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Published: Thu, 21 Sep 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Thu, 21 Sep 2017 12:53:49 -0400


The New Red Scare

Mon, 18 Sep 2017 12:00:00 -0400

These days America sometimes looks as if it were slipping into the grip of another Red Scare. Only this time the object of fear and loathing is the far-right menace, not the far-left one. The first Red Scare happened after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The second followed WWII, and helped commence the Cold War. Both scares involved a hysterical overreaction to a genuine threat. Totalitarian communism was antithetical to America's most cherished values, and anti-communism was the morally correct position to take. Some took it too far. The overreaction led to loyalty oaths and star-chamber hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee and Hollywood blacklists and a general atmosphere of what, today, we might call political correctness: an intolerance of dissenting ideas that challenged, or were insufficiently devoted to, the prevailing anti-communist orthodoxy. The more common name for the overreaction is McCarthyism. All of this produced almost inevitable blowback, which came to be known as anti-anti-communism. Anti-anti-communists did not support communism, but they also opposed McCarthyism. To muddle the issue even further, many on the left were at least sympathetic to communism, and at least a few were objectively pro-Soviet, so it was easy to lump anti-anti-communists in with those who were pro-communist, and it could be difficult to navigate all of the finely grained distinctions. Those debates have passed into history's sepia pages. Now the current debate over the alt-right has begun to display some of the same hallmarks. To begin with, there is the undeniable existence of a clear and present danger. The racist right's identitarianism is antithetical to America's most cherished values, and opposing the alt-right is the morally correct position to take. The threat must be countered at every turn. At the same time, the wholesome and necessary opposition to bigotry has started to metastasize into something less healthy. You can see that in the way Berkeley reacted to a speech by Ben Shapiro. From the militarized police preparation to the emotional counseling for students, you'd have thought Shapiro, a Jewish conservative who opposes Donald Trump, was the reincarnation of Adolf Eichmann. You can see it at the Oregon Bach Festival, which recently fired British conductor Matthew Halls for affecting a Southern accent while joking with a friend. The friend, Reginald Mobley, is from the South, and black. A woman reported Halls for making racist comments. Mobley insists "there was nothing racist or malicious" about his friend's joke. Too bad, festival officials said; Halls is out. Mobley told a British newspaper Halls "has been victimized and I'm very upset about it." You can see it at the University of Iowa, which requires job applicants to promise they will "demonstrate their contribution to diversity and inclusion" if they are hired. (Virginia Tech tried to impose a similar litmus test for faculty members a few years ago.) To consider why that might be problematic, imagine the university were to demand that applicants "demonstrate their fidelity to capitalism and free enterprise." You can see it in the proliferation of college "bias response teams," which swing into action when somebody reports somebody else—informs on them—for saying or doing something that might be viewed as offensive or hurtful. On today's campus, that can be practically anything. One actual case: "Anonymous student reported that African-American Alliance's student protest was making white students feel uncomfortable." Another resulted in the defunding of a student satirical newspaper after it poked fun at safe spaces. You can see it in the debate over the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has come under fire for conflating mainstream conservatives, and even non-conservatives such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School who opposes Islamic extremism, with neo-Nazis and Klansmen. As National Review put it last year, "A category ... that includes both Aryan Brotherhood felons in San Quentin and Somali-Dutch atheist[...]

Sinister Russian Manipulation of Facebook Lures Four People to a Rally

Tue, 12 Sep 2017 12:42:00 -0400

If you like sensationalist tales of foreign masterminds manipulating domestic dissension, The Daily Beast has a doozy for you: The article beneath that headline informs us that "Russian operatives hiding behind false identities used Facebook's event management tool to remotely organize and promote political protests in the U.S." It then illustrates this with the tale of a rally in Twin Falls, Idaho. If the facts these writers relate are true, there's an interesting story here. Unfortunately, what's interesting about it is almost entirely obscured by the way the report is told. First there is the bizarre fixation on Facebook, a company whose role the writers repeatedly invoke. I know that anything that puts Facebook and Russia in the same vicinity is media catnip right now, but surely the story here is that Russia would want to organize such rallies, not that it used Facebook to do so. Imagine that the KGB had covertly planned a demonstration on U.S. soil in 1980. If its organizers had spoken with each other on the phone, would your coverage focus on AT&T? If they had used photocopied fliers to promote the rally, would your coverage focus on Xerox? I have many problems with Facebook as a company, but surely the fact that its tools make it easier to organize events is a good thing, even if some of the people who use those tools are unsavory. The other big problem with the piece is how it frames the operation: The Facebook events—one of which echoed Islamophobic conspiracy theories pushed by pro-Trump media outlets—are the first indication that the Kremlin's attempts to shape America's political discourse moved beyond fake news and led unwitting Americans into specific real-life action. "This is the next step," Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and expert on Russia's influence campaign, told The Daily Beast. "The objective of influence is to create behavior change. The simplest behavior is to have someone disseminate propaganda that Russia created and seeded. The second part of behavior influence is when you can get people to physically do something." Sounds spooky, huh? But if you're still reading six paragraphs later, that spooky feeling may dissolve: Although 48 people clicked that they were "interested" in the protest, only four said they went to City Council Chambers that day, according to the event page, possibly because it was a Saturday and the Council was not in session. It is also possible to claim attendance on Facebook at an event that didn't exist. Twin Falls had already been the focus of sustained attention on anti-immigrant websites. So the people behind this rally weren't building from scratch here; they were plugging themselves into a preexisting paranoid narrative about foreign predators invading Idaho. And yet as best as we can tell, they were able to draw only four people to their protest. Maybe those wily Russians aren't so great at behavior modification after all. We already had good reason to believe that Russia's propaganda campaigns consist largely of trying to amplify forces that already exist in our society. If this rally is typical, it suggests that such signal boosts haven't had much effect. Much as it may please some people to blame America's divisions on some alien force, they were born here in the U.S.A.[...]

