From the monthly archives: "March 2013"

Blame Jon Ronson; I appreciate the work of The Skeptical Libertarian, and a Christopher Hitchens-ish attitude of disbelief, but usually I am a little too entranced and entertained by the people who believe in weird things, and what exactly are those weird things. British journalist Jon Ronson’s Them: Adventures With Extremists has him visiting the middle (Randy) Weaver daughter, a cheerful Muslim extremist, the just-as-scary-as-you-would-think Aryan Nations, and the weirdly PR-savvy “new” KKK. He also investigates Bohemian Grove and The Bilderberg group, both times while following Alex Jones, the yelling Texas radio host recently seen yelling at Piers Morgan about guns and trying to have CNN host deported over his views on the second amendment (something both wrong and hilarious). Ronson has the right idea for the immersion reporter, he doesn’t stand around snarking and mocking. He observes and follows and tries to be open-minded as possible, without actually believing in anything (except when he gets a little spooked by a Bilderberg — maybe — security guard), as he looks into these different people who all believe that an elite organization runs the world, be it the New World Order, the Jews, the bankers, Reptillians, the Illuminati, etc.

It’s a fabulous book. I wish I had written it. And people who believe crazy things should not be shunned by all of society. On occasion, they either have buried points about the danger of government power or they’re just God damned entertaining as specimens of human weirdness. Sometimes, as in the cases of the Weavers at Ruby Ridge or the Branch Davidians at Waco, the paranoia of the conspiracy theorist ends up coming true. And again, there is a vital lesson about government power to be found there.

I, and most libertarians, shouldn’t be okay with individuals like Alex Jones. But I am okay with Jones because I don’t take him seriously. Glenn Beck was always the less fringe-y Alex Jones, which I think is worse in many ways because he’s more credible while spouting much bullshit. But then I remember that people take Jones seriously and that is terrible. And as much as I laugh at his rants about “JUSTIN BIEBLER!”  someone who makes a career out of government paranoia seeming ridiculous makes…well, government paranoia seem ridiculous. That is not a libertarian goal, nor a libertarian gain.

I have argued that Objectivism is a parody of libertarianism, but Alex Jones is a different sort of parody of my beliefs. Where Objectivism has perpetuated the idea that to be for free markets is to be opposed to charity (the cold, cruel capitalist libertarian), Jones and his ilk spread the notion that to be afraid of the government is to believe everything you read about its malevolent powers (the tin-foil hat-clad libertarian). Where Jones fails, besides in basic critical thinking skills, is that he and all believers of the New World Order, Illuminati, or Bilderberg, attribute an immense amount of competence to government officials. I feel unsettled knowing that for all the bad things we know the government did — MKUltra, The Tuskegee Experiment, NSA, FBI, and CIA spying, anything tailor-made for conspiracy talk — there have got to be at least a few dozen of which we have no idea.

I might even believe in aliens of some kind. I definitely believe in the U.S. government’s potential to go tyrannical. I believe that cops and prosecutors and government officials lie (okay, that’s just true). Hell, the CIA could have been involved in the killing of JFK. I have no doubt there are some aspects of 9/11 that have not been told to the public. On and on, I usually don’t dismiss theories completely.

But Jones and co somehow also forget the most basic of libertarian standbys — “power corrupts.” And so it does.  That doesn’t mean every powerful person is in on some perfectly-crafted NWO. The simple premise that people tend to do similarly bad stuff when they are in power seems to not occur to believers of conspiracy theories. It has to be puppetmasters controlling the weather and 12 dudes in a bunker and maybe just space aliens. Never mind the fact that every president believes that he has the right to make a decision that will cause the deaths of innocent people and then he does, or that a government agency with a massive, secret budget and a history of lawlessness might just keep right on doing what it wants. It has to all tie impossibly together.

Conspiracy theorists are usually not even agnostics about “the official story.” They are evangelical about an opposing story, usually a sinister one that falls into a greater scheme of domination and control. As Brian Doherty just wrote on my facebook on this very subject:

Those who would never believe a word of anything from corporate media (except all those words they do believe….), those with the most withering skepticism, have an epistemological standard about “outsider” claims that seems to roughly be: “anything that makes the world seem more sinister and terrifying is true.”

