It’s that time of year again: the glitz, the glamor, the gowns. Who will go home with a coveted statue, and who will go home empty-handed? This year’s Oscar-nominated films were particularly heartfelt and inspiring (or about as close as Hollywood can manage), and TAC’s culture critic Noah Millman has seen most of them. He can tell you which ones are worth watching—or rewatching:
Loosely based on the Abscam scandal, David O. Russell takes a crack at screwball dramedy, with mixed results. Millman writes: “Russell wants it both ways – he wants you to enjoy the Scorcesean roller-coaster even as at every turn he’s showing you that his real pleasure tilt-a-whirl. And it turns out you can’t quite have it both ways.”
12 Years a Slave
The film’s undiluted portrait of slavery that had audiences sobbing in the theater is nominated for Best Picture—and the two leads, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, are nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. Lupita Nyongo is also nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Millman criticized director Steve McQueen for failing to end the film on a positive note: “McQueen doesn’t give us that uplifting twist… McQueen could have shown us a determined Northrup engaged in t[he] pursuit [of his captors], vowing never to rest, and ended his movie on an ‘up’ note. He chose not to.”
The genre-bending romantic drama of a man who falls in love with his operating system is a thought-provoking tale of humans’ dependency on their machines. Millman describes the film as “…a particularly clever Pygmalion story, one that is more attuned to what a modern man might actually want in a fantasy companion, as opposed to a mere sexual fantasy.”
Millman compares Alexander Payne’s newest film to his 2002 work “About Schmidt”, a rambling, dour film about an unhappy old man: “Payne’s new movie, ‘Nebraska,’ has a lot in common with ‘About Schmidt.’ Both are set primarily in Nebraska; both deal with elderly men who feel they have missed life somehow (and associate that missing out with having married June Squibb), and who go on a quixotic road trip in a roundabout way of trying to resolve their existential dilemmas.”
Critics have raved about the gorgeous cinematography and complained about the nail-biting twists and turns this film makes. Millman offers praise for the visual component of the film. “Enormous effort has been put into getting the physics right, and that effort pays off magnificently. The film is stunningly beautiful – more than that, it is sublime (to use the Burkean distinction).”
Based on a true story of a commercial ship hijacked by Somali pirates, Millman praises director Paul Greengrass’s ability to depart from the classic thriller structure to weave a more complex narrative: “The structure he’s chosen, which takes real risks in terms of pacing, allows him to draw that straight line between Captain Phillips’s resourcefulness and the might of the U.S. Navy, while also showing what, and who, lies on the other side of that line.”
Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street
Rod Dreher doesn’t comprehensively review these two films, but sheds very important light on the religious and moral undertones of both films, bringing their messages into stark relief. Noah Millman in his Oscar post calls Philomena ”a sweet little film, well-written and well-structured.” He gives faint praise to “The Wolf of Wall Street” but claims too much time is given to the protagonist, who, in Millman’s estimation, ”just isn’t a very interesting person.”
The Dallas Buyers Club
While TAC did not review this film, the New Yorker’s review is more than apt, and appropriately highlights Matthew McConaughey’s transformation from romantic comedy beach bum to a serious dramatic actor.
What is “mindfulness”? TIME Magazine recently released a cover story on “The Mindful Revolution,” outlining a return to conscious living emphasized by modern enthusiasts. Many in the “mindfulness” crowd want us to step away from the Internet, unplug, and take a break. But Evgeny Morozov put the trend into perspective in his article, “The Mindfulness Racket”:
If it takes an act of unplugging to figure out how to do it [“mindfulness”], let’s disconnect indeed. But let us not do it for the sake of reconnecting on the very same terms as before. We must be mindful of all this mindfulness.
Morozov’s piece considers calls to take a digital “sabbath” or “detox,” to disconnect temporarily “so that we can resume our usual activities with even more vigor upon returning to the land of distraction.” But all of this talk of disconnecting and becoming mindful begs the question: What is “mindfulness” for? Why should we be mindful, and how can we cultivate a proper mindfulness?
I would suggest that there are two types of mindfulness: one inwardly focused, the other outwardly focused. When people draw upon the terms “fasting” and “detoxing” for technology disconnections, they bring up two interesting examples of how mindfulness affects our inward and outward health.