Are Facebook Ads Part of the Russia-Trump Conspiracy Theory?

Thu, 07 Sep 2017 13:10:00 -0400

The Trump-Russia conspiracy hunt is scraping the bottom of the barrel—Facebook ads. The New York Times reports Facebook "identified more than $100,000 worth of divisive ads on hot-button issues purchased by a shadowy Russian company linked to the Kremlin." More than 3,000 ads were identified, although most of them did not refer to specific candidates. That company, the Internet Research Agency, was reported by The New York Times in 2015 to be a troll farm. Now the Times insists that Facebook's disclosure "adds to the evidence of the broad scope of the Russian influence campaign" but admits that as of yet "there has been no evidence proving collusion in the hacking or other Russian activities." Facebook's chief security officer, Alex Stamos, said the company had shared its findings with Robert Mueller, the former FBI director appointed special counsel on the Trump Russia investigation, and would continue to work with him "as necessary." What is all that supposed to mean? In a country founded on the idea of free and open speech, how concerned should we be that foreign companies make ad buys on Facebook? The "marketplace of ideas" is robust enough to handle it. Ideas succeed and fail on their merits. Advertisements can get ideas in front of people, but they can't get those people to accept or act on those ideas. To begin with, $100,000 in Facebook ads is not a lot of ads (the company had more than $9 billion in ad revenue in the last fiscal quarter alone). For the most part, Facebook ads are pretty ineffective. Even if the Russian company had purchased 10 or even 100 times as many ads, it's no big deal. There is little evidence political ads sway voters. The idea that a relatively small ad buy on a relatively ineffective platform interfered with the presidential election is ludicrous. Free speech works because any idea is absorbed and subjected to the pressures of a marketplace. More voices only make the marketplace richer and give free participants in that marketplace more information with which to make decisions. The most unseemly part of the Trump-Russia conspiracy-mongering has been the contorting of free speech in a free country to appear shadowy, devious, sophisticated, and overly influential. Back in January, when the intelligence community released an unclassified version of its report on Russian attempts to influence the outcome of the 2016 election, the bulk of it focused on the operation of Russia Today (a network I've appeared on a few times) and its coverage of third-party candidates and of issues like police brutality, military drones, and mass surveillances. The spooks argued such coverage undermined American democracy. Precisely the opposite is true—increased coverage of third-party candidates and of issues often under-reported by the mainstream media can only improve decision making in a democracy. The Trump-Russia witch hunt focuses disturbingly on political speech, and smacks of quashing it based on perceptions of the source. This "kill the messenger" premise offers the government the opportunity to suppress messages it doesn't like. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a top congressional Trump-Russia conspiracy theorist, has already suggested Facebook should do more to monitor where its ads are coming from and shut down foreign ones. "Clearly Facebook doesn't want to become the arbiter of what's true and what's not true," Schiff told the Times. "But they do have a civil responsibility to do the best they can to inform their users of when they're being manipulated by a foreign actor." The true manipulation comes from those who think the age-old American tradition of free speech and free press is sinister and ought to be abridged.[...]

