By Al Giordano
From September 2007 to August 2009 I crossposted 26 of my stories to The Huffington Post, mostly about US politics. Most of those stories were cheerfully featured by HuffPo editors on their publication's front page. But, as time went on, I grew uncomfortable with how that website was transparently becoming more and more sensationalist, cult-of-personality generated, and with my sense that it was pandering to panic and poutrage in order to boost hit counts, and so I lost interest in posting there anymore.
Well, now we can see why HuffPo went in that direction.
After reading media accounts last night that Arianna Huffington had sold her online publication to America Online (AOL) for $315 million US dollars, I woke up thinking, "oh, my... and now an association with the mega-corporation AOL is going to be imposed on me?"
Not so fast.
This morning I dug up my old HuffPo password and logged in to the control panel, where I was greeted with this breathless spin:
EXCITING NEWS - The Huffington Post has been acquired by AOL, instantly creating one of the biggest media companies in the world, with global, national, and local reach -- combining original reporting, opinion, video, social engagement and community, and leveraged across every platform, including the web, mobile, and tablets. Our bloggers have always been a very big part of HuffPost's identity - and will continue to be a very big part of who we are. The HuffPost blog team will continue to operate as it always has. Thank you for being such a vital part of the HuffPost family - which has suddenly gotten a whole lot bigger.
(As author and sole owner of the words in this story, I did not write them for AOL, and do not wish to have any association with it imposed upon me. The original text may still be found at http://narconews.com/thefield - Al Giordano, February 7, 2011)
By Al Giordano
This is the week when we've been poring over completed applications for the 2011 School of Authentic Journalism that will convene in May in Mexico City. Applications for those 40 scholarships were due last Sunday, and very soon we'll be contacting the scholarship recipients and introducing them to all of you.
This year we received an unprecedented number of applications from "the other hemisphere," particularly from Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Asia. And some of those folks will indeed be coming to Mexico in May. But with civil resistances rocking the Mediterranean in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, the demand among journalists, independent media and video makers, bloggers and communicators to better understand the strategic dynamics of social movements, and to advance their skills at doing authentic journalism, is so great that we've added a four-day workshop coming up in March in Madrid, specifically for colleagues reporting in that region. And since we can't bring so many superb colleagues to the Mexican mountain, we've decided to move the Mexican mountain closer to them!
The support and partnership of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict has made our first European workshop on Citizen Journalism and Civil Resistance possible, to be held March 20 to 23 in Madrid. Applications are due on Monday, January 31 (and these applications are shorter than the extensive School of Authentic Journalism application). You're invited to apply whether or not you have already applied for the j-school (being accepted for one does not preclude being invited to both). So don't be shy. And maybe we'll see you in March, in Madrid...
Hope to see you there.
By Al Giordano
A moment from the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism in Mérida, Yucatán, México: Jim Lawson, right-hand strategist for the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., meets legendary Mexican journalist Mario Menéndez Rodríguez and his family, prior to a plenary session of the School. DR 2010 Noah Friedman-Rudovsky.
The door is still open, but it will close on Sunday, January 23, at 11:59 p.m. (Pacific Time).
That’s when completed applications are due to be eligible for one of 40 scholarships to attend the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, May 11-21, in Mexico City and environs. This ten-day intensive training program is open to anyone of any age (previous scholars have aged from 17 to 65), from any land, as long as you are fluent in either English or Spanish. You can read more about this unparalleled program, its faculty, and curriculum, at this link.
We have so far received requests for applications, as always, from throughout the Americas, from Canada to Cono Sur. We’re also seeing more and more this year from Africa, Asia, Europe and Australia (we’re especially impressed by the quantity of requests this year from Northern Africa, the Middle East and Mediterranean Europe, as our newspaper, which reports mainly events in the Western Hemisphere, was not very well known in that part of the word until apparently recently). It’s clear that the hunger and thirst for a more authentic journalism to replace the commercial media has become global. And we’re doing our best to meet the challenge.
This will be the fourth School of Authentic Journalism. Here’s how it works: Nobody pays tuition. Scholars receive training in online reporting, investigative journalism, viral video production and, this year’s theme, Movement Strategies for Journalists, because reporters that understand the underlying strategic dynamics of how political and social change is made are better, and more accurate, journalists when it comes to reporting those stories.
Scholarship recipients that wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend are also helped with their travel costs, food and lodging. We’re not looking for participants – like too many other “educational institutions” – on the basis of their ability to pay, or whether they’ve attended elite universities, or, frankly, any college at all. To the contrary, we seek you out on the criteria of your work ethic, talent, social conscience, and our sense of whether you’ll keep doing the important work of authentic journalism after the school session is over.
Nothing is so satisfying to us than to watch our graduates out in the world doing good work daily, whether its Ansel Herz, still in Haiti one year after he was caught in the earthquake there, continuing to offer the beacon light of truthful reporting that the international commercial media has abandoned in that land. Or Katie Halper, exposing the hypocrisies in US politics with insight and humor, like Ansel she’s a graduate of the class of 2010. And speaking of good humor, documentary and viral video filmmaker Greg Berger (class of 2004, now a professor at the j-school; his most recent work to go viral is the Spring Breakers Without Borders video, which educates about the drug war in Mexico as it parodies its root causes and consequences) has written you a letter today asking your support to keep the School and Narco News alive. Like many graduates, he’s become an important part of our year-round team. And it’s of course very inspiring to see the role that Natalia Viana, in Sao Paulo, Brazil (class of 2004, also a professor, now), has taken on in becoming the go-to journalist on all matters surrounding the storm around WikiLeaks and the defense of its press freedom.
