Sunday, February 19, 2006

Psst, here come the gatekeepers

A Farewell to Justice. Know the book? It's by Joan Mellen. It's not named but noted, in the negative, by Max Blumenthal's "The JFK Lawyer's Conspiracy." The Nation has never been eager to veer from the official line on the assassination of JFK. C.I. rightly compared this to your friend with a food allergy. You accept that they're allergic to it and move on.

That's the magazine. Blumenthal's made his calling to go around screaming "conspiracy theorist" whenever questions are asked. We won't say he's debunked, because he can't debunk and doesn't really try to. What he does is toss out his own witnesses and say, "Those other people can't be trusted!"

If there's nothing new to see, if that's the thrust of the article, we'd kindly suggest that the magazine find something else to write about. The position of The Nation is and has always been one of supporting the Warren Commission. As readers of The Nation (eight of us are subscribers, some, like Elaine purchase each issue at the bookstore), we don't think we're paying for repeats. We also don't think that if the magazine's position is "Nothing to see here" they should waste pages on the subject. There are too many things going on today that need coverage.

A Farewell to Justice, by Joan Mellen, is a book that we've now all read. Ruth noted Mellen's appearence on Law and Disorder back in November:

There were many topics discussed but I will note the one that holds everyone's interest when I mention it, author Joan Mellen about her forthcoming book A Farewell to Justice: Jim Garrison, JFK's Assassination, and the Case That Should Have Changed History. [C.I. note: This book will be released Tuesday, November the 15th.] Utilizing documents from the National Archives, Mellen explores new data on the JFK assassination. The discussion included noting that the late Hale Boggs, House Majority Leader and father of Cokie Roberts, was the one who first steered Jim Garrison to questions regarding the Warren Report. Ms. Mellen draws strong conclusions and if you are interested in them, you should listen to the broadcast. [Dallas note: Again, click here and scroll down to November 7th.]

Mellen's making an argument and she's doing it the way you should, she's utilizing witnesses and documents. If you don't buy her argument, you don't buy it.

But you don't get a sense of argument in Blumenthal's article. He's not interested in her book, just in discouraging any questions of the official narrative.

This week, C.I. wrote about the article and the result was a lost link. Jess and Ava wanted an "on the record statement" regarding that.

C.I.: Someone was bothered by Mellen's book and my recommending it. I'm not surprised. The easiest thing in the world to write about is what everyone else is going to write about. If you're going to take the easy road, why even write anything? That might be an argument Mellen would make for the book, for writing the book. When the e-mails started coming in that day complaining about Blumenthal's article, Jess and Ava had advised me of it over the phone before I started dictating that entry to a friend. There was a way to address visiters complaints that I hadn't addressed an advertisement The Nation had run with that article and to get it across to the community that The Nation will never question the official narrative. I don't think it crossed my mind at that point that Mellen's book itself would make some uncomfortable. I think I was too busy trying to dictate the entry so it could go up on the site. When the link to The Common Ills was pulled, that's probably the first time I thought about it and my attitude then was, "No loss." I'd rather talk about something that some people are too uncomfortable to touch. There is a group think that goes on and I think it's important to buck that.

Ava: What did you think of the book?

C.I.: I couldn't put it down. I was very worried, I read it straight through, as the end approached because I'd read Joan Mellen's Hammett & Hellman and the last chapter of that had disappointed me. I felt like there was a bit more to tell about [Lillian] Hellman. I didn't think it was a bad book, but I felt like it ended too quickly. A "problem," possibly, more books should suffer from. But Ruth had recommended the book strongly and when you read it, if you read it, we've all read it here, you see why that is. And the ending worked perfectly in this book. I thought Mellen wrote a fascinating book from start to finish.

We agree that it's important to avoid group think. (As our roundtables and book discussions attest, we do not practice group think and aren't afraid to disagree with one another.) We've all read the book and can't imagine why it would frighten Max Blumenthal so. But it did. When a book frightens, we think you should consider reading it.

When people start screaming "conspiracy nut!" we feel the response is to step back. The mainstream press tarred and feathered Cynthia McKinney falsely (see Greg Palast's The Best Democracy Money Can Buy) as a "conspiracy nut!" They had to invent a quote for her to do that, but it didn't stop them from doing it.

We're aware of the way Gary Webb was savaged, including by some on the left or "left," as a "conspiracy nut" and aware that his argument was backed up later by a CIA report. When the attacks come from the left or "left" you can look at them and think CIA loyalist or worse. Or you can just see it, as we do, as the result of group think.

We're sure your familiar with group think. Maybe you see it in the classroom, where someone's afraid to offer an alternate opinion and everyone nods along in agreement instead. Or maybe you see it at your job where no one dares question the boss? Group think is all around us.

