By Al Giordano
Oh, crap. Another year, another coup in Latin America. And while today's attempt by police forces in Ecuador went so far as to fire tear gas at elected president Rafael Correa, the military brass in the South American country have sided with the democratic order - its top general is on TV right now strongly backing the elected government - and this one isn't likely to go as well for the anti-democracy forces as last year's did in Honduras.
First, because the Ecuadorean people are far more advanced in social and community organization than their counterparts in Honduras were last year. Second, because the events last year in Honduras caused other center-left governments in the hemisphere to prepare for what everybody saw would be more coup attempts against them in more countries.
Additionally, we can expect in the coming hours that the police leaders responsible for todays events - you don't need to understand Spanish to get a pretty good idea of what went down this morning by watching the above video - will be rounded up and brought to justice, as would happen in any other country, including the United States.
But, kind reader, do you know why this is even happening? Because the same unholy alliance of Latin American oligarchs who can't stomach the rising wave of democracy in their countries - from the ex-Cubans of Miami to the ex-Venezuelans and others who have joined them in recent years - along with international crime organizations seeking new refuges and members of extreme rightist groups in the United States and elsewhere, saw their scheme work in 2009 in Honduras and took note of how quickly, after US President Barack Obama denounced the Honduras coup, his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began playing both sides of it.
It was this newspaper, through reporter Bill Conroy's investigations, that broke the story last August that the State Department-controlled Millennium Challenge Corporation had poured extraordinary amounts of money into Honduras in the months leading up to the June 29, 2009 coup d'etat. And in story after story, we demonstrated with documented fact how Clinton's Millennium Challenge Corporation went so far as to violate the ban on US aid to the Honduran coup regime. Clinton's later endorsement of farcical presidential elections and her over-reaching attempts to pretend nothing had happened in Honduras are precisely the signals that were received by today's coup plotters in Ecuador when they made a run at toppling the democratic government there.
At present, thankfully, the coup in Ecuador seems more likely to fail than to succeed. And there will be hell to pay for those behind it. But it didn't have to get that far. That only happened because, last year, the US Secretary of State pulled off a kind of "silent coup" in US foreign policy while her commander in chief was buried with the urgent domestic tasks stemming off economic collapse and, as everyone knows, small nations get little attention almost always anyway.
This time, the White House would do well to put a much shorter leash on its Secretary of State, because her horrendous and unforgivable anti-democratic behavior regarding the Honduras coup only fueled, and continues to fuel, understandable speculation that if the United States doesn't walk its talk about opposing coups d'etat, then it must have been an active participant in plotting it. The mishandling of the Honduras situation last year did lasting damage to President Obama's stated hopes to turn the page in US relations with its closest neighbors after decades of abuse and neglect. A single misstep by Secretary Clinton today and in the future regarding the events in Ecuador, like those she repeatedly made regarding Honduras, now that the hemispheric coup plotters have moved from Central America to larger South America, will further erode the cause of democracy in the entire hemisphere. I don't trust her. Nobody south of the border does. And nor should you, Mr. President.
Update: Narco News has translated today's Statement from the Office of President Rafael Correa.
Update II: If it holds, this will be the first time in the history of the hemisphere that the Armed Forces of a country stood up against a coup d'etat from the first moment. Now, that would be democracy at work.
Update III: The situation in Ecuador today is further complicated by the disillusion that the very social forces that elected President Correa have with his actions in office. The CONAIE (Federation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) is the leading national indigenous movement with strong alliances with labor and other social forces) held a press conference today to say that it is neither with the police forces nor with President Correa. The CONAIE and its hundreds of thousands of participants is not only responsible for Correa's election, but its mobilizations caused the rapid-fire resignations of previous presidents of Ecuador in this century.
The situation thus also shines a light on the growing rift in the hemisphere between the statist left and the indigenous left and related autonomy and labor movements. The CONAIE is basically saying to Correa, "you want our support, then enact the agenda you were elected on." Whether one sees this as a dangerous game of brinkmanship or something that actually strengthens Correa's hand by placing him in the middle zone ideologically, it is worth seeing this at face value and beware of getting led astray by some of the usual suspect conspiracy theorists of the statist left who are predictably out there barking that the CONAIE is somehow an agent of imperialism, dropping rumors of US AID funding but never seeming to exhibit the hard evidence. Sigh. What Johnny-One-Notes! They wouldn't know nuance if it slapped them in the face. For them, you either line up lock-step with THE STATE (if it is "their" state) or you're a running dog of capitalism. That kind of Stalinist purge mentality should have died with the previous century.
