Given all the commotion over the past week or so, some of it right here on CounterPunch, you’d think that “rogue” journalist Caitlin Johnstone was the reincarnation of Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens made his fateful pact with the neocons of the Bush administration. Johnstone is now offering a tentative hand of solidarity to white nationalists. Johnstone has her clique of admirers, but she’s not yet in Hitchens’ class, either as a writer or a professional heretic.
I suppose many of you are too young to remember the Iraq War, but let’s recall that back in those hazy days of yore the neocons packed cruise missiles in their pockets, while the white nationalists (those who weren’t moonlighting as members of your local police department) were goose-stepping around with flaming torches, when they could afford the matches. Hitchens, who retains a curious band of Lefty loyalists to this day, was invited to the Bush White House several times to help plot bombing targets in Iraq; Caitlin hasn’t helped burn down a single black church, as far as I’m aware.
On Thursday, we ran a long, hyper-ventilating piece by Patrick Walker that proved to be less a defense of Johnstone than a rather fusillade of inchoate invective about CounterPunch. Fine. We publish these types of rants by Walker and his tiny cohort of Bernie or Busters every few months just to air out the inbox and eradicate the black mold. He’s known in the office here as HR Huff-n-Puff. Amid the fumes of Walker’s torpid verbiage, he didn’t even have the courage to address the topic at hand: Johnstone’s call for the Left to find common ground with the Alt-Right-Delete. I can’t help thinking that Johnstone deserved a little better from her champion.
Let me start by confessing that I’m not a huge fan of Johnstone’s writing. In surveying her greatest hits over the last few months, I came away with the sense that Johnstone is basically riding a one-trope pony, with that trope being the malign nature of the Deep State. Who knew the CIA was so evil? (Of course, many big time columnists, David Brooks and Thomas Friedman, come to mind, have yet to master even a single trope worth reading, so Johnstone’s already far outpacing those tired geldings.) For the conspiratorial Left, the Deep Staters seem to have eclipsed the 9/11 Truthers as the heralds of a new political Theory-0f-Everything. This is a welcome shift of emphasis as far as I’m concerned. Who really needs to read yet another belabored story on the demolition of WTC 7?
For many decades now, the American Left, what there is of it, has been in search of a comforting explanation for its rapidly eroding fortunes. It seems inexplicable to many that the Left could have become so politically impotent in an era of permanent wars and raging inequality. Rather than engage in rigorous self-inspection of its leaders, strategies and tactics, the Left has tended to point to malevolent outside forces as the agents of its demise, from the CIA’s domestic black ops to the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. Of course, there are many blood trails left by both of these agencies across the American political landscape, from the infiltration of the anti-war movement and SDS to the assassinations of black radicals and the decimation of the American Indian Movement. The Feds didn’t even try very hard to wipe up the trace evidence of their complicity in these crimes of the state.
I first encountered the phrase “Deep State” in the writings of the Canadian Peter Dale Scott (a fellow Eng. Lit major), though the predicate of the theory far predates Scott’s relatively docile explorations of the dark forces manipulating the secret management of the Empire. The origin myth of leftwing Deep State theory is, of course, the assassination of JFK, an act of internal regime change by a CIA hit-team orchestrated by Allen Dulles in retaliation for the president’s alleged plan to break-up the agency and yank US troops out of Vietnam. From that moment on, according Deep State theorizers, the secret government was firmly in control and no political transgressions against its agenda would be tolerated. As an omnipotent force, the existence of a Deep State satisfies the Left’s desire to rationalize its own sense of perennial powerlessness.
Of course, I remain an unrepentant Magic Bullet man, fully persuaded that Lee Harvey Oswald, as an ardent devotee of the Cuban Revolution, had a more personal motive to kill the anti-communist Kennedy (the first neoliberal) than did fussy old Allen Dulles. With a couple miraculous shots from his Carcano Rifle, Oswald demonstrated that regime change could be a two-way street.
The far right has cultivated it’s own Deep State theory, which dates back at least to the paranoid fever-dreams of the John Birchers, who are now enjoying something of a resurgence. For reactionary nationalists, the Deep State is a globalist contagion that has infiltrated institutions as varied as the Commie-penetrated State Department, the “liberal” CIA, the Federal Reserve, the United Nations and, of course, the National Park Service. For the right, the control room of the Deep State is occupied by bankers (Rothschilds), internationalists (Soros), multi-culturalists (Cornel West) and tree huggers (Jane Goodall) intent on eradicating the white Protestant values that made the Republic what it was during it’s glorious apogee in the Andy Jackson administration.