Step out of line and you might be slapped with a ruler. If you're a reporter, step out of line and you might lose access. Maybe NPR won't put you on the air? Maybe Cokie Roberts will say something bad about you? Maybe Newsweek reporters will openly mock you?

It takes bravery to take a stand that's outside of the norm. We think Mellen wrote a brave book. We think it's one worth reading. We feel that needs to be stated because if anyone linking to us has a problem with that, they should know it upfront. That's this site and all the community sites. We're not all in the position C.I. is where links don't matter. Some of the rest of us would love to increase our readers. (The Common Ills has members and visiters, no readers, and Jim is typing this before C.I. can state that.)

But we're not going to go along to get along. We're not going to play "the game" so that we can get back pats and shout outs. At this site, our readers know that about us. They know we'll speak our mind. That's true of the entire community and, true, we're lucky because we've never had to suck up to "players" because we've ridden the community coat tails. A lot of sites don't have that option. They've got to do shout outs constantly and prostrate themselves before their designated blog gods for a morsel of attention that might steer a little traffic there way. We consider those embarrassing sites. They tend to write things like, "We don't need to make fun of James Dobson, we need to try to find a way to get along with him." (Yes, someone really wrote that nonsense and considers himself to be a left blogger.)

We're not sure where the web is headed but we're troubled by a lot of signals that seem to be flashing these days. You'll hear the need for a code of ethics. Excuse us? We'd assume you'd follow your own ethical guidelines not require that a set of guidelines you never wrote be imposed upon you. That's how newspapers function. Each has their own guidelines. But there's a need to turn blogging into some sort of a "profession."

C.I., due to family history, knows quite well how "professionalism" was used to water down reporting. We've noted it here before but we try to be professional without being a professional (phrase stolen from Michelle Phillips). We're also bothered by the emegence of gatekeepers, the net's own Cokie Roberts, Sam Donaldsons, Gwen Ifells . . . A lot of net space has been wasted with talk of "tone." People rushed to give props to a New Republican who felt the "tone" was shocking. That would be The New Republican that cheerleaded the war. (Which one? As Marty points out, every one.) It was sites like BuzzFlash and Bartcop, with their attitude (which we don't consider a bad word) that led the online challenges to this administration. They didn't do it by fretting about "tone."

And as C.I. can tell you from family history, those letters to the editors composed with careful thought out "tone" don't do a bit of good. We honestly wonder if the writers of them send them in thinking, "Bill Keller's going to be so impressed with my good manners I'm going to change his mind!" or "Bill Keller's going to be so impressed with my good manners, he's going to offer me a job!" Maybe it's something else entirely. But C.I. can tell you that the letters that bother a publisher or an editor aren't the ones minding their "tone." The letters that state their opinion in a to the point manner do linger. A publisher can spend the whole weekend fuming about an angry letter. You're carefully worded, on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other letter is forgotten as soon as the assistant reads it.

When that was explained to us, the weekend we started this site, we thought, "Interesting." If someone else needs proof, all you have to do is look at Bill Keller's public statements. When he whines to the press, it's about the angry letters. Keller's never given out a quote about the "reasoned arm chair critics." But he's publicly blasted the arm chair critics who've taken him to task. He had a meltdown with FAIR readers not all that long ago.

What's happened with the web is that a multitude of voices have come along to critique. Now a New Republican, who frequently contributes to the paper of record, wants to whine about "tone."

Of course he does. He writes for The Times. He writes for The New Republican. Those aren't brave voices of the left. The New Republican produced a lot of gasbags for the right. It also produced a lot of weak "left" types who go on the chat and chews and conceed this point and conceed that point. (The good writers, Murray Waas for example, left the rag and can and have spoken of how un-left it is.)

"Where's the spine in the party?" is a question you hear about the Democratic Party quite often. It's in the grass roots. The leaders are too busy worrying about "tone" and how to make nice that they can't focus on spine. There are many ways the Republicans set the terms of any debate. One way is not worrying about "tone" or what The New York Times might write about them. The press loves it and follows along meekly.

"Tone" is not an "issue" we worry about. We worry about the war. We worry about the Patriot Act. We worry about our democracy and the state of the union. About the poor. Go down the list. "Tone" it's somewhere down below the humidity on our lists. There are too many battles to be fought for us to play Miss Manners.

Some of us are apt to word more kindly than others, but none of us have a problem calling a liar a "liar" or calling a fool a "fool." Those are our judgements and our opinions. We'll assume anyone reading anything we write will grasp that and that those who can't have problems that go far beyond our "tone."

