As a political activist, I have a love-hate relationship with CounterPunch. All in all, the balance typically comes down on the side of love, for as a leftist activist, I find information and analyses in CP that are vital to what I do, and that would be hard to find in other sources. Plus, a generally savvy attitude of iconoclasm and suspicion toward power reigns at CP that, beyond being useful, is plain good fun.
But like most people—and probably most human institutions—CP has the vices of its virtues. And sometimes, these vices are as exasperating as the faults of a beloved spouse: the most intimately experienced, the faults that get most under your skin and have you ready to scream at the person you love most, “How the hell did I marry the world’s biggest asshole?”
While I’m not “married” to CP to the point of feeling that sort of pure (and fortunately temporary) blind rage, I am sufficiently involved, as a religious reader and sometime writer, to occasionally feel something akin to spousal exasperation. With sufficient provocation—and CP’s two recent hit pieces (see here and here) against “rogue journalist” Caitlin Johnstone certainly provide it—I’m forced to view the traits I find most infernally galling in my “beloved” and think, “Jesus F. Christ, there she goes again!”
For those unacquainted with the CP attacks on Caitlin Johnstone, it’s important to realize that they’re also (and perhaps even primarily) attacking long-time Green Party activist and former GP presidential candidate David Cobb. Being ill acquainted with the history of why Johnstone attackers Yoav Litvin and Joshua Frank feel such evident bad blood toward Cobb, I disqualify myself as a competent judge of that history. So, I defend Cobb only to extend of defending his embrace of Johnstone’s journalism—an embrace (despite specific disagreements with her) I emphatically share. Despite Johnstone’s provocative desire to fish in troubled waters—doesn’t CP itself like to court controversy, as any “muckraking journalism” worthy of the name should?—I see nothing in her writings to justify Frank’s wildly overblown claim that Cobb is “attempting to destroy the Green Party” by endorsing her work.
But to revert to my “spousal vice” analogy, I see CP’s attacks on Johnstone reflecting three characteristic CP vices that are the flip sides of its (normally substantial) virtues: 1) intellectual and credential snobbery, 2) excessive suspicion, and 3) inadequate regard for the activist perspective.
Believing Johnstone practices a brand of journalism of crucial contemporary relevance, I will devote the rest of this article to challenging CP’s rather snobbish, misguided attempt to “poison her wells” by questioning her journalistic qualifications and credentials. In a second piece, I’ll show how CP’s besetting vices of excessive suspicion and disregard for on-the-ground activism—vices intimately tied to its substantial virtues—have contributed to its unjust attack on Johnstone.
Misapplied Meritocracy vs. Desirable Pro-democracy Bias
A perennial—and inevitably vexing—question is determining “who has the goods”: determining who, in short, is qualified to perform a socially valued function. And while competence is clearly an important matter—where medical or Sherpa guide competence is concerned, it’s frequently a life-or-death one—competence does not obviously lie with those with the flashiest or most impeccably official credentials. As someone substantially influenced by the radical institutional critic Ivan Illich—above all, by his bombshell educational book Deschooling Society—I’m pretty apt defend the practitioner rights of those who acquire their socially valuable competence through less approved or completely unofficial channels.
Given CP’s typical editorial interests and commitments—above all, in light of official meritocracy’s current glaring failings—it seems strikingly strange that CP writers should apply such a rigorous meritocratic credential check to Johnstone.
In speaking of CP’s “editorial interests and commitments,” I think especially of chief editor Jeffrey St. Clair’s abiding interest in various genres of nonclassical music—fields which are virtually a resounding affirmation of Illich’s views on the value of informal education and virtually an outright refutation of credential-check meritocracy. Exactly how many world-renowned bluesmen, or how many world-renowned exponents of the rock music they influenced and help create, acquired their “chops” through formal credential-bestowing schooling? When Johnstone does, for starters, have an Australian journalism degree, it seems distinctly odd for CP to sit in judgment over the quality of Australian higher education. But it seems utterly contrary to CP’s characteristic subversive spirit (a spirit deepened, I imagine by St. Clair’s love of subversive music) to be applying such sniffy, snobby scrutiny to her journalistic creds.
But in citing “official meritocracy’s current glaring failings,” my suspicions of official meritocracy and its sniffy credential checks run much deeper. I think above all of three glaring (and somewhat intersecting) instances where official meritocracies have set public policy and launched our nation on a crash course with catastrophe: 1) mainstream economics, 2) “professional class” control of the Democratic Party, and 3) neocon and liberal-interventionist domination of foreign policy. Even if it were my chief purpose, I’d have a hard time citing the abundant evidence for these failure of official meritocracy in a single article; I must trust the leftist viewpoint I share with most CP readers and writers to solicit consensus that these failings of official meritocracy are important, ongoing, and real. But as a quick primer on the subject, readers can refer for evidence to three books I’ve read: James K. Galbraith’s The End of Normal on the failings of credentialed mainstream economists; Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal on the failings of Democrats’ “professional class” meritocracy; and Mike Lofgren’s The Deep State on the failings of the neocon and interventionist liberal foreign policy establishment.
