One of the doctrinal points of “professional journalism” is that any journalist who openly proclaims politics at odds with the state becomes, by definition, unprofessional. This only seems fathomlessly stupid, but it is not so. The profession of journalism is often a form of priestcraft, and the spectacles of state require devoted servants. In war and peace, the business of burning incense before the Golden Calf is serious business. And if human victims are required on pyramids of sacrifice, a mob of journalists is always ready to slip on priestly robes while reaching for the knives.
I was born in the mid-20th century, in that brief moment after a world war and before the labor unions gave up the ghost of a class conscious and unapologetic struggle against capitalism. If the jobs requiring both sweat and skill were being shipped offshore in any case, at least the union leaders could stay in the business of “negotiating” with the ruling class. I am a socialist, so my journalistic credentials might as well go into the shredding machine oiled and operated by journalists who pretend to have no political views of their own.
The whole point of the professional journalistic creed is to form a closed circle of gatekeepers. An outer circle of journalists thereby gains “access” to an inner circle of career politicians. Even that political club contains onion-like layers of class consciousness, measured quite precisely by millions and even billions of dollars. When the ruling class wants war, the majority of journalists vote for war. This is one reason why a Viennese Jew, Karl Kraus, once waged his own war against journalists, and took pains to write in the early 20th century: “How is the world ruled and led to war? Diplomats lie to journalists and believe these lies when they see them in print.”
Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras are two dissenting journalists who did their job in breaking the bad news of this republic to readers and citizens. Even seasoned activists and organizers, well accustomed to jail cells and police spies, remained innocent of the true scale of state surveillance until Edward Snowden provided the evidence to Poitras and Greenwald. Snowden knew what to expect from the journalistic wolf packs, and he certainly kept the fate of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, in mind. So Snowden took care to flee the country, and then entrusted the evidence to two of the very few journalists worth his trust. A number of print and broadcast journalists lost no time trying to strip Poitras and Greenwald of their professional credentials.
In a remarkably fair and factual cover story published in The New York Times Magazine on Aug. 18, Peter Maass focused on the work of Poitras. As an inclusive term, journalism covers the work of both Poitras and Greenwald. Poitras is more specific and told Maass, “I am a documentary filmmaker.” Though Poitras has made five films, has won a Peabody Award and a MacArthur Award, and is now working on a state surveillance documentary centered on Snowden’s NSA revelations, she preferred to be on the margins of fame in order to do her work. For his part, Greenwald gladly gives credit to Poitras, and told Maass, “She’s been at the center of all this, and yet no one knows anything about her.”
Her skill set, including her ease with cameras, computers and encryption, proved crucial in gaining the trust of Snowden and in breaking his story to the public. Though Snowden first approached Greenwald by email (while concealing his identity), the Guardian writer said he found encryption software “annoying and complicated.” So Snowden contacted Poitras, and she took encryption in stride.
As Poitras told Maass, the information Snowden claimed to have meant a reassessment of the risks of her work. And she had to assess a stranger sending her encrypted messages. “I called him out,” she told Maass. “I said you either have this information and you are taking huge risks or you are trying to entrap me and the people I know, or you’re crazy.” After Snowden, Poitras and Greenwald met together in Hong Kong, they further established bona fides and basic trust.
For Poitras, the consequences of her work have included more than 40 interrogations by law enforcement agents when she passes through airports. Poitras has now refined her methods of avoiding state surveillance to pursue her work. “Geolocation is the thing,” she told Maass. “I want to keep as much off the grid as I can. … Our lives will never be the same. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to live someplace and feel like I have my privacy. That might just be completely gone.”
Only in the wake of these events did President Obama assure us that state surveillance would encompass even state surveillance under its field of observation. Yes, the power of the state is a miracle of self-regulation. Obama’s main mission in public office is to keep his cool, and he is one of the most sterling instruments of power the ruling class could desire. If we, the people, ever had the audacity of hope, we can now learn new lessons in the paucity of change. “Our two party system” is grandly commodious, if we accommodate ourselves strictly to the dictates of our new dynastic rulers: the Bushes, the Clintons and (just give them time) the Obamas.
