The Constant Columnist

A potpourri by visitors to our site. No theme, no premise, no specific topic. To contribute, send your piece in an email ( Attach a headshot and if appropriate, an illustrative graphic.

Beatrice Williams-Rude
Beatrice Williams-Rude

Formerly on the copy desks of the New York Post and the New York Daily News, Beatrice was a book reviewer for Variety and she freelances as a researcher, copy editor, book reviewer, and writer.

12/2014 - A Slip of the Finger and Forever on the Internet

How is that that my inbox is bursting with e-mail from right-wing blogs?

On just one morning last week I was greeted by Conservatives United, RedState Spotlight, Tea Party Politics, the Right to Bear, Preserve Freedom, Survival Joe, Tea Party Update, Personal Liberty, Erick Erickson, Tea Party Bulletin, Raise the Flag, Patriots and Politics, and Liberty 247. And what's in these missives ranges from laughable to frightening. I was offered free knives, instructions on how to make a gun and how to buy one without a serial number or registration.

One, "the Right to Bear," is a gun-fanatic's venue with an NRA ad across the top and a hysterical tone reiterating that government agents—here in New York—are coming to remove everybody's gun. I replied, "I can only hope so!" but that didn't deter the sender.

In material from other sites there have been warnings about "Obama's private army" and the government confiscating citizens' bank accounts. There has been condemnation of the concept of separation of church and state and a litany of assertions that the government is attacking religion and is responsible for what will be the end of Western civilization.

I'm an admirer of Russ Feingold and on his last run for Senate I wanted to support him. However, while I was receiving e-mail from him explaining his various policy positions there was no "donate" button. So I Googled him. The first entry that popped up showed his name in large letters and a donate button. I'm not sure that I even had to open it to contribute—and so I did, making the largest donation I'd ever given to an individual, $100.

However, in the confirmation process I suddenly saw, in tiny letters about Russ Feingold's name, "retire." Retire Russ Feingold. This was an anti-Russ Feingold site.

Immediately I tried to stop the contribution from going through. It took several days. But that didn't erase my name from the various sites to which my "contribution" info had been distributed. Thus, I started get e-mail from Karl Rove, Dick Armey and the like.

My rapscallion grandfather was a Machiavellian whose fiefdom was Philadelphia's "bloody Fifth Ward" in the days when the City of Brotherly Love was virtually all Republican and the bloodletting was during the primaries: us, the Penrose family faction versus them, the Vare brothers faction. He used to say "always register with the majority party" so you can have a say in the choice of nominees. And always have a relative register in the opposition party so you can find out what the adversaries are doing and planning.

But that's not what I was doing. It was an accident. A slip of the finger on a duplicitous site. But it will live on forever in the Internet. So please know, dear Dennis (Kucinich), Bernie (Sanders) and blessed Gene McCarthy wherever you are, that I have not defected, no matter what the NSA surveillance devices may detect in my computer...

11/2014 - The Ghettoization of Journalism (opinion)

Bernard Baruch noted that everyone has a right to one's own opinion, but not to one's own set of facts.

Teddy Roosevelt deplored the concept of "hyphenated Americans" believing that while each of us had a history stemming from elsewhere, we were primarily citizens of the United States and those favoring their group's special interests over those of the nation would be instrumental in tearing the country's social fabric.

This could have been seen as the subtext of the New York Press Club's October state-of-journalism conference. There were unasked questions that need to be addressed.

The balkanization of entertainment sources is a cultural phenomenon. Few are the network shows that "everybody" watches, fewer still, the movies. This could lead to greater freedom, more choices and intellectual exploration. But ghettoization of the news makes it difficult for the nation to coalesce and confront major issues.

The trend seems to be of ever smaller niches—whether "genres" in book publishing or bloggers purporting to be news purveyors. Accuracy has become a casualty; individual bloggers can hardly afford copy editors and fact checkers and these guardians at the gates are now rare species.

Reporters write in the third person, present the news as objectively as possible, and don't inject themselves into the story. Columnists may write subjectively, in the first person, and expound—their own opinions front and center. But with "personal branding" engulfing the field, the concept of news and editorials as separate entities has eroded. In tandem with this, technology has moved to the fore at the expense of content. The means have become the message. Reporters are now one-man-bands, using the new apps to blog—photograph, record, write, and most of all, tout themselves.

