Robert Scheer Presentation, Santa Fe
Robert Scheer Presentation, Santa Fe
So now I get to give the long boring speech. But I do want to sort of present my own take. We don’t have a party line here. We have our disagreements. We publish a pretty broad range of basically progressive opinion. I tell people we have a condominium model: Once we give you a condo, you decorate it your own way. So I’m not going to tell Bill Boyarsky or Chris Hedges, Col. Ann Wright or anybody what to write, unless [Truthdig copy editor] Tom [Caswell] tells me they’re libeling somebody or being homophobic or racist. I want to just give my perspective, which is not the perspective of all the other people, about where I think we are in relation to this topic, which we’ve chosen here. It’s a question of not only the media, but the state of our democracy and I want to try to do it in a quicker way and a punchier way, so let me just give you the broad outline.
It is one of the virtues of age that I’ve lived through a lot of this. I don’t quite go back to the American Revolution, but my father did come here. My father was born in 1898, amazingly enough, and so I have memories from him of Germany and my mother came from Lithuania after the Bolshevik Revolution, as I once pointed out when they we’re deporting her. I said, “I don’t think you want to tell your boss Ronald Reagan you’re deporting one of the first Jewish dissidents.” But that is how she came here. She was in the Jewish socialists Bund and Lenin turned on her group and she had to get outta there.
So I was raised in a pretty questioning environment and yet during that whole growing up there was an enormous respect and love for the founders of this country. And later on I would come home and raise questions about the founders and there are questions to be raised. But I just remember the reverence that Thomas Jefferson was held in [in] our home. And it was funny, I remember during the McCarthy period, because I lived up in this project in the Bronx that had been built by the workers union and they were a bunch of old lefties there, some of them were throwing out their books because it got a little scary there with the FBI running around. And I remember I found this wonderful, I think it was 26 volumes of all the letters and works of Thomas Jefferson in a trash can. And I took it home and saved it. Somehow it was suspect. And I’ve thought a lot about it.
My previous book before “The Great American Stickup” was called “The Pornography of Power” and it was about how defense hawks hijacked 9/11 and terrorized us instead of having cuts in the arms budget that the first President Bush called for; after all, the Cold War is over. And the first President Bush said we should cut the defense budget by at least a third and go down to something normal. Why are we spending as much as the rest of the world combined? His secretary of defense then was Dick Cheney, who went along with it and then 9/11 came along and suddenly we were back to the height of the Cold War and building all these weapons. And just this last week [May 18] Congress decided to spend 8 billion more on defense expenditures, which is one reason it’s good to go to Los Alamos later and contemplate the existence of these … high-tech weapons when we don’t have a sophisticated military enemy in sight.
When I did that book, I was struck by an incredible bit of wisdom from George Washington — and he’s not one of the founders that people often go to for wisdom. But there was an incredible statement in his farewell address. After all, George Washington had not expected a second term and he had a long time to prepare his farewell address and shared it with some very famous people as you know if you studied this and thought about it a lot. And there’s an incredible understanding in that farewell address in which he warns against the impostures of pretended patriotism. And he warns against the foreign entanglements, the same thing Jefferson had warned about. And when you try to understand that idea … here’s a general. And the next general who tried to do that was Eisenhower after all, with his warning about the military-industrial complex. And you go back to figure out why were the founders so concerned about imperial adventure. Well, that’s what they were reacting against and they understood that the Athenian ideal of democracy, the idea of the city-state, the idea of the republic was inconsistent with the idea of empire. Whether you know it was Alexander, the French, the English, the people they were rebelling against. They knew that a republic of free people, an informed public — that was the basic ingredient, that truth would be the first casualty, that lying would be the order of the day. And when you look at this Constitution of ours, you understand that there’s sort of a basic tenet to it, which is that of an informed citizenry.
And the reason you have state’s rights is because people would be able to comprehend their issues — keep it local. You can understand whether the water should go that way, you can understand which policy and which taxation and so forth. And there was a recognition that when things got too far afield, certainly when war was involved and when they got too international, that the public was reduced to a level of idiocy. Denied basic information, manipulated by demagogues and you would not have this key ingredient: an informed republic. Very conscious of it. That’s why they enshrined rules to preserve that. It’s one of the terrible things about what has happened in the attack on the Occupy movement, which asserted the basic right of the people to assemble and redress grievances. What could be more basic to the idea of American democracy? Yet you had mayor after mayor, with the exception of the one in New York, but most of them Democratic mayors crushing an assemblage of people.
I remember going down to … I happen to be one of the stakeholders in downtown L.A and I’m one of the people who is supposed to be inconvenienced. Because suddenly we’re inconvenienced by people being around City Hall. I had already spoken at Occupy with Robert Reich and it was one of the best teach-ins I have ever been at. People were informed and there was this great sense of civic involvement. There was this terrible issue: There were 50 million Americans who have either lost their home or were going to lose their homes. We have this permanent joblessness and underemployment. We all know that statistic. We know the red ink. We know what’s happening to our school districts and our fire departments, and here were people who were actually making us deal with this front and center and the terrible rising income and inequality that had not been addressed and doing it in this way that was clearly constitutionally protected and they were crushed one after another by people who were supposed to be liberals!
It was astounding. And the argument was one of tidiness! It’s unsightly! Style, you know? And I remember going down and I had unfortunately been teaching that night and came home and I had actually a medical issue and so I fell asleep and I woke up and there were all these helicopters and everything going on and so I got to go. At first I thought they were making a movie because that happens in downtown L.A. all the time and I realized they’re not making a movie. It’s 3 in the morning or something and all these helicopters were circling around downtown L.A. My daughter-in-law is forcibly trying to prevent me from going. So, I go down there and I’m amazed at this show of strength by a liberal mayor who had been the head of the ACLU, Antonio Villaraigosa, a guy I had supported, a guy I liked, respected. I was amazed. I had visited and I had lived in … you know, I’m a stakeholder, I lived four bocks away. I’m there every day. We had a connection with it. We had done Truthdig Radio, we had done a lot of interviews. What was bothering them? What was bothering was that this was a visible reminder to the people running federal, state and municipal government that things are dangerously awry and they don’t want to be reminded of it. They still have their jobs and they just increased the parking tickets or something. …
I remember stumbling around and suddenly you’re up against what Chris Hedges has written about brilliantly: You’re up against the real power of the state. And everybody forgets that. It’s not mild; it’s the power you’re up against by the way if you don’t make your mortgage and you decide you want to keep your home because after all that electronic registration system in Reston, Virginia, doesn’t really know who owns your house and you were put into a securitization and had no control over it. And why the hell are they kicking you out of your house? Why aren’t they going after the banks that are kicking you out of your house? That sort of thing.
