‘US Administrations Have Been Intervening in Venezuela Since at Least the Early 2000s’ - CounterSpin interview with Alexander Main on Maduro's reelection
Janine Jackson interviewed Alexander Main about the Nicolás Maduro re-election for the January 11, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: When it comes to Venezuela, elite US media don’t hide their feelings. And their feelings are all the same. Headlines on last year’s reelection of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro differed only in tone, including the disdainful: “As Venezuelans Go Hungry, Their Government Holds a Farcical Election,” from the Economist; the decisive: USA Today‘s “Maduro Is Turning Venezuela Into a Dictatorship,” or Foreign Affairs’ more somber version, “Venezuela’s Suicide; Lessons From a Failed State.” There’s Forbes’ vaguely threatening “Why Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela May Wish He Lost the Presidential Election,” and Foreign Policy’s unashamed “It’s Time for a Coup in Venezuela.”
But they’re all pretty much variations on a theme that’s hard to unhear, given that media bang it out so loudly and repeatedly. Here to help us sort fact from froth is Alexander Main. He’s director of international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He joins us by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Alex Main.
Alex Main: Thank you, Janine.
JJ: Writing for FAIR on Venezuelan elections last year, Alan MacLeod pinpointed US media’s preferred trope, which was to say that Maduro was reelected “amid”—amid outcry, amid widespread disillusionment, amid charges of irregularities, amid low turnout. The message, I think, to readers was that Maduro’s re-election was not legitimate. What should we know about last May’s elections in Venezuela?
AM: So what isn’t generally mentioned by the media is that a critical factor in the outcome of the election was the approach taken by Venezuela’s opposition. Much of the opposition, many of its parties, decided to boycott these elections, for a variety of reasons.
At any rate, the media did not examine that fact. And we’re still not seeing it very much. I think one of the few exceptions is the Washington Post, in the article that appeared today, that did mention the divisions within the opposition, and their decision not to participate that had, obviously, a huge effect on the election result.
JJ: The media coverage would give you the impression that Venezuela’s election almost happened in a vacuum, but there was in fact involvement from, for example, the Organization of American States.
AM: Well, the Organization of American States, or rather the secretary general of the organization, whose name is Luis Almagro. He represents himself. He was elected, but once secretary general, he has sort of executive power there; but he doesn’t represent the countries within the organization. He has been on a campaign against the Maduro government from very early on. It stems from their initial decision not to allow him to send electoral observers to the elections.
And this is based on a decision taken by Venezuela’s electoral authorities many years ago, when they decided that they had enough transparency, enough safety measures around the elections, that they no longer required any sort of outside tutelage.
A number of countries in Latin America have taken the same decision. It’s a decision that has to do with the respect of their sovereignty. Certainly you don’t see in the US any massive presence of international observers, even though I think a lot of people would like to see that at some point.
But anyway, this was a sovereign decision that was taken by Venezuela’s electoral authority. And following that, Almagro really went on a rampage, and has been very much involved in efforts to try to delegitimize the Maduro government and to support the very hard-line opposition.
In doing this, he went sort of out of bounds in terms of his rhetoric, even for a lot of right-wing governments in Latin America, when late last year he voiced support for a military coup, much as some US officials have done, and US members of Congress have done. And as a response, you had all of the governments of Latin America that signed on to a statement that categorically rejected the possibility of any form of military intervention, whether by coup or an outside military intervention in Venezuela.
But certainly his rhetoric, and the campaign that he has led—along with other figures, such as Sen. Marco Rubio—have certainly given the impression that there is a desire for US intervention in what’s going on in Venezuela, and that’s, I think, resulted in sort of a defensive reaction from the Venezuelan government.
JJ: Well, it sounds very disturbing, but also confusing. You know, when I was looking through headlines, I saw one from something called the Pacific Council on International Policy that said, “Maduro Re-Elected. Can Democracy Ever Prevail in Venezuela?” I mean, just at the level of the sentence, it’s confusing. And then when you start talking about a coup to save democracy—which is the upshot of current coverage, and I guess policy—it just doesn’t even seem to make sense. The call is for the US to intervene, but the US is already intervening, isn’t it?
AM: Well, yeah, absolutely, and they’ve really been intervening in Venezuela, various US administrations, since at least the early 2000s, when we know that the US government—through institutions like the National Endowment for Democracy—has been providing funding and training to opposition groups in Venezuela, and often very hard-line groups that have taken a radical line, not recognizing the government and trying to seek its removal through extra-constitutional means, including a short-lived coup that took place in April of 2002.
The US has been very involved in trying to isolate them, Venezuela, diplomatically throughout the region, putting a lot of pressure on Latin American governments to support US measures condemning the situation in Venezuela.
More recently, the US has been applying sanctions against the government of Venezuela. And this is a very underreported thing in the US media and the international media generally.
When you see the coverage, for instance, of the Maduro inauguration, what you don’t see at all are references to the impact of the economic sanctions that have been applied. In fact, there are few media outlets at this point that even acknowledge that there are economic sanctions, even though they’ve been in place since August of 2017, when Trump announced them through an executive decree, having determined Venezuela to be an “extraordinary threat to US national security.” Those were the actual terms that were used in order to justify these sanctions.
And they’ve had a dire effect in Venezuela, which has been experiencing an economic crisis for quite a while now, since 2014 at least. And the government, of course, has failed to resolve this. It has to do with some of the government’s own economic policies. But at this point, the US also bears responsibility through these sanctions, where they have cut off Venezuela’s access to international financial markets, by which they can borrow money and purchase the necessary imports that the country needs. And we know that there aren’t enough imports of food or of medicine that are taking place at the moment.
And it’s also had a dire effect on the country’s oil production. And, of course, oil is the source of most of Venezuela’s national revenue. Along with falling oil prices, there’s been a tremendous fall in oil production in Venezuela, and it accelerated, actually, after these sanctions were put into place, because the Venezuelan government isn’t able to make the necessary investments to maintain the oil fields.
So that’s not mentioned, really, whatsoever in the major media, even though you have economists, including opposition-aligned economists from Venezuela, like Francisco Rodriguez, who have pointed out the very negative impact that these sanctions are having on the country.
JJ: Alan MacLeod also found a piece in Bloomberg that came close to acknowledging it, but in such a strange way. It was an article in which Bloomberg said that victory in the “widely derided election” gives Maduro “sole ownership of the nation’s crushing economic crisis.” And then in the very next sentence, it gloats that US and regional leaders will punish Venezuela by imposing “further isolation and sanctions on the crisis-stricken nation’s all-important oil industry.”
AM: Exactly. There’s this absurd idea that the sanctions somehow only hurt the Venezuelan government and Venezuelan government officials. It’s always the Venezuelan government’s responsibility, when they discuss the economic situation.
From time to time, you do see some media saying, “Oh, but the Venezuelan government says that the US sanctions are contributing to this dire economic situation.” They fail to ask any independent expert. You know, any economists that are taking a good look at what’s going on in Venezuela today will tell you, “Well, yes, these sanctions quite obviously are having a very negative impact.”
JJ: Finally, one of the things that coverage does is present the Venezuelan people as benighted. A piece from Time from last year includes one of my favorite creations. It first of all says that the crisis, the current crisis, “can be traced to the 1998 election of Hugo Chávez to the presidency,” so Chávez is the reason that things are difficult now. But I love this presentation: “Chávez concocted a political system that used often high oil prices to essentially bribe the masses into supporting him.”
The picture of the Venezuelan people that one gets from US media coverage is really as sort of benighted, not knowing what’s good for themselves and, once again, requiring some sort of intervention to tell them how to do democracy.
AM: Yes. This is quite absurd. Really, what we’re seeing in Venezuela is, one, an extraordinarily well-organized population, and particularly in poor communities that are certainly confronting a very dramatic economic situation, but I think doing so in effective ways that make the situation somewhat sustainable for these communities. So we’re seeing a very, very high level of community organization.
I’d say the vast majority of Venezuelans at this point are probably quite disgruntled with Maduro and his government. However, the Venezuelan opposition really offers no viable alternative to the Maduro government. They have never presented any sort of coherent economic proposal, with the possible exception of the opposition candidate in last year’s election. But, of course, most of the opposition parties boycotted those elections.
And in general, I think a lot of Venezuelans, certainly those that come from lower-income communities, are well aware of the fact that the opposition is linked to the country’s traditional economic elite, and they have a terrible reputation from their involvement in governments before Chávez was in power.
Things may be bad under Maduro, but I think there’s a sense among many Venezuelans that things could actually be quite a bit worse under opposition governments, particularly if they impose the sort of neoliberal policies that hurt the poor people of Venezuela enormously during the decades prior to Hugo Chávez’s election in the late ’90s.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Alexander Main; he’s director of international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. You can find their work, including Alex’s piece, “The United States’ Hand in Undermining Democracy in Venezuela,” online at CEPR.net. Alexander Main, thank you very much for joining us today on CounterSpin.
AM: Thank you, it was a pleasure.
‘DC Has Been Consistently Out of Touch With the Reality of the Borderlands’ - CounterSpin interview with Debbie Weingarten on the already existing border wall
Janine Jackson interviewed Debbie Weingarten about the already existing border wall for the January 11, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: Only the easily surprised can be surprised that, gifted by the networks with a primetime platform with which to explain what emergency at the US/Mexico border necessitates the extended partial shutdown of the US government, Donald Trump delivered familiar hate-mongering and falsehoods, all in service of his notion of a “border wall,” which, it’s been recently reported, was intended as just a sort of mnemonic device advisers gave Trump as a candidate to remind him to “talk tough” on immigration.
Factchecking is fine as far as it goes, but were media to devote less attention to rhetoric and more to the reality of life as lived along the US southern border, any conversation about walls could at least be grounded in an understanding of the barriers that already exist, with significant impacts on the community and the environment.
Our next guest’s recent work reflects those concerns. Reporter Debbie Weingarten is a fellow for Talk Poverty and for the Center for Community Change. She joins us now by phone from Tucson, Arizona. Welcome to CounterSpin, Debbie Weingarten.
Debbie Weingarten: Thanks for having me.
JJ: Whether it’s discussed as a dumb idea or a great idea, an expensive idea, the construction of a wall on the border of the US and Mexico is generally discussed as an idea. In your recent piece for Talk Poverty—I also saw it on Truth Out—you illustrate that the conversation really isn’t about building a wall, but building another wall, or more wall. Can you talk about the nature, physical and otherwise, of the already-existing barriers at the US/Mexico border?
DW: Right. The US/Mexico border spans about 2,000 miles, and of that, about 700 miles is covered in some sort of barriers. That looks different depending on where you are. In some areas, it’s more of a fence, and in other places, it’s an actual steel wall.
I’ll note that I live in Tucson, which is about 60 miles north of Nogales and the US/Mexico border. And Nogales used to essentially be one town that stretched across both sides of the border. But after Operation Gatekeeper began in the early ’90s, as part of the Clinton administration’s plan to curb undocumented immigration, there’s a huge rusty wall that went up, and literally just sliced the town in half.
So the wall is—to give you a sense of what it looks like—it’s made out of old rusty Vietnam War landing strip. It is in some places 30 feet tall. So it changed the landscape dramatically.
JJ: And there are walls, also, in the sense of there are cameras and there is monitoring and there are other things that we might not think of as a wall, but they certainly are effective barriers to movement.
DW: Absolutely, yeah, and that’s one thing that I think is missing in the national conversation: just how militarized our communities, our border communities, have become. Beyond just walls, we have drones and we have surveillance towers and Border Patrol checkpoints and underground sensors. It’s more than just a wall.
JJ: Well, I wanted to pick up on some of the history that you just were noting. You pointed out, in a piece back in the spring, that when Trump is threatening to send troops to the border, that that would not in fact be the first time that had happened.
Here, as elsewhere, Trump’s actions are brazen, and may represent an escalation, but they aren’t wholly original. And when it comes to border issues, we can point to a few key moments in policy that have shaped the situation that you’re describing now.
And one of those, as you just mentioned, was Operation Gatekeeper, and this idea of “prevention through deterrence.” I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the ongoing impacts of that policy.
DW: The Operation Gatekeeper was, again, the Clinton administration’s attempt to curb undocumented immigration. That was essentially an attempt to seal urban areas along the border. And that accompanied a strategy by the Border Patrol, called “prevention through deterrence,” which, essentially, they were hoping that by sealing urban areas, that migrants would be deterred from crossing the border.
But what we know—in our lived daily lives, here on the borderlands—we know that that tactic just pushed border crossers further out into the desert. So—and again, hard to imagine, maybe, being someplace else—but this desert is beautiful, but it’s rugged and it’s inhospitable. In the summer, we have temperatures that can reach 120 degrees, and in the winter, it can dip below freezing at night. And we have summer monsoon storms. So it’s very, very rugged, and “prevention through deterrence” simply pushed people out into the desert, sometimes to their deaths. So at this point, over 7,000 bodies have been found in our desert, and thousands more are missing.
JJ: I’ve heard you and others even allude to the idea of “weaponizing the desert,” and that would seem to be what you’re evoking with that expression.
DW: Right. I think that the the people who live in the borderlands feel that not only are there weapons, literal weapons, being carried by troops and Border Patrol agents along our border and in our borderlands, but that the desert itself has been used against border crossers. So they’re counting on the cactus and the lack of water and the rocks that people twist their ankles on, and the wildlife, and rattlesnakes, to keep people out.
JJ: Since Operation Gatekeeper and this “prevention through deterrence,” we’ve also seen follow-up from subsequent administrations. Things like the Real ID Act in 2005, and the Secure Fence Act. And I know that in addition to the human impact, and of course it’s all related, but these have also had effects on the natural environment in border areas.
DW: Right. So one of the provisions in the Real ID Act of 2005 was that it included a provision that gives the Secretary of Homeland Security the power to waive any federal or state law that they felt was at odds with, and I’m going to quote here, “the expeditious construction of physical barriers and roads” along the US/Mexico border.
So that meant that federal laws, really important federal laws, are essentially off the books in certain parts of the border.
So really basic environmental protections like Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, really obvious and backbone environmental protections, are no longer intact along the border, which means that border residents are living in communities with fewer environmental and human rights protections.
And then again, I mean, consequences to the natural environment. The Sonoran Desert is the most biologically diverse desert in the United States. It’s home to all kinds of threatened species, including jaguars and Mexican gray wolves, ocelots. So the barrier, any barrier really, has the potential to threaten habitat, food access, access to mates, seasonal migration, what happens when you prevent species from moving. So I think that that is something really important to note, and it’s a place where the environmental community, the human rights community and the indigenous communities have really come together against border militarization for these reasons.
JJ: Just to follow up on that, I know you’ve also written about the particular impact on indigenous communities there, who are especially affected by some of these environmental changes.