It took the election of Trump to achieve the potential “intersectionality” of these two disparate branches of Deep State Theory. Here at last was a JFK-like figure of the nationalist right, a man who was ready to smash NATO to pieces, revoke global trade pacts, retreat from interventionist wars, make nice with the Russians and chase all the little Hitlers out of the CIA. Then it all began unravel under the weight of RussiaGate©, a faux-scandal concocted by the Deep State to serve as a slo-motion coup d’etat. The tragedy of Trump makes for compelling reading, including dozens of articles probing similar veins that have appeared here on CounterPunch.
This is a fertile time for political polemicists and Johnstone’s popularity on the left side of the spectrum confirms my long-held view that many web-based readers like to wake up in the morning by having their core beliefs reconfirmed with a single click of the mouse. They crave the same basic menu of stories each day, written by the same writers at increasingly higher decibel levels. We can see the evidence by looking at the Google analytics for stories on CounterPunch. The louder the volume, the higher the hits.
As a writer of polemics, you seek to provoke, irritate and push right to the edge (and sometimes off-the-cliff) of permissible discourse. I’ve never called for a politician to die before, as Johnstone did recently in her column on John McCain, but I’ve come close. Alex and I even predicted McCain’s imminent death from cancer in a column…9 years ago. (Almost all of our political predications proved wrong, including Alex’s initial assessment of Rick Perry in 2011 as being a man of “presidential material.”)
Still you have to write without fear or apologies. Not too long before Cockburn died, I asked him if he regretted anything he’d written (secretly hoping that he would retract his climate change denialism). “Regret? Jeffrey!! Never regret!!” He paused. “Well, I suppose if I hadn’t been over my deadline I might have rephrased that sentence about Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. But once it’s out there you have to stand by it, man.” That sentence about Afghanistan was this one, “I yield to none in my sympathy to those prostrate beneath the Russian jackboot, but if ever a country deserved rape it’s Afghanistan.” The man had a way with words.
I even have a trace of sympathy for Johnstone’s call to engage with the far right on issues where there might exist a sliver of common ground on which we could stand and fight the same enemy. I’ve walked in those shoes and have been roundly condemned for such heresies. As Johnstone was coming under fire, I flashed back to a June morning in 1995.
The phone rang at 5 am. It was Cockburn, of course, an hour ahead of his normal call.
“Wake up, Jeffrey. You’ve been libeled!”
“I’ve been what?”
“It’s spelled: L-I-B-E-L-E-D…Libeled by some little punk at the New Yorker.”
“Which little punk? Not that Elizabeth Drew, I hope, she’s too boring to commit libel.”
“Perish the thought. A sniveling twit named Kelly. Michael Kelly.”
“What did he write?”
“Something about you consorting with terrorists, I think.”
“Have you read it?” Knowing Alex would rather get a root canal (his greatest phobia) than subscribe to the New Yorker.
“Are you kidding? Brother Andrew told me.” Andrew Cockburn would know. He reads everything. “He’ll fax to me. I’ll fax to you. Stand by your machine.”
That’s the way things worked in the days before Alex was enticed to abandon his Underwood for a Tangerine-Colored-Streamlined-Baby-i-Mac.
As I waited for Cockburn’s fax to rattle through the machine, I felt a little swell of excitement at making the hollowed pages of The New Yorker, like Steve Martin’s character in “The Jerk,” when he gets his hands on the new phonebook and finds his name in it.
My initial giddiness dissipated as the fax machine began to spit out Kelly’s eleven-page long hit piece titled “The Road to Paranoia,” which was itself a paranoid screed warning neoliberal America of the coming alliance between the radical left and the radical right. Buried in the avalanche of Kelly’s turgid prose, my cameo proved almost as fleeting as the appearance of poor Osric in “Hamlet.” I was accused of colluding with the enemy by giving a speech (later reproduced in the Earth First! Journal) at a gathering of the rightwing Wise Use Movement in Reno, where I viciously attacked the mainstream environmental movement for its political timidity. My crime, according to Kelly, was in promoting a seditious brand of “fusion politics.” If only it had taken root.
