As I often tell people, there seems a totally unpredictable, even random aspect to major American media coverage. Whether a scandal explodes into the public eye or escapes without notice seems difficult to foretell.
Consider the recent example of Dr. Jason Richwine, late of the Heritage Foundation, whose ideological travails became one of Washington’s major scandals-of-the-month over the past week. Googling his exact name now yields half a million web results, and I’d guess that 99% of these are of extremely recent vintage.
As some media commentators have suggested, Richwine himself may be wondering Why Me and Why Now? After all, the racial writings and opinions that provoked so much media fury had never been secretive or disguised; they were always hiding in plain sight.
His Harvard doctoral dissertation asserting the strong connection between race and IQ and suggesting that American immigration policy should be changed to reflect this relationship has been freely available on the Internet for years, as have been video clips of his public pronouncements on the same subject. His articles and columns arguing that Hispanics have unusually high crime rates—mostly written in rebuttal to my own contrary findings—have always been a mouse-click away, and anyone checking would have noticed that these writings had appeared in Alternative Right, a racial nationalist webzine whose ideological orientation has now suddenly been classified as poisonous by the Washington commentariat.
Obviously, one important factor in Richwine’s sudden DC demise was his newly-found prominence as co-author of a major Heritage study attacking the fiscal basis of the proposed immigration reform legislation. Powerful organizations support such legislation and they certainly had every incentive to undercut that research by destroying the credibility of one of its authors. Perhaps a Washington Post journalist just happened to stumble upon Richwine’s 2009 dissertation or perhaps pro-immigration opposition researchers quietly pointed him in that direction.
But given the highly controversial nature of Richwine’s racial views and his visibility asauthor of dozens of major studies at DC’s premier conservative thinktank over the last three years, it is easy to imagine that a similar if less widely reported version of this same ideological scandal might have occurred years ago. An enterprising reporter somewhere might have noticed Richwine’s controversial opinions and decided to write about them, the talking heads on cable television hostile to Heritage might have taken up the topic, and perhaps a mini-firestorm would have developed on a slow news day. Our political world is filled with open barrels of gunpowder and showers of random sparks, and although they sometimes explosively connect, more often they do not and instead remain in place, waiting for a future moment.
This metaphor of open gunpowder and random sparks should be kept firmly in mind when considering my recent American Pravda article on the remarkable lapses of our mainstream media.
My piece has certainly not been ignored, having received more initial readership than anything I have ever previously published with the sole exception of my Meritocracy article; it spent almost two straight weeks ranked as TAC’s most read article, and still remains safely lodged at number two. And it has received widespread coverage and linkages from numerous Internet websites and pundits, including a very generous and widely distributed column by Paul Craig Roberts, one of the most vocal public defectors from the reigning bipartisan establishment that some have aptly termed our “American Regime.”
Meanwhile, the piece also received major mention in so establishmentarian a publication asForbes, with columnist Eamonn Fingleton describing it as one of the best critiques of the American media he had ever read, and sending many thousands of his readers in my direction. Other mainstream journalists have privately expressed similar sentiments to me, and they may also eventually help bring the piece to wider public awareness.
And on our website itself, there appeared a lengthy and particularly perspicacious comment by one “Gabriel” worth excerpting here:
Of course, it is extraordinarily disconcerting to question the media, especially if you ever got around to trusting it in the first place. You made a comparison of the information we get from our own senses with news we get from the media. Excellent comparison — and it works both ways: not being able to trust the media is just as bewildering as not being able to trust your own nervous system! You’re being hit over the head but you can’t tell! Every time you question the source of that trail of blood behind you everyone laughs at you! Not only do media lies disturb your own vision, but the mainstream media, through various means, controls the “group mind” as well. Fall out of touch with that, and you can lose friends, influence, investors, your job… whatsoever.
* * *
Many readers point to things left out of this article, often with an accusatory tone. Look, people: this article punches a hole in the wall of illusion the mainstream press has built around each of us. The author proceeds to point in various specific directions. To those disturbed that x, y, and z weren’t covered I would say: there is an entire world on the other side of that wall. An entire universe. It’s called the truth, and there’s a whole lot of it.
I have certainly been gratified that so many individuals have commented favorably on my piece, and praised its portrayal of the dishonesty of the American media and the consequent extent to which our public is misinformed and misled. But even so, very few have chosen to explicitly mention the several barrels of open gunpowder that I carefully stacked in the last one-half of my article text. Perhaps at some point some bold and enterprising journalist somewhere will decide to ignite one or more of them. If so, then the resulting media conflagration may turn out to be vastly greater than that surrounding the recent auto-da-fe of the unfortunate Dr. Richwine.
