Telltale Signs

I only recently caught up with Ed Schultz’s swerve from “prairie populist” to pro-Kremlin anchor-man. He got his change in the summer of 2016 after he’d lost his gig at MSNBC. Schultz’s plasticity has always been apparent. (I posted on Big Ed’s persona—“250 pounds of ham and main chance”—back in 2010.)  He claimed to have a “blue collar soul,” but his workerist stance was shtick. He had no roots in the working class. (His mother was an English teacher and his father was an aeronautical engineer.) As a talk-radio Republican in the era of The Contract with America, Schultz jawed about running for Congress and was reported to have yelled at a homeless person: “Get a job.” After he went left in search of a bigger market share, his lame lingo was still marked by traces of Bush-league jargon: “In this progressive movement of America, you’re either with us or you’re against us.”  While I’d always pegged Schultz as a blowhard and faker, word he’d sold out to Putin’s peeps was unnerving. He may have been a fraud but he wasn’t slavish. Now he’s a pitiable icon of non-freedom.  (Though news—in the Washington Post—he’s bought a private jet reminded me of a hard Mamet line: “Never feel sorry for a man who owns a plane.”) Gatekeepers of American media—money-minded types who gave Schultz a shot on MSNBC and signed off on his worthless, ghosted Killer Politics are shallow pieces of work.  But, unlike Putin, they’re not down with murder on the regular. Schultz has never been clever. And on RT, he blusters and looks the same as ever. But even if he’s too dim to worry, it’s scary to think about his gray future or the company he’s keeping.

Check his Q&A here with one Harry Stuckey—an odd duck described as an investigative reporter and publisher for Vox news. (Not to be confused with the site run by Ezra Klein.) Their convo starts at around 19:30 after Schultz has trashed “mainstream media” reporting on Trump and Russia as “bartalk.” Schultz plays the puzzled straight man who can’t fathom the “thirsty appetite for Russiagate.” Answer-man Stuckey proves to be a bent wisdom machine who asserts RT and Press TV (the Iranian government’s platform) are the only news venues that give it to you straight. His rap on the DNC hacks seems informed by Trump’s post-modern approach to bullshitting. (Wiggy Harry has strange hair too.) He avers it’s outrageous to suggest Putin mucked with our elections and…so what if he did? America should thank him! Stuckey’s weird tics, eye-rolls and cackles seem positively witchy. I’ll allow I was creeped out by the spectacle of this bad actor and Schultz lying like demons.

Jackson Lears—editor of Raritan and would-be debunker of what he terms the “received narrative” about Putin and Trump—would probably take my animus and run with it. In his recent LRB piece Lears dismisses Russiagate as a faith-based moral panic cultivated by “Church Fathers” who have anathematized Putin (though he’s just another autocrat). Lears implies Special Counsel Mueller may become a sort of Grand Inquisitor—“the arrests have already begun.” His fear a new orthodoxy has taken hold here may seem ass-backward to anyone who’s read Casey Michel’s important Politico piece on “How Russia Became a Leader of the Worldwide Christian Right.” Michel explains how and when American evangelicals began to see Putin as “the lion of Christianity.”  A glance at a comment attributed to Dimitry Kisilev, who’s been called Putin’s “chief propagandist,” might improve Lears’ sense of direction when it comes to locating dangers of Orthodoxy. Kisilev is notorious for saying on air in 2012: “I think banning gays from distributing propaganda to children is not enough. … I think they should be banned from donating blood or sperm, and if they die in a car crash, their hearts should be burnt or buried in the ground as unsuitable for the continuation of life.”

I’d never deny the grimmer aspects of Robert Mueller’s presentation of self, but, compared to Pooty-poot and his kind, Mueller’s a lamb.

Lears’ take (and I use that term deliberately as I’ve come to associate it with a shoddy relativism) won’t help anyone see our time of danger feelingly or with fresh eyes. He seems content to follow after Glenn Greenwald (of The Intercept) and Stephen Cohen (of The Nation). Like them, he mocks the idea “Vladimir Putin orchestrated an attack on American democracy by ordering his minions to interfere in the election on behalf of Trump.” This “fake news,” according to Lears—and those who came before him—was seized upon by a Democratic Party Establishment who’d rather blame Clinton’s loss on Russia than rethink her “neo-liberalism” and bias toward foreign interventionism.