[There] just was something so incredible about this, but if you’re in a tenured professor position or if you work for the city government, you don’t feel that pain. Yet, who will throw them out of the house? It will be those people. It will be the sheriff. It’ll be the police. It’ll be the marshal — they will throw them out of the house. The power of the state will be exercised. It might have a velvet glove but it will be ruthless and total in the end. So there it was. I’m stumbling around and being told, “No, you can’t stand here, you’ve got to cross there” and it was getting really threatening. The arrests had already taken place when I was there, but I was stumbling around and it was dark. I remember being obsessed with this idea that I had to bring my book to the mayor and so I got a copy of my book and I went down to make sure he understands who the culprits are, who the villains are and it was one of those incredibly absurd, stupid exercises that we do out of our impotency, right? What are you going to do at 4:30 or 5 in the morning and you can’t stop this machine? They’re already putting in these concrete things and they’ve got this incredible force, power. There is police everywhere now and they’re being very stern and so forth.
I remember I saw a place, as daylight was starting to come up and people were going to City Hall I thought, “I’ll do that,” and I got in line and probably even managed to leave the book. And he actually called me up later because I wrote a column about it, but I was dumbfounded. And everyone I met there … some of these people I knew and had known for years. I covered them for the L.A. Times, they were friends, and I just couldn’t get the disconnect. How did these people who are protesting get to be the enemy? I just didn’t get it. And the argument again came down to tidiness. So what I did then is I walked about four blocks away in Los Angeles. And those of you who have been downtown in Los Angeles know that we have a scene that made the scene at City Hall look like a wonderful college teaching opportunity. Right? Because we have people living in cardboard condos block after block after block. Living in tents, humps of humans all over the place, and I’m stumbling among all these people. How come that didn’t bother anybody? How come that doesn’t upset them? How come no mayors get upset about them? That’s true in Oakland, true in New York, true everywhere there has been this crackdown.
So I thought back again to this world of the founders. That this was a fundamental violation of their idea of civic society, of the republic. That the idea you cannot redress grievances at City Hall or on Wall Street where it will be visible, where it will be seen, where it will intrude — well, that was the whole idea of assembly! It wasn’t to assemble off in some distance; it wasn’t to not be noticed. You’re trying to redress grievances that are heartfelt. — I feel the same way about the free press that is enshrined. And the free press that was enshrined was first of all a free press that could be offensive as hell. If you go back and read what was written in the penny press or the wall posters or what the town crier was saying, they were accusing Thomas Jefferson and all these people of the most heinous offenses. Crooks, murderers, philanderers — that could stick. Certainly for Franklin, I guess Jefferson. But, really, it was scurrilous media. And yet, it was enshrined. That they had absolute protection, as well as free speech. … Absolute! Not under certain circumstances, but absolute. So you can’t say that these founders were expecting a kind, public relations, organized press. No. They enshrined it because it was an essential ingredient, and they understood full well the power. And now what is one to say about that world that was imagined?
It was a world that A.J. Liebling, the press critic for The New Yorker, once wrote that freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one. The role of the free press that is enshrined in our Constitution was one in which every individual white male, I’ll give you that so we don’t have to have arguments after about the disenfranchisement of others, but certainly in this group of voters and citizens they own the press, anybody –because the issues were understood, town crier, penny press, pamphleteer. Who was Tom Paine? He was a corsetiere’s assistant, becomes a pamphleteer and a writer, anybody could do it. Even if they were illiterate they could do a savage cartoon. Now, to jump ahead, the world that we still extol of our Constitution, that we have celebrated to the world, is mocked continuously in our daily experience. We know that. The right of the free press that has been enshrined is to those who not only have some money, but have massive amounts of money. I was going to give a more detailed history, but the topic was, from Ramparts to, I think, Truthdig, so let me stick to points.
When I came into the situation with Ramparts, the media had become so ossified, so centralized, so monolithic that it was truly depressing to many Americans, particularly younger Americans. Some people think of the ’50s as a good time. It was a time of incredible boredom. Stultifying. Some of you may have been alive then. It was unbelievably dumb. You know, if you really think about it, a sad period in American history and what had happened is we’d come out of World War II with this incredible burst of idealism. Incredible. My relatives, I’m a child of garment workers, no one in my family had gone to high school in the previous generation. My brother could be a tool and die maker, could be a machinist on the GI Bill, and so forth, get the classes and buy a house. You all know that world, incredibly buoyant and optimistic and changing. And then somehow we hit this dull patch; instead of it being expanding, it shrank. We came out of World War II recognizing the great albatross on American life was segregation. No question about it. How do you fight for freedom around the world and have a segregated military? You can’t justify it; it was incredible, and your enemy was making a lot of points about it during the Cold War.
Truman signed the order to desegregate the Navy and you finally had some initial challenge but not really much in the ’50s. Your labor movement had come out strong; they had fought the good war. They had mobilized the workers in auto, steel and so forth, now they were the enemy; they were redbaited. And labor — tax on labor, Taft-Hartley became fierce and ended up pretty much destroying the momentum of organized labor. The culture became dumb and uninteresting. The depiction of women, homosexuals, racial minorities became even dumber than it was before and unquestioning. And then you had this explosion and Ramparts was part of that explosion. I don’t want to exaggerate its significance; I don’t want to say it was the only thing that exploded, but it happened because people just were tired of the contradictions of the Cold War, of our arrogance of our posturing in the world when we were not meeting the needs of our own people and the development of the civil rights movement and the development of the women’s movement and so forth. Suddenly … [there was] a draft [and young people] were going to have to pay for this idiocy with their lives. … It was interesting.
