American journalism: The thought police

Years ago, pre-GPS, my wife and I hiked up to Upper Holland Lake in the Seeley Swan area of Montana. It is a loop trail, and once up there we were a little lost, and could not find the trail down. It was counter-intuitive. We had to go in the-opposite direction as the one we thought, and just trust that somehow the trail would lead to the right place. It did, and in so going we went through a narrow passage, and once through the whole of the Seeley Swan Valley opened up to us. On the other side lay the Mission Mountain Wilderness. It was breathtaking.

Monty commented below that I don’t get many comments here, and most seem to come from two sources. True enough. It reminded me of another aside remark by a Bozeman friend, that most people don’t get what I’m talking about most of the time. It’s not that I’m dense or unable to communicate, but rather that I am at a place that most people never get to. Take that for what it is worth – self-praise or sad truth, most people just don’t get it. I ain’t that smart, but I ain’t stupid either. My life’s wanderings have taken me to places I never intended to go, and I have come to view American life and politics in ways that most people cannot comprehend.

I wrote a few days about about Russ Baker’s book, Family of Secrets. It’s a typical American exposé – thorough and documented, and ignored in all the right places. People exposed in the book merrily go on about their lives without scrutiny by either legal authorities or “journalists.” They are in power, and so are shielded from close examination. It is the ones who are curious who are first marginalized, and then punished if necessary. Thousands of books like Baker’s have been written over the years. They are a side-car to the American experience – real history tagging along with formal history, one true, one bullshit; one taught in schools, the other learned in real life, and then only by the curious, who are few in number (and not employed by universities or newspapers).

I was premature in writing about Baker’s book. I had about fifty pages left and thought what was to follow was predictable. It was, except for pages 491-494 – his conclusion. It is powerful, and not at all attending to the subject matter of the book, but rather about the transformative experience that a few of us undergo. He looked into one small aspect of American life, and started digging. He was persistent and not willing to settle for pat answers, and the valley opened up and all of American politics and business, journalism and law become visible. It was quite the opposite of beautiful.

Sometime if you are in a book store, take a minute and read Baker’s concluding four pages.

Were it not for W. and his self-dramatizing swagger, his blustery excesses, and his cavalier indifference to the havoc he wrought, I might not have asked myself how such a man became president in the first place.

His inquiries led back to ‘Poppy’ Bush, George H.W., and that to Prescott, and he began to realize that the narrative of our history is not as formally recorded. Baker is curious about JFK and Watergate and our love affair with the Saudis, but there’s plenty to go around. Discovering real history, or at least realizing that we don’t know real history (or current events), is a major step forward.

Baker sees now what he did not see when he first began to scratch beneath the festering open sores of “W.”:

Presidents have a lot less power and independence than I have assumed. Party affiliation is not a major factor in this regard.

Initiating reforms or standing up to powerful interests can invite retribution of a kind I had not imagined*. Presidents are subject not only to pressure but also to entrapment, blackmail, and even, in one way or another, removal.

The constant recourse to the “lone wolf” theory to explain assassinations and comparable national traumas is not only empirically challenged by also represents kind of a large scale cop-out. At what point, I wondered, is it permissible to doubt the assassinations of both Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King Jr. – all of whom challenged the status quo in significant ways – were the result of independent actions by three “crazed loners”?

At this point Baker understands the force at play that regulates the behavior of historians and journalists … fear of ridicule. He was warned by people looking over his work to avoid this or that idea … he was running into the path of automatic marginalization.

And the media were not just enabling these efforts; they are complicit in them – not least by labeling anyone who darted to subject conventional views to a fresh and quizzical eye as a conspiracy theorist.

There are boundaries to permissible thought that are strictly enforced in our society, and they are so ingrained in us that we police ourselves. We are not unlike the Soviets of old in that regard, except less heavy-handed. We are rigidly censored in thought, but instead of a Politburo tending to our straying into thoughtcrime, we police ourselves. I ran into an example of this just yesterday – these are words by Jeff at his blog, Speedkill. He’s smart guy and good writer and all, and is talking about the death of Chalmers Johnson:

I remember not being impressed with [Johnson’s 2004 book] Sorrows [of Empire]. That’s probably a function of what I wanted out of it: a good argument that there was such a thing as an American empire. His definition was looser than mine was, so I wasn’t happy. Plus, he ventured awfully close to 9/11 conspiracy theory.

See how it works? Jeff is policing his own thoughts! He’s telling his mind “Don’t go there! Not allowed! Thought crime! Thought crime!

Getting back to Monty’s taunt yesterday, his ridicule that I only get comments from two sources that he regards as less than credible, I conclude that these two sources are, like me, men of their own minds who do not fear ridicule. I don’t agree with most everything they think about anything, but they do not fear the disapproval of the community, and so don ‘t have to self-police their thoughts in the manner of Monty and Jeff and so many others.

So if you’ve read this far, and if you’ve ever wondered why this place seems so odd to you, why it discomfits your serenity, that’s at least part of it – that you haven’t yet walked through that narrow passage to see the valley open up before you.

And likely never will.
*Are you listening, Julian Assange, Ward Churchill?

About Mark Tokarski

Just a man who likes to read, argue, and occasionally be surprised.
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3 Responses to American journalism: The thought police

  1. Black Flag says:


    Yes, such a journey is personal and I have found it is impossible to push people along it. You have to persuade them to follow you – and even then, you’re apt to have more disappointment then success.

    You point to the root – fear.

    Most people fear being different, fear being outside of the herd. They have good reason for it – for they have seen that those outside of the herd do tend to be attacked, killed and eaten.

    But a pundit described it like this: Zebra’s.

    They protect themselves by grouping in a herd where their mix of strips creates a visual jumble for predators. It is hard to discern any individual zebra.

    Those zebra’s that are at the edges are most likely to be targets.

    This strategy of hiding in the herd is very effective when under threat of a single predator.

    But when the attack is an entire pride of lions, things change dramatically.

    The best strategy here is flight.

    And being in the middle of the herd is a serious disadvantage. Being at the edges of the herd is where survival is now significantly more assured – where the animal can bolt and run toward unopposed territory. In the middle of the herd, there the animals are trapped and slaughtered.

    We must be careful not do condemn those that sit in the middle of the herd; they are doing the best they can to survive.

    We also must be brave ourselves and keep to the edges of the pack – to give ourselves the best chance of survival when the real, serious assaults begins.


  2. Jeff says:

    Mark, your comment about what I wrote doesn’t make sense. When I wrote that, I was still reading Chomsky and ZNet, and was outside the mainstream as far as foreign policy is concerned. I wanted to believe that we were empire; I bought the book specifically because I wanted a good case for it. I just didn’t find what I was looking for. And of course now, when I’m considerable more mainstream in my views, I basically agree with Johnson’s book that we’re an empire.


    • Mark T says:

      Wow. Blue bayou. It wasn’t about empire. Such names are given by people of the future to people if the past. I could care less, as citcumstaces bring empires to the fore, and not conscious effort.

      I quoted you because of your last line, which is in essence that Johnson came close to committing thought crime. We are to believe the official version of events for that day. Even to say, as I do, that it cannot be that pat and simple, is not allowed in our thought-controlled environment.


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