Nobody should be put out by critiques of Dems’ ease with “the nexus of meritocracy and plutocracy.” (To quote a phrase from Adrian Woolridge’s penetrating Times review of David Frum’s Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic.)[1]  But when Lears claims there’s no good evidence the Kremlin was behind those DNC hacks and leaks, he’s blowing with oblivion wind against the consensus of America’s intelligence agencies. (Not to mention assessments by British, Dutch and Australian spies.) He points to “doubts about the technical basis for the hacking claims” raised by “a group called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, former employees of the US intelligence agencies who distinguished themselves in 2003 by debunking Colin Powell’s claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction…” I’ll allow the self-aggrandizing acronym VIPS made me think Lears’ experts might have been born under a bad sign. And a glance at Wikipedia’s entry on their (thin) public record amped up doubts. Here’s the summary on their 2010 interventions: “On August 3, 2010, VIPS publicly released another ‘MEMORANDUM FOR: The President’ claiming that the government of Israel has a record of deceiving the U.S. government and estimating that Israel would unilaterally attack Iran ‘as early as this month.’” That didn’t pan out and VIPS seem to have chilled until 2013 when they came out as “truthers” who denied Assad’s military was responsible for chemical weapons attacks. They asserted those attacks were provocations staged by Syrian opposition forces (against civilians in regions under their control?). A New Republic writer examined VIPS’ memo on Syria and concluded it was “exceptional in its shoddiness.” A phrase that seemed to anticipate another journalist’s reply to the Nation’s account (which the mag would walk back) of the recent VIPS’ “proof” the DNC hack was an inside job and that “metadata…were altered to add Russian fingerprints.” Brian Friedman, writing in New York Magazine, argued “the VIPS claims in The Nation article were ‘too incoherent to even debunk’ and criticized its use of ‘techno-gibberish.’”

Lears doesn’t go in for techno talk in his own piece. But he’s big on elisions. I’m not going to waste time exposing all of his tendentious compactions, but let me pull out a couple sentences that hint at the irreal quality of his discourse:

George Papadopolous, a foreign policy adviser, has pleaded guilty to the charge of lying to the FBI about his bungling efforts to arrange a meeting between Trump’s people and the Russian government – an opportunity the Trump campaign declined.

Nuff said?

Lears laughs off the June 9th meeting that took place after Don Jr. corresponded with a contact who promised dirt on Hillary as part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” To mention only the most notorious “opportunity” the campaign jumped at. Per Jr.: “I love it.” Per Sr. (four days later): “I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week and we’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting.” Trump didn’t follow through on this June 7th tease but it seems likely he had to play a longer game after Don Jr.’s meeting failed to result in ready-to-go oppo research. (Though let’s recall Jr. was stoked at the start by the prospect of a dirt dump “later in the summer.”)  Mueller has reportedly “zeroed in” on the sanitized version of the event—and the run-up to it—concocted by the President last summer. To Lears, though, obstruction of justice isn’t in the equation. He sees himself as someone who won’t drink that Kool-aid (though he seems to have scarfed down Reince Preibus’s “nothing-burger”). And he urges readers to take it light like him, insisting that if pack journalists hadn’t demonized Putin: “Donald Trump Jr’s meeting at Trump Tower with the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya would be transformed from a melodrama of shady intrigue to a comedy of errors…”

“The man who’s laughing,” said Brecht, “hasn’t heard the news.”

What’s really wack, though, is that Lears (along with his not-knowing allies) seems to want to make sure you don’t hear. I’m afraid he’s out to bamboozle his countrymen:

Nor is there anything unprecedented about Trump’s desire for détente with Russia, which until at least 2012 was the official position of the Democratic Party.

Paul Berman resisted this line of argument last year, providing an historical survey that backed up his counterpoint: “Hostility to Russia is the oldest continuous foreign-policy tradition in the United States…” But let’s stick with Democrats and Lears’ timeline. Which is, in fact, part of a received narrative. Though Lears may have missed the opening chapter.