I remember when I got involved with Ramparts, and this goes sort of to the Truthdig question, very often freedom is accidental. Some people get a good idea, some people have courage, some people are willing to stand up. You have a Chris Hedges. Why Chris Hedges doesn’t sell out? A good question in the ’60s. Don’t sell out. Now, no one questions selling out. Everyone wants to sell out. Careerism trumps everything, right? Everything. My students think I’m crazy. The most radical thing I do as a teacher is say, “What would Jesus do?” And they look at me like I lost my marbles. “Who cares?” But Jesus did throw the moneychangers out of the temple and Scripture does condemn usury. The California Legislature condemned usury, and so did Iowa and so did Texas, leaving that aside. They don’t ask that question because it’s troubling. Jesus now comes to you as [a] person who can tell you how to leverage your money better in another church.
So, at any rate, I remember the ferment at that time and you hear that old joke, “If you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there.” It’s really not quite true. As people moved in different ways, and part of it was it was absolutely necessary to be bohemian because you’re rejecting the junk that came out of television and the image of the happy suburban family. You knew it was idiocy and you knew it from your own lives. Whether you’re a gay person who was involved in the Mattachine Society … or you were in the women’s movement, rejecting what had been said.
The whole idea of a female orgasm, some of you might remember, it was denied. I remember one of the most provocative things we ever did at Ramparts. Susie Lydon, a great journalist, wrote a piece on the possibility of a female orgasm, which I guess went against the prevailing medical science then. You have to remember how absolutely dull it was and in terms of the accidental nature of it, I remember how I got involved. I was a graduate student at Berkeley and I was in the Center for Chinese Studies, so I was a fellow, and I wanted to learn about this stuff in China, but you couldn’t go to China. I was teaching at City College of New York in the summer and there was a little post that said you could go to Cuba for 25 bucks a day if you could get down there. My wife at the time, we drove our little Volkswagen to Key West and we went down to Cuba and everything. I came back and I wrote a book with a guy named Maurice Zeitlin who has now been at UCLA.
Anyway, I perished publishing and my department was very upset that I had written this book and I went to work at City Lights Books. I didn’t do it out of choice; I did it because it was the center of excitement and energy. So, I was working over there at City Lights Books … [and] one of my jobs was to sweep the store. Not quite what I had in mind when I had spent all those years in graduate school, but still Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a great man. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, by the way, has been my guide in journalism. He once wrote in a poem, “Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.” It’s a wisdom I have carried into city rooms.
I remember going to work at the L.A. Times. I was hired — I had done the Jimmy Carter interview, I was a hotshot, I was writing for Esquire, for Playboy. … They wanted to freshen up the thing and even Otis Chandler went for hiring me. I went there and thought, “God, I’m really going to be the odd man out here. I’m supposed to have opinions. I’m supposed to be subjective. I’m a lefty.” The first visit I made to the Redwood Bar across the street and I remember thinking, “I’m really nothing like these people. They have everything figured out. They know … everything.” So I decided the real issue was not whether one had a basis for thinking, not so open that your brains fall out, but whether you would keep it in check. Where the facts would matter, where the logic would matter, whether you would question yourself — that became the ballgame, not whether you were an ignoramus. Where had you been? What had you done? I remember going to work at that time and thinking about Ramparts. It was really quite an experience, the change. What had made Ramparts, what had made the ’60s so different? It was not ideology, it was not that we had everything worked out; it was that we gave a damn. If I think of one thing in the ’60s was that you could be, as we used to say, gut-checked. You could be called a male chauvinist pig and it mattered. Now if you call someone a male chauvinist pig, it’s a joke. — It’s a line. You could be called a racist. You could be called a homophobic and it really mattered. It really made you question what you were about. Were you selling out? I’m not saying it was perfect; I’m not saying people weren’t male chauvinist pigs. I certainly have paid my dues in that department, but it mattered. There were standards being developed.
When I look at the Occupy movement that is what has been so impressive to me about the Occupy movement. People are working out their standards that really mean something. You get in these discussions: Where should you get your information, and where is integrity, and what really matters, what is your sense of loyalty to others, does the game have to be accepted, can it really be changed in some fundamental way, what risks are you willing to take? And that was the mood. I remember how I got into the politics part of it, and I won’t dwell on that too long. But it then goes to where I’m going to end up with the Internet and on Truthdig and all of that. I was cleaning out the store and was taking out all these packages and there was an article in a magazine called the China Quarterly and I read it by a guy named Philippe Devillers; he was a great French scholar, and he warned that the U.S. is doing in Vietnam what France did in Indochina. So I started reading about this, it was 1962 I guess, and Madame Nhu was coming to San Francisco and we organized a demonstration. I think it was the first of its kind.
I decided I had to go to Vietnam, and so I went and saw Paul Krassner of The Realist magazine. … Paul Krassner had come up with this incredible poster: It was red, white and blue and had stars and it said, “fuck communism.” I hope this doesn’t destroy Link TV, you can bleep it out, but it said, “fuck communism.” It was brilliant, because how could a person in your dorm, or your fraternity, or even in your place of work say you can’t put that poster up? It was red, white and blue; it was consistent with the Cold War, and yet it said, “fuck communism.” It went off like wildfire. It was the Facebook of its time. Suddenly Paul Krassner had money. So, I went up to Paul Krassner — it was in Greenwich Village — and I said, “Look, I’ve got to go to this place called Vietnam and Cambodia and all that and see what’s going on. Kennedy is getting involved … and I said I need an airplane ticket.” He said, “How much is that?” I said, “Funny you should ask. It’s $1,356” … and he wrote out the check. To my mind that was a key story, not just in my life, but how journalism gets done. There are a lot of people who do it, but if you really want to look at the maverick, alternative, contrarian journalism, it’s not because people are running insurance companies called newspapers. Meeting up in stuffy rooms … because people feel that there is a story that needs to be told, and people are willing to help them tell that story. So I went and did that story. I went to Vietnam and Cambodia and made two different trips and wrote about it. I wrote a pamphlet about it and I got connected and the guys at Ramparts, which was a Roman Catholic literary publication, got all excited because I was exposing the role of the Catholic Church in Ngo Dinh Diem and that’s how I got into Ramparts.
