Obama and the Free Press, or, Why Are Pigeons Everywhere

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by Guy Walker

After half an hour of comic relapses and festal banter at last week’s Correspondents’ Dinner, President Obama broke into a ten minute eulogy about the importance of a free press. It was serious, heartfelt, earning applause and an agreeable rhythm of nodding heads, everyone concluding that indeed they and Obama are essentially a single effulgent team of transparency and courage. Obama reassured the audience (which consisted of reporters, actors, and Kendall Jenner), “Our free press is why we once again recognize the real journalists who uncover the horrifying scandal and brought some measure of justice to thousands of victims throughout the world.” Maybe they’re a little tough on Obama sometimes, he later referred to, but this is testament to a healthy potent democracy. He can jab at them, they can jab at him, and consequently, they are the freest most sterling State in the world.

But there’s a problem. During Obama’s presidency, more whistleblowers and official leakers have been prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act than during all previous presidents combined. The Espionage Act was of course proposed by then President Woodrow Wilson, shortly after the US entry into World War I, in order to wage a war on spies. But under Obama’s watch, they were whistleblowers, not spies. There was Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the NSA, who shared classified information with the press regarding the warrantless surveillance of American citizens. Stephen Jin-Woo Kim was a nuclear proliferation specialist working for the State Department, and handed intelligence about North Korea over to Fox News. John Kiriakou, a former CIA agent, gave journalists the names of two colleagues who used waterboarding to interrogate detainees. Shami Leibowitz, a former FBI Hebrew translator, leaked FBI wiretaps of the Israeli embassy to a blogger. Chelsea Manning leaked 700,000 government documents to Wikileaks, the most notable of which was a video of American Apache helicopters killing a dozen innocents, including two Reuters reporters and then the first responders. Jeffrey Sterling, also a former CIA officer, leaked classified information to a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Edward Snowden, of course, handed a mass of data on the NSA surveillance program over to Glenn Greenwald. Again, the 1917 Espionage Act was designed to prosecute spies—those, as Woodrow Wilson stated, who were “born under other flags”—not those who handed information over to journalists about the scandalous and sometimes nefarious work of their own government.

But President Obama continued, personally commending Jason Rezaian, the Iranian-American journalist who wrote for The Washington Post, who was jailed for nearly two years on accusations of espionage: “Last time this year we spoke of Jason’s courage as he endured the isolation of an Iranian prison. This year we see that courage in the flesh, and it’s living testament to the very idea of a free press, and a reminder of the rising level of danger and political intimidation and physical threats faced by reporters overseas. And I can make this commitment that as long as I hold this office, my administration will continue to fight for the release of American journalists held against their will, and we will not stop until they see the same freedom as Jason had.”

Supporting Rezaian’s release from an Iranian jail is obvious and banal. It’s political-speak, an easy reference that’s confident for a round of applause. What about other journalists? What about the case of Yemeni investigative journalist, Abdulelah Haider Shaye?

Shaye discovered that a remote village in Yemen was bombed by US-made Tomahawk missiles and cluster bombs (neither of which were a part of the Yemeni military’s arsenal), killing fourteen women and twenty-one children, and quite possibly not a single AQAP (Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula) operative. And yet Shaye was consequently imprisoned under suspicious circumstances. After a sham trial, Shaye’s supporters pressured the Yemeni government to release him, and he was set to be pardoned; but on February 2, 2011, President Obama called Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and “expressed concern” over his release, resulting in the continued imprisonment of the journalist for exposing the US involvement in the bombing of a Yemeni village.

To Obama’s credit, he did specify that he would continue to fight for American journalists, not Yemeni. But this is clearly not a matter of a truly free press, but rather that of political clout. The rule is: if you matter enough, we won’t prosecute you. David Patraeus, for example, gave his biographer and lover Paula Broadwell notebooks full of classified information, but was merely charged with a misdemeanor. Former CIA director and defense secretary Leon Panetta allowed Zero Dark Thirty filmmakers access to the savory details about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. It’s the same reason President Obama never even sought prosecution of the major bankers responsible for the 2008 financial collapse, why former Attorney General Eric Holder admitted “some of these institutions [become] so large that it does become difficult to prosecute them,” only to return to the corporate law firm Covington & Burling immediately following his tenure with the Obama administration. Abacus Federal Savings Bank, an insignificant family-owned bank in New York’s Chinatown, jammed between two noodle shops, was the only bank indicted. It’s the same reason four Blackwater mercenaries were finally sentenced last year for the Nisour Square massacre, but the founder of the company, Erik Prince, will likely never be held accountable. Or why the guards at Abu Ghraib were sentenced for their torture methods but Donald Rumsfeld was not. There is priority and privilege at work. To be a significant enough of a player is to work with almost complete impunity.