The CONAIE's grievances happen to be very legitimate. Of course, they do not justify a coup d'etat, but the CONAIE is not participating in or supporting the coup d'etat. It is saying to Correa; we'll have your back, when you have ours. This, like the Armed Forces support for Correa, is also a historical first in the region. And the plot thickens...
Update IV: A boilerplate statement from the US State Department:
We are closely following events in Ecuador. The United States deplores violence and lawlessness and we express our full support for President Rafael Correa, and the institutions of democratic government in that country.
We urge all Ecuadorians to come together and to work within the framework of Ecuador’s democratic institutions to reach a rapid and peaceful restoration of order.
Now let's see if they walk that talk...
Update V: 9:30 p.m. Quito: Ecuadorean military troops have just rescued President Correa from the police hospital where he was sequestered all day. Looks like it was a pretty violent battle, but multiple media on the scene are reporting that the president is safe and the Armed Forces stuck with the democratic order.
By Al Giordano
For those Field Hands who don’t have our Narco News front page on your daily surfing rounds, you may have so far missed this new video, the latest from Narco News TV:
Reporting the constant daily spectacle of prohibition-related violence, massacres, beheadings, corruption and human rights abuses is probably what hell-for-journalists looks like (and since most members of the media are surely headed there, it’s going to be crowded): a permanent correspondent gig from Hiroshima, ground zero.
One has to keep a sense of humor in the gallows, and this video – already going viral (post it to your blogs, social networks, email lists and tweets, and send the link to all your friends!) – is just what the doctor ordered at this point in the winless “war on drugs” south of the border.
You may have also missed Erin Rosa’s scoop, Eye Scanners Being Tested Along the US-Mexico Border, or her appeal, Support the Newspaper that Encourages and Defends My Freedom to Report, or the appeal by Karina González, Proudly an Authentic Journalist. And there, you'll get a glimpse at the people behind this flagship of authentic journalism.
Or the link to the audiotape of yesterday’s Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC New York (NPR) in which author Charles Bowden praises the work of Narco News investigative reporter Bill Conroy: “I have no idea why the US press has ignored this. The sole source for covering this Bill Conroy of Narco News.” (And the interview is damn good for lots of other reasons, too.)
And the newest stop on your daily surf should be Narco News TV, which has been updated with five new videos since last week.
You could surf us all day long from your job site. See? We’re working hard so that you don’t have to.
Thoughts on the Open Letter by El Diario of Juárez to Narco-Traffickers
By Al Giordano
Publisher, Narco News
Not being a narco-trafficker, the recent open letter from the Diario de Juárez wasn’t addressed to me. Still, as a colleague in journalism who has long reported on the drug war, I would like to offer some thoughts, both for the editors that wrote it, and the rest of our colleagues in the media professions and especially for the general public.
Narco News today translates El Diario’s open letter, titled, “What Do You Want from Us?” which is addressed “To the leaders of the different organizations that are fighting for control of Ciudad Juarez.” It comes from a newspaper that has already lost two reporters to assassination and that lives under daily and nightly fear. The first human reactions to such a situation are sympathy and empathy. But in this case, as with most tragedies, caring is not enough.
The newspaper writes:
“All of you are, at this moment, the de facto authorities in this city, because the legally instituted authorities have not been able to do anything to stop our colleagues from continuing to die, although we have repeatedly called for them to act.”
This is interesting because in most of the world the legal private sector of business interests, particularly the corporate media, have become themselves a kind of “de facto authority” over public opinion and all levels of government. Seen in that light, one has to recognize that we in the media are not suddenly passive victims of the drug war that for too long has been ideologically bankrolled by the “reporting” of too many of our colleagues.
That early paragraph in the open letter can only further rarify the dysfunction and risk of violence through its implicit recognition of “instituted authorities,” meaning government and its police and military forces, as somehow being more legitimate than those of organized crime and narco-traffickers.
As we have reported at Narco News for more than a decade, governments and their policies of drug prohibition are not intended to eliminate illegal drug use or commerce, because government officials – including politicians and the banks and other business interests that finance them – are profiteering off the drug war just as much as the so-called (and misnamed) “cartel” leaders.
We will say it again: drug trafficking organizations are not cartels. We try not to use the term in this newspaper and here is why:
Here’s an example of a cartel: OPEC – the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. It controls the supply of a product – oil – and therefore can set the price. Narco-traffickers – even the most powerful among them – have never enjoyed that kind of control over the supply and price of cocaine, marijuana or any other product. It is much more the actions of governments that determine the price: More enforcement tends to raise the street price of a prohibited product, and less enforcement tends to lower it. That’s basic economics.
