Monday, June 23, 2008

I think it's the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately. -- George Carlin

George Carlin: American RadicalFrom John Nichols at The Nation.

The last vote that George Carlin said he cast in a presidential race was for George McGovern in 1972.
When Richard Nixon, who Carlin described as a member of a sub-species of humanity, overwhelmingly defeated McGovern, the comedian gave up on the political process.
"Now, there's one thing you might have noticed I don't complain about: politicians," he explained in a routine that challenged all the premises of today's half-a-loaf reformers. "Everybody complains about politicians. Everybody says they suck. Well, where do people think these politicians come from? They don't fall out of the sky. They don't pass through a membrane from another reality. They come from American parents and American families, American homes, American schools, American churches, American businesses and American universities, and they are elected by American citizens. This is the best we can do folks. This is what we have to offer. It's what our system produces: Garbage in, garbage out. If you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you're going to get selfish, ignorant leaders. Term limits ain't going to do any good; you're just going to end up with a brand new bunch of selfish, ignorant Americans. So, maybe, maybe, maybe, it's not the politicians who suck. Maybe something else sucks around here… like, the public. Yeah, the public sucks. There's a nice campaign slogan for somebody: 'The Public Sucks. Fuck Hope.'"
Needless to say, George Carlin was not on message for 2008's "change we can believe in" election season.
His was a darker and more serious take on the crisis – and the change of consciousness, sweeping in scope and revolutionary in character, that was required to address it.
Carlin may have stopped voting in 1972. But America's most consistently savage social commentator for the best part of a half century, who has died at age 71, did not give up on politics.
In recent years, in front of audiences that were not always liberal, he tore apart the neo-conservative assault on liberty with a clarity rarely evidenced in the popular culture.
Recalling George Bush's ranting about how the endless "war on terror" is a battle for freedom, Carlin echoed James Madison's thinking with a simple question: "Well, if crime fighters fight crime and fire fighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight? They never mention that part to us, do they?"
Carlin gave the Christian right – and the Christian left – no quarter. "I'm completely in favor of the separation of Church and State," Carlin said. "My idea is that these two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death."
Carlin's take on the Ronald Reagan administration is the best antidote to the counterfactual romanticization of the former president – in which even Barack Obama has engaged – remains the single finest assessment of Reagan and his inner circle. While Carlin did not complain much about politicians, he made an exception with regard to the great communicator. Recorded in 1988 at the Park Theater in Union City, New Jersey, and later released as an album -- What Am I Doing in New Jersey? – his savage recollection of the then-concluding Reagan-Bush years opened with the line: "I really haven't seen this many people in one place since they took the group photograph of all the criminals and lawbreakers in the Ronald Reagan administration."
But there was no nostalgia for past fights, no resting on laurels, for this topical comedian. He read the papers, he followed the news, he asked questions – the interviews I did with Carlin over the years were more conversations than traditional Q & A's – and he turned it all into a running commentary that focused not so much on politics as on the ugly intersection of power and economics.
No one, not Obama, not Hillary Clinton and certainly not John McCain, caught the zeitgeist of the vanishing American dream so well as Carlin. "The owners of this country know the truth: It's called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it."
Not just aware of but steeped in the traditions of American populism – more William Jennings Bryan and Eugene Victor Debs than Bill Clinton or John Kerry – Carlin preached against the consolidation of wealth and power with a fire-and-brimstone rage that betrayed a deep moral sense that could never quite be cloaked with four-letter words.
"The real owners are the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions. Forget the politicians, they're an irrelevancy. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don't. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They've long since bought and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the statehouses, the city halls. They've got the judges in their back pockets. And they own all the big media companies, so that they control just about all of the news and information you hear. They've got you by the balls. They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying – lobbying to get what they want. Well, we know what they want; they want more for themselves and less for everybody else," ranted the comedian whose routines were studied in graduate schools.
"But I'll tell you what they don't want," Carlin continued. "They don't want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don't want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They're not interested in that. That doesn't help them. That's against their interests. They don't want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they're getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago. You know what they want? Obedient workers – people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork but just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it. And, now, they're coming for your Social Security. They want your fucking retirement money. They want it back, so they can give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street. And you know something? They'll get it. They'll get it all, sooner or later, because they own this fucking place. It's a big club, and you ain't in it. You and I are not in the big club."
Carlin did not want Americans to get involved with the system.
He wanted citizens to get angry enough to remake the system.
Carlin was a leveler of the old, old school. And no one who had so public a platform – as the first host of NBC's "Saturday Night Live," a regular on broadcast and cable televisions shows, a best-selling author and a favorite character actor in films (he was even the narrator of the American version of he provided the narrative voice for the American version of the children's show "Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends") – did more to challenge accepted wisdom regarding our political economy.
"Let's suppose we all just materialized on Earth and there was a bunch of potatoes on the ground, okay? There's just six of us. Only six humans. We come into a clearing and there's potatoes on the ground. Now, my instinct would be, let's everybody get some potatoes. "Everybody got a potato? Joey didn't get a potato! He's small, he can't hold as many potatoes. Give Joey some of your potatoes." "No, these are my potatoes!" That's the Republicans. "I collected more of them, I got a bigger pile of potatoes, they're mine. If you want some of them, you're going to have to give me something." "But look at Joey, he's only got a couple, they won't last two days." That's the fuckin' difference! And I'm more inclined to want to share and even out," he explained in an interview several years ago with the Onion.
"I understand the marketplace, but government is supposed to be here to redress the inequities of the marketplace," Carlin continued. "That's one of its functions. Not just to protect the nation, secure our security and all that shit. And not just to take care of great problems that are trans-state problems, that are national, but also to make sure that the inequalities of the marketplace are redressed by the acts of government. That's what welfare was about. There are people who really just don't have the tools, for whatever reason. Yes, there are lazy people. Yes, there are slackers. Yes, there's all of that. But there are also people who can't cut it, for any given reason, whether it's racism, or an educational opportunity, or poverty, or a fuckin' horrible home life, or a history of a horrible family life going back three generations, or whatever it is. They're crippled and they can't make it, and they deserve to rest at the commonweal. That's where my fuckin' passion lies."
Like the radicals of the early years of the 20th century, whose politics he knew and respected, Carlin understood that free-speech fights had to come first. And always pushed the limit – happily choosing an offensive word when a more polite one might have sufficed. By 1972, the year he won the first of four Grammys for best comedy album, he had developed his most famous routine: "Seven Words (You Can't Say on Television)."
That summer, at a huge outdoor show in Milwaukee, he uttered all seven of them in public – and was promptly arrested for disturbing the peace.
When a version of the routine was aired in 1973 on WBAI, the Pacifica Foundation radio station in New York,. Pacifica received a citation from the FCC. Pacifica was ordered to pay a fine for violating federal regulations prohibiting the broadcast of "obscene" language. The ensuing free-speech fight made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which rile 5-4 against the First Amendment to the Constitution, Pacifica and Carlin.
Amusingly, especially to the comedian, a full transcript of the routine ended up in court documents associated with the case, F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978).
"So my name is a footnote in American legal history, which I'm perversely kind of proud of," recalled Carlin. Proud enough that you can find the court records on the comedian's website:
There will, of course, be those who dismiss Carlin as a remnant of the sixties who introduced obscenity to the public discourse – just as there will be those who misread his critique of the American political and economic systems as little more than verbal nihilism. In fact, George Carlin was, like the radicals of an earlier age, an idealist – and a patriot --of a deeper sort than is encountered very often these days.
Carlin explained himself best in one of his last interviews. "There is a certain amount of righteous indignation I hold for this culture, because to get back to the real root of it, to get broader about it, my opinion that is my species--and my culture in America specifically--have let me down and betrayed me. I think this species had great, great promise, with this great upper brain that we have, and I think we squandered it on God and Mammon. And I think this culture of ours has such promise, with the promise of real, true freedom, and then everyone has been shackled by ownership and possessions and acquisition and status and power," he said. "And perhaps it's just a human weakness and an inevitable human story that these things happen. But there's disillusionment and some discontent in me about it. I don't consider myself a cynic. I think of myself as a skeptic and a realist. But I understand the word 'cynic' has more than one meaning, and I see how I could be seen as cynical. 'George, you're cynical.' Well, you know, they say if you scratch a cynic you find a disappointed idealist. And perhaps the flame still flickers a little, you know?"

