a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

“Hard, hard decisions”

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 30th August 2012

As ever, the Republican National Convention is a target-rich environment for fact-checking.   This time, it’s Paul Ryan’s speech in particular that has come in for a great deal of well deserved — and unusual* — criticism in the media for Ryan’s outright lies and hypocrisy.

Condoleeza Rice addresses RNC (ABC News); speech as prepared (Washington Post);
speech as delivered (transcript by FOX News)

Condoleeza Rice, by contrast, received accolade after accolade for a speech variously characterized as “professorial,” “statesmanlike, stirring and secure“, even “the sort that gets collected in books, and studied by speechwriters.

And so Rice appears to have avoided any serious scrutiny for her speech, which — though largely free of Ryan-esque whoppers — contained plenty of half-truths, contradictions, and sleights of hand of its own.

Some of these are perhaps relatively minor (to Americans, if not to the people involved).**   But one assertion in particular stood out for me.  Rice began, “America has met and overcome difficult circumstances before.  Whenever you find yourself doubting us – just think of all the times that we have made the impossible seem inevitable in retrospect.” Then, after invoking the Revolution, the Civil War, and the demise of the Soviet Union, Rice got to her own blow for freedom and the American Way:

“…the willingness to take hard, hard decisions in the aftermath of 9/11 that secured us and prevented the follow-on attacks that seemed preordained at the time.”

It’s clear enough what she’s talking about.  And so we endure, once again, a Secretary of State defending torture despite U.S. agreement with the Geneva Conventions. It’s entirely possible for even undergraduate students — in fact, even 4th graders — to take Condoleeza Rice down on this issue when given a chance.  But the American news media generally don’t have the will or the attention span necessary to do so.  (I’m reminded of the old Groucho Marx routine with a nincompoop general exclaiming, “Why, a four year old child could understand this! …Run out and find me a four year old child.”)

So maybe TIME’s Michael Scherer was right, maybe Condi Rice’s speech will get featured in a history book some day — as the speech marking the final, all but unnoticed triumph of the Bush/Cheney administration torturers over their adversaries.

(image via

* Even FOX News got in on the bashing: Sally Kohn characterized Ryan’s speech as “deceiving”: “On the other hand, to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to facts, Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech. On this measure, while it was Romney who ran the Olympics, Ryan earned the gold.”
** For example, while the average news reader may agree that Russia and China are preventing an international response to the civil war in Syria, it’s also true that U.S and Turkish intransigence about Assad stepping down before talks begin has been a position designed to get “no” for an answer. Some of Rice’s comments were the kind of familiar, somewhat eye-rolling pablum about America’s central, allegedly indispensable, always benign and freedom-loving role that we’re likely to hear again from, say, Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention in Charlotte; others were more on the order of “but, but you just said,” e.g., talking about her life under Jim Crow after talk of a “second founding” overcoming the scourge of segregation.

UPDATE, 8/30: Peter Beinart (Daily Beast) and Fred Kaplan (Slate) also critique Rice’s speech, though not for the “hard decisions” language. Beinart points out the lack of any discussion of Iraq. Kaplan says Rice is off base about ‘failure to lead’ because of things like Obama’s favorable ratings overseas and the Libya intervention, which Kaplan believes was done rightly.

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Skeptical at the spectacle: moderate American liberalism jumps the shark

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 2nd November 2010

Somewhat to my own surprise, I tried to attend the Stewart/Colbert “Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear” extravaganza on Saturday. Friends were arriving from Pennsylvania, so I thought whatever my reservations were about the event, I could set them aside to try to meet some people I like.  Maybe by really joining in, I’d come to embrace the event.

In the event, that didn’t pan out — they wound up stuck in a tremendous traffic jam somewhere in suburban  Virginia, and then in a Metro system unequal to a record-breaking overload.  And then their cell phone gave out. I spent about an hour above ground when I got to the Mall around 11pm, and then the next three hours or so tunnelling beneath it to wait (unsuccessfully) at L’Enfant Plaza for my friends, who apparently got off at a different station anyway. As my cell phone helpfully told me re text messages I tried to send: “Me (Failed).”

It seems the turnout was nothing short of spectacular: given that WMATA (the Metro system) reports 875,000 trips were taken on Saturday vs. an average of 350,000,a turnout in the vicinity of 300,000 seems like a reasonable estimate.*  People brought many funny signs, eclipsed Glenn Beck’s event earlier this year, and generally had a whale of a time.  All good things.