DW: Right. The Tohono O’odham tribe spans the US/Mexico border, so they have members on both sides of the border. And up until Operation Gatekeeper, they could freely cross the border. They basically maintain that any barrier or border is against their way of life, and since Operation Gatekeeper, and the increased militarization of the border, they have Border Patrol agents all over their community.
I spoke with one activist, April Ignacio, who is awesome. And she told me all kinds of stories about tribal members who are pulled over by the Border Patrol while collecting basket-weaving materials, or harvesting saguaro fruit in the summertime, or hunting for ceremony. So it has a huge impact on on the tribal communities here.
JJ: So environmental rules being softened or even waived is one of the ways that the border is seen as, and spoken of, as a kind of zone of exception. And then the actions of the Border Patrol would seem to be another.
I just want to ask you, what would you hope for people to understand about the day-to-day effects, the daily life impacts of border militarization and other forms of barrier building, for people living where you live?
DW: I think the impact of this on our daily life is huge. Really specific examples include rural residents and farmers that have to stop at Border Patrol checkpoints just to go to the grocery store, every time they leave their homes.
Again, indigenous people having guns pulled on them while they’re out hunting. There’s a high degree of racial profiling. People of color, again, indigenous communities are most impacted. I always think the about the ACLU, which refers to the border as a “Constitution-free zone,” because the Border Patrol can essentially operate a hundred miles from the border with extra-constitutional powers, beyond just normal law enforcement.
So I think it’s worth noting that the other thing that this does is it leaves our communities to respond to a humanitarian crisis caused by inhumane policy at the federal level.
So our community members are the ones putting water in the desert for migrants who are in distress, and documenting Border Patrol abuses, supporting families who are getting released from detention in the middle of the night. So I think it’s worth noting that most people who live near the border do not support a wall.
JJ: That’s very significant, and I would hope, just finally, something for journalists to follow up on. Are there any things that you would like to see reporters doing more of, or doing less of?
DW: I would love to see more folks from these communities, reporters from these communities, being able to tell the stories of their own communities. You know, it’s hard when journalists are flown in and try to get a lay of the land, just in a day or two.
I do think that there is the painting by the Trump administration that the borderlands are just violent and out of control, and there are lots of other things that we are worried about.
We largely do not want a wall, and we largely do not want more militarization. I think that DC has been consistently out of touch with the reality of the borderlands, as we’ve seen by increased militarization. And I think that the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump administration takes us to a whole new level, and fuels hate speech and it fuels violence. So we on the borderlands do not want to be a pawn in that game.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with reporter Debbie Weingarten. You can find her article, “We Already Have a Border Wall. It’s an Environmental Disaster,” online at TalkPoverty.org. Debbie Weingarten, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
DW: Thank you so much for having me.
A president facing a major scandal, just as the highest-profile trial is about to begin, pardons the indicted or convicted officials around him to effectively stop the investigation that’s closing in on his own illegal conduct.
Trump soon? We’ll see. But this actually describes what President George H.W. Bush did in 1992.
The Iran/Contra scandal revealed, among other things, that the Reagan/Bush White House had secretly sold missiles to Iran in exchange for hostages held in Lebanon, using the proceeds to fund right-wing forces fighting the leftist Nicaraguan government in violation of US law.
On Christmas Eve 1992, just as the indicted former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger was about to face trial, Bush pardoned him and five others, including former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and and former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane. The New York Times (12/25/92) reported this as “Bush Pardons 6 in Iran Affair, Averting a Weinberger Trial; Prosecutor Assails ‘Cover-Up.'”
The attorney general for Bush who approved the pardons, William Barr, is now being nominated for the same position by Trump. Is this background relevant? Though current news columns are rife with speculation that Trump might likewise protect himself by pardoning his indicted or convicted associates, the dominant US news wire service doesn’t seem to think so.
In “Barr as Attorney General: Old Job, Very Different Washington” (1/14/19), Associated Press reporter Eric Tucker made no mention whatsoever of the Iran/Contra pardons. Rather than seriously examine the trajectory of presidential power and accountability, Tucker framed the story, as the headline indicates, as a stark contrast between the gentlemanly Bush and the “twice-divorced” Trump:
Serving Trump, who faces intensifying investigations from the department Barr would lead, is unlikely to compare with his tenure under President George H.W. Bush.
The false implication is that Bush did not himself face intensifying investigations from Lawrence Walsh, who operated out of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Counsel. The misleading comparison is compounded by Tucker describing Trump as “breaking with the practice of shielding law enforcement from political influence” and ousting Attorney General Jeff Sessions for “not protecting him in the Russia investigation”—as if Barr didn’t have direct experience in the first Bush administration with imposing political influence on law enforcement to protect a president from investigation.
Instead, Tucker cites Barr’s supporters calling him “driven by his commitment to the department” and “very much a law-and-order guy.” (The praise for the new head of the department Tucker regularly covers marks his article as a “beat-sweetener,” a long and unfortunate tradition of journalists’ making their jobs easier by sucking up to sources.)
This deceptive piece was apparently picked up by literally thousands of media outlets. A search of “unlikely to compare with his tenure under President George H.W. Bush” produces over 2,400 results.
The Republican independent counsel [Lawrence Walsh] infuriated the GOP when he submitted a second indictment of Weinberger on the Friday before the 1992 elections. The indictment contained documents revealing that President Bush had been lying for years with his claim that he was “out of the loop” on the Iran/Contra decisions. The ensuing furor dominated the last several days of the campaign and sealed Bush’s defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton.
Walsh had discovered, too, that Bush had withheld his own notes about the Iran/Contra Affair, a discovery that elevated the President to a possible criminal subject of the investigation. But Bush had one more weapon in his arsenal. On Christmas Eve 1992, Bush destroyed the Iran/Contra probe once and for all by pardoning Weinberger and five other convicted or indicted defendants.
Parry, who died a year ago, left AP after many of his stories on Iran/Contra were squashed (Consortium News, 1/28/18).
After I criticized AP on Twitter for the omission, a later piece by Tucker, co-written with Michael Balsamo, noted perfunctorily in the 16th graph: “As attorney general in 1992, he endorsed Bush’s pardons of Reagan administration officials in the Iran/Contra scandal.” (A search on “as attorney general in 1992, he endorsed Bush’s pardons of Reagan administration officials in the Iran/Contra scandal” produced a mere 202 results.)
While much of the media obsesses over every bit of “Russiagate,” some breathlessly anticipating the next revelation will surely bring down the Trump presidency, it’s remarkable how little interest there is in the trajectory of presidential power.
Rather, much of the establishment media has gone to great lengths to rehabilitate officials from both Bush administrations, including the elder Bush himself when he died last month. (One exception to the generally hagiographic coverage of his death was Arun Gupta’s “Let’s Talk About George H.W. Bush’s Role in the Iran/Contra Scandal”— in The Intercept, 12/7/18.) Indeed, Trump naming Barr just after George H.W. Bush’s funeral could be seen as a jiu-jitsu move: How could anyone object to his nominating the AG of the just-sainted Poppy Bush? It’s as though Trump were saying, “If you all like him so much, I’ll have what he had.” See the Institute for Public Accuracy news release, “Barr as AG? Bush and Trump Dovetail.”
AP‘s actions also fit into the institution-protecting mode of what Parry derided as the “conventional wisdom”—which in its current formulation depicts Trump’s authoritarian tendencies as aberrations from the norms of US politics, rather than a continuation of the worst tendencies of his predecessors.
Nationwide, marijuana legalization is becoming more normal. Colorado’s dispensaries are hailed as an economic success story, and other states are following suit—New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has indicated he’ll support legalization after New York City’s choice to gradually decriminalize the drug. The trend is global: Canada recently joined Uruguay in fully legalizing cannabis, and Lebanon is also mulling legalization.
Marijuana legalization has always had its opponents—including the alcohol lobby, which wants to protect its monopoly on legal intoxicants, and the prison/industrial complex, which fears a decrease in the number of nonviolent drug offenders who keep jail cells full. Now the reactionaries have another champion athwart history: former New York Times journalist Alex Berenson.
In a pair of op-eds in the New York Times (1/4/19) and the Wall Street Journal (1/4/19) promoting his new anti-marijuana book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence, Berenson—whose main literary success has been authorship of War on Terror fiction thrillers—flipped the news on its head. Legalization advocates, whom he calls corporate campaigners aiming to set up new businesses for profit, have sold the American people a false image of a perfect and absolutely safe product, and states are taking their cue from them and no one else.
Berenson’s insistence that marijuana is linked to mental illness and violent behavior, as well as to the use of more dangerous drugs, comes with spritely portrayals of pot users who have also committed heinous crimes—“who’d cut up his grandmother or set fire to his apartment.” In Mother Jones (1/5/19), reporter Stephanie Mencimer conveys Berenson’s research with a tidbit about British colonial officials who chalked up a fifth of mental patients in Raj-era India as victims of pot-related injury. (Pot-smoking led to “at least one beheading”—if one trusts the public-health expertise of 19th century colonial occupiers, as Berenson seems to.)
Jesse Singal in New York magazine (1/7/19) noted that Berenson’s claims about pot-provoked violence are grounded in egregious cherry-picking. His Times op-ed asserts, “The first four states to legalize—Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington—have seen sharp increases in murders and aggravated assaults since 2014.” But as drug policy expert Mark Kleiman told Singal, “Nothing interesting happened with regard to pot in 2014”—it’s just a low-point in the national homicide rate that can be used to create the illusion of a meaningful uptick.
More systematic attempts to look at violence rates in conjunction with changes in marijuana laws don’t seem to back up Berenson’s alarmism. A study in the Economic Journal (9/6/17) found that “when a state on the Mexican border legalized medical use of the drug, violent crime fell by 13 percent on average,” according to a write-up in the Guardian (1/13/18). A paper in the Journal of Drug Issues (1/13/16) likewise found “no evidence of negative spillover effects from medical marijuana laws (MMLs) on violent or property crime,” but rather “significant drops in rates of violent crime associated with state MMLs.”
In short, Berenson is good at cherry-picking a few crazy examples of where pot use has been linked to violence, with questionable evidence. In light of the mountain of evidence linking the legal drug alcohol to violence on a much grander scale, we have to ask: What is Berenson’s point, other than to denounce a peaceful transition to legal and regulated drug consumption?
Paul Arementano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law, challenged Berenson’s assertions about a clear-cut link between marijuana use and schizophrenia. He said in an email:
Many scientific experts in the field attribute any association between cannabis and psychiatric illness to shared vulnerability, not unlike the association that exists between tobacco use and psychiatric illness.
Indeed, people with schizophrenia smoke tobacco at double or triple the rate of the public at large—but this provokes a debate over whether a craving for nicotine is a side effect of psychiatric symptoms, or whether the elevated use might mean patients actually find it helpful in self-medicating schizophrenia (World Journal of Psychiatry, 3/22/15), rather than an automatic assumption that correlation implies causality.
Arementano also takes issue with Berenson’s dismissal of the medical value of marijuana:
His claims with regard to a supposed lack of established therapeutic efficacy also lack merit, as the cannabis plant is recognized by statute as a medicine in a majority of US states and various compounds of the plant are approved in FDA-marketed medicines. A recent review of FDA-approved clinical trials assessing the safety and efficacy of whole-plant cannabis in various patient populations determined: “Based on evidence currently available the Schedule I classification is not tenable; it is not accurate that cannabis has no medical value, or that information on safety is lacking.”
As for Berenson’s point about corporate campaigners, there is a completely valid set of questions for those genuinely concerned about racial justice: how white entrepreneurs are poised to make millions while black and brown people remain in jail. Some states are insisting any profiteering be paired with release, but there is still painful irony in seeing former Republican House Speaker John Boehner flacking for corporate marijuana growers (New York Times, 4/19/18) while nearly 80 percent of people still in prison on federal drug offenses are black of Latino, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. However, this injustice is not Berenson’s concern.
Berenson’s cannabis alarm-raising is not a new genre. In New York, Inside City Hall host Errol Louis (Daily News, 4/24/18) has warned against the “perils of legal pot,” and the New York Post (12/30/18) promoted the press-savvy former New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton’s view that legalizing marijuana would be “opening up Pandora’s box.” Berenson is taking it too a wider, national level. Says Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing:
The backlash is driven in part because a whole generation of neoconservatives have rested their ideology on the idea that all the problems in the world are the result of unregulated individualism, and anything that loosens people’s freedom around drugs, sexuality, gender and race is going to unleash a Pandora’s Box of more relativism. They want to fight the marijuana legalization battle because it could lead to further progressive social reforms.
Despite Berenson’s fear-stoking, he claims that he is no prohibitionist, but rather believes in some sort of half-measure by keeping it unlawful while reducing the penalties: “If arrests for marijuana possession are a major racial justice concern, the solution is decriminalizing possession, turning it into a violation equivalent to littering,” he wrote in his Times op-ed:
But advocacy groups don’t view decriminalization as an acceptable compromise. They want full legalization, making marijuana a state-regulated and -taxed drug that businesses can sell and profit from.
But it isn’t simply jail that black people fear in the drug war. Philando Castile was murdered by a police officer who claimed to have smelled marijuana smoke in his car during a traffic stop, and countless other black men who have become martyrs in the Black Lives Matter movement were initially accused of petty “quality of life” infractions. (Eric Garner was choked to death on the street because he was accused of selling “loose” cigarettes.) Berenson seems oblivious to the danger posed by anything that incentivizes interaction between cops and communities of color.
And as Vitale noted, even things like fines and penalties fall more harshly on those who can least afford them—to say nothing of the way guilty pleas for petty crimes can be used against individuals later on in their lives. Kristian Williams, author of Our Enemies in Blue, told FAIR:
Decriminalization would be a happy medium for white college kids, but not for everyone else. It’s not unusual for traffic violations to become a chance for the police to stop, question and search, and often arrest, people of color more disproportionately than white people. Once the pretext for the stop is there, there is a lot of discretion left to the officer.
In New York City, for example, which has ostensibly already undergone decriminalization, racial injustice endures. As the Daily News (1/8/19) reported, “In all, 89 percent of all new Yorkers arrested for smoking marijuana last year through November 23 were either black or Hispanic.”
Berenson falls into a familiar trap of conceiving that the only way society can confront a public health concern is through some sort of criminalization, a symptom of our neoliberal hegemony—overlooking how many advocates for legalization actually do want the marijuana industry to be regulated, taxed and unionized. Of course, like any psychoactive substance, marijuana use has both positive and negative effects, all of which should be studied and monitored—which is also true about wine, butter or the vast majority of prescription drugs we take. A normal, functioning industrial state would regulate these things through the appropriate channels, like food and drug rules, environmental agencies and the like.
But the erosion of the social safety net since the rise of Reaganism coincided with the intense militarization of policing in the War on Drugs, creating a world where the state is only strong when it’s punishing rather than protecting the public at large, with the latter seen as a socialist boondoggle. Berenson’s attachment to this Cold War logic suggests he has failed to demilitarize his mind.
