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Homage to Izzy Stone: Secrets & Lies


By Bernard Weiner
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers


June 24, 2008


Lies, big or small, are corrosive worms that can weaken foundations of trust, influence how events are framed, injure the liar as well as those lied to. When those untruths come from private individuals, the consequences usually are contained. When public officials lie, the moral dry-rot can be wide-ranging, sometimes leading to catastrophic results (read: Iraq).

I.F. Stone, one of my journalistic heroes from the '50s and '60s ("I.F. Stone's Weekly"), believed, correctly, that all governments lie and it is up to reporters to ferret out the truth. Izzy, who died in 1989, once regaled me by confessing that his greatest journalistic joy was in finding hidden truths in public documents at the local library or Library of Congress or in one-paragraph fillers in the newspapers or buried amidst the final paragraphs in long stories in the mainstream press. A good journalist, he said, doesn't have to make anything up; the truth of what's really going on is right there in the open, ripe for the picking if you know where to look, and how to look. And, most importantly -- do you hear, mainstream-media reporters?? -- if you're willing to look.

So what I'd like to do here is to browse through some current events and see what can be learned politically, socially, personally, from nuggets of news unearthed from the daily newspaper in the past few days. Here we go:



1. "DISAPPEARING" THE ANGER

What happens, and what is being said, when bureaucrats bring political sensibilities into the designs of a public artist?

It often happens. For example: Maya Lin's emotionally powerful Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., a black granite wall emerging from the earth with the names of the fallen etched into its reflective surface. Lin was forced by conservative opposition in the early 1980s to share the memorial grounds with a traditional sculpture of three soldiers. The two memorials don't mesh at all. (If you hang around and watch where the three million annual visitors to the memorial grounds go, it's directly to Lin's non-traditional Vietnam Veterans Wall, with few even paying attention to the aesthetically irrelevant three-soldiers sculpture next to it.)

Now the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is being planned for the National Mall in Washington, D.C. An artist recently showed his rendering of the Rev. King sculpture to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the federal panel that oversees monuments and memorials on the Mall. According to a three-paragraph story in my local newspaper, the commissioners indicated that the statue made King look "confrontational" and suggested that the sculpture be altered "both in form and modeling." The reaction of the artist was to alter the design by turning up King's mouth slightly to indicate the hint of a smile.

That was the extent of the little story. What can we learn from this?

The demand by the commissioners reminds one of Stalinist editing. Someone out of favor with the Soviet dictator? Airbrush him out of the photo. Don't like the way a novelist writes? Send him to the gulag. Object to a playwright's words? Have the censor remove them.

In this instance, the forces of reaction are demonstrating that they don't like blacks to be seen as angry or confrontational (formerly called "uppity"). So a softening smile appears on the civil rights activist who probably was one of the most confrontational social leaders in American history, able to transform justifiable African-American anger into a non-violent confrontational movement of huge and lasting impact.

Much of white America in 2008 would prefer to believe that the racial problem is over and done with or at least well on its way to being solved. Barack Obama is a candidate for the presidency -- therefore, they reason, black anger and frustration are unnecessary.

If you want more evidence of where this anger comes from, and why it won't disappear for a long long time, check out a new book by the award-winning Wall Street Journal writer Douglas Blackmon, "Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II." Blackmon convincingly argues that a brutal era of economic/political "neo-slavery" took hold in the American South after the Civil War, and was largely tolerated by whites in the North and by the federal and state judicial systems up until post-World War II. Only after the fallout from that war, the integration and affirmative-action rulings by the Supreme Court and the historic voting rights- and civil rights-legislation pushed through in the mid-1960s by President Lyndon Johnson as a result of courageous civil-rights activists, did the Jim Crow system finally begin to break apart. (I grew up in the post-war South, so can vouch for the accuracy of Blackmon's thesis.)

Here's the transcript of a fascinating interview with Blackmon on PBS' "Bill Moyer's Journal" from last Friday.

So, public artists, you've been given your marching orders. Remember: Public art should make people feel good -- and "patriotic." When in doubt, add an American flag. Yep, that's what the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts did to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, just in case visitors get confused as to what country they are living in.



2. DEMS' WAR-FUNDING CAVE

By now, everyone has heard the essence of the news about the House Democrats' total cave on two vital legislative issues: continued funding for the Iraq Occupation and the passage of so-called "compromise" FISA legislation -- the latter generally approved of by no less than the now-titular head of the party, Senator Obama.

All that was covered in the headlines. But below the surface, what's going on?

On the war-funding bill, the Democrats, with a straight face, claim they got huge "concessions" from the Administration by getting Bush to allow them to add funds for Iraq veterans' education and better post-battle health care, plus extended benefits to the unemployed in this dire economy and aid to flooded-out Iowa farmers -- as long the Dems provided the monies to continue the war/occupation. In other words, CheneyBush got what they wanted: an unfettered OK to continue waging war without Congress constantly breathing down their necks trying to get a withdrawal started.

