Slacker Friday

››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

Economic Illiteracy on the March: The Dow is not "at an all time high," for God's sake, as virtually every idiotic news outlet is reporting. It is down 17 percent from its peak, here. Numbers that do not take inflation into account are meaningless -- worse than meaningless, purposely misleading. In 1968 or so, I used to be able to buy two burgers, fries and a Coke for under a buck. Do the Dow numbers for 1968 deserve unmediated comparison?

Editors' Note of the Week, from The New York Times:

An article on Sept. 21 about criticism of President Bush at the United Nations by President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran reported that Mr. Chavez praised a book by Noam Chomsky, the linguist and social critic. It reported that later, at a news conference, Mr. Chavez said that he regretted not having met Mr. Chomsky before he died. The article noted that in fact, Mr. Chomsky is alive. The assertion that Mr. Chavez had made this misstatement was repeated in a Times interview with Mr. Chomsky the next day.

In fact, what Mr. Chavez said was, "I am an avid reader of Noam Chomsky, as I am of an American professor who died some time ago." Two sentences later Mr. Chavez named John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist who died last April, calling both him and Mr. Chomsky great intellectual figures.

Mr. Chavez was speaking in Spanish at the news conference, but the simultaneous English translation by the United Nations left out the reference to Mr. Galbraith and made it sound as if the man who died was Mr. Chomsky.

Readers pointed out the error in e-mails to The Times soon after the first article was published. Reporters reviewed the recordings of the news conference in English and Spanish, but not carefully enough to detect the discrepancy, until after the Venezuelan government complained publicly on Wednesday.

Editors and reporters should have been more thorough earlier in checking the accuracy of the simultaneous translation. (Go to Article)

I, too, offer my apologies to Mr. Chavez, and my readers for, once again, relying on the accuracy of The New York Times. (Time for another blogger ethics panel?)

Congrats, Yankee fans, on your "Joementum." (Roger and Joe, together again ...)

Alter-reviews:

Tony reviews last week's Stones show from the good seats.

Once the average ticket price for a Rolling Stones ticket equaled the monthly rent on a studio apartment in the Bronx, I assumed I'd seen them for the last time. The Stones are the Stones, and once they're gone we surely won't see their likes again, and they're still great in concert, and yada yada yada, but frankly, Mick Jagger would have to feed me matzoh ball soup from a porcelain tureen and wipe my chin with a linen napkin afterwards to make a Stones concert worth the prices they're charging.

By an obscene stroke of luck, however, I wound up in the 13th row at Giants Stadium last Wednesday, gaping at the Stones as they defied age and time yet again and put on a professional, rocking two-hour show. When they're on, they can still generate a head of steam as hot as any band in the world. Keith is still the coolest guy in the world. Mick still dances like an ass-shakin', hip-wigglin', crazed monkey and somehow never seems to be out of breath. Ron Wood, who went into rehab yet again to prepare for the tour, is somehow even skinnier than he usually is. And Charlie is still Charlie, which is to say one of the handful of greatest drummers in rock history. Sure, they did all the obligatory hits -- "Satisfaction," "Start Me Up," "Brown Sugar," etc., but they also pulled out a lot of chestnuts for the fans, like "Monkey Man," "Sway," "You Got the Silver," and "Just My Imagination."

I don't see how any band can justify $450 tickets, but I've gotta admit the Stones did their damndest to give the fans their money's worth. Fireworks before and after the show; a moving mini-stage that slid toward the back of the stadium for a few songs to give the fans in the "cheap" seats a better look; an enormous inflatable Stones lips-and-tongue logo; huge jets of fire bellowing up during "Sympathy For the Devil;" you name it. And the band didn't slacken for a minute during the show. Even at 112 or however old they are, they can still rock fiercely for two hours a night.