Dick Gregory Took Us All on a Strange and Powerful Trip

Sun, 20 Aug 2017 11:25:00 -0400

The comedian and activist Dick Gregory has died at the age of 84. Talk about a career that's virtually impossible to categorize. From avant-garde joke teller to civil-rights figure to diet guru to conspiracy mongerer, he lived a full life that in many ways mirrors all the twists and turns of American life over the past 50 or 60 years. He was relentlessly pessimistic about the state of the country even as he inspired his audience to work for change. I found him interesting because he was always out there on the horizon, lighting a path—albeit often one not particularly grounded in facts—that many of us would be following down soon after. Born in St. Louis in 1932, Gregory ran track for Southern Illinois University in Carbondale on a scholarship, got drafted, and eventually ended up in Chicago, where he became one of the hottest entertainers of the early 1960s. Hugh Hefner of Playboy, which was still headquartered in the Windy City, was a huge fan and helped to massively increase Gregory's audience. Like Lenny Bruce and other cutting-edge comics of the time, Gregory played with social conventions in a way that was both thrilling and nervous-making. "Segregation is not all bad," went a characteristic one-liner. "Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?" He was a regular presence at civil rights events during the '60s, ran for president, authored a popular natural-foods cookbook in 1974, Dick Gregory's Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin' with Mother Nature and helped popularize the idea of healthy fasting. "When I look at the obituaries," he once quipped, "I don't see no one but all you eaters." He was a fixture on the college tour circuit by the 1980s, when I saw him perform at Rutgers, and his monologues were shot through with frankly insane conspiracy theories (I vaguely recall him claiming that the victims of the Atlanta child murders had been mutilated in a way that suggested a government cover-up). An immediate critic of the Warren Report on the JFK assassination, he dismissed official accounts of 9/11 as well, even declaring a liquid fast until the "true story" was made available. Unsurprisingly, he taped a long appearance with Alex Jones about 9/11. In 1964 he published a memoir, co-authored by famed sportswriter and novelist Robert Lipsyte (Reason interview here), controversially titled Nigger. Gregory later said that he wished he'd chosen a different title, but he dedicated the volume to his mother with the note, Dear Momma— Wherever your are, if you ever hear the word "nigger" again, remember they are advertising my book. The opening chapter of Nigger, in which Gregory chronicles a Christmas when his absent father ("a real Capone with the whores and the bitches") comes home and beats his wife, son, and mistress, is one of the most painful accounts of black rage that America has sadly produced. It stands with passages from Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin in its anger, empathy, and pain. For anyone interested in the black family and the way in which mother-son dynamics get forged in a culture of absentee fathers, Gregory's autobiography is invaluable. The book's documentation of segregation and its effects on American culture should be required reading for those of us who didn't live through that period or have forgotten its reality. His turn to conspiracist thinking allows insight into how minorities who have suffered systematically at the hands of a dominant culture search for meaning and understanding in a hostile world. Dave Chapelle's recent Netflix specials explicitly discuss this tendency among blacks, and it's a predilection that extends to other groups of people who feel marginalized. In Donald Trump's America, understanding the complaints (without necessarily endorsing them) of people who feel pushed to the fringe of society is more important than ever. In 2010, I covered the "One Nation Rally for Jobs, Justice, and Education" that had been organize[...]

The Manchurian Crooner

Fri, 11 Aug 2017 11:21:00 -0400

(image) It was the Korean War—I mean the war they fought in the '50s, not the nuclear holocaust that various idiots are proposing now—that brought the word "brainwashing" into the common lexicon. Introduced in Edward Hunter's 1951 book Brain-Washing in Red China, whose cover declared that "an entire nation" was under "hypnotic control," the word's popularity exploded when the public learned that the American POWs who had recorded propaganda messages for North Korea had been subjected to intense indoctrination sessions. The idea took hold that the Communists had actually reprogrammed their captives' brains, perhaps permanently.

As science, this turned out to be false—the mind is not so malleable. As fuel for pop culture, on the other hand, it has given us everything from The Manchurian Candidate to the record I've embedded below. Eddie Hill's "I Changed My Mind," released in 1954, may well be the only country song ever written about brainwashing. In this particular spin on the subject, the cure for mind control turns out to be prayer; that isn't quite as exciting as the end of The Manchurian Candidate, but I suppose it was better suited for radio airplay.

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Trivia: Joan Javits, co-composer of the song, made more of a mark when she co-wrote "Santa Baby." She was also the niece of Sen. Jacob Javits, which I guess makes this record the lost bridge between Nashville and the Rockefeller Republicans.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

Lawrence O'Donnell Slams Jeff Flake for Not Criticizing Birtherism Earlier, Even Though Flake Criticized Birtherism 8 Years Ago on MSNBC