Meanwhile, the ardent civil libertarians of the Obama Administration have announced that they expect the ongoing War Against Terror—and the extraordinary legal situation it requires—to continue for “at least another 10 to 20 years” and therefore say that the original 2001 Congressional resolution authorizing this Forever War should remain in place without alterations. Liberal Democratic congressional leaders strongly endorsed this perspective, while conservative Republicans demurred…or perhaps it was the other way round. The entire story was buried deep within the inside pages of this morning’s New York Times, and received little coverage anywhere else in the mainstream American media.
However, I was also very pleased to see Reason’s science correspondent Ron Bailey citing some of my own Race/IQ analysis in his effective attempt to refute Richwine’s views based on a dispassionate presentation of factual evidence rather than mere vituperation.
And I’m now off to attend an international conference, held in a part of the world whose educated citizens surely receive their own media Pravda, probably better than ours in some respects and worse in others, but certainly providing a strikingly different version of reality.
I just finished chatting about the IRS and AP scandals on the Marc Steiner show with Ari Berman of The Nation, the ACLU’s Gabe Rottman, and for the second half, FDL’s Kevin Gosztola. Podcast forthcoming here.
We disagreed, obviously, about how the IRS’s discrimination bears on campaign finance reform. I don’t see how the IRS scandal argues for putting even more power in their hands.
But I’d like to return to a finer point about which we disagreed but didn’t really get into. Berman seemed convinced that the discrimination was the result of front-line IRS employees deluged with a glut of new, post-Citizens United filings, that needed to come up with some criteria for sorting through it. This is more or less the argument the IRS itself has made (and somewhat similar to the one officials are making about Benghazi). For his part, Rottman contended that the politics didn’t matter so much as the discriminatory questioning itself. Here are four reasons why it’s hard to believe the IRS wasn’t just coping with an overflow of applications, despite the IG report’s assertion to the contrary.
- The questions themselves — If the IRS employees did not know that 501c4s are not required to disclose their donors when they asked for lists, then they are shockingly incompetent. So why did they want them? Either they intended to embarrass the donors by leaking them, or somewhat more benignly, it was just another question in a litany of unreasonable requests designed to hold up the approval process.
- Democratic calls to crack down on 501c4 groups — These are far from the only ones.
- Behavior and connections of IRS employees — The IRS commissioner knew about the targeting for at least a year and hasn’t reported it. She’s not even the one getting fired, and currently runs the IRS’s Affordable Care Act office. Director of the exemptions unit Lois Lerner’s initial apology contained a number of statements that were untrue, such as the number of organizations targeted and that it was confined to the Cincinnati office. Last night Jon Ward reported a congressional source said that Lerner hasn’t agreed to testify before Congress, is in Montreal, and has hired the same lawyer as Dominique Strauss Kahn.
- Leaks to liberal groups — ProPublica reported Monday that IRS employees leaked the applications of nine conservative groups. The National Organization for Marriage is now accusing the IRS of doing the same with their confidential information
There’s a lot we still don’t know, and today’s hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee (in progress) is only the first step in finding out. And IRS employees behaving in a partisan way does not imply White House involvement, of course. But I’d argue the totality of the evidence already points strongly toward there being political motivations behind the targeting.
Update: An early highlight from today
The Buchanan-Hitchens interview that Dan posted brings back such a welter of memories and nostalgia. To see the then youngish Hitchens make a cutting “lying us into war” barb about John F. Kennedy! The very Hitchens who, a short decade later, would take pride of place among ”liberal hawks” arguing for the invasion of Iraq, a project spurred far more by lies than Vietnam, which was based on crude application of the quite reasonable and successful doctrine of containment. Yet I don’t want to be hard on Hitchens—for generally in the interview he is lucid and pleasant.
And boy, those were good times. We had just won the Cold War, the economy was gearing up into its first early internet boom, the crime rate topped out and was beginning to decline. Global warming was no more than a theory, and we still seemed to have plenty of time prevent it. You were unlikely to hear (as one does hear nowadays) young adults talking about looming environmental collapse as a reason not to have children.
Of course 1993 was more or less the last historical moment before the internet. Salon has just posted an provocative interview with author and tech guru Jaron Lanier, who sets down some guideposts for sociological analysis of what changes the internet has wrought. This is a critical subject, because in most ways the internet has changed life for the worse. (Of course you are reading and I am writing on a website, but readers and writers could find one another a generation ago, and the experience was no less rewarding—for the writer, probably far more so.) Lanier argues that the digital revolution is a principal cause of the collapse of the middle class, the drying up of jobs which provided the backbone for most American family life. He points out that while we once had Kodak (and its 140,000 jobs), now we have Instagram, which employs something like a dozen. Gone with Kodak are 140,000 corporate health plans, and no doubt countless Little League teams and brownie troops. This argument feels correct to me, and it deserves to be thoroughly explored in the months ahead.
