Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Too Little. Too Late.

It was a coincidence that I started reading “State of War” the very same week that the “Senate Select Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program” was released to the public (Dec. 2014), providing the most comprehensive public accounting of the interrogation techniques used by the CIA after the terrorist attacks in New York on 9/11. In light of that report, most everything in Risen’s book, published in 2006, is all well known by now and extremely documented and expanded upon by other writers, journalists, reporters and confidential “unnamed” sources. But Risen’s book is still a good addition and complement to any serious student’s library of books on war history, US spying programs, surveillance, intelligence and foreign policy. It creates context.

Incidentally, perhaps the most interesting footnote to this book is the legal case the US government brought against Risen because he refused to disclose his sources for parts of the book. Fortunately, as of Dec. 13, 2014, US Attorney General Eric Holder has decided not to subpoena Risen in an effort to force him to reveal the sources for his book, “State of War”. Risen has been battling for years to stop prosecutors from forcing him to name his source revealing the CIA’s efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Risen was facing the difficult decision between revealing a source or jail time for contempt of court.

In Risen’s last chapter, he writes about “checks and balances” to weaken the Bush Administration's lawless use of warrantless wire taps, unlawful imprisonment, torture, executive orders that circumvented the US Constitution, etc. However, eight years after Risen’s book was published, these so-called “checks and balances” are laughable and absurd! Since “State of War” was published, Edward Snowden has exposed the vast and powerful NSA program that dwarfs anything Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld knew about; the CIA torture report has been released and confirms everything and more that the country thought about CIA torture programs; Osama bin Laden is dead but now ISIS and other home-grown terrorists are on the scene fighting harder than ever and using Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan as staging areas; and America “ended” the war in Iraq only to send more troops back in 2014.

Risen’s book has significance and importance as a reporter’s true account of history and an attempt to offer an explanation. But in the final analysis, this so-called “explosive book on the abuse of power of the Bush Administration” was back in 2006 and is now, in 2014, too little, too late. 

Chasing the Jazz Bus Nashville 12.17.14

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Roses on the Grave

Any way you look at it, this is a very sad story. The commentary Matt Bai makes on our society is even more pathetic because it’s factually true and yet philosophically inadequate. There’s really no upside to it. Everybody loses, nobody wins. Having said that, the book is packed with little jewels of insights, gems of self-illumination that can, and should, stimulate conversation and self-examination. It’s written and researched extremely well, there are some b&w photos and besides that, an unexpected value are the other books footnoted and recommended by Bai, books on the subject of journalism, ethics, morality, the marketing of presidential candidates; books I’ve ordered and can’t wait to read. So, thank you for that!

It wasn’t until the last couple chapters that it hit me what was going on in this story…. you know, why was I reading it? That was the question being asked in 1987 when the scandal between presidential candidate Gary Hart and model Donna Rice first appeared on the political scene. The subject of Bai’s book isn’t just about the turning point when politics went tabloid, as it says in the subtitle; it’s also about the turning point when journalism became a bully, when bullying established itself as a legitimate method to get “the story” and if you have to destroy everything in its path, so be it, only – be the first to get the story! As Bai tells it, the moment when the nation and its media took a hard turn toward abject triviality was hastened by Hart’s personal collapse, which made it easier for journalists to sneer at him, to proclaim him unfit and to blame him for all the tabloid scandals which were yet to come.

As I was nearing the end of the book, I got the distinct feeling that I was reading a eulogy, or attending a funeral, or looking over the guest list at a memorial service. The book, from beginning to end, is really a story about brick layers disguised as serious journalists who mixed tabloid gossip, politics and advertising revenue in a wheelbarrow of public opinion, laying cement at a tomb marking the spot where journalism and politics became little more than performance art. By the time scrutiny and scandal ran themselves into the ground, journalism and politics would be forever despised as entertainment and scorned for not being entertaining enough! 

Matt Bai’s book is a touching tribute to Ideas, buried like a corpse in a society needing ideas, a society which never had the chance to say goodbye. This book may be an attempt to place a few flowers on the grave.

12.11.14 Nashville TN

Friday, November 28, 2014

"Tampering With Evidence of Boredom"

This book starts out fast. It’s maybe even riveting: a Hollywood film producer is murdered in his own home. There’s unrequited love. Three suspicious women are implicated. We’ve got narcotics, homosexuality, lots of secrets, cover-ups, conspiracies and, naturally, corrupt LA cops. Then there’s silent film comic Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle caught up in a wild drunken sex party in San Francisco and a woman is killed, or murdered; who knows? Three trials, two hung juries and one acquittal later he’s blacklisted from ever working again. On top of all that, running in the background, but conspicuously “in-your-face”, is the motion picture industry as it was in the 1920s: monopolies, alleged anti-trust violations, censorship, Christian moral vigilantes, prohibition, sex, drugs, hot jazz, more sex and even more drugs. And then came the Great Depression, political spin, Wall Street and government regulation. And this is all in the first half of the book!