In religious fasting, a lack of eating is not focused on dietary benefits. It is meant to be a time of focus on larger, more important things than bodily craving. In fasting, we center on the spiritual, and step away temporarily from the physical. Yet in that stepping away, we learn to appreciate the goodness of food and drink. Fasting brings us to thankfulness. We eventually return to savor the goodness of the things we left.
Detoxes focus on inward cleansing, looking inward at incongruences and junk in my own system. A “digital detox” would necessitate that, in stepping away from digital tools, one also looks inward at personal cravings and inclinations. How is digital media shaping the way we live? Is it fostering unhealthy habits within us? Have we allowed it to build callouses of anger, discrimination, or fear in our souls? Statistically speaking, Facebook is reported to foster depression in its users. We must exercise introspection toward online habits, desires, and emotions we’ve inculcated. A detox may also help us consider what we haven’t dwelt on or considered enough—a person, situation, or decision we’ve neglected in the technological mayhem.
But a digital “fast” would be a time of mindfulness toward religion, family, friends, and society. One could consider relationship priorities outside the constraints of Facebook and Twitter, even the telephone and Skype. Such a fast would prompt us to analyze the ways such tools shape societal and work interactions, and consider how they benefit (or detract from) the spiritual, soul-fostering work of relationship. This fast would, one hopes, enable the abstainer to return to his or her computer with a renewed sense of purpose and limits.
A proper understanding of human nature is vital in our consumption. We must keep our own inclinations in mind. Pride is a natural susceptibility of the human soul. In every tweet and Facebook status, our own pride will venture to the surface. We must look carefully at our motivations, and consider what sort of online (and inward) presence we’re cultivating. This is the sort of consideration that might go into a digital “detox.”
Stepping away from technology will not make us more or less mindful—just as a day of detoxing or fasting will not automatically change our perception of food. In all things, we want to cultivate Aristotle’s virtuous mean, searching for that place between excess and defect where excellence dwells. Mindfulness does not necessitate pure abstention from iPhones, Twitter, and the like—it is not about neglecting certain platforms. Rather, it defines how we use those platforms. The reason for a “fast,” “detox,” or what-have-you is to help us see the big picture, to give us greater purpose, understanding, and discretion.
American viewers expressed outrage Sunday after NBC reporter Christin Cooper interviewed U.S. skier Bode Miller, driving him to tears with inquiries about his deceased brother. Miller tied for a Bronze medal in competition Sunday, and mentioned his brother in connection with the win. But subsequent prodding from Cooper on the subject was too much.
Twitter and other social media exploded indignantly, accusing Cooper of malicious indifference. But Miller defended the reporter Monday: “I’ve known Christin for a long time and she’s a sweetheart of a person,” he said on NBC’s Today Show. “I know she didn’t mean to push. I don’t think she really anticipated what my reaction was going to be. I think by the time she sort of realized, then I think it was too late.”
It’s kind of Miller, and sheds a compassionate light on the incident. Nonetheless, the incident should prompt journalists (and their audience) to consider the consequences of our sensationalistic reporting.
This sort of journalism is not abnormal. The media’s normal attitude toward celebrities is often just as uncouth and intrusive. Our reality shows regularly exploit the emotions of viewers by drawing on any and every tragedy experienced by its candidates. We’ve become a culture that feeds on sensationalism and misfortune: we love the underdog, the tragic hero. This often becomes a form of emotional exploitation,targeting the audience, protagonist, or people involved in the protagonist’s life. As long as a semblance of fiction or separation remains, we feel okay with this exploitation. But when a man breaks into tears, and the camera hovers in front of his bowed form, we begin to feel guilty. Yes, we—for it is our fault too, not just Christin Cooper’s. The media gives us what we want. It’s a simple case of supply and demand: Americans eat up the media’s shameless emotional pandering (usually).
Also, it’s important to note that Cooper was not the only reporter who seemed to rub pain in Miller’s face. The cameraman zoomed in on his face, and held the camera close to his grief. He wouldn’t go away. It was an inexcusable breach of propriety. If the cameraman had turned away when Miller began crying, perhaps the incident wouldn’t have been as painful. But this isn’t the only time such shameless recording has taken place in Sochi: other failed contestants, when pushed to tears, are immediately dogged by cameras. They want to see the tears fall, to capture the moment of grief for viewers at home.