So how did I not love thee, Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear?   Let me count the ways.

First, I had thought Stewart and Colbert were antidotes to the mindless media habit of ‘equal opportunity criticism’ — in this case, equating Cheney on the right with Code Pink or Alan Grayson on the left, as Stewart did in his announcement of the “rally.”  Right: people who start an unnecessary war are on the same level with people who protest it, however disruptively.  Shouldn’t you be a bit disruptive about a heinous war?  Shouldn’t you be a bit dismissive of a party of “no” that offered no hint of compromise or alternatives to bitterly needed health care reform?

And if you’re not, shouldn’t you perhaps at least shut up and not wring your hands about people who are?  Not if you’re Jon Stewart.  Far from walking back his comments about the protest group Code Pink before the event, Stewart’s Daily Show delivered the back of its hand to Code Pink yet again by subjecting founder Medea Benjamin to a farcical interview lineup featuring her, a Tea Party Yosemite Sam looking fellow, a fake anarchist, and a paper mache puppet guy, ending with the admonition to all, “Don’t be a douchebag.”

Also, while I realize it’s a small, self-selected group and it’s a silly “hot or not” sign contest at the rally website, it bugs me that that group and mindset is such that posters like this get thumbs down (“insane”), while insipid ‘I’ll listen to your nonsense and nod, yay me’ posters like this get thumbs up.

Fight Fox
Some groups knew which side they were on.

Second, I question my connection to an allegedly, even ‘militantly’ sane crowd that flocked to a “rally” whose own instigator admitted he wasn’t clear what its purpose was.  Classically, “moderation” is an attitude or tactic that embraces compromise and thoughtfulness over conflict and stridency.  So far, so unremarkable — I, too, prefer to get my way without conflict and stridency; I, too, will adjust my thinking on the basis of new facts.  But “moderation” is now apparently also a description for “will travel hundreds of miles to make a vague statement that I hope aligns me with a purpose I’m not yet acquainted with.”  It’s one thing, moreover, to be blindly following the leader, it’s another to be quite as self-congratulatory about that as many event-goers were — no matter how well spelled their posters were.

Finally, there was the matter of the date.  Saturday, October 30 was the better one of two precious weekend days before what looks to be a watershed ‘counterreformation’ election that will set back, yet again, hopes for a functional (let alone just) economy, that will complicate (at best) hopes for a sane foreign policy, that will delay (for the foreseeable future) hopes of reversing the civil liberties defeats of the past ten years.

Make no mistake, this criticism is mainly directed elsewhere.  For 300,000 plus people — apparently, for the most part, reasonably smart, moderate-to-liberal folks — to conclude that the most salient political act they could perform three days before a major election was to travel to a comedian’s show on the Mall can only be viewed as a stinging rebuke to a Democratic Party that will probably get more of their votes today than any other party will.

But both Stewart and Colbert on the one hand, and the event-goers on the other share responsibility as well.  The only conceivable political value to the extravaganza — even from a nonpartisan point of view — would have  been “changing the game”: mobilizing unlikely voters to vote with a national event drawing millions of viewers.  While there were a few hand-lettered signs like mine (“Vote – What’s The Worst That Could Happen?”) to that effect sprinkled among the many wonderfully wry, witty messages, there was no sustained effort to encourage the one thing even an avowedly moderate event for the “middle 80 percent” could unambiguously support.

“Jumping the shark” is an expression derived from an embarrassing “Happy Days” episode towards the end of that TV show’s run.  It means, roughly, “suddenly becoming passe or irrelevant” — and specifically, engaging in a stunt to attract attention and deflect it from something’s declining value.   While a major party that seems to operate by the curious slogan “We’re Less Right Than They Are” and a comedian suddenly finding his inner David Broder should be asking themselves questions today, so should the event-goers.  Judging by their signs, they seemed to know there are sharks in the water.  Judging by their signs, they also seemed not to want  to pick a side, or value actually fighting for it once they do.  That leaves them — and the moderate American liberalism they claim to represent — joining a party and a comedian in all but jumping the shark themselves.

