I’m honored to announce that one of my first projects as Multimedia Editor of Jacobin Magazine is a companion video to “Class Action,” a critique of neoliberal education reform produced by Jacobin & the Chicago Teachers Union’s CORE Caucus.
I’m a bit late in blogging this news and now there’s only 10 hours left to back the project. Do it! Your money supports the printing of a full-color booklet documenting the destruction of America’s public schools currently taking place under the guise of “reform.” Copies will be given to unions & community groups to use for fundraising and organizing, but won’t be for sale online. But a $10 Kickstarter pledge gets you a physical copy. (My video will be available for free.)
The propaganda machine of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) is sophisticated and insanely well-funded, and has nearly succeeded in masquerading the gutting of our public school system as a “progressive” movement. The actual fruits of GERM include undermining teachers unions and democratic school boards through privately run charter schools; a counterproductive obsession with standardized testing and unidimensional “accountability”; and the shuttering of dozens of schools in cities across the country. The research supporting GERM ranges from non-existent to fraudulent. Rarely do these reforms benefit students, quite often the reverse, though the billionaires who fund the movement do stand to profit both directly and indirectly.
My video will be an attempt at a counter-narrative exposing the pernicious role that billionaire philanthropists and their foundations play in the “education reform” debate. The video will be based on an essay in the booklet by Joanne Barkan, who has done excellent reporting on the subject, and will feature images from Katrina Ohstrom of abandoned Chicago schools. This project is my first foray into the film essay, a form I’ve long admired. I hope I can do the material justice. Stay tuned!
2013: “Long Live Oregonians”
1967: “Girls Are Better Than Ever”
1949: “Exercise & Health”
Just noticed that the video I shot of the Modern Money Network’s MMT v. Austrian School debate was linked to in the New York Times. Unfortunately, the article it accompanies, a profile of Warren Mosler, is a bit of a hatchet piece, though no worse than you’d expect from such an outlet. And they published it on July 4, not exactly a day folks are eager to watch a two hour debate on macroeconomics.
Unless you are sympathetic to Austrian economics, I recommend Warren Mosler’s seminar with Stephanie Kelton over the debate for a (less painful) introduction to MMT:
[Update 5:40pm: edited “CIA” out of the title because I totally missed the context that the CIA in this article refers to a private group (albeit one which directly funded government programs) called the “Committee for Immigrants in America.” The Central Intelligence Agency didn’t exist until the Truman administration. While that CIA has had its tentacles/money behind many a propaganda campaign, some more surprising than others, this cannot be claimed among them. Many thanks to the gentle reader that pointed this out to me!]
The counterweight, the Americanization movement, was born in 1907 with the establishment of the North American Civic League for Immigrants, headed by conservative businessmen. Aligned groups. such as the New England Industrial Committee, were created as NACLI promoted its program.
The success of the Lawrence strike, which garnered national outrage due to police beatings of women who had volunteered to transport and harbor children of strikers, increased the urgency of countering the union threat. The message was that chambers of commerce, as “conservators of the ‘best interests’ of their communities” needed to educate (as in domesticate) adult alien workers. This Americanization movement had business backers in every sizable city with an immigrant population doing outreach to business organizations, church leaders, and other community groups. In 1914, NACLI decided to extend its program nation-wide, and changed its name to the Committee for Citizens in America. The CIA paid and provided staff to the Department of Education [correction: Federal Bureau of Education] to sponsor Americanization programs (private interests’ ability operate directly through the Federal government ended in 1919).
The outbreak of World War I was a Godsend to the Americanization movement. The war stoked nationalist sentiment and with it, suspicion of obvious aliens as at best “un American” and at worst, subversive. President Wilson spoke at a highly staged “patriotic” event for 5000 recently naturalized citizens in spring 1915. This event was so successful that the movement leaders succeeded in forming local Americanization committees all over the US. Quoting Carey:
The CIA also produced a brilliant propaganda strategy to involve every American in an annual ritual of national identification. This ritual would embed the cultural intolerance of the Americanization movement with an identification that was formally and officially sanctified. The CIA thereby launched its campaign for the fourth of July 1915 to be made a national Americanization Day, a day for a ‘great nationalistic expression of unity and faith in America’.