Unfortunately, this is nothing new. And the problem surely doesn’t entirely fall onto Obama’s shoulders. It was here all along.

In a lecture Noam Chomsky gave on March 15, 1989, entitled “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media,” he spoke of two very different, yet strikingly similar cases of freedom of the press. The first being the famous case of Salman Rushdie and his novel Satanic Verses. At the time, then Supreme Leader of Iran issued a fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie and his publishers for printing such beastly words. A couple days before Chomsky’s lecture, the Prime Minister of Iran proposed that a compromise could be made, and if all of the copies of the heinous book were to be burned then the fatwa would presumably be revoked.

The second case Chomsky referred to was one that he was personally involved in. A book he co-authored in 1974 with Edward Herman (who also co-authored the book Manufacturing Consent with Chomsky) about American foreign policy and mass media, was published by a subsidiary of Warner Communications Incorporated. When an executive at Warner saw he book, he disliked it so much he responded by pulping not just all 20,000 copies that were published, but all books published by that subsidiary, ending the company entirely. Chomsky grimly jokes that the only difference between the Rushdie case and his own is that Warner actually carried it out.

A free press is always in jeopardy by its own limitations, by the actors of secrets, power, and worship. This is larger than President Obama. Hegel’s dialectical “power of negation” is clearly at work—that is, opposites do not cancel or neutralize each other, but rather develop into one another until they are both monstrous bodies of unrecognizable flesh. The more whistleblowers there are exposing its governments’ various libidinal affairs with autocracy, the more the government will crack down on whistleblowers, and the more whistleblowers will counter and expose. And on and on, until there is nothing left but beige flattened forms of scandal, and the rest of us just a herd of troglodytic squatters on American soil. It’s the free press that lets us live, the free press that lets us breed and spread across the universe. Kendall Jenner and Will Smith applauding that liberty is still with us. It takes us back to the old question: why are pigeons everywhere if they’re so stupid? Because they love trash.

Ashley Madison and the Pursuit of Happiness

by Guy Walker

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“I stretched ropes from steeple to steeple; garlands from window to window; gold chains from star to star, and I dance.” Arthur Rimbaud

I am in the middle of a luxuriant passionate love affair with a married woman. The love is more immediate and valiant than I’ve know before, a sort of semblant ecstasy of familiarity as we swim in the ocean at midnight, naked, laughing uncontrollably on mushrooms, and in our soberest hours we still smile involuntarily just from looking at each other. In a way, it brings a transitory peace to my regular fainéant cynicism, because love is just that: it’s the momentary reprieve from our furious blue minds, it’s a storm of huge dawns filling a dingy moor. But it’s restless and coarse: it’s the oasis in the enormous grim desert, you just hope that when you arrive, the bursting mad gardens are real and not a delusion driven by thirst. Loving a married woman is the spice of life, the forbidden dynamism that keeps us laughing.

At the same time, I know my role in this affair. Her husband is a wealthy clean-cut stockbroker on Wall Street, from a prideful pecunious family with a summer home on Cape Cod. He is stability and security; I drink warm champagne and overdose on GHB with my overweight landlord. I fit the role of her summer spent with a “surfer from California” who drives an old shitty Mercedes-Benz that sounds like a cement mixer. Is it novel to have no economic prospects? Is poverty avant-garde? It’s romantic from a distance, the way the Wild West is romantic only when it has been two-hundred years separated. It’s the reason we prefer the stories of the antihero and the whore to the clean upper-middle class family. Celine, Dostoyevsky, Thompson, Rimbaud, Steinbeck, Henry Miller, Bukowski—we love them because they were braver than we, because the flowering dawns of our youth were never enough, because the madness of emeralds and poison was seen and not forgotten. Those who live in the tame eidolons of domesticity, nudging vicariously for a bit of adventure and peril and storm by reading books of those who did are not all that different from those who carry on affairs with those they will never really have the guts to love. The world is cursed by timidness and phobias; there is too much politeness, not enough heartbreak. To be true, I wasn’t a man until I was heartbroken. No one is, nor ever can be without a bit of misery. But we keep drinking our cocktails, waiting in the dingy bars, yelling at the sport’s teams on the screen, privately wondering if any of this will be good again.

