Scandalous Reflections on Scandal

Mistakes v. Crimes

One useful measure of a political culture’s moral level is the nature of what counts as a terrible outrage, disgrace, or scandal in that culture. The Vietnam War – really an imperial U.S. war on Vietnam and neighboring countries – has a bad reputation in the United States. That’s a good thing, no doubt, but consider the main reason for the war’s poor standing in the nation’s collective memory. It’s not because the U.S. “crucifixion of South Asia” (as Noam Chomsky aptly described it at the time) was a monumentally immoral and imperial crime that killed from 3 to 5 million Southeast Asians (along with 58,000 U.S troops) between 1962 and 1975. No, the Vietnam War’s bad name results from the fact that the crime is understood to have been a humiliating failure, costing tens of thousands of U.S lives, stirring up mass protest, and damaging the credibility of U.S. foreign policy in a blundering but supposedly well-intended “mistake” that ended with the North Vietnamese sweeping into Saigon.

A similar moral cluelessness mars the national U.S. memory of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s invasion and occupation of Iraq. It is commonplace by now for many U.S. politicians on both sides of the nation’s partisan divide to refer to the absurdly named Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) as “a mistake.” What you won’t hear except on the mostly excluded margins of U.S. media and politics culture is serious reference to OIF as immoral, imperial, and/or criminal. Such descriptions are wholly appropriate for a transparently illegal war of unprovoked invasion driven by blatantly petro-imperial, racist, and commercial imperatives.  Granted advance approved in Congress by then US Senator Hillary Clinton and many other hawkish Democrats, including Reille Hunter’s future sex-scandal partner John Edwards (then a US Senator from North Carolina), this astonishing imperial transgression killed as many as 1 million Iraqis, injured and displaced millions more, and devastated social and civil infrastructure across Mesopotamia. Still, the invasion can be discussed as a “mistake” only in the same sense as Vietnam: as a well-intended policy that didn’t work.

Much the same vapid moral nothingness surrounds the debates over the U.S. military and CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation” (torture) techniques and murderous drone strikes across the Muslim world in the wake of the 9/11/2001 jetliner attacks. The disputes are mainly about whether or not these terrible, arch-criminal tools of repression actually work or not in the so-called war on terror, more accurately described as a war of terror. The fact that these outrageous methods and weapons have immorally traumatized, maimed, crippled, and killed human beings on a mass scale is beside the point, for Uncle Sam is never a criminal. “The United States,” Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeline Albright explained in 1999,”is good. We try to do our best everywhere.”

Watergate v. COINTELPRO

The infamous Watergate Scandal is another case in point. It was a petty burglary of the Democratic Party’s national headquarters in 1972 by a handful of thugs working for the Republic National Committee. It became a giant national media obsession that led to the resignation of U.S. President Richard Nixon. And it was nothing compared to COINTELPRO. As the leading left US intellectual Noam Chomsky explained 25 years ago:

“at the exact same time that Watergate was discovered, there were exposures in the courts and through the Freedom of Information Act of massive F.B.I. operations to undermine political freedom in the United States, running back to Roosevelt but really picking up under Kennedy. It was called ‘COINTRELPRO’ [short for ‘Counterintelligence Program’], and it included a vast range of things….the straight Gestapo-style assassination of a Black Panther leader [Fred Hampton];…organizing race riots in an effort to destroy black movements; …
paulstreetattacks on the American Indian Movement, the women’s movement, you name it…fifteen years of F.B.I. disruption of the Socialist Workers Party – that meant regular F.B.I. burglaries, stealing membership lists and using them to threaten people, going to businesses and getting people fired from their jobs and so on. That fact alone…is already vastly more important than…a bunch of Keystone Kops [breaking] into the Democratic National Committee headquarters one time. The Socialist Workers Party is a legal political party after all…And this wasn’t just a bunch of gangsters, this was the national political police; that’s very serious….In comparison to this, Watergate is a tea party” (Chomksy, Understanding Power [New Press, 2002], 118).

Very serious, that is, to anyone who cares about basic civil liberties. It wasn’t terribly serious as far as the Washington Post and other Watergate-obsessed corporate media institutions were concerned, which is why you will get blank stares (“Coinwhatmo?”) when you mention “the COINTELPRO scandal” to all but a few Americans.

Missiles, Coups, and Mass Murder vs. Cigars and a Stained Dress

Watergate and even COINTELPRO were small crimes compared also to Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon’s transgressions abroad, including in Nixon’s case the secret, mass-murderous bombing of Cambodia (leading to the rise of the proto-genocidal Pol Pot regime there) and US coordination and support of a fascistic military coup that overthrew the democratically elected Chilean government of the Salvador Allende and killed thousands of workers and activists in 1973. During the televised Watergate hearings, nobody in the reigning mass media or in Congress bothered to mentioned that Nixon had carried out “one of the most intense bombings campaigns in history in densely populated areas of a peasant country [Cambodia], killing maybe 150,000 people” (Chomsky, Understanding Power, 120).