I could go on and on singing the praises of so many who have come through the School of Authentic Journalism program. And I’ll probably be doing that for the rest of my life, because every generation of j-school graduates excels and advances and builds upon the successes of its predecessors. It’s a school that also builds leadership, as many of the graduates return to teach what they’ve learned to newer students.
And so, if you’ve thought about applying for the School yourself, or know someone who you think should apply, this is a reminder that you have ten days left to obtain and complete your application. These are ten days that, depending on whether you do it or not, can open many, many doors to you and your work, and open new doors for all of us, to be able to count with you as part of our growing international network of Mutual Aid among independent and authentic journalists. It’s a long application, so don’t dawdle: It’s not the kind of thing you can “phone in” at the eleventh hour. It’s a different kind of application, for a different kind of School that seeks a different kind of student and journalist.
For an English language application, write to email@example.com. For a Spanish language application, write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Get it done by deadline, January 23: these are ten days that could shake your world.
By Barack Obama
(Remarks and video of the President at the January 12 memorial service for those slain by a gunman's bullets on Saturday in Tucson, Arizona. If you missed it, I strongly recommend you watch it...)
To the families of those we've lost; to all who called them friends; to the students of this university, the public servants gathered tonight, and the people of Tucson and Arizona: I have come here tonight as an American who, like all Americans, kneels to pray with you today, and will stand by you tomorrow.
There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole torn in your hearts. But know this: the hopes of a nation are here tonight. We mourn with you for the fallen. We join you in your grief. And we add our faith to yours that Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the other living victims of this tragedy pull through.
As Scripture tells us:
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
On Saturday morning, Gabby, her staff, and many of her constituents gathered outside a supermarket to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and free speech. They were fulfilling a central tenet of the democracy envisioned by our founders - representatives of the people answering to their constituents, so as to carry their concerns to our nation's capital. Gabby called it "Congress on Your Corner" - just an updated version of government of and by and for the people.
That is the quintessentially American scene that was shattered by a gunman's bullets. And the six people who lost their lives on Saturday - they too represented what is best in America.
Judge John Roll served our legal system for nearly 40 years. A graduate of this university and its law school, Judge Roll was recommended for the federal bench by John McCain twenty years ago, appointed by President George H.W. Bush, and rose to become Arizona's chief federal judge. His colleagues described him as the hardest-working judge within the Ninth Circuit. He was on his way back from attending Mass, as he did every day, when he decided to stop by and say hi to his Representative. John is survived by his loving wife, Maureen, his three sons, and his five grandchildren.
George and Dorothy Morris - "Dot" to her friends - were high school sweethearts who got married and had two daughters. They did everything together, traveling the open road in their RV, enjoying what their friends called a 50-year honeymoon. Saturday morning, they went by the Safeway to hear what their Congresswoman had to say. When gunfire rang out, George, a former Marine, instinctively tried to shield his wife. Both were shot. Dot passed away.
A New Jersey native, Phyllis Schneck retired to Tucson to beat the snow. But in the summer, she would return East, where her world revolved around her 3 children, 7 grandchildren, and 2 year-old great-granddaughter. A gifted quilter, she'd often work under her favorite tree, or sometimes sew aprons with the logos of the Jets and the Giants to give out at the church where she volunteered. A Republican, she took a liking to Gabby, and wanted to get to know her better.
Dorwan and Mavy Stoddard grew up in Tucson together - about seventy years ago. They moved apart and started their own respective families, but after both were widowed they found their way back here, to, as one of Mavy's daughters put it, "be boyfriend and girlfriend again." When they weren't out on the road in their motor home, you could find them just up the road, helping folks in need at the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ. A retired construction worker, Dorwan spent his spare time fixing up the church along with their dog, Tux. His final act of selflessness was to dive on top of his wife, sacrificing his life for hers.
Everything Gabe Zimmerman did, he did with passion - but his true passion was people. As Gabby's outreach director, he made the cares of thousands of her constituents his own, seeing to it that seniors got the Medicare benefits they had earned, that veterans got the medals and care they deserved, that government was working for ordinary folks. He died doing what he loved - talking with people and seeing how he could help. Gabe is survived by his parents, Ross and Emily, his brother, Ben, and his fiancée, Kelly, who he planned to marry next year.
And then there is nine year-old Christina Taylor Green. Christina was an A student, a dancer, a gymnast, and a swimmer. She often proclaimed that she wanted to be the first woman to play in the major leagues, and as the only girl on her Little League team, no one put it past her. She showed an appreciation for life uncommon for a girl her age, and would remind her mother, "We are so blessed. We have the best life." And she'd pay those blessings back by participating in a charity that helped children who were less fortunate.
Our hearts are broken by their sudden passing. Our hearts are broken - and yet, our hearts also have reason for fullness.
Our hearts are full of hope and thanks for the 13 Americans who survived the shooting, including the congresswoman many of them went to see on Saturday. I have just come from the University Medical Center, just a mile from here, where our friend Gabby courageously fights to recover even as we speak. And I can tell you this - she knows we're here and she knows we love her and she knows that we will be rooting for her throughout what will be a difficult journey.
And our hearts are full of gratitude for those who saved others. We are grateful for Daniel Hernandez, a volunteer in Gabby's office who ran through the chaos to minister to his boss, tending to her wounds to keep her alive. We are grateful for the men who tackled the gunman as he stopped to reload. We are grateful for a petite 61 year-old, Patricia Maisch, who wrestled away the killer's ammunition, undoubtedly saving some lives. And we are grateful for the doctors and nurses and emergency medics who worked wonders to heal those who'd been hurt.
