BY MARC SCHULTZ
07/17/03: (Creative Loafing) "The FBI is here, "Mom tells me over the phone. Immediately I can see my mom with her back to a couple of Matrix-like figures in black suits and opaque sunglasses, her hand covering the mouthpiece like Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder. This must be a joke, I think. But it's not, because Mom isn't that funny.
"The who?" I say.
"Two FBI agents. They say you're not in trouble, they just want to talk. They want to come to the store."
I work in a small, independent bookstore, and since it's a slow Tuesday afternoon, I figure, "Sure." Someone I know must have gotten some government work, I think; hadn't my consultant friend spoken recently of getting rolled onto some government job? Background check, I think, interviewing acquaintances ... No big deal, right? Then, of course, I make a big deal about it in front of my co-workers.
"That was my mom," I tell them. "The FBI's coming for me." They laugh; it's a good joke, especially when the FBI actually shows up. They are not the bogeymen I had been expecting. They're dressed casually, they speak familiarly, but they are big. The one in front stands close to 7 feet, and you can tell his partner is built like a bulldog under his baggy shirt and shorts.
"You Marc Schultz?" asks the tall one. He shows me his badge, introduces himself as Special Agent Clay Trippi. After assuring me that I'm not in trouble, he asks if there is someplace we can sit down and talk. We head back to Reference, where a table and chairs are set up. We sit down, and I'm again informed that I am not in trouble.
Then, Agent Trippi asks, "Do you drive a black Nissan Altima?" And I realize this meeting is not about a friend. Despite their reassurances, and despite the fact that I haven't committed any federal offenses (that I know of), I'm starting to feel a bit like I'm in trouble.
They ask me if I was driving my car on Saturday, and I say, reasonably sure, that I was. They ask me where I went, and I struggle for a moment to remember Saturday. I make a lame joke about how the days run together when you're underemployed. They smile politely. Was I at work on Saturday? I think so.
"Were you at the Caribou Coffee on Powers Ferry?" asks Agent Trippi. That's where I get my coffee before work, and so I tell him yes, probably, just before remembering Saturday: Harry Potter day, opening early, in at 8:30.
So I would have been at Caribou Coffee that Saturday, getting my small coffee, room for cream. This information seems to please the agents.
"Did you notice anything unusual, anyone worth commenting on?" OK, I think. It's the unusual guy they want, not me. I think hard, wondering if it was Saturday I saw the guy in the really cool reclining wheelchair, the guy who struck me as a potential James Bondian supervillain, but no: That was Monday.
Then they ask if I carried anything into the shop -- and we're back to me.
My mind races. I think: a bomb? A knife? A balloon filled with narcotics? But no. I don't own any of those things. "Sunglasses," I say. "Maybe my cell phone?"
Not the right answer. I'm nervous now, wondering how I must look: average, mid-20s, unassuming retail employee. What could I have possibly been carrying?
Trippi's partner speaks up: "Any reading material? Papers?" I don't think so. Then Trippi decides to level with me: "I'll tell you what, Marc. Someone in the shop that day saw you reading something, and thought it looked suspicious enough to call us about. So that's why we're here, just checking it out. Like I said, there's no problem. We'd just like to get to the bottom of this. Now if we can't, then you may have a problem. And you don't want that."
You don't want that? Have I just been threatened by the FBI? Confusion and a light dusting of panic conspire to keep me speechless. Was I reading something that morning? Something that would constitute a problem?
The partner speaks up again: "Maybe a printout of some kind?"
Then it occurs to me: I was reading. It was an article my dad had printed off the Web. I remember carrying it into Caribou with me, reading it in line, and then while stirring cream into my coffee. I remember bringing it with me to the store, finishing it before we opened. I can't remember what the article was about, but I'm sure it was some kind of left-wing editorial, the kind that never fails to incite me to anger and despair over the state of the country.
I tell them all this, but they want specifics: the title of the article, the author, some kind of synopsis, but I can't help them -- I read so much of this stuff.
"Do you still have the article?" Probably not, but I suggest we check behind the counter. When that doesn't pan out, I have the bright idea to call my dad at work, see if he can remember. Of course, he can't put together a coherent sentence after I tell him the FBI are at the store, questioning me.