Unfortunately, after that, the story-telling gets old and slows down in the mud. The narrative takes a turn for the worse, much like the loose morals of Max Sennett’s Hollywood. There’s only so much that can be written about an unsolved murder. The story begins to drag along in the minutia of, albeit interesting, but generally unrelated crimes of people stranded on the outside of the industry looking in on the success of others more lucky than they are. So the violence against poor Billy Taylor gets lost in clouds of cigar smoke from movie moguls making backroom deals, and chain-smoking nicotine addicts who are little more than small-time thugs trying to fleece the rich. 

But it’s all marginal to the murder “who-done-it” of Taylor. For example, the legal battles between a couple of New York film tycoons have nothing to do with the murder itself, nor do strong-arm tactics of blackmailers and hustlers guilty of trying to make ends meet at the expense of innocent people, that is, if anyone in this book can be said to be truly innocent, including the alleged victims. Regrettably, the author uses up a lot of time and space writing about this story in typical tabloid style. (It’s a fairly big book, 483 pages, with a few b&w pictures). If I had to characterize the book it would be “true-detective-meets-dark-noir-meets-Hollywood-meets-the-Inquirer”. I’d recommend it for anyone having equal parts mild interest and time to waste.

Monday, November 10, 2014

"Pledging Allegiance"

This is the story of two American “brands”: (1) The America most of us have learned to accept and expect -- the one we were taught to believe in and (2) a secret America hidden in the shadows of national security, an America we’re learning more about thanks to books like “The Nazis Next Door”.

As examined in this book, one America is a false-front of patriotism. Romantic and sentimental, transparent and accessible, it offers up a rural buffet-style luncheon served on paper plates with forks and spoons scooping up large portions of propaganda and fear sprinkling education, entertainment, sports and media like salt and pepper on bland boiled carbohydrates and fried foods. But the other America is lean and opportunistic, pragmatic, seeking only advantage, ideological and monetary gain. This is where the real power is: in board rooms not voting booths, on the floor of the New York stock exchange, not the floor of small town hall meetings.

America prides itself on the rule of law and order, affecting a pretense of high morals - freedom and respect, honor and equality with “liberty and justice for all”. But the other America is proud only of its privilege, entitlement, and, especially, its amorality. One America believes in “free elections”, democracy, the American Way and fair play, where if you “work hard” you can grow up to be President, judged by your character not your skin color. But the other America has a strong racist history of white superiority and segregation, slavery, oppression, oligarchical elitism and nationalistic, cultural and military exceptionalism.

America wants to be known as the brand for the middle-class: ambitious and devoutly religious; defending the weak and defenseless; protecting victims while prosecuting victimizers and their persecutors. But America is also a secret surveillance state, austere to the point of cruelty, enforcing privatization of everything from prisons to pensions as fast as deregulation will allow. America is indivisible and united: red and blue states promise that those who commit crimes against humanity will be brought to justice, “because there’s no statute of limitations on war atrocities”. But America pledges allegiance only to its own self-interest. Global, commercial and technological loyalties mean that America occupies a place in history as an agent of endless war and concealment. America is as much a legend as a fairytale -- as much a complex mythology blurring the line between fact and fever, as a role-model for psychopaths and sociopaths. Hitler’s ex-Nazis must have been as comfortable in America as they were in Berlin, Munich or Hamburg.

Back in the day when we could still wish upon stars, generations got excited over Walt Disney’s futuristic “Trip to the Moon” inspired by his friend and former ex-Nazi scientist, Wernher von Braun. The German engineer was the mastermind behind the V-2 rocket that nearly destroyed London. As a free man, he lived in the States for thirty-two years until he died in 1977. His beliefs were no insult to our government - not to our intelligence community, nor our law enforcement agencies. But now a new generation is asking questions: How could this happen and why? Did the White House and top aids really ignore the evidence? Were there wide-spread systemic moral and legal failures? How could the “Greatest Generation” allow this to happen in the land and the home of the free and the brave? Should we even care? Hasn't it been long enough?

The book doesn’t attempt to answer these questions; that's not really the point, readers can decide for themselves. However, in view of recent leaks and much-published revelations from whistleblowers exposing alleged criminal conspiracies -- from General Motors failing to recall defective cars, to the three-letter intel secret-surveillance-intelligence-industrial-complex (i.e., the NSA, CIA, DHS and FBI etc.), to the on-going investigative reports on a perpetual “War on Terror” ….. the facts behind the stories in “The Nazis Next Door” make perfect sense!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Fruit From A Poisonous Tree

“Fruit from a poisonous tree” is a legal metaphor for evidence, the discovery of which is illegal or without proper authority, or in light of James Risen’s book, there’s no constitutional authority either.