Carey describes and quotes a pamphlet promoting the event written by one of the executive committee members:
….the ultimate success of the policy would depend on how effectively the ‘average American citizen’ could be induced to bring the influence of his conservative views to bear on the immigrant….’such a citizen is the natural foe of the IWW and of the destructive forces that seek to direct unwisely the expressions of the immigrant in his new country and upon him rest the hope and defense of the country’s ideals and institutions.’ Here we have a blatant industrial and partisan view fused with an intolerance of the immigrant and values of national security, in a submission that would cement these interests and intolerances within the paraphernalia of the annual ritual of what would become Independence Day.
So excited for this:
MASSIVE ATTACK V ADAM CURTIS
STARTING IN TWO WEEKS TIME IN MANCHESTER, THEN GERMANY, NEW YORK
The show is a collaboration between myself and Robert del Naja of Massive Attack.
What links us is not just cutting stuff up – but an interest in trying to change the way people see power and politics in the modern world. To say to them – have you thought of looking at it like this?
We’ve used film, music, stories and ideas to try and do this – to build a new kind of experience. The best way we can describe it is “a Gilm” – a new way of integrating a gig with a film that has a powerful overall narrative and emotional individual stories.
The show will be a bit of a total experience. You will be surrounded by all kinds of images and sounds. But it is also about ideas. It tells a story about how a new system of power has risen up in the modern world to manage and control us. A rigid and static system that has found in those images and sounds a way of enveloping us in a thin two-dimensional version of the past.
A fake, but enchanting world which we all live in today – but which has also become a new kind of prison that prevents us moving forward into the future.
Along with Massive Attack the show will star two great singers.
The amazing Liz Fraser
And the wonderful Horace Andy
And some of the music will be surprising – from early Barbra Streisand to Siberian punk from the 1980s.
Here’s a two-dimensional trailer that will give you an idea of what the show is about – and the stories it tells.
It also made sure that unlike the leaks in the 1970s that I wrote about, this story would be about Snowden, because now both sides were loaded in, and in our degraded discourse, this has meant only two options: either you have to worship Snowden uncritically, like he’s the Rev. Fucking Moon of intelligence leakers, or you denounced Snowden as an enemy, like you’re one of those body-snatched Moonies in those prayer vigils they held for President Nixon back in the days of the Pentagon Papers and Hersh exposés. You had to take your place in one of the Stupid Camps and censor every brain cell in your skull: either you’re an Obamabot, or an Emoprog. Bad times, bad times.
I’ve made clear my support for what Snowden. For journalism purposes, it wouldn’t even be much of an issue if the Guardian hadn’t forced it — as far as I’m concerned, the leaks remind me a lot of the late Yeltsin years, when Russia’s oligarchy split into two violently opposed camps, each side leaking incredible and mostly factual stories to their friendly media sources on TV and in print. There was a time, from 1997 through 1999, when the public was bombarded with about five Pentagon Papers a week, ripping open the public facade of powerful politicians and oligarchs, and showing how they actually stole the national wealth, what they said to each other in phone calls, how they manipulated and plundered. The journalists who fashioned those high-level leaks into stories weren’t heroes; whoever leaked those bank details and recorded phone calls and auction fixing schemes wasn’t necessarily a hero; but the information they dumped was incredibly valuable.
So for me, the importance of what we’ve learned about the NSA spying programs doesn’t hinge on whether or not I have a cult-like faith in Snowden’s and Greenwald’s “heroism” as “true patriots” unlike the other team’s guys. But the problem has been, from the start, that Snowden’s and Greenwald’s network of supporters created this false consensus, and thought-policed anyone who dared deviate or think for themselves. I have a natural aversion to Stalinist self-censorship; if I’m going to keep my mouth shut or pretend, it better be over something really important, not hero-worshipping some confused, half-baked libertarian whistleblower who can’t get his own story straight, just because his handler tells us we have to or else we’re Obamabots or fascists.