The fact is, Berenson’s alarms actually make the case for full legalization. “With legalization,” said Vitale,
people know what they’re getting and it generates tax revenues for economic programs that replace the black market drug economy You reduce the kind of organized criminality in the whole process. There still remains a lot of grossly inaccurate hysteria of any potential harms of marijuana, but even if there are secondary risks, those risks are much smaller than those of all kinds of legal activity.
What’s good enough for alcohol — which is linked to domestic violence, vehicular fatalities and liver disease — is good enough for marijuana. But that logic probably wouldn’t have landed Berenson a book deal.
by Gregory Shupak
In December, President Donald Trump said that he planned to withdraw the US troops from Syria, which number between 2,000 and 4,000. Trump’s claim was widely condemned in corporate media, demonstrating the commentariat’s shared belief in American benevolence toward other peoples, in Washington’s alleged right and duty to decide other countries’ fates, and in the forever war the US supposedly has to wage in the Middle East.ISIS, Iran and Russia
One consistent theme in the coverage was the view that US troops need to stay in Syria because ISIS still exists. Another is that US forces must remain there because the governments of Russia, Syria and Iran want the US to leave.
A New York Times editorial (12/19/18) said it would be “dangerous” for the US to withdraw from Syria. “No one wants American troops deployed in a war zone longer than necessary,” the editors claimed. The paper endorsed the perspective that “the job” of fighting ISIS “is not yet done,” going on to write that
an American withdrawal would also be a gift to Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader…. Another beneficiary is Iran, which has also expanded its regional footprint.
According to this view, the US should get out of Syria once a US presence there is no longer “necessary,” but it’s “necessary” until some unspecified benchmark for annihilating ISIS has been reached, and never mind the costs to Syria: A US-led bombing ostensibly aimed at ISIS leveled Raqqa, a major Syrian city, killing and injuring civilians en masse in what former Defense Secretary James Mattis called a “war of annihilation.”
It’s also apparently “necessary” to stay until Syria has a government that is not allied with Russia or Iran, even though in practice this pursuit has contradicted the goal the editors just outlined, eliminating ISIS: US efforts to help bring down the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, as well as the US invasion of Iraq, helped create the conditions for the emergence of ISIS in Syria.
What the authors are suggesting is that the US should maintain an illegal presence in Syria until the Syrian government has been overthrown and replaced with one that has partnerships to which the US assents. Because all evidence suggests that Russia will fight to keep its Syrian partner in power, in practical terms the authors are arguing that it’s “necessary” for the US to occupy Syria forever, or until the US fights World War III with Russia.
In an article headlined “Retreat Rhymes With Defeat,” the Times’ David Leonhardt (12/20/18) argued that the US needs to stay in Syria because Islamic State fighters are reportedly still in the country, and echoed the view that a US pullout of Syria would be “‘the greatest gift’ that Trump has so far given to Russia”—a reference to the conspiracy theory that Trump is a Russian tool—because a US drawdown would benefit the Russian-allied Syrian government. Like Times editors, Leonhardt argued the US should stay in Syria not only until there are no ISIS fighters left in the country, but also until the Syrian government is replaced with one that is not partnered with Russia.
But, again, US efforts to broker regime change in Syria were a cause of ISIS becoming a powerful force in the country: The UK-based Conflict Armament Research found that the US had been supplying arms to insurgents opposed to the Assad government since at least 2012, and when ISIS began rapidly seizing territory in 2013 and 2014, many US-armed rebel groups were either defeated by the incoming militants or joined them. As ISIS took nearly half of Syria, the US continued to train and equip Syrian rebels, using allies like Jordan and Turkey as intermediaries.
Similarly, a Washington Post editorial (12/19/18) headlined “This Is Not the Way to Leave Syria” complained that “the Syria withdrawal hands Tehran and its ally Russia a windfall.” This suggests that the editors believe “the way to leave Syria” is with a new government approved by the US in place, or at least with the current one ousted—a gambit that the US last pulled off in Libya, a country that now has slavery, with some slaves reportedly having their organs harvested and sold.
The Post’s Max Boot (12/19/18) claimed that Trump’s supposed plan to get US troops out of Syria amounted to “handing a Christmas present to the mullahs”—“the mullahs” being a lazy, orientalist shorthand for the Iranian government used by people who know little about the country. The author has so internalized imperialist ideology that he thinks the US has a right to indefinitely control one-third of Syria, including half of its energy resources and much of its best agricultural land, because it could benefit Iran if the US did not do that.Israel & the Kurds
Much of the coverage complained that the US pulling out of Syria would be bad for Israel, in that Iran will likely retain influence in Syria. “The American withdrawal worries Israel,” said the Times’ editorial. Trump “promised to protect Israel, but that nation will now be left to face alone the buildup by Iran and its proxies along its northern border,” the Post’s howled. “So much for Trump’s conceit that he is the most pro-Israel president ever,” Boot moaned, going on to write that
A US withdrawal from Syria will entrench the Islamic Republic of Iran on Israel’s doorstep. That damage vastly outweighs the empty symbolism of moving the US embassy to Jerusalem.
Whatever these pundits’ delusions, the Israeli state is not some kind of vulnerable minority that needs to be protected from violence; it is a nuclear-armed perpetrator of extraordinary violence—against the Palestinians, of course, and also against states in the region, including Syria.
US media say they are concerned that Turkey will attack the Syrian Kurds, and that the US should stay in Syria to protect them. The Times wrote that “Among the biggest losers” of an American pullout
are likely to be the Kurdish troops that the United States has equipped and relied on to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, considers many of the Kurds to be terrorists bent on destroying his country.
For the Post, “The Syrian Kurdish forces . . . will be perhaps the foremost victims of Mr. Trump’s decision. Betrayed by Washington, they will now be subject to a military offensive by Turkey.” Boot said that “America’s Kurdish and Arab allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces will be hard-put to resist [ISIS] on their own, much less deal with the Turkish threat against the Kurds.”
It is true that Turkey poses a threat to Kurdish people, and the risks facing Kurds merit concern, but the analysts mislead readers by suggesting a US occupation of Syria is the answer. The US military’s function is not to protect civilians—just the opposite, in fact. And a US presence in Syria has not kept the Kurds safe from Turkey: Turkey, along with armed groups opposed to the Syrian government that the US supported, ransacked Afrin, a Kurdish-majority territory in northern Syria, plundering the area and driving out 220,000 civilians. Moreover, throughout the 1990s, the US directly participated in Turkey’s mass killing and oppression of Kurds in Turkey.
The prospect of the Syrian Kurds making alliances with local forces that could result in protecting them from Turkey, as the Kurds appear to have done with the Syrian government, is a part of the story these pundits don’t think their readers need to hear about. None of these commentators who are professing concern for the welfare of Kurdish people consider the possibility that the only long-term way to ensure the safety and prosperity of the Kurds, and every other ethnic and confessional group in West Asia, might be a comprehensive, region-wide solution that necessarily entails upending the US-dominated order, replacing it with local self-rule. At no point do any of these articles consider the radical notion that the US has no right to determine Syria’s affairs, or those of any other country.Fear Not, Pundit Class
There is ample reason to doubt that Trump will actually withdraw from Syria entirely. Trump said he would remove the troops in March 2018 (CNN, 3/29/18) and didn’t follow through, and the administration is again sending mixed signals. National Security Advisor John Bolton said that American forces will “eliminate what remains of ISIS before leaving,” “there is no fixed timetable for completing the drawdown,” and “some 200 US troops will remain in the vicinity of al-Tanf, in southern Syria, to counter growing Iranian activity in the region.” More recently, the military said that it moving ahead with plans to withdraw all troops, with one Pentagon official saying, “We don’t take orders from Bolton.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the “US will expel every last Iranian boot from Syria.” Trump himself won’t commit to a date for removing the troops, saying only that this will supposedly happen “over a period of time.” Subsequently, a spokesperson for the US-led coalition against ISIS said it has begun leaving, though it “will not discuss specific timelines,” and Reuters (1/11/19) noted that “residents near border crossings that are typically used by US forces going in and out of Syria from Iraq said they had seen no obvious or large-scale movement of US ground forces on Friday.”
Even if the US were to pull its troops out of Syria, it’s far from certain that this will mean the US will stop meddling. If the US holds on to its bases in Syria, continues to use Syrian air space, or fails to withdraw the more than 5,500 private contractors it has in the country, then that’s not a withdrawal from Syria.
Nor is there reason to believe that US allies will take their hands off Syria: For example, the day after Trump’s announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that Israel would increase its efforts against Iran in Syria “in a very decisive way and with support and backup from the US”; on Christmas Day, Israel bombed Damascus.
Thus, all of the media’s fretting about a possible scaling back of America’s empire may well have been over nothing.
This week on CounterSpin: Whether as a boondoggle, a cartoon or a mindless chant for the two-minute hate—”building a wall” at the US/Mexico border is an abstraction for many Americans, a political plot point. Among those for whom it is not that? People who live in the borderlands—and those who listen to those who do. We’ll talk with reporter Debbie Weingarten about the walls that already exist on the Southern border.PlayStop pop out
Also on the show: Speaking of cartoons, trying to get a sensible understanding of Venezuela from US news media is like studying the Vietnam War by watching Rambo. We’ll decipher coverage of the reelection of President Nicolas Maduro with Alexander Main, director of international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.PlayStop pop out
FAIR is ready for 2019!
Dear FAIR friend,
FAIR’s year-end fundraiser was a complete success—barrelling past our $50,000 goal and setting us up for a strong 2019.
Thank you to everyone who helped us achieve our target!
It means so much to us to go to work knowing that people support the research and analysis we do to challenge the bias and pandering of corporate media.
You can see from the first of the new year that we’re off to a great start, with articles and interviews like:
- WaPo, USA Today, NBC Go Full Breitbart on ‘Prisoners Eating Steak’ Non-Story, by Adam Johnson
- A Tough Time to Be a Spy, NPR Reports, by Belen Fernandez
- CounterSpin: Chip Gibbons on Defending Dissent, ‘People Are Mobilizing Against This Crackdown’
- If You Pave It, They Will Come, by Pete Tucker
- CounterSpin: Tim Karr on Net Neutrality, ‘There’s a Disconnect Between DC and What People Actually Want’
With the financial support of our media activists, we can combat corporate media’s efforts to restrict our world view—and move toward the project of an informed democracy.
Thank you for your part in this important work.
The staff of FAIR,
Janine, Jim & Deborah
Today, US politics (and those of close allies) are much like the Upside-Down of Stranger Things: an inversion of how things should be, and a shadowy ghost world where logic goes to be torn apart by terrifying monsters.
Want proof? How often have you heard someone claim that the “real fascists” are anti-fascists? Even after the fascist riot and murder at Charlottesville, Frontpage (8/10/18), the Daily Caller (8/20/18) and Daily Mail (3/26/18) argued just that.
The American Conservative (8/16/17), meanwhile, blared that antifa, the militant anti-fascist movement, is “The Other Evil Political Force.”
And it’s not just right-wing outlets making such claims. Days after that fascist slaying of Heather Heyer, the Washington Post (8/30/17) finger-wagged, “Yes, Antifa Is the Moral Equivalent of Neo-Nazis.” The Chicago Tribune (8/27/17) warned that “The Democratic Silence on Antifa Is Dangerous,” while Chicago’s Daily Herald (9/12/17) said, “Yes, Antifa Is Dangerous—but Not to Fascists.”
Even BBC News (8/14/17) joined in, saying
many conservatives say blame [for violence in Charlottesville] should be shared by Antifa…. Antifa does not shy away from militant protest methods, including the destruction of property and sometimes physical violence…. Much like the far-right, chapters of Antifa are loosely connected and highly secretive.
The article sympathetically cites calls “to label Antifa a terror organization,” and says “Antifa’s roots go back almost as far as Nazis,” an implication of real-world equivalence about as logical as nudge-winking that since a group of firefighters arrived shortly after a fire began, there must be something “arson-y” about them. FAIR (9/13/17) has demonstrated just how often corporate news pushed the antifascist/fascist upside-down equivalence:
Between August 12 and September 12, these papers ran 28 op-eds or editorials condemning the anti-fascist movement known as Antifa, or calling on politicians to do so, and 27 condemning neo-Nazis and white supremacists, or calling on politicians—namely Donald Trump—to do so.
The ideological and operational differences between those who want to start a race war and those who want to stop one ought to be galactically obvious. To find out why they’re not—at least to corporate journalists—I spoke with Daryle Lamont Jenkins, the founder of the Nazi-exposing One People’s Project. After he trained participants in anti-fascist investigation at a conference I’d helped organize at the University of Alberta in September, I asked him what corporate journalists got wrong about fascists and anti-fascists. He said:
The biggest thing they get wrong is making it as if it is just between the two sides. Fascism impacts society at large. It doesn’t just hurt activists opposed to them. But because they write otherwise, people generally think that what is going on doesn’t directly impact [them], and they are not harmed.
Jenkins also noted that corporate journalists generally try to avoid addressing the topic of fascism altogether, as with the October 2018 removal of a Viking statue in Philadelphia:
Everyone had an opinion on that, but that same energy was not apparent as neo-Nazis made an annual event over the past 11 years out of something they called the “Leif Erikson Day Celebration” at that statue. Even as they reported on the statue, they mentioned it in passing, and only as a possible reason for it being in the river…. This kind of obtuse reporting—if they report at all—goes on a lot, and it serves no one and nothing except to protect the Nazis.
Jenkins himself has been the target of false-equivalence journalism, as with Michelle Goldberg’s profile headlined “The Public Face of Antifa” in Slate (8/11/17), which maintained that it’s “not easy” to “explain the shadowy group’s violent tactics”—never mind that Antifa is a movement, not a group. Goldberg’s description of a pre-Charlottesville confrontation blends fascists and their enemies as if they were one:
During the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last July, the city’s central plaza became an ideological Star Wars canteen. Burly Christian fundamentalists hoisted signs denouncing Islam a few feet from a publicity-seeking Muslim with an AR-15 slung across his back. Clusters of communists chanted “America was never great!” while Bikers for Trump paraded around in MAGA hats.
The piece later concedes that Antifa is actually “a loose network,” but stresses that these “militant left-wing activists…physically square off against the far right.” (Primed by the subhead’s reference to “the shadowy group’s violent tactics,” most readers will assume that “physically” means “violently”—when most often it just means “physically present” for nonviolent counter-protesting.)
While Goldberg’s piece eventually provides greater nuance, she repeats the extreme-right canard that the real free-speech struggle is between extremists on the right—usually those calling for ethnic cleansing and genocide—and those who oppose them (everyone against ethnic cleansing and genocide). Goldberg confesses that
for many liberals—a category in which I include myself—Antifa’s willingness to use violence and eagerness to shut down right-wing speech seem both morally wrong and strategically obtuse.
Given the abundance of white supremacist violence that corporate media typically underplays or misrepresents, up to and including mass murder (FAIR.org, 3/29/18), Goldberg’s article was strikingly short on examples of Antifa’s “willingness to use violence.”