Also, I wonder if the idea of one enemy, even a one-world government-sized one, is comforting. If you ever beat that, you would be free! Daunting, yes, but much less messy than the real world.

I just finished Area 51:An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base by Annie Jacobsen, and am now irritated that I spent so much time on a book that was shoddily researched and edited when it comes to dates of projects and various times of de-classifications. However, even if Jacobsen had been flawless in her reporting on the many aerial and nuclear secrets that dwell within Area 51, her big ta-da! at the end of the book would still throw the previous 360-odd pages into doubt. Jacobsen, you see, is convinced that she discovered the secret of the 1947 UFO (in the literal sense) crash in Roswell, New Mexico.

This, she says, was a crashed experimental aircraft, designed by the Horton Brothers who were some of the Nazi rocket scientists taken by the Soviets after the war (as opposed to the ones America snagged). And the pilots? Who looked oddly like our impression of grays? Let’s let her tell it:

…the children were rumored to have been kidnapped by Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi madman who, at Auschwitz and elsewhere, was known to have performed unspeakable experimental surgical procedures mostly on children, dwarfs, and twins. The engineers learned that just before the war ended, Josef Mengele made a deal with Stalin. Stalin offered Mengele an opportunity to continue work in eugenics.  . . . in secret, in the Soviet Union.

    Mengele held up his side of the Faustian bargain and provided Stalin with the child-size crew. . . . Mengele never took up residence in the Soviet Union. Instead he lived for four years in Germany under an assumed name and then escaped to South America, where he lived first in Argentina and then in Paraguay, until his death in 1979.

Seems ridiculous, no? The origin of this tale was an unnamed former engineer for EG&G, the shadowy contractors who have worked at Area 51 and the Nevada Test Site for years.  These non-aliens and the remains of their craft were taken to Area 51 in the early ’50s. This now-dead individual is not named in Jacobsen’s book, but she claims to have interviewed him and checked his impressive credentials. He goes on to say that one reason the horrible truth about Roswell was never revealed is that “we” were doing the same thing on unconsenting patients, often the mentally handicapped.

In a world of MKUltra and the government giving syphilis to Guatemalans, is it any wonder that people believe in that kind of possibility? It’s just a little farther, just a little worse than what we know the U.S. government has done. So, why is this so ridiculous?

Well, if for no other reason, Jacobsen proves nothing. She uses piece of history: the Horton Brothers’ experimental aircraft designs, Operation Paperclip, Stalin and the U.S.’ investigations into UFO panics, the very existence of a monster like Mengele, early experiments in drones, and, we hope, the word of a real, anonymous person who really did work around Area 51. But instead of a patchwork of truth slapped together to make some impossible craft of an explanation, she decides it all ties together neatly enough to fly like a U-2. And she seems to have no sense that she has done nothing but tell a creepy story. She could be right about it all — though she isn’t — and she still would not have proved it with her certainty.

It’s her use of Occam’s Razor that is so laughable and again familiar in conspiracy theorist cliches. The simplest explanation is impossible Soviet technology piloted by Mengle-made freaks? Not that eye-witnesses are wrong, that  people who work in jobs where they cannot even tell their loved ones what they do might get a little weird? That maybe they have a piece of a secret, but not the whole thing, so that they might also be susceptible to the same fears of a ranting Youtuber?

Or that they might just want to tell tales? Or they thought they saw something and they interpreted it wrongly? Or they might just be a God damned liar?

By all means, go, look into it, look at the possibility of the worst that governments can do, but don’t buy it, and don’t expect your readers to buy it when you’re using one unnamed source.

That’s the difference between Jon Ronson and Jacobsen. Ronson tells you straight away that he is crawling into this world of paranoia. He wants to immerse himself in order to observe the humans who posses variations on this particular quirk. But only in the middle of the mysterious moment where his car is being tailed by someone related to Bilderberg (questionable, but, you know, Bilderberg IS powerful people meeting in a room. Security and heavy-handedness is unsurprising, them running all aspects of our existence does not follow) does he become fully credulous for a few minutes. But the task is to tell the stories of the people who believe what they do, nothing more. Jacobsen spends pages telling stories of government secrets, at least appearing to be a well-researched historian, mentioning aliens and such on occasion because the myth is part of the story, and then she switches it up and demands that we be certain that her scoop is proven fact. She’s a cheat. Like all conspiracy theorists, she cannot even admit that just doesn’t know.