CBS TV anchor Walter Cronkite was "the most trusted man in America," not because he injected himself or his opinions into his broadcasts, but rather because he didn't. Thus, when after having concluded that the reports he was receiving from Vietnam were skewed he went to see for himself and upon returning denounced the war, the effect was resounding. LBJ is reported to have said that having "lost Cronkite" he'd "lost the war."

As myriad individuals claim to be presenting the news—any platform will do—authoritative, knowledgeable voices, if indeed there are any left, are drowned out. Newspapers across the country are cutting back or folding, as are local stations, which could have a huge impact on the coming election as regional issues are not addressed on mainstream media. Celebrity culture has taken over the front pages of the tabloids where hard news used to be.

In order to function, a democratic society needs an informed electorate, which means facts first, opinions and fluff later. This isn't happening. We don't share the same set of facts. There are fewer touchstones that we have in common. We scarcely speak the same language. There is ever less common currency. So when one queries "Whither journalism?" what's also being asked is "Whither the nation?"

10/2014 - The Consequences of Historical Amnesia (opinion)
When candidate Obama was running for president in 2008 he promised transparency in government. When he took office, however, among his first policies was refusing to investigate possible crimes by the Bush administration thereby encouraging a cover-up culture. Those who told the truth were penalized—the worst ever war against whistleblowers and the journalists who brought public attention to their disclosures—while those who lied were rewarded, namely the heads of our so-called "intelligence" agencies.

The admitted surprise of our security community at the sudden rise of ISIS indicates a massive intelligence failure. ISIS didn't spring up overnight like toadstools after rain; it was years in the making. But our intelligence agencies were, in the words of pre-Snowden whistleblower Thomas Drake, focused "in" instead of "out." (I'm sure the NSA knows of every letter I've ever written to The New York Times, but was unaware of the development of ISIS.)

Now, as Kobani is about to fall, Turkey, rather than defending the city, is bombing the Kurds. Didn't anybody know that the Turks have been fighting the Kurds for decades, if not centuries? Did anyone really believe that the Turks would do anything that would help the Kurds? The Harvard motto is "Veritas" and Joe Biden again spoke the truth in his Harvard speech—as he did when he pointed out that Iraq is three nations, cobbled together by a European map-maker. Vice President Biden noted the dubious records vis-à-vis ISIS of our so-called allies, for which he's having to apologize. Apologize to the Turks, who haven't yet apologized to the Armenians for the genocide of 1915? Apologize to other "allies" in the region who'd been funding ISIS?

We have allied ourselves with the worst tyrants, the most repressive regimes in the Middle East. When the populations of these nations rebel, and rebel they will at some point, where will that leave the U.S.?

ISIS cannot defeat us, but it can lead us to defeat ourselves by continuing to pour our national treasure into endless wars even as our infrastructure deteriorates, our social safety net frays and our once-cherished rights, the rights that used to define who we are, erode and we become a surveillance state.

By showing videos of the public beheadings of U.S. citizens public outrage results. And the U.S. takes the bait. Never mind that much of what ISIS does is also done by our allies in the region: public beheadings every Friday in Saudi Arabia, for example.

Only when danger entered the White House was the Secret Service called to account. James Clapper, who lied to Congress, continues to head the NSA while the man who cast light into the dark shadows of the agency, Edward J. Snowden, is a fugitive. John Brennan, who lied to Congress, continues as head of the CIA even as John Kiriakou, who told the truth about the U.S. use of torture and that it was not an aberration, but policy, languishes in prison. And Bradley/Chelsea Manning, who released videos of what we were actually doing in Iraq—gunning down civilians as well as killing the two Reuters journalists, has been sentenced to 35 years, as the perpetrators go free. And for the agencies, it's business as usual.

Historical amnesia is playing a major role in Ukraine as well. Has anybody sought to learn why the separatists feel as they do? Doesn't anybody in the State Department know that Ukrainian General Vlasov and his 100,000 troops sided with the Nazis in WWII, so that disestablishing the Russian language in Eastern Ukraine brought back horrific memories. The separatists didn't need Moscow to egg them on. They had historical grievances in abundance.

Since the end of WWII virtually any place where the U.S. intervened militarily the consequences have been disastrous. We (and the British) took out Mossadegh, reinstalled the Shah, and reaped the Ayatollahs. Vietnam is still suffering birth injuries in the third generation thanks to Agent Orange and land mines are still exploding. Many veterans of that conflict are also suffering the effects of Agent Orange. In the "secret war" in Cambodia, we got rid of Sihanouk which ushered in the bloody Kmer Rouge. We took out democratically elected Allende and left Chile with 17 years of torture under Pinochet. Somalia? Yemen?