These men and women remind us that heroism is found not only on the fields of battle. They remind us that heroism does not require special training or physical strength. Heroism is here, all around us, in the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens, just waiting to be summoned - as it was on Saturday morning.
Their actions, their selflessness, also pose a challenge to each of us. It raises the question of what, beyond the prayers and expressions of concern, is required of us going forward. How can we honor the fallen? How can we be true to their memory?
You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations - to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we've seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems. Much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.
But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized - at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do - it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.
Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, "when I looked for light, then came darkness." Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.
For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man's mind.
So yes, we must examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future.
But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.
After all, that's what most of us do when we lose someone in our family - especially if the loss is unexpected. We're shaken from our routines, and forced to look inward. We reflect on the past. Did we spend enough time with an aging parent, we wonder. Did we express our gratitude for all the sacrifices they made for us? Did we tell a spouse just how desperately we loved them, not just once in awhile but every single day?
So sudden loss causes us to look backward - but it also forces us to look forward, to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us. We may ask ourselves if we've shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives. Perhaps we question whether we are doing right by our children, or our community, and whether our priorities are in order. We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame - but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others.
That process of reflection, of making sure we align our values with our actions - that, I believe, is what a tragedy like this requires. For those who were harmed, those who were killed - they are part of our family, an American family 300 million strong. We may not have known them personally, but we surely see ourselves in them. In George and Dot, in Dorwan and Mavy, we sense the abiding love we have for our own husbands, our own wives, our own life partners. Phyllis - she's our mom or grandma; Gabe our brother or son. In Judge Roll, we recognize not only a man who prized his family and doing his job well, but also a man who embodied America's fidelity to the law. In Gabby, we see a reflection of our public spiritedness, that desire to participate in that sometimes frustrating, sometimes contentious, but always necessary and never-ending process to form a more perfect union.
And in Christina we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic.
So deserving of our love.
And so deserving of our good example. If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost. Let's make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.
The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives - to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let's remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud. It should be because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other's ideas without questioning each other's love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.
I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here - they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.
That's what I believe, in part because that's what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed. Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation's future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.
I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us - we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.
Christina was given to us on September 11th, 2001, one of 50 babies born that day to be pictured in a book called "Faces of Hope." On either side of her photo in that book were simple wishes for a child's life. "I hope you help those in need," read one. "I hope you know all of the words to the National Anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart. I hope you jump in rain puddles."
If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today. And here on Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit.
May God bless and keep those we've lost in restful and eternal peace. May He love and watch over the survivors. And may He bless the United States of America.
By Al Giordano
"Too often we honor swagger and bluster and wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. Some Americans who preach nonviolence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them. ..
"Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.”
- Robert F. Kennedy, April 5, 1968
He spoke those words a day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, two months and one day prior to his own death from an assassin’s bullet.
Forty-three years later, little has changed in the essence of the American character, except that technology, and in particular, media, have ramped up the echo chamber that takes a violent act in one corner (Memphis, Los Angeles, Tucson) and brings such tragedies and traumas at higher speed and reverberation to every TV room, every workplace, every school, every home, and to the inner dialogue of every lone individual seated at a computer screen or listening to the car radio or consulting his and her mobile device from a million points on the GPS map.
Previous, more intimate, ways of processing national traumas – a conversation with a loved one, a hug for a confused child, the act of stepping out into the evening for a breath of fresh air, a knock on a neighbor's door, a phone call to a confidante, or the rush to a bathroom, nauseous – increasingly have given way to more mechanized and automated reactions. Today, instead or reaching out for physical and verbal human contact, so many of us metaphorically shoot our tears or vomit all over Twitter, Facebook, blogs and online comments sections, like a message in a bottle from a desert island, seeking some kind of response or assurance.
Having been a child during the Kennedy and King assassinations, an adult during that of Lennon and the attempt on Reagan, having reported the Oklahoma courthouse bombing of April 1995 and its political consequences (which similarly came after Republicans had taken the US House of Representatives, and echoes perhaps the loudest among past traumas regurgitating themselves today) and, of course, that freshest of national traumas, the events of September 11, 2001 – a date when a child was born only to be gunned down in a Safeway supermarket in Arizona on January 8, 2011 – I, like so many of you, have lived these and other similar histories.
Honestly, I can’t say that I’ve been very proud to be an American, or a liberal (or a progressive, or whatever the word-du-jour is for a gringo that says he is opposed to the right wing) in the past 48 hours. And that’s because what I’ve mainly heard from so many who describe themselves as of the “left” since the Arizona shooting reminds too perfectly of the reaction of the “right” to the events of September 11, 2001, and, precisely, of Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleisher’s infamous scoldings at that moment that, quote, “There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that. There never is.”
(Fleischer was responding to cable TV comedian-turned-pundit Bill Maher’s critique of mechanized technologies of war, although nobody remembers that as much as we remember Fleischer’s official response.)
Back then – only a decade ago – it was the American right that seized upon the traumas caused by the 9/11 attacks to demonize, intimidate, silence and attempt to censor those they perceived as rivals: All of Islam, Iraq in particular, and, at home, anyone who would openly disagree their own ideologies and dogmas, especially liberals or those uncomfortable with war. Leaders of the religious right went so far as to blame the events of 9/11 on abortion and sexual promiscuity, and so many others tossed their own “pet issues” into the mix. When trauma turns to fear, the masses are so easily manipulated, as every aspiring tyrant of any ideology has always known. The political environment created during the Bush administration (and its willing lackeys in the commercial media like the disgraced Judith Miller, then of the New York Times, manufacturing false “evidence” of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq) led to two wars and multiplied the human suffering and death toll from thousands to millions because in an age of advanced technology the axiom of “an eye for an eye” quickly leads to “a thousand eyes for an eye.”
