Of geniuses, mandarins, and institutionalists


Patrick McGilligan – Young Orson

Simon Callow, Clinton Heylin, David Thomson, and the Welles-approved Barbara Leaming have covered this ground, but what distinguishes this SS-20 of a tome is the attention on George Orson’s origins. Raised in Kenosha, Wisconsin by a pianist/actress mother and a dad whose early fortune as a bicycle lamp inventor hastened a descent into alcoholism, the polymath benefited from an environment that paid lip service to the arts; the first seventh of McGilligan’s book is a meticulous account of being a minor artist in the Roosevelt-Taft age, and I’m not usually interested in meticulous accounts of boyhoods. Less compelling is the story of the accumulating triumphs: Horse Eats Hat, Dr. Faustus, the Negro Macbeth, the Mercury Theatre, the contract with RKO Pictures. To my mind it settles the question of Welles’ authorship of Citizen Kane (he and the decrepit, beloved Herman J. Mankiewicz each wrote his own script, the latter under the supervision of bete noire John Houseman; Welles edited, discarded, and added material during filming). The revelations concern his private life: Welles was more infatuated with first wife, Chicago blue blood Virginia Nicolson, than evidence had suggested; his bedhopping was less prodigious than his appetites for steaks and poetry; and around homosexual men from whom he wanted to coax favors he liked to float the possibility that he was one of them (“When I’m with homosexuals, I become a little homosexual, to make them feel at home, you know,” he confided to Henry Jaglom decades later, a couple of years before lending his voice to the monster planet in Transformers: The Movie). A prescient move: Young Orson leaves the Young Genius at the threshold of an aesthetic triumph and at the start of a forty-year saga of wooing: producers, actor-stars, waiters.

Charles Savage — Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency

The Bush administration approved the torture of suspected Al Qaeda members and sympathizers, the Obama administration perfected targeted killing. Thanks to men like Harold Koh, the White House could operate under a carapace of liberal jurisprudence. “Just as [Barack] Obama had bestowed a gloss of bipartisan consensus on those Bush-like policies he continued,” Charlie Savage writers, “Koh had leveraged his history as a liberal human rights champion to vouch for what Obama was doing — including…drone strikes.” The thesis of the New York Times reporter’s hopscotching narrative is the degree to which the president sought robust legal justifications for implementing its policies instead of questioning the assumptions of the national security state; the Office of Legal Counsel was a busy little hive during the Obama years. Caught flatfooted by bipartisan opposition to closing Guantanamo and the Christmas underwear bomber in 2009, the administration conducted its counterterrorism with a forest of memos and signatures. The murder of Al-Awlaki and his son, the raid on the Osama bin Laden compound, Chelsea Manning, the Edward Snowden leaks, the crackdown on whistleblowers – the episodes get thorough review, including interviews with the key personages. Savage, whose Takeover remains the essential story of how a Ford chief of staff and congressman named Richard Cheney saved the imperial presidency from obloquy, is the rare reporter who can write. The unchronological meanwhile-back-at approach ix taxing, though.

David Talbot — The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government

Kim Roosevelt, the master spy behind the overthrow of Iranian president Mossadegh in 1953, joined Gulf Oil at the end of the decade. The newly installed shah, sitting on the Peacock Throne, became a client. His boss Allen and brother John Foster had spent the forties spiriting Nazi pals away from Germany for what they saw as the next and greater war against Soviet communism. This conflation of jingoism and personal financial enrichment drives nearly every important figure in David Talbot’s history of the CIA. Question their motives and the House Un-American Activities committee might call the brave soul to testify under oath. Although in 2013 Stephen Kinzer published his own fantastic-in-ever-sense biography of the Dulles duo, the former Salon editor who wrote The Devil’s Chessboard is even more comprehensive, citing a motherlode of declassified material. He also does more than hint that Allen Dulles, fired by JFK after the Bay of Pigs debacle, knew people who knew people who had Kennedy killed.