When Cooper and her cameraman zoomed in on Miller’s grief, they detracted from the true story of the moment: his victory, hard work, and resilience. That should have been the focus of the interview. They ought to have adopted a more professional manner. Indeed, beyond professionalism, mere courtesy would suggest that a person, in moments of grief and pain, should be granted greater privacy.
But American audiences should also consider the role they play in shaping the news: until they demand otherwise, this sensationalism will not stop.
What happens when an artist finds himself above reproach? Woody Allen, it would seem, finds himself in this rather fortunate position, even as new allegations about his conduct toward stepdaughter Dylan Farrow emerge. In a New York Times piece published Saturday, she described the sexual abuse Allen inflicted on her as a seven-year-old girl. She says the abuse has haunted her throughout her life: “Each time I saw my abuser’s face—on a poster, on a t-shirt, on television—I could only hide my panic until I found a place to be alone and fall apart.”
If any politician or pundit faced these accusations, one would hope they would lose their position, or at least be subjected to careful scrutiny and investigation. Yet in Allen’s case, many are willing to shrug off the immensity of the crime because of his great artistic talent. Rod Dreher wrote in a blogpost a few days ago, “I completely agree that Allen is a pig—if there were no Dylan Farrow accusations at all, his unrepented-of conduct with Soon-Yi Previn was enough to establish his swinishness—but that does not detract from his accomplishments as a filmmaker.”
Perhaps these allegations do not diminish Allen’s accomplishments. But even so, one must carefully consider the ethics of this position. Maureen Orth gathered substantive accusations in 1992 that supported claims of inappropriate behavior by Allen toward Dylan Farrow when she was little. Allen has denied all accusations, and continues to live without culpability. Does one continue to watch his movies, to view and enjoy his art? Andrew Sullivan thinks so, though he seems to believe Farrow is telling the truth:
Perhaps with less essential talents, the sins may more adequately define the artist. But that, in many ways, only makes the injustice worse. Those with the greatest gifts can get away with the greatest crimes.
We can and should rail against this, while surely also be realistically resigned to it. It struck me, for example, rather apposite that as the blogosphere is debating whether to boycott Woody Allen’s films in the future because of this horrifying story, exponentially more people are tuning into the Super Bowl to watch a game we now know will render many of its players mentally incapacitated in their middle ages and beyond. We know that this spectacle is based on the premise of brain damage for many of its participants, but we watch anyway.
This argument appears flawed and alarming to me for a couple simple reasons. First, the Super Bowl comparison does not hold, because tackle football’s dangers and horrors are all known to the athletes involved, and they engage in the sport voluntarily. If Peyton Manning’s concern over his future health and wellbeing ever trumped his desire to play football and make money, he could resign in a heartbeat. He plays football on his own prerogative, and he bears the consequences of his own actions. How do the choices of a 37-year-old man with power, fame, and athletic prowess compare to the involuntary and frightened oppression of a seven-year-old girl? Read More…
The November/December 2013 issue of The American Conservative is competing in the American Society of Magazine Editors’ Best Cover Contest for News/Politics/Business.
The cover art by Michael Hogue reveals a movement that has merely put a populist spin on negative principles forged in the 1970s, and a party that has never fully grappled with the creative challenges of governing (having lost five out of the last six national elections). Read Daniel McCarthy’s cover story here.
Check out the other nominees and take a moment to vote by “liking” our cover on Facebook. You should also make sure you’re part of our growing community there. Help spread the word about fresh “ideas over ideology, principles over party.”
Many modern readers push themselves through speed-reading courses. If they haven’t time for a full course, there are Youtube videos and websites on the subject. Now, in the age of digital reading, there are additional speed-reading gadgets: tools like Feedly and Twitter enable users to absorb small bits of text in a speedy fashion. A bunch of speed-reading apps have come into vogue, enabling users to read on the clock with greater efficiency.
Efficiency. It’s the word of the age, according to Alasdair MacIntyre: in After Virtue, he said “efficiency” is our most prized virtue. While the Greeks of Homer’s time valued virtues like duty and honor, our age preferred more “managerial” virtues, efficiency being the most valued of all.
