The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)


A revolutionary novel by a forgotten reactionary novelist.

My hometown of Roselle, NJ is in a very old part of the United States. Elizabeth, the nearest big city, was founded in 1664. Westfield, the most important town in the western part of the county, was settled in 1712, and contains a house that dates all the way back to New Amsterdam. Unless you have a very sharp eye, however, you won’t notice much of the state’s colonial heritage, and for a very good reason. Not much of it is left. The currently existing landscape of northern New Jersey was built in two waves. The massive construction of working-class suburbs in the 1940s and 1950s that came out of the Baby Boom and the G.I Bill is fairly well known. “Little boxes on the hillside,” Pete Seeger sung in Little Boxes, his savage attack on post-war American suburbia, “little boxes made of ticky tacky, little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same.” Most of the grand mansions and solidly built colonial revivals, on the other hand, the houses that have retained their value in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, were built during the less well-understood, but probably more important phase of economic development that unfolded during the two decades before the First World War. If the suburbanization of the 1940s and 1950s was based on the car culture, the suburbanization of the 1890s and 1900s was based on the construction of railroads. Starting at about 1890 and continuing on through about 1910, the colonial era towns of Union County, NJ, which up until then had been mostly farmland, were rebuilt as upscale bedroom towns for people who commuted to Wall Street by the New Jersey Central Railroad. While New Jersey had already become a multicultural, and largely Catholic state, little cities like Summit, Westfield, Cranford, and Scotch Plains retained the White Anglo Saxon Protestant culture of the old colonial bourgeoisie, now made wealthy beyond their wildest dreams by the economic boom that followed the Civil War.


Who built these grand old houses? Why have they been abandoned?

Northern New Jersey has never to my knowledge produced a great historian or realist novelist. The closest Union County has come is Van Wycks Brooks, after whom a once wealthy neighborhood in Plainfield has been renamed. Indiana, on the other hand, has produced the now almost totally forgotten but, I would argue, still worth engaging writer Booth Tarkington. Reading Tarkington’s 1918, Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Magnificent Ambersons feels a bit like reading the origin story of my civilization, not “Western” or “Christian” or even “American” civilization, but the civilization of the suburban American bourgeoisie. Tarkington was a conservative Republican who opposed the New Deal and who probably thought people with “ethnic” names like “Rogouski” were ruining America. Nevertheless, The Magnificent Ambersons, which is set in the Woodruff Place neighborhood of Indianapolis, cuts right to the heart of American capitalism, and ultimately exposes it as an empty and soul-killing exercise in futility and environmental destruction.

In the 1870s, Major Amberson, a veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg, riding the wave of economic prosperity that followed the establishment of the United States as a world power in the wake of the Civil War, becomes the wealthiest man in what was then the fairly small city of Indianapolis. He builds a grand mansion, then a hotel, then a second great Victorian house, all of which become the core of a burgeoning, upscale little suburb. He has three children, two sons, George and Sydney, and a pretty daughter named Isabel, who becomes a desirable “catch” for many of the town’s eligible young men. Eventually she settles on two suitors, Eugene Morgan, a dashing young lawyer from a middle class family with a degree from a state college, and Wilbur Minafer, a rather dull, plodding, unromantic young man, but one from a more suitable background. One night Eugene Morgan gets drunk and accidentally steps through a bass violin at a party being held in her honor at the Amberson Mansion. Whether it’s mainly due to bourgeois snobbery or some odd streak of perversity is never fully explained – I’d guess the latter – but Isabella rejects Eugene the love of her life and marries the uninspired Wilbur Minafer.

Booth Tarkington may have been something of a Wilbur Minafer himself, a dull, conservative WASP, but he’s written a novel with romantic critique of American capitalism. By rejecting love in the name of social status, Isabella dooms the Amberson family to dissolution and eventual destruction. As Mrs. Johnson, the town gossip, accurately predicts, since Isabella can never love a man like Wilbur, she will end up doting on her children. George Amberson Minafer, Isabella’s only son, grows up to be an arrogant, conceited, and to be perfectly honest – although I don’t think Tarkington meant for us to see it this way – fairly stupid young man. Even though he gets the best education money can buy – a local prep school and an Ivy League university – he not only makes more enemies than friends, he doesn’t prepare himself for a profession. If George is a sympathetic character almost in spite of himself, then it’s because he speaks to our own fears of what we all could become. More specifically he speaks to a successful writer’s fears of becoming a nobody. He’s a rebel who’s also a conformist bourgeoisie, a man with an artistic temperate but without any talent for or even inclination to take up a creative discipline like poetry or music. In the end, he’s simply a snob who wants to live in his money, a rich slacker who wants “be” and not “do.” The main problem is that he’s not as rich as he thinks he is. Wilbur Minafer may have been a gentleman from an proper family, but he has no talent for making money. Major Anderson may have been a savvy businessman in the 1870s, but by the turn of the century he’s little more than a relic living off past glory. What’s more, capitalism in Indianapolis in the early 1900s, like capitalism everywhere else, as Marx pointed out, has to revolutionize itself continually or die.

If the revolutionary technology of the Civil War Era was the railroad, by 1907, when Henry Ford invented the Model T, it was the automobile. Booth Tarkington’s stand in for Henry Ford is none other than Eugene Morgan, Isabel’s rejected suitor. What made Eugene Morgan ineligible in 1890 has by 1910 made him the heir apparent to Major Anderson as the unofficial King of Indianapolis. We never find out the name of Eugene Morgan’s wife. By the time he returns to Woodruff Gardens after twenty years she’s already dead. Morgan also has a pretty daughter of marriageable age named Lucy, with whom the arrogant George Amberson Minafer falls hopelessly in love. George’s love for Lucy is not exactly what you would call “unrequited” – he’s an exceptionally good-looking young man from a prominent family and Lucy is tempted by his offer of an engagement – but it’s certainly unfulfilled. Lucy, who’s very much the daughter of her upwardly mobile father, can’t understand, not only why George Minafer won’t prepare himself for a profession, but why he just doesn’t seem to have any interests in life. Tarkington once again may have been a conservative Republican, but he’s also written a novel with a strong feminist undercurrent. Lucy Morgan is quite simply too smart for George Minafer. She’s too strong to be bullied into a marriage she doesn’t want. She doesn’t like his assumption that he’s entitled to her love. In the meantime, Wilbur Minafer has been getting sicker and sicker, mainly out of worry that he’s made too many bad investments. Eventually he dies, setting up the opportunity for the widower Eugene Morgan to finally marry Isabel, the love of his life, and an ultimately tragic confrontation with her son George.

It’s easy to see why George Amberson Minafer stands in the way of his mother’s second marriage. He’s partly motivated by his resentment over Lucy’s rejection. More importantly, lacking a profession or any useful occupation, he’s finally found his calling in life, to defend the family honor against an outsider, to imagine himself as Hamlet to Eugene Morgan’s Claudius and Isabel Amberson Minafer’s Gertrude. It’s a little harder to understand why the forty-year-old Isabel allows her twenty-year-old son to become her patriarchal oppressor. I suppose you can only expect so much from the turn of the century Midwestern bourgeoisie. In any event, George gets control of Isabel in a way he could never get control of Lucy, bullies his mother into rejecting a second chance of happiness with the man she genuinely loves, and then whisks her away to Europe after he decides there’s too much gossip. In reality, there’s never as much gossip as George thinks. His distorted sense of his own importance has exaggerated in his mind the extent to which people are interested in his mother’s move love.

By this point, the House of Amberson, both the literal physical mansion in Tarkington’s fictional Woodruff Place as well as the family reputation and fortune have rotted way. Major Anderson’s oldest son Sydney has already demanded his share of the inheritance, which the old man reluctantly gives. His younger son George has made a series of bad investments of his own. What’s more, the property values in the old suburbs, long degraded by the city’s rapid industrialization and urbanization are dealt a death blow by the increasing popularity of Eugene Morgan’s automobile. Nobody wants to buy or rent property downtown anymore. They all want to live further away from the noisy, dirty factories and the air made unhealthy by soft burning coal. One kick will bring down the edifice of the Amberson family for good.

That kick is the death first of Major Anderson, then of Isabel. Major Anderson dies of old age. Once unable to rebel against what she thought were the expectations of her parents – in reality Major Anderson never had a problem with Eugene Morgan and it was her own inflated sense of her own importance that made her think he did – Isabel is now unable to rebel against her son. She grows sick, then dies of a broken heart. The rest of the rotten old House of Amberson crumbles in rapid succession. Major Anderson’s younger son George and Wilbur’s sister Fanny had made foolish investments in an electric headlight company that eats up the rest of the family fortune. The paperwork for the great old mansion had never been put in proper order. Unable to take a low paid position as a law clerk and law student – he has to earn enough money to support himself and his Aunt Fanny — the once lordly George Amberson Minafer ends up as a low paid factory worker, and then, after he carelessly steps into the street and gets hit by a car, a disabled factory worker. He will remain childless. The Amberson bloodline has come to an end.