About a year ago Glenn Greenwald made nice on Tucker Carlson’s Fox show where Carlson asked him to speculate on why “all of a sudden, Russia is villain number one. Why is that? It seems strange.” Greenwald agreed Dems had ‘’ginned up hostility to Russia entirely for political reasons…”

One of the really interesting things is, in 2012, when Mitt Romney ran against Barack Obama, the Democrats mocked Romney mercilessly for depicting Russia as the number one geopolitical threat … And throughout the Obama presidency, he tried accommodating Putin, he didn’t arm anti-Russian factions in Ukraine, he tried cooperating with him in Syria, it was really an election-year political theme that the Democrats manufactured out of whole cloth, that the Russian, that Putin posed some existential threat to the United States, that they’re our enemy.

Back in that moment, Jon Chait saw through Greenwald’s b.s. revisionism and Lears could learn a lot from Chait’s talk-back:

It is true that, in 2012, the Republican Party had staked out a more hawkish stance on Russia than the Democrats. But the Democrats were hardly praising Putin’s regime. The dispute between Obama and Romney was a relatively narrow one centering on whether Russia was literally America’s number-one enemy, or whether that distinction belonged to Al Qaeda…

Greenwald presents Obama’s chilly relationship with Russia as nothing but an election-year ploy. He omits any mention of the event that changed the tenor of U.S.-Russia relations: the Russian attack on Ukraine. Obama responded to the invasion by imposing sanctions on Russia in 2014. That event, not some election-year need to gin up a foreign bogeyman, is what generated tension between Obama and Putin…

A year on down the line, Lears is still passing over the annexation of Crimea. Putin’s bearish reversion to Old School imperialism won’t fit into Lears’ story.

Its title, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Russian Hacking,” reminds me of his riff at a Conference a couple years ago: “Talking about race doesn’t have to be a way of not talking about class but it is.” His Russiagate essay, though, suggests he’s gotten over his fear race talk is diversionary. He invokes a London museum exhibition on the art of Black Power, jumping off from 60s images sparked by racial oppression and killer cops to tease anti-Trump liberals who now root for Feds in law enforcement agencies. Another passage in his essay makes me wonder about the depth of his empathy for African American ways of being in struggle. I’m struck, in particular, by his cool response to Doug Jones’ victory in Alabama. He equates Jones with Joe Manchin, citing a L.A. Times [2] report that dubbed Jones “very conservative” (which is jive). Lears cops to being “relieved” Jones won but seems dead to the moral drama of the Alabama senate race where a white supremacist got beat by a candidate who prosecuted KKKers for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four African American girls. Jones’ victory was a testament to black political mobilization and integration. (By contrast, Manchin is senator from a state where African Americans make up less than 5% of the population.)  Lears wants readers to know he didn’t join in “collective Democratic ecstasy” triggered by Jones’ victory which only revealed to him…

the party’s persistent commitment to politics as usual. Democrat leaders have persuaded themselves (and much of their base) that all the republic needs is a restoration of the status quo ante Trump.

It’s hard to imagine any basis for solidarity with a soi disant leftist who reduces the victory of Doug Jones to “politics as usual” and somehow mixes up all those black women who turned out for Jones with “a restoration of the status quo ante Trump.”  So maybe it’s not much of a loss that First posts aren’t likely to reach Lears now since he unsubscribed after our last issue.

The focus of that set of posts was NYC’s Women’s March.  It’s a safe bet Lears was unmoved by First‘s efforts to evoke the collective buzz felt by protesters. I’m just now recalling the photo of a marcher and sign a comrade sent me after our posts had gone up. That pic doesn’t fit perfectly into this movement of mind. And Lears surely wouldn’t care, but maybe the rest of you will give me some slack…

screen shot of march pic



1 Woolridge shares Frum’s clarity about the threat to the republic posed by Trump and Putin (as America seems to be “turning into Russia”). Yet he also nails powers that were:  “The corruption embodied by Trump Inc. is the product of a broader corruption of America’s governing classes which has allowed Bill and Hillary Clinton to transform themselves into public service millionaires and Barack and Michelle Obama to negotiate a reported $65 million book deal for their autobiographies.”

2 Not the paper I’d turn to for grainy particulars of Jones’ politics.