The interesting thing is maybe they learned from me, but I learned from them, because we had a pope then and trust me, the last thing I would’ve … my father was a German Protestant and my mother was a Russian Jew and all I knew of the people who followed the pope is that they beat me up for killing their lord. That was my Bronx experience and I suddenly found myself in a Catholic literary publication with a pope that decided we hadn’t killed their lord and he had … issued all sorts of wonderful sentiments. Unfortunately he didn’t live that long as a pope. These people were ironically in Menlo Park, which is where Facebook is, and they asked me to come in and write about Vietnam and other things — that’s when we went off to the races. And I bring [it] up as an example of the kind of alternative journalism that we needed even in the good old days. Because right now, and I’ll get to the end of this talk very quickly, right now there’s this idea there was this wonderful period of traditional journalism and now there’s just chaos and so forth. It’s not true.
When we were doing Ramparts, and I said we weren’t the only ones doing good stuff, but it was mostly counter stuff that was being done, whether it was by The Nation, or others. I remember we — and there’s a good book that Peter Richardson did that documents Ramparts and all this — I remember Martin Luther King gave his speech at Riverside Church in 1968 and said I have to condemn my government, the United States government, as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today. I have to do it because of the carpet-bombing of Vietnam, which Robert McNamara admitted 3.4 million Indochinese died. And he said, “I can’t tell kids in the ghetto to shun violence and take the path of nonviolence when my government is the major purveyor of violence in the world today.” And interestingly enough, The New York Times editorially condemned him, condemned him for dividing civil rights. “Why are you bringing war into it?” He also broke the fact that the military budget was draining resources and the speech wasn’t printed; we printed it. And King asked us to print it. The idea that Martin Luther King is now a statue, a benign statue, whether we’re talking about poverty or we’re talking about war and violence and I remember the resistance to publishing that and I’m not going to go through all of the stories. The fact of the matter is during the Cold War the major media institutions now properly concentrated and incredibly affluent supported the thrust of a policy that on its face was totally irrational. Totally irrational. Because the core argument of the Cold War was that there was something called communism and if you could get the analogy with terrorism you can see it, something called communism that was monolithic, inherently revolutionary — think of China today. You could not negotiate with it, it had to either be defeated, or it would conquer you, and it had a timetable to take over the world. That was the proper answer for many multiple-choice questions in civics class. All of that was known then in real time by anybody with the slightest interest in finding out.
The Soviet-Communist preferred Chiang Kai-shek to Mao Zedong. There weren’t two communist governments in the world that were on easy relations with each other. Communism was and is today inherently nationalist; that’s what we’re dealing with in China — a nationalist movement, like it or not. And a movement we certainly, ever since Nixon went to visit, that we can do business with and they’re carrying our debt. I remember being a kid in high school and writing a paper once that we should admit communist China to the U.N. — my god, that was heresy — or send an ambassador to communist China. Anybody who would have predicted then that we’d have a situation where the U.S. government is building weapons to defeat a Chinese army that they are never going to pay for using money that we borrowed from the Chinese. That’s where we are today, by the way, that’s my previous book. So, the whole rubric of American foreign policy in those decades was incredibly wasteful in people, in resources, destroying the country, destroying the progressive movement. Everything else was based on a notion so obviously fraudulent that anyone who had thought about it and expressed it would have said this, and this came out in the ’60s, but not in the ’50s.
Let me go on a little more on the mainstream media. Another common acceptance in the mainstream media was the one of America is an increasingly equal society. There are a few people who talked about it, C. Wright Mills, Michael Harrington; there were people who wrote about it, but they were marginalized. The conventional wisdom was that we are a middle class, egalitarian society. That continued right up to the Occupy Wall Street movement. The evidence was overwhelmingly moving in the opposite direction. Concentration, loss of good industrialized jobs, export of jobs abroad, so forth went pretty much unnoticed by the mass media. Unnoticed. And it took this eruption of Occupy to even bring it to our attention that we have … and others had warned about — you cannot have a democracy and have this kind of inequality. You have to be a nation of stakeholders.
Let me just go, finally, in terms of good old days, because I don’t want to overly celebrate them. When I was working at the L.A. Times, first as a reporter and then as a columnist, I came up against this quite often, that on certain key issues our owners, even before we were bought by the Tribune, really did not want to go there. I can name a few of them, but I want to give you one example that pertains to our community here. One of them concerns this area and I remember in 1999, going back to hysteria about the Cold War, The New York Times, and I’m not singling out The New York Times, they’ve probably been the best of the mass papers. The New York Times ran a sensationalist story on its front page that Chinese spies had stolen the most dangerous secret that we had on nuclear weaponry, militarization for the W80 warhead. They ran it on the front page and it was a fraud, but The New York Times stuck to it. What had happened was that Chris Cox, the Republican congressman, had been beating the drums about “the Chinese are stealing all our weapons” and he thought that he could blame it on the Clinton administration. And it turns out that the secrets that were supposed to have been stolen were stolen when Reagan was still president, so that story was no longer a threat to the Clinton administration, so they embraced it. Triangulation! Let’s seem tougher than them! Let’s go get these Chinese spies and the whole thing centered on a guy named Wen Ho Lee. You know Wen Ho Lee? And Wen Ho Lee was imprisoned in this county and it was done by a Democratic, liberal administration. This is the thing Hedges writes about so eloquently because we like to take sides in these things.
The guy who was complicit, a hell of a nice guy I found from personal experience, Bill Richardson was the governor of this state most recently and he was the secretary of the Department of Energy, which had control over the labs in Los Alamos and Livermore. Wen Ho Lee was a scientist who had come from Taiwan, not even from the mainland; his disinterest in the mainland was so clear because he couldn’t stand Chinese opera and he used to love to go to Rome and listen to the opera. They made a caricature out of this guy that in no way fit and they framed him. The New York Times and the mass media were complicit in that. They were framing this guy and he was held in solitary here in the great state of New Mexico for nine months in terrible conditions. He was imprisoned really for a year and every hour he was on camera, when he went to the bathroom, this intensely private man. They were supposed to break him, but they couldn’t break him. At the end of the day, and I do like to end on positive notes here and not bum everybody out, but there was a great judge here. A Reagan-appointed judge. Does anybody know who I’m talking about? Judge Parker? Still practices federal bench and Judge Parker issued a decision that I think is one of the great decisions. This is why I came to be involved with this state personally, but we’re in a courtroom in Albuquerque and I had gone there that day for that ruling. Today before I came here, I quickly wrote down his words. You have to keep Wen Ho Lee imprisoned, he can’t see anybody because he’ll give away these deep secrets. This is important to understand when you understand the whole hysteria about our security and everything, whether it’s terrorism and what not. Just a word — hi to his wife — could betray all the deepest secrets. This is what the government was arguing. Judge Parker had cut him loose when he had finally seen all the evidence and Mark Holscher, who was one of Wen Ho Lee’s lawyers. The case was so bogus, so driven by hysteria. And Judge Parker, cutting him loose for time served, said:
“… I believe you were terribly wronged by being held in custody pretrial in the Santa Fe county detention center under demeaning, unnecessarily punitive conditions. I am truly sorry that I was led by our executive branch of government to order your detention last December. … ” And then he says, “Dr. Lee, I tell you with great sadness that I feel I was led astray last December by the executive branch.” He went on in this vein. These people, he talked about the president, the attorney general … they have embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who are citizens of it. And then he said, “I sincerely apologize to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair manner you were held in custody by the executive branch.” And then it says court will be recessed.