I’ve been anticipating Ames’s take on Snowden since he has such long-standing beef with Greenwald, not to mention Russia. A bit frustrating that this essay is so much about Ames himself, but I suppose full disclosure (and narcissism) requires all the personal history be detailed. My response will be no different, base times and all that.
I agree that much of the discourse surrounding Snowden— traitor or hero? — is rotten and reductive. But the heroism of Snowden’s act was also my first reaction to the story, in large part because of, as Ames notes, how blatantly Greenwald framed it that way from the start. It was the promise of a looming PR battle that inspired me to start blogging again, not the revelations of massive civil liberties violations. The latter is unfortunately something I take for granted at this point and feel utterly powerless to do anything about. I’m thrilled this information is now out there, but the new details are fairly mundane1 compared to the scandalous overall gist of the spying program we already had ample reason to suspect existed.
In contrast, the aggressive offensive position taken by Greenwald in breaking this story is pretty fascinating, in a nerdy, tactical, media-studies sort of way. If I was a data nerd or a policy wonk than maybe I’d be all over the nitty-gritty details of PRISM and the rest. But I’m a filmmaker— hell, my last film was in large part about the character assassination of someone who went public with an unpopular political sentiment— and an Adam Curtis fan. While the citizen in me wants to scream, “what matters is the leak, not the leaker,” as a story teller (and person with eyes), I know that’s naïve.
I’m torn. I suppose it would have been nice if Greenwald had been all classy about it and kept Snowden anonymous for as long as possible, focusing on the content of the leaks rather than the patriotism of the leaker. But I suspect if he did that, no one would have cared much. Ames should know this from personal experience. Just between Ames, his colleague Yasha Levine, and his former-colleague Matt Taibbi, are an overwhelming number of stories “ripping open the public facade of powerful politicians and oligarchs, and showing how they actually stole the national wealth … how they manipulated and plundered” the United States. No doubt lots of the criminal activities committed by our .01% are secret and we could benefit from more leaks. But from the prospective of outrage and even prosecution, more than enough criminality is hidden in plain sight. Our oligarchs don’t need to bother hiding most of their shady dealings because our media is so massively worthless.
You want to get people to pay attention? Either indulge the fantasy that a boring white collar IT worker can wake up one morning and become a cyberpunk hero, or else show some tits. Otherwise you’re going to be ignored. A soundbite-spewing, Dick Cheney-dissing nerdy white dude protagonist in a international espionage chase? Total gold. So while yes it was opportunistic of Greenwald to play that card, it also would have been pretty foolish not to. Ames himself has said that the problem with “the liberal establishment is [it’s] still convinced it’s competing in a middle-school civics class debate“; Greenwald skipped debate club to pen a screenplay for a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
I mostly agree with Ames’s critique of Greenwald, along with his overall indictment of society. Our inability to distinguish between the public value of an act and the perceived motive behind it, and the possibility of supporting the former while criticizing or ignoring the latter, is pathetic. As many have already said, the real “debate” should not be Snowden: Hero or Traitor? but instead, Does the public in a constitutional republic have a right to know what sorts of data their government is collecting on them and what sort of resources are being expended on said collection? Does the fourth amendment trump the executive branch’s interpretation of recent legislation & the decisions of secret courts? What sort of checks are in place to prevent abuse of this data? Are we just cool with the fact that our government tortured Bradley Manning before trying him? etc. etc. We ought to be seriously disturbed that neither our media nor our citizenry has much interest is such civic debates. But many critics of the “meta-narrative” (Ames excepted) treat the issue of heroism as if it’s entirely superficial. It’s not.
Our response to a story like this is ugly and dualistic: we crave either a hero to identify with, or a traitor to lynch. But maybe we’re so childish in our judgements because we are so desperately lacking in actual heroes. The ability to reason is important and collectively, we suck at it. But we primarily interpret the world, and discover our values, through the stories we tell each other. Stories matter. Heroes matter. And being that there is such a dearth of heroes, and no shortage of corruption and criminality in nearly every realm of American society, I share the urge to prematurely heroize Snowden. Perhaps his example might inspire more whistleblowers to reveal the crimes their careers require them to ignore. Maybe giving America a real-life hero is as important as a debate on the fourth amendment. We might not be capable of even having that debate without first personifying the values of privacy, security, secrecy, efficiency, informed consent.