Three Words I Never Wanted to Say: George Carlin's Dead

George Carlin Is Dead...Long Live George Carlin! Carlin is my long-time favorite "comedian" and wit, the jester who spoke loudly, outrageously and insistently about the absurdity of modern life, and the language of deception, and deceit. My hero has died today, age 71, and with his passing one of our era's most incisive and acid-tongued, truth-tellers, exposing the hypocrisies and deceits of modern life, lacerating the mighty and pompous, to the great delight of all those he spoke out in support or sympatico.
The Grammy-Award winning standup comedian and actor who was hailed for his irreverent social commentary, poignant observations of the absurdities of everyday life and language, and groundbreaking routines like “Seven Words You Can Never Use on Television,” died in Santa Monica, Calif., on Sunday, according to his publicist, Jeff Abraham. He was 71.
The cause of death was heart failure, according to Mr. Abraham.
Mr. Carlin began his standup comedy act in the late 1950s and made his first television solo guest appearance on “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1965. At that time, he was primarily known for his clever wordplay and reminiscences of his Irish working-class upbringing in New York.
But from the outset their were indications of an anti-establishment edge to his comedy. Initially, it surfaced in the witty patter of a host of offbeat characters like the wacky sportscaster Biff Barf and the hippy-dippy weatherman Al Sleet. “The weather was dominated by a large Canadian low, which is not to be confused with a Mexican high. Tonight’s forecast . . . dark, continued mostly dark tonight turning to widely scattered light in the morning.”
Mr. Carlin released his first comedy album, “Take-Offs and Put-Ons,” to rave reviews in 1967. He also dabbled in acting, winning a recurring part as Marlo Thomas’ theatrical agent in the sitcom “That Girl” (1966-67) and a supporting role in the movie “With Six You Get Egg-Roll,” released in 1968.
By the end of the decade, he was one of America’s best known comedians. He made more than 80 major TV appearances during that time, including the Ed Sullivan Show and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show; he was also regularly featured at major nightclubs in New York and Las Vegas.
That early success and celebrity, however, was as dinky and hollow as a gratuitous pratfall to Mr. Carlin. “I was entertaining the fathers and the mothers of the people I sympathized with, and in some cases associated with, and whose point of view I shared,” he recalled later, as quoted in the book “Going Too Far” by Tony Hendra, which was published in 1987. “I was a traitor, in so many words. I was living a lie.”
In 1970, Mr. Carlin discarded his suit, tie, and clean-cut image as well as the relatively conventional material that had catapulted him to the top. Mr. Carlin reinvented himself, emerging with a beard, long hair, jeans and a routine that, according to one critic, was steeped in “drugs and bawdy language.” There was an immediate backlash. The Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas terminated his three-year contract, and, months later, he was advised to leave town when an angry mob threatened him at the Lake Geneva Playboy Club. Afterward, he temporarily abandoned the nightclub circuit and began appearing at coffee houses, folk clubs and colleges where he found a younger, hipper audience that was more attuned to both his new image and his material.
By 1972, when he released his second album, ”FM & AM,” his star was again on the rise. The album, which won a Grammy Award as best comedy recording, combined older material on the “AM” side with bolder, more acerbic routines on the “FM” side. Among the more controversial cuts was a routine euphemistically entitled “Shoot,” in which Mr. Carlin explored the etymology and common usage of the popular idiom for excrement. The bit was part of the comic’s longer routine “Seven Words That Can Never Be Said on Television,” which appeared on his third album “Class Clown,” also released in 1972.
“There are some words you can say part of the time. Most of the time ‘ass’ is all right on television,” Mr. Carlin noted in his introduction to the then controversial monologue. “You can say, well, ‘You’ve made a perfect ass of yourself tonight.’ You can use ass in a religious sense, if you happen to be the redeemer riding into town on one — perfectly all right.”
The material seems innocuous by today’s standards, but it caused an uproar when broadcast on the New York radio station WBAI in the early seventies. The station was censured and fined by the FCC. And in 1978, their ruling was supported by the Supreme Court, which Time magazine reported, “upheld an FCC ban on ’offensive material’ during hours when children are in the audience.” Mr. Carlin, refused to drop the bit and was arrested several times after reciting it on stage.
Mr. Carlin released a half dozen comedy albums during the ’70s, including the million-record sellers “Class Clown,” “Occupation: Foole” (1973) and “An Evening With Wally Lando” (1975). He was chosen to host the first episode of the late-night comedy show “Saturday Night Live” in 1975. And two years later, he found the perfect platform for his brand of acerbic, cerebral, sometimes off-color standup humor in the fledgling, less restricted world of cable television. By 1977, when his first HBO comedy special, “George Carlin at USC” was aired, he was recognized as one of the era’s most influential comedians. In the years following his 1977 cable debut, Mr. Carlin was nominated for a half dozen Grammy awards and received CableAces awards for best stand-up comedy special for “George Carlin: Doin’ It Again (1990) and “George Carlin: Jammin’” (1992). He also won his second Grammy for the album ”Jammin’” in 1994.
During the course of his career, Mr. Carlin overcame numerous personal trials. His early arrests for obscenity (all of which were dismissed) and struggle to overcome his self-described “heavy drug use” were the most publicized. But in the ’80s he also weathered serious tax problems, a heart attack and two open heart surgeries. His greatest setback was the loss of his wife, Brenda Hosbrook, who died in 1997. They had been married for 36 years. Mr. Carlin is survived by wife, Sally Wade; daughter Kelly Carlin McCall; son-in-law, Bob McCall; older brother, Patrick Carlin; sister-in-law, Marlene Carlin and long time manager, business partner and best friend Jerold Hamza. - Mel Watkins, NYTimes

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Democrats Capitulate to Bush Once Again

The Democrats have now exposed their craven capitulation to the Bush/Cheney unitary executive; all they have to do now is click their heels and salute. This action alone should seal the deal they are as corrupt for not protecting and standing FOR the Constitution. The Senate has yet to vote, but the horrific Hoyer/Bush FISA Bill is expected to vote, and it's not even close. Only if a Democrat is willing to filibuster it, perhaps Senator Russ Feingold. I believe should this bill pass, the republic has indeed hit a tipping point, that will be difficult at best to see restored. -MS