* Subtracting average weekday traffic, the event outdrew August 27th’s combined Beck/anti-Beck turnout (not even in WMATA’s top five Saturday traffic volumes) by about a factor of three.
EDIT, 11/2: “statement that I hope” for “statement on behalf of I hope.”; “wasn’t clear what its purpose was” link added.
UPDATE, 11/2: It was an anti-media rally, writes Jason Easley.  If so, Stewart is in the process of adopting many of the media’s worst false equivalence and ‘center must be right’ habits.
UPDATE, 11/3: Chris Hedges’ take is similar to mine in “The Phantom Left“: “The liberal class wants to inhabit a political center to remain morally and politically disengaged. As long as there is a phantom left, one that is as ridiculous and stunted as the right wing, the liberal class can remain uncommitted. If the liberal class concedes that power has been wrested from us it will be forced, if it wants to act, to build movements outside the political system. This would require the liberal class to demand acts of resistance, including civil disobedience, to attempt to salvage what is left of our anemic democratic state.” Hedges tweezers up this wince-worthy quote by Stewart for inspection: “Why would you work with Marxists actively subverting our Constitution or racists and homophobes who see no one’s humanity but their own?” Which Marxists? What are they doing wrong exactly? I seem to remember they were among the handful of white people who *weren’t* racist before that was safe in the 20th century. I thought you got to say what you think and associate with whom you want. Stewart seems like a precocious grade schooler here:he knows lots of big words and he knows the story he’s supposed to tell, but it’s pretty vapid, conventional wisdom for an alleged Lion of the Left.
UPDATE, 11/10: In fairness, Stewart’s full remarks make the one Hedges pulled seem more a counterfactual than an accusation: “So, why would we work together? Why would you reach across the aisle to a pumpkin assed forehead eyeball monster? If the picture of us were true, our inability to solve problems would actually be quite sane and reasonable. Why would you work with Marxists actively subverting our Constitution or racists and homophobes who see no one’s humanity but their own? We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is — on the brink of catastrophe — torn by polarizing hate and how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get things done, but the truth is we do.” I.e., he’s saying we work with people *accused* of being such things, presumably because we deny the “untrue picture” of the accusation. Ie., Obama is not a Marxist, and Tea Party people are not necessarily racists and homophobes. It’s still not great — Marxists don’t necessarily subvert the Constitution (whatever that means), and are on a different plane than racists or homophobes. But it’s not the blatant “how dare you work with them” statement it looked like to me at first.

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David Brooks: in search of dignity

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 11th July 2009

David Brooks, the odd little fellow who delivers reliably idiotic conservative pablum on the “Lehrer Hour” and the op-ed page of the New York Times, recently aimed for the George Will demographic by reminding us of the Virtue of a Founding Father.  From his July 7 column, “In Search of Dignity“:

When George Washington was a young man, he copied out a list of 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” Some of the rules in his list dealt with the niceties of going to a dinner party or meeting somebody on the street.

“Lean not upon anyone,” was one of the rules. “Read no letter, books or papers in company,” was another. “If any one come to speak to you while you are sitting, stand up,” was a third.

We can apparently add another one to the list, something along the lines of

“Whensoever a Senator becomes Familiar with Your Thigh, Object Not, but Esteem it as a Signal Honour to be Shared with Your Viewing Audience.”

But let Brooks tell the story:

You know, all three of us spend a lot of time covering politicians and I don’t know about you guys, but in my view, they’re all emotional freaks of one sort or another. They’re guaranteed to invade your personal space, touch you. I sat next to a Republican senator once at dinner and he had his hand on my inner thigh the whole time. I was like, ehh, get me out of here.

I’m like, ehh, “the whole time”?  It’s hard to figure out the upside of sharing a story like this, but maybe Brooks is signaling he’d like to join one of those new “salon” gigs the Washington Post was considering — advertised as “Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No.”

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Yup, the Daily Me

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 19th March 2009

Fellow Takoma Park blogger Keith Berner took the Washington Post to task (to wit, “WaPo is a rag“) for a couple of stories today — An Imperiled Agenda: Anger Over Firm Depletes Obama’s Political Capital and President’s Budget Strategy Under Fire: Tactic May Break Obama’s Pledge, GOP Says. Berner:

…the Post has taken it upon itself to declare on two successive days that AIG bonuses have caused the Obama Presidency to fail and that Obama is a dangerous heretic because the GOP says so.

In response, a reader on the listserv he shared this with (teaser:“The Washington Post declares the Obama administration dead.  And then declares war on it”)  replied that the Post’s articles were true and objective; the same reader subsequently recommended an opinion piece by Nick Kristof of the New York Times entitled “The Daily Me.”

So I had a look — and concluded that I agree a lot more with Keith than with Nick.

