The nationalist veil

24 Jul
July 24, 2014

Make no mistake, Vladimir Putin is a thug, a neo-Tsarist xenophobe and complicit in the chain of events that led to Ukranian separatist rebels mistakenly downing a civilian airliner.  He should reflect on his performance and its result, and he should begin to make what amends he can offer.   Nothing that follows mitigates against any of the above.

However:

“….As of 1993, the United States had not apologized to Iran.  In 1996, the United States and Iran reached “an agreement in full and final settlement of all disputes, differences, claims, counterclaims” relating to the incident at the International Court of Justice, including a recognition of the incident in the form of “…the United States recognized the aerial incident of 3 July 1988 as a terrible human tragedy and expressed deep regret over the Loss of lives caused by the incident…” As part of the settlement, the United States did not admit legal liability but agreed to pay on an “ex gratia” basis US$61.8 million, amounting to $213,103.45 per passenger, in compensation to the families of the Iranian victims…”

That’s from the Wikipedia entry for the Iran Air civilian aircraft shot down over the Persian Gulf by a missle fired by the U.S.S. Vincennes in 1988.  Although the Gulf was certainly a tense environment in which the U.S. Navy and Iranian military forces were operating in close proximity, it was not by any means a region of actual armed conflict.  Yet  Vice President George H. Bush declared that he would “never apologize” for U.S. actions or the Iranian deaths that resulted from the tragedy.  While regreting the loss of life in the tragedy, as Mr. Putin has done, the U.S. refused to apologize to Iran for the incident and Presdient Reagan insisted that our warship  had fired the missle  “in a proper defensive action.”

By our own standards, Mr. Putin is not required to apologize or reflect seriously on a damn thing at present.  And Russia as a whole ought not to be expected to apologize anytime before 2022.  And compensation for the victims of the tragedy in the Ukraine should not be forthcoming until 2025.

This tired planet is at present still organized politically as a collection of nation-states, and with that as a given, it is inevitable and practical that those states will at times be overly competitive, uncooperative or engaged in outright conflict.  And so, the maintenance of military and intelligence capabilities remains, too, inevitable and practical.  That those capabilities will, in turn, be subject to sudden instances of grievous and horrifying miscalculation is also a certainty.  This is the world now.

But nationalism — everyone’s nationalism — is also the first and last refuge of dishonorable, hypocritical rogues.

Within the Acela cocoon

18 Jul
July 18, 2014

There is something about human beings compacted in a cylindrical tube, hurtling between cities at a high speed, unable to maneuver in any other manner than to, say, grab a beer from the cafe car or visit the rest room. It is lost time. And when you’ve made all your cell calls, and answered the last of your email, and you are still only in Wilmington and another forty minutes from home, the last distractions are the people sitting around you.

This fellow was at the four-top table immediately behind me. I clocked him as we left New York, but as he is a busy man, and as most of our previous encounters have been a little edgy, I told myself to let well enough alone. I answered a few more emails, looked at some casting tapes on the laptop, checked the headlines. And still, with all of that done, we were only just south of Philadelphia.

I texted my son: “On the southbound Acela. Marty O’Malley sitting just behind me,” then joking, “Do I set it off?”

A moment later, a 20-year-old diplomatic prodigy fired back a reply: “Buy him a beer.”

I waited until just after Wilmington, for fear that the Governor of Maryland and I would not be able to endure the requisite formalities of forced proximity for much longer than that. Then I stood up, noticed that Mr. O’Malley was sipping a Corona, and I walked to the cafe car to get another just like it. I came back, put it on the table next to its mate, and said, simply, “You’ve had a tough week.” My reference, of course, was to the governor’s dustup with the White House over the housing of juvenile immigrants in Maryland, which became something of a spitting contest by midweek.

Mr. O’Malley smiled, said thanks, and I went back to my seat to inform my son that the whole of the State Department could do no better than he. Several minutes later, the governor of my state called me out and smacked the seat next to him.