The son as the patriarchal oppressor of his mother.

Orson Welles’ 1942 film The Magnificent Anderson’s is quite simply the most virtuoso adaption of a novel to cinema that I have ever seen. Welles, who was only twenty-seven-years old, works on a level as far above the typical Hollywood director of his age as Mozart was above Antonio Salieri. I actually saw Welles’ film before I read Tarkington’s book. Somehow, almost miraculously, Welles sculpts 600 pages of narrative into a feature length movie. Welles’ camerawork is so fluid and so powerful, his direction so effortless, that he doesn’t suggest the movement of time. He transforms it into images and sound. Welles’s film is both pure cinema and pure narrative. He has not translated Tarkington’s novel into a film. He has reproduced Tarkington’s novel as a film. Unfortunately, either through malice – Citizen Kane had offended the powerful Hearst Corporation – or sheer stupidity – Welles’ film was too cynical about American capitalism to be released only a few weeks after Pearl Harbor – RKO Studios cut forty minutes out of the intended two hour and ten minute film, released it as a ninety minute B-Movie, and burned the scenes they edited out of the original theatrical cut.

Booth Tarkington’s remarkably prophetic warning about the car culture.

“They destroyed Ambersons,” Welles once remarked, “and that destroyed me. I think it also impoverished American culture. Welles had revived Tarkington’s radical critique of American capitalism, and above all the car culture, only a few years before the construction of the Interstate Highway system and the second great wave of suburbanization in the 1940s. Had this great, butchered film been shown in its full length – a film none of us have ever seen – and had it become a hit, we might have saved public transportation. General Motors might not have been able to buy up and destroy large parts of the Los Angeles streetcar nework. We might not have demolished Penn Station. We might not have built mile after mile of sterile, “ticky tacky,” little Levittowns that are now, in turn, as neoliberalism hollows out industrial America, falling into disrepair and disuse. We might have been a better, more humane culture. Nevertheless, as I read Takington’s novel and watched Welles’ film, as I used both to fill in each others gaps, I felt as if I was learning something about the world in which I live, as if I was peeling back layer upon layer of dirt and cultural obfuscation away from the civilization that nurtured and oppressed me. I became George Amberson Minafer. I was given the opportunity not to share his fate.

Moonlight Wins Best Picture


I haven’t seen Manchester by the Sea, Arrival or Hell or High Water and for all I know one of those might have deserved Best Picture. I also think La La Land and Moonlight are such different films it’s impossible to judge honestly which one was better. Both were very good. Neither was great. So I had no rooting interest in either. This Vox article, however, reminds me of something I hadn’t previously considered. Moonlight is the lowest-budgeted film ever to have won Best Picture.

Moonlight’s budget was $1.6 million, which is very low by most standards. (By contrast, fellow Best Picture nominees La La Land shot for $30 million, Hacksaw Ridge for $40 million, Arrival for $47 million, and Hell or High Water for $12 million.) And while its $22 million gross is terrific for such a low budget, it’s still the lowest-grossing of the Best Picture nominees.

Out of curiosity I looked up the budgets of a few well-known independent and alternative films.

Whit Stillman’s debut film Metropolitan cost $225,000.

Reservoir Dogs cost $1.3 Million.

Pulp Fiction, which certainly was the Best Picture of 1994, cost $8.5 million.

Before Sunrise cost $2.5 million.

Jennifer Lawrence’s debut (and still best) film Winter’s Bone came in at $2 million.

And the all time low budget champion Clerks cost $27,000 dollars.

As I said, I had no great rooting interest between Moonlight and La La Land. The best movie of the year rarely wins the Best Picture Oscar anyway. But in the age of $100 million dollar superhero films and $144 million dollar reboots, a film with a budget of $1.6 million dollars being named Best Picture is surely an encouraging sign. Even last year’s comparatively modest Best Picture Winner Spotlight cost over $20 million.

Moonlight’s budget is even more impressive when you take into account how Mahershala Ali won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. I hope prospective filmmakers learn all the right lessons. You can make a film about a demographic (black, working class gay men) most Hollywood studios like to ignore on a budget you might be able to raise off a Kickstarter campaign, and not only gain critical acclaim, but make money. Let’s hope that going forward we see more real people and fewer superheroes, more good camera work and less CGI, more first time actors and fewer big stars. Maybe Hollywood can finally get off the disastrous track its been on since the 1970s, when blockbusters, branding and advertising replaced imagination and creativity.

The Signifiers of Monsoon in Hindi Cinema: Parallels from Brecht and Cultural Studies

The cultural industry of Hindi cinema has banked upon its geographical richness since its inception. While the inclusion of every season and the festivals therein is quite balanced, it is unequivocally the representation of monsoon that sets up aesthetic metaphorical constructions on the silver screen. Whether it is Kuleshov Effect or the use of montage, the idea of representing monsoon as an alienated concept from the central narrative or ‘life’ of the characters is a notable Brechtian characteristic in Hindi films. Such conception of monsoon is presented as an idea in itself that provides a perspective on the lives of the characters involved rather than becoming a naturalised happening of their milieu.

It is because of aforementioned reasons that I went on to call monsoon a ‘signifier’ in itself. When songs such as Pyaar Hua Ikraar Hua (Love Happened) from the movie Shri 420 and Bheegi Bheegi Raaton Main (In the Rainy Nights..) showcase romance between the two protagonists, it is not the romance that is realistically evolved and subsequently expressed in common parlance. It is a romance that is showcased as romance itself. Romance which has its ideological presence separate from the presence of the lovers involved. Therefore, in both the songs mentioned above, the idea of romance does not become synonymous with Raj Kapoor and Nargis or Rajesh Khanna and Zeenat Aman. Rather, it is the creation of the idea of romance itself through which the cinematic positioning of these characters are understood. So, this distinction between romance as an idea and the characters as mere forms of it, makes monsoon a cinematic as well as cultural signifier to represent the signified (romance).

Image result for bheegi bheegi raaton mein - Rajesh Khanna and Zeenat Aman

After understanding the alienation effect that Hindi cinema creates and has created over generations between the monsoon as a language and the characters as content, we shall now look into the various meanings that monsoon generates within the representational system of Hindi cinema.

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  1. Romantic Anticipation – The two songs mentioned above are a perfect examples of monsoon being used to describe the romantic anticipation and blossoming curiosity between the two lovers. Another addition to this can be a song that came almost three decades later – Sawan Barse Tarse Dil (Monsoon hovers as my heart craves). In Sawan Barse  there’s a shift away from the context of isolation as shown in the previous two songs. Unlike Pyaar Hua and Bheegi Bheegi Raaton Main, where lovers are shown in an isolated atmosphere under a moonlight sky, Sawan Barse uses Kuleshov Effect by using the busy streets of Bombay to show the carefree mindset of the two lovers involved. However, there is hard to trace the Screen A – Screen B direct metaphorical juxtaposition in the third song, it becomes evident in the closer analysis of the music video. Thus, I believe that completely crediting Kuleshov for this would not be a perfect idea but the commonalities are also hard to ignore. A notable example of a piece where both the isolation effect of the previous two songs and the carefree effect of the third song intersect can be Aaj Rapat Jaaye (If today I tumble down) starring Amitabh Bachchan and Smita Patil.

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2. The Longing – In the era of 90s and early 2000s, monsoon acquired a much more sexual connotation in terms of using representations of cravings and fantasies. In Tip Tip Barsa Paani (As the rain drops) and Lagi Aaj Sawan Ki (Today, the rain is falling like old days) there is intense use of emotions and clever use of editing by utilizing more space while building upon developing sexual desires. Such was the heat of these songs, that Raveena Tandon’s orange saree from Tip Tip became a major symbol of sensuality and sexual liberation in pop culture. Another notable example of this category can be Saanson Ko Saanson Se from the movie Hum Tum (You and I) where the red saree of Rani Mukherjee and the beautiful set up of two lovers rolling on the beach sand under a moonlight is a visual delight in itself.