"The FBI?" he keeps asking. Eventually I get him off the phone, and suggest it may be in my car. They follow me out to the parking lot, where Trippi asks me if there's anything in the car he should know about.
"Weapons, drugs? It's not a problem if you do, but if you don't tell me and then I find something, that's going to be a problem." I assure him there's nothing in my car, coming very close to quoting Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite: "There's nothin' in my trunk, man."
The excitement of the questioning -- the interrogation -- has made me just a little bit giddy. I almost laugh out loud when they ask me to pop my trunk. v There's nothing in my car, of course. I keep looking anyway, while telling them it was probably some kind of what-did-they-know-and-when-did-they-know-it article about the buildup to Gulf War II. Trippi nods, unsatisfied. I turn up some papers from the University of Georgia, where I'm about to begin as a grad student. He asks me what I'm going to study.
"Journalism," I say. As I duck back into the car, I hear Agent Trippi informing his partner, "He's going to UGA for journalism" in a way that makes me wonder whether that counts against me.
Back in the store, Trippi gives me his card and tells me to call him if I remember anything. After he's gone, I call my dad back to see if he has calmed down, maybe come up with a name. We retrace some steps together, figure out the article was Hal Crowther's "Weapons of Mass Stupidity" from the Weekly Planet, a free independent out of Tampa. It comes back to me then, this scathing screed focusing on the way corporate interests have poisoned the country's media, focusing mostly on Fox News and Rupert Murdoch -- really infuriating, deadly accurate stuff about American journalism post-9-11. So I call the number on the card, leave a message with the name, author and origin of the column, and ask him to call me if he has any more questions.
To tell the truth, I'm kind of anxious to hear back from the FBI, if only for the chance to ask why anyone would find media criticism suspicious, or if maybe the sight of a dark, bearded man reading in public is itself enough to strike fear in the heart of a patriotic citizen.
My co-worker, Craig, says that we should probably be thankful the FBI takes these things seriously; I say it seems like a dark day when an American citizen regards reading as a threat, and downright pitch-black when the federal government agrees.
Special Agent Trippi didn't return calls from CL. But Special Agent Joe Paris, Atlanta field office spokesman, stressed that specific FBI investigations are confidential. He wouldn't confirm or deny the Schultz interview.
"In this post-911 era, it is the absolute responsibility of the FBI to follow through on any tips of potential terrorist activity," Paris says. "Are people going to take exception and be inconvenienced by this at times? Oh, yeah. ... A certain amount of convenience is going to be offset by an increase in security."
Marc Schultz is a freelance writer in Atlanta. The Weekly Planet happens to be Creative Loafing's sister paper in Tampa. [SEE COPY OF COLUMN THAT GOT SCHULTZ IN HOT WATER BELOW -ORIGINAL SITE here] --------------------------------------------------------------------------------
It's the inviolable first rule of democracy that all politicians will praise the wisdom of the people -- an effusive flattery that intensifies when they ask "the people" to swallow something exceptionally inedible. What the people never hear from anyone, or from anyone with further ambitions, is the truth. If a public figure wishes to leave the stage forever, a sound strategy is to offer his fellow citizens a candid and disparaging assessment of their intelligence.In the aftermath of the conquest of Iraq, as we awake to the bewildering possibility of a United States of Asia, the patriotic pageantry and premature gloating call to mind an obsession that once gripped the great French novelist Gustave Flaubert. (In my recklessness I ignore the halfwit embargo on all things French.) Flaubert, according to W.G. Sebald, became convinced that his own work and his own brain had been infected by a national epidemic of stupidity, a relentless tide of gullibility and muddled thinking which made him feel, he said, as if he were sinking into sand.
At his low point, Flaubert convinced himself that everything he had written had been contaminated and "consisted solely of a string of the most abysmal errors and lies." Sometimes he lay on his couch for months, frozen with the dread that anything he wrote would only extend Stupidity's domain. Flaubert became a scholar of moronic utterances, painstakingly collecting hundreds of what he called betises -- stupidities -- and arranging them in his "Dictionary of Received Opinions."