Thu, 10 Aug 2017 18:00:00 -0400

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has been all over the airwaves this month promoting his new book, Conscience of a Conservative, in which he laments that "Never has a party so quickly or easily abandoned its core principles as my party did in the course of the 2016 campaign." In the process Flake has predictably drawn heavy fire from Trumpworld, and perhaps less intuitively from certain quarters on the left. For instance on Monday, in a segment shared with the inevitable social-media headline "Lawrence O'Donnell Shreds Jeff Flake for Being Six Years Late on Trump, GOP Criticisms," the MSNBC host played a clip of this recent exchange between the senator and Chuck Todd: Flake: I wish that we as a party would have stood up, for example, when the birtherism thing was going on. A lot of people did stand up, but not enough. Todd: Did you do enough? […] Flake: On that? I think I did. To which O'Donnell retorted, "Oh, no, no, no, no, you did not. You definitely did not do enough." What was the evidence for O'Donnell's confidently dismissive assertion? This: "The first time we can find Jeff Flake saying something negative about Donald Trump's lies about Barack Obama's birth was in June of last year after Donald Trump had already locked up the Republican Presidential nomination." But there's a problem with that particular search string. Birtherism—the subject of Chuck Todd's query—long predates Donald Trump's involvement in it. And Jeff Flake was out there condemning the conspiracy theory over Barack Obama's alleged lack of U.S. citizenship as far back as 2009, both legislatively and in the media. Including on MSNBC. On July 27, 2009, the House of Representatives, of which Flake was then a member, voted 378-0 on a resolution "Recognizing and celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the entry of Hawaii into the Union as the 50th State." Conspicuously, for the politics of the time, the bill's third "whereas" in the preamble was: "Whereas the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, was born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961." As NBC News concluded back then, "It appears Congress has moved on and has accepted Obama's island birthplace." Or as a more gleeful Daily Kos headline put it, "It's Unanimous: Obama Born in Hawaii [and Freeper Meltdown]." The resolution had nine Republican co-sponsors. One of them was Jeff Flake. Chris Matthews brought Flake on MSNBC's Hardball the next night, touting him as a "leading co-sponsor" of the bill, and setting up their conversation with the question, "So what happened to the members of Congress who had been fanning the flames to delegitimize the president? Will they put to rest this insanity?" Here's are some selections from their exchange; bolding will be mine: Matthews: The other [House Republicans] are [still] pushing this. They want to put a birth certificate out there. How do they reconcile that with voting to say that this president clearly is one of us? Flake: I don't know. I suppose that other effort will go away pretty quietly now. I hope it does. I hope that this lays to rest any controversy that's out there. This shouldn't have been a controversy at all. Matthews: What's in the water out there? Flake: Well, I don't know. I think you saw some on the left, after the Bush-Gore race back in 2000, some who called Bush the illegitimate president for quite a while after that. And then you're seeing it here, not exclusively, but mostly on the right. It's unfortunate. It just kind of cheapens the debate. At which point leading Democratic co-sponsor Rob Andrews, who was also on the program, cut in to call the Bush-Gore example "a ridiculous comparison": Andrews: There is absolutely no doubt about Barack Obama's birth certificate. There's no dispute about this, which is why all you guys voted for it last night. Flake: No, I completely agree with that....Some of us never questioned it. Later, Andrews says "I mean, these guys ought to knock this off. Let's talk a[...]

Nancy MacLean's Libertarian Conspiracy Theory [Podcast]

Mon, 24 Jul 2017 16:00:00 -0400

Duke University historian Nancy MacLean's new book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America, combines conspiracy theories, accusations of racism, and dire warnings about a libertarian plot to create an American oligarchy. It's a historical story that's a "product of [MacLean's] imagination," with a reading of sources that's "hostile and tendentious to the point of pure error," as Reason's Brian Doherty put in a review we published last week.

In today's podcast, Doherty joins Nick Gillespie, Katherine Mangu-Ward, and Andrew Heaton to discuss how MacLean fundamentally misunderstands her subject matter; this year's Freedom Fest (an annual convention for libertarians in Las Vegas that just wrapped up); conservative-leaning libertarians vs. left-leaning libertarians; the constitutional ramifications of Donald Trump potentially pardoning himself; and whether or not we're living in the panopticon.

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What Nancy MacLean Gets Wrong About James Buchanan