If you ever had the notion that social change erupts, first and foremost, from social movements, perish the thought! Didn’t Bill Clinton sign the Defense of Marriage Act under cover of darkness, since he certainly did not do so in a Rose Garden ceremony? Bygones! Wasn’t Hillary Clinton only recently giving a sermon on the sanctity of marriage for one man and one woman? All is forgiven, all is forgotten! If Bill and Hillary, those Macbeths of Washington, have any chance of teaching us new refinements in “pragmatism,” then we may shield our eyes but we must clear their path to the throne. If the Clintons can reclaim their right to rent out the Lincoln bedroom to the highest bidder, then who are you and who am I to veto their ambition on Election Day?
From every formerly insurgent social movement, the ruling class needs only to shop around for social climbers. That is much less expensive than the option sometimes attributed to Jay Gould, the financier and strike-breaking railroad baron: “I can hire one half of the working class to shoot the other half.”
In electoral politics, the moral to all such stories is always the same: When choosing between “the lesser of two evils,” the only choice that really counts is keeping the two big corporate parties in business. The same progressives who were so eager to vote for our first black president will, of course, find no obstacle to voting for our first woman president (if Hillary Clinton should run). Only being a Republican would count as an obstacle. The question is then purely partisan, and so we have witnessed the endless regression of progressives for more than 50 years.
The White House will remain the priciest political prize for the progressive wing of the ruling class. Under Obama, the drone wars escalated and the reach of “the security state” was vastly extended. In the internecine battles of the Democratic Party, Obama demonstrated that he had mastered the art of triangulation even better than his mentors, the Clintons. Hillary Clinton may yet demonstrate to the satisfaction of “glass ceiling” feminists that a woman has all the nerve necessary to become Bombardier-in-Chief. And in the current mayoral race in New York City, Christine Quinn, a married lesbian, has been helped along by the sophomoric self-evisceration of Anthony Weiner. Quinn’s political orientation is reliably corporatist. That is the true test of a “pragmatic” candidate.
War against war! That is one of the old slogans of struggle against the whole bloody order of the capitalist system. I joined the War Resisters League before I ever set foot in any meeting of class-conscious workers. The moral revolt against death squads, capital punishment and imperial wars came first in my case, and naturally I was a teenage anarchist. Only by later study and life lessons did I become a socialist.
Each and every class-conscious struggle against militarism also means taking up again the unfinished business of the Enlightenment. Anyone who thinks workers add only muscle to that struggle has not yet begun to learn the first lesson of any true philosophy, namely, that all universal knowledge must first begin with a sense of place. In every place where workers, peasants and the wretched of the earth fight for dignity, in that very place a small and sane republic is fighting for common ground. A class-conscious war against war is therefore not a side issue or a footnote for the socialist movement.
I cannot consent to every point and nuance in the public words of Greenwald and Poitras. If such distinctions are required, there will be time later to spell them out. Right now, Poitras and Greenwald deserve our solidarity because of their evident public spirit. They share another quality, so rare that it must be called analytical dispassion fused with sheer defiance of that sad, sclerotic, brutal creature we call the state. Yet Poitras and Greenwald are not anarchists. They incline strongly toward a republic of free citizens.
A constitution may be defended on its own merits, or criticized for historical faults. I count Poitras and Greenwald among our pre-eminent civil libertarians. Only such people keep the government honest, and they do so by forcing the usual hidden bad habits of power into the light of day. Only in this way is an imperiled republic called to account in the public realm. Not by the pieties of politicians, and not by the sleepwalking evasions of journalists.
If we entrust our liberty to the National Security Agency, then Orwell’s Big Brother might as well be the bogeyman of 1984. After all, we are much more up to date, greedy for every electronic gadget that might give the state new eyes and new ears. Journalists have been too willing to volunteer as state prosecutors, and are speeding the day when only one question resounds in public: “What have you got to hide?”
