The Clintons: Back on the campaign trail with the help of the New York Times

This article was published at Salon.com on December 4, 2013 under the headline, “New York Times’ blind spot on Clinton and race.”

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The New York Times published a piece this week in the service of the Democratic Party’s campaign for the 2016 elections that reveals a grave misunderstanding of recent history. Reporters Amy Chozick and Jonathan Martin profiled the tactics of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband, the 42nd president of the United States, to restore their fragile relationship with African-Americans in anticipation of the former’s 2016 presidential run. The Times frames it as an attempt to “to soothe and strengthen their relationship with African-Americans,” apparently strained after Bill’s 2008 comments about the Obama presidency.

Here is the motivation they assign to the Clintons:

This task [of courting the black vote] has taken on new urgency given the Democratic Party’s push to the left, away from the centrist politics with which the Clintons are identified. Strong support from black voters could serve as a bulwark for Mrs. Clinton against a liberal primary challenge should she decide to run for president in 2016.

It would have been illuminating, and accurate as well, to distinguish between Democratic Party functionaries and Democratic voters in their description; I don’t see much in the way of Democratic politicos’ “push to the left”: NDAA 2012/2013, bank bailouts, the ACA, among other laws, don’t strike me as overly progressive.

Chozick and Martin assiduously cover the various black leaders with whom the Clintons have consorted since Hillary’s resignation as secretary of state earlier this year. Along with that coverage is a telling, if not accurate, description of Bill Clinton’s legacy, which Hillary will surely be relying on to vouch for her “progressive” credentials. Here is perhaps the most remarkable paragraph of the article:

Mr. Clinton has a rich, if occasionally fraught, history with African-Americans. He was a New South governor and a progressive on race who would eventually be called “the first black president” by the author Toni Morrison. But he infuriated blacks in 2008 when, after Mr. Obama won a big South Carolina primary victory, he seemed to dismiss the achievement by reminding the press that the Rev. Jesse Jackson had won the state twice and calling Mr. Obama’s antiwar position “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”

Many African-Americans took Mr. Clinton’s fairy tale comment to mean that Mr. Obama’s candidacy itself was a hopeless fantasy.

It is true that black Americans were mightily irritated by Bill’s comments. But that’s hardly the only source of the injury.

(Un)surprisingly, even as Chozick and Martin tritely repeat Toni Morrison’s description of Clinton as the first black president, proudly repeated by Bill (and ad nauseam by mainstream media), they don’t offer any context for her remarks.

Morrison, writing in the New Yorker in 1998, was reflecting on the Republicans’ move to impeach Bill Clinton in the aftermath of revelations of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, his intern at the time. She says:

African-American men seemed to understand it right away. Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear: “No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and—who knows?—maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.”

It is clear that Morrison is poetic and pained here. She analogizes the experiences faced by Clinton to those faced all too often by black men. There is much that can be said about this piece. But the cynicism of Clinton and his supporters is such that her phrase was co-opted as an endorsement of his “progressive” politics, rather than what it signaled at the very least; it is a searing insight into the inferior, abject status of black men in the United States at the end of the millennium. And here is Morrison in her own words in 2008.

But Chozick and Martin, in their own perhaps subconscious cynicism merely repeat Morrison’s endorsement and omit any discussion of Clinton’s policies during his two terms as president, or during his time as governor of Arkansas.

The first “black” president and his partner in devastation proudly designed the prototype of Clinton’s famous 1996 welfare reform bill when he was the governor of Arkansas. Women who applied for aid from the state were required, among other indignities, to name the potential fathers of their children. Yes, yes, save your objections: This policy was created to search out “deadbeat dads,” and get them to pay child support.

But somehow it never occurred to many — not the press, not white liberals, not liberal feminists, much less the Clintons (if they cared at all) — that such a reform would only be effective in further humiliating already poor women, women who, had they other options, would never have resorted to the state for help. Here’s a brilliant letter from a Seattle feminist to N.O.W. back in 2007, which sets out the various assumptions and implications of welfare reform.

