Fair and Unbalanced
If you believe the polls, or watch cable TV news, you may be halfway convinced that race relations in America have somehow grown worse during the tenure of the first black president.
But if that seems counterintuitive, that’s because, well, it is. It’s counterintuitive and it’s wrong.
Yes, people are marching in the streets. Yes, NBA stars are wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts. Yes, Bill O’Reilly puts the blame on Barack Obama for facilitating what he calls the racial “grievance industry.” Yes, riots broke out in Ferguson after Darren Wilson was not indicted in the shooting death of Michael Brown. Yes, police met the demonstrators with equipment made to kill terrorists. Yes, yes, and yes.
But what we’re actually having — six years into the Obama presidency — is the conversation that Eric Holder controversially told us all those years ago we were afraid to have. Maybe we were right to have been afraid. The conversation is often ugly, but what else would you expect?
From the day Obama took office, this is what we knew about race relations in America: There’s a black man in the White House and, depending on your vantage point, he’s either too much concerned with race in America or he’s too unwilling to publicly confront the issues of race in America. In either case, he was supposed to represent a dramatic change. His election in 2008 did just that. His re-election did it again.
But if the elections were historic, history moves only so quickly. And the idea of the coming post-racial America was always naive. The grand jury decisions — the ones that could find no one responsible for the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner — just reminded us of all that unresolved history. What the killings showed, more than anything else, was how differently police operate in black communities. We knew that, of course, but now we know that. And if we were reminded of the unemployment numbers and the prison numbers, it seems not everyone wanted to be reminded.
And so you get 53 percent of Americans telling Bloomberg pollsters that race relations have gotten worse under Obama. The numbers, for once, were similar for those black and white, whereas almost every other question on race shows a wide racial divide.
Of course it’s all divisive. But, despite everything, the conversation — OK, the argument — has to be a good thing. There’s movement. Some would even say there’s a movement.
In the sixth year of a presidency, the talk becomes of legacy. Part of Obama’s will be the deepening of the already-deep political divide. The rise of the Tea Party moved Republicans further to the right. And Republicans routinely claimed that Obama, when he wasn’t hiding his birth certificate, was simultaneously pulling Democrats radically to the left. (He actually wasn’t, but for the sake of the argument, it doesn’t matter; it only matters that some people think so.)
But I don’t think that racism, as some argue, is at the root of this divide. I tend to think it’s more about the use of race as a way to exploit the divide that began with Clinton and moved onto Bush and then onto Obama, in much the way that we have moved from talk radio to cable TV news and to the Internet. With the next president, we will inevitably move onto a different dividing point.
What was different was that when Obama became president, suddenly everything was game. And so Rush Limbaugh could get away with playing “Barack the Magic Negro” on his show and Glenn Beck could get away with calling Obama a “racist” on his show and Newt Gingrich could get away with saying you can understand Obama “only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior.”
Finally, a GOP congressional staffer went too far and ripped the Obama daughters for being teenagers, saying they looked as if they were dressed for a night at a bar. She resigned or, more likely, was resigned. Young black females, as Eugene Robinson pointed out, should get to be young black females. We have seen too vividly what can happen to young black males, and how they can turn into a “demon” in a cop’s eyes and wind up dead. Or they can look like a hoodied thug and wind up dead.
Obama has always been uneasy publicly discussing race. He remembers what happened with Henry Louis Gates and the beer summit and what happened when he said he could have had a son who looked like Trayvon Martin. He understands all too painfully how the divide works. He knows, too, that as the first black president, there is only so much he has to say.
When Obama finally went on BET to say that racism is “deeply rooted” in America, he also said, “As painful as these incidents are, we can’t equate what is happening now to what was happening 50 years ago,” he said. “And if you talk to your parents, grandparents, uncles, they’ll tell you that things are better —- not good, in some cases, but better.”
Yes. And no.
As Obama almost said, they’re better and they’re not nearly good enough. And when Denver high school students are peacefully marching in protest of that very point, it’s hard to see how anyone could miss the fact that they are marching forward.
Mark Udall was on the Senate floor, probably for the last time, and giving ‘em hell. He gave Barack Obama hell. He gave the CIA hell. He gave John Brennan, whom he called on to resign, even more than that.