Much ado has been made in recent hours about Sarah Palin’s map that expressly “targeted” Arizona US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ district, and others, with graphic gun sights, and also of Palin’s (and others’) ham-handed attempts to “scrub” her own images and statements from the Internet, as well as similar use of lock-and-load ballistic language by Republicans, including by the 2010 campaign rival of Giffords who, contrary to the initial hurried media reports, still lives (for now) after a bullet went through her brain on Saturday. And, yes, all such propaganda was and is stupid and reckless, bad speech that can only be countered by good speech.
And certainly there is truth to the statement by Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik after Saturday’s shooting in his county: “I'd just like to say that when you look at unbalanced people, how they are—how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths, about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
And yet the existence of good and decent Arizonans like Sheriff Dupnik, like Congresswoman Giffords, like the heroic intern Daniel Hernández and others at the scene of the crime who saved her life and subdued the shooter, also cuts against liberal bigotries and prejudices that arise when the word “Arizona” rings like Pavlov’s bell and liberal dogs begin to salivate so smugly that they are superior to conservative canines. The self-satisfied belief by so many coastal and urbane and “educated” Americans that they are superior to other countrymen and women not like them has been pricked once again by human events.
But if I had a nickel for every Facebook status update I’ve seen in the past two days directly calling Palin the “assassin” and saying, without a hint of nuance or irony, that “hate speech” caused the violence in Tucson, I might be able to buy Zuckerberg out and put the entire social network out of its misery. To this came the predictable calls to legislate or outlaw said “hate speech,” like that of US Rep. Bob Brady (D-Pennsylvania) who is getting media attention by announcing he’ll introduce legislation “making it a federal crime to threaten or incite violence against a member of Congress or a federal official.” (Interestingly, when Hugo Chávez backed similar laws in Venezuela, the US media called it an attack on free speech and democracy, which either it is or it isn’t in either country, but it can’t be one thing in Venezuela and a different thing in the United States, can it? How about, say, in Iran, where dissidents by the thousands shout “death to the dictator” from rooftops at nightfall? Is that "hate speech" that the State is justified to punish?)
Of course, the delicate matter of who decides what constitutes a threat or incitement to violence is the 900-pound gorilla in any such attempt to legislate what can or can’t be said. In that sense, Brady and others beating that drum are the 2011 versions of Ari Fleischer of 2001. Please, just look in the mirror: Have the past 48 hours turned you, too, into a "liberal" version of Ari Fleischer?
Jack Shafer at Slate – whose first instincts on matters of speech are almost always the best instincts an American can have – decries, “The awesome stupidity of the calls to tamp down political speech in the wake of the Giffords shooting," in his essay, yesterday, “In Defense of Inflamed Rhetoric”:
“For as long as I've been alive, crosshairs and bull's-eyes have been an accepted part of the graphical lexicon when it comes to political debates. Such "inflammatory" words as targeting, attacking, destroying, blasting, crushing, burying, knee-capping, and others have similarly guided political thought and action. Not once have the use of these images or words tempted me or anybody else I know to kill. I've listened to, read—and even written!—vicious attacks on government without reaching for my gun. I've even gotten angry, for goodness' sake, without coming close to assassinating a politician or a judge…
“Any call to cool ‘inflammatory’ speech is a call to police all speech, and I can't think of anybody in government, politics, business, or the press that I would trust with that power.”
Within weeks of the September 11 tragedy, I wrote similar thoughts in The Nation (“Never Shut Up, New York,” November 5, 2001), pushing back against efforts by the Bush administration and the media to silence dissent, wielding that moment’s trauma as its bludgeon. How heartbreaking to see, today, some of the same people who cheered that defense of speech against right wing efforts advocating to quell it now promote silence and censorship if inflammatory speech comes from the right instead of the left!
The national left-vs.-right political dysfunction in the United States has been on full display since Saturday. It’s so palpable that when Keith Olbermann, on Saturday, offered a nine-minute commentary on MSNBC, eight minutes criticizing the speech of right wingers like Palin, one minute of introspective self-criticism over times his own passions had caused him to say inflammatory things he now says he regrets, and zero minutes criticizing “the left,” that the reaction from many self-proclaimed “left” circles was to accuse him of stating “false moral equivalencies.” The vested interest among many of pinning the alleged homicidal acts of 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner on Republican politicians and their partisans reveals, I fear, more worrisome impulses among the accusers than among the accused. It is too many "progressives" today, revealing that their sense of politics is no more than another version of "an eye for an eye," the same as when it comes from their conservative adversaries.
While any good newsman or blogger knows that seizing upon a national trauma leads to greater attention, ratings and hit counts, there was no way I was going to write anything here about the tragic events in Arizona on Saturday until enough facts were in to understand who likely did the shooting and; in what context? Political assassination is like a Rorschach print: It brings out the presumptions and prejudices of all of us. If we imagined, in that first moment of learning about the shooting, that it was a “tea party” member, or an anti-immigrant hater behind the trigger, how would that make us any different than others whose heads conjure images of a Mexican or a black man anytime a gun goes off in America? It is at those moments when we come face to face with our own inner cauldrons of bigotry and stereotypes. These should always be learning moments first, and teaching moments only after such introspection.
