June 7, 2012
The New York Times published its lengthy article entitled "Secret 'Kill List' Proves a Test of Obama's Principles and Will" on May 29, 2012. Today, a mere nine days later, it has already vanished almost completely from national discussion. Even in the days immediately following the article's publication, the discussion that occurred was most notable for how limited it was and for how few people took part in it. I confess that I did not exhaustively research such commentary about the article as was offered, for it quickly became clear that many writers and observers said nothing at all about it or reacted as if nothing of unusual significance had occurred. Some writers vehemently criticized the program detailed in the article, but even they failed to note a number of aspects that I view as deserving particular attention.
Almost two years ago, I wrote a series of articles about WikiLeaks, when that was the "hot" story of the moment. You will find all of the installments listed at the conclusion of the final installment. In the introductory section of that seventh and last essay in the series, I reflected on certain aspects of what passes for news analysis, in both traditional media and on blogs. I identified three particular analytic errors concerning WikiLeaks, all of which had been offered within days of the WikiLeaks story breaking, and sometimes within hours. If you will indulge me, and because I see these same dynamics at play in connection with the recent NYT story, I will repeat part of what I went to say:
In significant part, these related failures are the inevitable result of our culture's insistence on speed as a primary virtue. Mainstream media, following their purpose of providing daily news (among other purposes), are expected to provide almost immediate reports of breaking news. With regard to blogs, it is worth noting that, for all the talk (largely from bloggers themselves) about "breaking new ground" and providing truly "independent" perspectives, blogs have copied this aspect of traditional media behavior with close to absolute fidelity. Of course, the internet greatly increases the speed at which purported "analysis" is offered.By the standards of the speed-freak Arendts, I remain a plodder. I perhaps should emphasize that I do not offer this thought as self-criticism. Regardless of the brilliance of any particular writer (and I do not claim brilliance for myself, but I acknowledge that I am far from stupid), many aspects of the significance of complex events are not immediately apparent, at least not in a manner that is quickly reducible to written form. If our aim is to grasp the meaning of particular events in the broad cultural context in which they occur, we can approach our goal only with the passage of time. We must consider a given event from a variety of perspectives; we must challenge our own initial impressions and test them against our knowledge of other periods and countries, and of other events (sometimes even events which may at first appear unrelated, but later reveal unsuspected connections); we must absorb what has happened, gather and refine our thoughts, and then consider how we might effectively express them to an audience.
Immediate reporting without more is unquestionably of value. Especially with regard to developments that indisputably will (or very probably will) have significant implications, we want to know of breaking events as quickly as possible. Yet if we reflect on what kinds of events fall into this category, we will appreciate that they are very few in number. Major weather or geological events (hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.) and the initiation of military action obviously qualify. Most of the rest of the "news" does not.
But such distinctions are almost entirely lost now: everything is "news," and it is here today (or even only for a few hours), and gone tomorrow. Everything passes, and nothing is remembered; usually, nothing is understood. This is certainly true of almost all blogging, and it is increasingly true of traditional media. From one perspective, the rise of blogging and its growing influence are an enormous boon. Certainly they are for me personally. Without the internet and blogging, I most probably would never have written most or even any of my essays, and you would never have read them. In that sense, and leaving aside the dubious moral quality of such criticism, I definitely do not come to bury blogging.
Yet from a different, and hopefully broader, perspective, there are aspects of what we might call "blogging culture" which are darkly baleful in their effects. For bloggers offer not just reports about what has happened, but simultaneously provide what purports to be analysis of what it means. But do any of us truly believe that 99% of blog posts will be remembered five years from now, or even one, or even next week? No, we don't. (I have a very faint hope that some of my essays may not fall into the same pool of forgetfulness, but then, with momentary exceptions here and there, I never wanted to do blogging of that kind. In any case, time will tell. I have no expectation that it will be notably kind in my own case.)
Nonetheless, it appears to be the commonly accepted view that the almost instant analysis offered by blogs has serious merit and represents a valid, considered perspective. I am filled with admiration, mixed with indescribable astonishment, that we have evolved so far that the world is filled with 60-second Arendts. It is truly a wonder for the ages.
Comparatively speaking, and speaking even in absolute terms, I'm a plodder.