And it’s not just any speech that Antifa activists oppose: It’s the call for racist violence and murder. There’s a basic pattern to genocides, beginning with speech dehumanizing the eventual victims by comparing them to vermin, claiming they’re sexually deviant, and accusing them of moral, cultural and often intellectual inferiority. Such claims can justify, for instance, widespread imprisonment, and weekly or daily state execution of their population in the streets, or the kidnapping of thousands of their children, or their mass expulsion.
But despite a litany of lies from various prominent personalities about a threat to free speech, the white supremacist voice is growing only louder. In her GQ article, “How Free Speech Warriors Mainstreamed White Supremacists” (5/8/18), Mari Uyehara cites the Anti-Defamation League finding a 258 percent increase in white supremacist propaganda at US colleges between autumn 2016 and autumn 2017, and demonstrates the clear hypocrisy of right-wing so-called “Free Speech Warriors,” who are thunderously silent on attempts to criminalize the speech of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against the Israeli occupation of Palestine (New Arab, 8/3/17).
Those FSWs are equally silent now about how the government of Brazil, the world’s sixth-most populous country, is attacking free speech in universities. Amy Erica Smith reports in Vox (10/27/18) that even before the second round of the presidential election, Brazilian police staged (sometimes warrantless) raids at universities across the country to seize “materials belonging to students and professors” that allegedly violated electoral advertising laws, which forbid “publicity in public spaces.” While many seized materials name no candidates, police did confiscate a Universidade Federal Fluminense flag reading “UFF School of Law—Anti-Fascist” and handbills titled “Manifest in Defense of Democracy and Public Universities.” As Smith explains:
For those worrying about Brazilian democracy, these raids are some of the most troubling signs yet of the problems the country faces. They indicate the extremes of Brazilian political polarization: Anti-fascist and pro-democracy speech is now interpreted as illegal advertising in favor of one candidate (Fernando Haddad) and against another (Jair Bolsonaro). In the long run, the politicization of these two terms will hurt support for the idea of democracy, and bolster support for the idea of fascism.
Meanwhile, what is the speech that right-wing extremists and fascists are defending? GQ’s Mari Uyehara gives an example:
In Scotland, Mark “Count Dankula” Meechan was arrested and fined £800 for a YouTube video in which he taught a pug to mimic a Nazi salute to phrases such as “gas the Jews.” His punishment drew outcry from right-wing personalities Alex Jones, Paul Joseph Watson and Lauren Southern, and “classical liberals” like Dave Rubin, host of the YouTube show the Rubin Report.
US journalists aren’t the only ones taking their eye off the man behind the swastika-patterned curtain. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Sunday Edition also confused two entirely unalike forces. The second installment of its 2017–18 season included an evidence-free audio essay by Frances Lee (9/17/17), a US woman who claimed that queer, transgendered people of color are aiming for “supremacy,” saying she rejected the idea that “QTPOCs or any other marginalized groups deserve to dominate society.”
Of course, in Canada, 2017 began with a very real threat to free speech, thought and life: A white supremacist/Christianist terrorist shot and killed six (Muslim) Canadians in Quebec City. CBC ran the Lee audio essay mere weeks after a white supremacist at Charlottesville murdered anti-racist counter-protester Heather Heyer with his car. As the Washington Post (8/17/17) reported, but the CBC did not mention during its pearl-clutching fantasy about “QTPOC supremacy,” many Republican legislators have been pushing to legalize the weaponization of cars to kill protesters.
Although the CBC seemed indifferent to the distinction between pro- and anti-genocide activists, at least some other corporate news venues have taken the Nazi threat seriously. Swedish investigator Patrik Hermansson infiltrated meetings of the Richard Spencer–led Alt-Right Corporation, recording board member Jason Jorjani describing his “final solution” for the United States (New York Times, 9/19/17):
It’s gonna end with the expulsion of the majority of the migrants, including [Muslim] citizens…. It’s gonna end with concentration camps and expulsions and war at the cost of a few hundred million people.
Despite the abundance of evidence about the actual fascist threat, neither Lee nor the CBC presented a molecule of evidence that any “QTPOCs” have the power or the opportunity to establish “QTPOC” supremacy, whatever that would even mean. In fact, the program couldn’t quote a single “QTPOC” who even speaks in those terms. Meanwhile, thousands of heavily armed literal Nazis, supporters of the current president of the United States, have infiltrated the US armed forces (Daily Beast, 12/13/12) and police (The Grio, 5/12/15) in hopes of launching a race war and genocide. Yet Sunday Edition and Frances Lee would have us believe that the greatest threat to North America is Lee’s fantasy arising from her fear of having to “self-police what I say.”
So who’s going to stop these fascists planning racist Ragnarok? According to journalist and self-described anarchist Kim Kelly, it’s unlikely to be corporate news, despite some individual examples of excellent journalism (including in Slate itself, such as Inkoo Kang’s “Antifa Is Clickbait for Conspiracy Theorists,” 11/3/17). In her Medium article, “What the Media Gets Wrong About Antifa: Alt-Right Rallies Are Failing, Thanks to Anarchist Action—So Why Aren’t We Hearing About It?” (8/30/18), Kelly explained that achieving documented victories against fascists may not be as difficult as it seems:
The threat of doxxing by antifa has proven so effective at driving the alt-right underground that even neo-Nazi blowhard Spencer has whined that “Antifa is winning,” a sentiment he expressed back in March, but that seems to hold even more water in the wake of Unite the Right 2.
According to Kelly, anti-fascists are routing white nationalists across the United States (at least those in the streets; it’s a different matter for those in boardrooms, Senate hearings and the Oval Office); their demonstrations are shrinking, while the actions of counter-fascists are growing. So why don’t more people know of this wave of successes? According to Kelly, you can thank
liberal handwringing over the idea that antifa and the black bloc were being rude to and “attacking” journalists…. It is interesting seeing the way that Democrats and progressives react to the specter of militancy.
While armed racists, Islamophobes and antisemites are not invincible, they remain extremely dangerous, as Gregory Bush demonstrated by killing Maurice Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones in Kentucky on October 24, and Robert Bowers showed by massacring 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue on October 27.
Plenty of journalists have done excellent work exposing the scale and origins of the current Nazi threat and exploding the false equivalence. In the Salon story “Behind Dylann Roof’s Race War: The Highly Motivated Secret White Supremacy Movement Working Toward ‘the Battle of Armageddon’” (6/24/15), Laura Miller interviewed Stuart Wexler, author of America’s Secret Jihad: The Hidden History of Religious Terrorism in the United States. He explained that “‘Christian Identity’ militants” such as the racist mass-murderer Dylann Roof are not simply “lone wolf killings,” but “part of a larger plan” that aims at the white supremacist extermination of African-, Hispanic- and Jewish-Americans. As Wexler explains:
Christian Identity is a religious ideology rooted in the idea that Jews are actually the offspring of Satan…. Minority groups, especially African-Americans, are seen as subhuman, “mud people.”… The idea is that Jews have engaged in this deceptive, cosmic conspiracy to manipulate minorities against whites. And at the end of times, we’re going to get a race war…. Then white Europeans will live in a paradise.
As Wexler notes, the recruiters for these movements don’t usually announce racial extermination as their real goal, so they use anti-tax, anti-government and anti-immigrant grievances as the gateway ideologies to neo-Nazism.
So what about fascism in the White House itself? It seems few corporate journalists will dare to ask about that. “That’s actually an old problem, well before Trump even got there,” says Daryle Lamont Jenkins:
Right-wingers have people scared to address their racism. They perfected the art of denial, and throw temper tantrums that intimidate mainstreamers. What Trump did was to give the biggest hatemongers an even wider field to play in, and who do they hate the most? Antifa, because we don’t play that game. We call them out for who they are, and work to do something about them. Anyone who does that to a conservative is a threat, and they try to make them look like they are the most evil people on the planet.
How does Jenkins respond to reporters and others who claim that “the real fascists are antifa”? “It’s a dodge,” he says:
much like saying the Klan and Nazis were actually leftists. It’s something not rooted in education, obviously, but we have seen that stunt before. Ironically, the Nazi propaganda ministers would paint their enemies as the true aggressors, and not them.
The lesson for counter-fascists is clear: Expect no medals, but rather corporate media condemnation, for attempting what countless soldiers in “the Greatest Generation” sacrificed their lives for: the defeat of fascism.
Featured image by Rolando Aparicio Velasco/Street Sense.
Corporate Press Stoops to Absurdity to Balance Trump’s Border Wall Lies - Factcheck false equivalence, the sequel
Last month, FAIR (12/7/19) examined the absurd false equivalence that some factchecking sites, including the Washington Post’s Fact-Checker, sometimes engage in by comparing imprecise or accidental misstatements by left-wing politicians with the unprecedented and willful lies and conspiracy theories emanating from the current occupant of the Oval Office.
Coincidentally, the Post rolled out a new, even more extreme “Bottomless Pinocchios” rating (12/10/18)—which only Trump has qualified for, 14 times—three days after our post. And just this week, one of the targets of the Post’s false balance, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, addressed and linked to the column (cross-posted at Salon) on Twitter (1/7/19), to illustrate her comments about factchecking during a recent interview on CBS News’ 60 Minutes (1/6/19).
With all that prologue, you might think mainstream news organizations would be on high alert about the trap of tendentious equivocation when it came to covering Trump’s primetime immigration speech, and its Democratic response, on Tuesday night. But you would be wrong.
Barely an hour after the Democratic leaders Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi had completed their on-air response to Trump’s primetime address, the New York Times (1/9/19) had published a factcheck story that stooped to ridiculous nitpicking. Of the eight statements analyzed by the Times, the lone Democratic example had all the earmarks of being shoehorned on to the end to create some semblance of balance. After quoting Schumer’s statement that the ongoing government shutdown was “hurting millions of Americans who are treated as leverage,” the Times countered by saying, “This needs context.” But what followed was a surreal example of factchecking pedantry from the nation’s leading newspaper (emphasis added):
An estimated 800,000 federal workers are furloughed or working without pay because of the shutdown. While millions of Americans are not being directly harmed, there is a multiplier effect when considering family members of those whose jobs are affected. This also spills into the broader economy, harming business owners whose customers must cut back, tourism and travel.
Treating those federal workers who aren’t getting a paycheck as the only ones “directly harmed” by the ongoing shutdown is a shameful oversimplification, to say the least. To describe the families of federal workers who might go hungry because the federally employed member of their household has been furloughed—or worse, must work without pay—as a so-called “multiplier effect” is the very opposite of journalism’s comfort-the-afflicted ethos.
It also ignores the singular role the federal government plays in the life of our country and its citizens. Millions of Americans have already been put at risk from curtailed food and environmental safety inspections, reduced healthcare access in Native American communities, and the expiration of a low-income HUD program, which now threatens the housing status of thousands of people because of the shutdown.
All of this surreal narrative not-so-subtly flows from an impulse to imply that Democrats are exaggerating the shutdown’s impact in much the same way Trump is exaggerating the border crisis. This is both cruel and counterproductive “context” that muddies rather than clarifies. In effect, the paper’s blinkered, literalistic framing reinforces Trump’s fact-free spin on the shutdown, where he has claimed that any suffering is superficial and—without one iota of evidence—that the unpaid federal workers secretly support him.
But as bad as the Times factcheck was, it paled in comparison to this jaw-droppingly stupid example from the Associated Press (1/8/19).
AP FACTCHECK: Democrats put the blame for the shutdown on Trump. But it takes two to tango. Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion for his border wall is one reason for the budget impasse. The Democrats refusal to approve the money is another.
The facile logic on display here is so untethered from any basic grounding in how political power works according to our Constitution that it might just float out into space. The warped framing effectively removes any of Congress’s agency in governing other than to rubberstamp the President’s wishes. On Twitter, the AP’s tweet was quickly and mercilessly ratioed, as thousands of people cheekily responded with their own similarly vapid analogies. (Kidnapper-and-hostage scenarios were a popular choice.)
Of course, this “factcheck”—pulled from a piece co-authored by AP’s Calvin Woodward, who has a long history of factcheck false equivalence—completely elides the fact that the government shutdown began while the Republicans still controlled both houses of Congress. In fact, the GOP-led Senate unanimously passed a bill funding the remaining portion of the government on December 19, but only after Trump abruptly changed his mind and signaled he would not sign that bill were it to reach his desk, did the Republican House (barely) pass a different funding bill that included appropriations for a border wall. That bill was dead on arrival in the Senate, and then the money ran out. In other words, the origins of the shutdown can be directly laid at the feet of the president’s own stubbornness and legislative bumbling.
Not to mention the fact that Trump publicly boasted about his desire to shut down the government in a bipartisan leadership meeting: “I will be the one to shut it down,” he declared in a meeting with Schumer and Pelosi (Politico, 12/11/18). “I am proud to shut down the government for border security.”
What’s more, the new Democratic majority in the House has already passed a government funding bill—albeit one different than the one passed by the Senate in the last Congress—so to imply it is equally to blame for obstructionism, when it is merely adapting to a legislative impasse it inherited, is ludicrous.
As the blowback to the AP’s inanity ricocheted across the Internet, the Washington Post’s media critic Erik Wemple sought out a comment from the wire service. AP‘s response (1/9/19) manages the feat of both doubling down on the broken logic and incorrectly relating the facts on the ground, as detailed above:
The tweet was intended to point out that Democrats have refused to accede to President Trump’s demands, which preceded the president’s decision to refuse to fund the government without wall funding included.
In a tell-tale sign of damage control, AP (1/9/19) quickly issued a follow-up clarification to its first clarification of its factcheck, again to Wemple:
The tweet was intended to make clear that Trump and Democrats have failed to find common ground in their disagreements, but it could have done a better job of explaining the dynamics that have led to the shutdown. The complete AP factcheck was robust and focused almost exclusively on Trump’s comments.
Note this little dodge at the end; it is instructive. Both the actual AP (1/9/19) and Times factcheck stories included just a single example from the Democratic response. Perhaps not coincidentally, both of those strained, scrounging-for-anything examples turned out as flaming journalistic failures. This is not to say Democratic politicians don’t make factual mistakes in their rhetoric, or willfully lie on occasion; they obviously do. But the press’s determination to artificially package and elevate Democratic inaccuracies to help achieve partisan balance in coverage of Trump is a serious journalistic problem.
This nuance is lost on some in the factchecking industry. For example, Sal Rizzo, who authored the misguided Post Fact-Checker column (12/4/18) on Rep. Ocasio-Cortez last month, resorted to a string of smarmy comebacks and straw-man arguments this week when earnest online critics challenged the way the press sometimes stoops to unfair equivalence when comparing Trump’s dishonesty and propaganda efforts to his political opposition:
- “(I don’t think they’re worried about the integrity of our Trump factchecks)” (1/8/19)
- “Democrats are never wrong/shouldn’t be factchecked” (1/8/19)
- “trying to but I keep getting rage tweets sted of something to study” (1/8/19)
- “the question stands for anyone who can handle some moxie” (1/8/19)
As FAIR noted last month, it will be worth watching how the corporate media treat Democrats once they return to power in the House. Sadly, just one week into that party’s control of the House, it looks as if the press is eager to put its thumb on the scale of reality when it comes to placing blame for the current dysfunction in Washington.
