Early on in The House of Mirth, Lily Bart, Edith Wharton's central protagonist, has a stab of insight about Percy Gryce, the heir she is pursuing, and his kind, such as Gwen van Osburgh, the heiress her cousin is pursuing: “ the two had the same prejudices and ideals,and the same quality of making other standards non-existent by ignoring them. This attribute was common to most of Lily’s set: they had a force of negation which eliminated everything beyond their own range of perception.” Lily has discovered the very principle of the establishment, whereever it forms. It is not a matter, merely, of mental blinders, since the phrase implies that something exterior has imposed its instrument – no, the force of negation works fiercely outward, and it eliminates that which is unpleasant to perceive, it erases it.
In another sphere, we can see how establishmentarian negation works in the film “Kill the Messenger,” which I saw last weekend. I knew the story, but the movie is good enough to have warmed up my indignation all over again. It is really a simple story: a newspaper writer uncovers disobliging things about the CIA without consulting and ‘understanding’ the CIA, that is, without getting helpful, swatting down hints from clubby high placed unnamed sources. This is what absolutely bothered the newspapers – the NYT, The LA Times, and the Washington Post – who lead an unusually violent lynching party against Gary Webb for his investigative reporting. The echo of that party was heard in an article by the editor of the Washington Post’s “investigative” section, a mooks named Jeff Leen. Leen re-attacked Webb, now deceased, in an article that begins: “An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof. That old dictum ought to hang on the walls of every journalism school in America.” Leen’s article is amusingly filleted by an old AP writer, Robert Parry, who admired Webb’s work:
“Leen insists that there is a journalism dictum that “an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.” But Leen must know that it is not true. Many extraordinary claims, such as assertions in 2002-03 that Iraq was hiding arsenals of WMDs, were published as flat-fact without “extraordinary proof” or any real evidence at all, including by Leen’s colleagues at the Washington Post.
A different rule actually governs American journalism – that journalists need “extraordinary proof” if a story puts the U.S. government or an “ally” in a negative light but pretty much anything goes when criticizing an “enemy.”
The last galvanic defensive response of Leen – who, with his bellycrawling attitude , will never, I think its safe to say, have any movie made about him – is in full geer in the recent attacks mounted against Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald. The nadir of course came in Michael Kinsley’s review, which proposed the idea that the government alone should decide which of its secrets it deigns to release. Kinsley’s idea, and the ideas of other poobahs in the press who have taken potshots at Snowden and Greenwald, runs on familiar lines. On the one side we have liberty, and on the other side we have security. The question then is how much liberty we can afford and still be secure.
This way of putting the question is, of course, cluelless, and at no point asks the pertinent question, which is how much security have we been ensured by our ‘security’ agencies. Take a brief glance over the past fifty years: does it seem to anyone that the CIA or the NSA have made Americans more secure?
Rather, it is the opposite. The most flamboyant instance of security failure in our recent past was the 9/11 attack. It isn’t a case here that we were unprepared because security agencies had no instruments to warn them that an attack was being mounted, the presumption that drove the passage of the Patriot Act. We have abundant evidence that this is not at all the case. We know, for instance, that the CIA knew that two of the hijackers were in the US, they knew that they were connected with the attack on the USS Cole, and they failed – they intentionally failed – to inform the FBI. A Snowden, in 2001, leaking to the press what we now know about the behavior of all the agencies that “secure” us would have prevented 9/11. The news reports that have described the failures of the ‘security’ agencies have made it seem that it was a failure of the security agencies, or individuals in them, alone. It wasn’t – the attitude in the major media that preceded the attack, as for instance the dismissal of Gary Webb’s story and the refusal to publish the CIA inspector’s report that, in essence, showed that Webb was right (something that the LA Times didn’t print a story upon until six months after it was out), made clear that the press was in bed with the intelligence establishment.
Liberty, in other words, is not the alternative to security in the US, but its pre-requisite.
Imagine for the moment that my scenario had happened, and some leaker had given both the name of the CIA agent in San Diego keeping tabs on the two members of Al qaeda and the names of those members. I can easily envision the response of both the agencies and the poobahs in the press: this leak, they would say, endangers many secret operations and countless American lives. And that is how it would look to them, as 9/11 would not have happened and we would have no tally of casualties to put on the side of liberty rather than bogus security.
The force of negation of the establishment is astoundingly powerful. Those who try to criticize it, to pierce its categories, to show its fundamental ignorance, are fated to be either ignored or attacked. And since such critics must have something in them, some kink, some deprivation, that allows them to see outside the range of perception of the establishment, the attacks will mostly succeed, as the vulnerabilities that are seized upon displace the larger and graver crimes of state.