The ballast for welfare reform exploited the racial antagonism against black women that was inflated and gained momentum under Ronald Reagan’s administration. But as many, from Barbara Ehrenreich to digby to Jason DeParle, point out, the Clintons and their Democratic buddies endorsed the righteous smokescreen that “workfare” was needed to teach the poor how to keep a job rather than asking for money, and to teach poor (black) women “chastity training.” Patronizing? Racist? Those words don’t even cover half of it, especially as they’re accompanied by the convenient selective amnesia about the legacy of slavery and the still-existent practice of institutional discrimination against blacks. We can see this in the history of the drug war, the prison industry, red-lining, not to mention plain old-fashioned racism as seen in our public school system, post-secondary admissions practices, and employment across multiple industries.

Hillary’s express support for welfare reform enabled Bill to get the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act passed. Peter Edelman, a senior Clinton appointee who resigned in protest of the bill, pointed out that this was the “worst thing Bill Clinton has done.” Due to the remarkable efforts of the “first black president” and his wife, and like-minded “liberals” and conservatives who believed that the poor needed to be taught to climb out of a “culture of poverty,” welfare was no longer the entitlement that it had been for decades (and should have remained as such). Rather, it was transformed into a sporadic privilege periodically and provisionally bestowed on the poor, all the while leaving millions more in poverty. As Edelman pointed out in 2011, that 1996 bill made things much worse for the poor: “There are now people who cannot find work, and who cannot get welfare.”

Needless to say, Democrats and Republicans have managed to augment, enhance, exacerbate the level of nationwide poverty through its support of banking deregulation and absence of serious sanctions for bankers and subprime mortgage companies.

When Chozick and Martin write about Bill Clinton as a “progressive on race,” I have to wonder which criteria they use to measure. They use certain famous black politicians’ comments (such as those of Democratic Rep. James Clyburn or Rep. Elijah Cummings) or public gestures (such as sitting next to “friend and rival” and former Democratic Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder at Howard University’s May 2013 commencement) at face value and out of context. To gauge race progress by which friends a white Democrat sits next to — doesn’t this strike anyone as uncomfortably close to the “Some of my best friends” cliché?

Why not consider the effects of NAFTA and WTO, which decimated the manufacturing industry that employed enormous numbers of African-Americans? Many journalists and left economists have detailed the detrimental impact of the offshoring of corporations, the forgiveness of taxes, the eradication of labor protections for foreign nationals who work at formerly American companies. Why does none of this figure into the assessment of “racial progress”? Even one paragraph might have allowed for the possibility that the Times was engaged in some critical questions about the releases and information that they were being fed by the Clinton campaign.

Why not consider the effects of the 1996 Immigration Reform Bill, which was a precursor to the enormous anti-immigration tide that has swept the country, enhanced by the right-wing and neo-patriotic impulses of both Democrats and Republicans in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks?

Why not consider the effects of the 1994 Crime Bill, which heralded in “three strikes” legislation at the federal level, also signed under the “first black president”? The expansion of the death penalty in the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Death Penalty Act?

I can hear objections that Hillary should be able to run on her own record. OK, why not examine a few of her votes? Remember, it was Sen. Russ Feingold — not Sen. Clinton, or Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, or Secretary of State John Kerry — who stood up against the USA Patriot Act, as a harbinger of a (by now) vengeful, 12-year, racist and arbitrary tide of vitriol against Muslims in the U.S., Iraq, Afghanistan, U.K., Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere in the world. How about on the 2002 authorization to invade Iraq? AUMF 2005? The 2007 surge in Iraq? She voted in favor of them. To her credit, she voted against the 2008 FISA bill, citing checks on presidential authority, even as elsewhere she has been in support of increasing it. How does she feel about WikiLeaks? Edward Snowden? The death penalty (supports it, but not for Iran).

These are hardly left votes. These are hardly liberal votes. These are hardly racially progressive votes.

Let’s not judge whether someone is a “race progressive” — especially a politician — by the utterances of his/her friends. Presumably, journalists understand that the notion of an alliance does not confirm the truth of one’s race politics; it merely demonstrates that all other concerns have been provisionally subordinated in order to further one particular goal. Sure, we can call it pragmatic, strategic, realpolitik. But regardless of the term used, journalists — of all people — know that citing such alliances does not offer a valuable insight or confirmation about the truth of one’s politics.