When Rebecca took on a foolish group that wants to privatize Social Security and prides itself on how bipartisan it is (Dem-lites square dance with Republicans), one of the fools took issue with the fact that his hair had been made fun of. He told her that if she wanted to discuss him, she should stick to his policies. (As Rebecca noted, that wasn't even possible because the organization does not allow you to quote from their policy papers -- quote from, quote -- without permission.) He had a dorky haircut. (He may still have.) He wanted to whine to Rebecca about all the things that were going on in his life the day his professional photo was taken. Well, here's an answer for the fool, take another picture. Don't post the picture online.
(As Rebecca noted, he wasn't at all worried about what she had said about the haircuts and clothes of his presumed friends in the organization.) Rebecca can and will criticize whatever she wants. That's her right. (Need we add "as an American"?)

You don't impose a "tone" on others. You don't set the terms for debate. If you are an adult male professional with a chili bowl haircut, we all think that's worth commenting on. On Roseanne, even DJ dropped that dorky haircut as he entered his teen years. That a middle-aged man still wants to sport it . . . We say, "Go for it, Rebecca." And go for anything you want.

You saw a meltdown online this week (or maybe you saw it, no one really visits that site) where a scold felt the need to scream at the left that they were awful for their Cheney jokes. Awful?
Cheney shot a man. That's news. The jokes? They've lowered Cheney's image. He's not the tough spoken v.p. He's the man who shot a hunting buddy. That's his freeze frame now. Short of embarrassing himself more, that's how he is now remembered.

C.I. spoke at The Common Ills recently of Hillary Clinton and how the Republicans and press attempts to paint her as "too angry" would never go over. Her freeze frame comes from the Monica months where America saw her as a woman who held her head high in a very difficult time. Angry? It's not going to play to anyone but the extreme right that's been rabid on her for years.

If you think Bob Dylan, you think of him in the sixties. There's a moment in time that every public figure is frozen in. Some get more than one, so you end up with dueling postage stamps of Thin Elvis and Fat Elvis. Or you get Tina Turner with the long, straight wig and Tina Turner of the comeback eighties. But most people have one freeze frame, one image that will follow them throughout their lives. For Cheney, it's now the hunting accident.

Anytime he wants to try to strike fear in the public again, a sizeable portion of the audience will be listening with one ear as they crack jokes about his hunting trip. Don't knock the mock, C.I. has often pointed out. Never rule out the power of humor. Political humor (printed, spoken or drawn) has a long history in this country. That's why the Republicans use terms like "Ozone Man." They know it's effective.

None of us last week heard the man shot made fun of. We heard Cheney made fun of. A scold wanted to scream, "It's shameful!" It wasn't at all. It was funny. We're sorry you didn't think so but we thought it was funny (especially Wally's posts at The Daily Jot) and we laughed. The nation laughed.

The Republican talking points right now are that he's recovered from it. He hasn't. He will never recover from that moment. That moment is his freeze frame, his defining moment (unless he embarrasses himself further) and we say "Good for you" to everyone who took part in the jokes. He's gone from Darth Cheney to the laughingstock of a nation. We think that's a good thing. He can mutter "mushroom cloud" in that sinister, soft spoken tone all he wants but he's about as threatening now as Dr. Evil. He's not taken seriously. Talking points aside, he's not taken seriously.

If the scold was in charge of the net, a number of voices would be banished and banned right now. Fortunately the scold's not in charge. But no one should be. Ideas and expressions should be able to get a fair hearing. Gatekeepers don't like that. They want to say, "Don't talk about that! Don't talk about it and don't talk it about that way!" Or, "You can talk about this subject but you have to do it in this manner." We must be missing that subsection of the First Amendment because we can't find it.

Here's the way we read it:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free excercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the right of the people peaceably to assmelbe, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

We don't see a damn thing in there about "tone" or a list of subjects which can and cannot be discussed. Free speech is free speech. Sometimes it's beautiful, sometimes it's ugly, most of the time it's messy. That's the beauty of a democracy.

Joan Mellen's written a book we recommend strongly. We think it has far more value than anything Blumenthal's written (either a single article or the entire body of his work). A Farewell to Justice: Jim Garrison, JFK's Assassination, and the Case That Should Have Changed History is worth reading. If you've already got a list of books to read or you need more convincing, we'll steer you to two online items. First, Rebecca had an amazing dream when she read the book, who knows what influence it will have on you. Second, especially if you're thinking "That was so long ago," you can check out the text to the speech Joan Mellen gave entitled "HOW THE FAILURE TO IDENTIFY, PROSECUTE AND CONVICT PRESIDENT KENNEDY'S ASSASSINS HAS LED TO TODAY'S CRISIS OF DEMOCRACY." We think most of our readers will be interested in A Farewell to Justice.
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