By no means should any Democratic efforts at misinformation be allowed to hide in the shadows next to Trump’s forest of falsehoods. But then, any forced effort to keep balancing them out will only make it that much harder to hold accountable both Trump and those who oppose him.
‘People Are Mobilizing Against This Crackdown’ - CounterSpin interview with Chip Gibbons on defending dissent
Janine Jackson interviewed Chip Gibbons about defending dissent for the January 4, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: Welcome to CounterSpin, your weekly look behind the headlines. I’m Janine Jackson.
This week on CounterSpin: A new year means a chance to take a look at where we’re at, and where we hope to go, including thinking about what makes our work possible: the freedom to speak our criticism of the powerful out loud, to protest, to communicate with one another about how to demand the better world we know is possible.
Corporate media serve up a lot of palaver about free speech, but when people actually act on it, media elites use their megaphones to dismiss and deride, to circumscribe conversation to make it appear that ideas that threaten their interests aren’t serious ideas, and the people fighting for them are marginal or dangerous.
The power is with us, and our ability to speak and to hear one another. Holding on to that ability is just another part of the work we have to do.
We talked about that with Chip Gibbons, policy and legislative counsel at the group called Defending Rights & Dissent. That conversation’s coming up right now on CounterSpin.
As we look to the year ahead, one thing is certain: There will be cause for protest, and there will be protest—big and little, in the streets, in the courts, in schools and in workplaces. People will be looking to express their opposition, criticism and concern about the actions and the policies of the powerful.
The freedom from fear required for that expression is something to be valued. It relies on work—ongoing work—defending and promoting and defining our right to dissent, making that right a living thing.
Here to discuss what that work looks like right now is Chip Gibbons, policy and legislative counsel at Defending Rights & Dissent. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Chip Gibbons.
Chip Gibbons: Always a pleasure to be on your program. I’m glad to be back.
JJ: Well, I asked you—
CG: Ecstatic to be back!
JJ: Thank you, thank you! I asked you to think about the year ahead and to look at the landscape, if you will, of civil liberties, and suggest what you see as some of the salient challenges that we’re facing in this country. And one of the first things you mentioned was something I think people may associate with McCarthyism, in other words with the past, and that’s FBI surveillance. What is it that you’re seeing that should be cause for alarm?
CG: The thing about FBI surveillance for a lot of people—including incredibly astute people who are aware of civil liberties issues—is that they do associate it with the past, like you mentioned. They think about the McCarthy Era, they think about COINTELPRO, and they think that no longer happens. But the thing about it is that even after the reforms of the 1970s, the FBI has continuously and without interruption engaged in surveillance of dissent. So it’s an issue every year.
In the last year, we had a number of disturbing revelations. We know the FBI put out a threat assessment on “black identity extremism.” If you’ve never heard of “black identity extremism,” that’s because it’s a term made up by the FBI. But it essentially argued that if African-Americans get too upset about police racism, they could be a threat to law enforcement, and tries to make this connection between legitimate grievances about police violence, police racism, and violence against police officers. And that’s clearly part of a long history of the FBI spying on black dissent.
We also know, in the last year, that the FBI has made house calls to student activists who support Palestinian rights, to Cuban-Americans who opposed the US embargo, to a number of other groups as well, Standing Rock water protectors. And we were, at Defending Rights & Dissent in the late Obama era, pointing out that, through FOIA, we knew that the FBI had spied on Occupy Wall Street; they had spied on School of the Americas Watch and Black Lives Matter. There was another revelation in the Guardian last week, about more FBI surveillance on nonviolent environmentalists.
So it’s just a sort of continuous deluge of new revelations about who the FBI is spying on this week. So it’s always something to be aware of.
JJ: You at Defending Rights & Dissent say something that sounds so simple, but it’s so critical: that free expression, free assembly and free association aren’t just rights; they’re tools. They’re what we use to fight back against any and all abuses.
So free assembly is a tool for organizing for social change, which is why it’s so critical that we see this slippage where, you know, in some places like Virginia, police are taking classes on social movements, as though protest itself is a policing issue. Protesting itself is being almost defined as a crime.
CG: Yeah. I think that’s a really important point. Our point of analysis at Defending Rights & Dissent is to generally try to challenge restrictions or affronts to social movements. Anytime you see a successful social movement or a growing social movement that challenges the status quo, the status quo strikes back.
And we’ve seen that with the wave of anti-protest bills that have been popping up all across the nation since January of 2017. These are bills that make it easier to charge someone with felony rioting, they impose collective liability on demonstrators, they remove liability for running over protesters with cars. There’s a number of disturbing mechanisms here.
But the thing that is interesting is these bills almost always follow outbreaks of protest. So you’ll see a state where there’s a police killing, and the officer gets off. And then people rightfully take to the streets to demand an end to the racism, an end to the police violence. And the response of the legislators is to pass, or try to pass, new laws attacking protesters.
You saw this after Standing Rock, and you’re seeing this pop up all across the country with critical infrastructure bills, which are bills that impose very severe penalties for sabotaging critical infrastructure. And if you listen to just that, that sounds really bad, like, “Oh God, critical infrastructure and sabotage!”
CP: But what they are targeting is nonviolent protest against pipelines. So in some cases, trespassing on pipeline property—or just nonviolent civil disobedience near a pipeline, nothing destructive—falls under the definition of “critical infrastructure sabotage.” And then you’re facing a huge criminal penalty.
These are popping up in states where there are pipelines being built and there’s opposition to them. They’re pushed by ALEC, the notorious right-wing bill mill. They have their own model critical infrastructure bill, that also imposes conspirator liability on groups that supposedly facilitate these protests. So that’s going after the big environmental groups and making sure they don’t provide any support to the Standing Rock protesters going forward.
And the other thing we keep seeing—and this has been for some time—is attacks on the movement for Palestinian freedom. Congress, in its lame-duck session, apparently strongly considering putting an unconstitutional bill in the appropriations bill, called the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which criminalizes certain boycotts of Israel, specifically those that are called for by nongovernment organizations. So if the UN Human Rights Council says “boycott settlements,” it would be a crime to promote or comply with that.
And that bill’s been blocked for two years, due to the outcry from First Amendment experts, from Palestinian freedom advocates, from really across the spectrum. But there’s openly plans to possibly try to get it put in the appropriations bill. So whatever happens with that, I don’t think that issue’s going away. I think you’re going to continue to see that pop up in different states.
The good news is, first of all, I can attest that activists have fought back against proposed bills and won, and have stopped them from being passed through grassroots pressure.
But even in states where they have passed, you’ve seen lawsuits challenging them. There was a lawsuit in Kansas, where a woman who was a Mennonite, whose church, the Mennonite Church, boycotts settlement products. She contracted with the state to teach science teachers how to teach science better. And she was denied the contract, because she wouldn’t sign an oath to not boycott Israel. She sued, and she was granted preliminary injunction.
An attorney in Arizona, who represents indigent clients in prison, had a similar situation. In that case, there also was a preliminary injunction.
And what a preliminary injunction means is that a judge has looked at the facts and has decided the plaintiffs are most likely to prevail on the merits, and that they would suffer irreparable harm if the bill is not blocked from being enforced. And a deprivation of First Amendment rights is always considered to be an irreparable harm.
So what courts are saying is that boycotting for Palestinian human rights is an expressive activity, it’s political speech, and therefore it’s protected by the First Amendment.
And in the last week, we saw two new lawsuits filed against these state bills: a very interesting one in Arkansas, brought by the Arkansas Times, which doesn’t take a position in favor of BDS, but because the University of Arkansas advertises in their newspaper, the state was trying to make them sign the no-boycott Israel pledge. And as journalists, they said, “This is outrageous. This is a loyalty oath. We’re not signing this.” And they’re suing.
And a speech pathologist in Texas, who lost her job working with children ages 3 to 11, is bringing a similar suit. If Kansas and Arizona are any prediction, I would say they’re going to probably have the same outcome. Hopefully.
JJ: Right, and in all of these cases we have to be mindful of language around “security,” for example, around “sabotage,” when it comes to BDS language around “antisemitism,” coming in to take over a situation which is really about free speech or about free assembly.
You know, when Donald Trump was elected, millions of Americans were outraged and were opposed. Some of those people marched at the inauguration to show their opposition. Some of those were then thrown in jail and threatened with decades of prison time, and I know that the way those J20 protesters were treated affected people’s feelings about how they would themselves express themselves.
And we’ve seen it almost become divisive, you know, “OK, I’ll wear a pink hat. But wait? You’re going to chant at someone whose policies are pulling children from their parents, you’re going to chant at them while they’re eating in a restaurant?”
And we’re almost fighting ourselves over how politely to respond to outrageous policies. And that is based on fear. It’s based on our fear of what will happen if we go out in the street.
CG: Sure. I think that’s a valid point, and I think one of the most shocking things from the J20 trial was the use of collective liability. I mean, I sat through the opening arguments in the first trial of defendants, and Jennifer Kerkhoff, the assistant US attorney, said to the jury, “I don’t think any of these people engaged in property destruction. I don’t think any of them are at an organizing meeting. But because they were in this march”—and in DC, you don’t need a permit to have a protest march—“because they’re at this march, where somebody else may or may not have engaged in property destruction, they’re guilty as part of a criminal conspiracy to riot.” So a trend that I think we might see more of is this attempt to impose collective liability on people.
And I think you’re really right about the language. I mean, where we see these anti-protest bills being proposed, we see people comparing protesters to terrorists. And in the last couple of months, you’ve seen this narrative about “mobs” and rioters, where peaceful protesters are akin to rioting, or they’re a mob. And that narrative, it builds the momentum for policing of protest. Because if you say, “Hey, I want to censor First Amendment activity of people I don’t like,” that’s a little bit suspect. But if you say, “Hey, there’s terrorist mobs descending on the streets. We gotta defend ourselves,” you’re more likely to get somewhere with that framing.
CG: And in, I believe it was Minnesota, the police union was pushing for a bill that would have taken away driver liability for “unintentionally” running over protesters. If you ran over other non-protesters, you still have liability, but if you ran over a protester, no liability.
CG: And at Defending Rights & Dissent, you might find this shocking, but we’ve always gotten some hate mail from time to time, if you can believe that. And in the past, it was always when we would do things about Islamophobia or for immigrants’ rights, and Black Lives Matter occasionally, but now I’m starting to see it for really just any sort of defense of the right to assemble.
So, you know, the National Park Service was considering really ridiculous restrictions on the right to assemble in DC. And I got all this hate mail, like, “Oh, you’re just supporting rioters.”
And it’s like, well, this regulation is not for rioters, it is for permitted protest. The permitting process does not—you can’t get a permit to get a riot. So that’s totally irrelevant here. But I saw the Washington Times make that same argument.
So you have all these people who are whipped up about these nonexistent riots that are going on. And now they’re willing to defend restrictions on even peaceful protest. And you want to avoid the good protester/bad protester dichotomy, but it is interesting to see how people are willing to accept—because of this bizarre narrative that George Soros is paying protesters—all kinds of restrictions.
JJ: Behind everything.
It’s interesting that you note that the legislation says if you run over someone who’s not a protester, you still have that liability, which sort of screams out that it’s political. And it reminds me of the anti-BDS bills, which say if you’re a business that happens not to do business with or buy products from Israel or the settlements, you’re not going to be punished. But if you say you’re not going to buy products from or do business with Israel or the settlements, well, then you can be punished, because that’s political. It seems so clearly to almost shine a light on the fact that what is being censored is political speech.
CG: Many of the anti-boycott bills define “boycott” as politically motivated, I believe, and it’s like, oh, so you’re literally going for political speech. The interesting thing is that Airbnb decided to stop doing listings in the settlements. And I believe Illinois, which has one of these anti-BDS bills, told Airbnb they were in violation of the state anti-BDS law, which was an interesting development; that you have a company that doesn’t want to do business in the settlements, and I believe the Israeli government said they were going to report them to multiple states. And then some of these states came out and were like, “You’re in violation of our law.”
JJ: It’s very interesting, because we don’t restrict corporations’ abilities to do whatever they want in so many other arenas.
CG: But if you comply with the Geneva Conventions, that’s taking it a little bit too far.
JJ: That’s going to be a problem.
CG: You can destroy our elections, bust up unions, pollute the Earth, but if you comply with the Geneva Conventions, I’m sorry, we have to limit business sometimes.
JJ: We’ve got to draw a line somewhere. Well, speaking of narrative, I wanted to ask you about something that I know that you’ve written about. We started out talking about FBI surveillance, and I know that for many people “FBI” means J. Edgar Hoover, it means COINTELPRO, it means trying to interfere with Martin Luther King’s marriage and all manner of skulduggery and dark associations.
And yet Donald Trump has twisted around relationships for folks who hew strongly to the idea of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” And in 2018, we saw, for example, MSNBC bringing on Barry McCaffrey, an ex-general who cheerled for the Iraq invasion. He’s on MSNBC because now he’s an expert, apparently, on Trump and Putin.
Over on CNN, we had Anderson Cooper chatting it up nicely with ex-National Intelligence Director James Clapper, who perjured himself in the Senate by denying NSA bulk surveillance. But now he’s on CNN, talking about the lack of ethics in the Trump White House.
We’re seeing a rehabilitation of some forces that we need to keep looking at critically. There’s kind of a weird thing going on.
CG: George W. Bush has been rehabilitated.
JJ: Absolutely. He’s a painter, isn’t he, a beautiful painter?
CG: He’s a painter. And the one thing about George W. Bush is, you may have disagreed with him, but at least he respected our democratic norms. And you hear people say this, and you’re like, He ran an international program of disappearance and torture and he gets a prize for respecting norms? What about the norm about not torturing? Whatever happened to that one? Oh, George W. Bush eroded it. Thank you. Thank you. It’s really sort of disturbing.
You see this valorization of the security state as this sort of bulwark against Trump’s descent into tyranny. And I understand why people are concerned about Donald Trump. There are allegations that he engaged in criminal activity. Whenever there are allegations like that, I think they should be investigated seriously. I think election interference is something we should take seriously, and should be investigated seriously.
But on the flip side of that is both this sort of bizarre valorization of the security state, and you look at someone like James Comey, who presided over an organization that was engaged in putting agent provocateurs in the Muslim community, and getting people to agree to nonexistent terror plots and then arresting them when they did so. And in Donald Trump’s second Muslim ban executive order, he cites two of these made-up FBI plots as his reason for banning Muslims.