And Dr. Lee asked me through a lawyer to go to his house, so I went to his house in Los Alamos. I had never had an experience like that. And the support in the community there, and the support of peace groups here in Albuquerque showed me the other side of the state that was not being shown and it showed me why citizens have to do what Chris Hedges demands that we do — that we challenge the imprisonment of people, that we challenge the hysteria.
I remember as a journalist I was called in by the editor of the opinion section who we both worked with, a good liberal woman who I liked very much. She said, “Bob, you’ve got to give it a rest.” I forget how many columns I had written. I don’t know, well over 20 on the subject. “You need to give it a rest.” And I said, “How can I give it a rest? The guy’s still in solitary. The government is not giving it a rest.” But I remember that mind-set. I remember that very clearly, and the only reason I got to continue writing those columns, because by then I was a columnist, was that Seymour Topping from The New York Times came in to our building, was meeting with our editors and had happened that there was a copy of my column facing up and [he] said, “He’s right. One of the worst days in the history of The New York Times what we did to this guy.” And that was Seymour Topping, a legendary editor.
But I’m telling you this is not ancient history, this is not the decision to bomb the Japanese and everything. This is something happened here. Here in this community. Right here. Santa Fe, he was in prison. And yes, people, one of the reasons we’re going to Los Alamos is to think of all that hysteria.
I want to end by giving a few other examples of the old media just so we don’t think we’ve lost everything. That concerns the topic that was alluded to before. Again, when Clinton was president. So we had the foreign policy thing that really disturbed me. The other thing was something called welfare reform, which until recently was touted as a great success. What happened was we broke the basic commitment of liberals, progressives, Christians, to the other, the good Samaritan. I remember interviewing Bill Clinton about this when he was still governor; he had been running for president and he had something called Project Success. I remember asking, where is this? Where is this great success? And I remember in the interview I ran with him in the L.A. Times he said there are two things you need to say about welfare reform: It has to cost more money because if you are serious about it you have to educate people. Seventy percent of the people on welfare are children. You have to provide for them. You don’t do welfare reform on the cheap and it better stay a federal program because if it is left up to the tender mercies of the state when you get to hard times they are going to be vicious. Well that is exactly what has happened. He betrayed those two ideas and what has happened now is in the middle of this big economic meltdown the welfare rolls have not expanded significantly. Food stamps have because — it’s still a federal program. It hasn’t expanded because the success of welfare reform was not getting people off of poverty; it was getting them off welfare rolls. That was the only thing we kept measuring, are they off the rolls? So here we are going through this incredible economic crisis where we have 45 million Americans living under the poverty line and we don’t have the federal poverty program. Again, it came from people that would otherwise be good. But let me get to finally, one last point about that and the economy and that has to do with deregulation, which was the subject of my last book. The mass media wanted something called telecommunications reform. That would allow them to tap the synergy of their market, in other words owning a television station, a newspaper, like the L.A. Times does in L.A., move into different platforms, and telecommunications reform. And they were cheerleading this all the way. It was part of a whole package that came out of the Reagan revolution, but Reagan wasn’t able to deliver on it, smaller government, etc. Because of the savings and loan crisis, Reagan ended up at the end of his term increasing regulation rather than cutting it back because it was just too bold. You need to have adults watching the store; you have to have transparency and so forth.
The first President Bush wasn’t really interested in that so it remained for Bill Clinton to jump on this issue. It was all part of showing a positive, strong image and taking the Republicans at their own games. Welfare reform, Telecommunications Act and the mass media cheering and Wall Street going crazy; we got the basic reversal of the New Deal rules of the road. There are two pieces of legislation, the Financial Services Modernization Act … Republicans were pushing but he could have vetoed it. Even Bill Safire of The New York Times, a conservative columnist, said he should veto it because it was such an invasion of privacy allowing the comingling of medical, insurance, investment banking records. There was some opposition, Shelby from Alabama was against it but he signed off on it. That allowed the reversal of Glass-Steagall. That’s why you have JPMorgan Chase, that’s why you have Citibank. I’m telling you a story you probably all know by now in great detail, but it’s important to remember.
Citigroup, it was called the Citigroup enhancement act. … What happened was Citigroup was allowed to stay, merging commercial and investment banking, merging what high rollers do with their own money with the federally guaranteed insurance deposits of others so they have to become too big to fail, they have to be bailed out and what happened? Robert Rubin, who was the Treasury secretary, and Bill Clinton was pushing for this, goes off to work for Citigroup and gets $15 million a year, while they are getting only subprime mortgages. You can’t make this stuff up, right? I mean it’s just unbelievable. When I worked at the L.A. Times, [copy editor] Tom can tell you, if I went to a friend’s restaurant, Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, or one of the others and they sent over a glass of wine I would spend half the night demanding a check. I’ll never come here again if you don’t give me a check. I’ll pay for my glass of wine, because I’ll have a conflict of interest. Not that I’m reviewing restaurants even, but we had these rules. These guys have no such rules; they have the platinum revolving door.