A couple of days later we know that the first reports were errant: Rep. Giffords is not dead, as originally reported: she’s alive and struggling to survive. Jared Lee Loughner didn’t have an accomplice (some poor innocent cab driver with the bad luck of having dropped Loughner off at the crime scene had his photo posted all over the Internet and TV news for almost 24 hours with the inference that he was sought by the Feds as part of some violent conspiracy). And what of Loughner’s “political” ideas?
I wonder what our interpretation of previous national traumas had been like if Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, Sirhan Sirhan, Squeaky Fromme, Mark David Chapman, John Hinkley, Jr. – or even further back in history, say, John Wilkes Booth – or if the 9/11 hijackers had offered YouTube and MySpace or Facebook pages that revealed something of their inner thoughts to the world. (Heck, I don’t discount the possibility that we may have found out one or more of them indeed were patsies to a larger conspiracy, but that is water long over the bridge, impossible to solve at this late date, and not the topic at hand, anyway, so please spare the comments section from those time worn debates.)
Loughner posted his “favorite books” to his YouTube page. Among them he included Mein Kampf (proof that he’s a right winger!) and The Communist Manifesto (oh, wait...), as well as Orwell’s 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, among others: something for everyone that wishes to tag a violent act on a political cause to imagine as his ideological inspiration to murder.
As Laura Miller points out:
“By studying Loughner's book list for clues to the political leanings that somehow ‘drove’ him to commit murder, commentators are behaving a lot like crazy people themselves. Paranoids are prone to scouring newspaper articles and the monologues of late-night comedians for imaginary coded messages that confirm their ‘secret knowledge’ about the world. But those coded messages aren't there -- it's just random stuff with no special significance. The truth about mental illness is that it strikes without regard to political affiliation or ideological orientation, and it turns beautiful minds into nonsense factories. We can debate a social order that allows its victims access to firearms and talk about finding better ways to intervene before the minority of mentally disturbed individuals with violent impulses are able to act on those impulses. But trying to find the cause for this disease in politics, ideas or books is just plain nuts.”
So, what, if any, was Loughner’s much sought out “motivation” to unload a Glock full of bullets in a Tucson supermarket Saturday morning?
A childhood friend offered this testimony to Mother Jones magazine, telling the story of how, in 2007 (before he or any of us had heard the name Sarah Palin or of a right wing “tea party”), Loughner attended a public meeting at which Rep. Gifford invited constituents to speak with her about their concerns and issues. What was the heated political issue that burned in Loughner’s gut? Read on, kind reader:
“’He told me that she opened up the floor for questions and he asked a question. The question was, 'What is government if words have no meaning?'’"
“Giffords' answer, whatever it was, didn't satisfy Loughner. ‘He said, 'Can you believe it, they wouldn't answer my question,' and I told him, 'Dude, no one's going to answer that.'’"
There’s no small amount of irony in the deluge of preachy lectures today that “words have meaning” (and therefore, as Fleischer said ten years ago, we should “watch what we say”) when the alleged assassin’s most important question to his Congresswoman was “What is government if words have no meaning?”
According to his friend, Loughner felt he did not get a good answer out of his member of Congress and held a grudge for more than three years. Interestingly, his friend, added:
“After Loughner apparently gave up drugs and booze, ‘his theories got worse… After he quit, he was just off the wall.’"
(So much for the next favorite scapegoat of Americans seeking to attach blame behind a crime.)
The most interesting statement by Loughner’s friend came in his analysis if what, he thought, Loughner was trying to accomplish with an act of spectacular violence:
“He wanted the media to freak out about this whole thing. He wanted exactly what's happening. He wants all of that."
So, if you’ve been freaking out and stoking the media storm, Loughner apparently didn’t kill in vain. You’ve, in a way, vindicated him, become his unwitting accomplice, at least in his confused view of the cosmos. That, according to his friend, was his goal:
"He fucks things up to fuck shit up, there's no rhyme or reason, he wants to watch the world burn. He probably wanted to take everyone out of their monotonous lives: 'Another Saturday, going to go get groceries'—to take people out of these norms that he thought society had trapped us in."
And yet, to the contrary, as with all acts that can be deemed political violence, or violent acts that impact politics whether or not influencing politics was their goal, Saturday’s violence in Arizona did not take people out of their norms, but, rather, firmly calcified existing norms and patterns around them.
And so now, too many liberals and progressives have become the new Ari Fleischers, the new Speech Cops, accusing people who may or may not inspire crimes of being guilty of them (in this case, given the facts now at hand, the suggestion that Loughner killed because he was influenced by some 2010 Republican campaign propaganda fades from credibility as the real facts sink in).
Are some doing it because they’re so shallow and unthinking that they really believe it? Most, I fear, do it cynically out of an attempt to score political points, yet they are the kinds of “points” that score only among the most weak-minded among us, making the accusations pure demagoguery whether of the right or of the left. (From a community organizer's perspective, I ask: What is the strategic goal of pushing this message? What do its proponents realistically think it will accomplish? Do they think it will turn middle America against the GOP? It might scare some, temporarilly, as the Clinton administration's similar propaganda campaign accomplished after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, but such results, history demonstrates, are short lived and fleeting.)
This is not a defense of Palin and her disgraceful ilk, nor of right wing whackos that go around speaking of “Second Amendment solutions,” nor am I saying that words don’t have consequences.
If I didn’t strongly believe that words cause actions, I wouldn’t bother to write.
I’m also a student of what some scholars call psychohistory, and was very influenced by Lloyd DeMause’s work, The Assassination of Leaders, which very much explains how psychologically disturbed individuals have so regularly throughout history been influenced in their violent acts by the messages and images in the media and elsewhere that feed fantasies of regicide and homicide. (These are not, by the way, "political" messages with ideological or partisan content, but much deeper psychological triggers that go beyond politics, right or left.)