Or James Comey who touted the “Ferguson effect,” saying that protests against police violence were causing a nonexistent crime uptick, which is one of the central narratives of the Trump—Sessions is gone now, but the Trump/Sessions worldview — is this idea that we’re descending into crime because people are protesting. So the FBI legitimised, for decades, much of the worldview of Donald Trump, and helped to set the stage for a demagogue like that.
And the other thing that I’m very concerned about—I’ve interestingly enough, been reading a book about Paul Robeson, which has disturbing parallel to the present—is you see this narrative coming up that the Russians are trying to promote divisive movements, in order to sow divisions. And the type of divisive movements are protests against racism. And there’s never any consideration that, you know, maybe racism is divisive? Maybe police killing people and getting away with it is divisive? It’s always, “How dare you march against this?”
And there’s allegations that the Russians were engaged in voter suppression of African-Americans. And if that’s the case, that’s very deplorable. But it’s really important that we move away from this narrative that paints social movements as divisive and thus bad. I mean, anytime you challenge racism or the status quo, yes, people are going to consider that contentious. That is good. And it doesn’t change the fact, if there are Russian troll farms publicizing police killings, that these are happening, and that people are angry about them. I mean, it’s actually kind of racist to assert that black people are only upset about the racism they face every day because the Russians got them all worked up.
JJ: Everything was fine until then.
CG: We never had racism. We had democratic norms like the security state. We all trusted it. It was a wonderful time to be alive.
JJ: Absolutely. And then it all got muddled up.
Well, you at Defending Rights & Dissent, I said this before, the idea that the free expression and the free assembly and association that we’re talking about, that they are tools for social change, that they are rights that have to be preserved in themselves because we use them for other things.
And for me, I will never understand, on some level, why we don’t see the press corps leading the charge on these things, why we don’t see a proactive defense of these rights from the press corps. Now I understand, I wasn’t born yesterday, I know how corporate media work. But in this era of “Democracy Dies in Darkness” and all of that, I really would look for journalists to be talking about J20 every day, talking about even Julian Assange, talking about whistleblowers, talking about the protection of our ability to have the conversation, whether or not you agree with it. The threat seems so clear to me that I really would like to see so much more from journalists.
CG: Yeah. There are still very courageous, independent journalists, and there are courageous programs like yours. So it’s not all hopeless.
JJ: Not at all, in terms of independent media.
CG: I do wish our friends in the corporate media would do a better job, much of the time.
CG: They are oftentimes very much willing to repeat these narratives. There’s not always an interest in civil liberties stories. I have to give the Washington Post some credit for publishing my op-ed on the FBI—
CG: —which they asked me to write. They found me; I didn’t ever dream that they would want to publish something like that.
So there are occasional good acts, and I think we should praise them. But also when we see the media failing to live up to its responsibilities, I think we should be vocal about that as well.
JJ: The independent media, I think is really showing its importance at this time, because that’s where we can look to see a lot of the stories that then might bubble up, if you will, to other outlets.
CG: That’s very true.
JJ: Let me just ask you, we were going, I know, to talk about whistleblowers in particular. In a time when institutions that are powerful are getting better at shrouding themselves from scrutiny, sometimes one of the only ways that you can learn what is happening is from a whistleblower, is from someone who is inside, making a decision to reveal what’s going on within their institution.
And, again, this is a thing that on paper everyone says, “Yes, it’s very important.” But when people actually do it, they don’t necessarily get the support and the reception and the protection that they deserve.
CG: This is a very dark time for whistleblowers. I mean, Trump hates dissent. He hates whistleblowing. But the previous administration, Barack Obama, the former constitutional lawyer, normalized using the Espionage Act against whistleblowers. So trying people who give information to the media for espionage was a practice that the Obama administration engaged in.
Prior to that, there’d only been three such charges and one conviction under the Espionage Act for whistleblowers. The one person who was convicted during the Reagan years, Bill Clinton pardoned him, at the urging of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, because they considered it such a bizarre anomaly to do this. And then Obama made the Espionage Act the go-to statute for going against whistleblowers.
And now Trump has used it twice, against Reality Winner and against Terry Albury. We know there is a sealed indictment against Julian Assange. And I know that many people are critical of some of the things he’s tweeted, and his political associations in the last couple of years, and I find some of them troubling myself, but that doesn’t change the fact that if we’re going to prosecute Julian Assange for releasing information, then that’s an assault on the press.
I mean, the New York Times’ general counsel has said that if you prosecute Assange under the Espionage Act—and we don’t know if that’s what the indictment’s about or not; there’s a number of theories as to what it could be about—that would open the door to prosecuting the New York Times.
So even if you hate Julian Assange, this would be the biggest attack on press freedom in the post-World War II era, if they went after him under the Espionage Act. And it’s worth pointing out that the Obama administration considered it, and they thought that was going too far, even for them.
Will Trump be the administration who takes us to that level? Maybe. Let’s hope not.
JJ: Let me just ask you, finally, because obviously we see these predations on our civil liberties and our civil rights: I also see—and I might be Pollyanna—but I see folks on to it. I see folks who are brave. I see folks who are understanding that dissent is critical, and they’re willing to do it, and they’re willing to take it on. And I just wonder—I know you were talking about getting hate calls, but do you see a change, in terms of activity on the part of regular folks, in terms of a willingness to politically engage?
CG: I think there’s more interest in this issue than there was two or three years ago. I think that there’s always been a lot of attacks on dissent. I think the last two years, there’s been a massive escalation, and it’s been clearly, clearly about smashing social movements.
And I think a lot of people see that for what it is, and they’re speaking out. They’re very angry. They’re not happy with the way things are, and they’re even less happy with when they say that, they then face repression. So I think there is, if there’s a silver lining here, it’s that I think that people are mobilizing against this crackdown.
And that’s what it will take to beat it, is the people mobilizing.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Chip Gibbons, policy and legislative counsel at Defending Rights & Dissent. You can find out about their work and be part of it online at RightsAndDissent.org. Chip Gibbons, thank you so much for joining us.
CG: Always a pleasure.
JJ: That’s it for CounterSpin for this week. CounterSpin is produced by FAIR, the national media watch group based in New York, online at FAIR.org. The show’s engineered by Alex Noyes. I’m Janine Jackson. Thanks for listening to CounterSpin.
The United States, by all objective metrics, has one of the cruelest, most inhumane prison systems in the world. In addition to having 25 percent of the world’s prison population (despite having only 5 percent of the world’s people), the US carceral state uses tortuous solitary confinement, contains widespread sexual violence, has massive racial disparities, routinely abuses children and is broadly defined by a whole host of other human rights violations. The idea that the US is too soft or nice to people in prison is something even the most right-wing demagogues rarely bother to argue anymore.
So it may come as a shock that centrist, ostensibly non–white nationalist outlets like USA Today, Washington Post, Atlanta Journal Constitution and NBC News thought it newsworthy to point out that prisoners at Coleman federal prison in Wildwood, Florida, received a routine holiday meal that was slightly above their normal, bottom-of-the-barrel provisions. This outrage—clearly fed to the outlets by the federal prison guards’ union—was contrasted with these guards not receiving paychecks due to President Donald Trump’s “government shutdown,” offered as an outrageous unfairness: How dare those hardened criminals live it up while our hard-working government correction officers work for free?
- Government Shutdown: Federal Inmates Feast on Cornish Hens, Steak as Prison Guards Labor Without Pay (USA Today, 1/4/19)
- Hard to Digest: Inmates Eat Holiday Steak During Shutdown While Prison Workers Go Unpaid (NBC News, 1/6/19)
- ‘I Been Eatin Like a Boss’: Federal Prisoners Served Steak by Unpaid Guards During Shutdown (Washington Post, 1/7/19)
- Inmates Eat Steak While Federal Prison Guards Go Unpaid (Atlanta Journal Constitution, 1/7/19)
In case you were concerned that the story would not pander enough to racist stereotypes about greedy, lazy prisoners, the Post’s “‘I Been Eatin Like a Boss’” headline should set your mind at ease. The quote was allegedly taken from a prisoner’s personal mail by a prison guard and selectively leaked to the Post, who decided to not only publish it without any context, but led the whole story with it, African-American Vernacular English and all. It’s unclear if it’s standard for prison guards to comb though prisoners’ personal mail to find choice quotes to advance their self-serving narratives, but the Post and the other outlets apparently found nothing suspect about this practice.
And what images did they use to convey these luxurious “steak” dinners? Professionally done stock photos of steaks from gourmet restaurants:
This is likely because if they showed what actual “steak dinners” look like, it might accidentally solicit pity towards people in prison rather than the visceral disgust these stories hope to evoke. Here is an example of a salisbury steak dinner from one breakdown of typical prison food:
It’s unlikely the aesthetics of what was served to these prisoners would be much different. And even if it were, it’s impossible the “flat iron topped with hotel butter from St. Anselm Restaurant in Washington” the Post used as its image (price: $24) would be any closer to reality. (Twelve hours after posting the story, the Post eventually swapped the picture out for a stock prison image after a torrent of criticism on social media.)
Numerous studies have shown prison food is barely edible and causes high rates of illness. The Atlantic reported in 2017, “Lapses in food safety have made US prisoners six times more likely to get a foodborne illness than the general population.” Indeed, one of the primary demands for last fall’s multi-state prison strike was for higher quality and more nutritious food. That prisoners are given a meal a few times a year that’s slightly above this extremely low standard was the hook for why correction officers not receiving checks was so outrageous. “How could our priorities get so out of whack” is the premise simply taken for granted—a premise, it should be noted, that relies on heavily racialized notions of who’s in prison and who is guarding prisoners.
Never mind. Post editors likely thought the whole thing was a big joke in any event, nice outrage-bait that vaguely makes Trump look irresponsible—while treating people in prison enjoying meals two notches above dog food as a punchline, something per se absurd.
As prison reform expert and professor at Fordham Law School John Pfaff notes—even if one removes the racist dog whistle and gross prisoner-mocking—the whole basis for the outrage is wildly misplaced. The guards will get back pay after “the showdown” inevitably ends. They’re complaining about having to wait for payment, not working for free. The federal prisoners, who on a regular basis are actually working at very close to free—at $0.23/hr to $1.40/hour—are used, again, as a bludgeon by NBC News:
Adding to the staffers’ bitter feelings, the working inmates were still drawing government paychecks for their prison jobs, which include painting buildings, cooking meals and mowing lawns.
Oh no, people in prison are getting paid slave wages while being locked in cages and stripped from their loved ones. The horror!
For decades, the single uniting theme in white supremacist propaganda has been the idea that African-Americans live high off the government hog while “working class” whites struggle to survive. It was the subtext of a now-infamous 1976 Ronald Reagan speech (New York Times, 2/4/76) when the former California governor accused a “strapping young buck” of using food stamps to buy T-bone steak. The narrative being advanced by the Post and others here is simply a slightly more liberal 2.0 version of this.
One can guess that this racist non-story got through so many editors because it superficially makes Trump look bad by showing how the shutdown he contrived is causing harm to sectors the right typically sympathizes with, such as prison guards. Fighting racism with more racism may, in the short term, be an effective strategy to “win” a 24-hour news cycle, but it’s a journalistically unethical one. By reinforcing caricatures of prisoners living it up while others suffer, these outlets reinforced deeply racialized notions of worthy and unworthy “welfare.” As with MSNBC’s warmongering around Russia (FAIR.org, 6/24/17) and North Korea (FAIR.org 6/14/18), centrist and liberals attacking the far-right Trump from the right is a myopic, immoral strategy that will invariably result in real long-term harm.
It’s likely not a coincidence that these articles started coming out less than 48 hours after the release of a federal report (New York Times, 1/4/19) that showed rampant abuse and sexual violence in federal prisons, with the steak-serving Coleman prison highlighted:
The Bureau of Prisons settled a large sexual discrimination case in 2017 after 524 current and former female guards, nurses and others at Coleman Federal Correctional Complex, near Orlando, said they had suffered years of abuse by male colleagues and prison inmates.
An exterior shot of Coleman served as the photo for the New York Times report on federal prison abuse—the poster child for the problem. And unlike the 5-star restaurant sirloin steaks accompanying the Post and AJC articles, the image used by the Times is actually relevant to the story in question. At the very least, the Post, USA Today, AJC and NBC could have mentioned in the stories that had been fed to them by prison guard unions reps that these very same union members and their bosses had just been accused of widespread abuse and corruption. This likely would have muddied up the neat, racist contrast of underappreciated and neglected federal workers versus undeserving prisoners living it up like incarcerated Caligulas.
As one could have imagined, given the glib tenor of the pieces, not a single incarcerated person or any advocate for prison reform were quoted in any of these articles. The pieces relied entirely on prison officials and statements and press releases from prison guard union reps. Those actually being discussed—and severely belittled—aren’t even worth reaching out to for comment. They simply don’t exist. They’re a bludgeon whose humanity is tossed aside so these outlets can get cheap clickbait that’ll make Trump look bad—from the far right—for about 10 minutes. Clickbait that’ll soon be forgotten long after these guards have gotten their back pay, and the prisoners in question go back to eating barely edible Nutraloaf the other 363 days a year.
The Best of CounterSpin for 2018 aired as our December 28, 2018, episode. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: Welcome to The Best of CounterSpin for 2018. I’m Janine Jackson. Each week, CounterSpin looks behind the media headlines, asking what context is missing, what assumptions glossed over — and who’s being excluded that might challenge that. It’s not a rhetorical exercise: Understanding the limits of the dialogue possible in the elite but influential press is crucial to understanding our political lives…and the importance of maintaining spaces where we can openly debate and challenge a status quo that’s harming millions of people and the planet.
We hope all of our shows advance that effort; we can only revisit a very few now. You’ll find the whole year’s worth online at FAIR.org. For now, what we’ll call The Best of CounterSpin for 2018.
CounterSpin’s brought to you each week by the media watch group FAIR.
JJ: Immigration at the US southern border was a major story in 2018. But it wasn’t immigrants that were telling it. Or regional experts, or historians. CounterSpin spoke with Tina Vasquez, immigration reporter at Rewire.News, in the wake of a report from Amnesty International on family separation and abuses at the border.
Tina Vasquez: So Amnesty’s reporting that more than 6,000 families were separated at the border, and that the Trump administration’s family separation policy, that was announced or confirmed by Jeff Sessions in, I believe it was, April 2018, actually started to get rolled out quietly in July of 2017. And so they think it impacted 15,000 individual people, and more than 6,000 families.
And that still is just an estimate. Because when the policy was being rolled out more quietly, with less oversight and without any sort of eyes on it publicly, there’s really no telling how many families were subjected to the policy, how many families remain separated, or how many children were disappeared into the system, and their parents as well, deported, to never be seen again.
It was a really shocking report, and that was just one part of it. You mentioned a lot of the abuses that they’re seeing. A great deal of attention is devoted to the treatment of transgender women, in particular, who are migrating to the US seeking asylum. Women in the report report being sexually abused and assaulted in detention, being detained alongside men, and really having no recourse, not receiving medical care for things that they need. It’s a wide swath of abuses that cover very, very vulnerable people.