Lawrence Summers, the Treasury secretary after Rubin who pushed through the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, you all know that legislation, right? I don’t have to preach to the choir. What did articles three and four of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act say? No existing regulation or government agency will have power over these collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps. None, zero. Why? Why was it passed? To shut up Brooksley Born. Do I have to tell the room who Brooksley Born was? Brooksley Born, who was the first woman editor of the Stanford Law Review, went to work for a big corporate firm, knew more about these things than any of these guys, had litigated on all this. They give it to her as a consolation prize because she was supposed to be attorney general but they gave it to Janet Reno. She comes in, she’s head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. She looks at this stuff and she says, “My god. This is spiraling out of control.” Right now we have hundreds of thousands of trillions of this stuff — that’s why Greece is in trouble, Spain, it’s the whole thing — and she says, “This is crazy.” She tries to get them to act; they don’t act on it. She issues something called a concept release. She has no power to make law, and they go ballistic. Greenspan, Summers, Rubin: They go crazy to destroy this woman, and they pass a piece of legislation that Clinton signs off on as a lame duck president in his last months, and he signs off on it to shut up Brooksley Born. And what does Lawrence Summers say in his testimony before Congress? He said, “These are sophisticated instruments conducted by experts, sophisticated people who know what they’re doing, and there will be no victims because there are no sophisticated people involved. And to regulate them, we’ll spook the market.” Well, it turned out to be exactly the opposite. You’re playing with money, savings, with houses of ordinary people. Their house used to be their most important asset. They were going to retire on it, leave something to their kids, and you made it a gambling chip.
Lawrence Summers, and this will get to my tail end, what happens to Lawrence Summers? I disagree with Chris Hedges; I’ll just put it out right now. I’m a sucker for the lesser evil. I debated Ralph Nader on a Nation tour, when he was threatening to run the last time. I am the loser of all losers on this issue. I even had many kind things to say about Bill Clinton. I understand how easily one can be seduced. I remember the great pleasure I had in being invited to a White House state dinner with my wife. My wife was the associate editor and vice president of the L.A. Times who was constantly more important in life than I was. Suddenly, I was the one who was invited and she came up to me and she said, “Let’s see where you’re sitting.” She was sitting next to the head of NBC Sports and I said, “Let’s see where I’m sitting.” I was sitting next to Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton said I was her favorite columnist in the world as we went through the receiving line. And Bill Clinton wanted to know why I didn’t respond to his letter that he’d sent me and blah, blah, blah. Because, I said — God I hate these words to repeat it — but I had said, he’d be “remembered as a great president, but right of center. An Eisenhower type.” How insulting I was to Eisenhower. Because I thought with the whole Monica Lewinsky thing, the right wing … was a great right-wing mass conspiracy as Hillary described and I thought blah, blah, blah, going too far, and this guy was bringing us back.
But when I examined this thing, I see that it was just god-awful. It was giving Wall Street what it wanted. It was betraying ordinary people who are supposed to rally around the Democrats. It was an absolute disaster, and it’s the main reason we’re in this meltdown. And if you look at the role of that traditional media there, the record is appalling. Every single major news organization played the role of a cheerleader, not just editorially, but in their news reporting. It’s what my book documents and it’s unfortunately true. They wanted it why? Because they had the same perspective that the Wall Street people had. They are the Wall Street people. What are we talking about? They are playing with our lives in exactly the same way; they are the furthest thing from that free press that the founders were celebrating. You have to have huge buckets of money to do all this stuff.
So, finally, let me bring it up to Obama, which might have some slight interest to you and maybe in the next four days we’ll have lively discussion and debate, but I sure bought the ranch on Obama. I really did. I still by the way think it’s a major achievement; I’m not going to back off on that. I think it’s really great to have a president who is not a white male. I’ll sleep on that, you know? I think it’s an important victory. However, I began my book by praising Obama for a speech he gave in April of ’08, which I thought said just about everything you have to say about the economic crisis. He blasted — he was running against Hillary — he blasted the radical deregulation. He said, “You threw the baby out with the bathwater.” It was Cooper Union. He laid it out cold. He said, “We know. We need sensible rules of the road. We need adults watching the store. We need to keep people from their own greed.” He knew very well what he was talking about, because he knew Jamie Dimon, a friend from Chicago who exploded on him just this week. It was clear. He must have been listening to Stiglitz, reading Krugman, Volcker, good people around. Then what happens? Hillary declines in the election. The Clintonistas move in and Lawrence Summers is his top adviser on economics.
Lawrence Summers is his adviser when he is getting $8.5 million from Wall Street. Forget about a glass of wine at a restaurant — $4.5 million from the D.E. Shaw hedge fund, $4 million from Goldman Sachs, Lehman and others for some speeches that are what? One hundred thirty thousand dollars for a couple of 20-minute speeches. A few jokes, a few things, you’re out the door. Here, $65,000. Here, do another one. Another $65,000. That’s the guy you pick, not only to be your top adviser, but you get into office and you make him your top economic guru in your administration and you turn to Timothy Geithner. Timothy Geithner, who had been the head of the New York Fed when they engineered the AIG deal. … He goes totally along with Paulson, throws all the money in the bank, get nothing back in the way of mortgage relief and anything else to be a secretary of treasury. And then the question, which has already come up four times in conversations I had with people here already, how did this happen? And we have someone in the back who went to the same high school as Obama and can maybe enlighten us on the education. And I think, and I’ll conclude on this because I’m taking too long, goes back to the central question of the ’60s. Where is integrity? Whose interests are you concerned about? Are you concerned about ordinary people? You know, different races, different classes. Are you concerned about the impact on them or does careerism trump everything?
And I think we’ve moved into a culture where everything is for sale. Careerism, and we see it in somebody like Obama, for whom the important thing was getting from Occidental to Columbia, getting from Columbia to Harvard, and what’s going to be on the test? What’s the right answer on the test? Not critical thinking, not compassion. What’s going to be the right answer on the test? Well, Lawrence Summers, the head of Harvard, knows the right answer. These people know which end is up; they know how to do it — don’t spook the markets. The first bad decision he made was to reject public funding and take Wall Street money. We should’ve been suspicious, and I’m not going to be holier than thou. I can tell you, I didn’t do the hour check but it was something like 18 hours before the poll opened, I was in San Diego speaking to the ACLU. There was a major Obama bundler, my wife had already maxed out, I was contributing and I said, “It’s in the bag, isn’t it?” And she said, “Oh no, they’re preparing. …” And for me it was not an insignificant amount of money, $500 on the spot and she gave me this nice T-shirt that to this day I still cannot wear, artist designed. So, I fell for it. Even though, then, I already knew better. I knew better; I knew who the people were. I saw where it was going. The real critical question, then, about how we got to this place is where can you stand? Where is integrity? Who is going to keep any of the powerful in check?
