I’ve been following your journalism since Dirty Wars, was happy when The Intercept launched and I look forward to your excellent podcast every week. A major theme of your work is providing historical context, something deliberately erased here in the Land of the Free and the home of purposeful amnesia. Your five minute recap of American involvement in Iran, prior to an episode about current US-Iranian relations, for example, was immensely helpful in setting the stage for that reporting.
I have an idea for The Intercept– a well-vetted, searchable historical context archive that can be linked to in any pertinent discussion on the site. For example, a hyperlink to a concise biography of Elliott Abrams to be dropped into any discussion touching on the administration’s appointment of that Death Squad architect as Special Envoy for Regime Change in Venezuela. This would include the exact substance of the specific crimes the current AG wrote Bush’s pardon of Abrams for. That link, in turn, would take an interested reader to a short history of US involvement in Central America. I think this context archive would be a valuable resource for readers.
Not to say, of course, that the project of history writing is uncontroversial. The Daughters of the Confederacy, or whatever they were called, spurred the rewriting of the history of the Civil War early in the twentieth century and the Dunning School’s racist views were the dominant narrative for decades. No longer a story about a war to preserve the federal union, or to end the “Peculiar Institution”, the war and the end of Reconstruction (“bayonet rule”) were gloriously recast with the chivalrous Klan as saviors of the persecuted south. This narrative was laid out in Woodrow Wilson’s favorite film The Birth of A Nation, you know, “history written in lightning”. Tendentious history is as familiar as “Making America Great Again” or any of the other hollow slogans that sway masses of credulous consumers to one form of civic self-harm or another.
On the other hand, of course, history is based on events, things that actually happened/happen. I share your belief that a contextualized telling of events based in hard fact and multiple witness testimony is crucial. The telling may be highly distorted to advance a particular agenda or closer to what actually took place. It’s an uphill fight here in America, to make the often painful past plain, but as you frequently remind readers and listeners, it’s impossible to understand the present without an awareness of these events and the consequences that flow from them.
There are a number of great books, and great reporting, whose authors are often viciously attacked by the forces exposed in those accounts. At the same time their findings are never seriously impugned and threatened lawsuits do not come to pass because the accounts are well-researched and truthful. Truth is still a complete defense to libel and slander in America, though I recall President Fuckface (all respect) promised to do something about that when he was on the first leg of his now perpetual campaign.
We occasionally read excellent, troubling books, even best-sellers, like Dirty Wars, Dark Money, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, deservedly well-decorated books like Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, that lay out, in great and hideous detail, things done in our names. A million people buy them, they are well-reviewed, briefly discussed, later randomly found by interested readers here and there. A digest of the findings of important books like these would be an excellent resource, and part of the archive I’m proposing for The Intercept. A category for History (or Context), alongside Politics, Justice, Technology, National Security, Environment, World.
In a nation where facts are increasingly laughed off as bullshit, and are seen as less and less central to seeking or retaining political power (particularly when set against snappy branding and relentless marketing), millions of us still cling to the idea that facts are important, that history is vital to know. The horrifying story of what was done to Maher Arar in our names should not be a footnote, a bit of arcana known only to a few interested parties on the left. His “rendition” and torture (and the US dismissal of his case against our government) should be a widely known object lesson about the destructiveness of extremism, the danger of government opacity. The details of this kind of story are available all over the internet, if one even knows to look for them. I’m suggesting a one stop shop where this kind of information, placed in context, can be found easily. I believe it would be a great service to democracy.
We can hear detailed, learned, expert discussions of something like the Fourteenth Amendment, as I heard recently on a podcast from the National Constitution Center, where a key fact, like the judicially imposed 90 year coma of the amendment, for civil rights purposes, is barely mentioned. I only knew the details of this almost century-long coma because of a year of research I did while a law student. The deliberate suspension of the amendment as a personal right of action was barely touched in the Con Law casebook we all yawned our way through. I listened to the podcast thinking “what the fuck?” It went on to my list of WTF notes to write, along with dozens to the impeccable Grey Lady and her ilk. Corporate personhood, it turns out, was the main, almost sole, beneficiary of Fourteenth amendment jurisprudence during the almost century of its judicially induced deep sleep.
The Intercept would be a great place to be able to find a link to this, in any story about reparations, or police shootings, or lynching, or voting rights. The framers of the amendment were alive, and their “original intent” well known when the Supreme Court put the amendment, and the federal laws made to enforce it, into an unappealable juridical coma, less than a decade after the end of the Civil War. Talk about “what the fuck?”
I’ve long had a question for you. Reading Dirty Wars when it came out I was struck by the detailed story of Anwar al-Awlaki you laid out. It made the US citizen’s unappealable extrajudicial death sentence even more horrifying to me. In the American press, and literally everywhere you search today, you will see him described as a top al-Qaeda propagandist, sometimes number two man of the terrorist outfit. You need to search for a while to confirm that the American military and justice sector have no comment on whether he was actually charged with any crime before his extrajudicial execution (a neat way of admitting he wasn’t). Reading your book I came away with the feeling that his increasing radicalism had been driven by a long campaign of US sponsored persecution here and in Yemen and that no connection had ever been shown between him and any terrorist group. He appears to have been killed for his forceful exercise of our First Amendment rights. Have you learned anything since writing the book that makes you believe otherwise?
Anyway, Jeremy, apologies for this long letter. If you are interested in this idea, I’d be happy to discuss it with you any time. You can reach me (here). Strength to your arm, keep up your important work. Meanwhile, if you can enlighten me on the Anwar al-Awlaki query, I’d be grateful.