We must also consider -- and I find this task to be one of special difficulty -- how detailed a case we wish to offer in support of our views, a determination which also requires us to identify our hoped-for audience very specifically. If we seek to address only those who already agree with us, building a persuasive case is largely irrelevant. We can work from a prefabricated template which provides us with innumerable phrases for all occasions, phrases of praise or condemnation depending on the event and our particular orientation. With rare exceptions, all bloggers and political commentators write and/or talk in this manner exclusively. Many of you may have engaged in an exercise I once utilized regularly and purposefully: reading about the latest controversy and predicting in detail how liberal and conservative writers would treat it. If you understand the dynamics involved, you will almost never be wrong. This is why, for me, one of the greatest rewards in reading is the treasurable moment when I am utterly astonished by what a writer says, when I think: "That's absolutely fascinating! That never occurred to me! How wonderful that she could explain it!" I note that this is one of my greatest rewards in reading fiction as well as non-fiction (the terms of the reaction to fiction are somewhat different, but the phenomenon is the same), and in viewing all art -- and in life itself. The moment when we see a connection that had escaped us, when a light suddenly illuminates an issue we hadn't understood, can be one of inexpressible joy. (I meditated on these issues of making connections and the joy of being provided with such illumination in "Flecks of Light, Points of Understanding, and the Gift of Sight: All Things Are Connected.")
My mention of Hannah Arendt in the earlier essay was not happenstance, for I went on to discuss how Arendt's analysis in her famous Pentagon Papers essay gave the lie to one of the errors about WikiLeaks I identified. I also pointed out that Arendt's essay appeared five months after publication of the Pentagon Papers. I dare to suggest that, if Arendt were alive today and if she blogged (a thought which in itself I find fairly mind-boggling), I am certain that she would not have published an essay like "Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers" the day after the Times story appeared, or even two weeks later. Just as I do not claim brilliance for myself, it would not occur to me to compare my efforts here to Arendt's work. A week or two is sufficient time for me to offer certain observations about the Times piece.
In addition to the factors mentioned above which are required for an appreciation of the significance of an event in relation to the time and place in which it occurs (and there are still a number of additional factors involved in my view), the passage of time itself -- at least the passage of a week or more -- is critical for an understanding of what I consider to be the immense significance of the NYT article about the "Kill List." This is the issue noted in my first paragraph: less than two weeks after the story was published, it has already vanished in the fog of the disposable. In the view of almost everyone, there is nothing especially memorable or notable about the story and its contents. This detailed recitation of how the "Kill List" is developed and utilized thus falls within the description I provided in that two-year-old article about WikiLeaks: "everything is 'news,' and it is here today (or even only for a few hours), and gone tomorrow. Everything passes, and nothing is remembered; usually, nothing is understood."
With regard to the NYT story, this is astonishing and calamitous. I consider the reaction to this article -- to be more precise, the non-reaction -- to be one of the worst signs we have yet seen concerning the collapse of this country into unrelenting, savage barbarism. This is an additional reason for my delay in discussing the story in detail: I needed time to absorb my own horror, time in which I could focus my horror and decide how to best explain the causes of my reaction. In essence, the NYT story tells us that the President of the United States and his closest advisers have devised and implemented a systematic program of murder -- and the targets are most often human beings about whom these killers have no particular knowledge as to what kind of threat they may represent to the United States, or whether they represent any threat at all. For reasons I shall identify, the story tells us the President and his trusted fellow killers regularly murder people about whom they know nothing in terms of their own stated concerns.
To begin to appreciate the scale of the horror involved, a preliminary fact must be underscored numerous times. Early in the story, we are told:
In interviews with The New York Times, three dozen of his current and former advisers described Mr. Obama’s evolution since taking on the role, without precedent in presidential history, of personally overseeing the shadow war with Al Qaeda.The phrase "without precedent in presidential history" is highly questionable; in fact, I will argue that it is flatly untrue. But I'll get to that later.
For now, focus on the fact that all the details offered in the article come from these interviews with "three dozen of [Obama's] current and former advisers." A number of commentators have noted this passage, but I've yet to see anyone identify its full meaning, especially when we consider the almost unanimous lack of reaction to the story. Given the subject matter, we can be certain that these "advisers" would not have provided numerous details about the "Kill List" unless the Obama administration wanted them to. In other words: this is the story the government wants to tell. This is the story the government wants Americans -- and the watching world -- to know. I state again that the central theme of the story is that Obama and his closest advisers are engaged in a systematic program of murder, targeting people about whom they know nothing in terms of the factors they themselves claim demand their urgent concern. That is to say: they murder anyone they wish, anywhere in the world, for any reason they choose -- or for no reason at all.
That is what they want you to know. And what is the reaction of almost everyone? The overwhelming majority of Americans haven't reacted at all. It is as if nothing whatsoever has been said. They simply don't care. Because this is the story the government wants to tell, we may properly regard it as being in the nature of a trial balloon. The U.S. government is saying to all of us, and to the entire world:
We can murder anyone we want, just because we feel like it. And guess what: we do! And we do it regularly and systematically. Because we want to!Now they have their answer.
Does anybody care? Does anyone give a damn?
You may not want to face it -- hell, I'd prefer not to have to face it -- but this is a country ready to be led to the slaughterhouse. This story -- and the fact that it has been received with near-universal apathy, which means acceptance -- should terrify you to the very core of your being.
To be continued.