“Come on, Dave, ” he said, “we’re getting to be old men at this point.  Sit, talk.”

I joined him. He still hates “The Wire” with a taut fury. I suggested he might watch it some years from now, when there was less at stake. I am still no fan of some of his policies, especially with regard to the drug war and the use of mass arrest, but I held my tongue and told him instead that I thought he’d been misused this week by some White House aides who misrepresented his position on the immigration issue, which indeed, I believe is true. We searched for common ground and landed eventually on The Pogues, a band beloved to us both, as well as some mutual memories of the more farcical personages who once held court on the Baltimore City Council. At one point, we both lamented the death last year of Pogues guitarist Phil Chevron and  sang some lyrics to Chevron’s magnificent “Faithful Departed.” This no doubt brought a vague nausea to the aide traveling with the governor and anyone else still awake in our vicinity. More than that, I can’t say, as discussion of a few other matters was agreed to be off-the-record. I will honor that.

As the train neared Baltimore, the governor suggested that perhaps we both suffered from Irish — or as I know the joke, Jewish — Alzheimers. As he explained,  “That’s where you…”

“…only remember the grudges,” I finished.

We laughed, and the governor used his iPad for a photo. We shook hands, and I got off in Baltimore. He continued on to the BWI station, and, from there, I presume, to Annapolis.

Again, for the most part, I credit Amtrak, with an assist from my son. But Mr. O’Malley, who is now contemplating a presidential run, seemed last night to be as much at ease as I remember from his earliest days on the council. And me, I’m no longer trying to film a dark story in his political backyard. The two of us did okay, too, considering.

 

Libel per se – UPDATED TWICE

02 Jul
July 2, 2014

UPDATE:  12 p.m., July 4

I am informed that the Huff Post piece has now removed the reference to my having been fired.  Instead, apparently, my revenge was had upon editors who spiked one of my articles because my writing wasn’t “Dickensian” enough.  They never said anything of the sort to me or anyone else, and that is not actually the reason that particular article was spiked.  I carefully related the actual sequence of events to Dr. Williams in my April memo as a discussion of  that particular article and its fate features throughout her manuscript, but no matter.  With regard to the Huff Post essay at least, I am libeled no more and I thank the author for her apology at the bottom of the essay.

A brief word on the non-performance of the Huffington Post in this matter, on their publishing ethic, and on the manner in which this institution conducts its business:

The abdication of editorial responsibility in the case of aggregated sites such as Wikipedia or barely-edited copy dumps such as the Huffington Post is one of the sad retrenchments in news distribution and commentary.  The ethos of such entities — hey, we don’t write the stuff; we’re just the blackboard it’s scrawled upon —  sounds at first to be an ennobled argument for an open and unfettered marketplace of ideas, where some unseen hand of libertarian idealism ensures that better notions triumph over bad ones, and the lies are all, in the end, run down and brutalized by more powerful truths before much harm is done.  Demagogues from Huey Long to Joseph Goebbels have an answer to that naivete; shit, John Kerry will sell you a used Swift Boat if you’re credulous enough to believe such tripe.   These policies are not ennobled.  They are craven.  They allow web entities to profit off the slanders, provocations and irresponsible claims in the real-time battles that make their sites central and profitable to every argument. Lies and cheap provocations become as essential to the dynamic as the truth, and accuracy and falsehood are accorded equal honor.  It’s yellow stuff indeed.  

Some of the best and most courageous journalism that I’ve witnessed involved the decision by good and careful editors NOT to publishing something incomplete, or inaccurate, or ethically impaired.  Such things seldom happen with our present internet.  Instead, the editors of the Huffington Post are not only untroubled at the thought of unknowingly participating in a libel, they prove comfortable with maintaining that libel even when its falsehood is known.  They throw up their hands, cry that we shouldn’t shoot the piano player, who’s merely playing the music of others.  As if carrying a lie about another citizen to a mass of people isn’t still the tort of libel and a thoroughly scumsucking thing with which to be engaged.