But in a 24/7 media environment in which we are barraged by violent news stories, in which the high ratings go to TV dramas and movies about cops and robbers and serial killers and sex crimes and terrorists, and in which the entire game of “politics” has been turned into a schoolyard spat of “he did it first, so now we’ll hit back,” it seems to me a very slippery slope – one that can quickly backfire on its adherents – to try and pin the Tucson shooting on Republicans and their whacked out violent images and words.
Let me conclude by demonstrating how a very similar set of circumstances could have just as easily turned against “the left” (more often, these kinds of events do) as it turns against “the right” today:
Remember when, as a presidential candidate in June 2008, after he became the presumptive Democratic nominee, Barack Obama said, of the Republicans, said, ““If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun”?
What if, shortly after that, a Jared Lee Loughner type had gunned down a Republican member of Congress, along with constituents, a federal judge, a child born on September 11, 2001 and others in a Safeway supermarket somewhere in America? Who would be scrubbing their websites then? And which side would be making the over-the-top accusations of which political faction was somehow responsible for that tragedy?
Just because “they” do it, does not mean “we” advance our cause by doing the same. To the contrary, “we” (I put the word in quotation marks because I really don’t consider myself part of those who are saying “we” at this moment) are fueling the national dysfunction by behaving like “them.” And it is that national dysfunction that breeds insanity and violence from the synergy and dynamics afoot between “right” and “left” in their media-fueled dance steps, more than either side would be able to do it alone.
Finally, I’ve also observed in recent days that some of the loudest partisan yelling against Republicans over the Tucson tragedy has come from that same sector of self-proclaimed “progressives” that just last week (and likely, next week, too) would post Facebook updates along the lines of “Obama = Bush” and utilize “inflammatory” language (as is their right) against the US president and his policies. Yet, imagine how Saturday’s violent events would have played out had, say, John Ashcroft been Attorney General at this moment instead of Eric Holder? At least now we’ll probably get an accurate accounting of the facts as federal law enforcement authorities find them.
But in this tit-for-tat, in the he said-she said, ratings-charged media world of accusations and counter-accusations, self promoters, opportunists, Chicken Littles, manipulators and manipulated, somebody has to step forward and ring the bell – just as Robert Kennedy did 42 years ago after the King assassination – to point out the obvious: There is a deeper societal sickness underlying these events, and the media (and social media) responses to them. Has so little really changed since 1968?
And I would make an educated guess that the person who will step forward and seek out our better selves to make a better sense of this terrible act of violence will likely be that very same President Barack Obama. But unlike the screamers (the manipulators and manipulated, both), he’ll wait until sufficient facts are in, as I have done here, before rushing to speak about it. In that sense, I still identify more with him as a person – as critical as I’ve been and remain of many of his policies – than I do with some “activists” and “progressives” whose mouths and keypads today make me shudder with the memory of Ari Fleischer and the Speech Cops of 2001.
Oh, no, I’m not making a case of “false moral equivalency.” To the contrary, I’m saying that the voices of blame and scapegoating coming from “our” side this weekend have been more hypocritical, from people who ought to know better, and therefore morally worse. If we don’t expect better from our own selves, what moral high ground can we possibly ever claim? And what is the strategy behind it anyway? Is it to intimidate and censor political adversaries, Ari Fleischer style? Or is it just to vent any old thing on a public stage to deal with the trauma of the moment? Go ahead and vent. But if there's not a strategy behind it that really works beyond temporary blips in the polling data, it's just feeding the dysfunction, and bringing the next violent and traumatic act in this eye-for-an-eye drama series one step closer.
By Al Giordano
Your correspondent was four days off the airplane in July 1997, a 37-year-old gringo navigating Mexico City with a Spanish-English dictionary in one hand and a map in the other and arrived at the city square, El Zócalo, at the six p.m. hour. From there, the Todo Para Todos (“Everything for Everyone”) caravan would leave for somewhere in the mountains of the Mexican Southeast, and I had signed up to go with them to Zapatista territory in Chiapas.
The chilangos (Mexico City dwellers) in charge of the caravan, like many urban folks all over the world, talked fast, very fast, and communicating with them in my barely existent Spanish while having to consult the dictionary, I’m sure, was as much a pain in the neck for them as it was difficult for me. I was quickly reassigned from the main bus carrying most of the caravanistas – heading to the indigenous rebel town of Oventik, to conduct work projects in solidarity with the then-three-year-old revolution – to a covered pick-up truck. The driver, an older man named don Miguel, welcomed me and my dangling cigarette with two words, which he spoke in English: “No Smoking.”
The folks in the truck were not chilangos, they were country people, from the provinces of Mexico, and thus spoke slower and more understandably for this gringo and his dictionary appendage. They did not seem as bothered as the city slickers by their new companion’s difficulty with the language and his foreign ways, and seemed to view me as, at least, a source of entertainment and someone to laugh at during what was then a 22-hour trip out of Mexico City through the states of Mexico, Puebla, Veracruz, Oaxaca and its Isthmus of Tehuantepec and finally winding through the mountains of Chiapas to get to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, where we would receive training and instructions for how to conduct ourselves on Zapatista lands. Today, there are new highways and the same trip takes just fourteen hours, but the old route offered a much better look at the towns, flora, fauna and humanity along the way than any highway can possibly reveal.