JJ: One of the authors of the report indicated that in some of the situations, the behavior actually conforms to internationally recognized criteria for torture.
TV: Yeah. I also spoke to an immigration attorney who told me he’s representing some of the clients that were in the report, and that he certainly thinks of this as torture, and it falls along those lines and those definitions, because of the psychological damage that parents experience, not knowing where their children are for so long, not knowing if they will see them again. And, of course, there’s the damage that the children experience; some are reporting that could be irreparable.
If nothing else, what I hope that my reporting does is it makes it clear—and I’m really unapologetic in my stance on this as a journalist—I think we’re told that we’re supposed to be unbiased, but I can show you facts and evidence to show you that the US immigration system is inherently abusive and violent and racist. And so what you’re seeing is the products of that; it’s just being wielded by a different administration that is more overtly anti-immigrant, and more comfortable being overtly racist.
But that is always my starting point when doing immigration reporting. It doesn’t matter who’s in the White House; that’s the starting point, that detention is inhumane and violent, and so is the immigration system.
JJ: The role of the court system in constraining a White House’s cruelty has been thrown into relief, which is but one of the reasons the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court was so disheartening. Law professor and author Marjorie Cohn explained just how disheartening.
Marjorie Cohn: It’s been clear from the start that the Republican leadership, in concert with Donald Trump, is going to ram this nomination through so that they can achieve a solid right-wing majority on the Supreme Court which will last for decades, and will reverse many of the rights that we hold dear.
The Republicans know that Kavanaugh would provide a reliable vote against immigrants, workers, voters, and gay and transgender people. He would deliver a dependable vote for employers, private property and church/state bonding. And they can rest assured that he would do his best to immunize Trump from criminal liability, and enable him to continue their mean-spirited, right-wing agenda. And this is more important to them than any judicial temperament, than any credible allegations of sexual assault, because the bottom-line issue—one of the most significant issues—is abortion rights, reproductive rights, and overturning Roe v. Wade, in addition to gay rights, and they have rationalized all of these other horrors to that end.
During the Bush administration’s so-called “War on Terror,” Kavanaugh almost always deferred to the president on executive power. Now, the Supreme Court, during the Bush administration, did check and balance the executive, the president, and said that federal courts have jurisdiction to hear habeas corpus petitions by Guantánamo detainees; they said that a US citizen who’s being held as an enemy combatant has due process rights to contest his detention, and they said that Bush’s military commissions violated the Geneva Conventions and the Federal Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Now, in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled in Boumediene v. Bush that Guantánamo detainees held as enemy combatants have the right to file habeas corpus petitions in US federal courts, to say, “I’m being unlawfully held.” But after Boumediene, Kavanaugh—on the Court of Appeals—did his best to try to neuter these habeas corpus rights that the Supreme Court had upheld in Boumediene, in case after case.
And also, Kavanaugh has a record of dangerous deference to the president. Notwithstanding the case of Jones v. Clinton, the Paula Jones case, which said that a president has to answer to at least a civil case—that didn’t involve a criminal case—Kavanaugh doesn’t think that a president should be bothered to answer to a civil case or a criminal case while he’s in office.
And under US v. Nixon, a unanimous Supreme Court said that Nixon had to turn over the tapes during the Watergate scandal, and that led to Nixon’s resignation. And yet, although that case, US v. Nixon, is a settled precedent, Kavanaugh has said he thinks it should be reconsidered.
And one of the most disturbing things, Janine, is that in a law review article, Kavanaugh wrote in 2014, he wrote that, yes, the Take Care Clause of the Constitution requires the president to enforce the law; it says that the president shall “take care” that the laws are faithfully executed. But then Kavanaugh went on to say, yes, the president has to enforce the law “at least unless the president deems the law unconstitutional, in which event the president can decline to follow the statute until a final court order says otherwise.”
So Kavanaugh would create a dangerous presumption in favor of a president who refuses to follow the law. That is very worrisome.
JJ: Calling out media’s tacit acceptance of an unacceptable status quo is a recurring theme on this show. Blogger Andrew Pulrang, cofounder of #CripTheVote, had thoughts on the 28th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and media’s “We’ve come a long way” type of coverage.
Andrew Pulrang: The last few years at the anniversary, we were constantly pointing out: Now it’s going to be 28 years, and the thing is, we’ve been hearing essentially the same story, in some vague form, for 28 years, which is that—and it’s not always explicit, but the implication—that, “Oh, these are a bunch of new requirements, and it’s going to take time.” Well, I would accept that even 10 years ago, right? I would even accept that that is in some sense new, in a grand historical span of the way these people have been building buildings.
But 28 years is long enough for people to figure this stuff out. And that includes buildings that in 1990 were already existing, that includes old downtowns with, you know, two steps up to the old store or soda shop or whatever.
But still, it’s been 28 years! There are solutions to these things. I think—with the exception of people who really did their jobs, and code enforcement officials who really did their jobs, which they do not always do—most other people kind of put it on the back burner. They kind of know what the ADA is, but they think, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s just too expensive to get a better place, or put a ramp in, or what have you, and I’m just going to wait until somebody complains.”
JJ: What are some things that you might want to put on the radar in terms of, “You might not know that this engages the disability community, but it actually is critical there.”
AP: OK, I’ll mention, first of all, one of the issues that we were hoping to work on under slightly different circumstances, but haven’t given up on, is the subminimum wage. This is where certain subgroups of disabled folks, it is legal to pay them less than minimum wage for their work, which has been a rehabilitation strategy, I guess you could call it, since the 1930s. We feel it’s long overdue to be ended. If you’re going to have people with disabilities, who maybe, you say, cannot work in a regular job, if you’re going to be doing stuff to have them work in workshops, or do special kinds of employment, why not just pay the minimum wage? You know what I’m saying? You’re already doing all this other stuff, just go ahead and pay the minimum wage. It’s become such an insult and so degrading and so unnecessary, I think, especially right now when the economy, in terms of jobs, is relatively good, comparatively, when there are alternatives for people to go to. So we want to do that.
Another issue is Medicaid and healthcare in general, but particularly right now Medicaid, because last year, part of the healthcare debate proposed massive, massive cuts to Medicaid. And a lot of people with disabilities depend on Medicaid, not just for their healthcare, as we tend to think of it, but for everyday personal care, just to live and function in their own homes. Cuts of the size that they were proposing would just not be sustainable, and we would probably lose a lot of those services.
Medicare for All is a fairly popular idea on the left. I think a lot of us share the general idea of universal healthcare along the lines of Medicaid… Medicare for All (see, I’m slipping right there), but for people with disabilities, frankly, we’d prefer Medicaid for All. Because Medicare doesn’t do home care. And frankly, a lot of people you run into, I’m not going to say everybody, but a lot of people aren’t really sure what’s the difference between Medicaid and Medicare. So you say, “Medicare for All, great!” I know that what they’re referring to is this general idea, but the details do not….
And that’s, frankly, one of the things about disability issues that’s sort of unique, is that details always matter with our issues. Whether it’s the difference between Medicare and Medicaid, or the difference between a half-inch step and no step at all, those little details that everybody looks at and says, “Well, does it really matter?” Well, it almost always really does matter, for us.
JJ: We talk a lot on this show about changing narratives, but the actual work of that is not as simple as writing an op-ed. It involves extended work in community. We talked about that with organizer and artist Teresa Basilio Gaztambide, director of Resilient Just Technologies. She was just back from Puerto Rico, where communications infrastructure was one of the ways the US government failed after hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Teresa Basilio: I come from a background of storytelling myself, and seeing the importance of storytelling, not just to get our stories out there, but also as a way to build community. And so I moved into this work of technology, and I started Resilient Just Technologies, as a way to garner all of the things that I’ve learned, and the people that I’ve been fortunate to work with, to see if I could leverage all the different things that, for me, communications encompasses, which includes not just the communications, but media, political education, decentralized technology, storytelling, a whole host of things that are interconnected with the idea of communications. And so I was looking to leverage all of these different ideas for organizers on the front lines of racial, economic and climate justice movements, and so I’ve been working here in New York with New York City communities who are building local networks, wireless networks, for use in emergencies and for community organizing.
And so I really wanted to figure out how to use that knowledge and relationships and understandings to support my folks in Puerto Rico and the diaspora. I was in Vieques–I just got back a few days ago–I was in Vieques and in Comerío, two areas that, for a variety of reasons, have a long history, both of struggle, as well as of just really innovative ways of organizing communities. So I was there to talk to communities who were directly impacted by the loss of the communications infrastructure, following both hurricanes Irma and Maria. As we saw, or as we know, the communications system completely failed.
And so the purpose of these conversations–which are story circles, which is a cultural organizing tool that comes from the South here in the US–the idea is to really, in community, have a conversation about what happened to us: What was the impact of that? And then also talk about, what does a just communication system look like for our people? So really a visioning as well, and affirming the ways in which we’ve been able to organize already, and protect ourselves and our communities.
So part of the project—and my understanding of both community technology, as well as a just transition for Puerto Rico, means that our communities also need to have access to the infrastructure. I think it’s one thing to say, “We’re going to push the FCC and the telecoms to do the right thing.” It’s a whole other project to validate people’s self-determination by the ownership and governance of their infrastructure.
And so in a colonial situation, these things get very, very difficult. And so the conversation that I’ve been having with people there is, “What technology is available that can support a lot of these kinds of efforts, these self-determination efforts, that are happening throughout the island?” Most notably through the CAMs—the mutual aid centers that popped up, I think there’s maybe 11 or 12 of them, that popped up immediately after the storms, to do everything from feeding people to health services, acupuncture—I mean, you name it. They’ve been doing that work, and they continue to do that work, one year past the hurricane.
Tracy Rosenberg: We argue for local action. And the reason for that is when all of these Snowden revelations came out years ago, I, like many other people, and in my own work as a telecom advocate, I really saw online surveillance and spying as a huge problem; that’s sort of how I got into this venue.
It’s like, “What are we going to do? Is ‘Occupy the NSA’ a realistic strategy?” And the answer there is “No.” So the question became, “What can we really do in our own homes and our own communities?” So we started to investigate the links, like, “Where is the information traveling, how is it being collected, where is it being stored, and who has access to it?” And once you open that Pandora’s box, a lot of stuff comes falling out.
What we found, for example, in California, in Los Angeles, there was a lawsuit to get license plate-reader data from the LAPD, and what the LAPD said in court—this went all the way to the California Supreme Court—was, “We don’t have to release that data to you, because it’s evidence in a criminal proceeding.” And we said, “ A criminal proceeding on every single person who has driven through the city of Los Angeles for the past five years?” And they said, “Well, you know, it might be in some future case.”
And essentially what that means is, it is a premise that data collection goes on in order to convict us of a crime that has not yet happened, that we haven’t committed. And we need to turn that whole structure on its head, which is to say that data needs to serve a public safety purpose, or there is no reason to collect it. We can’t preemptively create a police state based on future crime. Can’t do it. That’s George Orwell.
My argument has always been—because, you know, it’s fair to say, “Well, what does transparency do? All it does is tell us the various ways in which we are being oppressed and tracked and hunted and profiled, but it doesn’t stop it.”
But the reality is, there’s such a battle being fought against transparency, and it’s so unwanted, both by law enforcement, and tech and private vendors, and the whole military/industrial complex that we have to deal with, because there is tremendous power in transparency.
Once it becomes clear, the scope of things, then a meaningful response of community control is possible. We can’t do it without transparency. So we have to start there, and fight for that to become the principle, and then the boundaries, the constraints and the limitations become a political battle that we can fight, and we can win.
JJ: It shouldn’t surprise that corporate media that fail to seriously, vigorously champion the rights of US citizens to privacy, to healthcare, to communications, should overlook the role of the US government in death and displacement in a place halfway around the world. Shireen Al-Adeimi works to call attention to, not only the catastrophic effects of the Saudi-led war on Yemen, but the US’s critical role in that war’s continuance. We asked her about coverage that suggests that Yemen is asking for “help” from the United States.
Shireen Al-Adeimi: It’s the complete opposite. It’s that we’ve only gotten to this point because of foreign intervention.
This was a civil war back in 2015; it would have started as a civil war, ended as a civil war. Yemen has seen many civil wars, and we’ve gone through it, and we’ve continued to rebuild after that, and it’s never gotten to these levels of humanitarian crisis.
We’re talking about the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. If it remained in Yemen as a civil war, the ports wouldn’t have been blockaded. People wouldn’t be starving. Every ten minutes, a child dies in Yemen from starvation and disease.
And so we’ve only gotten to this point because of foreign intervention. So I believe, and many Yemenis who are still fighting and resisting and waiting for all of this to be over in Yemen believe: let Yemenis solve their own problems, and we’re not asking for any saviors. We’re asking for people to stop intervening in Yemen.
JJ: Finally, one of CounterSpin’s favorite things to do is fill in history the corporate press leave out. Not just because its omission impoverishes, but because its addition can enrich. Here’s Howard Bryant, senior writer for ESPN.com, talking about his new book, The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America and the Politics of Patriotism.
Howard Bryant: Absolutely, it starts with Paul Robeson, and of course people don’t realize that he played in the National Football League. He played football before he was the great baritone, before he was the great singer and the great actor and the great activist. And one of the only reasons that he left professional football was because the National Football League was integrated, and then it chose segregation, until 1946. So when he played in 1921 and 1922, football was integrated, and then by 1923, no blacks were allowed to play in the NFL for another quarter century.
It wasn’t just Robeson that I gravitated toward when tracing this Heritage, it was also the fact that the African-American athletes’ political roots did not start with black issues. It started with Jewish issues. It started with World War II. It started with American athletes being asked to defend America against Nazism, and Jewish athletes asking for solidarity against the Berlin Olympics in 1936, and also, of course, asking Jackie Robinson to denounce Paul Robeson in 1949, in support of America during the Cold War.
So it wasn’t until much later, it wasn’t until you had Robinson in that testimony, receiving all of the attention for his denouncing Paul Robeson, but also inside of that testimony, he talked about inequality and police brutality and mistreatment of African-Americans and fairness, and all of these things that would become the foundations of this Heritage. It started with Robinson, but not along racial lines, to begin with; it started with defending America.
JJ: I find Robinson’s HUAC testimony to be maybe the most moving part of the book, and such a clear—first of all, a thing that’s so misremembered.
HB: Completely. We chose to emphasize the parts that made America feel good. Which was, “See, Jackie Robinson is a real American, because he denounced Paul Robeson, the bad Negro Communist.” I don’t even think we misremembered everything; we just chose to ignore it. And when I started to read that testimony, when I was doing the research, I was wondering, “Did I know this?” I think I kind of knew this, but maybe I really didn’t, either.