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi claims that a key positive feature of the new wiretap "compromise" is that the bill reaffirms that the President must follow the law, even though the same bill virtually assures that no one will be held accountable for George W. Bush's violation of the earlier spying law.
In other words, in the guise of rejecting Bush's theories of an all-powerful presidency that is above the law, the Democratic leadership cleared the way for the President and his collaborators to evade punishment for defying the law.
So, why should anyone assume that the new legislative edict demanding that the President obey the law will get any more respect than the old one, which established the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 as the "exclusive" means for authorizing electronic spying?
It wasn't that Bush and his team didn't understand the old law's language; they simply believed they could violate the law without consequence, under the radical theory that at a time of war - even one as vaguely defined as the "war on terror" - the President's powers trump all laws as well as the constitutional rights of citizens.
Essentially, Bush was betting that even if his warrantless wiretap program was disclosed - as it was in December 2005 - that he could trust his Republican congressional allies to protect him and could count on most Democrats not to have the guts to challenge him.
His bet proved to be a smart one. After the New York Times revealed the warrantless wiretaps 2½ years ago, Congress took no steps to hold Bush accountable. Before the 2006 elections, Pelosi declared that Bush's impeachment was "off the table."
Then, on the eve of the August 2007 recess, the Democratic-controlled Congress was stampeded into passing the "Protect America Act," which effectively legalized what Bush had already done and expanded his spying powers even more.
After that law was passed, U.S. news reports mostly parroted the White House claim that it "modernized" FISA and "narrowly" targeted overseas terror suspects who might call or e-mail their contacts in the United States.
However, it soon became clear that the law applied not just to terror suspects abroad who might communicate with Americans, but to anyone who is "reasonably believed to be outside the United States" and who might possess "foreign intelligence information," defined as anything that could be useful to U.S. foreign policy.
That meant that almost any American engaged in international commerce or dealing with foreign issues - say, a businessman in touch with a foreign subsidiary or a U.S. reporter sending an overseas story back to his newspaper - was vulnerable to warrantless intercepts approved on the say-so of two Bush subordinates, the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence.
Beyond the breathtaking scope of this new authority, the Bush administration also snuck in a clause that granted forward-looking immunity from lawsuits to communications service providers that assisted the spying.
That removed one of the few safeguards against Bush's warrantless wiretaps: the concern among service providers that they might be sued by customers for handing over constitutionally protected information without a warrant.
In short, the "Protect America Act" made warrantless surveillance legally cost free for a collaborating service provider, tilting the scales even further in favor of the government's spying powers.
Catching On
A week after the "Protect America Act" was passed, the New York Times and the Washington Post published front-page stories explaining how the Bush administration had ambushed the Democrats.
Pressed up against the start of the August recess and the prospect of Republican taunts that Democrats were "soft on terror," the Democratic leaders abandoned earlier compromise proposals and accepted the more expansive law. Their one point of resistance was putting a February 2008 sunset provision into the law.
Still, the Democratic cave-in in August 2007 provoked an uproar among rank-and-file Democrats. Pelosi's office reported receiving more than 200,000 angry e-mails.
Stung by the reaction, House Democratic leaders balked at White House pressure to make even more concessions, including retroactive immunity for telecommunication companies that had collaborated with Bush's warrantless wiretaps in the years after the 9/11 attacks.
In February 2008, to the surprise of many observers, the Democratic leadership allowed the "Protect America Act" to lapse. Though Republicans attacked the Democrats as expected, the accusations seemed to have little political resonance.
Nevertheless, the Democratic leadership - behind Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland - continued working on a compromise.
While the new version drops some of the more intrusive features of the "Protect America Act," such as allowing warrantless wiretaps of Americans outside the United States, the bill adds retroactive telecom immunity (only requiring the companies show they got a written order from the President).
The bill also would grant the administration emergency power to wiretap a target for up to one week before getting a warrant from the secret FISA court. But the bill bars the government from targeting a foreigner as a "back-door" way to spy on an American without a court warrant.
Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wisconsin, a strong constitutionalist, termed the new bill "not a compromise; it is a capitulation."
One of the bill's illusions would seem to be that the precedent of a President ignoring the FISA law and escaping any accountability can somehow be negated by restating what the original, violated law had declared.
In her June 20 floor statement, Pelosi said in her view this was a crucial feature of the bill, the statement that the President cannot ignore the FISA law again. However, Pelosi's position sounded like the words of an indulgent parent of a spoiled child: "This time I really mean it!"
The more powerful message from the latest Democratic compromise is that a President - at least a Republican one - can break the wiretap law under the cover of national security and expect to ride out the consequences.
Rather than reaffirming the rule of law and the Constitution's checks and balances, as Pelosi claimed, the new FISA "compromise" may have done the opposite, signaling that the President is above the law.
After Pelosi's speech, the House passed the bill by a 293-129 margin with 105 Democrats - including most of the leadership - voting in favor and 128 Democrats against. The bill then went to the Senate, which was expected to approve it.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, "Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush," was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at His two previous books, "Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq" and "Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth'" are also available there.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Real Reason Gasoline Costs What It Does and Drilling Off-Shore Won't Help

This is a letter I have written to the local newspaper, the Key West Citizen, that is being published Sunday, June 22.

"In the most recent bloviating from the Oil Industry and their apologists, lobbyists and deluded advocates, comes the surprising declaration by Florida Governor Charlie Crist who now says he is for off-shore oil drilling, just as is Senator John McCain, reversing both of their positions of only a brief time ago, and on the heels of President George W. Bush pronouncing his long-held position it is time to open all US territories for exploitation. What could they really be proposing in their appeal for tapping US natural reserves?
Drilling off-shore from the Florida Keys, and the Alaskan (ANWR) region does not achieve any measure of energy independence from the imported cartels. The carbon energy industry says it will make a difference if only they could have free reign over any source yet unexploited to lower the price of gasoline and heating oil.
Here are the facts that need the full attention of the public and policy makers. These facts, though, expose the true purpose of the rush to declare pristine regions as fair game to be exploited. It was then, and is now, all about profits. The industry whines that their billions of bucks aren’t enough and profit margin is a measly 8.5% for an industry with every loophole written to their advantage.
The current conservative movement’s ideas are simply bankrupt, offering up the status quo of just pumping more, keep on doing what we’ve been doing – and then expecting a different outcome, which is the stock definition of being insane. Be sure to mouth some green phrases as a sop, though.
Bush’s own Department of Energy has found that drilling in the Alaskan refuge would only result in prices being lowered by 75 cents a barrel, and not until 2025. It lowers gasoline by a whopping 2 cents a gallon.
Now McCain and Crist say the 18-21 billion barrels offshore must be tapped. The same DOE says it would reduce oil $1.50 a barrel. Together, a six cent reduction per gallon. In 17 years.
So where are the real profits? Look at the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, aka, the Enron Loophole Act, which deregulated the futures market. Energy companies bought up futures and created a shortage on paper, when none actually exists. More profit here. The pump jack up exploits consumer fears, who are now primed to accept any measure, like off-shore drilling, even when irrational. Wailing we must drill is a smokescreen to hide how energy speculators are still reaping their handiwork, with every mile we travel. Asking to rip up more offshore, when industry already has millions of unutilized acres, is rapacious. Last week, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee reported that “Speculators have now stockpiled, via the futures market, the equivalent of 1.1 billion barrels of petroleum, effectively adding eight times as much oil to their own stockpile as the US has added to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve over the last five years”. The industry has bet we are willing “sheeple”.
The Enron Loophole, whose revocation McCain had once supported and now has lobbyists oh his staff resisting its enforcement, reveals the real design in this misguided, insane ploy that saves a couple pennies. Common sense is totally lacking. Oil companies need to stop fooling the public. Their gain. Our pain."

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Pornography of Power

In the course of his forty-year-career as one of America's most admired journalists, Robert Scheer's work has been praised by Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, and Joan Didion, who deems him "one of the best reporters of our time." Now, Scheer brings a lifetime of wisdom and experience to one of the most overlooked and dangerous issues of our time - the destructive influence of America's military-industrial complex. Scheer examines the expansion of our military presence throughout the world, our insane nuclear strategy, the immorality of corporations profiting in Iraq, and the arrogance of our foreign policy. Although Scheer is a liberal, his view echoes that of former Republican president General Dwight Eisenhower, who, in his farewell speech to the American people, spoke prophetically about need to guard against the growing influence of the military-industrial complex. In George W. Bush's America, politicians like Ike and Richard Nixon seem like prudent centrists.The views of libertarians, liberals, and pacifists are often overlooked or ignored by America's mainstream media. The Pornography of Power is the culmination of a respected journalist's efforts to change the terms of debate. At a time when many are exploiting fears of terrorist attacks and only a few national leaders are willing to advocate cuts in defense spending, nuclear disarmament, and restrained use of American force, Robert Scheer has written a manifesto for enlightened reform.