It wasn’t just political theatre, although it was dramatic. Udall was angry. He had finally helped get the mostly unredacted executive summary of the Senate torture report to light — and, well, nothing.
The country may have been abuzz with stories of rectal feeding and mulling the details of the prisoner plunged in the icy bath, chained to a wall and left to freeze to death. But in the end, Brennan, who had done everything to block release of the Senate report, was still CIA director. And Obama was still supporting Brennan.
Meanwhile, Republicans were saying the report had put the country at risk. And Dick Cheney was on Fox saying the report, which he maintained he hadn’t read, was “full of crap,” and that, anyway, it was war, dammit. After all, the CIA had Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and they could either torture him or, as Cheney put it, “kiss him on both cheeks and tell us, please, please tell us what you know.”
Sure, Udall was angry. He knew better. As Heather Digby Parton points out in Salon, Udall would cite the partly declassified Panetta Review, which showed that the CIA had misled on intelligence supposedly gained from torture. And it was worse than that. The review, Udall said, showed that some detainees had been giving information to interrogators — and only then were tortured. And that some detainees were tortured before they were even asked to give information. And that some detainees were tortured just to prove they didn’t have any helpful information.
“The refusal to provide the full Panetta Review and the refusal to acknowledge facts detailed in both the committee study and the Panetta Review lead to one disturbing finding: Director Brennan and the CIA today are continuing to willfully provide inaccurate information and misrepresent the efficacy of torture,” Udall said. “In other words: The CIA is lying.”
It was all there on CSPAN, and as I was watching, it hit me. If this had happened two months ago, Udall might well have been re-elected. There’s more than one way to get the women-in-Jefferson-County vote.
The funniest moment in the Udall-Gardner campaign came when Udall insisted during a debate that he was “the last person” the White House wanted to see coming “down the front lawn.”
The crowd hooted. CNN mocked him. It’s possible that I may have mocked him myself. After all, Cory Gardner’s entire campaign was centered on the notion that Udall had voted with Obama 99 percent of the time. Udall’s suggestion that he was actually feared by the White House seemed more than a little desperate.
Now we know who gets the last laugh. (That’s right, Cory Gardner, who — surprise — hasn’t said much about the Senate report.) It turns out that Udall was a big White House problem, but that no one in Colorado seemed to know it.
That wasn’t the only secret, of course. Udall’s conversations with the White House were all about secrets. About the NSA secrets. About the CIA secrets.
It was about saying, early on, that it was time for Brennan to go.
The big news Thursday was that Brennan held a news conference at Langley to give his side of the story. In his side, he didn’t use the word “torture.” In CIA-speak, he used “E.I.T.s” — enhanced interrogation techniques — because “torture” is a loaded word and “E.I.T.” sounds like a place you’d want to send your kid to college.
Brennan conceded that some of the acts described in the Senate report were “abhorrent,” but he refuted the committee’s conclusion that no useful information had come from detainees who had been, say, waterboarded. He said there was no way to know whether normal interrogation techniques — the ones presumably being used now — would have provided the same intelligence.
“The cause and effect relationship between the use of E.I.T.s and useful information subsequently provided by the detainee is, in my view, unknowable,” is how Brennan put it.
Of course, torture wasn’t put in place to provide “useful” information. If you remember the arguments after 9/11, we were told torture was a terrible option to be used only because it might stave off a new attack. It was a bad option even then, of course, and that was the knowable information that Udall wanted to pass along.
And in his speech, he showed why Obama wasn’t, in fact, happy too see him. First, Udall praised Obama for ending torture as soon as he came into office, noting how the president had said then that the use of torture in any circumstance violated every American ideal.
But then Udall notes: “Fast forward to this year, after so much has come to light about the CIA’s barbaric programs, and President Obama’s response was that we ‘crossed a line’ as a nation, and that, quote, ‘hopefully, we don’t do it again in the future.’
“That’s not good enough. We need to be better than that. There can be no cover-up. There can be no excuses. If there is no moral leadership from the White House helping the public understand that the CIA’s torture program wasn’t necessary and didn’t save lives or disrupt terrorist plots, then what’s to stop the next White House and CIA director from supporting torture?”