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Late to the funeral

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 8th March 2009

I picked up a copy of The New Republic today because the cover looked promising — a watchdog flanked by the theme “The End of the Press: Democracy Loses Its Best Friend.”  While hopeful, I was prepared to be disappointed, and I was.

The New Republic, March 4, 2009:
The End of the Press

MSM, RIP , The Editors
Anchors Away, Michael Schaffer
Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers
(Hello to a New Era of Corruption)
, Paul Starr
The Media Misery Index
The Morgue: A reporter’s elegy for his
dying paper
, Joe Mathews
The Scoop Factory, Gabriel Sherman
D.C. Confidential, Michael Tomasky

It has become the latest, longest running whine of the print media to blame their decline on the Internet, and this issue proves no exception.  The New Republic editors sniff that “On The Huffington Post and its ilk, you would find rants about how “Beltway media really makes no effort to do anything other than parrot totally out-of-touch conventional wisdom.” — rather proving the point of the “ranters,” it would seem to me.  The digs continue even when they have no bearing on the article; in a piece ostensibly about local TV news, Michael Schaffer writes, “In a cheeseball 1970s way, winning market share by selling personality prefigured the formula that’s seen lone bloggers supplant venerable newspapers.”

There’s plenty to dislike about the new “model,” such as it is, of internet journalism.  Perhaps the main thing, though, has nothing to do with any of what TNR writers are talking about: it’s often sheer, rank exploitation.  I’ve been following the early stages in the career of a friend’s daughter as she tries to break in to writing and journalism.  One of her better offers recently was the chance to work 60 hour weeks for three months at Talking Points Memo — unpaid.

It’s probably no wonder.  In “The Scoop Factory,” about the rise of the “Politico” — a kind of slightly elevated Drudge Report in tabloid form — to inside-the-Beltway prominence, Gabriel Sherman could probably have saved several thousand words by simply cutting to this sentence: Politico also vastly undercuts the big dailies with lower ad rates (a full-page color ad costs $11,000, according to the rate card; a full-page ad in the Times runs more than $100, 000).” That and who’s bankrolling Politico — none other than Riggs Bank financier Allbritton family.  My guess is we’ll never hear about Politico’s red ink if (or rather: when) that ever happens — it’s too valuable a political base and weapon.

And that’s as good a transition as any to the notion that there was also plenty to dislike about the old model of American journalism, such as it was, in the late 20th and early 21st century.  Part of that is captured in the very metrics the New Republic uses to measure the tale of woe, in their Media Misery Index: “Percentage the Dow dropped in 2008: 34 percent”; Percentage the Gannett Company’s stock dropped in 2008: 79 percent. Etcetera.  Sounds like life is tough on investors trying to turn a buck on the newspaper business.

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Tasering mentally disturbed people is funny!

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th February 2009

Reading the Express (the Washington Post’s tabloid style free newspaper) today on the way to work, an Associated Press report out of Bay City, MI caught my eye:  police received 911 calls about a naked man outside a church funeral mass service.  The man reportedly told officers he was “having problems with his parents and wanted to go to church.” Things rapidly deteriorated from there:

[Sgt.] Cameron told the Bay City Times the man verbally abused police before Officer Troy Sierras immobilized him with a Taser. […] Cameron said the man likely wouldn’t be charged with any crime.

Which man? The naked one or the one in uniform?  Why or why not?  In remarks I found at the Bay City Times’ article, Cameron added,

“You never want to see anybody like that,” he said. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

But an officer’s apparent right to use a torture stick to respond to derogatory remarks from someone who “[won’t] be charged with any crime” and “doesn’t know what he’s doing” isn’t the only insidious thing about this story.

What’s also insidious is that the news media play the story for laughs: the item ran under the header “eyeOpeners: Sports” — with the headline “Nude Tasering Added to X Games Lineup.”  And that there’s probably a nontrivial fraction of the Express-reading demographic who laughed like hyenas when they read it.

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Letterman interviews Jane Mayer

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 30th July 2008

Will wonders never cease — discussions of war crimes on late night TV with millions watching. It happened when David Letterman interviewed Jane Mayer, author of “The Dark Side,” a book about the Bush torture presidency.

Letterman does a remarkable job with the interview — asks the questions a “24” watcher might ask — but he didn’t shy away from going long the other way, with direct and repeated questions about war crimes. He might have skipped the “will never happen” part as unnecessary soothsaying, but other than that he’s put most of the network news teams out there to shame. Colbert, Stewart, Letterman: when the news “industry” is a joke, it takes jokers to bring you the news.