Now, even as Chelsea Manning begins a sentence of 35 years in prison, and even as Edward Snowden finds a tenuous refuge in Russia, I have a small selfish motive in defending Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. If I let this moment pass without adding my protest to the public record, I’ll pay a debt in private shame. There are differences between our worldviews, our temperaments, our paths in life. Are those differences decisive now?
Not now! What counts now is praising their courage and, if possible, offering them some practical help. There is no doubt in my mind that Poitras and Greenwald are saving the honor of journalism at a time when so many journalists are just chasing their own careers. From such careerists I do not need reminders that people such as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Manning, Snowden, Greenwald and Poitras are only human. Yes, but at least they are fighting to remain human!
If you are willing to follow a story wherever it leads, even and especially if it leads against a doctrine or prejudice you once held dear, then you are following the news of the day in earnest, and not merely the damn news cycle. In that sense, Poitras and Greenwald have proven their worth. If they are hounded out of the club of journalists, then the news cycle is just a wheel of fortune.
If the great distinction of a “professional journalist” is the claim to be above all ideology, then that claim is subject to debate among the wide and nonprofessional public. In my view, which I take no pains to hide, the standard claims of “objective journalism” are among the bloodiest and most barbaric weapons in the ideological armory of the ruling class. One of the lowest circles in the hell of journalism, circling the very stinking pit of the Old Deceiver, has to belong to journalists who think they have mastered the universe merely because they have mastered the editorial voice.
Anyone of my age will remember the street rebellions, the protests for peace and the social movements of the 1960s. We also remember the bitter slogan of false patriotism: “Love it or leave it!” Among patriots there are also heartbroken lovers, and if you choose exile then you leave the country you love. There is also the choice (when possible) of working out some kind of binational and part-time expatriation. Greenwald, though born in this country, has chosen to make his home in Rio de Janeiro with his Brazilian partner, David Miranda. The Guardian, a British publication of the civil libertarian left, has welcomed the work of Poitras and Greenwald, and their offices have drawn visits from agents of state security. Readers interested in the more ridiculous details (the destruction of hard drives as though they were magical talismans) can easily refer to The Guardian. Certain episodes, however, are stark and sobering.
The net of the North American “security state” has been wide enough to leave Snowden stranded in Russia for the time being, an irony I will not belabor here. A few brute facts about President Vladimir Putin’s regime are in order. Putin was an officer of the KGB before becoming a politician. The present regime has a marriage of convenience with the Russian Orthodox Church (which has canonized the Romanovs who were executed in a rural basement by the Bolsheviks). Anna Politkovskaya, a brave and independent journalist who opposed Putin and who covered the savage war in Chechnya, was shot dead in 2006. An award for civic work and journalism established in her name was first given in 2007 to one of her friends and colleagues, Natalia Estemirova, who was also shot dead in 2009. The prosecution and imprisonment of members of Pussy Riot, a feminist punk band, drew global attention; and the gang attacks and national laws directed against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people will throw a long shadow over the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi.
Since the Ecuadorean Embassy in London now shelters Assange, the criticism that Ecuador is not a paradise of civil liberties may also seem very pointed. I grant the point, such as it is, and we should all feel free to criticize any country. But whistle-blowers against abuses of state power in North America and Europe are not perfectly free agents in choosing places of political refuge. If we demand that political dissenters arrive only in the holy land of our own choosing, then the glib charge of utopianism (so often made against critics of tyranny) must be turned back against the journalists and politicians who make that charge. One price of “the war on terror” (conducted far beyond that aim, in fact) is that professional journalists have grown comfortable as state stenographers, but are wary of making the strong case for liberty.