My efforts to steal a quick smoke during every pit stop made my pickup-truck hosts uproarious with laughter. We’d pull into a PEMEX gas station and don Miguel would make hand gestures with the sound of a big explosion to portray what would happen if I smoked near the gas pumps, and so I would trot over to the roadside to light my cigarette. It was an all night drive and I barely remembered that there was also an elderly guy who was sleeping in the back of the truck while I was doing my best to communicate with, and not be an annoyance to, don Miguel and don Tacho and other solidarity volunteers in the front two rows of seats of the truck.
In the mountains of Oaxaca the winding road went through various tunnels and at one point a rainstorm made it difficult to see more than a few feet ahead. Don Miguel stopped the vehicle inside one of those tunnels and I quickly jumped out in need of nicotine. While fumbling through what was then a 45-cent pack of Faros cigarettes, the truck suddenly began to pull away, and I went running after it yelling, first in English, then in bad Spanish. Miguel quickly realized he had left the gringo behind and put on the brakes as I ran to catch up. When I got back in, Miguel and Tacho and the others were laughing their asses off. As we emerged from the tunnel – the rain had already stopped – Miguel smiled and said, “You’ve just been through the tunnel of time!” And they laughed some more.
Daylight hit somewhere along the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and during a brief pitstop this curious little man – about four-feet-eight-inches tall – emerged from the back of the truck. He inspected some banana trees by the side of the road and looked at them with big eyes, motioning to me and saying something I didn’t understand while touching the long green leaves. That was my first encounter with don Andrés, who then invited me to the back of the truck with him, where I could chain smoke with his gracious permission.
In trying to talk with this seemingly ancient being I kept apologizing for my bad Spanish. He put his finger over his mouth and said not to worry, that it was his second language, too. Empathy was not something I had yet experienced as a gringo newly in Mexico. I thought it inspiring that an eighty-something farmer from somewhere North of Mexico City would want to make this long voyage all the way to Chiapas to be with the Zapatista rebels, but I didn't yet know why.
For the next three weeks I followed don Andrés around like a puppy dog while everyone around us – about fifty caravanistas, and a village of a few hundred indigenous Tzotzil men, women, children and elders – made regular comments about the old man and his “gringo son,” usually while laughing, which I never knew if it was at me or with me.
One day don Miguel came to me and said that he and don Andrés were heading down the mountain into San Cristóbal for a meeting with Bishop Samuel Ruiz, and would I like to join them? The Bishop – one of the pioneers, since the 1940s, of the Liberation Theology movement, and the one that historians wrote had invented its branch of “Indigenist Theology,” was one of the major personalities of the saga between the Zapatista rebels and the “evil government,” as they called it, of Mexico, often a mediator and a big part of what had been signed, two years prior, as the San Andrés Peace Accords for indigenous autonomy.
Bishop Samuel received my new friends warmly, and treated don Andrés with great deference, like a visiting head of state. When we left the meeting I asked don Miguel, pointing to don Andrés, “Who is this guy? The Bishop seemed in awe of him.” Miguel just smiled. Returning to the pickup truck, Miguel reached for a large overstuffed envelope and pulled out a series of press clippings, with photos of the founding of the Indigenous National Congress which had don Andrés at the side of the Zapatista Comandanta Ramona and other native leaders in the rainbow colors of distinct traditional clothing of their peoples.
And so I finally realized that this very old guy whom I had been with for the past three weeks, the one who was nicest to me and least bothered by the ways in which I was different and foreign was also apparently a big fucking deal in the modern history of Mexico. And yet, to me, he was already something else: my first real friend in a new and unfamiliar country.
When after almost a month it came time for Miguel, Andrés and company to return home while I would remain behind in Chiapas, I had to fight tears while saying goodbye, worrying that I’d never see this special old man again, and we parted ways. He was 87, after all, and how much longer could he possibly live? Two hours later, walking through the streets of San Cristóbal, I turned a corner and there he was again! Don Andrés, with Miguel, still collecting rations for their long trip ahead, and there I got the idea that “goodbye” just wasn’t something to be said yet with the elder. I considered it a good omen that we would meet again.
Over the following years, don Andrés and I traveled together – usually with don Miguel and his truck – through a dozen Mexican states, stopping to visit elders of indigenous groups who were part of the Congress with him: Otomi-Nañu, Mazahua, Purépecha, Zapoteco, Mixteco, Huichol, Amuzgo, Maya and of course the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojolabal and Chol of Chiapas. Around 1999, don Andrés took me to Jalisco for a peyote ceremony led by Emerson Jackson of the Dineh (Navajo) peoples of the American Southwest, where I was pressed into service as a translator between the English-speaking indigenous leader and the Spanish-speaking attendees; a task in which the physical and mental effects of the ceremonial and hallucinogenic cactus seemed to make easier, not harder, interestingly, and, besides, my Spanish – which don Andrés so patiently had shepherded in its earliest days – was much more fluent by then.
Don Andrés ninetieth birthday was celebrated in November of 2000 in my home which was then in an indigenous town of Central Mexico. It was in that little house that Narco News was born. Some leaders of the Indigenous National Congress trekked many hours to be there and salute to the health of their eldest member. There, I read him my first poem in Spanish, “Mi General,” the term with which I addressed him so many thousands of times over these years.
In 2003, don Andrés was a professor at the first Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, in Mérida, Yucatán and on the isle of Isla Mujeres. There, don Andrés met and chewed coca leaf with the Bolivian indigenous leader Felipe Quispe – El Mallku, or Great Condor – as well as Alvaro Garcia Linera, now vice president of Bolivia, as well as students and professors from many other lands. He invited one of the students, Ava Salazar, back to his town of San Bartolomé, Guanajuato, who would later marry his grandson, Juan, and have two of don Andrés’ great grandchildren, born in the USA.