The glorification of the military goes as far back as recorded history, and the centuries are a constant graveyard across all continents from the defeated on all sides, for there can be no victors when violence is enshrined as institutional necessity. Scheer, and others, give voice to reason and the rationale that the military needs reigned in or we shall all become yet more tombstones to civilization's failed efforts.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Yes, We ARE What We Buy

Do the brands we buy and the things we own define who we are? Like it or not, two new books say they do. Consumerism continues its march to the mound of more, more, more, and we must have more! Why has this become a prevailing ethic, now being imitated throughout the world, notably India, and China, the seat of much of the West's frustration, as the cheap(er) economic labor it provides is readily embraced, while we also demonize these countries for doing what we have done so voraciously for decades, and with often less concern for their welfare, over our own sated well-being. Here are two books that examines what individual brands say about our identities, and even perhaps our cultural souls. - MS
By Laura Miller
Jun. 03, 2008 For a couple of years, I was regularly provoked by a magazine ad for a closet-design company that promised to organize "all the stuff that is your life." "There's more to my life than stuff," I muttered indignantly every time I saw it. I was a classic example of the kind of American who boasts to Rob Walker, author of the canny new book,
"Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are," that she's impervious to advertising; I, too, would have proclaimed, "I'm not much of a consumer" -- a statement that Walker, who writes a column called "Consumed" for the New York Times Magazine, hears a lot. I chuckled smugly when Sarah Jessica Parker's character on "Sex in the City" realized that with the money she'd spent on a closet full of overpriced shoes she could have made a down payment on an apartment -- I had 10 modest pairs and a co-op studio. And as for my susceptibility to the sleek, white, expensive gizmos produced by a certain company in Cupertino, well, I told myself that was really all about quality. Right.
Walker, too, once considered himself above the blandishments of Madison Avenue, along with the other 77 percent of Americans who believe themselves to be exceptionally perceptive when it comes to marketing pitches. Then Nike bought Converse, the company that makes those high-top sneakers beloved by "outsider heroes from Joey Ramone to Kurt Cobain." Walker, who'd been wearing Converse's Chuck Taylor All Stars since his teens, was astonished to find himself stricken by the news. His cherished hipster/underground brand had been swallowed by the Nike swoosh, "a symbol for suckers who take its 'Just Do It' bullying at face value." Maybe he was too smart to identify with the "all-style-and-image" Nike, but he'd nevertheless bought into the notion that some significant part of himself -- his "individuality" -- could be proclaimed by a pair of shoes.
"We can talk all we want about being brand-proof," Walker writes, "but our behavior tells a different story." Experimental subjects presented with two identical glasses of Coca-Cola, one labeled as such and the other presented as a mystery rival brand, routinely picked the one they thought was Coke as the better-tasting soda. Citing one cunningly designed study after another, Walker presents ample proof that we are only kidding ourselves if we believe we're impervious to the multibillion-dollar marketing industry. Nevertheless, we are not "obsessed" with consumption, as many critics claim. As Walker sees it, Americans prefer not to ruminate on that particular subject, even as we shop and spend our little hearts out. "To qualify as obsessed we'd have to really think about why we buy what we buy," Walker writes, instead of just telling ourselves that we, unlike the rest of the sheep, purchase things for purely rational, utilitarian reasons like price, quality and convenience.
If we thought about it, maybe we'd also realize that our relationship to brands and marketing campaigns has been undergoing a transformation. Marketers like to talk about the skepticism of the "new consumer," a smart young character fleeing the mainstream and adamantly resistant to all forms of advertising. Walker begs to differ. "The only problem with this theory was that it did not match up particularly well with the realities of the marketplace that I was writing about every week in the Times Magazine," he writes. Instead of being more hostile to what he calls "commercial persuasion," the consumers he observed seem very much involved with brands and products. If traditional advertising has become a less effective way of fostering that involvement, the commercial persuasion industry has in turn been fiendishly resourceful in coming up with alternative methods, infiltrating hitherto unexploited aspects of our lives. The result, as Walker sees it, is a culture in which there is a "secret dialogue between what we buy and who we are," a dialogue that shapes us even as we pretend to be untouched by it.
"Buying In" is an often startling tour of this new cultural terrain, taking in such iconic products as Hello Kitty, Timberland, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Red Bull, as well as Scion, a line of Toyotas that I, apparently, am too uncool to have known about before. Some of these brands, like Timberland and Pabst (or PBR, as the hipsters call it), were established, if small-time, entities before certain consumer subcultures adopted them. The hip-hop world took a liking to a line of boots that had been created for construction workers by a New England family company. Bike messengers in the Pacific Northwest made a Milwaukee beer the brew of choice in the indie-rock scene. In both cases, the manufacturers of those products were disconcerted by their new customers. What they understood to be the cultural meaning of their products -- footwear for working men, and cheap suds for the 45-to-65-year-old Midwestern set -- had been redefined by complete strangers.
This, Walker observes dryly, is what marketing managers mean when they talk of the need to "collaborate" with consumers. The CEO of Timberland became briefly notorious in hip-hop circles for seeming not to welcome the change in his customer base. (They've since patched things up and you can now buy pink versions of the classic work boots.) PBR was more sure-footed: The brewer carefully cultivated its image among the indie crowd by taking great care not to cultivate its image: no ads on local radio, no celebrity endorsements (despite nibbles from Kid Rock) and certainly no TV. PBR's divisional marketing manager, cribbing tactics from Naomi Klein's anti-corporate manifesto, "No Logo" (full of "many good marketing ideas," he told Walker!), worked to make PBR "always look and act the underdog." He was so successful at retaining the brand's cachet (or anti-cachet) that one 28-year-old Oregonian whom Walker interviewed had a foot-square Pabst logo tattooed onto his back. "Pabst is part of my subculture," the kid told the writer, pointing to the absence of Pabst advertising as evidence that "they're not insulting you."
Red Bull, on the other hand, set out to woo this sort of "collaboration" from the very beginning, and thus "became perhaps the quintessential example of how brands become established in the early 21st century." The energy drink (then a relatively new product category) was launched in the U.S. nearly 10 years ago, with "no announcement or even explanation as to what this new stuff was and who was supposed to drink it and why; there was no Big Bang." Instead, the manufacturer sprung for a variety of small events: break-dancing contests, extreme-sports tournaments, computer-gaming competitions, an electronic music workshop and free-sample distribution at gyms and nightclubs. Sponsoring so many of these efforts required what Walker refers to as "real money," yet any given function never came across as glitzy or corporate. "The perception that these events don't cost much to produce is good for us," a Red Bull executive told Walker. "We don't want to be seen as having lots of money to spend." Walker attended a kite-boarding exhibition in Miami (enthusiasts of this new, wind-boarding-like sport were aiming to ride from Key West to Cuba) and found that it looked (very intentionally) like a nonevent: no press releases, no onlookers, no news crews, no free samples. (A videotaped press release about the stunt did get picked up on by 40 local TV stations after the fact.)
Walker calls such tactics "murketing." In contrast to established advertising practices, which strive to communicate one, unified "Big Idea" with as much fanfare as possible, Red Bull's campaign seemed a collection "oddly unfocused and inconsistent" efforts that "never sent a clear message to the masses." And that turns out to be a very clever thing, since Walker has identified "projectability" as the key trait of successful new brands. Instead of telling consumers what the product is all about, the marketers invite many separate slivers of the public to define it for themselves, much as the hip-hop crowd did with Timberland boots. Red Bull "is" an extreme-sports beverage, a bar mixer, a midday pick-me-up, a workout booster, depending on whom you ask. "At worst," Walker observes, "each group simply thinks Red Bull is something for them, partly because they have never been told otherwise."
Younger consumers -- those often referred to as Generation Y and characterized by Walker as "the least rebellious generation since the youth concept was invented" -- have actually embraced the language of brands, so much so that some of them have begun inventing their own. "Streetwear," attitudinous apparel and accessories vaguely descended from the skateboarding culture of 1970s Southern California, is their preferred medium. One of Walker's subjects is a "professional Cool Guy" occasionally consulted on youth culture by corporations and determined to "turn my lifestyle into a business." He concocted a brand called aNYthing ("the only brand that matters"), whose accouterments included T-shirts and caps.
Walker regards such projects as a logical progression from youth cultures past; style has always been an important way of signaling both "individuality" and membership in a particular group. True, skater culture revolved around skateboarding and punk culture around music, but each eventually reached the point where Ramones T-shirts outsold Ramones albums and the demand for skaterly "soft goods" dwarfed the demand for skateboards and helmets. Why not just skip the preliminaries and jump straight to the stuff? "In this instance," Walker writes of the new streetwear product lines, "the symbols, products, and brands aren't an adjunct to the subculture -- they are the subculture."
If this strikes you as absurd, even contemptible, you're surely not alone. Even Walker, who generally gives these kids the benefit of the doubt, finds himself wondering of one "lifestyle" brand, "what, exactly, did the culture or lifestyle actually consist of -- aside from buying products that represent it?" Nevertheless the purveyors see themselves as "rebellious"; they're just communicating their defiance using "the grammar and syntax of commercial persuasion." And, Walker concedes, this is the language that "everyone has, for better or worse, learned to speak." Another young brand-maker he interviewed, the founder of an outfit called Barking Irons, which sells products vaguely connected to the "forgotten" history of New York City, considers his enterprise "a revolution against branding" -- by which he means not the rejection of commercial expression but "the elevation of commercial expression." Instead of big-time corporate logos with nothing to say, he offers boutique designs with a message.
This only makes sense if you argue, as Walker does, that commodities can have real significance. Some objects -- trophies, wedding rings, souvenirs from trips -- patently do stand for important aspects of our lives. (They have what Walker calls "authentic" meaning.) Most people, however, don't want to admit that they believe meaning can also be bought, that Converse sneakers make you a cool outsider or that a MacBook demonstrates one's creativity and unconventionality. Walker thinks we should acknowledge that the things we buy do carry meaning, as long as we also recognize that we're the ones who gave it to them. A wedding ring, for example, only represents the relationship between two people because those two people (along with the society around them) agree that it does. We are the ones who invest these objects with symbolic power, and, furthermore, to do so is a universal human activity. Kidding ourselves that we relate to the objects and products in our lives in a purely rational way (something scientists have disproved over and over again) leaves us open to unconscious manipulation by advertisers.