Terrorism — a ‘brainless propaganda word’

The social media hills were alive with stories like this posted by liberals delighted by conservative reluctance to use their favorite taxonomy for the Oregonian arsonists. In a 1985 essay called “Wanton Acts of Usage,” Christopher Hitchens won’t deign to pretend “terrorism” exists as a concept, let alone a word. A sapient passage reminded me of clips I’ve seen of Walter Mondale attacking Ronald Reagan “from the right” during the 1984 campaign because he offered to meet with the Soviets:

In a defensible reaction to this hypocritical and ideological emphasis, many liberals have taken simply to inverting the word, or to changing the subject. Typically, a sympathizer of the Palestinians will say that it is Ariel Sharon who is “the real terrorist”; a Republican Irishman, that it is the British occupier who fills the bill; and so on. Still others will point suavely to the “root cause” of unassuaged grievance. This is all right as far as it goes, which is not very far. You don’t draw the sting from a brainless propaganda word merely by turning it around. The word terrorist is not — like communist and fascist — being abused; it it itself an abuse. It disguises reality and impoverishes language and makes a banality out of the discussion of war and revolution and politics. It’s the perfect instrument for the cheapening of public opinions and for the intimidation of dissent.

(Let me anticipate the grumbling of acquaintances and comrades who will read the last sentence and, to use the writer’s adverb, suavely point to Hitchens’ own posture in 2003: it doesn’t change a thing)

In the following, he makes a hash out of the “political” definition of terrorism:

Random violence is one thing, say the well-funded experts, but it gets really serious when it’s “state-sponsored” terrorism. The two words that are supposed to intensify the effect of the third actually have the effect, if we pause for thought, of diminishing it. It is terrifying to be told at gunpoint by a person who has no demands. A moment of terror is the moment when the irrational intruder — when the man with the gun is hearing voices or wants his girlfriend back or has a theory about the Middle Pyramid. But if the gunman is a proxy for Syria or Iran or Bangladesh or Chile..then it isn’t, strictly speaking, the irrational that we face. It maybe an apparently unappeasable grievance, but it is, finally, political.

Calling out misuse is nothing when “misuse” means “nonexistent word.”

‘My nuclear nightmare, born of long and deep experience’

Here’s a cheerful way to ring out the old year. Former secretary of defense William Perry:

A soft-spoken man not given to hyperbole, Perry is on a public crusade to persuade people that nothing less than the future of civilization is at stake. What worries him most is that few seem to notice.

“Our chief peril is that the poised nuclear doom, much of it hidden beneath the seas and in remote badlands, is too far out of the public consciousness,” he wrote in his memoir.

In his book’s preface Perry outlines a nuclear terror scenario, which he calls “my nuclear nightmare, born of long and deep experience.”

In his scenario, a small group gets its hands on enough uranium to fashion a crude nuclear bomb, flies it undetected to Washington’s Dulles International Airport and slips the bomb into a warehouse in the District of Columbia. From there it is loaded onto a delivery truck and a suicide bomber drives it onto Pennsylvania Avenue midway between the Capitol and the White House. When detonated, it kills 80,000 people instantly, including the president. The news media report a message claiming that five more bombs are hidden in five different U.S. cities, and one will be set off each week.

And of course there are no suspected terrorists we can torture, Middle Eastern countries we can bomb from the skies, Russian presidents we can threaten, no constitutional protections we can abjure, or GOP presidents we can elect to save us from this outcome.

Profiles in courage


Today I learned that my congressional representative, a graduate of a local Jesuit prep school and five years my junior, was so spooked by ISIS that he surrendered, voting with his party and forty-seven craven Democrats. His statement is a masterpiece of weaselspeak:

After last week’s horrific terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut, it is clear that our country must help those suffering at the hands of ISIS. The refugees currently fleeing the Middle East seek the same freedoms that we as Americans are blessed to enjoy. I want to ensure our country remains a place of refuge and hope for oppressed people from all over the world, while granting our law enforcement officials the tools they need to properly screen each refugee and keep Americans safe. The ultimate solution for this tragic refugee crisis is to defeat and destroy ISIS and clear the path for new leadership in Syria. On this, our country must lead.”