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3. The Liberation – Out of all, this is the most celebrated representation of monsoon in the Hindi cinema. And, I would say, the most relatable. Although, the relatability of this representation comes as a rite of passage to carefree state of mind, and probably goes against the Brethian principles, it still saves the grace by not creating the empathetic relationship between the audience and the character. In Barso Re (Let it rain) and Bhaage Re Man Kahi ( My heart take the strides) it is the breaking of the monotony, the creation of the antithetical to gender roles, that comes across as the most fascinating use of monsoon as a signifier. While in Barso Re, we see Aishwarya Rai celebrating her freedom of choice to choose her own lover and the further course of life, in Bhage Re Man we see Kareena Kapoor, who plays a bar dancer, taking a time off her constructed reality to subsume herself in the bliss of falling droplets. In both of these songs, it is the momentary split between the character and the context, between the constructed reality and the unguided display of liberation that creates a beautiful trajectory for the audience to analyse monsoon as a concept alienated from the narrative of the film.

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Although Hindi cinema is decorated with blissful songs on monsoon, I had to quite painfully restrict myself to a handful. However, I feel that the songs that have been discussed above are quite deserving symbols of the spectrum. Hindi cinema has been celebrating the idea in their isolated forms in order to create a separate space to the entities that exist around us. This separation and the  further use of these ideas as an existent matter of thought in themselves have empowered the audience to think of these ideas objectively and without the distractions of the cinematic construction of the plot or the personal lives of the characters. Such thought provoking use of signifiers such as monsoon gives Hindi cinema a democratic nature that allows every viewer to think of these signifiers independently and imbue their own understanding or relation with them. For me and I hope for the supporters of Bretch and Kant, this is surely fascinating.

Image result for aishwarya rai in Guru

The Fake News Panic is a US Media Credibility Crisis

On November 13th of 2016, every major media outlet in the United States of America ran front page articles centered around a newly invented term. “Fake news“, papers papered and online distributors distributed, was a serious and modern and unique problem being faced by the nation.

Specifically, mainstream media outlets equivocated all alternative sources of information to themselves with ‘fake news’, but had trouble bringing up specific instances. Notably a few examples of fake news articles have been traded by supporters of this panic, for example by NPR, and mostly they amount to three or four specific articles that had little readership and little impact. Among the touted examples found in a subsequent online witch hunt arose a combination of satirical articles from the Onion and other humor websites, some very obviously politicized articles heavily spinning current events, and articles from bloggers and citizens who produced confused accounts trying to consolidate perspectives provided to them by multiple outlets into a coherent single.

Fake news for liberals: misinformation starts to lean left under Trump” the Guardian writes, citing a number of fabricated, spun, misreported, and misleading stories trending on left-wing social media. Others point to right-wing websites that abused their headlines to make fast passersbys misinterpret the content of the news story: to deliver a misrepresentative synopsis of article content.

The abuse of headlines is (unfortunately) a common practice in news journalism editing, encouraged by the bottom line of the business as well as political and national security sensibilities. It is a well established fact that headlines are read in lieu of actual articles, and outlets abuse this to strategically misinform readership who browse headlines and to color the perspective of those that do go on to read full articles.

Famously, the New York Times published an article during the Israeli invasion of Palestinian Gaza about the killing of schoolchildren playing soccer by missile strike and the general tactic of using untargetted mass killing of civilians and hospitals as punitive measures during the offensive. This article was given the headline “Missile at Beachside Gaza Cafe Finds Patrons Poised for World Cup.”

The article could have been headlined “Israel Continues to Implement Collective Punishment; Kills Children Playing Soccer” which is far more descriptive of the contents of the article. But that wouldn’t do. It calls into question Israel’s tactical ethics, the defense relationship Americans have with an important US ally, and would leave those who skim the NYT with the impression that Israel’s military invasion of Palestine was offensive and aggressive in nature – in direct contradiction to the professional obligation of US media to present the war fighting and civilian casualties as justified and defensive.

After a controversy, the NYT retitled the headline (after it was no longer news) and has since edited the headline to read “In Rubble of Gaza Seaside Cafe, Hunt for Victims Who Had Come for Soccer.”

The headline is descriptive of the article, and much less whitewashed than “Missile at Beachside Gaza Cafe Finds Patrons Poised for World Cup” but still does the reader injustice by framing away the context of the article. The new headline still did not mention the missile was launched by Israel, the controversy of its recent military incursion, and it invokes the World Cup as a distractionary measure as though this were more important context than the Middle Eastern peace accords, military law, or the international effort to call Israel into question for war crimes.

During the surge to get the United States involved in the Syrian proxy war against the Iranian and Russian ally Syria, reports about the barbarity of the Islamic State group made headlines. Selective reporting about the realities of war are destabilizing to the sensitivities of American vote makers and motivate their sense of exasperation that ‘something must be done’.  A US propaganda outlet established during the war on Iraq (““) reported, on the condition of anonymity for their source, that Islamic State prisoners of war were being executed and then their bodies dissolved in acid: but ran this with the headline “ISIS uses nitric acid to kill and torture citizens in Mosul” with a picture of people in jumpsuits, in a cage, submerged in liquid.

American domestic media outlets picked up this story, and as though by a game of telephone, the headline read “ISIS execute 25 people by DISSOLVING them in nitric acid” with the rumor growing – now sounding as though twenty-five souls were tied dangling over a bubbling pot of acid, as though it were a scene from a evil villain cartoon. It is difficult to discern exactly how and when the spies were killed by the Islamic State group before their bodies disposed, with escalatory and malinformative rumors originally publicized by military propaganda units republished domestically with no fact checking and with no investigatory journalism capable of cross checking facts or even getting clarity from the original, anonymous source.

Similar stories ran amuck in the US media industry regarding presumed ISIS and Islamist burning of Christians and Christian children to death, with Snopes thankfully posting articles providing context about the pictures used to promulgate the misinformation.

As American and allied propaganda slowly turned from building support against ISIS to the building support against the government of Syria, the US media industry followed suite. Foreign reporting from the BBC and the Independent, as well as from al Jazeera (a state-run propaganda outlet by the authoritarian government of Qatar), and domestic US news such as CNN and VICE, ran fake news stories about a little girl by the name of Marianna Mazeh (“Starving Syria Girl“) in a run of stories about a town being liberated by the Syrian government from rebel forces allied with al Qaeda. The girl is okay, not starving, and lives in Jordan.

At this point in time the Islamic State group hardly makes headlines at all, and most news concerning Syria is spun instead against the Syrian government. Recently, the United States ran an effort to associate Russian activity in Syria with war crimes to punish it for successfully backing the government of Syria against foreign efforts for regime change. Coordination between State Department messaging, Press Office contacts and UN diplomatic efforts gave domestic media a series of rumors about Russian bombing of hospitals in Syria, despite the US government’s official on-the-record position being that they did not know, had no evidence and nor could provide sources that implicated Russia in any of the activity they were being associated with in the press.

In contrast leaked audio recordings of a meeting between John Kerry and Syrian opposition war fighters had the United States Secretary of State clearly express that US activity in Syria – including the potential missile defense systems and air support being speculated about at the time – would be extremely limited in scope by international law, whereas Russia, as invited by the internationally recognized government of Syria, had a legal basis for its military operations and logistical support. The Obama Administration has, to date, been remiss to break international law as the United States has been suffering international condemnation for recent illegitimate incursions into Serbia and Iraq.

The New York Times coverage of this phone call was deeply misleading. For instance, someone reading that coverage would assume that the United States had a legal basis to take action against the Assad government in Syria and that Russia was in violation of international law. They cherrypicked exactly the words that seemed to imply this and left out Secretary of State Kirby’s admission:  “And we don’t have a basis, our lawyers, unless we have a UN security council resolution, which the Russians can veto and the Chinese, or unless we are under attack from the folks there, or unless we are invited in. Russia is invited in by the legitimate regime – well, it’s illegitimate in my mind – but by the regime.” The remainder of the coverage was similar: sound bites were selectively chosen that presented the US efforts as deeply committed to Syrian proxy forces, whereas in the recording the opposition was complaining about the lack of support they had been receiving and were desiring that the US involved themselves directly in the conflict.

The encouragement of misinformative rumors is commonly traded in the mainstream American media. According to every official European and American report, Ukrainian separatists in possession of an air missile defense system in an active war zone misidentified a target during the Crimean Russia-NATO proxy war, firing on a commercial airliner (“MH17”), killing hundreds of innocent passengers including AIDS researchers travelling between an HIV conference.

This tragedy was exploited in the US press by an incredible feat of spin. Titles such as “MH17 report: Plane downed by Buk missile from Russia” equivocated Russia itself as having fired the surface-to-air missile. Discussions with friends and family as well as a search over social media quickly identified that the public understanding  was that Russia had attacked an airliner and then, tried to cover it up or walk it back.