But have we lost something in our endeavors for efficiency? Curator contributor Brett Beasley says yes. In a Monday post, he mused on our changing reading patterns, as our culture passes from speed-reading to half-reading, to complete negligence:
“Sharing” is the buzzword of our age, in which nearly all of what we read can be linked to, tweeted, emailed, attached, and downloaded within seconds. Mass digitization projects like Google Books and the Digital Public Library of America place more words within our grasp each hour, yet meanwhile we continue to hear reports that nearly a third of Americans did not read as much as one book in the past year. It’s strange, isn’t it? Reading often feels as easy as breathing. When I go on a road trip, I don’t have to make myself read the words written on the road signs and billboards. It just happens. But when it comes to anything longer than a few hundred words, the text seems to thicken and we have to push back against a surprising amount of resistance.
Why is it that we can spend significant time browsing menus and reading Buzzfeed articles, but roll our eyes when we scroll to the bottom of a new story and see the words “Page 1 of 12”? What is it about length that intimidates and frustrates us so?
At least in part, this annoyance is rooted in that modern striving for “efficiency.” We want our laughs, lunches, and letters as quickly as possible. We are increasingly aware of time’s incessant ticking: from the days in centuries past when church bells heralded the hours, minutes now flick by on our phone and computer screens. We own it, in a way that our ancestors did not. Countdown apps show us every millisecond whizzing past, set to our own schedules and deadlines.
Thus we, along with Beasley, remember “many thinkers and artists throughout history who have written and worked with a momento mori, or reminder of death, nearby. While we might pride ourselves on the nearly instantaneous speed with which we can deploy and make use of information online, in the end our time and our attention are finite, and we have to make difficult decisions about what is valuable enough to spend our time on.”
This is our second problem: in the age of information, reading is literally everywhere. News stands, Google news, even the nearest coffee shop—one needn’t go far to become bombarded with words. What shall you read first? What’s worth reading? What if you waste time reading something awful, when you could have been reading something else? “Stream, cloud, dust; now more than ever our text and our reading times are in need of a shape and an architecture,” writes Beasley. “Intentionally or unintentionally, each of us has a reading practice that shapes the way we live, think, and interact.”
What shape and architecture should we give to our reading life? One thing is certain: the way we read will affect the way we absorb information, and thus will shape the very way we live. Should we read Drudge-style—absorbing the most interesting headlines of the moment, discarding length for sensationalism? Or should we read in a more bookish, antiquated style: throwing “efficiency” to the wind, cherry-picking books we think will be the best, ignoring anything that isn’t timeless or classic?
Some would assume the latter is the “conservative” position. But it seems the best path is a narrow trail between the two extremes. There is pertinent everyday information we must absorb to make pertinent decisions. But essential information doesn’t always foster deeper human flourishing and intellectual growth. We should digest the pertinent with efficiency, but not for efficiency’s sake.
Efficiency is a means to a greater end, a greater virtue: that of wisdom. Wisdom is “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” To have wisdom, therefore, one must have basic knowledge of the pertinent. But “good judgment” doesn’t come from gulping down news in a frenzied fashion. Good judgment requires thoughtful, prolonged, and careful meditation. It requires outside opinions, secondary sources, and at least some research. It requires a depth of reading inspired by thoughtfulness, as well as inquisitiveness. In order to get wisdom, slow reading is necessary: a careful, deliberate inculcation of timeless truths.
The real trick, then, is determining what to read fast, and what to read slowly. Beasley references the reading traditions of the monks, and we can learn something from their style. Their reading during the Middle Ages, he says, “was the centerpiece of daily life. Several hours of reading (or lectio) often fell in the middle of the day, with the rest of the day devoted to periods of meditation, prayer, and contemplation. While lectio ‘puts whole food in the mouth,’ meditation ‘chews it and breaks it up,’ prayer ‘extracts its flavor,’ and finally contemplation ‘is the sweetness itself which gladdens and refreshens.’”
Perhaps our modern reading challenge lies in learning when lectio is the best course, and when deeper meditation or contemplation is required. We must differentiate between the times when efficiency leads us to wisdom—and when efficiency becomes a distracting end in and of itself.
The snark versus smarm debate has flooded our news feeds, after Tom Scocca’s December 5 Gawker article “On Smarm” took off. The piece asked critics and social media users whether their desire for a “positivity” and “civility” was actually a desire for something more mawkish: a desire for “smarm.”