Sam Gosling, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, also finds people's possessions revealing. His specialty is going into rooms and offices and drawing conclusions about the people who inhabit them based on their stuff alone. While "Buying In" nimbly walks the line between consumer enlightenment and marketing advice, Gosling's book,
"Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You," presents itself as a helpful guide for honing largely uncalled-for skills. In the book's main experiment, Gosling's grad students conducted a careful study of strangers' dorm rooms to see what they could glean from the contents. The findings are often unimpressive, such as the revelation that women's rooms tend to contain "stuffed animals, candles and flowers" while men's feature more CDs and "substantial stereo equipment," along with "bills, visible laundry baskets and athletic equipment." Besides being obvious to practically everyone, this interpretation would only come in handy if you happened to be investigating the bedroom of someone you've never even met -- in which case, you don't need tips on personality assessment, you need lessons in elementary ethics.
Part of the problem with "Snoop" is that Gosling's adherence to academically quantifiable results makes for fairly broad and therefore uninteresting definitions of personality traits. Gosling uses a standard called "the Big Five," which assesses an individual's levels of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Some of his observations are piquant -- people who hang posters with inspirational mottos in their offices, for instance, are probably "neurotic" (that is, anxious) rather than upbeat; the posters are meant to reassure and encourage them despite their fears. You can see past superficial attempts to appear organized (like tidiness) by looking for harder-to-fake "behavioral residue" like unalphabetized bookshelves, neglected filing systems or messes stashed just out of sight. Still, most of this book's insights -- people with lots of family photos in their office value relationships, personal Web sites are full of information about the people who maintain them, etc. -- are self-evident.
"Snoop" could do with more demonstrations of Gosling's remarkable powers (if he indeed has them) and a lot less advice. His skill, such as it is, is more of a parlor trick than a practical tool. About the only occasion in which I can imagine needing to deduce someone's basic character by looking at their home is on a date. And if you can't figure out whether someone is extraverted or neurotic, agreeable or cranky, by the time he invites you back to his apartment and leaves you at leisure to poke around, I suspect that either you're incorrigibly inept at judging personality or you're so drunk you don't care.
On one point, both Walker and Gosling concur: When we speak the language of stuff, our primary audience is ourselves, not the proverbial Joneses we're supposedly trying to keep up with. Gosling notes that while we sometimes attempt to "doctor" our spaces to give a better impression, this impulse is always at war with a countervailing desire "to be seen as we see ourselves, regardless of whether those self-views are positive or negative." For his part, Walker holds up the example of Method dish soap, one of a line of cleaning products that comes in "sensational"-looking bottles and costs more than the average, ugly container of Joy. The people who buy Method, oddly enough, don't seem to care much about the quality of the soap itself, yet they can hardly be accused of showing off their trendiness, either. "The only thing less plausible than paying a premium for high-design dish liquid simply because you want to clean dishes," Walker writes, "is to do so because you think that any more than a tiny handful of people will ever see, notice and be impressed by the bottle." The people who buy Method like the way it looks (or, in my case, the way it smells), but whatever statement the product makes about their taste or affluence is mainly intended for the purchasers themselves.
We go wrong, Walker believes, not when we express ourselves through our possessions, but when we allow our possessions to take precedence. It's all too easy for people, under the influence of the siren songs of marketing (or murketing), to drift into a situation in which they use commodities "not to reflect who they are, but to construct who they are. Not to reflect a self, but to build a self." No object, of course, is meaningful enough to fulfill that role, and an endless cycle of chasing after glittering but ultimately unsatisfying products is likely to ensue. Pretending that the stuff in our life is simply, mutely functional might seem like an antidote to this cycle, but in its own way, it's just as delusional.
Your stuff is always talking about you, behind your back and to your face. To find out whether it's telling the truth, you have to listen.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Media Has Been So Wrong For So Long