And then there was Iraq: lied into an invasion that has resulted in havoc for the region. Do we never learn?

So whether it's a case of "there are none so blind as those who will not see," or of ignorance about anything that happened before today's headlines, Santayana's admonition obtains: Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.

04/2014 - "Silenced" - (film review)
"Silenced," a documentary being shown at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a must-see.

In taking us through the aftermath of whistleblowing for three who dared speak truth to power, it becomes an odyssey through the dark byways within a secret government which most people don't know exists.

Featured are John Kiriakou, who revealed the U.S. use of torture and that it was not an aberration, but policy; Thomas Drake, who disclosed that the NSA had engaged in massive illegality with warrantless surveillance and had reversed its focus from "out," (foreign nations), to "in," (Americans); and Jesselyn Radack, an attorney in the DoJ who resigned over the department's violating the law by purging her files even as it was prosecuting Enron for destroying evidence. Subsequently she became the lawyer for John Kiriakou and Edward Snowden.

"Silenced" is an effort by James Spione, who had previously presented "An Incident in New Baghdad," about the video taken from a U.S. military helicopter as its crew machine-gunned countless civilians on the ground, killing two Reuters journalists, in an incident the government had previously denied. That film was nominated for an Oscar. Yet Bradley/Chelsea Manning, the army private who against regulations made the gunship video clip available to the public, was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

In recounting the travails of Kiriakou, Drake, and Radack, the film shows the extremes to which the government will go to protect what it chooses, despite what many believe is the people's right to know. It shows, for example, the adamance of former vice president Richard Cheney to curtail "leaks" to a congressional investigative committee of evidence that the NSA possessed information which might well have averted 9/11.

As Radack explained, the 1917 Espionage Act was aimed at spies—agents secretly working for a foreign government. It is not applicable to whistleblowers, but is being used as a device for muzzling them. Because the penalties are so draconian the fact that it's difficult to convict under this law provides scant comfort: the accused must defend themselves and thus incur legal costs that crush them financially, bills that can be in the millions, according to both Kiriakou and Drake.

Kiriakou went broke. He said that after his wife told him there was no money to buy food they went to the Welfare Office and qualified for everything, including food stamps and Medicaid. (Radack is now representing him pro bono.)

Drake's family fell apart. We saw his wife's face when the federal agents entered the Drake home, and went through every drawer and shelf. He was financially ruined and could not get a job even after being cleared of all charges. This once senior-NSA executive now works part time in an Apple store.

The day Radack was informed she might be going to jail, this MS sufferer, wracked by stress, suffered a miscarriage.

The film is presented dispassionately. That said, it is deeply disturbing. While it's talky, as fact-filled features frequently are, there are wrenching scenes: Kiriakou's children clinging to him after they've been told he has to "go away"; and Radack's speaking of the terror she felt at having been "targeted" by the government and describing awakening in a blood-soaked bed in the throes of a miscarriage.

But the larger story is what has happened to the U.S. government post 9/11. In its efforts to hide unpleasant truths - "black holes" around the world where no law applies and where sometimes not even heads of state are aware of their existence, it's an intelligence agency-to-intelligence agency operation, according to Kiriakou, a former CIA counter-terrorism specialist. Radack claimed there is wanton violation of the Constitution, ignoring the First and Fourth Amendments.

Radack pointed to the prosecution being permitted in camera meetings with judges from which the defense is excluded. Materials essential to the defense being marked "classified," putting them out of reach.

Democracy relies on an informed citizenry and it is the news media who inform the citizenry. As Drake noted, "The final court is the court of public opinion." Thus journalists are also targets, most especially those using the information provided by whistleblowers. The ongoing case against James Risen, The New York Times reporter who is risking prison for protecting a source, is cited.

John Kiriakou, who did not torture anyone, who refused to take "enhanced interrogation" training, is the only one in the torture panoply to be sent to prison. The proponents of torture and those who perpetrated it roam free.

Prior to his leaving, to explain his soon-to-be absence, Kiriakou told his young children that he would be working in Pennsylvania teaching bad guys so they could earn their high-school diplomas. In what appears to be a gratuitous vindictive blow, the prison authorities did not allow the highly educated Kiriakou to teach and instead assigned him to be janitor of the prison chapel.