The wondrous blessing God bestowed on Gustave Flaubert -- and on America's own great chroniclers of contagious stupidity, Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken -- is that they lived and died without imagining a thing like Fox News. It's easy to laugh at Rupert Murdoch's outrageous mongrel, the impossible offspring of supermarket tabloids, sitcom news spoofs, police-state propaganda mills and the World Wrestling Federation.
Fox News is an oxymoron and Cheech and Chong would have made a more credible team of war correspondents than Geraldo Rivera and Ollie North. Neither Saturday Night Live nor the 1973 film Network, Paddy Chayefsky's corrosive satire of TV news, could even approach the comic impact of Geraldo embedded, or of Fox's pariah parade, its mothball fleet of experts who always turn out to be disgraced or indicted Republican refugees. If Ed Meese, Newt Gingrich and Elliott Abrams couldn't fill your sails with mirth, you could count on the recently deposed Viceroy of Virtue and High Regent of Rectitude, my old schoolmate Blackjack Bill Bennett.
With its red-faced, hyperventilating reactionaries and slapstick abuse of lame "liberal" foils who serve them as crash dummies, Fox News could easily be taken as pure entertainment, even as inspired burlesque of the rightwing menagerie. But the problem -- in fact, the serious problem - is that Fox isn't kidding, and brownshirts aren't funny.
Harper's reports that Fox commentator Bill O'Reilly became so infuriated by the son of a 9-ll victim who opposed the war -- "I'm against it and my father would have been against it, too" -- that he cursed the man and even threatened him off-camera. A Fox TV anchor, one Neil Cavuto, celebrated the fall of Baghdad by informing all of us who opposed the war in March, "You were sickening then, you are sickening now." If reports are accurate, these troubled men are neither bad journalists nor even bad actors portraying journalists -- they're mentally unbalanced individuals whose partisan belligerence is pressing them to the brink of psychosis.
But the scariest thing about Fox and Rupert Murdoch, the thing that renders them all fear and no fun in a time of national crisis, is that they channel for the Bush administration as faithfully as if they were on the White House payroll. Like no other substantial media outlet in American history, Fox serves -- voluntarily -- as the propaganda arm of a controversial, manipulative, image-obsessed government. To watch its war coverage for even a minute was to grind your teeth convulsively at each Orwellian repetition of the Newspeak mantra, "Operation Iraqi Freedom." I swear I hate to stoop to Nazi analogies; but if Joseph Goebbels had run his own cable channel, it would have been indistinguishable from Fox News.
Fox's truculent patriotism is misleading, of course. Rupert Murdoch is not exactly an American patriot, he's not even exactly an American. Though he became an American citizen in 1985 (solely to qualify, under US law, as the owner of a TV network), the Australian Murdoch was already 54 and his tabloid formula had already polluted the media mainstreams in Australia and Great Britain. Murdoch is an insatiable parasite, a vampirish lamprey who fastens himself to English-speaking nations and grows fat on their cultural lifeblood, leaving permanently degraded media cultures in his wake. Rabid patriotism is a product he sells, along with celebrity gossip, naked women and smirky bedroom humor, in every country he contaminates. And a little "white rage" racism has always gone into his mix for good measure. ("He tried so hard to use race to sell his newspapers that he became known as "Tar Baby' Murdoch," Jimmy Breslin once charged.)
Murdoch's repulsive formula has proven irresistible from Melbourne to Manhattan, and now, by satellite, he's softening up Beijing. His great fortune rests on his wager that a huge unevolved minority is stupid, bigoted, prurient, nasty to the core. In America today, it's hard to say whether Rupert Murdoch is an agent, or merely a beneficiary, of the cultural leprosy that's consuming us. But the conspicuous success of Fox News, lamentable in the best of times, is devastating in a shell-shocked nation that sees itself at war.
It is and has always been true, in Samuel Johnson's famous words, that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" -- by which, of course, Dr. Johnson meant patriotism as a political and rhetorical weapon, not as a private emotion. Belittling other people's patriotism to achieve political leverage is the lowest road a public scoundrel can travel, the road where neo-conservative meets neo-fascist. In flag-frenzied Fox, an unscrupulous administration found a blunt object ready-made to hammer its critics.