Thu, 20 Jul 2017 21:00:00 -0400

The board of education in Brown v. Board of Education—the 1954 Supreme Court decision that desegregated American public schools—was located in Topeka, Kansas, a city that was overwhelmingly white. Brown overturned a policy set by a majority, and it was right to do so: School segregation is just as wrong when it is imposed democratically as it is when it is imposed by suppressing the black vote. So the strangest thing about Democracy in Chains—a book that contains many, many strange claims—may be how its author, the Duke historian Nancy MacLean, treats Brown. On one hand, she believes that those who want to bind majorities with preset constitutional rules are up to something sinister. Her chief villain on this score is James Buchanan, an economist and political philosopher who argued that government actors ought to be subject to built-in structural constraints. On the other hand, MacLean clearly thinks Brown was correctly decided. Indeed, she accuses Buchanan of working to undermine the ruling. MacLean seems not to notice Brown is itself an example of the phenomenon MacLean is denouncing: a Constitution being used to overrule a democratic outcome in the name of protecting a minority. It's an awkward start for a baroque conspiracy story, and it signals what a mess the book will be. The historian has little to no evidence for her history. She invents some when necessary, and will at times just make assertions to suit her narrative, mustering neither real nor phony evidence to back them up. Many of her factual and interpretive errors have already been covered elsewhere, in venues ranging from Vox to The Washington Post. Rather than get lost in the weeds of covering every false statement or misleadingly gerrymandered quotation in this book, I want to focus here on the core claims that it gets wrong: MacLean fundamentally misunderstands Buchanan's intellectual project, treating his theories about politics as an apologia for the wealthy and powerful. This gives short shrift to a serious body of thought, and it fails to see that his arguments can indict the wealthy as much as anyone else. She tries to tie Buchanan's work to the segregationist order in the South, even implying that his ideas arose from a desire to preserve it. She essentially invents links along the way. She paints Buchanan as an important influence on Augusto Pinochet's repressive dictatorship in Chile. Not only does her evidence fail to support this, but she misses an important piece of counterevidence: a 1981 speech, delivered in Chile, in which Buchanan condemned dictatorial rule. And finally, though Buchanan was neither an orthodox libertarian nor a central influence on the libertarian movement, she puts him at the heart of a Charles Koch–driven conspiracy to impose a radical libertarian agenda on the United States. In the process, she manages to misread both Buchanan and Koch in telling ways. Public Choice, Private Greed? Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in 1986 for his role in founding the "public choice" school of economics. This school's key idea, to quote the Nobel committee, was to seek "explanations for political behavior that resemble those used to analyze behavior on markets." The result was a body of work in which politicians and bureaucrats, no less than entrepreneurs and investors, often "act out of self-interest," driven not just by a vision of the common good but by a desire for votes or bigger budgets. MacLean, by contrast, treats public choice as little more than an effort to question the good-heartedness of public servants. Its conclusions, she insists, have "no true research—no facts—to support them" and are rooted in "projecting unseemly motives onto strangers about whom they knew nothing." She takes it for granted that when public choice economists complain that special-interest groups profit from government, they're aiming to protect the r[...]

Is Libertarianism a 'Stealth Plan' To Destroy America?

Mon, 03 Jul 2017 08:30:00 -0400

As its title suggests, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America, by Duke historian Nancy MacLean, is filled with all sorts of melodramatic flourishes and revelations of supposed conspiracies. Chains, deep history, radicals, stealth—is this nonfiction or an Oliver Stone film? Even the cover depicts a smoke-filled room filled with ample-chinned, shadowy figures! This book, virtually every page announces, isn't simply about the Nobel laureate economist James Buchanan and his "public choice" theory, which holds in part that public-sector actors are bound by the same self-interest and desire to grow their "market share" as private-sector actors are. No, MacLean is after much-bigger, more-sinister game, documenting what she believes is the utterly chilling story of the ideological origins of the single most powerful and least understood threat to democracy today: the attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance...[and] a stealth bid to reverse-engineer all of America, at both the state and the national levels, back to the political economy and oligarchic governance of midcentury Virginia, minus the segregation. The billionaires in question, of course, are Koch brothers Charles and David, who have reached a level of villainy in public discourse last rivaled by Sacco and Vanzetti. (David Koch is a trustee of Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website; Reason also receives funding from the Charles Koch Foundation.) Along the way, MacLean advances many sub-arguments, such as the notion that the odious, hypocritical, and archly anti-capitalistic 19th-century slavery apologist John C. Calhoun is the spirit animal of contemporary libertarianism. In fact, Buchanan and the rest of us all are nothing less than "Calhoun's modern understudies." Such unconvincing claims ("the Marx of the Master Class," as Calhoun was dubbed by Richard Hofstadter, was openly hostile to the industrialism, wage labor, and urbanization that James Buchanan took for granted) are hard to keep track of, partly because of all the rhetorical smoke bombs MacLean is constantly lobbing. In a characteristic example, MacLean early on suggests that libertarianism isn't "merely a social movement" but "the story of something quite different, something never before seen in American history": Could it be—and I use these words quite hesitantly and carefully—a fifth-column assault on American democratic governance? Calling attention to the term's origins to describe Franco's covert, anti-modern allies in the Spanish Civil War, MacLean writes the term "fifth column" has been applied to stealth supporters of an enemy who assist by engaging in propaganda and even sabotage to prepare the way for its conquest. It is a fraught term among scholars, not least because the specter of a secretive, infiltrative fifth column has been used in instrumental ways by the powerful— such as in the Red Scare of the Cold War era— to conjure fear and lead citizens and government to close ranks against dissent, with grave costs for civil liberties. That, obviously, is not my intent in using the term.... And yet it's the only term up for MacLean's job, since "the concept of a fifth column does seem to be the best one available for capturing what is distinctive in a few key dimensions about this quest to ensure the supremacy of capital." Sure, "fifth column" is a dirty, lowdown, suspect term among historians because using it trades in hysteria at the service of the ruling class rather than rational analysis intended to help the downtrodden. But come on, people, we're in a twilight struggle here, with a movement whose goals have included, among other things, ending censorship; opening the borders to goods and people from around the world; abolishing the draft and reducing militar[...]