It’s a good question. Or maybe you think that someday it will be Cory Gardner walking down the White House lawn.
Mark Udall promised that people would be “disgusted,” “appalled” and “shocked” by the CIA torture report that he had pushed so hard to have released.
He could have added “ashamed” and disturbed” and “revolted.”
In any case, Udall got it exactly right when, in maybe his last important act as senator, he said that Americans — being Americans — would find the report “morally repugnant” and help ensure that we never find ourselves here again.
It’s hard to know exactly where to begin in the more than 500 pages summarizing years of brutal treatment and CIA deceit. So we’ll begin with the rectal feeding. I’d understand if you don’t want to read about rectal feeding. Imagine, though, if you were the prisoner whose lunch of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts and raisins was “pureed” and rectally infused, which the CIA defended as a well-documented medical procedure. It was once. It was used to treat President James Garfield as he lay dying. Then there was “rectal rehydration,” which the CIA also defended. The Washington Post quoted a Harvard doctor saying he was sure the CIA used it not for medical purposes but to cause “severe pain.”
Do these things bother you?
How about the prisoner who died at the Salt Pit, where he was “short-chained” to a wall so that he had to sit on the bare concrete while nude from the waist down and was found dead the next day, apparently due to hypothermia? Yes, he froze to death. And in a weird footnote, the “interrogator” was later awarded a $2,500 bonus.
Or this: The “interrogator” who threatened to rape the prisoner’s mother?
Or this: The prisoners made to stand on broken feet for days at a time?
Or this: Of the 119 prisoners (the CIA told Congress it never had more than 98), that at least 26 were wrongfully held, including one “mentally challenged” prisoner who was there to put pressure on his parents?
Here’s the thing. Yes, we’re appalled by these and too many other revelations — we already knew, for example, that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded at least 183 times — but even worse, far worse, is that, according to the report, none of it worked. And not only did none of it work, the CIA lied to the White House, to Congress and to the rest of us about it.
It’s one argument if torture works, and if it saves lives. It’s quite another if it doesn’t. Yes, even when torture works, it’s still wrong — because it’s torture. But when it doesn’t work? The Senate Intelligence Committee report spent much space showing how the torture often failed to provide usable intelligence.
It didn’t save lives. It didn’t get Osama bin Laden, as some suggested. There was no Zero Dark Thirty moment. That torture didn’t live up to the CIA claims is no surprise because a 1989 report — from, yes, the CIA — said that torture didn’t provide accurate information and that other methods are far more effective.
John McCain, the senator who best understands torture, said, “I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence.” McCain spoke after Dianne Feinstein, a longtime CIA ally, made her case against the organization she has often defended. McCain spoke in support of the report released by Senate Democrats. Long ago, back in 2009, the Senate report began with a 14-1 bipartisan vote by the intelligence committee. Today, McCain was one of the few Republicans to back the report.
In an emotional speech, McCain didn’t fall back on the weak argument that this report would affect national security. It might, just as many similar revelations might have affected national security. But McCain strongly made that the point that the torture — a “stain on our national honor,” he said — presented the real danger to us.
It’s pretty clear that we are better off knowing these things than not knowing them. When Dick Cheney argues that the report’s contents should be kept secret, that should be your tip-off. The argument from the CIA is that much of the report is wrong. But much of the report — read it if you have the time and the stomach — quotes concerned CIA operatives criticizing CIA methods.
As Scott Shane points out in the New York Times, as far back as early 2003, the head of CIA interrogations sent an email to colleagues about the brutality, saying the tortured-filled interrogations were a train wreck waiting to happen and that he wanted to “get the hell off the train before it happens.”
In 2005, a CIA agent in charge of one of the secret prisons said he was concerned that they weren’t using the best officers in the interrogations. “More than a few are basically incompetent,” he wrote, adding, “We see no evidence that thought is being given to deploying an ‘A team.’ The result, quite naturally, is the production of mediocre or, I dare say, useless intelligence.”