Part Three, “Endless War”, reads like a eulogy, and in many ways I suppose it is: Risen quotes one NSA subcontractor, “Americans are living in the post-privacy age.” That sounds like a eulogy to me. The last chapter in part three, “War on Truth”, is the best part of the book, unfortunately it’s at the end and it’s too short. Most of the information in parts One and Two is about the Iraq war. Risen details the minutia of bureaucracy and corruption, crimes of greed and abuses of unrestrained power by the government, the CIA and various subcontractors. It’s easier to list the alleged crimes committed in the name of “the war on terror” after 9/11 (and for the next twelve years plus some), than it is to follow Risen’s slow and often tedious prose: secret bunkers of US cash hidden and buried in Iraq, contempt-of-congress, money laundering, grand theft, armed robbery, blackmail, war-profiteering, illegal kickbacks, tax-evasion, fraud, conspiracy, lying to federal authorities, illegal weapons sale, murder, torture, suspension of due process, targeting American citizens for execution, bribery, perjury, narcotic trafficking --  and this is just a partial list!

As interesting as all that is, and believe me it’s riveting, it’s still largely old news. We’ve become jaded to it and cynical, at least I have; if it’s the government, I almost expect it. But the last chapter, however -- “The War on Truth” -- focuses on the NSA, warrantless wiretaps, domestic surveillance and whistleblowers -- the risks they’ve taken and real threats to their lives and careers in their heroic and often futile attempts to inform the public about the escalation of the cybersecurity-intelligence-industrial complex. The impact on privacy and freedom of information is chilling, to say the least. Risen’s defense of investigative journalism and freedom of the press is brilliant! Personally, I wish his book would’ve spent more time on that, and less on facts over ten years old. Oh, well…..

Nietzsche wrote in the Will to Power, “Formerly one said of every morality: ‘By the fruits ye shall know them’. I say of every morality: ‘It is a fruit by which I recognize the soil from which it sprang.’” Risen’s book is a conversation about the soil out of which this poisonous tree grew and produced fruit. We should read his book and study our options before we have none left to consider; but it might be too late anyway.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Obscenity: Danger by any other name.

Before I read this book, all I knew about the history of censorship and obscenity I learned from the trials of Allen Ginsberg and his poem “Howl”, published by Lawrence Ferlingetti in San Francisco in 1956. That, and of course, Lenny Bruce, until he died in 1966 at the decline of his career. I was familiar with the title “Ulysses” and aware of James Joyce. I knew he had something to do with “sexually explicit” material, so I bought the unabridged copy, put it on my Kindle and started at the beginning. There’s something tragically ironic in how easy it is to acquire “Ulysses” in the Internet-age, and less than 100 years ago people went to jail for reading it out loud with a woman present! If you haven’t read it, I’d recommend reading “The Battle…..” along with “Ulysses” at the same time, if for no other reason than to see what all the fuss is about.

“The Battle for Ulysses” is the story of a conversation about injustice, vigilantes and censorship. It's a conversation spanning several decades, a world war and a great depression. Indeed, it continues to this very day. Ultimately, Birmingham’s book is about Joyce’s relationships with people -- his lovers, his excesses and conflicts between his supporters, his detractors, his muse and between James Joyce and himself. It’s about “indecency”, but more importantly, it examines what offends people in the context of post-world-war-one modernism, radicalism and the construction and deconstruction of public morals. Birmingham shows the reader the world as it was for James Joyce, a world that believed it had a duty to protect "innocence" (especially female virtue) from promiscuity, rebellion, blasphemy and the absence of meaning.

As Birmingham tells it, “Ulysses” was a book written by an author confronting the fear of thinking and the dangers of thought itself. His society was in denial about homophobia, for example, long before anyone identified what it was. Sexual taboos, anarchy and the politics of search and seizure were just as conflicted for people living in Paris or New York in 1920 as they are today. The story of how “Ulysses” came to be written in the first place, and then printed, published, smuggled and eventually legalized is the story of James Joyce, the writer. But it’s also the story of a community of artists and writers, social activists and revolutionaries meeting in bars, sidewalk caf├ęs and coffee houses inciting provocative new ideas. The descriptions of bookstores in the East Bank, for example, are so vivid I could almost smell the paper in stacks of books, I could almost hear conversations between Ezra Pound and Hemingway, between T.S. Eliot and Virginia Wolf.

What impressed me the most with “the Battle for Ulysses” is how relevant it is. Birmingham didn’t write a dry history book meant to gather dust. On the contrary, “the Battle for Ulysses” describes a struggle for the right to dissent by encouraging critically engaged readers to think the unthinkable, whatever that is. What was at stake for James Joyce when he wrote “Ulysses”, and what’s at stake for readers today, is the push-back against the idea that thinking is somehow unsafe. Censorship, confiscation and burning of “objectionable” material, was, in the world of James Joyce and in our world, all about trying to enforce political, religious and ideological conformity. This is what makes Birmingham’s arguments so convincing: assaults against “Ulysses”, James Joyce and others of his generation, up to, including and beyond the beatniks of San Francisco, show opposition and obstruction to ideas of inclusion, tolerance and transparency. These concepts, and others, were as “dangerous” to the neoconservative members of the Society for the Suppression of Vice in New York in 1920 as they are to the neoliberal policy-makers of 2014.