Over time, it has become clear that anti-negativity is a worldview of its own, a particular mode of thinking and argument, no matter how evasively or vapidly it chooses to express itself. For a guiding principle of 21st century literary criticism, BuzzFeed’s Fitzgerald turned to the moral and intellectual teachings of Walt Disney, in the movie Bambi: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” The line is uttered by Thumper, Bambi’s young bunny companion, but its attribution is more complicated than that—Thumper’s mother is making him recite a rule handed down by his father, by way of admonishing her son for unkindness. It is scolding, couched as an appeal to goodness, in the name of an absent authority.
Scocca’s repudiation of smarmy discourse is well deserved, in some instances. His explication of Obama’s 2012 speech (full of happy, opaque words like “free enterprise, prosperity, self-reliance, initiative, a fair shot,” etc.) points out the niceties resplendent in our public discourse—niceties that blind us to the controversies and contradictions behind all the talk.
But here’s the problem: “snark,” so often, is a façade for undergirding anger, disillusionment, and cynicism. Snark rarely offers up anything positive, while smashing everything (and everyone) to smithereens in the name of “just telling it like it is.” The definition of snark is “sharply critical; cutting; snide.” This is more than “telling the truth.” This is something derogatory, underhanded, mocking. Snark is not meant to correct—it’s meant to humiliate.
Scocca disagrees. He argues that “Snark may speak in cynical terms about a cynical world, but it is not cynicism itself. It is a theory of cynicism.” This definition itself seems rather opaque; what theory of cynicism does snark offer, exactly? By embracing and using cynical thought, snark seems more of a mode than “theory” of cynicism.
The problem with snarkers is not their truth-telling—what would society be without truth-tellers? Rather, the problem with snark is that it doesn’t have the good of society, or the bettering of the critiqued, at the center of its concern. The goal of snark is to make the critic look smart, funny, interesting. The snarky critic loves him or herself more than the critiqued—and thus, the snarky critic can attack, humiliate, and burn all they want, without personal remorse.
This isn’t meant to excuse smarm. No one wants to wade through the candy-coated discourse that spills from most politicians. It’s all rather saccharine and opaque, and we’re usually left wondering, “What are you really about? What do you really want?”
But where smarm falls short, snark disappoints us as well. Scocca believes plutocrats perpetuate smarm for their own personal benefit. Perhaps so. But Malcolm Gladwell shared a good point in a New Yorker article last week: “Scocca thinks that the conventions of civility and seriousness serve the interests of the privileged. Coe says the opposite. Privilege is supported by those who claim to subvert civility and seriousness. It’s not the respectful voice that props up the status quo; it is the mocking one.” Perhaps both Scocca and Gladwell are right: smarm is propagated for self-preservation, to create a safety net for the plutocrat. At the same time, snark becomes a weapon for self-promotion, a tool for tearing down others and uplifting one’s own intellect and position.
Smarm is bad. But the way in which we gleefully suck up snark’s sneering jabs is equally detrimental to society. Public discourse, in both cases, is more concerned with personal loftiness than truly elevating the needs and concerns of the public. Truth, one would hope, could offer us a different course: one in which “civility” is not saccharine, and “truth” is not nasty—a discourse in which mercy and truth can meet together.
A Pew Research Center report released last Wednesday revealed that, counter to popular sentiment, the public library is neither outdated nor ignored. In fact, according to an Atlantic article posted Friday, their approval rating is higher than apple pie and baseball: “That’s right. Public libraries not only rank more highly in the American psyche than Congress, journalists, and President Obama, but they also trump baseball and apple pie. Public libraries are more beloved than apple pie.”
A couple disclaimers must be introduced here: first, of the 91 percent who told Pew they had never had “a negative experience using a public library,” there are probably a few who’ve only been to the library once or twice in their lives. Additionally, some participants may view libraries in a withdrawn but pleasant light, as a nice place for old people or schoolchildren—but not for personal use.
But these provisos do not discount the overall positive picture drawn by Pew: they reported that the majority of Americans have either visited a public library or used a public library website in the past twelve months. Though the proportion is lower this year than last (54 percent versus 59 percent in 2012), that’s still a significant number—more significant than many of us would guess. Only 32 percent of participants said local library closure would not affect them and their families personally, whereas 90 percent said it would have an impact on the community—63 percent called it a “major” impact.
