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››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

Is Bush's America a police state?

Every time I return to the Jose Padilla case, I employ the deliberately provocative term "police state" because I think it's accurate. Padilla, after all, is an American citizen. If he can be picked up off the street, held incommunicado without charge, indefinitely, than so can any of us. And if this can happen to any of us, then we do, indeed, live in a police state with no rights whatsoever. I mean, what good are rights if a citizen can be jailed without charge, indefinitely?

So I see buried in today's Times, here, that Padilla is finally getting his trial, after many efforts by the Bush administration to avoid one.

(The government transferred him to civilian custody in Miami in 2005, just as the Supreme Court was weighing whether to take up the legality of his military detention.)

So is America a police state? Judging by the Padilla case, the Bush administration has tried to turn it into one but has yet to succeed fully. You can apparently only hold an American citizen for five years without trial. That's not a police state, I suppose, but it sure as hell isn't a free country either.

People say Andrew Sullivan is a good blogger, and indeed, he was hired by Time and The Atlantic for this purpose. So let's do a small experiment.

Andrew writes, and I quote the following item in its entirety:

The Menace of Oliver Stone

14 May 2007 09:23 am

Through his movie lies and fictions, the man has changed Americans' understanding of their own history.

I was interested to see the evidence and so I clicked on the link, which was to a blog called "Tigerhawk," who was linking to a New York Times article on Vincent Bugliosi's new book on the Kennedy assassination. The blogger shares Andy's hatred for what he calls "Hollywood's overwhelmingly left-wing film industry." Andrew, you may or may not recall, has actually blamed what he called "the Hollywood left" for losing the election for John Kerry -- something I don't think he would want to try to defend today. Anyway, what is the guy's evidence upon which Andrew rests his accusation against Stone for "changing Americans' understading of their own history"?

It is, again in its entirety, as follows, here:

The Times article says that Bugliosi was taken aback by the extent to which Oliver Stone's movie influenced the perception of the history:

Mr. Bugliosi likes to tell a story illustrating why he believes this book is necessary. In 1992, less than a year after the debut of Oliver Stone's conspiracy-minded film "J.F.K.," Mr. Bugliosi was addressing a group of trial lawyers when a member of the audience asked him about the assassination.

Mr. Bugliosi asked for a show of hands of how many people did not accept the findings of the Warren Commission, which had investigated the assassination and concluded that Oswald was the killer. Close to 90 percent of the 600 lawyers raised their hands, he recalled. Then he asked how many had seen "J.F.K." or read an account that argued in favor of a conspiracy; a similar number raised their hands. Finally, he asked how many had read the Warren Commission report. Only a smattering of hands went up.

Of course, the average American is more feet-on-the-ground than "a group of trial lawyers," and certainly some of us were less inclined to believe the conspiracy theories around the assassination of JFK because Oliver Stone promoted them. Nevertheless, Bugliosi's anecdote is instructive. Political movies, whether overtly fictional or allegedly factual, can have a huge impact on popular opinion.

So what Andrew and Tigerhawk conclude is that because many people have seen JFK and few people have read the Warren Commission report, Stone has therefore "changed Americans' understanding of their own history."

There's just one problem. The story contains no evidence at all for the charge.

After all, I don't believe the Warren Commission report. I have seen JFK. And yet, JFK has absolutely nothing whatever to do with my disbelief of the report. I didn't believe it before JFK. I didn't believe it afterward. Perhaps Mr. Buglosi will change that; after all, I don't claim to be an expert. But I do have a doctorate in the relevant historical period, am writing my own book on it, and I have done some reading about the making of the report itself, most recently in this terrific biography of Earl Warren. From my research, I know that establishing the truth was not first and foremost in the minds of its authors when it was written. I know that even it had been, the truth was not entirely available. I don't need a Hollywood director to tell me what to think about this or any other matter of American history. If you get your history from Hollywood, you're an idiot, period.

More to the point, no one in the story described above is ever asked whether JFK shaped their views of the assassination. Mr. Buglosi, The New York Times, Mr. Tigherhawk, and Mr. Sullivan simply assume that because a Hollywood movie reaches more people than a thousand-plus page government report published over 40 years ago, that means said Hollywood film has shaped the view not only of the public but also of the trial lawyers. It does not even try to establish whether

a) people believed the Warren Report before the movie was released -- and by the way, it is my understanding that a majority did not; or

b) the movie is what made people change their minds if, indeed, they did change their minds, for which again, I add, no proof is given.

Moral of the story: Much of what you read both in newspapers and in blogs, is bullshit, and unless someone is invested in proving the opposite, no one cares.