Watergate was also a much smaller crime than the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra cockup. That scandal involved elite US military, White House, and intelligence officials illegally funding the right-wing Nicaraguan terrorists known as the Contras by covertly selling missiles to Iran. Reflecting the U.S. Establishment’s sense that Sixties-inspired press freedom and independence had gone far enough with the Watergate coverage, corporate media chieftains agreed not to pursue the Iran-Contra Scandal to the point where another criminal U.S. President might have had to resign – this time over a matter that was explicitly problematic for the notion that US foreign policy is always conducted with good and noble intentions.

Thanks in no small part to that agreement, the next biggest scandal in the official U.S. memory after Watergate involves not the murder of thousands of Nicaraguan peasants but rather the unseemly soiling of a young White House staffer’s blue dress with Bill Clinton’s well-travelled DNA. Clinton currently enjoys remarkably high popularity in the U.S. He does so with no small assistance from a corporate media that helped nearly force his resignation in the face of a monumental presidential scandal two decades ago. So what brought Clinton to the brink of defenestration from the Oval Office: passing the arch-regressive and corporatist North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) over and against his campaign promises not to do so?; pushing and signing the vicious elimination of poor families’ prior entitlement to minimal federal cash assistance in the name of “welfare reform” while embracing endemic corporate welfare and pushing through the deadly de-regulation of high finance?; humiliating Russia, criminally bombing Serbia (on falser pretexts), and otherwise generating a New Cold War with Russia that helped crush hopes for a desperately needed diversion of resources from the bloated Pentagon System to the meeting of human and social needs?; imposing the savage “economic sanctions” that killed more than a million Iraqis? No, what almost proved Clinton’s undoing was the childish Monica Lewinsky cigar and fellatio fiasco – one of Wild Bill’s copious sordid sexual escapades – and the silly lies he told about his private skullduggery.

“The People Who Own the Place”: Clinton v. Edwards and Nixon

Clinton has been forgiven and redeemed in the “mainstream” U.S. media and politics culture. Such exoneration will never be extended to John Edwards. The reasons for this contrast include the particularly twisted nature of Edwards’ baby-Daddy transgression (committed while Elizabeth Edwards struggled with ultimately terminal cancer) and his subsequent bizarre cover-up. At the same time, however, crazy John Edwards committed an even more unpardonable sin in the corporate-managed “democracy.” He campaigned eloquently, passionately, and perhaps even sincerely against the moneyed elite and corporate-financial domination of both of the nation’s leading political organizations. Whether he meant it or not, candidate Edwards went off the reservation on concentrated wealth.

The more interesting Clinton comparison is with Nixon. Reflecting on why Nixon was removed from the White House over the “triviality” of Watergate, Chomsky noted that Nixon “made a lot of powerful enemies” when he tore apart the post-World War II Bretton Woods system. The Bretton Woods framework established the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency fixed to gold and placed restrictions on import quotas and the like. It made the U.S. the world’s banker, in essence. When Nixon took the nation off the gold standard, suspended the convertibility of the dollar, and raised import duties, he messed with “the people who own the place.” Leading “multinational corporations and international banks relied on the [Bretton Woods] system, and they did not like it being broken down” (Chomsky, Understanding Power, 119). This elite anger over Nixon’s move was evident in the Wall Street Journal and other elite business venues, suggesting strongly that more than few powerful people were happy to see Nixon go.

Clinton, it should be remembered, stayed carefully obedient to the nation’s corporate and financial masters. The “people who own the place” occupied key positions and maintained hegemonic influence in his militantly neoliberal, NAFTA-signing administration. As Charles Ferguson notes in his useful book Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America (2012), Clinton’s “economic and regulatory policy was taken over by the [financial] industry’s designated drivers – Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, and Alan Greenspan…[and] investment bankers were given clear signals that they could behave as they wished.”

Deflategate vs. Militarism Promotion

A revealing episode in the United States’ rich history of selective public outrage comes from the world of sports. Look at the high-profile media scandal that emerged before the most recent Super Bowl merged over supposedly shocking revelations that the National Football League (NFL) champion New England Patriots manipulated the air-pressure of game footballs in accord with the preferences of their quarterback Tom Brady. “Deflategate” is a minor matter even on purely athletic and sportsmanship grounds but it has received enormous media attention and popular discussion over the last seven months. It is now the biggest NFL scandal ever.