Now you’ve seen in Europe, for instance, people in France, Greece and Spain somewhat are saying no. We didn’t create this mess; you’re not going to take it out of our hide. You need to alter your perspective and stop traumatizing us with what Angela Merkel is going to do. You have to resist back. Now, I want to end on a positive note and I will and that brings me to the tail end of that topic.
The Internet. I think, you know, sometimes great surprises happen. I don’t want to be Pollyannaish here, but to my mind the development of the Internet was the last great chance for democracy. The last great chance. And I speak of this without — I have a complex view. I know the traps. I know how easy it is for governments to manipulate the Internet, to shut it down. I know how the Internet can be a great source of dangerous information for most governments, for corporations. … I resent the idea that Facebook is selling our privacy and everybody celebrates it. I resent the fact that Facebook and Google make an enormous amount of money off the work of others. They don’t pay for journalism. They don’t support investigation. It’s very dangerous to our society to have this be seen as the saving grace of our democracy. To have them ripping us off. I was very troubled that Apple under Jobs was held up as a great role model at a time when they were exploiting workers around the world. It bothers me that these three highflying companies don’t create jobs here. They create what –30,000, 40,000? They don’t create jobs. They don’t really create ultimate value in terms of jobs. It bothers me.
However, I have never lived through a time as I have with the Internet, and I say to people Truthdig — and I don’t want to just single out Truthdig — is Ramparts on speed. I really believe that. I remember how difficult it was, not that it isn’t difficult to do an online magazine. There are a lot of costs, a lot of costs … but, still. When we had an issue, to scrounge up the money to print it, to get the teamsters to deliver it, to get people to carry it in their stores was an ongoing battle. Issue to issue we didn’t even know if the thing would even be seen by anybody. The great thing about the Internet as it stands now, and we could lose that neutrality, we could lose a lot of it, but it is as close as we’ve come in my lifetime to that vision of the founders. That people can own one. They can create something. They can make a difference. I just want to give you a couple final examples of that. The first early indications, but still one of the best things we ever did was before the last election. I can’t remember the exact year, but Kevin Tillman, the brother of Pat Tillman, do you know the Tillman story? If you don’t know it, my wife wrote a great book with Mary Tillman called “Boots on the Ground.” Kevin Tillman wrote a thing on Pat’s birthday.
Kevin was with Pat in Afghanistan when this whole friendly fire thing was going on. And Kevin and his family spent this whole time trying to find out what really happened there, and how was Pat killed, and why did the government lie, and why did they give him this medal and this Silver Star? And the president lied about it; Rumsfeld lied about it and everything. And Kevin Tillman wrote a piece for Truthdig that was our biggest traffic driver certainly up to that time and continued for some time. It was informed, it was from the heart, and it was everything that Tom Paine was about. It was everything democracy was about. He said, “Don’t con us, don’t sell us this lie, don’t fall for it,” and this piece went viral. And we’ve had Hedges’ pieces go incredible around the world. Hedges is a guy who after all was fired by The New York Times. Don’t forget that. And why was Hedges fired by The New York Times? He dared tell a commencement address at a college that there is something awry with our war policy and that there are human consequences. He’s seen it up close. And The New York Times in effect fired him. They said this is going in your file and you can’t ever give a speech like that and Hedges left. I can tell you right now there was no mad rush to Hedges.
In fact, I remember [Truthdig publisher] Zuade [Kaufman] over here, Hedges was speaking at the L.A. Times Book Festival and Zuade was the one who went up to him and said, “What are you going to do now? Why don’t we become your home paper?” And we did. And we’ve run Hedges consistently and we have found an international or he has found with the power of his writing, he is unquestionably the best political writer in the world, certainly the most powerful and brilliant and he has found an audience from Beijing to Shanghai to Dublin — everywhere. And when Hedges runs Monday on Truthdig, it’s just incredible the response. Incredible. It’s picked up everywhere; it’s carried everywhere. It’s like Amy Goodman, somebody I should praise, and we do carry Amy Goodman consistently on our site, on our pages. Amy Goodman is mass media. Book writers will tell you, you get on Amy Goodman, I know this from my own experience, your sales do a lot better than “Fox & Friends.” And I’ve been on both. And Chris Hedges, I’m not putting him down by saying this, is mass media. Because what Chris Hedges managed to do is say, “I will not be silenced; I will not be trivialized.” He hates the words “prophetic voice,” but he is speaking in the voice of his father, the minister who ordered Chris Hedges to form a gay group at college, even though he wasn’t gay, as his obligation.
So, when I look at what we’ve been able to do, what others have been able to do, and I can give you a whole long list. There are bad spots on the Internet. I don’t like it when most of what is called journalism on the Internet is paid for by very wealthy people who have an ax. For instance, ProPublica where the Sandlers, who created these mortgages and were really up to their eyeballs in this savings and loans stuff, are the main funder. If you follow the money it’s not always wholesome on the Internet and where it’s going. But if I look at the work of progressives, of really good journalists, the Center for Investigative Reporting, The Nation, AlterNet. There’s a lot of them out there — Link TV — and I see a lot of signs of hope.
But I want to tell you that the main hopeful sign is also a warning sign. The reason there’s hope and the reason you had an Occupy is there’s a lot of pain out there. A lot of pain. I can tell you, our students are working two, three years out of college at unpaid internships, still trying to get in the door. And we have a very good school. People are working way below their skill level, unless they want to go into PR for the bandits. Unless they’ll go into law for the bandits. And it’s really a problem of the pain, and when you’re in pain, there are competing narratives to explain it. How do you explain the decline of our country? Whether it’s inevitable? Nobody can doubt we are not the nation we thought we were. We’re hurting.
So what are the competing narratives? The right-wing narrative, which has the clarity of simplicity even though it’s a lie, is this was all done by do-gooders, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac. Neglecting the fact that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were just big banks because Reagan had got it so they can trade on the stock market and these guys were getting $15 million bonuses and they call themselves Democrats and they got these huge bonuses because of stock valuation on the market. It was not do-gooder. Barney Frank did not do this out of goodness or any of these people. The Democrats were getting money just like the Republicans were from the banking lobbyists. But the real narrative of the right wing is blame poor people, blame minorities, blame do-gooders, and they go far with that. Since when don’t demagogues go far? You blame immigrants. Blame the other. It is very powerful and it’s destroyed civilizations. How did Germany go down? It’s the thing that’s preoccupied me my whole life.