UPDATE:  2 p.m., July 3

Today, I spoke with the director of Duke University Press.  He informs me that Dr. Williams’ book, which had been sent to the printer without any changes since I viewed the manuscript three months ago, is now on hold while the publisher consults with its author and with legal counsel.  Given that this gentleman was coming to this issue suddenly and without prior knowledge, and, too, that some time is required to reach people, gather information and address complicated matters, I’m inclined to leave it here and keep the details of my conversation private.  At present, I am content to believe that Duke University Press is trying to address the issue.   More to come.  Or not.  Hard to know. 

ORIGINAL  TEXT:  July 2

The permanent churn of the internet is such that if you allow a dishonesty to stand for more than a moment, it will be endlessly repeated as fact for as long as there are humans left to link to it.   We all sense this.  And even so, for some falsehoods, we have to laugh and let it ride; the stakes just aren’t that high.

But every now and then comes a moment when — as someone who counted himself as a professional reporter for some certain years — I find myself stunned, like a cow with a sledgehammer, to see just how indifferent another practitioner is to any basic responsibility and ethics.

In this instance, the practitioner is an academic author, Linda Williams, who has published a book of themes and arguments relating to a television show I once wrote and produced, “The Wire.”  Her book, published by Duke University Press, is currently being hawked as new books always are, and Ms. Williams has written a piece for the Huffington Post, which appears on that site today as part of that publicity campaign.  For obvious reasons, I will not link to it because of the libel contained therein.

Understand, it is not merely an error.  Everyone makes mistakes.

The reason that I can attest that this is no mere error is that a few months ago, Duke University Press sent me a galley of the book and asked that I look at it.  As I explained to them, I am without public opinion as to Dr. Williams’ thoughts and theories regarding “The Wire.”  She is welcome to all of them.  I do, however, find myself capable of opinion on any narrative that suggests I was at any point unethical as a newspaperman.  Those years matter to me to a much greater degree than how anyone might view my later performance in the entertainment industry.

And indeed, embedded in the original manuscript was a theme, conjured from god knows where by the author, that I had been fired from the newspaper after a falling out with editors that involved an ethical breach on my part.

I don’t know how else to say this:  There was no ethical breach.  No lapse in any ethical standard of journalism was ever suggested or referenced in any of my work, even by those editors with whom I had deep and fundamental disagreements over the direction and priorities of the newspaper.  No ethical question was ever raised by those editors with me, nor with any of my immediate supervisors.  Nothing of the sort was ever discussed or brought to my attention in any way, ever.  It.  Just.  Did.  Not.  Happen.

I was not fired at all.  In fact, because of more philosophical disagreements, I elected to leave the Sun voluntarily in November 1995, taking a buyout with about 120 other newsroom employees who were offered a year’s salary and benefits to leave the newspaper.  Further, when it became clear to the editors in question that I was determined to depart the paper, one of them, Mr. Marimow by name, came to me in the last hours of the buyout window and put a slip of paper in my hand.  It promised a $5,000 raise immediately if I would withdraw my buyout papers, and a second raise in the subsequent fiscal year.  I thanked him, but noted that my differences with him and with Mr. Carroll were not really about money, and I left the paper.

And yet, here I am in the Huffington Post today under the byline of Dr. Williams, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley:  “Thus did David Simon have his sweet revenge on the bosses who once fired him from the Baltimore Sun…”

Again, I conveyed all of the above corrective facts to Dr. Williams and her publisher both, in writing, by early April.  I wrote that they should look at the material and endeavor to do the proper and responsible thing.  I did not hear back from them.  I do not know if substantive changes have been made to the book manuscript.  I only know that I am nonetheless, in today’s published essay, someone who needed to be fired from his newspaper.

Being fired from any job certainly implies cause.  It is defamatory on its face.  And when a writer is informed in advance of the facts and chooses to publish such a claim regardless, it meets the definition for libel, and actionable libel even of a public person.