Ezra makes a mistake:

My buddy Ezra makes a few mistakes in this interesting item when he writes:

For instance: The punditocracy has enormous respect for Paul Berman, who looms large in George Packer's history of the Iraq War, The Assassin's Gate. Packer admiringly describes Berman's spartan, life-of-the-mind existence: "Berman lived alone in a walk-up apartment that was strewn with back issues of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review and volumes of French literature and philosophy in the original," and writes that, "I listened, occasionally asking a skeptical question, admiring the dedication of his project (who else was really trying to figure this stuff out?)."

Brian Williams, of course, would never demean Berman as "some guy named Paul who lives by himself in a walk-up and hasn't shaved in three months." Berman is credentialed and respected. And that's what separates him from Vinny, and protects him from the same dismissal. Reporting has a talismanic quality in this town, to be sure, and for good reason: There's no substitute for real reporting. But too often, picking up the phone and calling three people does not magically grant omniscience, and nor does studying issues in a half-hearted and generalist way. Too often, reporting is really just a word that paid writers use to separate themselves from the unwashed, typing masses. Indeed, it's telling that Sy Hersch is usually upset about the lack of reporting among self-described reporters, rather than among bloggers."

Point one: Berman is not "credentialed" in any meaningful sense of the term. He has no advanced degrees. For the first twenty-something years of his career, he worked almost exclusively in the alternative media, largely at The Village Voice. Later on, he worked as an independent freelance writer, with occasional stints at mainstream publications that never really worked out, and the assorted teaching gig. Until recently, he had not really written any books, except a single volume of loosely connected essays. Rather, his life and work represents the essence of the independent intellectual who, outside of establishment/credentialing institutions, makes his name purely on the quality of his work. He both thinks and reports, which, I would argue, is the only real way to get near the truth of anything (which of course is not to say that he always does get at the truth. He doesn't. But still, it's the only hope ...).

Paul's path, in other words, is open to anyone willing to invest the hard, lonely, and materially unrewarding work he has spent decades putting in. There is a point to be made about people with no experience, no qualifications, and no particular expertise, mouthing off about the work of people with experience, qualifications, and with expertise. They may be right, but they had better be able to prove it. Simply assuming the virtue of youth and inexperience is more wrong than not. I'm not saying that's what Ezra is doing here. But just because experience, credentials and the high opinion of others -- call it "Broderism" -- are frequently misused and foolishly respected does not make them meaningless. When I read an attack on someone I respect by someone I've never heard of, I need a reason to take it seriously. The best reason is evidence. The second best is a track record. The third possibility is that it is intrinsically interesting and original, however speculative. Absent any of these qualities, it's masturbation, which is certainly edifying for the person doing it, but for the rest of us, not so much ...

Point two: For the record, Packer's portrayal of Paul in his book is actually an attack on his ex-friend and intellectual mentor, to whom he misattributes statements and views that are contrary to Berman's belief and the source of much justified anger on Berman's part. I read the description Ezra quotes as part of Packer's effort to make Berman appear ridiculous. Exactly why he felt compelled to do this I can only speculate, which I won't do here. But Berman has gone on record -- I believe we printed some of this in Altercation once upon a time -- responding to what he insists are Packer's false portrayal of their conversations.

Point three. Sy Hersh (!) has made the real point here. The problem with most reporters is that they don't report. By reporting I mean not the kind of stenographic accounts of what powerful people say but by placing in a thoughtful and meaningful context not only what they say but also what they do. That what Sy does. It's also, albeit quite differently, what Berman and even Ezra do. But it's hard work. And damn few people have the time, the resources and the independence -- whether material or intellectual -- even to try.

I'll say this for the guy: You gotta admire his audacity. Marty Peretz, in his comically meshugina obsession with that "young cog in the Hitlerite wheel" and "ruthless Jewish banker" (!) George Soros, apparently thinks it right and proper for him to pass judgment on the latter's love life, here, even though it is an entirely private matter between two consenting adults.

Nice glass house you have there, bub. Be a shame to see anything happen to it.

From our sponsors:

Russert challenged Democrats -- but not McCain -- about 2002 Iraq intel "caveats"

On the May 13 "Meet the Candidates" edition of NBC's Meet the Press, host Tim Russert asked Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (AZ), "In hindsight, was it a good idea to go into Iraq?" but did not challenge McCain's reply that the invasion of Iraq "was certainly justified" because "[e]very intelligence agency in the world, not just U.S., believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction." Yet on two separate "Meet the Candidates" editions of Meet the Press, Russert did challenge former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) and Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE) for their 2002 votes giving President Bush the authority to use military force in Iraq, citing the "caveats" in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concerning the purported existence of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program. The NIE was made available to all members of Congress before the vote, according to The Washington Post. Russert did not challenge McCain with either a general question about the contrary evidence in the NIE or a question about the basis for his explicit assertion one day before the war resolution vote that "[t]o wait for Saddam Hussein to threaten imminent attack against America would be to acquiesce to his development of nuclear weapons."