As David Sirota noted in an article published in Salon on Aug. 20, “This past Saturday, Time magazine senior national correspondent, Michael Grunwald, told his 10,000-plus Twitter followers that ‘he can’t wait to write a defense of the drone strike that takes out Julian Assange.’ ”
Journalists who patrol the borders of their profession by calling upon the state to eliminate critics of state power do not, of course, question their own right to hold the credentials of their chosen club. “Likewise,” Sirota added, “it is yet more proof that the nonchalant bloodlust that pervades the National Security State also exists inside the establishment media that is supposed to be objectively covering that National Security State.”
Greenwald spelled out the high price in liberty we, the people, are paying day by day for the “special relationship” between the security agencies of the United States and the United Kingdom. In an article published in The Guardian on Aug. 18, after Miranda was detained for nine hours at Heathrow Airport, Greenwald depicted the brave new world of transatlantic security. Miranda (oh, the gods must have a sense of irony) was detained for the full number of hours strictly allowed by British law. He was asked all about his life and associates, and for what reason? Reasons of state, including the deliberate attempt to intimidate the partner of a journalist.
Anyone aiding and abetting the free exercise of journalism is now potentially subject to detention under suspicion of aiding and abetting terrorism. Without, of course, being legally, directly and publicly charged with any conceivable act of terror.
This is the locked down chessboard of Kafka’s “The Trial,” since any move you make may (at the discretion of the authorities) be judged a capital offense. If you are not actually put to death, the professional journalists will even cheer the leniency of military courts, as we have just witnessed in the case of Manning. Journalists might take more pains to recall that one of the civilians killed by trigger-happy pilots (as documented in a military video now widely known as “Collateral Murder”) was in fact a journalist. How do we now know? Only because Manning, who was pathologized and humiliated even in the last days of the trial, made the choice to share the evidence of war crimes with the public.
Obama, who used the bully pulpit of his presidency to judge Manning guilty before a military judge could do so, must have also used his constitutional expertise to sign off on the execution of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a teenager born in the United States. Guilty by association, this boy was duly erased by a drone strike, without judge or jury or any fair day in court. A Nobel Peace Prize winner in the White House was just dealing with “the world as it is.”
When Miranda was detained at Heathrow, he refused both a glass of water and the offer of a lawyer. Why indeed would he learn any lessons from the state except the very lessons the state was leaning on him to learn? The ordeal was not waterboarding, after all, or being hooded and chained in the company of barking dogs. Just a subtle reminder from the state that you pick your friends and lovers at your own risk.
As Greenwald wrote in his Guardian article on Aug. 18:
“The detention of my partner, David Miranda, by the UK authorities, will have the opposite effect of the one intended. … This is obviously a rather profound escalation of their attacks on the newsgathering process and journalism. It’s bad enough to prosecute and imprison sources. It’s worse still to imprison journalists who report the truth. But to start detaining the family members and loved ones of journalists is simply despotic. Even the Mafia had ethical rules against targeting the family members of people they felt threatened by. But the UK puppets and their owners in the U.S. national security state obviously are unconstrained by even those minimal scruples.”
At one stroke (which they must now defend as a stroke of genius, or explain away as a psychotic break), the overreaching agents of national security have alienated a whole new stratum of thinking citizens and independent journalists. In this country, we can rely on certain journalists and op-ed writers to tell us that the next true terrorist attack will make nonsense of all our carping, quibbles and civil libertarian concerns. Right, so why not get with the program of state security and surveillance right away?
Benjamin Franklin gave one of the good old answers: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” But I’ll give you my answer, too, straight from my queer heart. You’ve pushed me around long enough, and I am only one of many. To hell with the parties of war and empire. A republic founded upon free councils of workers and citizens would mean both a political and economic revolution in this country. The ruling class would be forced to earn an honest living, and we, the people, would decide exactly which conflicts require armed power. Any person would be free to declare openly the words that e. e. cummings gave to “Olaf, glad and big, whose warmest heart recoiled at war,” a conscientious objector done to death by false patriots, but who will still “ceaselessly repeat” so long as he breathes:
“I will not kiss your fucking flag. … There is some shit I will not eat.”