The higher the price, the bigger the profits, and a higher price also attracts more competitors trying to do business in that product. Those competing businesses – legal or illegal, that’s what this is, a business – have to establish and protect turf against each other in an unregulated market. The more enforcement, the greater the necessity for drug trafficking organizations to arm up with more lethal weaponry; but that presents no problem, really, because greater enforcement brings them the greater profits (through the artificially increased price of the drugs) so that buying and creating entire arsenals of guns and other weapons simply becomes a percentage of the cost of doing business.
The “drug war” of Mexican President Felipe Calderon may be the most obvious example of how government, police and military officials, themselves involved in the illegal drug trade, use drug laws as a pretext to eliminate the competition to open the markets and the shipping routes to their own favored narco-trafficking organizations: the ones that offer the authorities and their preferred narco-bankers the bigger slice of the profits.
And most of the profits come not from the sale of the drug but from the laundering of the billions of dollars in proceeds by banks and other financial institutions to turn the dirty money into legal capital. That means that the real kingpins of narco-trafficking are not the ones fighting the street wars against each other or against the police and military. They’re not the guys with fancy nicknames like “Lord of the Skies” or the recently arrested “La Barbie.” The real bosses of the illegal drug trade wear suits and ties, give big donations to all the political parties and their candidates, and get invitations to state dinners from Los Pinos to the White House.
Those are the real narco-bosses atop this violent food chain (and when this newspaper and the Mexican daily Por Esto! reported the photos and eye-witness testimonies about one of them back in 2000, we quickly found ourselves defendant in a libel suit filed by the National Bank of Mexico, or BANAMEX; so, yes, we know from long experience what the colleagues at El Diario and others are going through.)
“Follow the money” is often cited as the first axiom of journalism, a phrase made famous in the Hollywood movie about the Watergate scandal and the two Washington Post reporters who uncovered it. Well, if journalists took those words as something more than a cheap self-important slogan, the daily drug war coverage would be about banks and politicians and big-money moves on Wall Street instead of this circus-like “coverage” about so-called “cartels” and their alleged leaders, arrests, seized kilos and street violence, most of which involves no more than taking dictation from prosecutors and government officials, their press releases and anonymous “leaks.”
Think about it: the most powerful drug-running organizations – governments – have set the tone, the language, the sensationalist buzz words and the matrix by which most of the press covers the “drug war.” If you’re a street level drug dealer or a leader of one of the competing illegal drug trafficking organizations, the headlines in most of the media are probably pissing you off daily. The hypocrisy is so great as to be enraging, even if you’re not involved in the drug business but simply hate it when big lies get repeated over and over again, louder with every day’s broadcast, and especially when it causes so much human pain, misery, death and destruction.
While some honest reporters have been assassinated or live under daily threat for their reporting on the drug war, let’s state the dirty little secret of the official “press freedom” organizations that participate in this charade while fueling the false drug war narrative: It is also the case that many of the assassinated “journalists” lost their lives because leaders of one drug organization perceived – many times accurately – that journalist or news organizing as having chosen sides and doing the propaganda work of a competing drug organization. Media outlets that accept “official information” from government agencies about drug “cartels” and their leaders, in the eyes of those illicit businessmen, cease to be civilians and become just as much soldiers in the drug wars as the guys on the street with AK-47s.
The dangerous situation for honest and dishonest reporters, editors and media organizations alike is made worse by another dirty little matter: It is not uncommon – in fact, it is standard operating procedure – for “reporters” and their editors to accept payments and bribes from crime organizations and from government officials to spin their stories in the ways their secret sponsors want. Again, these corrupt “journalists” are no more civilians than the police or military official that accepts payments to enforce the law against one group of people in order to help a competing crime organization. And too many of the “assassinated journalists” in the drug war, in Mexico, in Colombia and elsewhere, lost their lives precisely because they had ceased to be journalists and had become partisans and soldiers of competing narco-trafficking interests.
Even when direct financial payment is not made, every journalist knows that documents and other information are the currency by which we rise or fall in this profession. Government officials have long owned and controlled the reporting of many journalists by spoon-feeding them the documents that will tell a story as they want it to be told.
A case in point: In the 1990s, when the office of Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo wanted to eliminate some competing politicians in his own party, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), they gave a set of documents to then New York Times reporter Sam Dillon – according to the reporting of national columnist Carlos Ramírez – which were then turned into “investigative reports” in the Times and submitted by the newspaper as nominees for the Pulitzer prize in journalism. The reports tagged the competing politicians as narcos, of course.