"What Happened" is the just released self-serving mea culpa of former White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who essentially is saying, we've all been duped by the Bush/Cheney gang, in a "culture of deception." Very little of what he writes offer new revelations, on the merits, but rather, that an insider of the tight circle of sycophants inside the palace has pulled the curtain back or pointed out the emperor has no clothes. "Shocking!", as Claude Rains would feign, in Casablanca. But it is a different, and another recently published book that truly reveals how the culture of professional journalistic lapses, manipulation, "embedded" reporters, and the outright lies and mendacity by the neo-con media handlers, has built a vast institutional apparatus that is still fully in power, and still dangerous and destructive. The author "So Wrong For So Long", Greg Mitchell, just appeared on Bill Moyer's Journal TV show, detailing the failures of the media and journalism to hold the political establishment accountable and hence, placing the vitality of democracy at risk. - MS
From the British side of the Atlantic comes this review by Media Workers Against the War:
For the first time a mainstream editor – who just happens also to be a professional media-watcher – has written a book attacking the Iraq war coverage by the US corporate press. The author of “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits, and the President Failed on Iraq” is Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher – the US equivalent of the UK Press Gazette. The book is an edited collection of his extraordinary E&P columns from 2002 to 2007 about the war, which together constitute a powerful indictment of the big American newspapers.
Mitchell’s writing shows what comment should really look like – in contrast to the shallow hand-wringing that often passes for op-eds and editorials on Iraq in the British press. From the very start of the invasion he has raged at the media’s triumphalism and its downplaying of the loss of life. After Bush landed on an aircraft carrier on May 1, 2003, to declare “mission accomplished”, Mitchell slammed the New York Times’ coverage.
Four years later he was attacking the troop “surge” from the outset, condemning it as “a tragic escalation” of the conflict. When the US began blaming Iran for the mess, Mitchell wrote a column entitled: “We’ve been through this movie before”.
Over and over Mitchell comes back to the fact that a huge percentage of Americans believe Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks – a terrible condemnation of the US media. On the third anniversary of the invasion he wrote that pundits who agitated for an attack on Iraq should be “on their knees begging the American public for forgiveness”.
In one of his columns in April 2004 he made the first mentions of the deaths of US soldiers Casey Sheehan and Michael Mitchell – Casey’s mother and Michael’s father became prominent campaigners against the war. Another of Mitchell’s themes is suicides in the US army, the reasons for which he investigates to reveal the sheer awfulness confronting soldiers in Iraq. This has been largely ignored by the British media, although last year the Ministry of Defence
disclosed that 17 serving personnel had killed themselves after witnessing the horrors of conflict in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Mitchell repeatedly castigates the refusal of newspaper editors to call for troops to be withdrawn, despite opinion polls showing this was a major, and even majority, opinion in the country. This changed fleetingly with a Los Angeles Times editorial in May 2007 entitled “
Bring Them Home“, stating “The time has come to leave.” Two months later the New York Times stated boldly: “It is time for the United States to leave Iraq”.
Even the best of the British newspapers, however, evade the issue of getting the troops out. In leader columns to mark the fifth anniversary of invasion in March, only one British national newspaper talked about British and American troops leaving Iraq, but even then
the Guardian said merely that it was “time to listen” to Iraqi opinion, calling on the next US president to “set a date” for withdrawal and talking about the “gains” made by presence of British troops. The Independent published a blistering attack on the war, but sadly evaded the question of troops. Otherwise:
Murdoch papers praised the troops’ presence;
FT said Iraq should be broken up;
The Telegraph
attacked Obama for being “dangerously naive” to talk about ending the occupation
The Sunday Telegraph published an
op-ed by Richard Perle (!);
And the Observer in an extraordinary
editorial called for more military intervention around the world.
It’s important to note, however, that Mitchell’s core argument is for better journalism, not “anti-war journalism”. He writes: “Most of those against the war did not ask for a media ‘crusade’ against invasion, merely that the press stick to the facts and provide a balanced assessment: in other words, that [journalists do their] minimum journalistic duty.”
Mitchell’s book is also hugely witty and entertaining: for a taste of this, see
his recent column on an evening of satire at a White House dinner for journalists.
Remember, you read it here first – the British media have so far ignored the

Here, from Jayne Lyn Stahl, of, is yet another review and analysis of the book:

