Through Ground Glass, Darkly

Would that we could see even as through a glass darkly these days. I’ve written previously about the infodemic and the paranoia-inducing virus-blame propaganda war between the US and China. Today – as hospitals in parts of Brazil tip towards collapse and Jair Bolsonaro’s friend, our President, publicly claims that he’s been self-medicating with “Hydroxychloroquine Despite FDA Warnings” (to the alarm, even, of Fox News) – I look to recent work by Glenn Greenwald in considering mis- and disinformation other than that propagated by our elected officials.

Last week, I referenced this Intercept piece by James Risen (on the Justice Department dropping charges against General Michael Flynn) in writing of misappropriation of Federal funds and the “shielding [of the President’s] political allies from justified prosecution.” I see Risen – the former New York Times correspondent who was subjected to a lengthy prosecution by the Obama Justice Department (which, lest we forget, had a dismal record of prosecuting both whistleblowers and journalists) – as a reasonably reliable source on matters of “national security” in the United States; however, he and Greenwald have long held sharply differing views on all matters Russiagate, and it was with interest that I subsequently listened to Greenwald’s long dissection of “The Sham Prosecution of Michael Flynn.”

What is a Beltway outside to make of such matters?

Looking further back in the histories of the two journalists, Risen – then at the Times was instrumental in stirring up hysteria around the Sinophobic case against Los Alamos National Lab researcher Wen Ho Lee, while Greenwald, for his part, was instrumental in communicating Edward Snowden’s revelations to the wider world.

I think Risen is correct when he writes that the President “is a would-be autocrat” but that “the White House press corps […] reluctant to use such plain language […] generally covers each […] scandal incrementally, with little context” so that “scandals soon turn into background noise as reporters move on and obsess over the […] latest tweets.” I also think Risen is clearly right about the abuse of power by the President and Attorney General William Barr, as the dismissal of so many inspectors general and a number of recent pardon make clear.

Still, with regards to the case of Michael Flynn, I found Greenwald’s examination of the facts far more compelling than Risen’s; Greenwald followed up that coverage with a piece yesterday – the details of which I’ll leave to interested readers, and the controversy therein, I’ll leave to their judgments – that centers “resistance journalism,” defined as follows:

[A] media sickness borne of the [current] era that is rapidly corroding journalistic integrity and justifiably destroying trust in news outlets […] this pathology[,] “resistance journalism,” […] means that journalists are now not only free, but encouraged and incentivized, to say or publish anything they want, no matter how reckless and fact-free, provided their target is someone sufficiently disliked in mainstream liberal media venues and/or on social media […]”

It’s been a long, lonely struggle for Greenwald – who was among the first and most outspoken critics of Russiagate McCarthyism and liberal veneration of the security state/intelligence agencies in the aftermath of the 2016 election (as if the CIA and FBI were going to save our democracy), and who has, more recently, also become a target of the Bolsonaro government – and I find his work, like that of Vijay Prashad, often uncomfortable, but totally essential, as both writers have the fluency to speak to the inner workings of systems – for example, respectively, the elite/corporate media in the US and the complex of Bretton Woods institutions which still wield such outsized power today even in our rapidly shifting world – to which they are, themselves, very much outsiders.

Relative to the COVID-19 pandemic, the case against our President in the US – as against Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modi in India, and a number of other anti-science neo-fascists around the world – seems pretty clean cut to me, but in view of the confusion sown, on the one hand, by the infodemic, propaganda, and the constant chatter on social media, and, on the other, the hidden power struggles amongst elites, none of whom necessarily have the interests of the broader public in mind, a degree of vigilance and intellectual rigor remains necessary about what claims we accept as true, even as we shake our heads in outrage and despair at the latest idiocy or venality from DC, Albany, or City Hall.

Thinking about history can be a helpful way to keep perspective, and to that end, there was a great interview yesterday on Democracy Now! with the historian Frank Snowden on the history of pandemics. FAIR has an excellent piece up that includes graphs showing the progress (or lack thereof) of various US states in slowing the spread of COVID-19. It will be interesting, and I fear very sad, to look at the equivalent graphs in a week or two. Finally, the Times published an illuminating article (though really, one need only look at the graphic) depicting to just what extent Manhattan’s “Richest Neighborhoods Emptied Out […] as Coronavirus Hit New York City”; the piece concludes that approximately “5 percent of residents – or about 420,000 people – left the city” in March and April, giving credence to my ballpark guess last month (for the purpose of estimating the COVID-19 infection fatality rate in NYC) that the City’s mid-April population was ~8 million people.

I’ll end with an experiment: Confirmed daily death counts have varied predictably of late – both for the US and for the world – over the course of the week, with death counts spiking pronouncedly on Wednesdays, tapering gradually through Sundays, and dropping to weekly lows on Mondays and Tuesdays, before spiking back up again to repeat the cycle – all this, in spite of the fact that reported death tolls have been relatively level both nationally and globally for at least a month. And yet, I’ve noted a lot of media coverage (including from outlets I respect) pointing to sharp increases in the daily death toll as if this were news, rather than just a sign of significant decreases in testing/reporting over the weekends and a two-day lag in the release of data. So don’t be surprised if there are some breathless news reports tomorrow about new increases in the daily death toll, but please remember, it’s the trends that count.

Postscript: Just because a pandemic is ravaging our country, the President and his Administration haven’t stopped working to gut hard-won US environmental regulations. We could use a lot more plain talking Dr. Bills out there in the face of these assaults on good sense.

One thought on “Through Ground Glass, Darkly

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