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Guessing at the Facts

The Press and the Boston Bombing

by AMIEN ESSIF

In the ruckus of commentary that has fogged the media since the Boston bombings, a few good words have been said, a few good insights, a few good inquiries and answers. But like every existential crisis worth its salt—either personal or national—the questioner starts questioning herself.

For a country, that’s called media criticism. There were a couple of flat but necessary articles—like this one on The Atlantic website—that asked: Is it okay to wait and sort out the facts before we pronounce on if, or how, or why the Tsarnaev brothers thought there was a reason for attacking a crowd of civilians? Why does everyone with a keyboard feel they need to be the first one to guess correctly at the facts instead of uncovering them?

Immediate and irresponsible reactions to a politicized tragedy like the marathon bombing are destructive in themselves. Nevertheless, because of the agreement commonly known as free speech, our horror at how the media explosion resembled the same shrapnel it fetishized can only go so far as more criticism. We can’t storm the New York Post and throw their desktops into the street in retaliation for their libelous coverage. All we can do is force them into a conversation about how we want our media to support the cause of balancing our society between free and functional.

Media criticism is one of the ways to curb the recklessness of a press whose business plan resembles a fast food restaurant that never closes. But even criticism succumbs to the deadline pressure imposed by a million bloggers scooping news all night for zero remuneration and zero job security. The real solution is still economically elusive, but it will most certainly have to involve giving writers the time and space to have a real thought.

After all, brilliant insights on current events can come out of the relationship between a thinking person and their pen. Take this analysis of our situation post-Patriot’s Day 2013:

After…years of stretching our arms from the South Seas to the North Atlantic, we feel not a whit more secure than before. All we’ve done is to lose the trust of other peoples. We have gained a world and lost it. When we were small, and beset by greater powers, we were less afraid. For the fear is not from monsters who walk abroad, but from monsters who walk in our hearts….A fear of some disaster is companioned secretly within us by a yearning for that same disaster, swift and soundless…. We seem to be going on the strange assumption that if we can but put our fears on a mass scale, they will, belonging thus to all of us, be somehow wiser.

Now here is a good illustration of how a writer, by taking his time and rifling through some history books, can administer a patient prognosis of terrorism in 2013 and offer some perspective on our existential mess. And if it sounds a bit stilted, like it was written by a 20th-century poet, that’s because it was. The extract comes from the essay “Nonconformity” which Chicago novelist Nelson Algren wrote in 1952 to take on the great communist purgings of the McCarthy era.

The fact that in his essay Algren never once used the word “communist” suggests that he wasn’t just reflexively swiping at a political tide that tried to drown him out of the American conversation. He was hashing out a critique that remains relevant sixty years later when American distrust and distrust of Americans has only sunk deeper in its downward spiral.

If Algren were still alive, he would probably have dismissed as obvious the argument that “terrorism” is the new “communism.” Outside of their quotes, of course, the terms refer to historically very different things. Al Qaeda-type terrorism is much more violent and much less organized than 20th-century communism which articulated a pretty clear vision of what the world should look like. But in the mind of America—as much the reactionary dad of the world as it ever was—the ragings of the oppressed are still dismissed as inexplicable germs from another world while secretly and deeply feared as offspring of America’s own misery.

A healthy press has got to be limber, active, and penetrating. But if the wisest thing written about our country’s reaction to the marathon bombing was written by a poet who died in 1981, then today’s pundits could surely take a minute to catch their breath and their perspective.

Amien Essif writes for In These Times and maintains The Gazine.