I occasionally bore my grown children by pointing out that the level of technology we had even a generation further back, in the 1960s, was completely fine. You could travel by jet. Antibiotics existed (and were probably more effective than now), no one died tragically of scarlet fever or something. (On second reading, I would note that AIDS, apparently non-existent in the 1960s, was still a death sentence in 1993 and would be for another couple of years.) People could make make a living writing books or working for newspapers, or working in a factory. Email didn’t exist of course, much less twitter, but somehow people were able to communicate. And I don’t want to go overboard and overpraise the quality of political leadership then, but I think the Congress run by Jim Wright and Bob Michel was probably a great improvement over the current one. Is it just me, or is the general tone of the Buchanan-Hitchens exchange far more elevated than political talk you see on TV today?
Both the title and the trailer of Mira Nair’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (now playing in DC at the E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema) suggest that this will be the story of how a man becomes a fundamentalist: how a young-gun New York financier, humiliated and mistreated after 9/11, turns his back on America and returns to Pakistan to become an Islamic terrorist. This is not the actual story of the film. In a sense the movie has too much story for this summary, and the protagonist, Changez Khan (a changeable, intense Riz Ahmed), gets trapped in the conflicting interpretations by which other people file down his life into intelligibility.
Khan’s family and upbringing are lightly sketched, although his mother is memorably played by Shabana Azmi. His father (Om Puri) is a poet who looks down on the son’s quest for Wall Street wealth and the “creative destruction” of capitalism. Capitalism itself is one of the movie’s two “fundamentalisms,” and its basic insufficiency and wrongness are more or less taken for granted by the film and used to make other points. For example, there’s a point at which one character decides that terrorist violence is wrong because it’s too much like cutthroat capitalism.
Khan initially affirms the capitalist articles of faith, though, and begins his meteoric rise, becoming the youngest man ever named associate at “Underwood Samson.” Everything changes on September 11, 2001, when Khan sits in a Philippines hotel room (he’s gone there to fix up a car company and ends up causing the firing of an entire section of the operation) and watches the second plane hit the towers. On the way back to the States he’s pulled out of line, strip-searched with a clinical and courtesy-free coldness, and returned to his company not as a capitalist but as a “foreign national.” Things spiral downward from there. Khan’s new beard draws suspicion, he’s spat at and menaced, he’s mistaken for a different guy (listed in the credits as “Ranting South Asian Man,” I believe), arrested, and interrogated. His budding–but always a bit creepy–romance with a woman still mourning her deceased ex-boyfriend falls apart. He quits the firm and goes home.
We learn all this and more in flashback, as a story being told by Khan in Lahore to a journalist, Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schrieber), whom he suspects of being a CIA spy. Schrieber looks the part, for sure, extra-slumpy and -jowly in this role. You could picture him wearily breaking up a fight down the local, or wearily buying a girl in 1960s Saigon. The stakes of their interview are high: A professor has been kidnapped, and the CIA thinks Khan was involved. The journalist is offering him a chance to clear his name, but clear is not what Khan wants his story to become. More complicated is what he wants Lincoln to see.
I found several of the story’s twists both startling and, in retrospect, totally believable. When Khan sees the towers fall, he tells Lincoln, he didn’t feel any glee at the deaths, but he admits to a slight thrill at “arrogance brought low”; in a certain sense that’s his own story as well, the Master of the Universe learning how helpless he really is, but the movie doesn’t hammer at or wallow in this parallel.
The New York sections are intensely cliched, cartoonish, which initially annoyed me but which I now think really works, for three reasons: One, this is America; it’s a big country and for any cliche you name there are probably a hundred people who have lived it out. Two, we’re hearing all this from Khan’s own present-tense perspective. Since part of the movie’s point is that perspective narrows story down into interpretation, of course his story should itself feel “off” to someone still embedded in the American POV. And three, it doesn’t really matter, does it? Different awful things could have happened and Khan might still have been left feeling like he had nowhere safe to stand, nowhere left to live as an individual with integrity rather than a geopolitical chesspiece.
The movie’s alternatives to “fundamentalism” are vague. We see scattered phrases on the blackboard when post-New York Khan is teaching, but we never hear him make a sustained argument or even really finish a sentence. The end of the movie offers little hope. At best it hints that exhaustion can bring peace, but that perhaps this exhaustion can only be sustained when it’s backed by religious faith: faith that peace is what God wants.