And yet ... the years are beginning to take their toll. Mick is still one of the most charismatic performers around, but he avoids going for the high notes whenever possible. And Keith looks bad even for Keith -- he sang a gorgeous, moving "You Got the Silver," but then staggered through "Little T & A," and even got lost during "Satisfaction." For much of the rest of the show he was a non-entity, leaving Ron Wood as the musical compass for the evening.

If you haven't seen the Stones, and you care at all about rock n' roll, they're still a must-see. If you've already seen them and are either an obsessive fan or have just won the lottery, they're worth seeing again. But I'd do it sooner than later. Heaven only knows what kind of shape they're gonna be in come 2012, when they hit the boards for their seemingly inevitable 50th anniversary tour.

End Tony.

On the other end of the spectrum of worldly events, but only, I dunno, 15 or so miles away, I managed to catch an entire set by Stupid's favorite band, The Kennedys, at Joe's Pub last night and still get home in time for the first pitch. It's hard to see an unironic folk duo anymore, since perhaps no human life form has been more parodied. Pete and Maura Kennedy do not make it any easier, dressing as if from the Last Whole Earth Catalogue and talking about dharma and karma and stuff. But they play and sing really well and their album of covers is a real pleasure. I kept wondering where Pete's guitar virtuosity had gone until he pulled out a tiny, almost pretend guitar, I the middle of "Eight Miles High" and played an amazing "Rhapsody in Blue" on the thing -- I don't even know what it was called, but it was amazing. Anyway, the entire crowd's cover charge would not have bought a single Stones ticket. Then again, there were no fireworks, flames or, as far as I can tell, any rehabbed, reblooded guitarists.

Slacker Friday:

Name: John Ransom
Hometown: Carlisle, PA

On the Alterman-Berman debate over MacPherson's book on I.F. Stone:

Oleg Kalugin, a retired major general in the Soviet KGB. Kalugin knew Stone in the 1960s. MacPherson writes: "Kalugin characterized Stone as a 'fellow traveler who began his cooperation with the Soviet intelligence long before me, based entirely on his view of the world.'"

Okay, so we have Oleg Kalugin saying Stone is a fellow traveler. He cooperated with Soviet intelligence based on his view of the world.

But then, Kalugin is asked by MacPherson if he "did have any actual information that Stone had ever cooperated with Soviet inteligence?" Retired KGB officer Oleg Kalugin responds: "No. What I told you is what I know."

Berman's job now is to handle the "No" in Kalugin's response. This "no" seems to contradict, Berman says, Kalugin's earlier comment that Stone cooperated with the KGB for a long time. "But the implication in MacPherson's text," Berman objects, "is that, in saying 'no' to MacPherson's question, Kalugin meant to explain he had 'no corraboration of anything' to be found in the Venona transcripts" (these are transcripts of decoded Soviet documents).

But that reading of the 'no' doesn't seem to work. The question, remember, was if Kalugin had any corraborating information "that Stone had ever cooperated with Soviet inteligence." That's a broader question than the narrower one that Berman wants to say it is. Not only does Berman need to deal with the 'no' in the answer. He also needs to deal with the "had ever" in the question.

What did Stone do? He had lunches with Kalugin, who at the time was a member of the Soviet KGB (perhaps we can grant for the sake of discussion that Stone knew of Kalugin's membership in the KGB). And what did Stone provide to the KGB? Kalugin answers that there were no documents or secrets or anything like that. Rather, what Stone did was talk with Kalugin about contemporary political issues -- what, quoting Kalugin, "the views of someone in the government were or some senator on such and such an issue."

Berman "accepts MacPherson's judgment" that Stone was not a spy, and adds that he did not characterize Stone as such in his review of MacPherson's book.

So there's agreement all around. Alterman, Berman, MacPherson, Kalugin all agree on the following: Not a hint of spying to be found anywhere in Stone. Not one little fleck of that charge can reasonably be seen to harm Stone's reputation. But here comes the but.