But why were the Democrats so conciliatory on the war issue? At least a good share of the reason has to do with the coming November balloting, scared of going into the general-election campaign without having supplied "our brave young men and women" in Iraq the required funds for their armed support. Conveniently ignored is the fact that the corrupt Iraq rathole, which has eaten up an estimated $1 trillion, has sucked up at least $15 billion that the Administration cannot account for.  The Pentagon auditors have absolutely no idea which corrupt contractors, subcontractors, warlords or government officials ripped them off. Nor does the Bush Administration even profess to care much about the obvious thievery -- hey, it's just taxpayers' money.

But whatever the Dems' public rationalization for continuing to fund the war without at least adding some language to get U.S. troops out of that quagmire soon, the point is that even though Bush has the support of barely 23% of the population on the war and most every other issue, the Democrats continue to behave as if they must bow to his superior will. No wonder the public holds Congress in such disfavor as craven, self-destructive wimps. This is why progressives this time out are running against a good many Blue Dog Democrats, who tend to vote with the Republicans on key issues.



3. THE WEAK-KNEED CAVE ON FISA

But what about the revamped FISA bill, which the Democratic leadership and the White House referred to as a "compromise" that both sides could agree to? As far as I can see, rhe Democrats essentially gave CheneyBush all that they asked for: retroactive legalization of what they've done in terms of warrantless domestic spying, and retroactive immunity to the telecom giants for their cooperation in the lawbreaking, even without a court first determining what those corporations actually did.

The White House claims that under the "exclusivity" rule now passed, the White House can no longer act totally on its own when it wants surreptitiously to tap citizens' phone calls, read their emails, rifle through their computer files. Under the new bill passed by the House, from now on all such domestic spying must be done through the rules established by Congress under FISA.

But those rules are an open invitation to further abuse by the Executive Branch. For one thing, those rules are pretty much what Congress authorized in 1978 when setting up the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Court as a reaction to the gross misuse of intelligence and secret files by the Nixon Administration. George W. Bush, even prior to 9/11, broke the law by authorizing domestic spying outside of the FISA requirements. He paid no penalty then, and apparently will not now, for his criminal behavior -- not even an impeachment hearing on the charges. So in the bill passed last week, Congress is saying to the Chief Executive: "Don't ever do that again," but has provided no penalties if Bush or the next President decides to do it again anyway. And, they will, of course. If you build it, they will come.

And what of the Democratic leadership, especially Obama, going along so meekly as the Fourth Amendment and other Constitutional protections against autocratic rule were being shredded in this bill? What's going on? (Obama says he'll fight against the telecom immunity provision in the Senate, but he knows he'll lose there; the real fight was in the House, where Hoyer and Pelosi aggressively engineered the deal.)

It's possible that Obama, seeing the Oval Office in his near future, doesn't want to be boxed in by Congressional restrictions. Maybe he even believes in the need for draconian legislation to keep an eye on the Bad Guys, with the constitutional rights of ordinary citizens considered unfortunate "collateral damage." But he's given no such indications in previous speeches and actions, and he did vote against telecom immunity in last year's version of a similar bill. But candidates who become office-holders, swooning with the perfume of power in their nostrils, have been known to alter their principles.

Or maybe what we're witnessing is merely the time-honored dance to the center by candidates who've emerged victorious in the primaries by playing to their party's more narrow activist base and now must try to guarantee the election by going after the large middle part of the electorate, who are more cautious and moderate in their views. The blogger Digby calls Obama's current position a conscious political "strategy" rather than a capitulation. My guess is that shortly we'll start to see more such maneuvering toward the center by John McCain, once he's pandered and coddled the Republicans in the extreme rightwing of the party, who regard the former GOP "maverick" McCain with some suspicion about the depth of his conservative beliefs. Even with all the flip-flopping to the right from his former more-moderate positions, he's still looked at askance by the "true conservatives."

I think the blogger Atrios summed up the situation well in terms of our expectations of a President Obama: "It'll be no shock to most of us if Obama is less than all we want him to be in many ways. Let's just hope he's more than we expect him to be in others."

I think Obama, despite his built-in weaknesses and the usual politician's tendency to try to be all things to all people, has within him the potential for greatness. But we progressives and independents sure are going to have to be alert and constantly keep his feet to the political fire, lest he wander off into the usual Beltway byways, beholden to too many establishment interests.

Too bad I.F. Stone isn't still around. He would salivate at the possibility of dealing with a good but wavering Democrat.#
 

Copyright 2008, by Bernard Weiner
 

 


Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught government & international relations at universities in California and Washington, worked as a writer/editor at the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). To comment: crisispapers@comcast.net .
 


Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances