That's All, Folks
By Peter Scheer
Lest some colleague accuse me of burying the lede, here it is up front: I’m leaving Truthdig. In case you don’t know me, I’m the managing editor, which means I more or less run the show. (Truth is, our talented staff does most of the hard work.) I feel strange about leaving. Roll with me — I have some things to get off my chest.
When I started this job nine or so years ago, George W. Bush was in his second term and the U.S. was plainly stuck in two costly, deadly, seemingly endless wars. America was torturing people. Our government routinely lied about pretty much everything. Bush’s attorney general, who tried to eliminate all traces of marijuana and boobies from the national landscape, was replaced by a guy who was somehow worse. The people of New Orleans were drowning and waiting to be saved by the horse enthusiast who was in charge of FEMA. In those times, running Truthdig was a lot easier. The targets were clearly marked.
In a period when the press at large had mostly failed in its duty, Truthdig would avoid quibbling about the obvious and dig for lesser-known truths about the day’s events. We would mine these truths from experts, on-the-ground reports and the small crevices of the Internet and broadcast them as far as our readers, friends and online allies would carry them.
Now, as I write this, an original print of Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster sits behind me, Barack Obama’s eyes overseeing everything I type. How appropriate given what we now know about the NSA. I cannot think of a greater disappointment than President Obama — like so many millions of other Americans, I completely fell for it. I remember sitting in a Nevada home surrounded by volunteers from California, Chicago and elsewhere. Among those migrants were disaffected Republicans who may have more clearly recognized a fellow traveler in the candidate. I thought then that they were the dupes. I was wrong. Regardless, we were united by a common desire for profound change, and we seemed to have found a vehicle for it in Obama. Of course he would go on to squander it all. Truthdig covered the hell out of Obama’s fall from grace. It wasn’t easy, or popular.
Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — these had been natural villains for us to pick on. Obama turned out to be an American tragedy. I think of all the young Obama volunteers sleeping in their cars and on couches, sacrificing their time, comfort, energy and zeal for the man. He marched them from a mountaintop of idealism into a cynical swamp. In doing so, he destroyed my generation’s faith in the political process. It won’t come back. I keep the poster of the young, idealized Obama to remind me not of the man but of the hope — raw and addictive and now gone.
As the Obama years were getting underway, terror raged — not in the form of a missile, bomb or hijacked airplane but of a financial system that apparently still gets to do whatever the fuck it wants. I remember Paul Krugman saying that if the stimulus package was not twice the size of what was being offered, America would end up with a slow, Japanese-style recovery that would take a decade or more. He was right, obviously. Through its timidity, the government crushed my generation’s belief in the economy: Jobless and with few prospects, we were forced to go back to live with our parents … unless their homes had been foreclosed.
The Occupy movement restored, for a wonderful moment, the flicker of hope, until some mostly Democratic mayors helped snuff it out. That was a great story to cover. Less so drones, extrajudicial assassinations and mass deportations, including those of refugee children. Obama’s legacy, as he so often reminds us, is that Detroit — the city bankrupt and the U.S. auto industry now owned in part by Fiat — still kind of makes cars, albeit in Mexico. Also, we have a somewhat reformed health care system, of which I am admittedly a beneficiary.
Don’t get me started on the national security state. It is baffling to me to think that Richard Nixon’s presidency was brought down by a burglary, while the NSA and other intelligence agencies continue to stampede the Constitution without repercussion. They want to know who you are, what you do, what you say and what you think, and will put you in prison if you dare let anyone know the full extent of what they’re up to. That’s America now, and the collective reaction is “Meh.”
Where does that apathy come from? Some people blame America’s young, but these kids live on a planet that is melting and they exist under a government whose only accountability is to billionaires. Is it apathy, or resignation?
A woman I met while I was at KPFK in Los Angeles one day to broadcast the “Truthdig Radio” show turned to me in tears. She had done the math and figured out she would never be able to pay off her student loans. She begged me to do something about it. Me? Me. The exaggerated power of the blog had become her last, best hope. I promised to try, but never really did. So before I go, let me venture into the area that so worried her.