"But let's not blink away some ambiguities." Personally, I think that when we're talking about whether or not someone spied for Soviet intelligence, we should blink away the ambiguities. Because that's one heck of a charge. You're going to want some awfully clear and unambiguous conclusions to be the result of your investigations. If everyone is starting out from "he's not a spy," and if the question is whether or not someone is a spy, why not *stop* at the point where you start, namely, the conclusion that the guy isn't a spy?

Alright, what are these non-spy ambiguities? And here Berman does something strange: he goes back to the beginning of the essay to repeat the very charge he just got finished agreeing didn't stick: "That Stone, according to Kalugin, engaged in 'cooperation with the Soviet intelligence' for a long time . . . "

So, sigh, we have to go back to that again. What did this long-term cooperation with Soviet intelligence consist in? Berman writes: "He did not steal documents or run around like a spy." What then did he do to 'cooperate with Soviet intelligence for a long time'? Berman: "He investigated the views of influential people."

So for Berman "investigating the views of influential people" is equivalent to "cooperation with the Soviet intelligence." Let's say someone meets a member of the Soviet diplomatic corps in 1970, and everyone pretty much knows that anyone in that group is going to report back to the Soviet Union the contents of your conversation. You are having lunch with this Soviet citizen and she asks you to take a look into what McNamara thinks about Nixon's plan to expand the Vietnam war. You read what McNamara says and even get to talk to him, asking, "What do you think about the plan to expand the war in Vietnam," and he replies, "I think it's a big mistake for reasons 'x' and 'y'." And then you have lunch with the Soviet diplomat and tell her what McNamara thinks. Is that spying? Berman's already said "No." But is it "cooperating with Soviet intelligence"?

I think the answer has to be "no." The problem here is with the word "cooperating." "Cooperating" has an intuitive sense that is stronger than "here's what" (for instance) "McNamara thinks about the planned expansion of the war in Southeast Asia." 'Cooperation' implies 'coordination,' as in, "you do this, I'll do that, and together we'll produce such-and-such result." There is much more interaction and planning when you "cooperate." Example from another arena: a supervisor in an ad agency tells subordinates Bill and Frank to "cooperate with each other on the such-and-such account." That means Bill and Frank are going to pool their energies and frequently interact -- probably more than once every two months -- in order to land and then hold on to a particular account, in the interests of the company they both work for. But if Bill and Frank just have lunch every couple of months, and at those lunches all that happens is that Bill tells Frank what influential people think about some important issues at the ad company, then they will have failed to "cooperate" in the meaningful sense. Or perhaps this comparison is more relevant: if we read an article in which it is reported that a prominent present-day German politician had a history of "cooperating with East German intelligence services," we would be very surprised if it turned out this cooperation was just broad discussions of public topics that took place every few months over lunch.

Then Berman asks: "Does this [that is, the lunches] really strike Eric as nothing at all?" I would imagine Alterman's response would be: "No, not nothing at all, since there was the lunch, but also not 'cooperating with Soviet intelligence', given the kind of weight and significance most people are reasonably going to assign to the word 'cooperating' in the phrase 'cooperating with Soviet intelligence'."

In the next paragraph, Berman pushes his analysis by trying to develop an aura around the word 'tasks.' Berman: "[Stone] was given the task of discovering the views of senators and government people. Such were his 'tasks,' which presumably he performed. . . . The 'tasks' were evidently well-designed for the man." Do you see what happens to a word when you put quotation marks around it? It starts to seem ominous. Then Berman quotes MacPherson: "Kalugin," writes MacPherson, "agreed that Stone was doing nothing more than probe for information he would use in his work." That is, Stone was going to be finding out what influential people thought anyway. Someone says to you, "hey, could you find out what the teacher wants us to do for the upcoming book report?", and you respond, "Sure, I was going to ask her about that anyway." It's no problem letting a fellow student know what the teacher wants on the book report, because acquiring that knowledge is a 'task' I've given myself anyway. In other words, the Soviet KGB didn't assign 'tasks' to Stone at all, anymore than the student has assigned a task to the individual who is going to find out about the requirements for the book report. In both cases, the actions were already in the works anyway.