Last week, anonymous hackers published a mass of data containing the private information of 33 million people from around the world, all registered to the website Ashley Madison, which patrons to married people who want an affair. Tinder for the already married—an inevitable construct for those who fucked up by getting married in the first place, and need a solution. If the solution is a full-fledged affair, a single-night motel fuck, or even knowing that you have the option to do so—they are all a gasp of clean air in what seems like a prison. The data of private information released includes their names, email addresses, physical addresses, their personal sexual desires and fetishes, and their credit card purchases. Using the site, a man could pay $259 for an “affair guarantee package,” and women used the site for free  .  .  .  although most of the female profiles were fake. The fraudulent caliginous design of Ashley Madison is acutely perfect, because no one would publicly claim that they got ripped off. The hackers stated that their intent was to expose Ashley Madison as a fraudulent service, suggesting that the hackers may have been registered to the site previously, and were disgruntled with not getting laid. At least two men have already committed suicide due to the release of their information. And predictably, the guilt-shaming has begun with a sort of religious piety, a moralistic self-righteousness that says those who were exposed got what they deserved, that they shouldn’t have cheated in the first place. But it’s the repressive nature of marriage to push men and women to this point, to escape the long wasting ferment with a night of lust and laughter.

In Michel Foucault’s Histoire de la sexualité however, he petitions for us to abandon the “repressive hypothesis,” the notion that modern societies inhabit great sexual repression. He argues that since the 17th century, since the Counter-Reformation, or Catholic Revival, industrialized societies have developed an “authorized vocabulary” to articulate their sexuality, largely through the Roman Catholic Church, as its citizens would be encouraged to confess to their sinful desires and actions. Foucault thought the academic could liberate the sexes. But this reasoning is flawed. The dividing up of sexualities set the tone for repression and prohibition. Homosexuality and heterosexuality for example, were coined at the same time, in 1886, in Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s book Psychopathia Sexualis. This categorization was inevitable with the evolution of language, to specify and detail the world around and within us, but still, it’s enough to wonder if there was more of a sense of “normalcy” or unity with the various sexualities before they were parceled out into their little dark grotesque corners. Gluttony, laziness, nymphomania are all forms of enslavement to “the pleasure principle,” as Freud called it; but if the pleasure principle is repressed enough, the man or woman or entire society will develop neurosis, or an etiolated perversion of health and decency. For example, the two States who watch the most porn are Utah and Mississippi, two of the most religious States in the country. Alabama, another State with a strict religious reputation, had by far the most registered accounts to Ashley Madison. This is more than just accidental correlation. It’s more than accidental correlation that the Catholic Church implemented the most organized and pervasive child rape program in world history, while at the same time they advocate against the use of condoms. In some traditional Jewish practice, after the rabbi cuts off the end of the baby’s dick—as if that is not barbaric enough—he orally sucks off the blood from the baby dick in a sort of nightmarish welcome into this fucked up world; and it’s only now becoming controversial as cases of herpes on Jewish newborns have been rising in New York City. There is female genital mutilation in Somalia, Guinea, Egypt, Sierra Leone, and countless others, both under Muslim and Christian instruction. There is the Christian conservative’s systematic hatred of women, as they obstruct funding for women’s health care. Mike Huckabee, an evangelical Christian, even alluded to using the National Guard to shut down all Planned Parenthood’s across the country if (or when as he arrogantly puts it) he were to become President.

