense of self-entitlement that has been our undoing of late. Ellsberg the civilian sweats blood and tears to get this 7,000-page document out in public, and the press poobahs act like they’re both the knowing gatekeepers and the heroes of the story.)
But just because Ellsberg’s brand of patriotism has fallen out of fashion in the era of Judith Miller and the chattering class doesn’t make this story any less relevant. It makes it more relevant. If we’re going to keep our young republic through its third century, we need more men and women of Ellsberg’s stripe. Men and women who will buck the trend, risk the ridicule and wrath of their well-connected peers, and stand up against injustice done under our collective name when they are party to it.
Presidents will get their due on this and every subsequent Presidents Day to come. But, now and again, it’s good to honor those patriots who, through non-violent principle and sheer, dogged determination, help to keep our leaders in check when the separation of powers fails — ordinary folks like you, me, and Daniel and Patricia Elllsberg.