Alterman asks a reasonable question: If, in my capacity as a journalist and educator, I talk to a consular official from France or Russia, would that make me a spy? Berman's reply is peculiar. He says that this comparison by Alterman is a "wisecrack." And this wisecrack has only one purpose: "to divert our attention from very remarkable and unusual words . . . " Before I get to those unusual words, I want to disagree with Berman. Alterman's question is not a wisecrack, it's an attempt to understand the phenomenon in front of us by making reasonable comparisons to similar activities. If there's nothing wrong with the compared activities, then how can there be anything wrong with the original activity? So it's not a wisecrack, but rather an instance of a valuable intellectual method for investigating a particular problem or issue. Let's say Prof. Alterman asks a student who is sleeping in his class to leave the classroom. He tells a colleague about this later in the day, who asks, "but if it were a relative of yours who you knew didn't sleep well the night before, would you have done the same thing?" Abstracting from a specific circumstance and comparing it to similar examples that might produce a different response from the one chosen in a concrete circumstance - this is done all the time, and it is not a wisecrack.

And now to "those very remarkable and unusual words" that Berman wants to highlight for us: " 'cooperation with the Soviet intelligence,' 'willing to perform tasks,' and 'find out the views . . . ' " But there's not very much that's remarkable or unusual about them in light of the discussion of what that meant in Stone's case. In particular, "cooperation with Soviet intelligence" means lunch every couple of months at which Stone's I-was-going-to-do-it-anyway reflections about the public views of prominent Americans are shared. "Willing to perform tasks" means (as Berman has agreed), again, doing what he was going to do anyway. "Finding out the views"? Same thing.

"Eric's defense of Stone consists, in the end," Berman writes, "of overstating the accusation and understating the evidence. Eric makes it seem that I have accused Stone of espionage and then makes the evidence look like nothing more than lunch." What seems to really be going on, however, is that Berman is guilty of lowering the bar concerning what constitutes "cooperation with Soviet intelligence" while puffing up some pretty weak evidence in support of the charge. "A lunch," Berman admits, "might consist of sparring back and forth -- the friendly exchanging of opinions." So that's okay, right? Nothing wrong with the sparring back and forth and friendly exchange of opinions even if your sparring partner is a member of the Soviet KGB and you are a journalist. But Stone did "something else," according to Berman, and here is where -- as he must -- Berman leaves reality behind: "But agreeing to go out and help a KGB officer perform his duties by finding the answers to various questions about senators and government officials -- that is something else." But as Berman has already admitted, the scenario he describes simply never happened. There was never a lunch where a KGB officer assigned tasks to Stone, who then went out and fulfilled them. Let's imagine that the KGB guy says, "Next time we have lunch, Izzy, which will be a couple of months from now, I'd love to discuss what policy and opinion-makers in the U.S. make of the plan to expand the ground war in Vietnam and Cambodia." And Stone replies, "Well, that's no problem, because that's the kind of thing I do anyway. See you next time and we can chat about the topic you are interested in!" How, please, is Mr. Berman going to manage to extract "cooperating with Soviet intelligence" out of that? He has already granted that there can be friendly lunches with sparring back and forth, and that this activity might very well be appropriate for an American journalist, even when it is done with a member of the KGB. Well, what could be the topic of such friendly lunch conversations that would save Stone from the charge of carrying out 'tasks' at the behest of 'Soviet intelligence'?

Next Berman says that there is only one way to interpret the following incident. In 1968 Stone decides he is done having lunches with the guy from the Soviet Union because of its invasion of Czechoslovakia. Stone says "... this is the last time I see you guys. You betrayed me once, you betrayed me now, and I don't want to see you again." Stone won't allow Kalugin to pick up the check, saying "No more blood money!"