When don Andrés and I would travel together, people would tend to stop and stare at this little man, on the street or in the markets, and when those passersby were of the “hippie” or “New Age” tendencies they’d usually say something like, “Oooh, look at how his eyes shine! He must be a shaman!” And while it is true that don Andrés knew encyclopedias worth of things about medicinal plants and ancient healing practices, and he would indulge the strange philosophical and even self-help questions that strangers often asked him, Andrés never once claimed to be a “shaman” or “medicine man” or anything like that. To the contrary, he disliked such terms, almost revealing a fear of them, as if they carried the connotation of “witch” and anyone defined as such might be hunted down by an angry mob and burned at a stake. I had always guessed that he had lived long enough to see that sort of thing. From that, and from my experiences watching so many hucksters and fakers sell themselves to dewy-eyed tourists as such, usually with a fee or financial transaction involved, I concluded: Anybody who tells people he is a “shaman,” by definition, can’t possibly be one. Thank you, don Andrés, for that lesson, too.
At the end of so many days, in so many parts of his country, don Andrés loved more than anything to talk politics and strategy. We would sip mescal and speak late into those nights of the country’s social movements, their strategies, their tactics, often with other elders from other ethnicities, who seemed so much to enjoy the same. That was, I think, his greatest passion, formed by a lifetime of experiences, some of which you can read about in Erin Rosa and Fernando León’s profile of don Andrés on his hundredth birthday, a month ago.
A Mexican anthropology student, who had once witnessed some of these adventures, said to me, “Do you understand what access you have? Everybody in my school would die to have this kind of access.” I found her question both funny and sad. “What you call ‘access,’” I replied, “I call friendship.” And I remembered an afternoon in 1988, in the suburban Boston home of the Harvard botanist Richard Evans Schultes where he had granted me an interview about ethnobotany that ended up lasting eight hours. Schultes had “discovered” for the academic world various hallucinogenic plants and had lived with Amazon tribes in South America, one of which had inducted him officially one of its own, through a ceremony that involved pricking his finger and “sharing” his blood with that of the finger of a tribal elder.
Schultes told me, on that day, “A botanist or a zoologist has a big advantage over an anthropologist when among native peoples. The anthropologist is always asking silly questions like ‘Why do you braid your hair that way?’ And people generally respond to them, ‘Because we’ve always braided our hair that way.’ The anthropologist is always looking at these people as something ‘other’ than them. But a botanist or a zoologist shares an interest – plants and animals – with people in the jungle. And in the course of studying these things alongside of these people who are also interested in them, eventually it is the botanist – and not the anthropologist – who casually finds out, also, why the natives might braid their hair a certain way, along with so many more important things to learn.”
Between don Andrés and I, his “gringo sidekick,” as some mutual friends liked to say, I never saw him as an object to be studied. I just genuinely loved him and being with him and those long night sessions of talking politics, organizing and strategy. That was our “botany,” in Schultes’ terms, our shared interest, upon which our friendship grew.
Seeing don Andrés last November 30, on his hundredth birthday, was not easy for me. This great man – the littlest giant! – could no longer see, or hear. One had to shout in his left ear and then only sometimes he would understand what was said. At that moment he did know that there were young people around him so he sat up straight on what this first morning of 2011 would be his death bed and began making a speech to the young people, who he seemed to think were Mexican and seeking his counsel about migrating to the United States. He told stories of when he had worked picking cotton near Pecos, Texas, and the mistreatment of the migrant workers he had experienced, and issued stern warnings and dos and don’ts about how to behave “on the other side” of the Rio Bravo.
At one point, don Andrés asked the group around him, “Do you know my friend Alberto? Do you have news from him?” His son Pepe, his daughter Carolina, grandaughter Lupe, and don Miguel took turns shouting in his ear, “He’s here! Alberto is here!” But don Andrés didn’t hear them and kept asking for me as I sat there helpless to establish my presence. He soon grew tired and fell asleep, and we went out with his family to celebrate his birthday while he napped.
Hours later, he awakened, and we entered his room again. This time he could hear a little bit more when I shouted in his ear. This time he recognized my voice, said my name, and his eyes, already blind, got that big childlike stare that I first saw on that roadside in 1997 as he looked at the banana trees.
“Alberto,” he said, grasping my hand firmly, “I think it will be very difficult for us to see each other again.” And then he launched into a litany of questions about the Zapatistas of Chiapas, about other friends in other movements in other parts of the country. When I answered him, he was unable to hear my responses. I was glad he was unable to see my tears. Just as quickly, he fell back asleep.
A while later, don Miguel approached me to report that Andrés was awake again, and would I like to have my photo taken with him? No, I replied, I don’t want to remember him like this, so weak and helpless: we have so many other memories from when he was strong and sharp and ready to take on and defeat the entire establishment. And then I confided in Miguel that Andrés, in his way, had said goodbye, and that I didn’t expect him to survive the year. And we looked at each other helplessly, knowing there was nothing we could do to stop it.
Well, once again don Andrés has proved me wrong. He did survive all of 2010 and hung on until the earliest hours of 2011, when he checked out of this hotel called earth. He chose the seventeenth anniversary of the Zapatista rebellion to be his final moment among us. I would have so liked to have been able to tell him of the people’s victory, yesterday, in Bolivia, where after the social movements mobilized to repeal an 82 percent rise in gasoline prices, where President Evo Morales (and don Andrés old friend Alvaro) acquiesced to an organized people’s demands. But, in a way, yes, I’m quite sure don Andrés was there. Like Joe Hill, where people fight and organize, it’s there we’ll find don Andrés.
Goodbye, mi general.