Allen Ginsberg wrote in the 1950s, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked. …” I, too, have seen the best minds of my generation go to waste, but not all of these people are starving. On the contrary, many are doing very well by suckling at the teat of corporate America as they tithe to the student-loan sharks, hoping to hold on to some security in an increasingly frightening world. People in their 20s and 30s no longer have the luxury of “finding themselves,” as their parents used to call it.
The late billionaire Steve Jobs told the assembled graduating students of Stanford University just two years before the nation’s economic collapse, “You’ve got to find what you love.” Because, he elaborated, “the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
I have two friends who would like to be artists. Instead, one is now a graphic designer, the other makes Internet ads. I have a friend who loves to act; he’s a lawyer. Journalism is now a training camp for PR. The best mathematicians go to work for Wall Street investment firms. Many of these people are shackled to what is estimated by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to be $1.2 trillion in student loan debt. By law, they are not allowed to default. In 1972, the year Jobs dropped out of college, the average annual cost for a four-year education, including fees, room and board, was $2,031, according to the Digest of Education Statistics. In 2013 it was $23,872. That’s an increase of more than 1,100 percent. Reed College, which Jobs attended for six months, now costs $59,960 a year for tuition, room and board, a figure greater than the net worth of the typical American household. Not including books, transportation and other expenses, that’s $239,840 for a bachelor’s degree, which is significantly less valuable in the marketplace now than it was in 1972.
And so artists become decorators, anthropologists join global marketing firms and documentarians make crap about Hitler and interplanetary aliens for the History Channel.
These are the lucky ones, the ones who have good jobs and can live well as they lose their creative ambition. There are millions more who must choose between rent and food, who are forced to toil more for fewer dollars and less opportunity.
Let’s think about the long-term consequences of a culture’s failure to value historians, philosophers, artists, musicians, writers and teachers. This attitude and the burden imposed by the student loan system ensure our social slide from passionate to pacified. We’re taking a generation of educated, potentially independent thinkers and turning it into an organ of multinational corpulence. One day we’ll all wake up to our morning news sponsored by Chevron, eat our sodium flakes and have Siri walk the dog, and no one will remember the name Allen Ginsberg. When the best and brightest are chained to a monthly loan payment that leaves them just enough for food, housing and some minor consumer distraction to get them back on the hamster wheel, they’re never really going to do anything about global warming, or Ebola, or Syria, or poverty, or hunger, or the war in the Congo that killed 5.4 million people while no one was paying attention. Those things will exist on Twitter, where great ideas, thought up in stolen moments at work, go to shrink and die.
And that’s where the news business seems to be headed. Readers often ask me what happened to Mr. Fish. I’ll tell you. The Truthdig contributor, who has been called an artistic genius by some, used to make a living selling his prize-winning cartoons to news outlets and other buyers. The author of multiple books and curator of an exhibition on the subject, he is possibly one of the nation’s leading experts on editorial cartooning. He also works for Whole Foods. Je suis Charlie.
I do not know what can save journalism, but I can tell you flat out that there is no other site like Truthdig on the Internet. It is, despite many challenges, a unique platform for smart, irked, independent people who still care about important things. If the world is to stand any chance of penetrating the dense smog of stupidity and nonsense that has come to dominate journalism, it needs this website, and others like it, to thrive.
My favorite article that I wrote for Truthdig is a remembrance of Gore Vidal. I got to meet the famed author, wit and public character only because he was a contributor. He once used the phrase “Ave atque vale.” It’s a Latin line from Catullus, meaning “Hail and farewell.” With a nod to Gore, I say hail and farewell to my Truthdig readers, colleagues and friends. I’m leaving because I have the itch to try something new. I’ll visit from time to time and contribute an article on occasion.