The documents handed over to the Times – we don’t believe much “investigation” was involved; we view it as more a case of receiving documents and typing them up into Timespeak - told a partly true story about one corrupt politician – then governor of the state of Morelos – while it fabricated a wholly false one about the other, Manlio Fabio Beltrones, today a possible 2012 presidential candidate in Mexico who has obviously weathered the PR storm. After the NY Times played its role as Zedillo’s spectacular hit man, Beltrones lawyered up, sent the documented facts showing the libels committed by Dillon’s story, and the Times filed an unprecedented correction of its own Pulitzer winning story. (The Pulitzer committee, meanwhile, has no process to withdraw an award once given, so Dillon can still crow to whoever is unlucky enough to be seated next him on an airplane about an award that those few who pay attention to these things see as deeply tainted).
But, really, what is the difference between a reporter publishing falsified “news” from official sources meant to take out a hit on competing interests in exchange for a “big scoop” and possible awards and career advancement, and one who accepts a bribe of money? Official and corporate journalism in the twenty-first century has itself become a form of racketeering. Couldn’t it be said that the big media companies are more “News Cartels” than any crime organization ever will be a cartel of anything? And for those who are, again and again, on the receiving end of these informational hits, it is not only enraging, but understandably difficult to see the participating journalists as anything other than legitimate military targets. I’m not defending these acts – I don’t believe in death penalties for any crime – but nor am I, as an authentic journalist, going to play along with the false narrative that all the journalists who have been assassinated in Mexico or elsewhere were slain because they were honestly telling the truth.
There is even a commonly used street term for the bribe received by a journalist from a government official or business interest: El chayote, named for a food (one of those which some call a vegetable and others call a fruit, so I’ll just call it a food). And the corrupt reporters who receive these bribes are nationally known as chayoteros. Like US dollars, chayotes are green and spiny.
In the first years of Narco News, it probably wouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that we were approached a number of times by people we reasonably believed might be intermediaries for different drug trafficking organizations, offering gifts of expensive ads on our pages for unnamed legitimate companies. “We don’t accept advertising,” I replied.
“But don’t you want money?” was the typical response. “Couldn’t you use it to further your cause?”
“Sure, but not that kind of money, because it comes with strings attached.”
I would typically give what I call “the Godfather speech” to these presumed intermediaries. It went like this: “Tell your boss that we appreciate his respect and we mean no disrespect by turning down the offer. Of course we have also heard of the ‘silver or lead’ stories where journalists or public officials are first offered money and next threatened with bullets if we don’t do as asked. If that is the case, just send someone over to kill me, right away, because we’re never going to take advertising or any other money meant to influence our coverage. But also please tell your boss that we think it would be an error to kill us because he now knows we won’t do it for his competitors either. We’re the ones telling the whole truth about government involvement in the drug trade and our editorial policy favors legalization, so that their children and grandchildren can grow up to be congressmen, judges, or even president: just like Rockefellers and Kennedys whose forefathers made their fortunes as alcohol traffickers.”
Pretty quickly word must have got around the narco-trafficking circles and there have been no attempts for many years to try and bribe us or threaten us from those corners. For more than seven years, not one. The real threats have always been from the likes of the bankers we defeated in the New York Supreme Court in 2001, and from government officials.
And, again, we’re not out there peddling the official version of the “drug war” story. And we are not recognizing the legal authorities as somehow “legitimate,” nor allowing our pages to be used to promote their narratives each day about the latest “cartel” or “kingpin” (who, over our ten years of intensely reporting the drug war in Mexico, Colombia and elsewhere, have changed names and faces so many times anyway that we already know that this year’s “kingpin” fed to the press by the “authorities” is next year’s prisoner or cemetery plot or missing person, only to be instantly replaced by the next one, so on and so forth). The only narco-trafficking organizations to have survived these ten years are the governments; the permanent “drug cartels.”
Journalists who report on the “drug war” can plainly see what the game is really about: Raising the price of the drugs to create higher profits, and installing favored crime organizations to control it while eliminating their competitors. And it has the added benefit of fomenting fear, because a public that feels afraid is an easier people to control.
The drug trade is a business, and the fact that it is illegal doesn’t make its underlying dynamics that much different from the businesses of newspapers, television and radio stations, or the rest of the private sector. If a reporter or media organization were to unfairly choose sides between one corporation against another, legal companies always have recourse to take it to court. But what recourse does a prohibited business have to redress its own grievances other than violence?
The drug war violence in Mexico is already so out of control and so dysfunctional that some honest reporters will continue to get caught in the crossfire and pay the ultimate price. That could be you, or me, or anyone else. But it is the dishonest reporters and news organizations, or the haplessly stupid ones, who really place all of us journalists at greater risk. They have caused the widespread public disrespect that exists toward our entire profession.