I tell my students that if they want to write about politics effectively and forcefully, they must major in something other than journalism: history, sociology, ethnic studies, politics — something other than a field that disciplines its students to forget that accurate narratives have a long-seated, deeply buried history that cannot simply be articulated through a repetition of sound bites aired by corporate news media or covering poll results. Facts, those snippets that refer to a certain state of the world, must be assembled and grounded by searching through indirect, long-buried records that have long slipped the public (and corporate media’s) memory. Such an excavation requires the skills of an archaeologist and the critical distance of an outsider — not the propitiatory writing skills of someone familiar with the well-worn seat of an election press bus or who lunches with his subjects on a regular basis.

Of course, that assumes that establishment media such as the Times is interested in reportage from a critical perspective. Perhaps that’s the most flawed assumption of all.

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Heaping Insult on Injury: Bill Keller’s Character Assassination of Bradley Manning

On Monday, New York Times columnist and editor Bill Keller made a number of troubling, distracting points in his column about Pfc Bradley Manning’s Pre-trial statement, which included some serious morally laden—and ungrounded–condemnations. Keller’s position is fairly condemnable itself, given that he works for a newspaper that has been on record as cooperating with maintaining government secrecy on multiple occasions.

1)     Keller points out that Manning said he left a voice message for the Times but never heard back. From this, Keller insinuates that Manning was somehow incompetent and wasn’t able to get his message to the editors—something that thousands of Times readers do everyday.

It’s puzzling to me that a skilled techie capable of managing one of the most monumental leaks ever couldn’t figure out how to get an e-mail or phone message to an editor or a reporter at The Times.

First, it’s not clear what being a ‘skilled techie’ has to do with leaving a voicemail. The two, needless to say, are unconnected. Keller’s response doesn’t squash doubts in my mind that the Bradley may have successfully left a message, only to have it ignored or deleted for any number of reasons: Perhaps because a) the NYT staff found it seemed too outlandish to be true; b) there was incompetence on the part of the staff whose job it was to check the messages; or they decided it was a hoax or unimportant; c) the NYT may have decided to deny receipt of the message in order to stay out of the fray. We know that the Times has had a history of cooperating with the US in protecting state secrets. We saw one glaring example of this under Keller’s own watch, in a story admitting that the Times sat on a story for over a year about how the US was illegally wiretapping American citizens.

The White House asked The New York Times not to publish this article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting. Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted.

It is still unclear how much of that story would have endangered national security, and how much of it was a cover-up for a crime conducted under the Bush Administration.

2)     That fact again raises doubts about Keller’s confidence that if the Times had received information, they would have sifted it carefully and published information that they felt was important for the public to know. We see the repeated collaboration on the part of the NYT with the US government—which often at odds with an American public’s interest. The latest example of this was seen in the speculative, often speculative or unfounded story published in last Sunday’s NYT about the deaths of Anwar Al-Awlaki, his son Abdulrahman, and his colleague Samir Khan, which several journalists suggest are at odds with known details. Much of that story was confirmed primarily—and only–by government sources, and challenged at many points by detailed investigative independent journalist Marcy Wheeler.

3)     Keller assassinates Manning’s character by using Manning’s self-description as

“emotionally fractured” — a gay man in an institution not hospitable to gays, fragile, lonely, a little pleased with his own cleverness, a little vague about his motives,”

as a vehicle by which to raise doubts about the importance or integrity of Manning’s intentions in wanting to share the classified documents with world—given that, as Keller says, Manning’s own explanation was inchoate.* I don’t see why Keller has to comment on Manning’s emotional state which, for someone who most likely knows he’s about to get into a massive amount of trouble, isn’t surprising. One doesn’t need to be an articulate ethics professor in order to know the difference between what is indisputably ethically troubling and what is not. Further, as Nathan Fuller pointed out to Keller in response to his initial column, in fact, Manning had extremely detailed and eloquent objections to the corruption and military practices that he saw.