My father was a wonderful human being. He spoke with a heavy German accent. My relatives were still in Germany, many of them. My uncle who I had finally visited in Germany had been wounded in Stalingrad in the German army. My half brother had bombed our hometown in Germany; he was in the American Air Force. So, I had all these conflicts going on. You try to understand Germany, something we’ve never really studied in a serious way. How did the best educated, most scientifically oriented society in the world that actually had a better record of treating Jews than most other European countries, how did it disintegrate into the greatest barbarianism of modern history? How did it happen? And why did so many prominent Americans actually support it? They think maybe they’re on to something, because they were saving their stability, their power. And it was supported by big money interests, just as the big money interests support the tea party people and those to the right of them, the demagogues. What they’re really afraid of in the election is that they’re going to advance that narrative. It’s the do-gooders, it’s the liberals and so forth.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a good democratic counter-narrative. There was one — by democratic I mean with a small d — coming from the Occupy movement. There has been one coming from Robert Reich, and other heroes of the moment, but because we have a Democratic president, because we didn’t get anything back from Wall Street, we get the lousy hand. It happens that the Republican candidate is so bad, so hypocritical, really, so unappealing, such a demagogue that he has to run away from his one decent thing, his health plan. Not decent enough, but still, quite possibly Obama will win. But that should not lull us into thinking that we’re in a stable situation. We are in a very unstable situation in society. People have very high expectations in this country. Those of you who have traveled around the world understand that full well. And when those expectations are not met, people get very nasty. And they turn to really extreme voices, to extreme views and they will denounce the other, so what we are really talking about is not some little strategy here. But we have to somehow take this message of a Chris Hedges, this prophetic voice, and we somehow have to connect it with some real political power. And how you do that is something you can’t have from experts, pundits like myself. That’s something you have to figure out yourself. You have to figure out what plays in your neighborhood. How do you reach the people that you’re working with? How do you get the support that is needed for enlightened positions? What is confusing them? That’s where you come in.
And it can’t come from, even though we have a great array of speakers, and Dennis Kucinich — one reason I’m very close to Dennis, and I almost destroyed his career, is I interviewed him for the L.A. Times and I also interviewed him for Playboy and that kind of upset some … Catholic ladies or whatever — but I followed Dennis forever. And Dennis has certainly shown that you can take a principled, serious position and still remain a Democrat. But Dennis got gerrymandered out. Yes, he carried his own community, but his own community was not the congressional district anymore. It was a small part of it and he’ll discuss that. The real issue is how do we go from Chris Hedges to Dennis Kucinich? How do we keep them somehow in sync on a progressive side? How does that become the heart, along with other good people, of a real movement? How does it go beyond what happened at City Hall or what happened on Wall Street in terms of Occupy? And it really has to do with movement building, it has to do with being reeled to your neighbors, it has to do with being a teacher, reaching out and not posturing. And I would just hope that in the next four days that we actually grapple with those questions in a very serious way and so let me just put it there. How do we get Dennis Kucinich and Chris Hedges on the same page? I’ll end on that.
Q: I just want to say that after what you’ve said and what probably all of us have experienced, maybe we are preaching to the choir as you say, but it seems to me like it’s a matter of corporate, government corruption that we’re in the middle of. And for me it’s very difficult to see how to get out of it because money is powerful and young people want to advance their careers. My own niece is an economist and she’s going to be teaching in South Carolina at [a] university and she’s extremely right wing. She’s got a new Ph.D. in economics and she’s preaching all these things that we’re against. One wonders whether it’s just young people who have given up idealisms of the ’60s or whatever. But for me, it seems to be a simple matter of corporate government corruption at all levels.
A: Yeah. The thing is, you’re absolutely correct, but it won’t hold. You’re assuming that the center as they have defined it will hold, but the evidence is overwhelming and we see that in Europe that it won’t. So to my mind, the point I was trying to make, it’s not a question of whether Lawrence Summers or his Republican equivalent can keep this thing going. It’s a question of whether some adults can come to watch the store. Some Franklin Delano Roosevelt, if you like. Some sort of enlightened view because it’s in the long-run interests of society. After all, what has happened makes, dare I say it, Richard Nixon seem like a moderate if not a pinko. But the real challenge for progressives is how to up the ante, and it requires first of all being in touch with the reality that it’s not working. That was the significance of the Occupy movement. And they pushed it aside temporarily at least. But that was the significance. If we can somehow mobilize people who are hurting in a progressive way, they are going to be mobilized by racist shills for the corporations.
The fallacy of thinking that this can just go on is given by Jamie Dimon, because after everything that had happened, you would think that these guys would be smart enough not to have yet another operation in London selling stuff that they couldn’t understand, but weren’t going to check because the money was too good to check. That’s the story. Jamie Dimon didn’t do anything different than AIG did. The money’s pouring in, we like it, and we’ll get the laws changed and make it acceptable. So the real battle in this country is not going to be whether you have change. It’s not going to be the ’50s. The real battle is about what kind of change. We have this discussion all the time. How do we reach our nieces, how do we reach anyone? My own view as a teacher is that it’s become an awful lot easier, because people have a test of reality now that was denied them four years ago. They know. They have to drop out of school because their parents have lost their dealership or something. They know maybe their college education itself is not worth the money they’re spending. There’s a lot of that kind of feedback and I personally think it’s a horrible thing to say. What is it Leonard Cohen says? There’s a crack in everything and that’s how the light comes through? Is that the Leonard Cohen line? Sorry, don’t want to date myself here. But I do think the system is not working. Either a progressive narrative or a reactionary one will obtain. That is my point of view.
Q: I don’t remember the exact quote, but there’s been a Bucky Fuller quote that’s been floating around the Net. It has something to do with you can’t change a system by working within it, because you have to create something new that makes the old system obsolete and I think that there’s a strong element in that with what we’re faced with. In addition, what you’ve just been talking about, as a scientist, this is a massive nonlinear system — global — that’s probably currently in chaos. What emerges is largely up to us. To some degree, the butterfly effect is also in play here. In other words, we think that as individuals or small groups we can’t have an impact, but I thinkWait, before you go…
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