In that sense, leaders of drug trafficking organizations don’t really see things much different than the average man or woman on the street. You don’t have to love them or endorse their methods or their products to be able to get into their heads and pay attention to events as they probably see them. When they see a journalist doing the bidding for their competitors, often based on spoon fed “information” and leaks from government officials who are protecting their competitors and putting their businesses and lives in jeopardy, how many times can that happen before anyone in that position would start to see those “journalists” as soldiers in the opposing army?
That, in our studied opinion, is the root source of the growing threats against journalists in Mexico, in a climate already rarified by an illegitimate and failed state that has always been hostile to a free press. As a journalist, I would never call the cops or ask governments for protection. To do so would be to offer them a legitimacy they neither have nor deserve. And with all due respect to the colleagues at El Diario, their open letter at multiple points reads like an appeal to the government for help. That’s like seeking the protection of one mafia against another. And only makes it more likely that the competing forces will see them as not neutral in the war.
At Narco News, we’re not neutral either, but we are partisan in a very different way, and have always disclosed it: Our editorial position, stated since day one, opposes the drug war and its foundation of drug prohibition. That’s not exactly a position of guaranteed safety either, but at least if it comes to the point where one or more of us die for doing our jobs, we will have gone down proudly in a worthy struggle, and not for a pendejada of seeking fame and fortune by pulling off informational hits on one group of criminals on behalf of another, and certainly not in service to the biggest, really the only, drug cartels that exist: the governments that propagate these violent acts through a policy called prohibition.
And we cordially invite all our colleagues in the media to begin to see the problem for what it is: one of policy, completely reversible and preventable. And on the day when enough of us in the Fourth Estate cease doing the Official Cartel’s bidding in our reporting, drug prohibition will finally fall, as alcohol prohibition did before it, and peace and tranquility will be restored to our cities and towns. Meanwhile, it becomes harder each day to tell the civilians from the soldiers, as the official charade marches violently on…
By Al Giordano
It occurred to me around the time that Eastern European peoples were toppling their regimes by occupying the national TV station that the true seat of power is no longer located in the presidential palace or at city hall, but resides in the media. Today’s report by Fernando León and Erin Rosa in Narco News, Mexico’s Media Moguls Target Country’s Bicentennial, documents the latest example of that putsch.
And while our master plan to end world domination has gone swimmingly on schedule when it comes to taking down the print newspaper industry – see NYT’s Sulzburger – No Print Edition in Future (Deadline.com, last Thursday) – we have to admit that we haven’t been as successful when it comes to making cable news on the TV irrelevant.
Since none of the big TV media moguls were ever elected by anyone, we hereby declare ourselves to be one of them too! With the birth of Narco News TV - September 13, 2010, never forget! - we now have our seat at the table, too. More and more people get their video news, information and entertainment from Internet video (and think, it’s only been four years since the birth of YouTube) and now the opportunity expands to do to Fox News (and media companies like those we report about today in the story about Mexico’s bicentennial) and the rest of the screeching aspiring manipulators of public opinion the same thing we’ve done to the NY Times and the daily newspaper industry: replace them, one reader and viewer at a time, until they are gasping for their last breaths.
You may have already seen NNTV’s first report last month – Al Gore’s Mexican Adventure – and today we have another one for you, The Neighbors Who Blocked the Superhighway, about an inspiring David-vs-Goliath battle in which the folks of the La Malinche neighborhood in Mexico City have successfully blocked the destruction of their community for 49 days and nights now.
More NNTV reports are in post-production right now and will be on your screens any day now.
Plus, we’ve got a library of videos produced at the School of Authentic Journalism and by other friends of Narco News up at NNTV already, too. Flag this link into your bookmarks:
We will shortly have a feature in which you, too, can suggest videos for us to broadcast on NNTV, by simply pasting in the link. Or if you produce videos on any of our beats – from the drug war to Latin America to media criticism to politics in the US and across the hemisphere – and you’d like to premier one or more on Narco News TV, send me an email at email@example.com. (Oh my gawd, are Narco News internships next?)
Finally, as we roll out our arsenal for the fall season, it is also my pleasure to announce to you today that I’m moonlighting, starting today, for the most awesome media project in all of Washington DC: Wonkette. So if you see a hot story that needs very much to be made fun of, also use that email address above to bring it to my attention. My first entry for the Wonketeers, Hillary Celebrates Mexican Bicentennial by Declaring War on Mexico!, went up this morning (their comments section, like ours here, is part of the show, too). And with it I’ve also entered the profession of Blingee designers, which Wonkette publisher Ken Layne taught me is the modern-day descendant of Diego Rivera's wall murals, only the wall is the entire Internet, and one doesn't have to have actual, um, talent with a paintbrush to paint.