Regardless, as Keller states, at his sentencing statement—after many years in solitary confinement, during which Manning has much time—if not many hospitable circumstances– to reflect, he makes clear that he is troubled by the dehumanization of the casualties in one military attack captured on video, where the US soldiers who perpetuated the attack cheered at the large number of casualities that they managed to engender.  That statement is consistent with his earlier actions and perspective, to say the least.

4)    Finally, in order to show that the NYT has no obligation to with support–either a whistleblower or– treasonous ‘enemy’ of the state, Keller refers to Max Frankel, who was The Times’s Washington bureau chief during the Daniel Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers. According to Frankel:

“[Ellsberg] was committing an act of civil disobedience and presumably knew that required accepting the punishment. We were privately pleased that the prosecution overreached and failed, but we did not consider ourselves his partner in any way.

But isn’t that precisely the ethical and deceptively neutral stance that journalists such as Nathan Fuller, Kevin Gosztola, Glenn Greenwald, and others are challenging?  If you’re a journalist—and that means anything to you—it means reporting to the public—even, especially, at risk of pissing off the state. And that means standing with your sources and ensuring that they are not targeted or persecuted for sharing important information with the Fourth Estate. That requires public support for information-sharing.

This should be the rule for journalists, especially when there may be concerns about criminal activities on the part of the state. Protect your sources, support them, and report on harassment, corruption and wrongdoing.  Such a stance would be ‘truly’ neutral, because it would ensure allegiances to its public readership, and promote trust by showing its adversarial, watchdog–not lapdog–stance toward the state.

5)     Keller suggests that Manning ‘pilfered’ documents. That suggests that Manning was stealing property that is owned by the government. In fact, this is precisely the issue that is at stake regarding Manning’s actions. As such, Keller is begging the question (i.e., assuming the very thing that is being questioned).

Did Manning steal? Or did he release documents that the state wanted to be kept secret for “national security” reasons–which are unconvincing to many, many people, including former whistleblowers, journalists, and a segment of the American population.  In many people’s understanding of a liberal democratic state—a government is accountable to its people. If this is the case, then a government’s actions must be made known to it people.

If we accept the latter explanation which, barring an actual state of emergency, is the only Constitutional one, another interpretation of Manning’s actions is NOT that he was stealing, but rather attempting to share evidence of state corruption and wrongdoing with Americans—those people to whom the US government is accountable. That would make him by most accounts except for those who are concerned about having wrongdoing exposed—a whistleblower.

6)    Finally, as whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg stated yesterday, there is a misconception about the kind of material that Bradley Manning leaked. In his letter, Ellsberg clarifies Manning WAS selective in the information he leaked. From Ellsberg’s statement on the Manning recorded statement, released today:

“MANNING WAS DISCRIMINATING


Critics have alleged that a major difference between my case and Manning’s is that I was discriminating in what I leaked, while Manning wasn’t. He just dumped some material that doesn’t need to be out, they say. This is simply false.

First, it’s important to point out most of the material he put out was unclassified. The rest was classified ‘secret,’ which is relatively low level. All of the Pentagon Papers was classified top secret.

But in a fact no one seems to observe from his statement, Manning was working within a “SCIF,” which stands for Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. To get into a SCIF, a soldier needs a clearance higher than top secret. This means he had access to the highest classified material, such as communications and signals intelligence. This means he could’ve put out information top secret and higher, and purposely chose not to do so.”

Especially in light of Ellsberg’s point, Keller’s statement seems disingenuous at best, and self (and employer-) serving as well. But the set of terms that Keller deploys to refer to Manning–a ‘geek,’ ‘fragile gay man’ (how is his sexuality relevant?), “nervous, troubled, angry young Army private,” and in effect, a thief, suggests a character assassination more than a clarifying explanation of the NYT role in this affair.  Neither courageous nor morally upstanding on the part of Keller. And not surprising.

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*Since I first wrote this piece, independent journalists such as Nathan Fuller, Kevin Gosztola, and Greg Mitchell have published challenges to Kellers’ assessment of Manning’s motivations. I have revised to include some of their points; my assessement overlaps at points with theirs.