Ignoring polling, Liasson claimed on Fox News Sunday that all Republicans beat Clinton

On the May 13 edition of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, Fox News contributor and NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson asserted that former New York City mayor and Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani is "trying to argue" that he is "the only one who can beat a Democratic nominee -- [Sen.] Hillary Clinton [D-NY]." Liasson added, "But I don't think the polls support that. I think the polls show that in head-to-head matchups, for whatever that's worth now, they all do." However, while some recent polling has been less favorable to Clinton, two polls released in May show her leading not only Giuliani, but also the other top Republican candidates in head-to-head contests.

Media pounced on Edwards' haircuts, but ignore Giuliani's Iowa farm snub

As Media Matters for America documented, the media recently devoted extensive coverage to a report -- first "broken" by Politico senior political writer Ben Smith on April 16 -- that Democratic presidential candidate and former Sen. John Edwards' (NC) campaign spent $800 on two haircuts. The story was covered by major print, broadcast, and cable outlets, and often featured characterizations of Edwards as "pretty" and the "Breck girl" -- echoing Republican and conservative attacks on Edwards dating back to 2004. These same media outlets, however, have shown almost no interest in recent reports that the presidential campaign of former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) scheduled -- and then abruptly canceled -- a campaign rally at the home of two Iowa farmers because they were not wealthy enough to be affected by the estate tax.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Lo Fleming
Hometown:

Eric,

I started a campaign to boycott the Super Bowl owing to your article in The Nation about Fox. I had planned on doing it anyway, but your article reminded me, so thanks.

Check out my blog.

Here's the page that connects to the petition.

Name: Jonathan Schwarz
Hometown:

Given what you've written about George Will's misunderstanding of "Born in the USA," I think you might be interested in this.

Name: Mark Richard
Hometown:

Dear Altercation,

It is good work to point out the hypocrisy of GOP candidates who urge sexual morals on others that they do not engage in themselves. However ... there is a Democratic equivalent to this sort of thing, which Party regulars still flinch at confronting. This is the political leader with the right-wing lifestyle and the leftish economic views. It's no use making excuses for this. To ordinary voters, nothing undermines the credibility of an Al Gore or a John Kerry or a John Edwards more than gleeful suggestions by conservative media outlets that Democrats talk the talk but don't walk the walk when it comes to their own lives and those of their children.

This is a lesson that Democratic leaders should have learned when they were endorsing busing for purposes of racial integration while sending their own darlings to private schools. Conventional wisdom still underestimates the degree to which that sort of thing began the long slide of the Democratic Party from the position of dominance it once had in electoral politics.

Name: Josh
Hometown: Chicago

Your asserted that "the netroots" jumped the gun to wrongly criticize the WaPo, and concluded as follows: "I don't recall any of the bloggers who expressed their outrage printing corrections in the aftermath, though I may not have seen them."

I would have expected you to identify those bloggers responsible for the misreadings so that we all might have the option to judge for ourselves the original error and whether or not there were corrections. Would you hope for anything less of the MSM?

[Eric replies: Well, the mistaken accusation was published in more places than I could have tracked at the time. The original error, if I'm not mistaken, was made by Glenn Greenwald. I was trying to be nice by not pointing that out yesterday.]

More importantly, your defense of Edsall is edifying and appreciated. However, after reading everyone's take on the sidewalk kerfuffle, and not just your own Broderite refereeing (take that!), I reject your conclusion that either Reed or Greenwald were in the wrong about Edsall. While I am strongly persuaded by your appeal that Edsall is easily misunderstood- people who matter often are- please don't place blame for that on anyone other than Edsall.

Your beef seems to be with Greenwald's taking Reed's literally accurate report and fitting it to his perception of MSM. Greenwald certainly would not have written word one about the exchange if at any point Edsall had let the others in on the joke. Could Greenwald have called Edsall? Sure.

Eric replies: You can reject it all you want, bub. I happen to know it's true. My beef is with the fact that people in the netroots ignored the most obvious explanation -- that a young, inexperienced reporter missed a joke -- because the less likely explanation -- that someone as smart and experienced as Tom Edsall, someone whose books have taught us as much about the state of contemporary American politics as almost anyone alive, would say something so patently ridiculous as anything but a joke -- appeals to the netroots' sense of outrage about the MSM. Look, I really don't care about this joke at all. And Tom Edsall's reputation in the world does not need any help from me. (That's a very nice chair he's sitting in there at Columbia.) What I actually care about here is trying to help the netroots, whom I support, albeit not uncritically, to improve. Not everything that would confirm one's worldview turns out to be accurate. Some things need to be checked before being built upon. Without this kind of caution and intellectual skepticism, the ultimate loser is the cause itself. In the Edsall case, the netroots -- aiming their ammunition after reading an account by a reporter with no known reputation and published on a gossip magazine's website -- hurt only themselves.

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