There was no discussion in the media of the relevant US firing on the Iranian Air Flight 655, in which the US navy killed hundreds of citizens transiting over the Gulf where the US Naval is present (in opposition to UNCLOS – the UN Charter on the Law Of the Sea – an international law the United States refuses to sign because it insists it must be able to perform military operations in other countries’ territorial waters).

The was no similar discussion in the media about the use of US weaponry by allies and proxies that have killed orders of magnitudes more innocent people. Collective contentment was found with a mass illusion about who fired the missile.

Selective attention to leaked material is no stranger to US mainstream spinning of news. During the start of the Ukraine proxy war, an audio recording surfaced  implicating Victoria Nuland and Ambassador Pyatt discussing plans to support a political transition in Ukraine. The coverage of this phone call in the US domestic press, however, belied the fact that Ukraine has been a long-standing location of spheres of influence, with Western media outlets exclusively covering Victoria Nuland’s use of a curse word during the conversation. This is another tactic effectively applied to spin information to American audiences: when there is a legitimate controversy, create a fake controversy to compete with it.

When the US supported proxies in Libya were used to take down the Qaddafi government, creating the vacuum visible by today’s failed state, it quickly exited and turned toward other ongoing foreign operations, including Yemen and Syria. The United States left behind some intelligence and special operations facilities near the capitol in Tripoli – in Benghazi where the original American support for Libyan terrorist forces was based. Among ongoing missions in Benghazi was the transport of weapons caches from Libya into Syria (through Turkey) to support terrorists fighting the Assad regime, this being a sensitive and highly illegal intelligence operation.

Warfighting elements in Libya’s failed state are al Qaeda affliates, not happy with either dictatorial rule or proxy governance from foreign magistrates. They targeted, on September 11, the remaining State Department buildings where Ambassador Stevens was embedded to facilitate weapons transfers into Syria. And when the Ambassador his CIA detail fled the State Department to the formerly-secret CIA annex on the same compound, the regional war fighting units followed and continued their attack, ultimately leading to the deaths of American special agents and diplomatic personnel.

Initial intelligence estimates correctly identified the nature of the attack as related to al Qaeda affiliated war fighters and the attack symbolically executed on September 11th. However, the United States did not have a legal mechanism to intervene, as it is the host country (Libya) who is in charge of diplomatic building security and the US did not have clearance from a United Nations body to move troops across territorial boundaries – what would technically be an invasion.

The news to the American homeland was different than the story on the ground. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in coordination with the national security team and press office, issued a statement purposefully confusing the 9/11 attack on the Benghazi compound with protests in Egypt centered around an offensive youtube video (a maliciously dubbed movie taunting Muslims and Islam) hundreds of miles away in Cairo. The media industry played ball, propelling the story that what had happened in the war-torn Libyan compound was related to a protest about a controversial youtube video, and there were public appeals to have the youtube video removed.

A public frenzy over youtube, censorship, sensitivities and Muslim identity transpired – and no collective understanding among Americans that their overseas embassy had been attacked by al Qaeda on the anniversary of 9/11, leading to the first death of an American ambassador in decades. Later, Hollywood would produce an action packed triller – “Zero Dark Thirty”, which had received input from the CIA in its direction – that further obscured what had happened, ignoring that the US continued presence in Libya had implicated their country in international criminal behavior, indeed the transfer of weapons that Turkey and Saudi Arabia used to arm the Islamic State group in Syria in their attempt to break and replace the country with friendly political leadership.

Like most events this probably would have been the end of it. Additional controversy ensued when an Eastern European hacker named Guccifer compromised the email account of Hillary Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal and released copies of prior emails to Clinton to the press. These emails included information contradicting the story the Secretary had given to the public. Washington officials and Congressmen, expressing anger over the leaks, the ham-fisted approach by the State Department to respond to the attack and then to cover it up – and as political slight to the prior Secretary who was in the middle of running for presidential nomination – a public investigation into Benghazi was issued, centered around an accusation that the Obama Administration and former Secretary had mishandled the situation.

However, it was not in the interest of the investigation to litigate American war crimes, and main criticism applied was that Mrs. Clinton had not done enough to protect the embassy or its ambassador, and that the administration had not taken the Libyan security situation seriously enough. The off the record portion of the hearing may have included national security and international criminal elements, but these class of hearings are routinely kept secret from the American public and no transcript, to date, is available.

What Americans know of the “Benghazi scandal” today has nothing to do with illegal international arms smuggling, an attack on 9/11, the death of an ambassador or domestic propaganda. Americans think it has something to do with Clinton’s emails. Or something. Ask someone and you’ll get either a blank stare or a rant inspired by Zero Dark Thirty about how the CIA agents there were real American heroes and it was a shame the Obama Administration didn’t save them.

Similar parallel controversy was used to confuse the American public during a series of intelligence leaks that implicated the United States and allied countries in engaging in whole-sale warrantless global surveillance. A Halliburton contractor who had previously worked for CIA named Edward Snowden used his access as a system administrator to mass download documents from the National Security Agency (a powerful and once secret US intelligence agency). After exhausting channels inside the US government to call attention to illegal mass surveillance programmes, Edward Snowden had contacted multiple media organizations and escaped from Hawaii to Hong Kong, China, where he met with US journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. Snowden expressed exasperation that most news outlets in the United States had refused to cover the mass surveillance story – and that many had instead reported him through established government contacts for trying to blow the whistle on the operation. Indeed, James Risen had tried to bring the story of mass surveillance to the American people in 2004, but Washington pressured the media to suppress the story, arguing it may interfere with the then-ongoing Bush/Kerry presidential election. In the intervening decade, Americans who tried to talk about domestic surveillance, including myself, were laughed down and chided with remarks about tinfoil hats and aliens.

What transpired is likely to be a case study in propaganda war colleges in future decades. Journalists and media outlets, notably The Guardian of England and Der Speigel of Germany, went to bat statement-for-statement with Washington. Before the US government would announce who they suspected the whistleblower was, Snowden through Greenwald broadcast a message to the world with his full name and a statement of why he felt compelled to bring the covert ubiquitous surveillance to the front of the public attention. When the US government denied that Snowden had left with any secret information, The Guardian immediately published documents showing that the archive was real. Washington refused to acknowledge the documents as legitimate, but put out a statement denying the US performed espionage on partner countries. The Guardian immediately published documents that provably disputed this claim.

This continued, with a whose-who of media outlets contracting with federal government such as CNN, Fox, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and others repeating the official position of the state, even adding their own flourishes and versions of the statements, as though they had been the original source of an independent investigation. These outlets voluntarily adopted the ‘official’ version of events, covering the gross affront to civil rights as ‘bulk collection’ over the more accurate and damning ‘mass surveillance.’ When the US argued that, yes, there were some ‘bulk collection’ (sic) activities, but never on the domestic population of the United States. The Guardian once again produced documents contradicting the assertion.

Eventually, the White House Press Office went quiet and refused to acknowledge at all or respond to the continuing leaks while the media establishment also stopped covering the disclosures in favor of interest stories. “Germany’s Angela Merkel: Relations with U.S. ‘severely shaken’ over spying claims” one headline read, in defiance of revelations that the US had partnered with major US providers like Google and Microsoft to collect information on citizens around the world. “Snowden: Hero or Traitor?” pundits discussed until they found stories to distract from the existence of leaks at all. “Snowden a Russian Spy?” mainstream news networks spread conspiracy theories that persist in the American consciousness today.

When a shootout at the NSA headquarters occurred during the leaks, establishment media spread rumors – never to be followed up on – that there was a transexual in the car outside the NSA, and dovetailed into tangents about transexualism. In a similar stroke, the mainstream media almost exclusively covered the transexual Caitlyn Jenner while Congress renewed and extended the authorities used by the NSA for surveillance and stories broke that the FBI had been flying aircraft over the United States to track the minute, daily movements of American people across hundreds of American cities.

There was a palpable desperation to cover anything but the content of the leaks, which implicated the United States in spying on foreign companies to give advantages to American companies, hacking into other countries to understand their positions before global warming meetings (which the US then controversially stalled at and prevented anything from being done), and that the NSA had been collecting information on hundreds of millions of Americans, stored years of domestic phone conversations in huge data warehouses, had covertly infiltrated any US company who would not willingly backdoor their products for intelligence services, and backdoored the cryptographic standards it forces companies to use around the world. The leaks implicated the UK in collecting the web browsing behavior of nearly every person in the world, and had mass manipulation capabilities including those to change polls, rerank the order of social media posts, and upvote and downvote content on social media to hide/reveal content, as well as using their capabilities for mass propaganda on the Falkland islands – a territory disputed by England and Argentina.