Shakespeare and the Assassins

Fri, 16 Jun 2017 11:59:00 -0400

(image) Last weekend's Big Fake Outrage involved a Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of Julius Caesar that features a Caesar based on Donald Trump. Caesar, as every schoolboy knows, is murdered in Act 3, so the show was denounced as "assassination porn" (note: the play is famously anti-assassination) that proves just how uniquely crazy Trump has made people (note: modernized productions of Julius Caesar are a cliché, and just a few years ago a high-profile performance featured a Caesar based on Barack Obama). Under different circumstances the hubbub might have faded by now, but on Wednesday some jerk tried to kill a bunch of congressmen and then some people started suggesting he was somehow influenced by the play (note: that's nuts). So we're still hearing about it.

But enough about Julius Caesar. Want to know what a tasteless assassination-themed appropriation of Shakespeare really sounds like? Check out MacBird!, Barbara Garson's MacBeth parody in which Lyndon Johnson plots the death of John F. Kennedy. Below you can hear a performance directed by Phil Austin, of Firesign Theatre fame, that aired on one of the Pacifica radio stations in 1967. If you'd rather read the script, it's here; but honestly, it's more fun when you can hear the actors' faux-Kennedy accents:

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The original performance of the play starred Stacy Keach in the LBJ role. Sadly, I don't have a recording of that one.

Bonus links: Matthew Lasar has more on MacBird! here. Garson has a cameo in my review of a rather different piece of literature here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For another Friday A/V Club with a Firesign Theatre connection, go here.

Cops Have Lost Control of Their Sex-Trafficking Panic, and It's Beautiful

Mon, 12 Jun 2017 12:36:00 -0400

Be still my little libertarian heart, there's just something beautiful about a cop-created moral panic slipping beyond their control. For years, U.S. police have been using tall tales about an American "sex trafficking epidemic" to scare citizens into giving up civil liberties (or at least offering up the rights of sex workers and their clients) and go about the government's typical types of thuggery. But now the narrative is getting away from them. So sure are Americans (despite all evidence) that sophisticated criminals are waiting to snatch up our girls and women at every opportunity that people are now inventing sex-trafficking rings of their own...and berating police for not taking action. The latest example comes from Glendale, WI, where local police had to fend off rumors that "girls as young as 12 are being snatched up from two local malls and sold into prostitution rings." Someone who said they had attended a banquet where "a Detective from [the Milwaukee Police Department] spoke" and told them "Mayfair Mall and Bayshore Town Center are very popular spots for human trafficking" posted the story on Facebook. After the bit about girls being snatched up, they warned neighbors to "be careful letting your girls go out alone" and asked that "if you shop in or frequent these areas keep your eyes open, you could make a huge difference." So what's going on here—someone with an activist or attention-seeking agenda? A well-meaning poster who garbled the story? A detective doing the usual hype with some local flair? Whatever the case, there's no truth to reports of trafficking-related abductions at the Bayshore Towne Center, according to local police. While "you should always remain aware of your surroundings, we have had no reports of this at Bayshore nor are we currently investigating anything related," the Glendale Police Department posted to Facebook. src="" width="500" height="281" frameborder="0"> The Town Center also denied any such activity. And "per review of the Wauwatosa Police crime reporting software now available, there is no data supporting human trafficking concerns at Mayfair Mall," according to the Historic East Tosa Community Association. But rather than relief, commenters on the police post expressed skepticism. Some saw the whole thing as confirming what could take place, even if it hadn't yet. "Could happen here. Scary," one woman posted. "While I agree that scaring the public is never a good thing," wrote another, "human trafficking is very real and keeping an eye out in public spaces like this that are potential areas of activity is never a bad idea." "Just because there have been no reports of this sort of thing at Bayshore, does not mean it is not happening," suggested yet another, asking police to "please investigate this as a possibility because it IS happening, and turning a blind eye does not save these young women." Other commenters quibbled about the specifics of the imaginary story ("in fact, as young as 12, should read, 'of any age.' Don't know specifics about these locations, but children of both sexes-and all ages-are vulnerable. That is a fact"). Any posters who sided with the police (and reality) on this one were upbraided by the others for being obtuse. "I frequent Bay Shore Mall and have not seen anything of that order when I was there ... I always feel safe and am treated with care," said one cheerful commenter. She was greeted with an admonition that "the problem [is] already there, ignoring it won't change that." "Did anyone read the article? 'There have been no reports,'" noted someone on the local Fox story about it. Response: "You all should know it's all over and at any given tim[...]