No one questions the horror of 9/11 or the need to protect ourselves from more terrorist attacks. It’s understandable if some people were tempted to overreact. But when overreaction leads to torture-linked renditions and to waterboarding and to rectal rehydrations and to a near-naked man chained and frozen to death and to official lies and unofficial lies and a CIA that spies on Congress, we should know what it is we have done, so we know not to do it again.
[Photo: Colorado U.S. Senator Mark Udall.]
Anyone surprised by the Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict the cop in the death of Eric Garner hasn’t been paying attention.
Of course the grand jury didn’t indict him.
I’m amused — not in a ha-ha way, but amused nonetheless — by those commentators (see: Krauthammer, Charles) who call themselves horrified by the Garner decision but insist there is no relationship between white-cop-black-victim Staten Island and white-cop-black-victim Ferguson.
Let’s get this straight. They can’t breathe in Ferguson either.
The demonstrations following the grand jury decision on Darren Wilson were not simply about the death of Michael Brown. They were about the history that led to the death of Michael Brown. They were about life in Michael Brown’s Ferguson neighborhood, where cops and citizens intersect in ways possibly different from those in your neighborhood. When politicians talk about a “lack of trust” between “the community” and police, you should know exactly what they mean.
No one can deny the history, but somehow there are people under the impression that history simply stopped in 1965 or, if not then, when Barack Obama was elected president.
The Eric Garner case had the cell-phone video to tell the story. Garner was accused by the cops of selling loose cigarettes, presumably dodging the New York City tobacco tax. It was a sidewalk confrontation that shouldn’t have required an arrest. But if it did, it certainly didn’t require a gaggle of cops, even if Garner was a huge man. If you watch the video, you have no idea why the cops gang-rushed him. Or why, if they had to arrest him, they didn’t try to talk him down first.
The video makes it clear what the Staten Island grand jury missed — that, as the autopsy noted, the chokehold is what killed the obese, asthmatic Garner. It’s the lack of video in Ferguson that now, especially now, has to make you wonder what those jurors missed.
Garner’s last words, as Amy Davidson points out in the New Yorker, weren’t simply “I can’t breathe.” They were “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” And still the grand jury brought no indictment.
Officer Daniel Pantaleo told the jurors he meant Garner no harm, and that when he heard Garner say he couldn’t breathe, he tried to back off from the hold and assumed that the EMT people would revive him.
Apparently, the jurors believed Pantaleo, even though the video evidence said they shouldn’t, even though the video showed an incredible lack of urgency from the police as Garner lay unconscious on the Staten Island sidewalk. The question for the jurors is a simple one: Why? That’s at the heart of the story here. What we know is that failing to indict a cop is routine business. As I wrote the other day, Dallas grand juries heard 81 cop shooting cases between 2008 and 2012 and returned only one indictment.
It happened in Staten Island just as it happened in Dallas just as it happened in Ferguson, where Darren Wilson told the grand jury that he feared for his life, even though he had the gun and Michael Brown didn’t, and even though he had the rest of the cop’s weaponry and Michael Brown didn’t.
The story doesn’t begin or end with the police. We have a Denver cop now in a hospital who, in an awful irony, was stuck by a car while he was among the officers escorting a group of high school students protesting the Brown decision. We don’t know what happened in Ferguson. The eyewitness evidence, as in most cases, is contradictory. The most essential points are in doubt.
Was Brown surrendering or was he charging Wilson? Was Wilson afraid or might he have been simply angry that Brown had hit him and gone for his gun? What did Wilson really see when he told the jury that Brown looked like a “demon”? What did the grand jury see when Wilson said Brown looked like a “demon”?
How does race fit into that — or does it? If you even pose the question — as Obama did in the Trayvon Martin case — some will accuse you of being the racist.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a post-Ferguson series on race called “When Whites Just Don’t Get It.” He followed up on the “racism-without-racists” concept coined by Duke sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, who notes that overt racism has mostly gone away in America but that a less obvious race-consciousness remains in its place. Kristof cited a remarkable study showing that black NBA refs call more fouls on white players while white NBA refs call more fouls on black players. We can only wonder how that translates into the real world.