Still, we’ll keep grinding out the yardage of authentic journalism here at Narco News and at The Field and, now, at NNTV. Drop a little coin into the cup if you can: we’re doing an awful lot with a precious little these days. And enjoy your new excuse to goof off at work: Narco News TV!
By Al Giordano
September 11, 2001, was a defining moment for those of us who are authentic native New Yorkers.
But not in the way that many people think.
Sometimes my West Coast friends ask me to critique their artwork or their song or their prose. They say, "You're from New York, you won't lie to me like these California hippies who say everything is great and then trash talk us behind our backs." And they're right. If it sucks, I'll tell you it sucks. And if I say it's good, that's because it is great.
And you know what else sucks, kind Field Hands? Everything that is going to happen today in the name of my town is going to be ridiculous, my homeland to which I would like to return to someday, but not until that day when we will take it back.
I would like to share with you what I wrote in response to September 11, in October of 2001. I published it in The Nation, because Narco News back then still had fewer readers than The Nation. Now I pretty much only write for Narco News, because, well, the people who make history happen - you know who you are - are here in greater numbers than anywhere else on the Internet. You are the future.
We'll be back to our regular programming by Monday, but for today I wish to share something from the heart with you. My thoughts in the autumn of 2001, which are still alive today. Edelweiss:
Never Shut Up, New York
The courage of New York firefighters was honored during the "Concert for New York" at Madison Square Garden on October 20, and David Bowie noted the privilege he felt to play for his "local ladder" heroes, who step into danger to save innocents and extinguish fires. Among the entertainment all-stars present, the actor Richard Gere didn't merely talk or sing about courage: He did something brave.
Gere knew what he was stepping into. Five days prior to the concert, he had been slapped by The New Republic and its adolescent "Idiocy Watch" column for using words as inappropriate as "love and compassion" and speaking of the "negative karma" of terrorists. At the concert, Gere steered clear of any reference to his well-known Eastern religious tendencies, but he did repeat the newly explosive Western expletives. He seemed to anticipate, anyway, the boos that hailed down upon him from many of the 20,000 seats. His response was decidedly different from that of Sinead O'Connor, who had once burst into tears upon being jeered at a 1992 MSG all-star show. The officer and gentleman of the silver screen utilized the rejection artfully, like an expected stage prop, to remark that it is the same "love and compassion" that the firefighters demonstrate when saving lives. "That's apparently unpopular now," Gere closed, implicitly acknowledging that booing is, too, a form of speech, "but that's OK." It was a classy New York minute.
It took guts for Gere to turn the hose of his art upon the flames of wartime in a crowded arena. In that, he deployed a decidedly New York weapon: Speech.
New York City's historic refusal to shut up is now one of the national treasures that some newly minted sunshine patriots wish to bulldoze under the rubble of Lower Manhattan. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer lectured that we must "watch what we say" after the September 11 attacks, and even some journalists--formerly the warriors who defended free speech--have signed up as speech cops. As the networks obey federal "requests" to deny airtime to Osama bin Laden, some journalists have argued that Al Jazeera, the Qatar TV network, should be censored too. CNN sent six questions to bin Laden but roared that it will air the responses only if they are "newsworthy," while a Fox news official criticized CNN for even asking the questions. TheNew York Times and an illustrious media partnership spent a million dollars to recount the Florida 2000 presidential vote but have now bounced the project from public view on the grounds that the results--the elite of the Fourth Estate, alone, have seen the data--might have "stoked the partisan tensions," according to one Times reporter. (This suggests that the next Daniel Ellsberg may have to leak documents from inside the Times rather than to the newspaper.)
Is all this watching of what we say really how we are supposed to honor our dead in New York? Is that the way to pay our respects in the city that never sleeps nor shuts up?
Before speech becomes a "quality of life crime," artists and communicators are going to have to face the crowd, as Gere did, employing all the creativity and chutzpah we can muster. The changing political landscape is not entirely negative for this effort: The imminent exit of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani--he was pro-censorship before censorship was cool--further heightens the unpredictability of the drama now under way. To shut up or not to shut up? That is the question. It's up to you, New York, New York. To wit:
New York's greatness was not built of "tower(s) to the sun, brick and rivet and lime"--but by the likes of Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney, penning "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" in the wake of the last huge disaster to hit the nation through New York: the Great Depression. The Broadway show for which they wrote the song, New Americana, lacked paying customers, had to close its doors, and the cast was laid off. Two days later, in October 1932, Bing Crosby went into a New York studio to record that protest and lament. It became the number-one song of the year as it lifted the hearts of down-but-not-out Americans higher than any elevator could ever take us.