HB: And that’s what we do. We decide to omit. One of the great favorite colleagues and the great writer David Maraniss once said to me that, “History writes people out of the story, and it’s our job to write them back in,” and I think that Robinson testimony is something that needed to be written back in.
Well, history’s moving along, and owners and teams are aware that integration is happening, but I like how you note that this idea that became popular, and still holds sway, that, “Oh, they’re only looking for the best players,” that that was fiction, always. And there’s this note that Earl Wilson, when Earl Wilson was signed to the Boston Red Sox, the scouting report described him as a “well-mannered colored boy, not too black, pleasant to talk to.”
So you have this story of integration. But then, black athletes are making money—and some of them are making a tremendous amount of money—and so that gives them a bigger megaphone, and at the same time, more calls not to use it.
HB: For caution, absolutely, and I think that’s this tension that the black athlete has that even other black entertainers don’t have. Why are we now talking about Oprah Winfrey as a potential presidential candidate? Because she has money. And we talk about Mark Cuban as a presidential candidate or Donald Trump as president or Michael Bloomberg as the mayor of New York, because they were all rich.
When it comes to the black athlete, though, what we want from them in exchange for the money is silence. We don’t want to hear from them. We want them to be quiet. We want them to shut up and play, or shut up and dribble.
And this is the one area where money is not affording you a bigger voice. And that goes back to this very interesting relationship that we tend to have with our sports figures. That there’s an ownership to them, that they don’t necessarily get to be citizens. Their job is to entertain us.
And I think that’s one of the areas where this Heritage has become so polarizing in a lot of ways, is this feeling of ownership is now colliding with the fact that you have this new generation of black athletes—post–Trayvon Martin, post-Ferguson, post–Eric Garner and Sandra Bland—who are now citizens, especially thanks to the prevalence of social media. They’re watching these viral videos, just like the rest of us are, on YouTube, and they’re looking at this dashcam footage.
And one of the things that one of the players, Tavon Austin, had said, who played for the St. Louis Rams, when he came out in 2014 with the “hands up don’t shoot gesture” before a game, was:
It’s hard for me to go back to my community, knowing that this is going on, knowing that I’ve got a platform, and all my friends and family are looking at me, going, “People listen to you and you’re not saying anything.”
That’s the Heritage.
JJ: That was Howard Bryant. Before that, you heard Shireen Al-Adeimi, Tracy Rosenberg, Teresa Basilio, Andrew Pulrang, Marjorie Cohn and Tina Vasquez. All just some of the voices it’s been our honor to bring you this year on CounterSpin.
And that’s it for this year’s Best of CounterSpin for 2018.
CounterSpin is produced by FAIR, the national media watch group based in New York. If you missed any of our shows this year, you can find them on FAIR’s website, FAIR.org. That’s also the place to join the Action Alert Network or sign up for the newsletter Extra!. Or to show support for the work, if you’re so inclined.
The show is engineered by Erika Rosato. I’m Janine Jackson. As ever, we thank you for listening to CounterSpin.
A Tough Time to Be a Spy, NPR Reports - Current and former CIA officials are only sources for story on espionage getting harder
by Belén Fernández
Imagine, for a moment, that a prominent media outlet in Iran decided to produce a story about the trials of being an Iranian spy in this technological day and age—in which the all-pervasiveness of surveillance mechanisms and social media complicates slightly the process of entering other countries under false identities.
It’s safe to assume that the United States would find this less than entertaining, and that a fair amount of ruckus would ensue, with concerned politicians and other fearmongers bleating about terror attacks and the sanctity of US borders.
Of course, no Iranian media outlet has actually done this. NPR’s Morning Edition (1/3/19), on the other hand, has just run an upbeat segment on how violating other people’s borders is now a tad more challenging for American spies than it was in past decades: “CIA Chief Pushes For More Spies Abroad; Surveillance Makes That Harder,” reported by Greg Myre.
The “push,” in fact, came in September, when CIA Director Gina Haspel—herself a former longtime undercover officer abroad—announced her desire for a “larger foreign footprint” for the CIA. Four months later, it’s the hook for NPR’s human interest story on frustrating impediments to spying.
Myre brings in various characters to populate his narrative, all of them current or ex-CIA employees. First is Jonna Mendez, former CIA “chief of disguise,” whom Myre tells us will give us “a few key tips” for Americans trying to appear European:
[Europeans] wear their wedding rings on different fingers. They eat differently than we do. They don’t shuttle that fork back and forth…. They stand up straight.
Then there’s retired CIA officer John Sipher, who “says it could be tough today to enter the same country twice with different sets of documents.” Things were much easier back in the 1980s, we’re told, when airports didn’t scan faces and fingerprints, and everyone wasn’t online.
Next up with some remarks on social media are Sheronda, the CIA’s chief of recruiting, and Mary, an undercover officer. Incidentally, Sheronda’s soundbite—“People here do use social media. And yes, specific guidelines are provided”—is the same one that appeared in Myre’s March 2018 NPR report “CIA Recruiting: The Rare Topic the Spy Agency Likes to Talk About” (3/26/18), which might as well have been titled “Hey Kids! Here’s How to Join the CIA.”
Myre’s latest pro bono public relations effort on behalf of the agency meanwhile ends on some thoughts about how all the technology in the world can’t replace “the human touch” when it comes to intelligence gathering. “It’s a job of human beings,” says Mendez.
Which brings us to the following question: Why is NPR trying so hard to humanize an organization that is downright anti-human? After all, it’s not like the CIA’s machinations abroad are restricted to wedding ring protocol, fork-shuttling and improved posture—and a few details from its sordid history might have helped to contextualize Haspel’s current CIA proliferation scheme.
Among the major milestones on the agency’s timeline are, of course, the 1953 coup d’état against Iran’s Mohammad Mossadegh and reinstatement of the brutal shah—an obsessive purchaser of US weapons—and the 1954 coup against Guatemala’s Jacobo Árbenz, which helped set the stage for a long and gruesome war that killed or disappeared over 200,000 Guatemalans. (The CIA’s training of Guatemalan death squads is still bearing consequences in the form of waves of refugees fleeing that country’s ongoing violence—The Nation, 1/3/19.)
Also in Central America, the CIA was instrumental in the bloody Contra campaign of the 1980s—what Noam Chomsky has referred to as “a large-scale terrorist war against Nicaragua.” The war effort was also aided by top Honduran drug lord Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros, owner of the Contra supply airline SETCO—which, scholar Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz recalls in her Contra war memoir, Blood on the Border, was known as the “CIA airline.” Around the same time, a CIA-trained elite death squad by the name of Battalion 316 “stalked, kidnapped, tortured and murdered hundreds of Honduran men and women”—as the Baltimore Sun (6/13/95) put it—effectively “terroriz[ing] Honduras for much of the 1980s.”
In Cuba, the CIA reportedly devised no fewer than 638 ways to kill Fidel Castro—one of them, recalled by the Guardian (8/2/06), was inspired by Castro’s fondness for scuba diving and involved “invest[ment] in a large volume of Caribbean mollusks”: “The idea was to find a shell big enough to contain a lethal quantity of explosives, which would then be painted in colors lurid and bright enough to attract Castro’s attention when he was underwater.” An impressive allocation of time and resources, indeed.
Closer to home, the CIA conducted LSD experiments on unwitting US citizens in the 1950s—and, speaking of drugs, the agency has often been up to its ears in them (despite that whole drug war the US perennially professes to be waging). A 1993 article in the International Herald Tribune (12/3/93) observed that, while “CIA ties to international drug trafficking date to the Korean War,” nowhere was the organization “more closely tied to drug traffic than it was in Pakistan during the Afghan War.”
During the devastating US war on Vietnam and neighboring countries, the Herald Tribune article specified, heroin refined in Laos was “ferried out on the planes of the CIA’s front airline, Air America.” A 2009 post by historian John Prados at the National Security Archive (8/26/09) confirmed that the “agency’s broad span of activities reached into virtually every aspect of the Indochina war,” as the CIA “actually conducted a full-scale war in Laos and ran a variety of paramilitary programs in South Vietnam.”
The list goes on. But the point, in short, is that many global inhabitants would presumably not grieve too terribly if modern-day surveillance were to complicate the CIA’s drive for a “larger foreign footprint.”
Nor should we forget the CIA’s contemporary history of extraordinary rendition and torture—a track record that leads us to Haspel herself. As Lisa Hajjar, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the author of Torture: A Sociology of Violence and Human Rights, wrote for The Nation (3/16/18): Haspel “played a leading role in the agency’s program of torture, kidnapping and forced disappearance during the [George W.] Bush administration.” Most specifically, Haspel “oversaw the interrogation and torture of a Saudi national named Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri” at a black site in Thailand in 2002.
But back to NPR—which, as it so happens, is not the hugest fan of the T-word. In 2009, then–NPR vice president for news Ellen Weiss denied reports that the outlet had banned the use of the word “torture” altogether:
We gave our journalists guidance about how to avoid loaded language about interrogation techniques, realizing that no matter what words are chosen, we risk the appearance of taking one side or another.
It’s doubtless thanks to these guidelines that we end up with, for example, an NPR dispatch (2/25/15) on the US Senate’s 2014 CIA torture report in which “torture” appears a total of two times. The first is in the introductory sentence: “For years in the military courtroom at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, there’s been a subject no one could talk about: torture.” Lest anyone think that we’re now going to talk about it, the only other reference is to “what many call ‘the torture report.’” NPR did, however, manage to describe in less “loaded language” one Guantánamo defendant’s chronic bleeding on account of overzealous rectal examination by the CIA—but, again, it’s important not to take sides.
In Myre’s segment, Jonna Mendez says that one of her responsibilities as the former CIA chief of disguise was to “de-Americanize” spies. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, it seems torture and other misdeeds are as American as apple pie; ditto, apparently, for media whitewashing of nefarious intelligence agencies.
Featured image: Disguise kit at Spy Museum, Washington, DC (cc photo: Jared Eberhardt)
This week on CounterSpin, what makes the work we’re doing even possible: the freedom to speak our criticism of the powerful out loud, to protest against actions taken by the state and by corporations, to communicate openly with one another about how to demand the better world we know is possible.
Corporate news media serve up a lot of palaver about free speech, but when people actually act on that ideal, media elites use their megaphones to dismiss and deride, and to circumscribe conversation to make it appear that ideas that threaten their interests aren’t really serious ideas, and the people fighting for them are marginal, even dangerous. The power is with us, and our ability to speak and to hear one another—and holding on to that ability is just another part of the work we have to do.
We talk about all this with Chip Gibbons, policy and legislative counsel at the group Defending Rights & Dissent.
As world leaders gathered in Poland for the UN climate conference, the Washington Post threw its support behind a $9 billion plan to add over 100 miles of toll lanes to Maryland highways in the traffic-choked DC region. The Post offered its hearty initial support, despite the fact that studies show adding more lanes leads to more cars on the road, when cars already consume “a quarter of the world’s oil” (New York Times, 12/13/18).
At the climate conference—which came on the heels of a major UN report finding that the world has just 12 years to drastically cut emissions to avert catastrophe—there was a sense of urgency. “To waste this opportunity in [Poland] would compromise our last best chance to stop runaway climate change,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. “It would not only be immoral, it will be suicidal.”
Meanwhile, at the Post—which seemed to be channeling President Trump’s drill, baby, drill approach to the environment—there was excitement over Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s highway expansion plan, which the newspaper (12/8/18) hailed as “potentially one of the most audacious public/private partnerships in the nation.”
Marylanders, however, are far less enthused (Post, 10/12/18). And with good reason: A joint study by US PIRG and Frontier Group found Hogan’s plan to be one of the country’s top “boondoggles.” The public interest groups noted that rather than easing congestion, adding lanes just encourages more drivers to use the roads. Traffic quickly rebounds to the level it was at before the expansion, while pollution increases and the public purse is drained.Public/Private Partnerships
In order to avoid the perception that expanding highways costs the public money, Hogan is turning to private interests to finance and operate the toll lanes in exchange for future toll revenue. These so-called public/private partnerships (P3s) are attractive to lawmakers because they require little to no upfront public money. (“It won’t cost us tax dollars,” Hogan claimed—as though tolls aren’t also money spent by the public.) But things can get messy down the road.
In Indiana, then–Gov. Mike Pence turned to foreign investors to fund a highway expansion in 2014. Three years later, as Pence entered the White House as vice president, the project was two years behind schedule, $137 million over budget and boosting car accidents nearly 50 percent, leading the Indianapolis Star (6/18/17) to label it “Mike Pence’s infrastructure mess.”
In Virginia, which the Post (12/8/18) holds up as a P3 model, there have been challenges as well. Express lanes on the Beltway—nicknamed “Lexus lanes” for their high tolls—have operated at a financial loss, even as the Australian company financing and operating them remains highly profitable (Post, 10/12/18).
A unique feature of P3s is that their complexity offers investors a variety of ways to maintain profitability, even at a cost to the public, Jeremy Mohler of In the Public Interest explained in a Post op-ed (10/12/18). For instance, if too many vehicles on the Virginia Beltway are carpools, which aren’t charged tolls, the state is penalized.
In addition to Mohler, further criticism of Hogan’s plan has appeared in the Post. The paper (6/26/18) reported on the study that called the plan a boondoggle, as well as the project’s troubled start.
The initial $68.5 million proposal to oversee Hogan’s mega-project was “caught in scandal,” the Post (6/30/18) reported. The governor killed the initial proposal after revelations that the state’s unusual contracting process resulted in two out of the three primary contractors having ties to Hogan’s transportation secretary (Post, 4/20/18). (The secretary cited the rush to lure Amazon’s second headquarters to Maryland as a reason for the questionable procurement. In its unsuccessful bid to lure Amazon—whose CEO, Jeff Bezos, owns the Post—Maryland offered a whopping $8.5 billion in public goodies.)
The Post reported on the troubling start to Hogan’s plan at the time, but since then it’s been largely forgotten, as has the study which showed the highway expansion to be a boondoggle. What’s more, the Post (12/8/18) waited until after Hogan’s reelection to inform readers that his highway expansion is likely to require taking people’s private property, possibly “razing businesses, houses and apartments.”
Meanwhile, the Post only gives the faintest of nods to climate change, even as Hogan puts the issue front and center—as a justification for highway expansion. “The science is clear,” Hogan lectured Josh Tulkin, director of the Sierra Club’s Maryland chapter, at a Board of Public Works meeting, “people’s traveling at greater speeds do produce lower carbon emissions. Challenging that is like being a climate change denier.” (You may be unsurprised to learn that increasing highway capacity is not an effective way to reduce carbon emissions.) Asked by the governor whether he was “pro-traffic,” Tulkin explained that adding more lanes induces more demand, an argument Hogan found unpersuasive.
But the science is clear: Heading off climate disaster necessitates rapid changes, including getting cars off the road. Meanwhile, the Post is advocating for the opposite—suicidal—approach. The newspaper’s message seems to be, Let the good times roll, at least for those in the Lexus lanes.