Without looking at the congressional record, it’s easy to assume he voted to protect Syrian refugees. That’s how Carlos Curbelo plays. Conscious of representing a district that has gone for Democrats in the last six presidential elections, he can’t look like a monster to illiterates.

My letter to his office:

Rep. Curbelo –

Thank you for the splendid display of political expediency today. Without men like you taking easy stands, we wouldn’t know how to raise our children in a world of tough decisions. I’m especially proud of how, like me, a product of Miami’s boys Catholic high school system can ignore what he was taught about critical thinking.

Congratulations on making us a mockery for the terrorists who want to destroy us. And the Syrians who already found EXISTING laws difficult appreciate your devotion to their cause.

“Capitulation under duress” should be your next campaign slogan.



What a powerful signal — the United States thinks you’re dangerous. Might as well dismiss its citizens as infidels and wage war on them.

‘I believe that you cannot destroy their ideology’

An MSNBC interview with Thomas Roberts and Janine Di Giovani:

Roberts: When we talk about the country or the territory, they don’t have that. What they have is the territory that borders between Syria and Iraq. If that is stripped from them Janine, do they fall away?

DiGiovani: Personally, I believe that you cannot destroy their ideology. Even if we took Raqqa tomorrow, if we crushed it, which I have to point out there is one thing about the bombing of Raqqa, there is five hundred thousand civilians who are inside Raqqa, it’s not just ISIS who are suffering, it’s civilians that have been overcome by them.

But even if we took out Raqqa tomorrow, how do you destroy this ideology which is sweeping so many youth, which is recruiting so many, if they have what is a very sophisticated social media, as we know, and their psychology is very appealing to those who are downtrodden, who are disenfranchised from society.

So what I’m saying Thomas is even if we can stop a caliphate they’re not going to get to Mecca — which is what they want, we still have to deal with the underlying reasons of where they came from and why they prey on countries like France which they see as weak because there are divisions here between the Muslim populations which is the highest is all of Europe. They saw that as an opportunity and that’s why this operation was horrifically and tragically successful.

I should think that after Iraq and Libya these points would be obvious.

The origins of ISIS

It took a couple of hours but I found the article I read last spring about American complicity in creating ISIS. “The United States itself continued to send arms into Syria despite the certainty that some would end up in the hands of ISIS,” David Mizner wrote for Jacobin:

The report concerns a period in time when the escalating violence in Iraq had ceased to be a prominent topic in the US press and when its coverage of the war in Syria — mirroring the discussion in Washington — focused on the Assad government, not the forces aligned against it. This may be hard to imagine now that ISIS has become the US government’s favorite monster, but during these months President Obama and his team gave major speeches on Syria that didn’t even mention the group.

Even after ISIS took Fallujah in January 2014, discussion of the group in establishment outlets was scarce. It wasn’t until later in 2014 — after continued battlefield victories and heavily publicized beheadings of westerners — that Islamic State became Public Enemy Number 1.

American officials claimed the ascendancy of ISIS had caught American intelligence by surprise. Yet in the 2012 report — which was circulated widely through the US government — the DIA foresaw the creation of a “Salafist principality” in eastern Syria. It also said that Islamic State of Iraq could “return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi” and declare an “Islamic state” in western Iraq and eastern Syria.

The reprot turned out more accurate than imagined. As the article reminds readers, it’s been American policy for decades to support jihadists when convenient. And we say nothing publicly when Saudi Arabia supports Sunni revolts in Syria and Iraq.

A decade of malfeasance

Remember when foreign policy eminence Marco Rubio said the following at CPAC last spring: “The reason Obama hasn’t put in place a military strategy to defeat ISIS is because he doesn’t want to upset Iran.” John Kerry administered a merciless rebuke: Iran and the United States actually agree on the menace of Islamic State. It didn’t matter. Rubio’s line played to a base of morons who think Iranians are Arabs and the “Middle East” is a monolith seething with shared ethnic and religious hatreds.

