No Sense of History

Often you can trace a line from what’s happening now, back through a series of events that made it not only possible, but, in hindsight, inevitable that the things taking place now would be taking place.  Along the way the steps may be indiscernible, although looking back afterwards, the patterns often seem hard not to see.  Some sense of history, cause and effect, is important for avoiding the worst of our past collective mistakes.

One trouble with tracing these lines, how we got from point A to point W, is that the world of human affairs is as complicated as the cellular and sub-cellular maze of the human body.   Even though  science has solved many terrible puzzles in the case of the human body, it is still a bit hazy about a lot of things that go on in and among our intricate, interactive body systems. 

I am being treated, for example, for an idiopathic kidney disease.  “Idiopathic” means cause unknown.  Western medicine doesn’t know how people get this disease.  We know that shooting certain chemicals at it sometimes cures it, or puts it into remission.  We don’t know exactly how this works, but it often does.  We don’t keep data on the percentages of cure, remission and failure, because… I don’t know, patients might not want to spend $88,000 for a drug that only works, say, 26% or 18% of the time.  There is no point giving this depressing number, whatever it might be.  You want the cure?  Yes or no.

I am writing here about history and our culture’s consistent failure to make thoughtful connections as events unfold.  Add to the complication of human affairs the essential roles of irrationality, chance, short-sighted greed, basic stupidity.   Many reason, not unreasonably, that since there seems to be so little an individual can do about this gigantic unfolding, there is no reason to get bent out of shape about it. 

Until, to the shock of perhaps 65% of the country, we get a boastful, angry, insecure, impulsive con-man as our president.  On his desk, the button to instantly kill millions of people.  

“How can Americans be so fucking stupid?” cry a chorus of hand-wringers from all over the political spectrum, gnashing their collective teeth.   

I don’t purport to answer that question.  I would just like to trace a few points, to show that this president, while undeniably unusual as a personality, is not a complete outlier as president.  He is continuing the work of his predecessors, including some of the ongoing work of the beloved champion of freedom and justice, Mr. Obama, and his equally gifted, equally compelled by the tides of history, predecessor, William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton.  Not to mention, of course, Ronald Reagan and the presidents Bush, father and son and every other previous chief executive.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist James Risen, now working at The Intercept, reveals some key details of how we got to this era of “Fake News” in his recent long article about the seven years’ long government prosecution of him (by Bush and Obama) for writing about the government’s massive, illegal, top secret surveillance program, the one that Edward Snowden eventually revealed the details of.   Risen’s excellent, thought-provoking article is here.   Risen writes:

My case was part of a broader crackdown on reporters and whistleblowers that had begun during the presidency of George W. Bush and continued far more aggressively under the Obama administration, which had already prosecuted more leak cases than all previous administrations combined. Obama officials seemed determined to use criminal leak investigations to limit reporting on national security. But the crackdown on leaks only applied to low-level dissenters; top officials caught up in leak investigations, like former CIA Director David Petraeus, were still treated with kid gloves.

Risen’s federal prosecution began during the second term of the Bush Administration.   Risen had been reporting for the New York Times when he learned, from sources within the CIA, of the government’s illegal secret domestic surveillance program, being conducted by the NSA.  He began writing about it during the lead up to the Bush-Kerry presidential contest of 2004.   

The Bush administration requested that the New York Times not publish this detailed account of the top secret program. The details, they argued, if revealed, would undermine U.S. prosecution of the existential War on Terror.   Bush himself eventually told Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger that he would have “blood on his hands” if the Times published the story, because the secret program was so effectively squashing terrorism.

The hierarchy of the Grey Lady, ever the sober, measured, compliant, even-handed journal of record (of our beloved status quo), that genteel colleague of the powerful, agreed to keep Risen’s story out of the paper, and did so for a year.   After all, revelations of widespread illegality by the Bush Administration, like conscience curdling reports on its unaccountable, secret torture program [1] and false causus belli for the war in Iraq, would only be cynically exploited by their political enemies in the upcoming election. 

The Times held the story as the 2004 election campaign wrapped up, as the votes were cast and counted.  Risen, in frustration, had been writing a book about some of the Bush administration’s excesses in the so-called “War on Terror”.  It contained a chapter detailing the routine illegal surveillance of millions of Americans. 

The Times eventually reported Risen’s NSA surveillance story, just before Risen’s book was released.  Bush and Cheney, meanwhile, had won the 2004 election.  Risen and Eric Lichtblau, his co-reporter on the NSA surveillance stories, won Pulitzer Prizes for their work.  The Bush/Cheney Department of Justice set about investigating and prosecuting James Risen in connection with his use of leaked classified material.