Now, in place of the authentic one, we're being fed a virtual New York: that of Gordon Gekko snarling from virtual Wall Street, "When I get ahold of the son of a bitch who leaked this, I'm gonna tear his eyeballs out and I'm gonna suck his fucking skull"; of Rudy Giuliani poking around the rubble looking for his unconstitutional term extension and for sheiks to scapegoat for the loss of liberties that he was already busy eliminating himself; of Donald Trump calling for us to build new phalluses into the sky where David Rockefeller's twin vanity towers stood; and of New York bankers lobbying in Washington so that the hunt for the terror money trail looks under every rock except theirs.
The Jets and the Sharks were street gangs in Hell's Kitchen who danced and sang in rhyme. Our reality was portrayed through utopian vision. In recent decades, virtual chic displaced all suggestion of Utopia-on-the-Hudson, evicting or jailing the hardscrabble Jets and Sharks alike. New York--indeed, all America--no longer reflected a dream but rather a sterile "economic opportunity." Now Boeing jets crash into towers and White House sharks seize upon the pain and fear of millions to install a New World Order that attempts to bury the Authentic New York in its censorious wave--the City of Speech; of workers, of poor folks, of artists and immigrants and utopian dreamers (there's a place for us, somewhere a place for us!), the people who built this city, whose uniting quality is precisely the refusal to shut our mouths.
Being a New Yorker has become, in this era, something akin to being a Vietnam veteran: Nobody who wasn't there wants to see what you've really seen or hear what you've really heard. Authentic New York--transgressive, messy, noisy, never particularly loved by so many of those who today advocate war in its name--had to be filtered by its artists, creamed and sweetened for world consumption; in songs from the Brill Building, from Broadway, and from the Bowery and Bleecker--hold the sugar--where the late Joey Ramone sang about turning tricks for smack at 53rd and Third.
Audible New York was brought to the screen by Lithuanian immigrant Asa Yoelson, a k a Al Jolson, who as The Jazz Singer headed to Broadway and ad-libbed for the camera: "You ain't heard nothin' yet," thus laying waste to the silence of film.
From a cabin on Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx, Edgar Allan Poe heard "the loud alarm bells, Brazen Bells! What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!... Too much horrified to speak, they can only shriek, shriek, out of tune.... How the danger sinks and swells-by the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells..."
From Harlem, Langston Hughes asked, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?... Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?"
New York is where Allen Ginsberg saw the best minds of his generation "destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night."
New York is not a skyline; but it is Emma Goldman standing up to declare, "If I can't dance I don't wanna be in your revolution." New York is Ring Lardner Jr., the Daily Mirror reporter, blacklisted, imprisoned for refusing to snitch during the red scare, the Hollywood Ten screenwriter who wrote A Star Is Born and M*A*S*H, thirty-three years apart. And authentic New York is Leonard Alfred Schneider, a k a Lenny Bruce, shouting, as they dragged him in and out of New York courts, "in the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls," who died in 1966, convicted of obscenity, of not watching what he said.
New York is also John Peter Zenger, who 266 years ago dared to call the Colonial Governor an "idiot" and a "Nero"--imagine, at a time like that!--who was charged with libel for his seditionary patriotism. And New York is, above all, The People, the jury that disregarded the judge's instructions and acquitted that 34-year-old printer.