We wonder differently, of course. Polls show a sharp division between black and white opinion on Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. And if there were truly broad agreement on Garner’s death, how do you explain what happened in the jury room?
Michael Steele, an African-American and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, explained it this way in an appearance on MSNBC: “They tell us, at least, a prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich. Well clearly a black man’s life is not worth a ham sandwich when you put these stories together.”
IT is that time of year again when I get legions of calls (OK, two calls this year, including one from a wayward uncle, but that’s another story) to do my annual Some of the Books Mike Littwin Has Read This Year column. I try to have a theme, which usually has to do with the prospect of deducting the cost of books and coffee at the Tattered Cover. But this year, I’m going for a charity case even more extreme than independent bookstore owners– that of news reporters. But strangely the theme does not involve reporters losing their jobs.
Instead we have books (two) about reporters covering wars. There’s a newspaper reporter gone novelist telling the story of a bookstore owner raised by con artists, one of them apparently a Russian who explains to his then-young charge that you can best understand the succession of Russian leaders by the vagaries of their hairlines. There’s one about reporters — the famous muckrakers of Mercury magazine fame – who do their best to steal the narrative from Teddy Roosevelt. If you get to the end of this column, you can read the great Dexter Filkins on what reporters do — and how they have to struggle with the truth of what that means.
We’ll start with the Invisible Bridge, by Rick Perlstein, the chronicler of Goldwater, Nixon and the modern conservative movement. (He wrote Nixonland, which is a must-read in the how-dark-and-creepy-can-one-president-be oeuvre.) This time Perlstein takes on the years 1973-76, when the remnants of the ’60s fever dream play out as farce. It is the time of the fall of Nixon giving way to the rise of Reagan, the decline of the New Deal and the beginnings of the American divide. Perlstein takes 800 pages, covering everything from Nelson Rockefeller to Squeaky Fromme, to finally make the point, as one reviewer puts it, that the nation would come to choose between the born-again innocence of Jimmy Carter and the stylizing innocence of Ronald Reagan.
The Man Who Loved Dogs, by Leonardo Paduro. We have here a novel about the assassination of Leon Trotsky, which if you’re a descendent of Russian Jewish Bolshies — as I am — is the way to go. That is just the beginning, though. It’s also about the man sent by Stalin to kill Trotsky in Mexico, about the mysterious man who comes to Cuba and tells the Trotsky story to a would-be writer, about the island where it can be a crime to write any version of the truth, about how revolutions, and those who give everything to them, are inevitably betrayed. Paduro, the Cuban writer of thrillers, makes the story into a page-turner that turns, somehow, on the love of dogs.
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, by Francine Prose. It’s a book that sells itself. All that’s required is a quick read of the dust jacket. Paris in the ’30s, a cross-dressing lesbian athlete, expats, artists, libertines, parvenus, race car drivers, starving writers, famous photographers, Picasso, Nazis, spies and the naughty club that brings them all together. Prose can write prose to match the subjects — all of them. She had me there, and hoping Hemingway would walk in at any moment, from beginning to end.
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Tom Rachman. I rushed to get this book because Rachman’s first effort was called the Imperfectionists, which is a near-perfect collection of short stories about a newspaper very much like the International Herald Tribune. Rachman, who worked for the Tribune, avoids the sophomore slump with his story of Tooly, whom we discover as a 10-year-old in the hands of con artists, who are neither heroes or antiheroes, but sometimes both. The fact is, we don’t know what they are or how the precocious yet unlearned Tooly – with whom you immediately fall in love — ended up with them. It takes about 20 years’ worth of untold secrets to get to the truth, which reads like a spy story told backwards, except with more jokes.
The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I learned something very important in this book — that Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft were buddies. Until they weren’t. And because they were no longer buddies, Woodrow Wilson became president, which would eventually make Glenn Beck very upset. But I digress. Go back about a hundred years and see how messed up things were then, even without Glenn Beck. The heroes of this story besides TR — Roosevelt is the hero of every story he enters — are the journalists at a magazine called the Mercury, Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, William Allen White. They were the muckrakers who took on the robber barons and the politicians owned by the robber barons. We need the muckrakers again. Or maybe it’s TR we need.