Similar obscurantism flashed into display when the German BND (foreign intelligence agency) stated that the NSA had backdoored the Trusted Platform Module – a security chip built into many computer systems today. Mainstream media immediately dismissed the idea, and provided other – unconvincing – explanations about how to interpret the intelligence agency’s declaration and after meeting with the United States delegation the BND revised their statement and deleted their earlier statement of fact.

Perhaps the most damaging fake news promulgated by the American media industry was war news reporting leading up to the Iraq War. What would eventually give Kenneth Thomlinson, the former chairman of the US propaganda office BBG, a hushed and wealthy retirement by golden parachute the Bush Administration was implicated in a mass domestic propaganda campaign to justify a war effort and an invasion of the country Iraq, a recent allied power in a divide and conquer campaign against its neighbor Iran. Note the headline of this New York Times article: “Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged TV News”. Kenneth Thomlinson and the BBG ran efforts through the WCIA and Office of Broadcasting Service to fill American television with unattributed war propaganda.

But this was hardly the extent. Journalist Judith Miller then at the New York Times and now at Fox worked with the CIA and Iraqi National Council (a US operation in Iraq) to publish a fake news article presuming to have proof that the Saddam Hussein government had access to and had been building a nuclear program specifically, and generally “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” This narrative of the Iraqi government was entirely a fabrication of the administration, and a lie that American media happily sold traded access and grant money with the US government to bring to the American people. The Administration, then-President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice then pointed to this story from Judith Miller as independent verification of Administration claims and called for war.

Between direct executive branch activity and news media complicity, Americans even today believe that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11, something to do with anthrax, and something to do with WMDs – all misinformation created deliberately to build public support for an aggressive and disastrous invasion that ultimately cost over a million civilians their lives in a war offensive known for “shock and awe” attacks, its use of depleted uranium and white phosphorous (destructive chemicals) and for the destruction of civilian infrastructure and non-military targets so brutal the international community (including Europe) demanded at the UN that the Americans retreat: another fact not covered in the domestic press.

Fake news featured daily in the American press, from manufactured soldier memoirs, manufactured hero stories and parallel Hollywood coverage of Jessica Lynch, invented and distributed rumors about incubator babies, and emotion-wrenching re-displays of the Twin Tower attacks in the middle of September, 2001, an attack carried out by war fighters with the financial and material support of the government of Saudi Arabia – a connection whose disclosure through a hard fought legislative battle came and went without any major domestic news media coverage.When it came to the recent 2016 election, the American people expected something different. Yet it became apparent after Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee and disclosed their email records through the online distributor Wikileaks that the industry would not be reporting from an investigative mindset. Indeed, CNN spread a false rumor that looking at the DNC leaks could be illegal.

The DNC leaks implicated the chairwoman of the Democratic Party Debbie Wasserman Shultz (“DWS”) using Democratic Party resources to run a damage campaign against her political opponent Tim Canova to preserve her own party leadership. They implicated top and mid level officials (including the press spokesperson) in organizing the party to infiltrate and sabotage Senator Sander’s campaign. They exposed discussions within the DNC on political appointments (e.g. ambassadorships) offered to donors in exchange for their donations. The leaks showed coordination and planning of news media coverage of the elections including opponents (Sanders and the RNC). They leaks detailed the hiring of covert online commentators and fake protesters.

These stories from the DNC leaks did not make the press. Sure, there were journalists working on them, but the media industry in America refused to make revelations from the emails top headline topics. Online social media was bombarded by recently created accounts that purported to have read the emails that “found nothing interesting in them.” Instead, the media broadly spent time mulling over rumors, such as the completely unfounded conspiracy theory to date that Trump was/is a Russian patsy, or that President Elect Donald Trump and President of Russia Vladimir Putin are actual real life best friends. NBC publicized a fact-finding report about Hillary Clinton’s server, which had been used to circumvent Federal record keeping laws, and wiped clean of data before being handed over to investigators. Liar Liar, it scolded: while Donald Trump accused Clinton of “acid washing” her server, she had in fact wiped it instead with antiforensics software called BleachBit.

Then when it came time for election night on November 8th mainstream media reassured, based on the ‘research they had done’, that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 presidential election: effortlessly. Indeed, the predictions were unanimous across the entire industy. Even FiveThirtyEight, which had perfectly predicted the surprise win by President Obama in 2008 down to electoral college numbers, had Clinton winning the election.

What resulted when Donald Trump took the election with a wide margin was a collective existential crisis, with the massive American audience of mainstream media shocked dumb, unable to process the result of the election and in need of an explanation consistent with the coverage that they had received to date. Today, pundits, analysts and academics are churning out endless reports on various ways and perspectives to understand the events. It was Comey. It was racists. It was white people. It was voter intimidation. Bernie bros and the progressive wing of the Democratic party. The Democratic Party itself. Clinton’s weakness. Trump’s domination of the media. Third parties as a spoiler. Fake news. Alt-righter neo nazis. The working middle class. The Russians. Hacked voting machines. Uneducated Americans. FBI Director Comey.

The explanation that hundreds of millions of Americans voted entirely out of deep wells of racism, the explanation consistent with prior reporting, rings hallow. Conspiracy theories and fearmongering about Russian hacking of election booths too, quickly died down as the experts spoke out about media contortions of their testimony.

On the 13th of November, the industry found its narrative. The election was shocking to the mass of American people because of fake news. Not the spin, rumors, conspiracy theories, misinformation or distracting alarmism it itself had been producing, but fake news from anyone who wasn’t the mainstream media. The mainstream media had it right, all along, and the giant mirage and all the confusion was the work of someone else and was someone else’s dereliction of duty.

In DC, the election was compared with the Brexit vote in Britain – a groundswell of populist opinion voting “no” on the current establishment, current institutions and practices, trends in civil rights, and inequality of wealth as well as political representation.

Analysis of key demographics show that districts that had mobilized to elect Obama, when he was once and briefly considered a Washington outsider himself, had mobilized against Clinton. Public diplomacy has been on full steam the past months in an effort to create an American consensus that we want our information more tightly controlled: a list of fact checkers with political biases including a group in Serbia that publicly supports the independence of Kosovo.

At some level the American psyche understands that it is not the customer of news media. It does not pay news media for information. Others – government, industries, corporations – pay news media to deliver stories that narrate American perception. Journalists who pursue stories to reveal corruption or report corporate wrongdoing, as a rule, do not have customers, can’t find work and don’t have partners who provide them access. Reports who play ball, as those who contract with US intelligence, Departments and Agencies of the Executive Branch, banks and industries, and lobbyists and corporations are successful. They have customers, funds, and a steady stream of stories.

News media organizations have landing pages soliciting sponsored content. Got a story? Pay us and we’ll run it for you. We even have experts that can help you run a campaign of stories to get your perspective heard.

National Security personnel are fond of the phrase “nature abhors a vacuum” in which they intend to describe the pattern that, if the US does not exercise power the lack of power will attract someone or something to control the space.

What we’ve witnessed is such a vacuum created from an ever-widening credibility gap. Given the consistently inaccurate, poorly predictive and heavily biased propaganda from the US domestic news media industry, we’ve seen an enormous loss in credibility. This a continuation of a trend that has been in effect for decades, and today American trust of media is rated at the all time low of less than 20%.

A combination of private interest, national security propaganda, and a culture that revels in suspending disbelief have crippled America’s ability to take its own highly editorialized existence seriously.

Moonlight (2016)


Early in Barry Jenkins’ critically acclaimed film, Chiron, a terrified little boy played by Alex Hibbert, is chased into an abandoned house in Miami’s Liberty Square neighborhood by a gang of bullies. After Juan, a well-built man in his forties, coaxes him out of the vacant house and takes him out to eat, Chiron still won’t give his name or the location of his parents. He won’t even speak. Juan’s girlfriend Teresa, who gives Chiron another meal, which he greedily scarfs down in a way that only children who aren’t fed properly by their parents can, is more successful, finally getting the dark, silent as the grave little boy to open up and admit that he live nearby in Liberty City. Soon, we understand why Chiron is in no rush to get back home to Paula, his mother, an emotionally abusive crack addict who curtly, and surprisingly, dismisses Juan without so much as a “thank you for taking care of my son and bringing him back home.” As Chiron shuttles back and forth between his mother, Juan and Teresa, we begin to think that he’s had an incredible piece of good luck, that he’s found two good, middle-class parents willing to give him the love and care that he couldn’t get at home> We quickly realize that it’s much more complex. Paula is no villain. She’s a troubled single mother who’s cracked under the stress of bringing up a child with no job, husband, or network of support. Juan, in turn, even though he gives Chiron money and gently explains how the word “faggot” it “just a bad word people use to make gay people feel bad,” is no saint. Quite the contrary, for all his good qualities, Juan is a drug dealer, the leader of the gang of “corner boys” who supply Paula with her crack. Paula has good reason to hate Juan. After Chiron confronts him about what he does for a living – “do you sell drugs?” – Juan hangs his head in shame, unable to face up to how he makes a good living by extracting money from impoverished crack addicts. Their relationship comes to an end.