Liars With Secret Agendas
Years ago in Moscow, at the dawn of perestroika, a pair of Russian journalists showed me headlines from the New York Post that made Kruschchev's "We will bury you" sound like "Have a nice day." How can there ever be peace, they asked me, if America hates us so much? Handicapped by the yawning gap between our respective press traditions, I tried to explain that the Post had nothing to do with our government or even the American media machine, that it was owned by an Australian whose Red-baiting and saber-rattling was an act designed to sell newspapers to morons. That he was unconnected to our government was something I believed about Murdoch in 1984, though no doubt Ronald Reagan was eager to naturalize a lonely immigrant with billions to invest in right-wing media.
But now? Is it sheer coincidence that the president's stage manager, Greg Jenkins -- responsible for the notorious flight-suit landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln, and for posing George Bush against Mt. Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty -- was recently a producer at Fox News?
If these elaborate tableaus Jenkins choreographs for President Bush seem clumsy, tasteless, condescending and insulting to your intelligence, you must be some kind of liberal. They bear an uncanny family resemblance to the red-white-and-blue show at Fox News, and heavy-handedness has never harmed its ratings, nor the president's either.
How stupid are we, finally, how easy to fool? Fox News is run by the insidious Roger Ailes -- image merchant for Nixon, Reagan and Bush senior, producer for Rush Limbaugh, newsman never -- and Fox is not what it seems to be. It's not a news service, certainly, nor even the sincere voice of low-rent nationalism. It's a calculated fraud, like the president who ducked the draft during Vietnam, and even welshed on his National Guard commitment, but who puts on a flight suit stenciled "Commander-in-chief" and plays Douglas MacArthur on network TV.
"I almost choked," said my mother's friend Doris, who's 90. "I had to lie down." It's possible that even old George Bush, who served with distinction in World War II, had to stifle a groan over that one.
The invasion of Iraq was in no way what it seemed to be, either. Saddam Hussein was never a threat to the United States. His "weapons of mass destruction" remain invisible, his terrorist connections remain unproven, and he had absolutely nothing to do with the destruction of the World Trade Center. Most cynical of all was the "liberation" lie, the administration's sudden concern for the helpless citizens of Iraq. Saddam, as grotesque as he was, wasn't getting any meaner, and "liberators" like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were doing brisk business with him when he was in his murderous, citizen-eating prime (and in Cheney's case, as recently as 1999). It would take half a page to list all the US-sanctioned dictators, killers of their people, who will be sharing hell's hottest corner with Saddam Hussein.
Liars with secret agendas are treating Americans like frightened children. If that sounds like a cry from the Left, get a transcript of Sen. Robert Byrd's remarks to the Senate on May 21. Byrd, nobody's liberal by any stretch of the imagination, accuses the White House of constructing "a house of cards, built on deceit," to justify its war on Iraq.
According to polls, at least half of us were so eager to be deceived, we believed the one lie Bush never dared to tell us, except by implication: that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
According to a CNN poll, 51 percent believe this -- "The Moron Majority," declares the headline in The Progressive Populist. And at that point, like poor Flaubert, I feel the sand around my ankles. I want to lie down and give up. On the wall above my bed of pain, two familiar quotations: "The tyranny of the ignoramuses is insurmountable and assured for all time" -- Albert Einstein; and "Perhaps the universe is nothing but an equilibrium of idiocies." -- George Santayana.
It violates democratic etiquette to call your fellow citizens "idiots." (Unless they're liberals -- "We all agree that liberals are stupid," writes Charles Krauthammer.) Fortunately, the PC wordworks has coined a new euphemism to replace the ugly word "retarded." It's "intellectually disabled," and we have it just in time. How else could we describe a majority that accepts the logic of "supporting the troops"? Protest as I might, a local columnist explained to me, once the soldiers are "locked and cocked" I owe them not only my prayers for their safe deliverance but unqualified endorsement of their mission, no matter how immoral and ill-advised it may seem to me.
According to this woeful logic, whoever controls the armed forces in the country where you live owns your conscience and your soul. It mandates unanimous civilian support for King Herod's soldiers smashing Hebrew babies against doorposts. It holds our soldiers hostage to silence our common sense, independent judgment and moral autonomy -- the foundations of each thinking individual's self-respect, not to mention the foundations of every theory of democratic government.
"To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public," said President Theodore Roosevelt.