Perhaps we wrote the book obituary a bit too soon. The closure of Borders gave us a scare, and Barnes & Noble still seems to be salvaging itself in the wake of the Nook failure. But independent bookstores, despite the doomsday predictions, are doing quite well. The Washington Post reported Sunday on the opening of a new indie bookstore Maryland, where owners Marlene and Tom England “are defying the future,” according to writer Michael Rosenwald. The Englands credit the continuing popularity of print books with America’s “vintage” craze: “We think there’s a desire by many to go back to a very simple time,” Tom England told Rosenwald. “Kids are starting to play Risk again. People want to touch things. They want to be a little low-tech.”
This doesn’t mean Americans are throwing out their tablets: rather, they’ve become what customer Ryan Young calls “hybrid readers.” Americans use both print and digital editions, swapping iPads for hardbacks in a random but seemingly contented fashion. People continue to frequent libraries, despite their lack of technological features, because some still like the quiet, the books, and librarian assistance.
Could it be possible to live with the best of both worlds? Young thinks so: “There has to be a value in both,” she told the Post. “There are books on my bookshelves that are like my friends. You can go back to them over and over again.” It may be an idealistic hope, but perhaps books and e-readers, libraries and Amazon can coexist in peace and harmony. So far, so good.
Soon after the Kindle craze, some warned of print books’ imminent extinction—but thus far, the codex has shown laudatory tenacity. It seems that, if things continue in their favor, print books are here to stay.
But what of the print magazine? Its content is less permanent, less extensive. Its flimsiness is often coupled with excellence, but who’s to say one must procure excellence in print—especially with so many magazines putting their print features online? Atlantic contributor Peter Osnos noted Tuesday the rather woeful future some envision for print magazines: “…Alas, as everyone with the remotest interest in media developments can attest, the great era of magazines notable for their largesse to staffs, and replete with copious, handsome advertising and strong single-copy newsstand sales, is almost certainly in the past.”
Perhaps magazines can take a cue from print books’ relative success, and mimic their selling points in order to survive this digital trend. For instance: many print-aficionados refer to the experiential appeal of books. The codex is aesthetically pleasing to the reader. Print fans don’t merely read for the words on the page—they savor the very smell, texture, and sight associated with print books.
Similarly, magazines can meet or even exceed the appeal of online experience through the power of visual and sensory mediums. Magazines have great potential for graphic experience: visual images, graphs, and diagrams help the reader connect more deeply with the text. While a magazine doesn’t have the interactive powers of the web at its disposal, there are other ways a magazine captivate its readers.
Books give us some ideas: for instance, the simple power of a good cover can hardly be overstated. It’s the first thing we see—the graphic that entices us to take a closer look. Book covers have become progressively more exciting in the past decade. Their use of typography and image are interesting and unique. Magazines can also use this power to greater effect. Too often, it seems, magazines mimic newspapers in their graphic rigidity. But the magazine has potential to become a more flexible and creative medium.
There are two main sorts of books that people buy: flimsy paperbacks bought in airports on a whim, and beautiful hardbacks bought for “keeps.” As one could imagine, the former usually end up at yard sales or secondhand stores—but the latter often morph into a collection. Similarly, people usually buy two sorts of magazines: the cheap, flimsy versions one reads for temporary diversion, and serious-minded publications (like the Economist and New Yorker) that get saved, collected, and even treasured.
How does a print magazine avoid the trash bins and yard sales of readers? It must not only have good, strong, consistent content—it must also have timeless content, superseding mere paltry observations on the fickle political or cultural atmosphere of the day. Also, magazines that serve as curators—of art, food, or culture, for instance—stand the test of time by serving as a reference book to their readers.
A final note: I’m not sure how long magazines can survive while putting their print content online. It seems that, in order to survive as a print and online entity, they must diversify material enough to entice readers to subscribe. While the ethos of the publication must remain consistent, its print content must offer something more—or at least something different.
It is true that, even with good graphics and content, some magazines may fail. They may not prove as hearty as their book cousins. But one hopes that, with some diligence and ingenuity, they will continue to grace our bookshelves and coffee tables.
Eric Garris, co-founder and editor of Antiwar.com, says he filed a request this week demanding the FBI fix a fraudulent story in his file that says he once threatened to hack the FBI’s website.