Over the ensuing years, similar slurs would come hurtling our way from other guardians of liberal respectability. During Clinton’s war on Serbia, Cockburn and I spoke at several rallies sponsored by the feisty libertarians at AntiWar.com, who were among the few courageous souls to oppose that ignoble enterprise. Even the freshly-elected socialist Bernie Sanders backed the bombing of the socialist city of Belgrade, a failure of nerve which prompted a few of his more honorable staffers to resign in protest. For this treachery, we were both denounced as genocide-denying tools of the isolationist menace.
When CounterPunch went online in 1999, we compounded our thought crimes by publishing some of the verboten voices of the anti-imperialist movement, from Ron Paul to “Werther,” Paul Craig Roberts to the civil libertarian James Bovard, whose appearances on our homepage elicited howls of outrage from the likes of Eric Alterman and Katha Pollitt. Naturally, we basked in the glow of their opprobrium.
Perhaps it’s just the writer in me, but from where I sit the real villain of this imbroglio isn’t the verbal provocateur Caitlin Johnstone, but David Cobb, the Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of the Green Party, who has been one of the most zealous promoters of Johnstone’s incendiary writings. What’s rich fodder for a political columnist can prove lethal for a political movement, especially a movement as bruised, battered and pale as the Greens. Can the Greens really afford to get any whiter than they already are?
Since his mysterious emergence as a leader of the Greens in 2004, Cobb has steadily squandered the political base that Ralph Nader helped build. Whether this was through incompetence or intent is unclear, but Cobb’s decision to make the Green Party a safe space for Democrats was a fatal miscalculation from which the party has never really recovered. The hapless John Kerry, running as a war-monger, lost to Bush in any event, so the compromises of 2004 proved fruitless, except, perhaps, to the progressive donor class, who could now feel as if they could ease their consciences by occasionally throwing some money at the Greens without risking any political blowback.
In 2016, however, the prospects for the Green Party suddenly seemed brighter than at anytime since 2000, largely because of the inspired choice of Ajamu Baraka as Jill Stein’s running mate. Despite the involvement of many veterans from Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” campaigns of the 1980s, the Green Party had never really gained traction with blacks and Hispanics. Baraka’s presence on the ticket offered a real promise of expanding the Green Party’s base for the first time since Nader’s run. This wasn’t so much because Baraka is black, but because he was able to articulate a theory of political engagement that spoke directly to the experience of black and brown Americans.
Then David Cobb was brought on as campaign manager and almost immediately the wheels began to fall off. By election day, the Green ticket, which only a few weeks earlier held such promise, now seemed like a stealth campaign. In an election featuring two of the most unpopular candidates in history, the Greens could only manage a microscopic 1.1 percent of the popular vote, 3 million fewer votes than the dysfunctional Libertarian duo of Gary Johnson and Bill Weld. Cobb’s response to this humiliation at the polls wasn’t to resign, but to almost immediately pursue, along with Jill Stein, recounts in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, recounts which could only serve to benefit Hillary Clinton. Millions of dollars poured in from frantic Democrats in a desperate, and doomed, attempt to overturn the results of the election. The motives behind this curious affair have never been clearly ascertained, but once again Cobb demonstrated to the progressive funding machine that the Green Party presented no real threat to the political hegemony of the Democrats.
Now, Cobb seems intent on promoting a green-brown alliance, along the lines sketched by Caitlin Johnstone, as a means of reanimating a political movement that he, more than any other single figure, has helped to emasculate from the inside-out. This is a quest for fools gold at best, something more sinister at worst.
Environmentalists have been down this road before and it didn’t end well. In the 1990s, the Sierra Club was infiltrated by a vicious band of Malthusians, who scapegoated immigrants as a primary cause of environmental degradation. This shameful episode debased the Sierra Club and elevated the profile of the xenophobes, giving them a legitimate national platform for the first time and a political foothold that eventually metastasized into the virulent forces fueling the Trump campaign.
At an operational level, white nationalists already dominate the political agenda of the Republican, Democratic and Libertarian parties. The Greens invite them under the frayed flaps of their tent at their own peril.