Watch the video linked above. It’s a Cliff Notes summation of a decade’s worth of malfeasance. Al Qaeda in Iraq exists because the United States and Britain and their allies toppled Saddam Hussein, showed little interest in cleaning up, and when it became too late sent a troop “surge.” Ezra Klein omits mention of the status of forces agreement signed by the Bush administration asking American troops to withdraw by a certain date. Even if we hadn’t signed it was too late. Even if this ancestor of ISIS had been contained, another band of disaffected Sunni and Al Qaeda dead enders would have organized. I mention it not to emphasize the futility but to remind readers of the folly of history.

The French cost of fighting radicalists


Whenever we allude to Western European “softness”:

According to most estimates, France has lost more people to militant Islam than any other country in Europe: a report by the French senate in April concluded that at least 1,430 of the 3,000-plus known European jihadis who had then travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for Isis were French.

The AFP news agency reported earlier this year that French intelligence services were monitoring another 1,570 people who authorities believed had some kind of connection to Syrian networks, while up to 7,000 more were considered at riskof heading down the same path.

The French president, François Hollande, said on Friday night: “We know where these attacks come from,” without naming any individual group. “There are indeed good reasons to be afraid.”

More than 150 French radicals are currently serving prison sentences in France. But more alarming for the country’s hard-pressed security services is the fact that at least 200 French jihadis who have spent time in territory held by Isis are known to have since returned to the country.

“It was carnage”


Chilling reports from Paris:

Peace told CNN that he heard nothing from the shooters, just the screams of the crowd. However, another witness, who was at the Bataclan with his mother, told France Inter that he heard the assailants screaming “Allahu Akbar” while shooting inside the crowd.

“It was carnage,” Marc Coupris, 57, told the Guardian, still shaking after being freed from being held hostage at the Bataclan, a popular concert venue.

“It looked like a battlefield, there was blood everywhere, there were bodies everywhere. I was at the far side of the hall when shooting began. There seemed to be at least two gunmen. They shot from the balcony.”

“Everyone scrabbled to the ground. I was on the ground with a man on top of me and another one beside me up against a wall. We just stayed still like that. At first we kept quiet. I don’t know how long we stayed like that, it seemed like an eternity.

“I saw my final hour unfurl before me, I thought this was the end. I thought I’m finished, I’m finished. I was terrified. We must all have thought the same. Eventually, when a few gendarmes came in slowly we began to look up and there was blood absolutely everywhere. The police told us to run.”

Ignoring the reality of casual Muslims

A dim mind can’t imagine the existence of casual Muslims. That Muslims drink, get divorced, are gay, don’t give a damn about charity, and eat any food placed before them — these facts are impossible to accept. Only Catholics can support abortion rights and gay marriage. Only Protestants can marry two or three times. Believers in the other monotheistic religions can discard the tenets of their faith with which they disagree. Or observe the one with which they agree. Muslims are the savages from whom we can’t expect moderation. I’ve known fundamentalist Muslims and homosexual Muslims, Muslims who take drugs and take Jägermeister shots as if they were water and Muslims as abstemious as any monk.

Buried in the comments of a post devoted to last week’s anti-Muslim controversies, Glenn Greenwald posts the following list:

(1) People from every race, all over the world, convert into Judaism. They’re as Jewish as any other Jew, even though they obviously keep the race into which they were born. Beyond that, there are people born into Judaism from different races all over the world, such as Ethiopian Jews. Beyond that, whether to observe the religious dictates of Judaism is a choice which every person makes.

So it’s wildly simplistic, at best, to describe “Jewish” as a race which one cannot and does not choose.

(2) Although it’s not a perfect equivalency, the designation “Muslim” has very similar attributes to the ones you’re ascribing to “Jews.” Countless people all over the world self-identify as “Muslim” even though they have little to no adherence to the tenets of Islam. They mean it as a cultural signifier or representative of their heritage: the community and culture into which they were born, very similar to the way some non-religious people still identify as “Jewish”: as a cultural or ethnic signifier.