Today, I’ve written to my original contacts at Duke University Press, asking, in effect, what the fuck.  I also attempted to correct the record using the disembodied and bureaucratic uselessness that is the Huffington Post’s corrections and legal inquiry forms.  Nada.  No replies.   No follow through at all.  As of a few moments ago, the lie stands, comfortably, amid the warm breezes of a web where truth is always late to the picnic.

There is a presumption that the academy — with its research standards and its intellectual rigor — is ever superior to the slapdash, first-draft-of-history half-assedness that is daily journalism.  We made mistakes in print all the time.  Yes, we did.  But if someone sent me corrective material months in advance of publication and I still managed to print a libel without regard to that material, I would have been, well, fired.  And I would not have complained.

It’s carnival time

04 Mar
March 4, 2014

A carnival season memory from the other night:

I am walking with my daughter, just shy of four years, from what we know as the Sugar Store toward the Krewe D’Etat parade.  She has mango sorbet on the tip of her nose as she negotiates a fat cone of the stuff.  Three blocks away, the drum tattoo of a high school band gives way to a passing float and the throw-me-something cheers of a crowd.

She squints down the block, sees the lighted float cruise through.

“We missed that one.”

“There’ll be another.  It’s a long parade.”

“Okay.”

Long pause.

“Can everything stay just like it is now?”

“What do you mean?”

She examines her sorbet cone, then looks directly at me.

“Everybody dies.  You’re going to die.  One day I’m going to die.”

My breath leaves me.  Try explaining the ultimate tragedy of life to a four year old.  Try doing it without falling back on the tropes and cliches of theology.  Try telling the truth at this moment. I don’t even know how to begin.

Instead, a calico  bounds off the porch of a shotgun double.

“Oh look,” she says.  “A kitty cat.”

And she rushes toward it, laughing.

*   *   *

Happy Mardi Gras, everyone.

 

Bill Moyers, for a second bite of the apple.

30 Jan
January 30, 2014

The only plausible means by which a mook with a C+ grade-point average from a state university and fifteen years covering a second-tier rust belt city can be shaved and shaped into a crude approximation of a public intellectual is to be interviewed by Bill Moyers.  I was interviewed by that gentleman today, for a second time, about a good many things.  And I know, from my first experience with Mr. Moyers and his team, that I will somehow emerge sounding almost coherent.

For one thing, his raw interview is, by design, quite long, but then edited carefully and judiciously by the Moyers team, leaving behind the useless asides and sentence fragments, the staggered brain farts and half-considered rhetoric—and highlighting instead the core arguments and premises.  This contrasts with bite-sized interviews that begin and end with a provocation or two, or worse, some long and belabored discussions that require viewers to endure every tangent and marginal aside.  The Moyers process also avoids the savage carvings of the ideological inquistor; he is as professional as journalism gets.

What I am saying, I suppose, is that good editing is the great unseen craft of prose journalism, of documentary, of drama, and indeed, all narrative.  At this, Mr. Moyers and his people are masterful and honest.  I haven’t seen the interview, but I’m guessing, based on past experience, that it bears a good chance of actually conveying some of what I do actually mean to say.

You may disagree with that content.  And despite the care that the Moyers crew takes to hone and preserve the core discussions in these interviews, you may nevertheless find me to be an insufferable idiot.  I won’t argue the point here except to assure all that in lesser hands, my performance would be worse.  Certainly, if I make no sense in this format, then there is little hope indeed.

To that end, I’m posting this preview clip and mentioning that the full interview will be available online shortly, and those interested can get showtimes and channel info by following this link: http://billmoyers.com/schedule. And I am also thanking these folks for their attention to some of my arguments and interests, and to say that we could do worse as a nation than to have all of our political discourse addressed and coalesced and considered by Bill Moyers.  It might not solve anything in the way of any actual argument, but hey, we could all go to sleep at night pretending to be much smarter than any of us actually are.

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