The Madhouse Choir
They don't make Republicans like they used to. The troop-support doctrine, so universally and smugly conceded, is logic for the intellectually disabled, for people who've been hit in the head repeatedly with a heavy shovel. The stupidity of those who buy it is no more astonishing than the hypocrisy of those who sell it -- Republicans who preach our sacred duty to the army's morale and simultaneously cancel $15 billion in veteran's benefits and 60 percent of federal education subsidies for servicemen's children. If you can't believe that, look it up.
When is it too late to wake the sleeping masses? When a Fox TV show for amateur entertainers turns up more voters than Congressional elections? The marriage of television and propaganda may well have been the funeral of reason. In the meantime, Iraq is a bloody mess and Afghanistan a tragic mess, and most of the earth's one billion Muslims think the US and Israel are trying to conquer their world and destroy their religion. America's economy is suffocating ("A sickly economy with no cure in sight" says this morning's paper), her currency is in free fall and her reputation flies below half mast on every continent. We've been instructed to hate the French, our allies since the days of Lafayette, because they dared to tell us the truth.
What our best friends think of us is epitomized by a new play in Paris titled George W. Bush, or God's Sad Cowboy. Another in London is called The Madness of George Dubya. Our only original enemies, the terrorists of Al-Qaeda, seem to be thriving -- and quite naturally gaining recruits. There's a chilling suspicion that major architects of our current foreign policy are insane. Listen to Bush adviser Richard Perle, known since his Reagan years as the Prince of Darkness: "If we let our vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely, and we don't try to piece together clever diplomacy but just wage total war, (my italics) our children will sing great songs about us years from now."
Is that the children I hear singing, or the madhouse choir? (Calling Dr. Strangelove. . .) But polls tell us that through all the wars and lies and logical meltdowns that followed 9-11, 70 percent of adult America declared itself well satisfied and well served.
"I think it is terrifying," said the late Bishop Paul Moore, a Yale aristocrat who, like most mainstream clergymen, did not support the Bush wars. "I believe it will lead us to a terrible crack in the whole culture as we have come to know it."
I believe it has, and I believe that the split between liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican is inconsequential compared to the real fracture line, between Americans who try to think clearly and those who will not or cannot. What hope, a cynical friend teased me, for a country where 70 percent believe in angels, 60 percent believe in literal, biblical, blazing Armageddon, and more than half reject Charles Darwin? He didn't need to add that creationists, science-annihilating cretins, have now recruited President Bush, who assures fundamentalists he "has doubts" about evolution.
Whether the president is that dumb or merely that dishonest is beside the point. He knows his constituency. New research published by the National Academy of Sciences asserts that human beings and chimpanzees share 99.4 percent of their DNA. Would the polls (or the elections) change if subjects had to submit to DNA tests to prove they possess the qualifying .6 percent? American readers have purchased 50 million copies of Tim LaHaye's gonzo Apocalypse novels, still more evidence that what awaits the United States of America is not a physical but an intellectual Armageddon.
Was it dry, desert sand or quicksand that the despairing Flaubert imagined? When we look down, can we still see our knees? Novelist Michael Malone, a notorious optimist, offered a faint ray of hope when he urged me to ignore all the polls -- if the government has intimidated most of the media, he argued, what makes you think the polls are credible?
When the sand begins to grip us and no lifeline appears, we clutch at straws. Yet there's anecdotal evidence that the polls could be wrong. Brownshirts targeted the Dixie Chicks, and they survived handsomely. At the Merle Watson bluegrass festival in rural Wilkes County, singer Laura Love ridiculed President Bush from the main stage and harvested thousands of cheers to perhaps a hundred catcalls. At a crowded bookstore in Charlottesville last month, I tossed aside the book I hoped to sell and read a white-knuckled antiwar essay I wrote in 1991. One woman walked out, but everyone else applauded and grinned at me. Come to think of it, nearly everyone I know hates these wars and these lies as much as I do.
Are we so few, or are the numbers we see part of the Bush-Fox disinformation campaign -- like Saddam's missing uranium and his 25,000 liters of anthrax? This faint last hope will be tested in the presidential election of 2004. If the polls are right and Malone is wrong, as I fear, it's going to be a long, sandy century for the United States of America, for our children and grandchildren and all those sweet singing children yet unborn