As Daniel Levine points out in his earlier review of Moonlight, none of this is very realistic, but I disagree with his conclusion. Moonlight is a slow, intimate film, but not a realistic one. It is not a documentary about life in Liberty City. Divided into three parts, Chiron at about age ten, Chiron at about age seventeen, and Chiron at about age thirty, Moonlight is a poetic meditation on how men, even and especially gay men, become alienated from themselves in a culture dominated by homophobia and toxic masculinity. Chiron’s initial inability to speak expresses more in a few minutes than what a realistic screenplay could express in two hours. Words are inadequate to help him find what’s he’s already lost, but his haunted expression, his cavernous dark eyes, serve as a window into his soul, into the identity he’s never really had. Moonlight has been billed as a “gay” film, but Chiron’s homosexuality is only part of the reason, along with his mother’s addiction, the deeply segregated city of Miami – there’s no explicit racism in Moonlight because there are no white people in Moonlight but Liberty Square has the unmistakable quality of a Bantustan – and the violence of his peers, that by the end of the movie leaves him encased in a thick layer of muscle and emotional sterility. The “happy ending,” as Levine points out, certainly does feel tacked on and inconsequential. It’s driven by plot, and not character. Why would Chiron want to reunite with his first and only homosexual lover, a man who betrayed him because he couldn’t resist the conformist pressures of their high school? Nevertheless the striking resemblance between the adult Chiron and Juan — Chiron, like Juan, becomes a crack dealer and the leader of a gang of “corner boys” – demonstrates that, contrary to Levine’s argument, Juan was not simply a drug dealer with a heart of gold. Rather, similar to the way ten-year-old Chiron’s, blank, mute expression looked back to the innocence that was lost even before he was born, Juan’s attempt to nurture the little boy looked back to his own childhood, to that time before economic necessity and the prison industrial complex had transformed him into a predator.

In the end, I think, Eric, also gay, the young man played by André Holland who betrays Juan back in high school and who tries to reconnect with him as an adult, might be the film’s most realistic and important character. Chiron, like Juan, is more prototype than individual, a symbol of the way segregated neighborhoods like Liberty City destroys black men. That the physically imposing Trevante Rhodes, who plays Chiron as an adult, is the very last person most of us would imagine as “gay” forces us to confront our own preconceptions about homosexuality, as does the film’s slow, intimate pace. The love scenes between Eric and Chiron actually made me physically uncomfortable, or, to be more accurate, aware of my own homophobia. Nevertheless, as Levine points out, Chiron’s job as the leader of a gang of corner boys, while marginally more credible than Ethan Hawke’s eventual transformation into an actuary in Boyhood, is more of a plot device than an expression of his character. Eric, on the other hand, after spending a few years in prison for “stupid stuff,” is struggling to get out of the vicious circle that leads from Juan to Paula to Chiron. Instead of dealing crack, he’s found a job as a cook, takes the base back and forth from work, and lives as modestly as possible. “I make shoe shine money,” he says to Chiron, “but this is a life. I Have a life.” That he’s also gay, and up until then, in deniable about it, gives his character a complexity Chiron’s doesn’t have. Will he leave his wife and child to become himself? Or will he repress his homosexuality, and try to fit into straight, working-class society as best he can. There’s no way of knowing, but it’s a story I’d like to see told.

Inevitably, in the coming weeks, there will be a debate about whether Moonlight or La La Land is the better movie. Both are favorites for the Best Picture Oscar. Don’t bother. They’re such different movies it’s impossible to compare them. Nevertheless they do have one thing in common. Neither has a conventional happy ending. Mia and Sebastian separate in order to pursue incompatible careers. Chiron and Eric have a brief moment of intimacy, but it’s hard to see themselves building a lasting relationship. Hollywood, it seems, has finally caught up with the rest of the country. In real life there are no romantic comedies, only romantic tragedies.

What the Bowling Green Massacre Means

Interior shot of Graceland. Elvis used to shoot out TVs with a handgun in the basement.


The ubiquity of snuff films in the United States since 9-11 was symptomatic of a crisis of cultural capital. For 50+ years television had an unquestioned hegemony over the US media landscape. (It’s also interesting that these 50 years roughly overlap with the United States’ hegemony in world politics.) Television was a revolutionary and traumatic force that completely shifted how Americans became Americans. The sense of community that had before been engendered through shared architectural spaces-the church, the school, the cafe, the bar-was now engendered through the medium of the televised spectacle. Every time I’ve ever heard someone tell me the story of where they were when JFK was shot, the first part of the story always details their shock and the second part always details how soon they got to a television to be able to experience it with everyone else in America. Trauma creates an incredible sense of bonding and for an increasingly socially isolated population their sense of belonging to anything larger came to be mediated through the shared relationship to the television.

This sense of togetherness was an incredible high that America never was able to recapture, though it tried desperately over and over, with diminishing results. Everything on TV that could do so with any chance of not looking ludicrous for trying presented itself as “event television.” The moment in fictional cinema when the crisis occurs went from the Vorkapich style montage of spinning newspapers to the rapid cut montage of TV news anchors saying the same thing in different accents and languages. Every retrospective documentary about professional sports I’ve ever seen has a scene where someone, frequently an academic commentator, says something like “You had to be there-it was all that was on TV.” Our greatest nation-specific festival, the Super Bowl, is as much a celebration of what we can feel when we all decide to watch the same television program at the same time as it is anything to do with football. The TV inserted itself into the bars and schools and I remember getting to college and all the kids from different parts of the country realizing in certain aspects they had shared a childhood; the TV was something between a communal text and a pet that happened to be in all our living rooms at the same time.

If the JFK assassination was the first event cementing American identity in tuning in at the same time to the same thing and then remembering that rush over and over, it was also a plateau. Awful things from the Oklahoma City bombing to Columbine happened, and while everyone still flocked to their TVs and followed the details and commentary vigorously, no strangers are cornering you in a coffee shop (as several have done to me regarding JFK) to tell you where they were when either happened. That is, until 9-11.

My story of where I was when I found out about 9-11 is pretty much the JFK narrative. Our band teacher told us vaguely something bad had happened during the last period of the day, I took the bus home, and then everyone I knew from my parents to the couple that owned the deli down the street were glued to their TV sets for what seemed like and may have actually been several weeks, watching the towers fall again and again and again…

9-11 and JFK were bookends marking the opening and closing of the US as a TV society. In 2001, the thing that would swallow TV was making its way in the world. I’m talking, of course, about the internet.

Experiencing traumatic events through the medium of the internet isn’t unifying or edifying the way that experiencing them through TV is. The US-as-TV-society looked to the news for regularly replenished mythology, not information. This isn’t an irrational response-there is an inverse correlation between the importance of an event usually reported on national television and the event’s direct relevance to the immediate experience of the viewer. It’s considered a strange and novel thing to have shown up on TV and anyone who shows up on the TV frequently begins to take on the aura of the mythic. The TV encourages this.


The internet is too fragmented and dispersed to sustain any narrative that there is a monoculure. Tragedies can’t be nurtured into seeming significant as individual events anymore; a single spree shooting can’t take on the cultural space a Columbine did when there’s another shooting that’s reported on every day or two. Terrorism can’t sustain its narrative coherence when it becomes plainly obvious that most terrorism that happens in the US is the result of domestic white supremacists. The “us vs. them” narrative that seemed on its last sputtering legs when the best argument its proponents could muster was “the war might be wrong but you have to support the troops” has morphed into a delusional need for social cohesion that can’t be sated. The political capital and the sentimental reassurance there was a single “them” to be worried about is now patently absurd.