Every Day Is For the Thief, by Teju Cole. Cole wrote the book Open City which was a W.G. Sebald-like measure of New York by a Nigerian medical student who walked the city streets thinking about stuff. Yep, that’s it. And it won prizes. There was no plot to speak of in Open City, and there’s none this time, which says something about the modern novel. Every Day is a kind of sequel, except that it was written years earlier, about a Nigerian doctor who returns to Lagos from New York in an attempt to discover what home is and whether he can reclaim it. (Spoiler: he can’t.) New York has ruined him for Lagos, or maybe Lagos has ruined him for Lagos. In any case, Cole writes with such rich spareness that you’d follow him anywhere.
Catastrophe, by Max Hastings. It’s the centenary of World War I, and it seems every historian has taken a crack at it. I picked up Catastrophe at a half-price sale in London. Hastings is a British reporter/historian who tells the story like a sportswriter, or maybe a theater critic. He disagrees with those who say Europe sleepwalked into war. And he disagrees with the poets who changed the way we think of war. He doesn’t think much of political leaders or of the generals, and can lay out every mistake they made on the battlefields and off. He understands the strategy, and more important, he can explain it. But mostly, he gives us real people in real time in unreal situations, taking us to the great battles and battlefields of 1914 to deconstruct the start of a war that raised the stakes on all wars. And he never forgets to put the stakes in human context.
The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell. OK, the book doesn’t altogether make sense, which isn’t surprising. Mitchell famously bends genres, but any number of writers can do that. Mitchell explodes them, and the shattered pieces each produce their own writerly energy. Fans of Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas — the book, not the movie — will love at least parts of the six-part Bone Clocks. Some critics say the sixth part is a disaster — a sci-fi stunt gone wrong, in which too much and too little are explained — and they might be right, but it doesn’t quite matter. There is still the dazzle, the Mitchell intellect and charm and the story line that all make for such great literary fun.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Harris. I can’t quite believe I’m recommending a novel about a Park Avenue dentist. But wait. It’s about a Park Avenue dentist who is completely innocent of social media whose identity is stolen by a patient who convincingly writes a blog in the author’s name, not only stealing his identity, but having him claim to be descended from a Biblical tribe called the Amalekites, who were all but wiped out by the Israelis. So, it’s about God and religion and identity and gum cancer and Zionism and flossing and, of course, the Internet. For a taste, try this: “The mouth is a weird place. Not quite inside and not quite out, not skin and not organ, but something in between: dark, wet, admitting access to an interior most people would rather not contemplate – where cancer starts, where the heart is broken, where the soul might just fail to turn up.”
The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins. This war is the one that began at 9/11 and never seems to end. It’s the war that Dexter Filkins has covered so brilliantly for the New York Times and now the New Yorker. Filkins is famous for being there, telling the story from the ground up, the same ground where the IEDs are buried. In one telling set piece, he writes of the role of the reporter/observer who may put himself in danger to get the story but who, at the same time, never quite risks everything. This story is in Iraq where Filkins and a photographer join a group of Marines who are bringing back the dead body of an insurgent. In the process of retrieving the body, a Marine is killed before Filkins’ eyes.
He writes: “I felt it then. Darting, out of reach. You go into these places and they are overrated, they are not nearly as dangerous as people say. Keep your head, keep the gunfire in front of you. You get close and come out unscathed every time, your face as youthful and as untroubled as before. The life of the reporter: always someone else’s pain. A woman in an Iraqi hospital cradles her son newly blinded, and a single tear rolls down her cheek. The cheek is so dry and the tear moves so slowly that you focus on it for a while, the tear traveling across a wide desert plain. Your photographer needed a corpse for the newspaper, so you and a bunch of marines went out to get one. Then suddenly it’s there, the warm liquid on your face, the death you’ve always avoided, smiling back at you like it knew all along. Your fault.”
Watch the podcast of our interview with Chris Blumenstein, winner of The Colorado Independent’s first annual whistleblower award.Read More
Normally temperatures at resort elevations this time of year drop into the teens and 20s every night. This season, only a few light frosts have tinged the valleys, leaving the slopes bare and dry.Read More