Risen writes in his Intercept article of the Valerie Plame case, and how it demonstrated to the Executive branch that, given the right optics, the public would not get excited about courts ruling the First Amendment doesn’t apply to journalists, that journalists could be forced to reveal the identities of their anonymous sources who had leaked sensitive information and that the court had a right to hold reporters in contempt, and lock them up, for refusing.   New York Times reporter Judith Miller actually went to jail after being found in contempt of court for refusing to identify a confidential source in the Plame case.   (Miller, one could argue, deserved to be locked up for being Cheney’s ambitious, credulous shill and writing his bullshit in article after front page article for the NY Times, though Risen, gallantly, doesn’t mention that.) 

Valerie Plame was an undercover CIA agent, working to monitor loose nukes, whose husband, Joe Wilson, publicly disputed what turned out to be straight up lies by the Bush Administration about Saddam Hussein’s alleged WMD program.   In apparent fury over Wilson’s Op Ed piece, someone in the Bush Administration revealed Plame’s secret identity. 

It was a peevish, rash, rage-driven reaction worthy of President Trump himself.   President George W. Bush, in the immediate aftermath of the revelation that someone in his administration had “outed” a covert CIA agent, vowed that if anyone in his administration had committed this treasonous act they would be punished to the fullest extent of the law.   

Vice President Dick Cheney’s office was, almost certainly, the source of the leak.  Cheney’s assistant, “Scooter” Libby, later took the fall for ‘obstruction of justice’ for lying to cover up the source of the leak and nobody was ever punished for the act itself.   Cheney, as evil a motherfucker as this sad world has ever seen, was later reportedly furious when Bush commuted Libby’s sentence instead of pardoning him outright. 

Risen points out that the opposition to Bush and Cheney led many to applaud Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s no holds barred investigation of the leak, including the jailing of Judith Miller for refusing to divulge her source in reporting the story. Few saw at the time, Risen writes, the lesson those in power would draw from this clampdown on freedom of the press. 

Obama went just as hard against Risen as Bush and Cheney had.  Obama was infamously aggressive toward leakers and journalists who revealed inconvenient truths.  He used Woodrow Wilson’s harsh 1917 Espionage Act, with its death penalty and no defense regarding intent, against more citizens than all previous administrations combined.   Risen writes of Obama’s legacy for freedom of the press in the federal court that covers Maryland and Washington, D.C.:

That debate [Obama DOJ’s position that ‘reporter’s privilege’ was not a defense against the reporter being forced to testify in a criminal case — overturning the ruling of the trial judge] became moot in 2014, when the Supreme Court refused to take up the case. That allowed the appeals court ruling to stand, leaving the legal destruction of a reporter’s privilege in the 4th Circuit as Obama’s First Amendment legacy.      source

The things that go on at the highest levels of power are often unspeakable.  The people at the top are insulated by many levels of bureaucracy, and, in most cases, protect each other.   There are plenty of fall guys below to take the heat, when necessary.   Why bring Rumsfeld or Cheney into a legal discussion of the American torture program, or the White House lawyers who twisted language and decency to argue that torture was fine, as long as we were torturing terrorists (or even the two psychologists paid $81,000,000 to design the torture program, for that matter)  when a couple of low level, selfie-snapping grunts, acting on orders traceable directly to Rumsfeld and Cheney, can be prosecuted and jailed for participating in the torture program at a notorious Iraqi prison?   Justice done.  Case closed.

When it was discovered that General David Petraeus had revealed a large trove of sensitive, classified information to his mistress/biographer, he was not prosecuted.   He was forced to resign from his government post and went, unmolested, into an extremely well-paid position in the private sector.    Even as journalists were increasingly threatened for revealing sensitive leaked information that embarrassed the Executive branch or could compromise the lucrative interests of war profiteers.

I am extremely vexed by habitual, deliberate obfuscation, in private life as well as public life.  The opposite — honest openness —  is frequently called ‘transparency’.   It is impossible to discuss anything intelligently without transparency.  Transparency is increasingly curtailed when frank and open dialogue is undesirable for any reason.  A lack of transparency is essential for the continued operation of truly unspeakable practices.

A transparent government operates by law, laws which have been publicly debated and passed, in adjusted form, by our elected representatives, who cast yays and nays in our names.  That is the theory of representative democracy, anyway.  Corners are often cut, of course, as powerful monied forces exert pressure on campaign donor-dependent lawmakers to cut deals advantageous to their mutual financial interests.  The key to cutting these corners is keeping unpopular details secret until after the law is passed and there is nothing the average citizen can say or do about it. 

As was done with the recent 51-49 party-line Republican Tax law.   As had been done by Mr. Obama with the TransPacific Partnership agreement, which no legislator was allowed to take notes of, photocopy or share with constituents before the “Fast Track” up-down “yay-nay” vote on approving its countless secret provisions.   As was done days after the attack of 9/11 with the massive and far-reaching Patriot Act.  Extended public debate on any of these bills would have had a dramatic impact on the final form of the proposed laws.   Which is the point of participatory democracy, so that no minority (or silent, powerless majority, for that matter) gets screwed too vigorously by their elected representatives.  Democratic decision making, which includes protections for minorities and the weak, is never supposed to be done by strict 51-49 majority rule.   Lack of information makes it easier to whip up the emotions of people who already feel overwhelmed and full of anxiety.  Turn up the anxiety enough and people will shrug at just about anything.