In reality, however, two other NFL-related scandals would deserve considerably more attention in a morally serious culture. The first is the NFL’s campaign to undermine and discredit recent path-breaking medical research showing beyond reasonable doubt that the frankly vicious and super-violent game sold by the massively profitable and powerful league has a pervasively crippling and deadly impact on the brains of many of its players from top professional ranks down, This is no small moral matter given the extreme popularity of football in the US, where the more than 1.1 million high school students and more than 90,000 college students play the brain-damaging sport each year.

The second scandal has to do with recent reports that NFL teams have received millions of dollars from the US Defense Department in exchange for honoring US troops and veterans in on-field ceremonies and on stadium screens before and during games. There’s something more than a little distasteful about the NFL taking cash to salute the nation’s military personnel. The league, after all, is rolling in profits thanks in no small part to its cozy relationship with Washington. Thanks to its highly favored status with Washington, it functions as a de facto legal monopoly. It is classified as a 501(c)6 and therefore pays no taxes. No wonder the billionaires who own all but one of the league’s teams (the Green Bay Packers belong to 360,584 stockholders) all make handsome profits on their franchises (no other major U.S. sports league can say that). Surely, one might imagine, these uber-wealthy beneficiaries of corporate welfare would not need to be paid to throw some love at “our troops” – at the people who are sent off to kill, maim, die, and suffer horrible injuries in the names of “freedom” and “civilization.” But no, football barons must have their pound of flesh even for that little bit of “giving back” to the military “heroes” – something that militaristic Republican politicians like John McCain (R-AZ), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and Chris Christie have called “disgraceful” and “outrageous.”

Note, however, what is not a scandal in the national coverage and commentary, trapped in the usual moral quicksand of American Exceptionalism, which dictates that the United States and above all its military and its wars are inherently good and noble: the federal government takes millions of taxpayer dollars to invest in promoting the imperial militarism that produces mass-murderous crimes like the U.S. invasions of Vietnam and Iraq and the torture and drone strikes that have helped push untold masses of Muslims into the arms of the Islamic State and other extremist Islamist groups. If the taking of the taxpayer money by explicitly commercial, profit-seeking football capitalists is scandalous, so is the giving of it by the purportedly higher-minded Pentagon. The Defense Department spends the public money with the intention of advancing its ability to garner recruits and continued lavish taxpayer funding s for its murderous activitieis across a war-ravaged planet in which the U.S. accounts for nearly half of all military spending.

Poor Folks’ Welfare v. Rich Folks’ Welfare

Still, it’s good, I suppose, to see any scandal emerge that focuses some attention, however briefly, on federal payouts to the rich. In the U.S. for many decades, “mainstream” media and politics culture has advanced the noxious notion that there is something scandalous about the comparatively tiny percentage of resources the United States government spends on assistance to the poor. This poisonous and reactionary sentiment helped drive Bill Clinton (and Newt Gingrich’s) aforementioned welfare “reform” (elimination), a Dickensian policy that has proved calamitous for the nation’s many millions of impoverished Americans in the current century. Meanwhile, U.S. government welfare remains all too quietly alive and well, free of scandal – for the wealthy corporate and financial Few, that is. As the leading U.S. business paper BloombergBusiness candidly informed its elite (and therefore safe) readers two years ago, reporting on research from the International Monetary Fund:

“the largest U.S. banks aren’t really profitable at all…the billions of dollars they allegedly earn for their shareholders [are] almost entirely a gift from taxpayers…The top five banks – JPMorgan, Bank of America Corp, Citigroup Inc., Wells Fargo & Co,. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc…the banks occupying the commanding heights of the U.S. financial industry – with almost $9 trillion in assets, more than half the size of the U.S. economy – would just about break even in the absence of corporate welfare. In large part, the profits they report are essentially transfers from taxpayers to their shareholders.”

By “corporate welfare,” Bloomberg Business meant not just the massive bailouts the big banks received after helping crash the economy in 2008 and 2009, but also and above all the reduction of their borrowing costs by the federal government’s policy of loaning them money at low to zero interest rates.

It isn’t just in the financial sector, of course, where big, politically influential corporations receive giant government subsidies and protection, all free from the tough-love “free market discipline” of “welfare reform.” The aforementioned Pentagon System is itself a giant form of corporate welfare for high-tech U.S. and other global corporations, one of countless ways in which the federal government funds and protects Big Business, including the highly subsidized and super-profitable fossil fuel firms who are leading humanity over the cliff of radical anthropogenic climate change, Funny how that never quite makes it to real scandal status in the U.S. – no more than the millions killed abroad as “collateral damage” by the U.S. Empire, particularly in the oil-rich Middle East.

Paul Street lives in Iowa City. His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014). He can be reached at:


Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).