Now I hear Poe's bells every time I turn on the TV or pick up the newspaper, "too much horrified to speak, they can only shriek, shriek, out of tune," and I think of Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
From there I can see Our Lady of Mercy Hospital--it was called Misericordia when I was coaxed into the world at that spot--and I can touch the grave of my great grandfather, a construction worker from the hills outside Naples. There, I will sit silently to listen over the rustle of autumn leaves for the eternal speech from 350,000 tombs of my fellow New Yorkers, native and imported, who, even in death, demand that we never fall silent. They include: Irving Berlin; Duke Ellington; Bat Masterson; Sir Miles Davis; Maximillian Berlitz; George M. Cohan; W.C. Handy blowing his trumpet; Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes (who spoke out against the first red scare hysteria, of 1919); Oscar Hammerstein still humming the New York folk song "Edelweiss, Edelweiss, bless my homeland forever"--it was not in fact Austrian--which he wrote knowing that he was dying; the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton; the Cubist Alexander Archipenko; the Bulova brothers making time tick; "Madame C.J.," the first black millionaire, and her daughter A'Lelia Walker Robinson, whom Langston Hughes called the "Joy Goddess of Harlem"; Herman Melville; Elizabeth Cochrane Seamans, a k a the authentic journalist Nelly Bly; Joe Pulitzer; Otto Preminger (Batman's Mr. Freeze); the Harlem blackbird Florence Mills; the publisher Generoso Pope Sr.; Antoinette Freauff Perry, immortalized by an award named Tony; Henry Gaylord Wilshire, for whom the LA boulevard is named but who got no rest in Hollywood, so he came to lie in New York; the rapper Christopher "The Big Pun" Rios, who died last year at 28; Anton Kliegl still shining his lights; second baseman Frankie Frisch--the Fordham Flash--resting now at home plate. Fiorello La Guardia--the florid-tongued New York mayor who stood up against anti-immigrant hysteria, reminding, "my dog came from a distinguished family tree, but he was still a son of a bitch"--is buried here too; so is Joseph "King" Oliver, the jazz pioneer, and Rudolph Schaeffer pouring a beer.... This is a crowd, like that on any other block in these five boroughs, that couldn't agree on lunch. But one sacred mission united them over the expanse of generations: to never shut up in New York.
More than 4,000 New Yorkers joined the Woodlawn 350,000 on September 11. We're each going to join them sooner or later. But authentic New York, the City of Speech that survived a revolution, a Great Depression, and two red scares, history's grand engine of free-speaking culture, will survive this hit too-if, and only if, we refuse to remain silent about anything and everything at this hour of moral crisis. Start spreadin' the news...loudly and without biting your tongue: New York shall rise again, not through war, but by speech.
By Al Giordano
The Gallup polling company, which set off a week's media cycle of Chicken Little squawking among Democrats - and triumphant drape-measuring by Republicans - in the US with its August 30 declarations about a supposedly "historic" advantage for the latter party in the upcoming Congressional midterm elections, is now walking it back.
The August 30 tracking poll - picked up almost universally by political pundits and bloggers as the supposed narrative for 2010 - showed Republicans with a ten percentage point lead on the generic question of which party voters will vote into Congress. The narrative was: This year we're gonna party like its 1994! I, and others, tried to explain at the moment that the poll looked and smelled like an "outlier," divergent with the results of the aggregate of fresh polling data available. But pundits are pundits and chickens are little on any day of the year, and so they had quite the week in the henhouse.
Well, lo' and behold, some seemed to forget that those numbers were from a tracking poll, which means another one would come out in a week and make the last one yesterday's news. And guess what? Today's Gallup tracking poll on the generic Congressional ballot suggests an abrupt turnaround, with party preferences dead even at 46 percent apiece.
Don't believe that either. Republicans probably still enjoy a five or six point advantage that falls naturally to the party out of power on midterm election years. And they'll likely pick up a couple dozen House seats and a half a dozen in the Senate, short of the majorities they covet. But this little adventure in media and blog spasm in response to one week's tracking poll results tells us plenty about the behavior of the political commentary class: always willing to take the smallest factoid of supposed data and blow it up into a platform on which to lecture the White House and everyone else about what it is supposedly doing wrong. ("If only the President had listened to ME," is how most of the commentary can be translated, "the sky wouldn't be falling.")
By now the expectations have risen so high among Republicans that if they fall short of taking back control of Congress the heads will be rolling on their side of the aisle, with finger pointing and blame game galore. It doesn't take a degree in political science to know who will be their scapegoat: GOP chairman Michael Steele. (Kids, can any of you explain to the class why it will be him?)
Truth is, the political season has only just begun, post Labor Day in the US. And there is many a slip twixt the cup and lip yet to come. I've been crunching numbers on US House races and here's another interesting piece of data that keeps coming up: in about 75 percent of the closely contested ones, the Democrat enjoys a significant fundraising advantage over the Republican. There are exceptions, of course, but that's why political reporters are supposed to exist, to inform you as to where the holes in a story line can be found. What is clear is that nobody's been asleep at the wheel over at the HQ of the party in power. They've been moving the pieces quietly around the chess board all summer long.
This week's Gallup tracking poll, while it has the horse race pulled even, still has twice as many Republicans telling pollsters that they are "enthusiastic" about voting as Democrats who say that. But I suspect that's more a commentary on the personality traits on each side than an outcome determinative factor. Voting is like going to the dentist. Hard to be enthusiastic about it, but if the tooth aches, one goes anyway.