"Silenced" does not pontificate but, to me, the substance of what it portrays, convincingly and in documentary fashion, is a litany of outrageous and quite likely illegal persecutions orchestrated under government auspices to silence critics and to cover-up policies and campaigns that, one hopes, would never have been initiated and would certainly never have survived, in "sunshine." Yet many of these abuses are now widely known and public reaction has been, at best, muted. From where I sit, one of the most horrific tolls taken by the terrorism that has reached our shores was fully anticipated by the instigators. Instill fear. Encourage government paranoia. Fracture the American psyche to promote decay from within. We're seeing the success of that strategy day-after-day. "National Security" is now the banner under which laws cease to exist and "inalienable rights" are forfeited - or willingly surrendered. Secret courts, secret judges issuing secret rulings that serve to corrupt the Justice Department, the Executive branch and the viability of long cherished freedoms.

The film ends with a clip of Edward Snowden explaining why he believes that the U.S. is now a surveillance state.

Plans are under way for a general release of "Silenced" which debuted this month at the Tribeca Film Festival.

02/2014 - Land of the Free and Home of the Brave? (opinion)
We used pride ourselves on being "the land of the free and the home of the brave," who had "nothing to fear but fear itself."

However, since 9/11 we've become the land of the fearful whose population, in large measure, can be manipulated by the "t" word: terrorist. There can be no freedom without bravery because the fear-dominated willingly surrender their freedom for the illusion of security. Thus all manner of illegal activities by public officials - from simple venality, to perjury, to acquiescencent authorization of torture - is stamped "classified" and hidden under the "national security" rubric.

Erich Fromm examined a similar phenomenon in his towering 1941 work, "Escape From Freedom," which deals with the psychological factors that make freedom a burden. What Fromm was analyzing was the mindset that allowed the rise of Nazism.

With freedom comes responsibility, which starts with learning the facts and leads to questioning authority, whether state, church or media. It may be more comfortable - temporarily - to accept government assertions, but there is a price to be paid later. How much easier it is to call for the heads of those who expose truths we'd rather not know. There are some for whom thinking is so painful they adopt a "Kill 'em all" philosophy — the "all" being the designated enemy of the day. Thus they avoid having to weigh facts, make difficult judgments and risk angering those in power. So, like "the good Germans" during the Nazi period, they see nothing, hear nothing, know nothing, and as a consequence, have the excuse to do nothing.

Only two US senators, Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska, questioned the "Tonkin Gulf incident" which led to "The Tonkin Gulf Resolution" which further mired us in the Vietnam morass. An insufficient number of senators questioned President George W. Bush's rush to attack Iraq. That war of choice was based on erroneous intelligence.

Our bravest are in prison or exile for having exposed unpalatable truths.

For exposing, among other things, a video of U.S. military personnel in a helicopter, shooting Iraqi civilians and killing two Reuters journalists, which the government had previously denied, Bradley Manning is serving a 35-year sentence, while those who authorized the despicable acts are free. For revealing that the U.S. uses torture and that the policy is not an aberration, but actual government policy, John Kiriakou languishes in a federal prison, although it's the government that needs correcting. The proponents and practitioners of torture have not been prosecuted, despite the use of torture being contrary to U.S. as well as international law.

For showing that the US has become a surveillance state, with all the machinery at the ready to become a police state, Edward Snowden has been forced into exile. Earlier, Thomas Drake, considered "the smartest man in the room" by some colleagues at the NSA, did something similar and was charged with espionage - not proven - but his life was upended and his career ruined.

Our justice system has been corrupted as whistleblowers are denied the means of mounting a defense; the material they require is "classified" as embarrassed intelligence officials cover their malfeasances with the flag. We have secret FISA courts making secret rulings and issuing secret subpoenas. Secret from whom, one might ask. Not from those being served.

Our government has embarked on a policy of silencing the witnesses to protect the criminals. The conversation has been changed from the message - the frequently horrific revelations - to the messenger. All in the name of "national security."

"Those who would sacrifice liberty for [the illusion] of security will, in the end, have neither liberty nor security and will deserve neither." This truism has been voiced by many—from Benjamin Franklin to Winston Churchill.

Freedom and bravery are linked. You can't have one without the other. If we lack the courage to live with the demands and dangers inherent in freedom, we will be opting for authoritarianism.


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The Constant Columnist

Beatrice Williams-Rude
The Ghettoization of Journalism (opinion)

Ghettoization of the news makes it difficult for the nation to coalesce and confront major issues. More in The Constant Columnist.