Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sunday Reading

“Politically Incorrect” But True — Ta-Nehisi Coates on Hillary Clinton’s statement on Trump’s supporters.

This week Matt Lauer was subject to withering criticism for his ineffectual interrogation of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In a litany of complaints, one rose above all—Lauer’s failure to challenge Trump’s mendacious claim that he opposed the Iraq War. That Trump was lying is not a matter of opinion, but demonstrable fact. Lauer’s inability to cite the record was a striking journalistic failure—but one related to the larger failures implicit in political reporting today. Political reporting, as it is now practiced, is a not built for a world where outright lying is one candidate’s distinguishing feature.  And the problem is not limited to the lies the candidate tells, but encompasses the lies we tell ourselves about why the candidate exists in the first place.Yesterday, Hillary Clinton claimed that roughly “half of Trump’s supporters” could be characterized as either “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.” Clinton hedged by saying she was being “grossly generalistic” but given that no one appreciates being labeled a bigot, that statement still feels harsh––or if you prefer, “politically incorrect.”

Clinton later said that she was “wrong” to say “half,” but reiterated that “it’s deplorable that Donald Trump has built his campaign largely on prejudice and paranoia.” One way of reporting on Clinton’s statement is to weigh its political cost, ask what it means for her campaign, or attempt to predict how it might affect her performance among certain groups. This path is in line with the current imperatives of political reporting and, at least for the moment, seems to be the direction of coverage. But there is another line of reporting that could be pursued—Was Hillary Clinton being truthful or not? Much like Trump’s alleged opposition to the Iraq War, this not an impossible claim to investigate. We know, for instance, some nearly 60 percent of Trump’s supporters hold “unfavorable views” of Islam, and 76 percent support a ban on Muslims entering the United States. We know that some 40 percent of Trump’s supporters believe blacks are more violent, more criminal, lazier, and ruder than whites. Two-thirds of Trump’s supporters believe the first black president in this country’s history is not American. These claim are not ancillary to Donald Trump’s candidacy, they are a driving force behind it.When Hillary Clinton claims that half of Trump’s supporters qualify as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic,” data is on her side. One could certainly argue that determining the truth of a candidate’s claims is not a political reporter’s role. But this is not a standard that political reporters actually adhere to.

Determining, for instance, whether Hillary Clinton has been truthful about her usage of e-mail while she was secretary of state has certainly been deemed part of the political reporter’s mission. Moreover, Clinton is repeatedly—and sometimes validly—criticized for a lack of candor. But all truths are not equal. And some truths simply break the whole system.Open and acknowledged racism is, today, both seen as a disqualifying and negligible feature in civic life. By challenging the the latter part of this claim, Clinton inadvertently challenged the former. Thus a reporter or an outlet pointing out the evidenced racism of Trump’s supporters in response to a statement made by his rival risks being seen as having taken a side not just against Trump, not just against racism, but against his supporters too. Would it not be better, then, to simply change the subject to one where “both sides” can be rendered as credible? Real and serious questions about intractable problems are thus translated into one uncontroversial question: “Who will win?”It does not have to be this way. Indeed, one need not even dispense with horse-race reporting. One could ask, all at once, if Clinton was being truthful, how it will affect her chances, and what that says about the electorate. But that requires more than the current standard for political media. It means valuing more than just a sheen of objectivity but instead reporting facts in all of their disturbing reality.

Release 9/11 More Records — Bob Graham, former governor and senator from Florida and chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee, says let all the records of the attack be released.

In July, after approval from the Obama administration, Congress released a 28-page chapter of previously classified material from the final report of a joint congressional inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said that the document had ruled out any Saudi involvement in the attack. “The matter is now finished,” he declared.

But it is not finished. Questions about whether the Saudi government assisted the terrorists remain unanswered. Now, as we approach the 15th anniversary of the most heinous attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor, it is time for our government to release more documents from other investigations into Sept. 11 that have remained secret all these years.

The recently released 28 pages were written in the fall of 2002 by a committee of which I was a co-chairman. That chapter focused on three of the 19 hijackers who lived for a time in Los Angeles and San Diego. The pages suggested new trails of inquiry worth following, including why a Qaeda operative had the unlisted phone number for the company that managed the Colorado estate of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the Saudi ambassador.

Some of those questions might be answered if the government released more of the findings of the Sept. 11 commission, the citizens inquiry that followed our congressional inquest. The commission said that it found no Saudi links to the hijackers. But the government could satisfy lingering doubts by releasing more of the commission’s records. Parallel investigations were also conducted by the F.B.I. and C.I.A. How much did they look into whether Prince Bandar or other Saudis aided the hijackers?