Oddly enough, the internet initially seemed to be doing the opposite-incredible threads written in bits and pieces by complete strangers on forums like Reddit showed remarkably similar patterns of communication leading to the notion of the hivemind. However, the hivemind was quick to factionalize and each hive soon found its reach far more limited than it had hoped. If the TV was a tool of pacification, the internet is a tool of radicalization. It frees the “community” from all the external constraints of physicality and geography; as such its only means for the “community” to maintain itself as a coherent social entity for those who rely on it extensively is to test its adherents allegiance through the devaluation and dismissal of the outside world. If they fail to escalate the shared delusions, the user must admit to themselves that they are alone. The internet, since Web 2.0, has been specifically designed to encourage reliance on itself to the exclusion of other factors.

So when Kellyanne Conway keeps talking about an obviously fake “Bowling Green Massacre” or Trump invents a nebulous something awful that didn’t happen in Sweden, it’s a tactic similar to quantitative easing-the political currency of tragedy has been depreciated to where it can no longer do the thing it had done for the last 50 years and the Trump administration is attempting to print money to make up for the lack. This isn’t the propaganda technique of the Nazis but of Nigerian Prince scams . The propaganda is stupid and obvious so as to weed out those who might be too difficult to contain within the constructed hivemind.

Framing the Violence Narrative


In the past few months the term “fake news” has come into the mainstream in a major way. A cursory definition based on its usage would have you believe it’s just an updated synonym for the old standby “propaganda,” but is this true? Yes and no. Our full assimilation into the information age has drastically transformed the way propaganda functions. Whereas in the past it was possible to withhold information and only present your preferred narrative, the current climate invites everybody to share all their information for the express purpose of cutting it all down and putting it on the same playing field. The idea is to put it in people’s heads that no information is reliable, no matter the source. Once this has occurred you have successfully discredited rigorous investigative journalism based on truth and fact. It’s suddenly no more credible than the .com ramblings of some kook in his rural Texas basement or perhaps more foreboding, the media apparatus of the state (i.e. @realDonaldTrump). This has long been a part of Vladimir Putin’s playbook where the cardinal rule is that in order to get people to believe in something, you first have to get them to believe in nothing.

To simplify (TL:DR in modern web speak);

Pre-information age propaganda = limiting access to information

Post-information age propaganda = discrediting all information (ie, fake news)

If information isn’t credible, framing and emotional narrative rise to the forefront of importance. What you say is less important than how you say it and the cognitive effect it has on the person you are speaking to. This is why Democrats lose election after election in spite of superior policy – Republicans know how to appeal to emotion while Democrats don’t think they have to play that game. We’re seeing how this plays out in reality, and it’s not pretty. The latest activity on this matter is the development of the “violence narrative” –  an attempt to take the riotous activity of the anarchist group Black Bloc and associate it with the entire left-wing, liberal worldview. I will explain this soon but I want to start with a more obvious example of an expert in post-information age propaganda. I don’t mean Donald Trump (though he does qualify) but another media figure who has been compared to a more verbose version of Trump. That being cartoonist Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame.

This is the first paragraph of an article he recently wrote on climate change;

Before I start, let me say as clearly as possible that I agree with the scientific consensus on climate change. If science says something is true – according to most scientists, and consistent with the scientific method – I accept their verdict.

This is the third paragraph;

“So when I say I agree with the scientific consensus on climate change, I’m endorsing the scientific consensus for the same reason I endorsed Hillary Clinton for the first part of the election – as a strategy to protect myself. I endorse the scientific consensus on climate change to protect my career and reputation. To do otherwise would be dumb, at least in my situation.”

What have here is a massive contradiction, but one stated with authority and conviction, not unlike the way President Trump plows through his own non-truths. The first thing Scott Adams wants you to know is that he accepts climate change is a real thing. It’s the first sentence in his article on the topic, so therefore it must be really really true. A professional like Mr. Adams would not dare deny the work of science when he himself is just a cultural media figure. Therefore it should come as a shock when two paragraphs later he states that the only reason he accepts the science on climate change is to protect his reputation. In other words he is saying that he doesn’t accept the scientific consensus on climate change but he wants to confuse the reader into thinking he does so that he has more credibility. He’s giving you the runaround, like the narcissist he strives to be.

If we want to take Adams at his word in that he cares about his reputation and career (and this seems reasonable given that narcissists usually do care about this stuff)  I’d posit that he has an anti-climate change agenda. Despite his claims, that’s more beneficial to him personally and professionally at this point seeing he’s become a bit of a right wing media darling in a similar vein as Mike Rowe. As the article continues Adams goes to great lengths to disguise himself as being balanced, saying hyperbolic things like “this is the only place you’ll see both sides of the issue!” That isn’t to say he doesn’t make good or interesting points but that’s always been the hallmark of good propaganda, no matter what era it comes from. It always knows just where and when to sprinkle in just enough truth to lend itself credibility.

On surface level Adams seems to be writing about the difficulty in figuring out the truth behind climate change. In the era of fake news however only suckers read things surface level. Look not at content or facts but framing and intent. Then you might see that this piece is designed not to bring people closer to truthful concepts but rather to fan the flames of debate in order to increase his popularity with his new niche audience. He is playing into the recent right wing promotion of information chaos, which in turn helps to discredit the order and limits imposed by science (liberally biased, naturally). This helps push the right’s anti-climate change agenda which they need in order to pull back all those pesky regulations that prevent enterprising American capitalists from exploiting the environment for profit er… um… I mean creating bountiful high paying jobs for the working class.

When analyzing fake news  what one says often has less importance than when they say it – timing is everything. Just like you never get a second chance at a first impression, the first statement one makes tends to be the most revealing. Adams first statement was that he accepted climate change, though he carefully omitted his reasons for this until later. He dropped in a very mainstream point of view to set the frame that he was a credible guy. Compare this tactic to one used in numerous conservative responses to the recent punching of Richard Spencer on the day of Trump’s inauguration. This article by John Nolte of conservative news blog “Daily Wire” is a perfect example, though interestingly it’s a little bit trickier than what you get from a so called “master persuader” like Scott Adams. There’s some build up, starting with the first paragraph;

“Okay, fine, somewhere in my Twitter stream you will find a joke about my not being too terribly upset over this creep Richard Spencer getting sucker-punched on TV last week. My tweet was a joke, though, and I am clearly on record, time and time again, speaking out against violence and the encouraging/excusing of violence. Also, I am not The New York Times.”

Nolte is humanizing himself by letting us all know that yeah, he felt none too bad to see physical violence enacted against the self proclaimed leader of the “alt-right” (which is now synonymous with white supremacy). He goes as far as to call the guy a creep, just to make sure we all know that Mr. Nolte in no way approves of the viewpoints of Mr. Spencer. He also clarifies the he’s very much anti-violence in any way, shape or form (he was just joking, after all!), thus further laying down the frame that he’s a decent guy with good values. What follows is an overly elaborate and hypothetical construction of Spencer as an actual Nazi. Hypothetical because in reality Nolte wants to enforce the notion that really the guy is just an unpleasant kook and nowhere on the level of actual Hitler. This is down to downplay the danger people like Spencer represent to society and in particular minorities. This is summed up in his fourth “paragraph” (just one sentence, for potency I guess);

“For argument’s sake, I am ready to stipulate that Richard Spencer is one sick and twisted piece of racist garbage.”

In his next “paragraph” (again, one sentence) he drops the true bombshell, already hinted at in paragraph one;

“Nevertheless, in its attempt to normalize and excuse and rationalize any kind of political violence against anyone, even a Nazi, The New York Times is more a Nazi than Spencer.”

Though not as direct as Adams, the tactic Nolte uses is essentially the same. Adams emphatically stated that he believed in climate change but then quickly made that belief subordinate to another point about the fuzziness of truth and unreliability of science. Nolte emphatically states that he despises Spencer and goes as far to paint a picture of him as an honest to god Nazi before revealing his true target – the NYTimes and by proxy, the liberal left. From one of the final paragraphs in his piece;

“This push for and encouragement and normalizing of violence among the left and our national media, is no joke. It’s been going on for years, in Ferguson, in Baltimore, from the Obama White House, and within the institutional left.”

Let’s overlook the fact that a death from a purely ideological left wing terrorist attack hasn’t occurred on American soil since 1981. During that same time period since then there have been numerous deaths associated with domestic right wing terrorism in multiple attacks. That’s merely a side point to the fact that right-wing motivated violence is more likely to be state sponsored than left-wing violence which tends to come in the form of civil disobedience that generally spares harming  individuals in favor of property destruction. This paradigm works very well for the right because state sponsored violence is not only legal but far more brutal and effective than anything pesky civil disobedience can muster up. The military and police have wide latitude to do what they want and not face legal repercussions, for better or worse (some may argue they need that latitude to perform a tough thankless job, but that’s another topic).