Tactically, we should be cautious when choosing living people as heroes. The media loves to build someone up only to then tear them down. See Cindy Sheehan, the inspiration for my film Ashley/Amber. A rigid Snowden = Hero line of reasoning is fragile. Prove unheroic intentions or actions and the whole thing cracks; Snowden no doubt lost many supporters just by taking refuge in Russia. Every action he makes going forward is likely to chip away at his hero image while simultaneously distracting from the actual issues.
On the other hand, people mostly believe what they want to believe. Those who don’t want to contemplate our government’s corruption and capacity to abuse its immense power will accept the flimsiest excuse to ignore the content of the leaks and judge Snowden a traitor. Those who see corruption in every crevice but are unwilling to relinquish hope that something can be done about it will cleave to their belief in Snowden’s heroism regardless of how disappointing a fellow he is in reality.2 The pro-Snowden media is providing a myth of the whistle-blower to a segment of the public that is desperate for narratives of agency, hope, and the latent badassery of the white collar worker. I personally am hungry for a morality tale about the more-or-less regular person who changes the course of history by speaking out upon witnessing something they believe is wrong, and I don’t think I’m alone.
In a functional society it would be the job of the screenwriters and novelists to make up such stories, taking artistic license with the facts, while journalists ought to be a bit more responsive when the reality of a narrative doesn’t live up to it’s mythological potential. But again this view of the world becomes naïve if you look at things through the lens of a public relations professional or propagandist. For the PR practitioner (or propagandist, thaumaturgist), the news cycle is the primary medium through which they wreak a narrative, supported of course by film, curriculum, academic literature, advertising, pop music, and anything and everything else over which they can influence. True journalism may be a genuine check against PR and propaganda (or so I want to believe), but the fourth estate crumbled long ago, if it ever existed at all. We can mourn its demise anytime. But it’s refreshing and exciting to see such bold antiestablishment-PR as the Snowden story.
How depressing, that I find any sort of propaganda refreshing. Ultimately I am viscerally and strategically opposed to “noble lies” and ends-justifies-the-means reasoning. I don’t think Greenwald is necessarily engaged in such behavior, but perhaps fell victim to it by taking an offensive-defense position. I do think people need heroes, real or imaginary, preferably ones physically & culturally closer to home than Vasya and Limonov from the Ames piece. And a movement too lax in designating heroism risks mediocrity and co-option. But rather than exert further effort glorifying or denigrating Snowden & Greenwald, I’d welcome a more internal reflection on our hero fantasies. What sorts of heroes do we want, and what values do they reflect? Can we find them in mythology, in history, in our neighborhoods? How do the contemporary heroes of film and television fall short and mislead us? What kind of shortcomings are we willing to tolerate in our heroes, and what actions genuinely undermine otherwise heroic deeds?3
These sorts of questions are important not because they’ll encourage more passionate and incisive judgements of character, though that has a sort of Old Testament appeal. We need heroes to remind ourselves of the sorts of people we want to be. It’s not about getting behind someone and supporting them blindly. It’s about expanding the imagination to allow for the possibility of strength and dignity, and of having someone (ideally, conflicting someones) to learn from by example and judge our own deeds against.
- Okay, there are some gems, like code-naming an internet traffic surveillance program “EvilOlive“ [↩]
- Which isn’t to say I think he’s disappointing, just that the odds are good he won’t live up to our hopes. [↩]
- And while we have it out on the mythological realm, back on earth let’s remember that people— heroic or otherwise— are not to be tortured or unfairly spied on. Due process is for everyone, even the worst criminals. If we need to make someone out to be a hero before they’re entitled to basic civil & human rights, we’ve already lost. Oh wait, we’ve already lost. [↩]