I want to love Foucault, because his intellect of rebellion lit a fire of magnificent curiosity, but as a historian of ideas, specifically in regard to sexuality and it’s liberation, he is incorrect. The world was far less shackled sexually prior to the 17th century. Ancient Egypt had the Festival of Drunkenness, a nationwide orgy to appease the warring goddess Sekhmet—everyone from the richest to the poorest were directly fucking for peace. Today’s equivalent would be in response to ISIS and Putin and domestic mass shootings, the United States devoted a month of orgies and drunkenness. Imagine if Islam was sexually liberated. This is a very serious, yet unexamined point. Sam Harris, Bill Maher and others argue that Islam is an inherently violent religion and should be held accountable, while Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and others contest that it’s America’s endless wars in the Middle East that generates terrorism itself. Both arguments are correct, but what is never mentioned is Islam’s repression of a little guiltless p in the v. ISIS doesn’t actually want a caliphate—they are blowing shit up and kidnapping women by the thousands because they are angry men in the desert who are not getting laid. Dionysus and his debonair theatre were given up for dust and storm and suicide bombs.

Similar to the Festival of Drunkenness, the ancient Celts had the Beltane, a festival for the fertility of the Earth, in which they would fuck in masses in the fields. The Estruscans were notorious swingers, the women were equal to men, sometimes exercising in the nude. Today, orgies are by no means less common than before, but there is a secretive nature to them, a sense of pagan idol worship or sinful desecration that the very moral public has attached to it. Infidelity is no different  .  .  .  it is one of those unavoidable and yet necessary ameliorations of the human condition, signatory of a grim defect of marriage itself. It is deemed by the morally self-righteous as a tasteless betrayal, an unforgivable liaison, the excuse for so much divorce and needless misery. It’s an excuse for divorce, not the actual reason for it, as so many married couples are unhappy, but don’t have the gall to leave the banal asylum of marriage, so they point to one’s natural interest in tasting other pies as vile and indefensible.

What the Ashley Madison hacks reveals is the insanity of marriage. Yet the public has adopted a ubiquitous moral self-righteousness, a puritanical judgment of the men and women who sought or had affairs. The anonymous hackers made the statement: “Too bad for those men, they’re cheating dirtbags and deserve no such discretion.” It’s what Glenn Greenwald has compared to the digital branding of the Scarlet Letter, branding all adulterers with an unforgivable red “A”. But marriage is vile complacency, denial in its most wretched form. It attempts to convert the strong alpha classes into timid sterile Victorians (even though Queen Victoria had a secret sex castle in Scotland). In most marriages, the last remaining drops of pure animal honesty is held only in their most private thoughts, as they wish to run away and disappear into the wild tall fields. As everyone knows, marriage began as a means of diplomacy, a form of treaty between the noble classes. In Marriage: A History, author Stephanie Coontz writes, “You establish peaceful relationships, trading relationships, mutual obligations with others by marrying them.” Marriage never has and never will be about love. Because love is a fleeting masterpiece that will never be tamed.

In Bosnia in 2007, a married couple who didn’t realize they were both in need of an affair, were chatting online, under the names “Sweetie” and “Prince of Joy,” only to realize this when they eventually met on a date. They consequently divorced, accusing each other of infidelity. This can be quickly laughed at as a nescient sordid reason for divorce, but the man and woman were clearly empathetic to each others’ private vulnerable honesties for a more buoyant intimacy. This is true of the masses. Huge legions of married couples want the love that maddens and thrills, the gallant endless thrusts of wisdom and youth. It is their own timidness that has paralyzed their freedom.

The rise in divorce rates have paralleled the rise in education with women. Education, in its ideal form, is power and independence and strength, and most of all, freedom. It ignites the mad theatre of life, the parade of opportunity, and it is reasonable to assume that a modern Enlightenment would be governed with secularism and sexual liberation as the new empyrean acheiropoietons of our era. Nietzsche warned against alcohol, exclaiming that it didn’t allow us to face the uncomfortable darkness that is called life. Marriage is much the same  .  .  .  it’s a dipsomanian fart of escape. Marriage may be a grand perfect affair for a few rare birds in the world, but the piggish unctuous masses are desperate and lonely, and may find their sad compliment in someone, and settle with desperate fetid humping for decades. But loneliness is a wise god, pushing us in our most private hours to think about stars and poetry and death. And I’ve never known a night I did not love.