State sponsored violence however doesn’t have to come from an organized and sanctioned group.  It can also be self-defense, and thus legal (ie Trayvon Martin). This point is reinforced by the creepy way Nolte’s article ends;

“Buy guns, America. You need to be able to defend yourselves and your loved ones.”

So just like Adams wrote an article denouncing climate change disguised as an article about the fuzzy nature of truth, Nolte has written an article essentially endorsing violence disguised as an article about how the left should be villainized because they endorse violence. Left is right. Up is down, something something 1984. It’s all very confusing and intellectually draining to try and follow. What’s not confusing is how Nolte comes very close to advocating the murder of political opponents by planting the seed in people’s minds that if you don’t kill the leftist first than the leftist might… um, sucker punch you in the face.

What we have seen happen here is an example of the right wing media writing about political violence in a way that falsely frames it as purely a leftist phenomenon. Were this just some rambling kook on a right wing dumping ground then this wouldn’t be much of a problem but sadly these things don’t stay so neatly contained. The extensive media coverage of the riots at UC  Berkeley in response to a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos handed the right wing media a golden opportunity for a more concentrated effort to paint the left as violent and threatening and possibly even something worth countering with violent force of your own, if necessary. This narrative has been created and framed independently of the facts, which in the case of both Berkeley and the Spencer punching still seem rather fuzzy, lost in the tides of information and “fake news”.

There is no doubt that violence is occurring in America in 2017 but who is really being harmed? Rather than accept right wing narratives at surface level, people need to be asking deeper questions. Is the broken window at Wells Fargo bank in downtown Berkeley really more egregious than the thousands of sick and disabled people who could die with the repeal of the ACA? Is Spencer taking a sucker punch more disconcerting than the fear minorities live in thanks to the spread of his ideas? To me the answers here are obvious but perhaps the kind of violence I’m talking about is too esoteric to play well on CNN. On a logical level I think most of us know where the most harm is being committed but thanks to their expertise at controlling narratives, the right wing has put the emotional view front and center and are using it for political gain. Luckily enough their act is not a hard one to replicate, and the facts being on your side makes for a more definitive tie breaker than a Mike Pence trip to the Senate. It’s time the left learned how to beat the Breitbart’s and Daily Wire’s of the world at their own game.

Free Speech Extremism and the New Neo-Nazis


The foundations of liberal (small R) republican (small d) democracy depend on a variety of presumptions. Some of these were never actually in place, but we were hopeful they’d eventually come together. Some of these were in place but have unraveled.

And some of these are suspiciously similar to the presumptions undergirding the largely theological beliefs of how markets work.

It’s presumed in both that you have a completely rational public that makes perfectly logical decisions, or at the very least that the outliers are ironed out by a rational majority. Both take for granted a very flattering enlightenment derived notion of the individual and the mind then set it loose presuming it will do the right thing. Faith in man’s goodness replaces faith in God’s but along suspiciously similar lines.

It’s a fear that man is impeccably rational and self-interested that creates the “need” for an enormous and still metastasizing advertising and propaganda industry. Maybe without advertising the free market and republican democracy would work perfectly. However, we live in a world with advertising so that’s a pointless hypothetical.

Contemporary man is more the aesthetic child of Ernest Becker and Deleuze than the enlightenment or Jung. How can we look at the election results and think otherwise? Hillary Clinton wanted to be our super ego; to represent our high minded ideals and to crowd out the possibility America could be defined by its cruel racist id. She was professionalism, being an adult, the part of the collective consciousness that says we’re cultivated and civilized creatures despite slips. She ran on the promise she could repress the collective id; the part of the popular consciousness that wanted to childishly lash out because it was angry; that wanted gratification regardless of logic, consent or ideals; that wanted to brag about its transgressions because it only understood morality in terms of the rush of feeling like it got away with something. And if anything her losing the election was paradoxically a result of her being too convincing in this role.

Trump’s victory came as suddenly and unexpectedly as a Freudian slip because it was a Freudian slip. The return of the repressed. The various lies we all told ourselves about how he could never win, lies that seem ridiculous in retrospect, lies like “there isn’t a large enough white electorate, the demographics will do him in”, were all attempts to reassure ourselves of the immortality and resilience of our way of life; that despite history consisting of little else in the long run we alone were immune to radical upheaval. Scandals didn’t stop him because his voters wanted to transgress against society-his “grab them by the pussy” remark probably helped solidify his appeal and his brand more than it lost any votes. His base continues to support his reckless and ridiculous actions since taking office because their assurances he’d somehow magically grow up-that there was in fact some magical transformative power of the office, of our institutions, was a lie told in order to make sure he could be allowed to transgress in full. The nihilism of his “lulz” flank, the Gang of 4chan, gets closer to the truth for its lack of substance and ideology. We seek to find a cogent ideology we can call “Trumpism” as a final pathetic reassurance that the enlightenment rules still work, that history is a battle between stable coherent ideologies and ideas and that we can wage war with the noxious ones and be done with it.

Has anyone who’s had an argument with a radicalized conservative in the last 8 years, possibly even since 9-11, had any luck selling rationality as a replacement good? Facts? Has calling the right hypocrites really changed their minds? The empirical truth is not and was never what these people wanted. They wanted blood. They wanted revenge. They wanted to be able to regress without consequences. To be able to act out in tantrums like a guest on Jerry Springer but also have a billion dollars and fuck supermodels. And if they couldn’t do that directly to at least be able to imagine they could do so by proxy. And they found their man.

Blahblahblah. We’ve all read a million election post-mortems. What am I getting at?

I’m getting at this: while weaknesses in enlightenment ideology have gotten us to this point, and a pedantic, impotent and frankly boring adherence to enlightenment principles in their most abstract form aren’t going to get us out of it. Constantly pointing out that Fox News is lying about shit hasn’t really accomplished much to convince the other side. The arguments in favor of free speech fundamentalism have the same fundamental flaws as the other “in a free market of blank the universal good will always prevail” logics. They only work if everyone else believes in them in good faith. That the overall response to the Charlie Hebdo shootings would be an uptick in international racist far right politics was pretty predictable. That “free speech” posturing would be used as a trojan horse to sell racist jingoism through vehicles like the Seth Rogen film The Interview was similarly predictable because the only people who’ve whined about free speech issues since the Naked Lunch trial have been the extremist right, whose only interest in free speech is was and has always been the freedom to stifle all other speech that isn’t their own.

The concept of free speech is best defended as a legalistic one, not a moral/ethical one, specifically because speech is a Foucaultian interplay of different power centers. Freedom of speech is a good legal standard for a society because it somewhat levels the playing field in this interplay. However, the idea that perfect “freedom” comes through a completely hands off approach ignores both the greater importance of other freedoms (freedom from being harmed, reasonable expectations of privacy, etc) and the larger void of power problem that arises in any right-libertarian free-for-all fantasy-eventually, especially in a capitalist system, a small number of parties consolidate power and leverage this consolidation to curtail the freedom of all other actors in the system.

Speech is particularly important because in a media saturated society, speech is quite literally what constitutes and defines reality for the individual. Because speech in (post?) late capitalism is commodified and needs to reify its own commodification, it has to train individuals from a young age that their self-definition must come from their relationship to the act of consumption and the ways that the proximity of given objects imply a specific relationship to the act of consumption. Reality is a territory and must be treated as such tactically. This is the basic premise of advertising and public relations, and their open embrace of this worldview is a large part of why they’ve managed to make themselves the defining social engines of postmodern society.

The Milo/4chan crowd are free speech extremists. 4chan first became politically active against Scientology not because Scientology is awful but because 4chan users were pissed off that Scientology was trying to block internet access to a viral video of Tom Cruise jumping on a couch. Free speech extremism is an outgrowth of the shift in individual political self-identification from worker/owner/lumpen to consumer. The consumer identity is however schizophrenically split by its very nature . The consumer feels both the entitlement of the boss and the humiliation of the lumpen. The consumer identity is a balm that absorbs this tension. The high youth unemployment has led to numerous “consumer revolts” which are the only sort of uprising that would seem natural to a large crowd that never developed an identity as a proletariat, much less a coherent theory of resistance. They feel frustrated and that frustration has to be expressed in terms of grievances against pointless blockbuster movies and video games that no longer cater directly and specifically to them.

Both the free speech extremism of the right-wing trolls and the free speech fundamentalism of the liberal “don’t punch the Nazi” crowd evade the larger and more complicated problem of figuring out the new rules of engagement. Despite our laws and folk understandings revolving around such a binary, we all know that speech isn’t a discrete category from action, never was, and is even less so now.