Via Avedon Carol; as she says, pass it on.

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Posted by Thomas Nephew on 28th July 2008


Washington Post
New York Times*; op-eds

National Public Radio, and latest hourly broadcast
PBS: Lehrer NewsHour, Frontline, Bill Moyers Journal

Google News
AP (via Yahoo), Reuters

Christian Science Monitor
Los Angeles Times, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, San Jose Mercury News
The Village Voice, City Journal
CQ Politics

The Oak Ridger, Knoxville News Sentinel, Metro Pulse
Takoma Voice

Real News
Washington Independent



Die Zeit, Die Welt, TAZ, Der Spiegel, Focus, Stern Magazin, Bild
Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Der Tagesspiegel
Google News Deutschland
“German TV” consortium; English version; ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Welle
Yahoo!Deutschland German newspaper directory
Mainpost: Würzburg, Schweinfurt
Jungle World, NetZeitung, Telepolis

Austria, Switzerland
der Standard, (AT), Neue Zürcher Zeitung (CH)


The Economist, The Sunday Times*
Guardian/Observer, The Times*
BBC: 1pm EST (1800GMT) radio news, 5am EST World Update


Le Monde
RFI Matin, Soir (French radio)


Ha’aretz, Jerusalem Post
Middle East Media Research Institute: selected translations of Arab newspapers

Middle East

Al Jazeera (English)
Jordan Times


The Nation, Dawn (Pakistan)
The Times of India
Asahi Shimbun (Japan)
Chosun Ilbo, Korea Herald
Asia Times
People’s Daily (China government)


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RealNews video clips

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 31st May 2008

The Real News Network is a great resource for different takes (and sometimes the only takes) on world news, with voices from outside the mainstream of U.S. media. Here are some of the clips I’ve saved, as recently as today, on topics from Iraq to Zimbabwe to the Democratic primaries. As storage resources tighten here, this and the recent links post will migrate to the top of the blog.

Consider donating to Real News; I did. The link leads to a page with — of course — video pitches by Robert McChesney or Paul Jay, and a donation form. By the way, in case you care: it’s tax-deductible, and they’ll send you a receipt.

PS: Take care with the donation form, it’s pre-set to monthly donations — not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it may not be what you expect.
[orig. date 4/21]

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Discovery is more than the name of their company…

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 12th February 2008

…it may be the very opposite of what they’re doing.

The Silver Spring, Maryland based Discovery Channel bought the rights to “Taxi to the Dark Side“, a documentary by Alex Gibney investigating the 2002 torture killing of the Afghan taxi driver Dilawar at Bagram Air Base, and the policies that led to it. (Dilawar was chained to an overhead wire, and his legs were subjected to such repeated and heavy beatings and kneeings that the medical examiner described them as “pulpified.”) A trailer for the movie can be seen here; it was shown during the AFI Silverdocs Festival in Silver Spring last year.

Now ThinkProgress reports that the documentary channel heavyweight is dropping plans to air it, apparently claiming the film is “too controversial,” despite the high praise and accolades the film has received, including an Oscar nomination. In an interview with ThinkProgress, Gibney comments:

Torture, even though the Bush administration never uses that word, they say “We don’t do torture,” because they define it out of existence.

He didn’t add that they don’t need an (alleged) documentary television channel‘s help with that. The subject matter of this film could not have come as a surprise to the company. Under those circumstances, buying it, promising to air it, and then reneging on that promise would be an act of censorship that should rebrand the company. Dibney: “In refusing to air the film, Discovery is perpetuating what has become the policy of this government: It is OK to employ torture, just not to show it.”

The Washington Times’s Jennifer Harper quotes a “source close to the situation” as claiming “These statements are both premature and unfounded. A final decision on airing this film by Discovery Communications has not been reached yet.”

I hope they’ll make the right decision — or undo a wrong one. The Discovery Channel and the local AFI Silverdocs festival will lose a lot of their luster if Discovery follows through with smothering a timely documentary — and if activists mobilize to protest that.

NOTE: I’ve posted about Dilawar’s case here and here (“Everybody heard him cry out and thought it was funny.”) The leg-beatings were called “compliance blows” using “peroneal [muscles and tendons attaching to the knees] strikes.” As I wrote at the time: “”Compliance blows” doesn’t sound like bad-apple-talk, it sounds like Pentagonese, don’t you think?”

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