The British Left vs. the Deep State

Fri, 09 Jun 2017 11:15:00 -0400

A phrase keeps cropping up in certain corners of the English press: A Very British Coup. That's the name of Chris Mullin's novel about a near-future U.K.—and by "near-future" I mean the early '90s, because the book was published in 1982—where a hard-left Labour government comes to power and then is undermined by intelligence agencies and their allies in the media. Writers started invoking the book after Jeremy Corbyn made his bid to be leader of the Labour Party, and Mullin himself got around 1,000 words in The Guardian a couple years ago to speculate about "how the political establishment would react to a Corbyn victory." Now that Corbyn has denied the Tories a parliamentary majority, you can expect the allusions to multiply. I haven't read the novel myself, but I've seen the 1988 miniseries based on it. Watching it today should be a resonant experience for both the Corbynite left and the Trumpian right: the former because of the hero's similarities to the current Labour leader, the latter because the idea of the deep state subverting an elected outsider has suddenly picked up currency among conservatives. And if you're neither a Corbynite nor a Trumpian, you still might enjoy it, just because it's a pretty good conspiracy thriller. Great cast, too. By the time this aired in the late '80s, the idea that Britain might make a sharp left turn seemed like an outlandish science fiction scenario. But Mullin was writing at the dawn of the decade, when the U.K. was in a deep recession and the solidly socialist Tony Benn had a shot at becoming Labour leader. The idea that hidden forces might try to undermine such a government didn't spring entirely from Mullin's imagination either: He was drawing on widely circulated stories that MI5 had deliberately subverted the Labour government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, effectively pushing him out of power. I don't know the evidence well enough to have an informed opinion on whether those tales are true. But I do know that James Jesus Angleton, the famously paranoid CIA counterintelligence chief, was convinced that Wilson was working for the Russians. Speaking of notions that have come cycling back into style. Here is part one of A Very British Coup: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Here is part two: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> And here's the final installment: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> The story was remade in 2012 as a four-part miniseries called Secret State; I haven't seen that one, but if you want to check it out you can watch the first episode here. Wikipedia's page on Harold Wilson conspiracy theories is here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.[...]

The Conspiracy to Silence a JFK Assassination Theorist

Tue, 06 Jun 2017 16:40:00 -0400

Robert Groden has been issued 82 tickets by the city of Dallas and arrested twice. His offense? Running a table in Dealey Plaza on weekends offering passerbys an interpretation of the JFK assassination that conflicts with what Groden calls "the official fiction."

Groden's attorney, Brad Kizzia, uncovered emails between the Dallas City Council and an institution called the Sixth Floor Museum that references "how to deal with the vendor problem in Dealey Plaza." Kizzia's assumption is that the Sixth Floor Museum, an institution dedicated to telling the official story of the JFK asssassination, saw Groden as a nuissance and was conspiring with the city drive him out.

Groden filed a federal lawsuit on the grounds that the city and the Sixth Floor Museum were trying to suppress his First Amendment rights. Last month, after six years of litigation, Groden settled with the city and the Sixth Floor Museum for $47,500.

"I feel it's important that people know the truth," says Groden, who served as chief photographic consultant for the House Select Committee on Assassinations. (He was also the first person to get a copy of the famous Zapruder film, a home movie that captures the events of that day.)

"John Kennedy was our president, he died for what he believed in," Groden says. "And I felt we had no right to turn our back on his memory. We can't bring him back. It's too late for Justice in this case, but it's never too late for the truth."

Edited by Mark McDaniel. Cameras by Alexis Garcia, Zach Weissmueller, and McDaniel. Graphics by Meredith Bragg.

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Turkey Seeks Arrest of NBA Player, Says He Belongs to a 'Terrorist Organization'