Ah, the great power of C-SPAN.

After my hour-long interview with Brian Lamb on his March 3 “Q&A” program, sales of “Dogging Steinbeck” surged nicely.

I’m not ready to retire yet.  But before my C-SPAN appearance, my ranking on Amazon’s various Journalism and Travel categories was never higher than No. 4 (which it hit briefly after a rave Weekly Standard review by Sean Macomber).

Brian Lamb and C-SPAN took me to these dizzy heights Monday morning. Staying up there will be tough without help from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Charlie Rose, but being No. 1 in something for even just a little while is kind of fun.

Dogging Steinbeck, March 4, 2013

Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,672 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
#1 in Books > Education & Reference > Writing, Research & Publishing Guides > Writing > Journalism & Nonfiction
#1 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction > Reference > Writing, Research & Publishing Guides > Journalism
#3 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction > Travel > Essays & Travelogues

photoMy journalism career is complete.

Brian Lamb, founding father of CSPAN, American hero and fellow journalist, has interviewed me.

Not that I can remember anything he asked me about my book “Dogging Steinbeck” or what I answered when we met in CSPAN’s beautiful DC studios three weeks ago.

My interview with the man I like to call “St. Brian” will be displayed for the whole world to see on Lamb’s Sunday night “Q&A” program on CSPAN March 3 at 8 and 11 p.m. ET.

I dread watching my “performance” almost as much as I dreaded doing the one-on-one interview. I’m a radio Steigerwald Brother, not a TV Steigerwald Brother, as should be obvious Sunday night. But my pain and dread were worth the thrill.

Brian Lamb and CSPAN and I go way back together — or at least I do.

I first spoke to him in 1980 not long after the cable channel was born and began providing American TV watchers with their first taste of real ideological diversity.

I called CSPAN from my apartment in Hollywood USA to ask a question of  the guest, Ed Clark, the 1980 Libertarian Party presidential candidate. Clark couldn’t even buy some decent network TV-news time in those bad old oligopolistic days when the lefty liberals at CBS, ABC, NBC called the shots and set the national political agenda.

A year or two later I met Lamb for about two seconds at a party in L.A. thrown the L.A. Times’ cable TV reporter.

In 2004 I turned the tables on Lamb and interviewed him for my weekly Q&A at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.  A year later, on New Year’s Eve, if I recall, I called him on the air during CSPAN’s 25th anniversary show.

Lamb, who’s known for his laconic interviewing style and kindly, unflappable demeanor, was one of the nicest celebrity guys I ever interviewed, and I’ve interviewed hundreds of famous/important people over the years.

Here’s how I set up my Q&A with Lamb, which occurred in December of 2004 and shed light on his motives for starting CSPAN and his deliberate effort to open up America’s cablewaves to more diverse and strident political voices:

God Bless, Brian Lamb

Talk about your fair-and-balanced TV.

Thanks to saintly cable pioneer Brian Lamb, C-SPAN has been providing the country with a serious, unbiased and unfiltered look at the widest possible spectrum of political ideas and information for 25 years.

Operating on a puny $45 million annual budget provided by the cable industry, the multimedia empire that Lamb founded and has carefully fathered covers government, the political process, party conventions, debates, seminars and author appearances across the country and now includes three C-SPAN cable-satellite channels, a C-SPAN radio channel and the Web site c-span.org.

After 15 years and reading 801 books, Lamb recently disappointed many faithful C-SPAN viewers by recently ending “Booknotes,” his popular hour-long Sunday program which featured his gentle, quirky interviews with top nonfiction writers. I talked to him from his offices in Washington, D.C.

Q: Any regrets yet about deciding to end “Booknotes”?

A: Sure. The regrets that you have are tied to the fact that so many people seemed to value the information. You hate to give something like that up, because it meant so much to enough people that it kept me going over the years. But, I’m 63, and I want to have some more free time to do exactly what I want to do. I was really tied to reading a book all the time, so from that perspective, no, I’m ready to change my habits.