That there is an FBI file on Garris dating back to the 1970’s should be cause enough for alarm. He has been charged with no crime, and is suspected of no criminal nor domestic terrorist activity. But thanks to recently released documents (the result of a lawsuit launched last spring by Antiwar.com and its attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California), we know that the FBI has been monitoring Garris, his co-founder Justin Raimondo, and other staffers of the website (full disclosure: I am a columnist for Antiwar.com) for several years.
And here’s the punch line: it turns out that the agency has been spying on Antiwar.com as a potential “threat to national security,” because, in part, Garris once asked the FBI for help.
Internal, un-redacted documents obtained in October by Antiwar.com show that in 2001, Garris passed along a threat he received on Sept. 12, 2001 from a Antiwar.com reader obviously disgruntled with the website’s coverage of 9/11. The subject line read, “YOUR SITE IS GOING DOWN,” and proceeded with this missive: “Be warned assholes, ill be posting your site address to all the hack boards tonight … your site is history.”
Concerned, Garris forwarded the email to the FBI field office in San Francisco, where he is based. Garris heard nothing, but by January 2002, it turned up again, completely twisted around, in a secret FBI memo entitled, “A THREAT BY GARRIS TO HACK FBI WEBSITE.”
It turns out this “threat” went on to justify, at least in part, the FBI’s ongoing interest in monitoring the website, as a potential “threat to national security on behalf of a foreign power,” beginning in 2004. TAC reported on the secret surveillance in July after Antiwar.com, along with the ACLU, launched their suit for full disclosure of all FBI records pertaining to Garris and co-founder Justin Raimondo.
Up until that point, all the two men had to go on was a heavily redacted, 94-page FBI memo passed along by a intrepid reader in 2011. The file is illuminating, to say the least. It shows the FBI secretly taking stock of what Raimondo had published on the site, particularly on the issue of the arrest of five Israeli nationals who were ostensibly celebrating and taking photography of the burning World Trade towers in 9/11. Raimondo wrote about their arrests and release in 2002, and linked to versions of at least two government watch-lists already published on the Web by others.
His reporting of this alleged Israeli spy angle to the 9/11 story was handed out by peace activists in UK, and an alleged neo-Nazi group here in the U.S., according to the FBI. These examples, and the fact that an unnamed FBI suspect had supposedly browsed Antiwar.com, “among many other websites,” and that “many individuals worldwide” view the site, “including individuals who are currently under investigation,” were all noted in the 2004 memo.
The agents authoring the memo also questioned Antiwar.com’s funding, and pointed to the website’s criticism of U.S. war policy. All of this apparently led them to conclude that further surveillance of Antiwar.com was warranted, “to determine if [redaction] are engaging in, or have engaged in, activities which constitute a threat to national security on behalf of a foreign power.”
The newly acquired documents flesh out much of the missing or redacted material from the 2004 memo. Now Garris and his ACLU attorney, Julia Mass, have a better idea about the FBI’s interest in the website. Not only was Garris’ “threat” revealed in the un-redacted portions of the file they received in October, but so was an accounting of Garris’ participation in a 1972 war protest.
Garris insists the FBI’s depiction of him as “threat” does not bother him as much as the fact that it’s quite clear Antiwar.com has been targeted solely for its First Amendment protected activities. There was never a suggestion that Raimondo or Garris committed any crime. But it was hinted that their (free) speech was a threat nonetheless.
Mass tells TAC that when the story broke in The Guardian last week, reporters honed in on the “sloppiness” angle regarding the agent who wrote the first mangled account of Garris’s “threat” and the agents who decided to run with the “mistake” years later.
“It seems a little more purposeful than that,” she said, noting that there was never any attempt to investigate the so-called threat. Yet it was used by other agents in 2004 as a justification to monitor Garris and Raimondo (the San Francisco office eventually declined requests by the Newark, N.J. office for an official investigation into the website, according to the memos).
“The obviousness of the original mistake really causes you to question whether the 2004 memo’s reliance on it was also an honest mistake,” she told TAC. “And if it is not an honest mistake, then it really makes it look like an intentional targeting of Justin and Antiwar because of their speech and their critique of the government’s actions.”
When contacted by The Guardian, the FBI said it would not comment due to the ongoing litigation. Mass said that if the FBI does not move to fix the file, they will be bringing their demands back to the court.