The government also knows more today about the 16 hijackers who lived outside California than when the 28 pages were classified in 2003. Much of that information remains secret but should be made public. For example, the F.B.I. for a time claimed that it had found no ties between three of the hijackers, including their leader, Mohamed Atta, and a prominent Saudi family that lived in Sarasota, Fla., before Sept. 11. The family returned to the kingdom about two weeks before the attack. But in 2013, a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by investigative reporters led to the release of about 30 pages from an F.B.I.-led investigation that included an agent’s report asserting “many connections” between the hijackers and this family. The F.B.I. said the agent’s claim was unfounded, and the family said it had no ties to the hijackers. Still, a federal judge in 2014 ordered the bureau to turn over an additional 80,000 pages from its investigation, and he is reviewing those for possible public release.

There is one more thing our government could do to shed light on the attack. For more than a decade, the families of Sept. 11 victims have been litigating against the kingdom and Saudi interests, asserting that they facilitated the murder of their loved ones. With the support of the Justice Department, the Saudis used a 1976 law providing foreign nations some immunity from American lawsuits to block those efforts to secure justice. Now, both the Senate and House of Representatives have unanimously passed a bill, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, that would allow a thorough judicial examination of the Saudi role.

Some might ask, 15 years later, what difference does all this make?

In fact, a lot. It can mean justice for the families that have suffered so grievously. It can also mean improving our national security, which has been compromised by the extreme form of Islam that has been promoted by Saudi Arabia.

But the most important reason is to avoid the corrosive effect that government secrecy can have on a democracy. The nation that denies its people information about what it is doing in their name is a nation slogging down a dark alley of public suspicion toward decline and mediocrity. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it, “Secrecy is for losers.”

The government’s possible suppression of evidence of Saudi support for the 19 hijackers would go beyond passive cover-up. Is the government releasing false information, while continuing to classify documents containing the truth? As the presidential campaign is proving, appearances of government deception have contributed to wary Americans becoming more and more outraged with their elected officials.

In recognition of another anniversary, 45 years since the publication of the Pentagon Papers, Sanford J. Ungar, who teaches seminars on free speech at Georgetown and Harvard, said: “Nothing is more important to the health and sustainability of a modern democracy than its citizens’ awareness of, and confidence in, what their government is doing. Excessive government secrecy — inherent, instinctive, utterly unnecessary and often bureaucratically self-protective — is poison to the well-being of civil society.”

I care deeply about our nation’s future, its tradition of openness and the necessity of honesty in our international relations. President Obama has less than five months remaining in his term. I commend him for his decision to authorize the release of the 28 pages. He should sign the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act and use his authority to direct the release of all the chapters of the book of Sept. 11. And then our country must act based on the truths they may reveal.

Live Long and Prosper — Charlie Pierce pays tribute to the original series.

This week is the 50th anniversary of the launching of a series that once was thought of by its creator as “Wagon Train in space.” (Wagon Train was a television horse opera of the early 1960s. It was no Rawhide, but it was a damn sight better than Sugarfoot.) Needless to say, Star Trek became far more than that, but I always like Gene Roddenberry’s description of his original pitch to Desilu because the great gift of the Trek always was in slipping something important in there between the phaser bursts and photon torpedoes.

(By the way, in The Original Series, the photon torpedoes were bursts of light. In the movies, they were actual torpedoes, albeit torpedoes that looked like coffins, and, in The Wrath of Khan, a torpedo actually functioned as one for the temporarily deceased Mr. Spock. How did Federation technology go so far backwards between the small screen and the large? These are the things I think about.)

However, that trailer bothers me. This is the 50th anniversary of one show, TOS, as it is dismally called in the marketing lingo of franchises. This is not an anniversary for the movies. This is not an anniversary for Picard, and Janeway, and Sisko, and Archer. This is not an anniversary for Data, or Seven Of Nine, or Dr. Phlox. This is not an anniversary for Q, or Cardassians, or the Xindi. I don’t care for the moment if you think Picard could beat Archer at arm-wrestling or that Janeway could fire a blast that would knock Sisko all the way back to Spenser: For Hire. This is not an anniversary for any of that, although I respect the franchise, and I’ve enjoyed all the shows, with the exception of Voyager, which I never could seem to get into.

But this is an anniversary for Kirk and Spock, for McCoy and Scotty, for Chapel and Yeoman Rand, for Uhura, Sulu and Chekov. It’s an anniversary for Romulans and Klingons and Orions, and for Vulcans and Organians. It’s for Tribbles and the Mugatu. It’s for Excalbia and Delta Vega. It’s for Argelius II, Cestus III, Talos IV, Ceti Alpha V, Janus VI, Eminiar VII, Holberg 917-G, and Psi 2000. It’s an anniversary for the show that started it all, a cheesy space opera with a resonance down through the years because, down through the years, human beings are still pretty much the same illogical creatures they’ve always been.

It’s also an anniversary that allows me to post this picture again.

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Let’s all live long and see if we prosper.

 Doonesbury — Let’s be brief.