Q: Why did you start C-SPAN?

A: It’s not what most people think it was. My interest in starting C-SPAN (in 1979) was that I thought that three commercial television networks controlling what we saw was unfortunate. I was angry about it, as a matter of fact. I kept saying to myself, “Why are we watching only three television networks? And the same newscast every night? And the same lead story and the same breaks for commercials?” When I first got in it, I said, “We need more information.” It was that simple. I didn’t feel strongly about covering the House of Representatives. That just turned out to be the vehicle with which we were able to start this place.

Q: What’s C-SPAN’s greatest value to the country?

A: There are several levels there. First, its greatest value, I think, is that you can see your elected officials spending your money. Secondly, officials can talk back to their constituents, which they never were able to do before. They had to talk back through the filter. And third, it’s a national conversation, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, about the big issues that confront the country. And it’s not controlled by entertainment values. It’s not controlled by the ratings you can get by talking about Scott Peterson ad infinitum. I find that story to be of no journalistic value, and we don’t have to worry about that. It’s an unusual place, and there’s no place like it. It was luck that got us there, because if you tried to start something like this today, you couldn’t.

Q: Do you consider yourself a journalist?

A: Absolutely. I’m a journalist first and foremost, and I believe strongly in the profession.

Q: How do you define your politics?

A: I don’t. I’ve never been a member of a party. I’ve worked for both Republicans and Democrats in the first nine years of my adult life as I was in the service and worked around this town for both Nixon and Johnson. The thing on my political side that I worry about the most and think about the most that needs the most correction is the way we spend our money. It’s not very accountable right now. We don’t know how our money is being spent.

In the job we do here at C-SPAN, I really don’t care who wins. We’ve set it up so we stay out of the contest. We don’t support anybody internally. We talk all the time about politics, but we don’t give anybody any impression as to how we are voting. It works very well for us. The attitude that we have inside here — that I find often is not present in some of the other organizations that I have been around over the years — is that we never have any interest in excluding a point of view. I’ve heard people say, “Oh, we don’t want to hear that point of view, that doesn’t need to be heard.” That’s what our whole mission is about here at C-SPAN. We put on everybody. We go from the socialists to the libertarians. From the Ralph Naders to the Green Party to the Christian right and communist left. It’s all over the lot. It doesn’t matter what it is. We just don’t ever say, “Oh, we don’t think our audience ought to hear that.”

Q: At your National Press Club talk the other night you said you thought the American people really sought more “choice and freedom” in their lives. Is there a secret Brian Lamb who is really politically opinionated?

A: Yes. I have strong opinions about openness. I’m a small “d” democrat. I basically said it at that press club speech that I feel very strongly in the First Amendment and that it’s absolute and it’s the only thing that really keeps us free, because I’ve watched politicians hoard information and control information, and control our access to information. It’s the only chance we have of being different than other places. There are democracies all over the world. Lots of countries have democracies. There are very few that have the strong First Amendment that we have. I guess I feel so strongly that people who don’t understand the First Amendment or the value of it would miss it if their side or their ox is being gored.

Q: Is C-SPAN an organization that can live on without you?

A: I can walk out of the door today, and you’ll never notice the difference. People who follow the details of networks like ours think that I matter. But most of the people in this country don’t know who I am, don’t care who I am, and do not watch C-SPAN for me. They watch it for the events.

Q: What have you learned about the American people by creating and working on C-SPAN all these years?

A: Well, I guess, first of all, I’ve learned that some of the people in the body politic — it’s probably 10 percent of the country — are very aware of what is going on and are very smart about politics and can ask as good a question as anybody in our profession.

Secondly, I’ve learned — and I suppose I should have known this — that the politician loves to control what we hear and see, loves to control his own image, which is human nature. But I didn’t realize to what degree they would go to do that.

Third, people in this country, more than anything else, want choice. They want choice in soaps and they want choice in television, and they’re going to get what they want eventually. That’s really what’s been going on for the last 30 years — in television the public has demanded more and more. And finally, after being protected for many, many years by the government, the television industry has had to offer choice. And that’s the best thing that’s happened.