Just as German Jews could not have chosen to become non-Jewish in the eyes of many, so, too, are Muslims incapable of becoming non-Muslim in the eyes of many. No matter their belief system, they retain their names, their appearance, their heritage and other attributes which bigots associate with being Muslim – just as was true of Jews.

In sum, maligning “Muslims” is about more than maligning the doctrine of Islam, just as maligning “Jews” has always been about more than maligning the doctrine of Judaism.

(3) The argument you’re implicitly making – that it’s better to discriminate against people for choices they make than in-born attributes – is one very familiar to LGBT people, since that’s the argument long used to justify anti-gay discrimination (“it’s a choice”).

But if being LGBT were actually a choice – and to some extent, in some cases it clearly is (it’s a choice to have sex with someone of the same gender, as well as to transition genders, even if the identity itself isn’t a choice) – would that make discrimination against LGBT people more justifiable? I don’t think so and never did. Whether being LGBT is a choice or not never mattered to me in the slightest in demonstrating that it was wrong to discriminate against them.

(4) Finally, purely for the sake of argument, let’s indulge this tendentious distinction you’re making between Jews (not a choice) and Muslims (a choice):

Suppose the anti-Jewish speakers in my hypotheticals had said at the end: “by the way, by ‘Jew,’ I don’t mean people who were born into this group through no choice/fault of their own; I simply mean ‘those who are adherents to the religion known as Judaism.’ That is who I intend to malign and want to ban from public office.”

Would that really be acceptable to you?

I can post variants on these points from now until November 2016 and it’ll make no difference.

‘At night we can hear them screaming’

American attempts to win hearts and minds:

In his last phone call home, Lance Cpl. Gregory Buckley Jr. told his father what was troubling him: From his bunk in southern Afghanistan, he could hear Afghan police officers sexually abusing boys they had brought to the base.

“At night we can hear them screaming, but we’re not allowed to do anything about it,” the Marine’s father, Gregory Buckley Sr., recalled his son telling him before he was shot to death at the base in 2012. He urged his son to tell his superiors. “My son said that his officers told him to look the other way because it’s their culture.”

Rampant sexual abuse of children has long been a problem in Afghanistan, particularly among armed commanders who dominate much of the rural landscape and can bully the population. The practice is called bacha bazi, literally “boy play,” and American soldiers and Marines have been instructed not to intervene — in some cases, not even when their Afghan allies have abused boys on military bases, according to interviews and court records.

So it takes pedophilia to question our mission?

About Ahmed Mohammed


There are all sorts of obvious, extreme harms that come from being a nation at permanent war. Your country ends up killing huge numbers of innocent people all over the world. Vast resources are drained away from individuals and programs of social good into the pockets of weapons manufacturers. Core freedoms are inexorably and inevitably eroded — seized — in its name. The groups being targeted are marginalized and demonized in order to maximize fear levels and tolerance for violence.

But perhaps the worst of all harms is how endless war degrades the culture and populace of the country that perpetrates it. You can’t have a government that has spent decades waging various forms of war against predominantly Muslim countries — bombing seven of them in the last six years alone — and then act surprised when a Muslim 14-year-old triggers vindictive fear and persecution because he makes a clock for school. That’s no more surprising than watching carrots sprout after you plant carrot seeds in fertile ground and then carefully water them. It’s natural and inevitable, not surprising or at all difficult to understand.

I saw this firsthand on Thursday when a student, whom I didn’t have in class, said that Ahmed, regardless of the circumstances, deserved the heightened scrutiny because he was Muslim, and weren’t Muslims involved in the 9-11 attacks? Well, I countered, two of the Bush administration’s top men were evangelical Christians, specifically John Ashcroft. Two of the men responsible for the theorizing and planning (such as it was) of the war were Jewish: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Chair of the Defense Policy Board Richard Perle. We destroyed a country for the sake of an ideal. I’m not creating an equivalence so much as demonstrating where messianistic policies take us.