Fri, 02 Jun 2017 10:00:00 -0400

A Turkish court has reportedly issued an arrest warrant for Oklahoma Thunder center Enes Kanter, charging him with "being a member of a terrorist organization." The 25-year-old Kanter, a Turkish national who has been living in the United States since 2009, has been an outspoken critic of the increasingly authoritarian Turkish government. He is also a supporter of Fethullah Gulen, a former imam and former ally of Turkish President Recep Erdogan. Gulen, who has lived in the U.S. since 1999, is the spiritual leader of a movement known as Hizmet (Turkish for "service"). According to the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs, he was estimated to have "between 200,000 supporters and 4 million people influenced by his ideas" in the late 1990s. Erdogan regularly accuses him of being the mastermind behind last year's attempted coup. "Only exiled people are going to be willing to go on record" about Kanter, a source familiar with the situation on the ground in Turkey tells Reason. "The whole set of accusations and demands has become toxic. It's partly because it's a no-go topic in Turkey but also because the [Gulen movement] is flawed and disliked by a lot of ordinary people in Turkey." After the failed coup, Erdogan initiated a massive purge of academics, bureaucrats, members of the judiciary, and members of the media, claiming with little to no evidence that thousands of people were colluding with what the Turkish government now calls the "Gulen Terrorist Organization." Kanter's family in Turkey has publicly disowned him, with his father apologizing to Erdogan "and the Turkish people" for "having such a son." That didn't keep Kanter's dad from losing his job at a university in Istanbul.* Turkey's slide into authoritarianism accelerated after a constitutional referendum earlier this year that vastly expanded Erdogan's powers. Since then, and particularly because Germany and the Netherlands prohibited pro-Erdogan election rallies in their countries, "Erdogan has shown little concern with how the West (particularly the U.S. and the EU) view his actions, and arguably has been behaving in such a manner as to create a wedge between the Turkish people and the West," says Michael Wuthrich, a specialist on the region who directs the Global & International Studies program at Kansas University. "What is particularly surprising about Kanter's case," Wuthrich adds, "is that they are targeting a well-known international figure who hasn't lived in Turkey for any length of time for years"—and "whose connection with the foiled coup plot would be extremely dubious to all but the most ardent Erdogan supporter." For Wuthrich, that means Erdogan "no longer feels shame from a harsh reaction from the West; in fact, he is stoking it to present to his political base a Western bloc that is part of a grand conspiracy to thwart Turkey's rise to greatness." Gulen, meanwhile, serves as "an Orwellian foil of sorts," though "there is very little substance that would link him to the attempted coup," Wuthrich says. Gulen has structured his supporters' network "in such a way that he almost never conveys direct orders. Even if he wished that Erdogan was removed from power, it is unlikely that he expressed this in any sort of explicitly incriminating ways or would have sullied himself with planning and preparation for such a thing." It's not even clear that the Turkish government sincerely wants extradite Gulen. Because he has been "conveniently operating as a scapegoat for every problem that Erdogan finds himself in for the last several years," Wuthrich explains, Gulen may be more valuable abroad. Turkey's chances of securing an extradition of Kanter are low, according to Wuthrich: "There is almost no[...]

3 Ways We're Reliving the Watergate Culture War

Wed, 24 May 2017 14:45:00 -0400

Whether or not we're reliving the Watergate investigation, we sure do seem intent on reenacting the Watergate culture war. That isn't just true of Donald Trump's critics, who are understandably eager to compare the 37th and 45th presidents. It's true of Trump and his team, who keep echoing arguments offered by Richard Nixon and his defenders four decades ago: 1. The double-standard defense. Complain about something Trump has done, and someone is bound to ask why you didn't say a peep when Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama did some other bad thing. (You will get this response even if you protested Clinton or Obama's action quite loudly.) The most prominent person to talk like this, of course, is Donald Trump himself: With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017 But this defense is a lot older than the present president's political career. Throughout the Watergate investigation, Nixon complained angrily that his predecessors had gotten away with the very activities that were getting him in trouble. In his 2003 book Nixon's Shadow, the Rutgers historian David Greenberg lays out some examples: "If I were a liberal," [Nixon] told [die-hard defender Baruch Korff], "Watergate would be a blip." He compiled a private catalogue of behaviors by others that he believed excused his own. On the basis of comments J. Edgar Hoover made to him, he frequently claimed, not quite accurately, that Lyndon Johnson had bugged his campaign plane in 1968. When Nixon was chided for spying on political opponents, he shot back that John and Robert Kennedy had done the same. And as precedents for his 1972 program of political sabotage, he regularly cited the pranks of Democratic operative Dick Tuck, who had hounded Nixon since his 1950 Senate race. During the Watergate Hearings, [White House Chief of Staff H.R.] Haldeman testified that "dirty tricks" maestro Donald Segretti was hired to be a "Dick Tuck for our side." There's more—much more—but you get the idea. Now, Nixon may have gotten his facts a little scrambled when it came to that alleged airplane bug, and some of the supposed precursors to his crimes didn't actually fit the bill. (He seemed convinced that Daniel Ellsberg's leak of the Pentagon Papers was comparable to the Watergate break-in—a bizarre analogy, though if you've been following the debates over Edward Snowden you've probably heard worse.) But broadly speaking, the president had a point. Many American leaders had abused their powers, sometimes in ways that resembled the Nixon scandals, and the press hadn't always been quick to trumpet the news. Like Nixon, JFK had wiretapped reporters and used the IRS as a political weapon. LBJ may not have bugged Nixon's plane in 1968, but he did spy on Goldwater in 1964. And both Kennedy and Johnson, like many others who have held their job, presided over enormous violations of dissenters' civil liberties. You can make a decent case that Nixon's misbehavior was even worse than theirs, but you can see how the man could get a little resentful about the uneven attention. The trouble with the double-standard defense is that it isn't much of a defense. The crimes of prior presidents aren't a reason to let Nixon off the hook; they're a reason to rein in not just one abusive president but the whole imperial presidency. The same goes for any Trumpian abuses today. 2. Intimations of a "coup." Then as now, each side accused the other of plotting a coup. Rumors that Nixon was planning to seize dictatorial powers circulated not just on the political fringes but in official Washington; m[...]