So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq, by Greg Mitchell, a collection of essays that date back from the lead-up to the Iraq war, in 2003, through this fall, is a compelling antidote to the cult of misinformation written by the editor of Editor & Publisher, a journal of the newspaper industry, and one of the oldest magazines in the country. The book features a preface by Bruce Springsteen, and foreword by Joseph L. Galloway.
As one who has been on the cutting edge of exposing the Bush administration's pre-emptive war on the media, Mitchell, the author of nine other nonfiction works, is among the first to broach, and critically analyze, the issue of "non-hostile combat deaths," as well as suggest the long term costs of this war not merely to our veterans, but to our national ethos.
We're treated to a first rate account not merely of a media complicit in the debacle that is Iraq, but one equally responsible for our continued presence in the region.
AlterNet recently caught up with Greg Mitchell to talk about his latest book...
Jayne Stahl: You quote one of your reporters writing that the "highest calling of journalism is not reporting. It's finding the story that would help prevent a war." Tell how this relates to your decision to publish an anthology of your essays about the Iraq war now.
Greg Mitchell: This is the first book to look at five full years in the life of the war, from the "run-up" to the "surge" debate last fall. But its aim is to serve as a warning and, in part, a lesson for future journalists. When I was back in j-school, which came just before Woodward and Bernstein emerged, we were taught that the first rule for reporters is to be "skeptical." Not necessarily critical or negative, but skeptical. This rule applies whether you are probing a local school board scandal, or the preparation for an invasion of another country.
You might be looking behind what a housing department staffer said, or maybe examining the facts as put forward by, say, a U.S. secretary of state before the United Nations. Same thing.
Of course, reporters and editors don't have it within their full power to "prevent" a war, but they can sure try to put all the facts out there so that those who are backing an attack at least have to face full public questioning and the wrath of the poll numbers, not to mention, confront their own conscience. I hope the book encourages more skepticism, at least.
Stahl: To paraphrase Daniel Ellsberg, who you interviewed (the very prescient piece appears early in your book), have the media learned the lessons of Iraq, or are we poised for another prefab invasion?
Mitchell: I've charted some improvement in the "skepticism" since the WMD and other Saddam threats turned up empty. Surely you would hope that many in the media would be outright embarrassed and vow not to let it happen again. Indeed, as each succeeding "crisis" has emerged, involving Iran or Syria or North Korea, for example, at least more in the media have raised questions, although not universally.
But there's still far too much "report the military or White House view and worry about the rest later" kind of reporting. And, as we saw after the Watergate/Vietnam era, the fervor for really hard-nosed, skeptical coverage can die quickly.
Stahl: In the spring of 2003, one of the questions you say you wished the press had asked President Bush at his last press conference before the war had to do with how many Iraqi civilians did he expect to die as a result of the war. Do you think we are closer to knowing that, and do you think we can expect less obstruction with respect to the flow of information from the next chain of command in Washington?
Mitchell: It's impossible to know the true civilian toll in Iraq, but we know that it is horrible enough, no matter what the number. It is certainly higher than the minimal "tens of thousands" cited by the White House and many in the press, but how far it goes into the hundreds of thousands no one can say. It's almost as if the surveys that have produced much higher numbers have been attacked as a way to cut off all discussion -- you know, we can't know, so why try? But we have to keep trying.
Beyond the deaths, you have the wounded and the psychologically damaged, as we have seen with our own veterans. Imagine the mental toll on young people and kids there, with bombs exploding all the time, almost every family touched by death, no normal childhood at all. Then you have the tragedy of the massive migration from the country. It's a catastrophe no matter how you slice it.
The next administration almost has to be looser with info, but funny things happen to well-meaning politicos when they have their own missteps to defend or cover up.
Stahl: At E&P, you have been keeping track of the extraordinary rise in "noncombat deaths" among our troops in Iraq, and there are several chapters on this in your book. What do you attribute the sudden rise in suicides, accidents, and nonhostile mortality to? Why do you think we have seen the greatest percentage of suicides in the Iraq war, more than any other, since the military started keeping records?
Mitchell: I'm proud to say that I started covering this area just weeks into the war and have kept at it ever since -- for many years, it was a very lonely crusade. That has changed only in recent months. The cases have ranged from Col. Ted Westhusing, to an Army interpreter who killed herself after refusing to go along with torture techniques, to just average Joes who couldn't handle the war zone anymore.
The reason for the suicide surge has a lot to do with the multiple tours, of course. Then you have the lack of progress in Iraq for such a long period. Plus, with standards lowered, you have more people entering the military with mental or even criminal issues. Finally, the military appeared to not take this issue seriously for a long time, so I doubt that proper counseling was in place.
Then you have the high number of suicides here at home due to posttraumatic stress and other pressures. Just this past few week, we have witnessed revelations about a Veterans Administration "coverup" of the enormous numbers.
Stahl: What is your position on news blackouts during times of war? Are they ever justified and, if so, under what conditions?
Mitchell: There are a number of chapters in my book on the embedding program -- pro and con -- and lack of images of the true costs of the war appearing in our media. This latter deserves more attention.
The "coverup" has stretched from not showing the coffins of dead soldiers returning from the war to the media refusing to air graphic images of the dead and wounded. In some cases, the military has put up roadblocks, but in other cases the media, maybe a couple of days later than they had wished, still had the option of showing what happened. You can find the images on the Web and in the foreign press but rarely here at home. This is self-censorship in most cases.
Americans, at this late date, really don't have a strong handle on what the death and destruction really looks and feels like.
Stahl: In a survey three years ago of more than 200 journalists who covered Iraq, conducted by American University, many spoke about how their stories were routinely edited to have broader appeal to "Middle America." One reporter commented that this failure of media "will no doubt be repeated." Your response was: "Only if we allow it." Who are we, and how do we stop it?
Mitchell: Well, of course, I hope my book plays at least a small role, but the criticism of coverage that appears throughout much of the Web and blogosphere certainly needs to keep editors and reporters on their toes. There has been such a dramatic change in the past few years -- before that, almost all this scrutiny and pressure came from the right. I hate the growing partisanship in America, but this is one case where strong measures were needed and, thankfully, taken. Now we do see many more facts corrected and apologies offered, at least.
And certainly there has been plenty of tough-minded reporting from Iraq, and out of Washington -- just not nearly enough.
Stahl: What responsibility, if any, do newspaper editors and publishers bear for misreporting facts that take us into the battlefield?
Mitchell: Of course, they bear responsibility, but most have not even taken blame for their complicity in the war from the start. Everyone cites the so-called "apologies" from the New York Times and the Washington Post for their WMD reporting but, as my book shows, there were no such things.
It was quite telling that on the recent fifth anniversary of the start of the war, the media reassessed everything and pointed fingers everywhere, except at themselves. There was extremely little reviewing of the media's performance and little blame accepted. It was so blatant I found it shocking, which says a lot after all this time.
Stahl: In what you've called a "bombshell," the reported in late April that many military analysts who appeared on cable and network news shows were, in fact, scripted by the Pentagon, and further tainted by having business links to potentially huge profits from war contracts. You were ahead of your time in your coverage of this collusion between media and government in the past. Is the Pentagon now permanently embedded in the mainstream media?
Mitchell: It certainly seems to be embedded at Fox, in any case, and will probably remain so despite the Pentagon's recent announcement that the formal "media generals" propaganda plan had been put on hold. Too many in the media assume that someone who served in a high position in the military necessarily is an "expert" on war, or even the state of our military today.
But, just as importantly was the absence of countering "anti-war" voices on TV in the run-up to the war, and for years afterward, as my book shows. You see a little more of that voice now, but then again, 65 percent of all Americans want us out, so how could you not? But you still do not see two out of three pundits on TV, or in print, expressing that "anti-war" view -- it is still one-sided in the other direction, amazingly.
Stahl: There are a staggering 300,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Rand Corp., who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and depression. And, in a recent letter to the New York Times, former Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards, accused the mainstream media of vastly underreporting the numbers of vets who return from war injured or hurt. Your book ends with the grim reality of what you call "the surge in nonhostile deaths" of soldiers in Iraq, as well as what happens when veterans come home. Why the reluctance on the media's part to cover this story?
Mitchell: Simply, it's hard to cover and a "downer," but not that hard to cover and the kind of honest "bad news" that we need to give the public a true picture of continuing this war, both in human terms and the trillion-dollar price tag yet to come.
Stahl: One has the sense that "So Wrong for So Long" could be the first of a series of anthologies of your essays dealing with the folly of war. Bill Moyers, in an interview with you in the early days of the war, asked if you "have a sense that when the battle is over, this story's only begun?" How would you answer that question now?
Mitchell: Funny you should ask, I am just now contemplating a "sequel." Unfortunately, there is no chance that the war will end before it is published, though I will be happy to cancel the book if I am wrong.

Jayne Lyn Stahl is a widely published poet, essayist, playwright screenwriter, and Huffington Post blogger. She is a member of PEN American Center, her nomination having been recommended by Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Bobby: Forty Years in the American Wilderness

The 40th anniversary of Bobby Kennedy's assassination has just occured and in the passage forty years of a painful recognition that the United States would be a far different nation today had he lived. I was in Los Angeles when he was killed. I had traveled - hitchiking the entire distance - from New York to California after the shocking and earthquake murder of Martin Luthor King. The counter-cultural movement was in full flower as was the explosion of the anti-war movement, which RFK had come to embody. While I was very political, my focus was on dealing with the weight of the Draft, and feeling if he was to secure the nomination - the Vietnam War would/could be wound down and the spiral of destruction to the American society would also be curtailed with his message of hope and renewal, messages that are resounding today, with the Barack Obama Democratic nomination for President on track for the Convention and November ballots. I recall hearing the news of his being shot as he had just been on TV with his Victory being celebrated. Stunned, and in shock, as the cascading and horrific reality set in, that another murder was befalling our society, and only two months after ML King. Within days, I left for San Francisco, and would later make the trek to Chicago and the Democrat's National Convention, where "the whole world is watching" would be the further painful reminder of a nation and world coming apart. A world we are still paying the price for. Bobby, we hardly knew ya...Last year, the film "Bobby" would recreate the events of the night at the hotel, and the impact on various lives there, and on the days preceeding Bobby's death. I wept then, and I weep still, as we have wandered ever since, wounded and weary. - MS

Here is the Wikipedia entry on RFK's assassination with footnotes.

The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, a United States Senator and brother of assassinated President John F. Kennedy, took place shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968. He was killed following celebrations of his successful campaign in the Californian primary elections while seeking the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. The perpetrator was a 24-year old Palestinian immigrant named Sirhan Sirhan, who remains incarcerated for this crime as of 2008. The number of reporters near the scene meant that the shooting was recorded on audio and the aftermath was captured on film, with the subject dominating news coverage over the following week.
Kennedy's body lay in repose at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York for two days before a funeral mass was held on June 8. His body was interred near his brother John at Arlington National Cemetery. His death prompted the protection of presidential candidates by the United States Secret Service. Hubert Humphrey went on to win the Democratic nomination for the presidency, but ultimately lost the election to Richard Nixon.
As with his brother's death, Robert Kennedy's assassination and the circumstances surrounding it have spawned a variety of conspiracy theories, particularly in relation to the existence of a supposed second gunman.