These three current, glaring failures of official meritocracy provide striking evidence that we mustn’t automatically make distinguished establishment credentials our litmus test of actual competence. But these three “epic fails” have a common root that make them even more relevant to Johnstone and journalism as her chosen endeavor. Namely, they—like journalism itself—are not disciplines of hard science where scrupulous attention to the behavior of the physical world is a key determinant in arriving at the needed truth about one’s subject matter. While hard, unchanging facts certainly play a role in journalism itself (as in the cited disciplines where meritocracy failed), what counts just as much is the correctness of one’s bias—whether one’s value system is a good fit with the (in large part social) world being studied, written about, or made the subject of policy. And if it hadn’t been clear previously, it should be obvious now that not all biases and value systems are created equal: that certain ones deeply menace social harmony and quite likely the very survival of the human species.
One such menacing bias, quite arguably, is the corporatist or pro-plutocrat bias, largely responsible for the three cited failings of mainstream economics, Democratic Party politics, and neocon and neoliberal interventionist foreign policy. The same bias, by the way, that tends to shape the current meritocracy of professional journalism and make it a propaganda-spreading menace to the common good. To which CP’s pro-democracy alternative journalism and Caitlin Johnstone’s pro-democracy “rogue’ journalism are welcome and desperately needed antidotes. Rather than focusing on Johnstone’s official “meritocracy” credentials (these days, largely one’s license to be a presstitute), CP should be focused on the far more relevant question of her pro-democracy bias and her competence in 1) analyzing events in terms of that bias, 2) persuading readers to view current reality in terms that bias, and 3) motivating activists who already share that pro-democracy bias. If these are—as there’s reason to think there should be—the most relevant criteria of competence, Johnstone’s given ample evidence of having the needed journalistic chops.
Johnstone’s Got the Needed “Chops”
That as normally subversive a publication as CP should take potshots at Johnstone’s (supposedly “infra dig”) Australian journalism degree, or her lack of substantial prior reporting in her own nation, strikes me as misplaced meritocratic credential snobbery that CP fails to apply to many writers (yours truly included) who have graced—and hardly disgraced—its own pages. Many of us, unlike Johnstone, can’t claim journalism degrees of any sort.
And more crucially, what special relevance does a high-prestige journalism degree or a substantial reporting history have to opinion journalism—which is predominantly the sort of writing that Johnstone does? Beyond a certain basic competence in using language grammatically and readably, and a basic honesty in questions of fact, what more can those of us who feel a pro-democracy bias is now crucial ask of an opinion journalist than to be a persuasive practitioner of and advocate for such a bias? Even for those who don’t share that bias, Johnstone accomplishes an important mission: showing clearly and logically how events—and the world generally—look to people who share her bias. Understanding how politically important constituencies understand the world is itself important information for free citizens; given the biased, largely amateur, and highly polemical nature of journalism at the time the Bill of Rights was written, her model of journalism is quite close to what the First Amendment framers meant to defend in specifically protecting freedom of “the press.”
Given media technology and a concentrated ownership of media by special interests our First Amendment’s framers never could have imagined, the highly polemical “rogue” journalism of writers like Johnstone has vastly increased in importance as a counterweight to the prevailing consolidation. But for those of us who regard a pro-democracy bias (all other factors being equal) as a contributing factor to greater realism, having that bias amplifies the importance a journalist gains by simply being rogue.
Why a pro-democracy bias should render a journalist (all other things being equal) more realistic is a deep, fascinating philosophical question—touching on both social and political philosophy and epistemology—whose surface I can’t even begin to scratch here. A rough-and ready answer would argue that deliberative democracy has emerged as the best model of government for human beings and relate democratic citizens’ collaborative political truth seeking to scientists’ collaborative truth seeking about the natural world. Every good journalist, like every good scientist, is submitting an argument about the way things are for “peer review” and realizes that the best hope for collectively arriving at the truth lies in vastly expanding the number of qualified peers. So a good, truth-seeking journalist strives to expand political literacy—and therefore the number of competent critics of his or her own work—as much as a good scientist strives to expand scientific literacy.
Intelligence is humanity’s glory, and deliberative democracy recognizes that by giving human intelligence its maximal chance to guide human affairs. And in that regard, Caitlin Johnstone models in her journalism a new—and ideal—sort of democratic citizen: utterly impatient of official bullshit, skeptical and feisty to the point of belligerence toward those in power, and intelligent in a natural, artless way that makes her intelligence extremely easy to underrate or overlook. For me, her special value abides in making consistently astute political analyses (often the same one finds at CounterPunch) in a style so populist it seems easy to mimic—until one actually tries. Johnstone combines intelligence that assumes no airs about being intelligent with good writing that makes no bones about being good writing. In a society as regrettably anti-intellectual as ours (have you seen our president?), Johnstone is actually a Trojan horse for the intelligent left: who better to trick the “unwashed masses” into intelligent thought than a writer who speaks their language with so little apparent strain? (And if there’s little actual strain, her writing is pure untutored genius.)
As Naomi Klein has convincingly argued, the political left—the biggest advocate of deliberative democracy—is marginalized at a time when humanity needs our voices most. The worst of CP is everything that contributes to the marginalization. Such as “poisoning the wells” of so effective voice for our cause as Caitlin Johnstone by seeking—without adequate reason—to utterly discredit her as a source.