Berman thinks that the "claim that [Stone] had been betrayed can mean only that, until then, he felt that he and the Soviets did share some principles. Surely that is why he maintained his 'cooperation with the Soviet intelligence.' He kept up his 'cooperation' because his principles led him to do so, and when he finally realized that the Soviets had betrayed his principles, and had done so not once but twice, he stopped. I find it hard to come up with any other interpretation."

Well, Stone kept up his *lunches* until the Soviets revealed themselves by betraying his principles (such as the one about non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations). Berman says it's hard to come up with any other interpretation, and I agree. But then what's his point? Stone was willing to have lunches at which there would be "sparring back and forth -- the friendly exchanging of opinions" but he was no longer willing to do that once the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. And from evidence like this, Stone is branded a part-time (?) "totalitarian."

Eric replies: Except we can't grant that Stone knew he was a KGB agent. There's no evidence of that anywhere.

Name: Kyle Childress
Hometown: San Francisco

I suppose you might have noticed, but we've lost 24 soldiers in Iraq since Saturday. 24. You'd be hard pressed to learn that sad fact if you hit the main news sites on the Internet. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and its seems that Americans are consumed only with keeping their hands in their pants and tittering about the Foley affair.

Name: Reed Richardson
Hometown: Ridgewood, NJ

Eric,

I neither met nor ever even laid eyes on Johnny Apple, yet I feel somewhat privileged to have a story about him.

On August 30, 2004, with the RNC convention just starting blocks away (and only about a week before I started interning for you at The Nation), I spent a better part of the evening at the Times, editing my Columbia J-School master's project with my mentor, NYT editor Carla Baranauckas. At about seven or eight in the evening, one of Johnny Apple's infamous Q-head pieces popped up on the screen of the editor in the cubicle next to us and he began reading aloud from it, half-cringing, half-guffawing at Apple's uncompromising attack on the Swift Boaters, Bush's duplicitous refusal to condemn them, and the war in Iraq in general (although he still treated with kid gloves his old friend, John McCain). One key phrase I remember vividly hearing from the original, unedited piece was this: "all of the other journalists I know think this war in Iraq is a disaster."

Of course, the editor assigned to the piece (whose name I don't remember) soon tempered his appreciation for Apple's eloquence and started emailing up the masthead to the deputy/managing editors because he apparently knew that his attempts at editing "objectivity" back into the piece would not be received kindly by Apple, who had a well-documented reputation suffering neither fools nor heavy-handed editors gladly. When I finally left two hours later, the battle was clearly joined with the editor going back and forth between his bosses and Apple, trying to wrangle concessions and changes out of nearly every sentence of the piece.

Whether or not Apple's Q-heads, often branded with a "news analysis" sub-hed over the years, constituted news or opinion, is subject to debate. But for me, what I saw that night at the Times offered perhaps no better illustration of the walking-on-eggshells mentality and bending-over-backwards behavior that sadly colors much of the mainstream media's news and opinion coverage today. Apple's edited version, as it ran the next day, is here. The difference for me was jarring, the entire tone had changed, his arguments soft-peddled, his righteous anger deflated. Instead of serving up the real, meaty blood sausage that Apple wrote, the Times chopped and processed his piece into a cocktail weenie -- small, somewhat tasty for the masses, but in the end, unfulfilling.

Thanks for letting me share.

Name: Dan
Hometown: Davis, CA

Eric,

As a fan of both baseball and Philip Roth, I would heartily recommend that everyone read (or, in your case, reread) his Great American Novel. I can recall laughing so hard while reading it on the subway many years ago that more than a few people wanted to learn the name of the book that could induce such a response (probably more than a few just thought I was crazy and relocated to a different car).

The novel gleefully exploits our willingness to mythologize our national game, lampoons the machismo myth of Great American novelists (Hemingway and his disciples), while detailing the exploits of baseball team whose league had been deleted from all official history -- a not too subtle jab at Nixon Administration dishonesty and malfeasance (Cheney learned his lessons well).

Maybe it's not American Pastoral, but it's well worth the read.

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