Journalism is our only way of being informed of the things being proposed and done in our names, of things being done to others acting in our names.   The flow of information we get via journalists has been severely curtailed by increasing corporate consolidation of the mass media.   Very few corporations now operate most of the mass media, the place where most Americans get their sketchy information about what is being done in their names.

The consolidated corporate media is a conspiracy of silence only in the sense that very wealthy media corporations have a common interest in keeping the machine running the way it brings in the most profit.  War and mayhem are always good for business, except when they are clandestine wars, as many today are, in the global War on Terror.   

The CEO of CBS corporation commented during the presidential campaign that while the candidacy of Donald Trump might raise some troubling issues, DJT was a goddamned cash cow and the station was making a shitload of money off the tireless tabloid extrovert’s ubiquity across mass media.  Viewers were drawn irresistibly to the freak show of his candidacy — we couldn’t help ourselves, he was that good.  Trump stories were great for ratings and advertising revenues.  Trump had made his name in the tabloids.

There are good reasons to keep shameful things secret.  You can trace secret, evil shit done in our names going back as far as you’d like to go in the history of our great republic.  From the wink and two nods in the Constitution that ensured the rights of slaveholders would be protected by law in perpetuity, to the “Removal” of the “Indians” under our laws, to unprovoked wars of naked conquest against Mexico, against Spain, to the two unnecessary atom bombs dropped on Japan, down through the years to the secret overthrow of democratically elected leaders in Iran, Chile, the Congo, who knows how many other places.  COINTELPRO, a long time FBI program to intimidate, marginalize and imprison suspected American dissidents exercising their First Amendment rights, was only revealed when activists broke into a local FBI office and stole files that proved its existence.   The sensational patriotic propaganda following the “friendly fire” death of American hero Pat Tillman (only debunked years later due to the tireless courage and persistence of his family) is another example of lies shoved directly down the throats of Americans kept in the dark by a cynical, goal oriented administration.  The recent examples are too many to detail here.

My point:  you cannot productively look at the mess we are in now without examining the many concrete steps that led us inexorably to the mess we are in now.   When chickens come home to roost, as the cancerous, zombie chickens of our failure to heed the small steps toward the world of shit we now find ourselves in have, well… what can we say?

“Yo, we, uh, we didn’t fucking know?   Wait … wasn’t Obama supposed to reverse all this shit?”   

Obama, in one instance when he wasn’t misusing his great talents, told us himself that we would have to push him to do the things we needed him to do.   Too many organized, disciplined, well-funded people hated him for much of the hope and change he promised to work, maybe, but, still, he had a good point.   

It’s on us.  In the end, it is always on us.  How we do it is a difficult question, but it is a question that is on each of us to do our part to answer.


[1] How many Americans today remember the horrifying case of Maher Arar, Canadian citizen of Syrian origin, detained at JFK airport early in the War on Terror?  Pulled off an airport line where he was waiting with his family, he was locked up and interrogated for two weeks before his “extraordinary rendition” by CIA jet to Jordan en route to Syria, shackled, blindfolded, drugged, diapered and jump-suited.  He endured almost a year of torture at the hands of Syrian masters of torture before his eventual, long-delayed release.  No charges were ever brought against him.   

Maher Arar’s imprisonment without charges (not to mention his torture) was a clear violation of fundamental legal norms in the West dating back to the Magna Carta (1215 A.D.).  The Canadian government conducted an inquiry, heard from 85 witnesses, and exonerated Arar of any connection with terrorism.   

Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized to Arar for Canada’s role in what the prime minister described as his “terrible ordeal.” In January 2007, the federal government [of Canada] awarded Arar $10.5 million in compensation, and another $1 million to cover his legal costs.

“On behalf of the government of Canada, I wish to apologize to you, Monia Mazigh and your family for any role Canadian officials may have played in the terrible ordeal that all of you experienced in 2002 and 2003,” Harper said. “I trust that, having arrived at a negotiated settlement, we have ensured that fair compensation will be paid to you and your family. I sincerely hope that these words and actions will assist you and your family in your efforts to begin a new and hopeful chapter in your lives.”  source

US courts threw Arar’s lawsuit out, citing “national security” reasons related to the ongoing, and endless, War on Terror.

One principle often cited in philosophical discussions of capital punishment is that it is better for many possibly guilty persons to escape punishment altogether than for one innocent person to be executed.   Ditto for torture, no? 

There is no doubt that many, many people — and many innocent people turned in for rewards, for grudges, by sloppy work, were tortured in our names.   “We tortured some [no more than a thousand or two -ed.] folks”, as our former president wanly admitted a few years ago, with impressive  maladroitness.

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