I’m sorry if I brought you down with this little essay. After all, there is some cause for optimism. My generation’s chances for greatness have not withered entirely. There are brave spirits, champions who have fought the machine and continue to endure its wrath, ones who have been celebrated in the pages of Truthdig. They, and those who came before them, give me tremendous confidence in the American experiment. I speak of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and his colleague Barrett Brown, Jose Antonio Vargas, Tim DeChristopher, Lynne Stewart, Jeremy Hammond and members of the Anonymous collective. The list could go on for pages, and isn’t that a wonderful thing? These people are heroes not only for their actions but for giving us faith that not everyone’s reaction to tyranny, social injustice and corporate rule is a collective sigh of resignation. And they number in the thousands.
I leave Truthdig strong. It is a beacon of principle and hope. Thomas Paine wrote, “An army of principles will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot; it will succeed where diplomatic management would fall: it is neither the Rhine, the Channel, nor the ocean that can arrest its progress: it will march on the horizon of the world, and it will conquer.”
I believe that. I leave it to whoever succeeds me at Truthdig, and to the excellent editors and contributors already here, to make it so.
I have some people to thank. I won’t be offended if you skip this part.
First, Zuade Kaufman, who gave me a chance before I deserved it, and who has supported me throughout.
Robert Scheer, my father, who has more energy and righteous indignation than any 20-year-old I’ve ever met. He is the monster who wakes us up at 4 a.m. because there is injustice in the world and work to do.
My mom, Narda Zacchino, who was one of the nation’s highest-ranking female editors and is not affiliated with Truthdig, but nonetheless shouted me awake when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. We were on vacation and someone else was handling it, I said. “If you were really my son, you’d get up and write,” she said. I obeyed.
Kasia Anderson has been my friend and colleague longer than not, and although I think I outrank her, I’ve always looked up to Kasia and asked her advice. She is, without hesitation, one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. And she gets Internet cat humor.
I still think of Natasha Hakimi Zapata and Alexander Reed Kelly as the kids who do the blogging, but they somehow took over when I wasn’t looking. They are usually the reason people read Truthdig, and they deserve more credit.
Speaking of credit, I have to acknowledge my predecessor, Blair Golson. He helped restructure the site in its early days and much of what we do retains his influence.
True story, it was not my father who got me to work for Truthdig. It was Karen Spector, a dear friend who ditched me far too soon after I joined up.
There is a long list of people who have worked in the office cleaning up our messes, sending out contracts, cutting the checks, applying for the awards we’ve won, and much more. They are the unsung heroes of Truthdig and they are too many to mention. I have to single out Lucy Berbeo, however. She is a quiet force of nature who, during her time at Truthdig, took on as much of my workload as I would allow her. I am forever grateful.
Travis, Susie and the team at HOP studios built Truthdig from scratch, and they’ve kept us running for a decade. They’re the bee’s knees. They’re also Canadian, for the most part.
Every single one of our writers has driven me nuts, except for Bill Boyarsky. Regardless, they are all stars in my eyes and I’m sure I’ve made them crazy in the bargain. I cannot imagine what went through Chris Hedges’ mind when he was told I would be his editor. I think I was 25 at the time, and I know I was very green. Thank God his copy is so clean.
To Steve Wasserman, Eunice Wong, and everyone who has contributed their time and effort to the site, whether for years or in fits and spurts, thank you.
Also, a big shout out to Alan Minsky, Stan Misraje, D’Angelo Jones, Jee and everyone at KPFK who make Truthdig Radio happen. That includes my big brother Josh, who produces our show and sacrificed his own ego every week for four years to make me look good. I’m the only one who knows how hard Josh works, and that’s because he took a vacation once and I almost died trying to do his job.
Finally, and appropriately so since they’re the last line of defense, our copy editors. There have been a dozen or so, and I won’t mention their names, because I’ll probably misspell them and get a lot of nasty emails, and also because it creates more work for them, and did you notice this is a run-on sentence? They taught me AP style and they taught me how to write good. In particular, I have to thank Tom Caswell. I really didn’t deserve his patience, and he gave it anyway, along with so much wisdom. Also, it was Tom who inserted a “fuck” into this farewell piece.
There are a lot more, but this is starting to read like an Oscar speech and I got the music about four paragraphs ago. I love you all. Thanks.