Robert Kennedy had been appointed United States Attorney General in January 1961, and remained in this post until he resigned on September 3, 1964, to run for election as a United States senator.[1] He took office on January 3, 1965.[1]
The approach of the 1968 presidential election saw the incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson, who had won the 1964 election with a landslide of the popular vote, presiding over social unrest: there were ghetto riots in the major cities despite Johnson's attempts at introducing anti-poverty and anti-discrimination legislation, and there was significant opposition to ongoing military action in Vietnam.[2][3] The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April 1968 led to further riots in 100 cities.[4]
Kennedy entered the race for the Democratic Party's nomination for President in 1968 after Senator Eugene McCarthy received 42% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary against the incumbent Johnson's 49%.[5] Following a series of electoral battles for convention delegates, Kennedy was still in second place after the California primary, with 393 delegates compared to Hubert Humphrey's 561.[6]

Four hours after the polls had closed in California, Robert F. Kennedy claimed victory in the state's Democratic presidential primary. At approximately 12:15 a.m. PDT, he addressed his campaign supporters in the Embassy Room ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel, located in the Mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles.[7] At the time, the government provided Secret Service protection for incumbent presidents but not for presidential candidates, and Kennedy's only security was provided by former FBI agent William Barry, while two former professional athletes acted as unofficial bodyguards.[8] During the campaign, Kennedy had welcomed contact with the public, and people had often sought frantically to touch him.[9]
Kennedy had planned, when he finished speaking, to walk through the ballroom and go to another gathering of supporters elsewhere in the hotel.[10] With deadlines fast approaching, however, reporters wanted a press conference. As Kennedy spoke, campaign aide Fred Dutton made the decision that Kennedy would forego the second gathering and instead go through the kitchen and pantry area behind the ballroom to the press area. Kennedy finished speaking and started out, when William Barry stopped him and said, "No, it's been changed. We're going this way."[11] Barry and Dutton began clearing a way for Kennedy to go left through swinging doors to the kitchen corridor, but Kennedy, hemmed in by the crowd, followed hotel maitre d' Karl Uecker through a back exit.[12]
Uecker led Kennedy through the kitchen area, holding Kennedy's right hand but frequently releasing it as Kennedy shook hands with people in the area.[13] Uecker and Kennedy started down a passage way narrowed by an ice machine against the right wall and a steam table to the left.[13] Kennedy turned to his left and shook hands with busboy Juan Romero as Sirhan Sirhan stepped down from a low tray-stacker beside the ice machine, rushed past Uecker, and repeatedly fired what was later identified as a .22 caliber Iver-Johnson Cadet revolver.[14][15]
After Kennedy had fallen to the floor, security man Bill Barry hit Sirhan twice in the face and others, including maître d's Uecker and Edward Minasian, writer George Plimpton, Olympic gold medal decathlete Rafer Johnson and professional football player Rosey Grier, forced Sirhan against the steam table and disarmed him.[16] Sirhan wrestled free and grabbed the revolver again, but he had already fired all the bullets.[17] Barry went to Kennedy and lay his jacket under the candidate's head, later recalling: "I knew immediately it was a .22, a small caliber, so I hoped it wouldn't be so bad, but then I saw the hole in the Senator's head, and I knew."[18] Reporters and photographers rushed into the area from both directions, contributing to the chaos. As Kennedy lay wounded, Juan Romero cradled the senator's head and placed a rosary in his hand.[19] Kennedy asked Romero, "Is everybody safe, OK?" and Romero responded, "Yes, yes, everything is going to be OK."[20] Captured by Life photographer Bill Eppridge, the picture of Kennedy and Romero became the iconic image of the assassination.[21][22]
Ethel Kennedy stood outside the crush of people at the scene, seeking help.[23] She was soon led to her husband and knelt beside him. He turned his head and seemed to recognize her.[24] After several minutes, medical attendants arrived at the hotel and lifted Kennedy onto a stretcher, prompting him to exclaim, "No, no."[25] He lost consciousness shortly thereafter.[26] Kennedy was taken a mile away to Central Receiving Hospital, where he arrived near death. One doctor slapped his face, calling, "Bob, Bob," while another began massaging Kennedy's heart. After obtaining a good heartbeat, doctors handed a stethoscope to Ethel Kennedy so she could hear her husband's heart beating, and she was relieved.[27] After about 30 minutes, Kennedy was transferred several blocks to the Hospital of the Good Samaritan for surgery. Surgery began at 3:12 a.m. PDT and lasted three hours and 40 minutes.[28] Ten and a half hours later, at 5:30 P.M. PDT on Wednesday, spokesman Frank Mankiewicz announced that Kennedy's doctors were "concerned over his continuing failure to show improvement," while his condition remained "extremely critical as to life."[29]
Kennedy had been shot a total of three times: one shot was behind his right ear at a range of approximately 1 inch (2.54 cm) and bullet fragments were dispersed throughout his brain.[30] Two other bullets entered at the rear of his right armpit, one of which exited from his chest while the other lodged in the back of his neck.[31] Despite extensive neurosurgery at the Good Samaritan Hospital to remove the bullet and bone fragments from his brain, Kennedy died at 1:44 a.m. PDT, nearly 26 hours after being shot.[32]
Five other people were also wounded: William Weisel of ABC News, Paul Schrade of the United Auto Workers union, Democratic Party activist Elizabeth Evans, Ira Goldstein of the Continental News Service and Kennedy campaign volunteer Irwin Stroll.[16] Although not physically wounded, singer Rosemary Clooney, a strong supporter of Kennedy, was present in the ballroom during the shooting in the pantry and suffered a nervous breakdown shortly afterward.[33]
Conspiracy theories
As with the assassination of Robert Kennedy's brother, President John F. Kennedy, in 1963, the senator's death has been the subject of widespread analysis. Some persons involved in the original investigation and some researchers have suggested alternative scenarios for the crime, or have argued that there are serious problems with the official case.

CIA involvement
In November 2006, the BBC's Newsnight program presented research by filmmaker Shane O'Sullivan alleging that several CIA officers were present on the night of the assassination.[46] Three men who appear in video and photographs from the night of the assassination were positively identified by former colleagues and associates as former senior CIA officers who had worked together in 1963 at JMWAVE, the CIA's main anti-Castro station based in Miami. They were JMWAVE Chief of Operations David Morales, Chief of Maritime Operations Gordon Campbell and Chief of Psychological Warfare Operations George Joannides.[46]
The program featured an interview with Morales's former attorney Robert Walton, who quoted him as having said, "I was in Dallas when we got the son of a bitch and I was in Los Angeles when we got the little bastard."[46] O'Sullivan reported that the CIA declined to comment on the officers in question. It was also alleged that Morales was known for his deep anger with the Kennedys for what he saw as their betrayal during the Bay of Pigs Invasion.[47]
After further investigation, O'Sullivan produced the feature documentary, RFK Must Die. The film casts some doubt on the earlier identifications and ultimately reveals that the man previously identified as Gordon Campbell was in fact Michael D. Roman, a now-deceased Bulova Watch Company employee, who was at the Ambassador Hotel for a company convention. O'Sullivan ultimately expresses his doubt that the "Morales" in the film footage at the Ambassador Hotel and the man positively identified as Morales in later photographs are the same man.[48]

Second gunman
The location of Kennedy's wounds suggested that his assailant had stood behind him, but witnesses said that Sirhan faced west as Kennedy moved through the pantry facing east.[49] This has led to the suggestion that a second gunman actually fired the fatal shot, a possibility supported by coroner Thomas Noguchi.[50] Several witnesses, though, said that as Sirhan approached, Kennedy was turning to his left shaking hands, facing north and so exposing his right side.[51] During a reexamination of the case in 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered expert examination of the possibility of a second gun having been used, and the conclusion of the experts was that there was little or no evidence to support this theory.[52]
More recently, analysis of audio recordings of the shootings taken by freelance reporter Stanislaw Pruszynski appear, according to forensic expert Philip van Praag, to indicate that thirteen shots were fired, even though Sirhan's gun held only eight rounds.[49] While this would strongly indicate a second gunman, further independent analysis by a series of other experts indicates that there are only eight shots present on the tape.[53]

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