My wife has become increasingly nervous when political topics arise in conversations with our friends over dinner or drinks. She’s afraid I’ll disrupt a pleasant occasion by expressing views that are anathema to our liberal, Democratic friends.
Like what? you might ask.
Well, there are several, but the most inflammatory one is my denial that Russia meddled in the 2016 Presidential election in a consequential way, much less with the intention of electing Trump.
"What?" you say. Every MSNBC-watching, New York Times WaPo-reading Democrat knows that the Russians hacked the DNC emails and passed them on to WikiLeaks to hurt the Clinton campaign. And how about all those social media posts?
The second I express myself, I am invariably accused of parroting Fox News or even of endorsing Trump. But I despise Trump and have never watched Fox news live for more than a minute or two. (Occasionally, I watch an interview with a left-leaning heretic like myself, who cannot get airtime on the "legacy media.")
How did this happen? How did I come to reject beliefs my liberal friends hold sacred?
Well, to paraphrase an old commercial, I came by my heretical views the old-fashioned way: I earned them. I looked beyond the MSM to independent sources of news and commentary, reading widely and open-mindedly and thinking critically. Some of these sources publish reporting, others opinion; many are left-leaning; most oppose American foreign policy. I weighed them against one another, and the MSM, to assess their reliability.
In short, I investigated American journalism – and found corporate media woefully misleading. I would say I found it unprofessional but, as a friend reminded me, the job of corporate journalism is to maximize profit; doing so is not conducive, to say the least, to challenging the dominant power structure and its ideology.
My current morning routine is this. Over breakfast, I read the hard copy of the New York Times, selectively and skeptically. Then I repair to my study and spend an hour or so surfing online news sources. I consult more than a dozen daily: e.g., The Intercept, Truthout, Consortiumnews.com, Antiwar.com, Current Affairs, Jacobin, RealClearInvestigations, CommonDreams, Grayzone, FAIR, Counterpunch, The Nation, and even RT. Among journalist/bloggers I consider trustworthy on Russiagate are Aaron Maté, Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Caitlin Johnstone, Moon of Alabama, and Elizabeth Voss.
While still teaching (at Hofstra University), I would pick up a free copy of the New York Times on campus and read it over the course of the day. I would listen to NPR while commuting. I considered myself well informed. I was quite trustful of these sources on most topics. My views did not diverge sharply from those of my liberal friends.
But after my retirement in 2011, I began to look deeper. I’m not sure why; I did not set out to shift my politics to the left. One factor was my interest in Syria, where my father had taught at Aleppo College during the 1930s. In 2009, just before violence broke out there, I followed in his footsteps, traveling to Aleppo with my family. When the protests against the notoriously brutal and repressive Assad began, I was very sympathetic. Like the Western media, I favored the "moderate rebels."
But eventually, by reading alternative media, I came around to the view that there were not enough moderate rebels to bring about a change of regime. (The notion of a viable moderate opposition was the product of a Western PR campaign.) Eventually, I learned that the U.S was arming militant Islamists (as with the Mujahaddin earlier in Afghanistan, helping bring the Taliban to power) and eventually sending in troops in violation of international law. (They are still there.) The result was a terrible civil war. I reluctantly came to believe that the least bad short-term outcome for the Syrian people was for the Assad regime to prevail, with Russia’s help. That is what has happened. Removing Assad would have done to Syria what removing Saddam did to Iraq: worsened the havoc and suffering in the nation and the surrounding region.
But what about Assad’s gassing of his own people, you say, which was investigated by the purportedly neutral OPCW (the UN-sponsored Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Warfare) and widely reported in the Western media? Sorry, but whistleblowers among the actual inspectors eventually came forward to reveal that their firsthand findings had been distorted to fit the desired verdict. (Remember Iraq and its WMD?) But of course, the whistleblowers testimony was largely ignored by the very media that blamed the atrocity on Assad and fawned over Trump’s retaliatory attack. (The next day, Fareed Zakaria declared on CNN that "Donald Trump became president of the United States last night.")
Looked at critically, this narrative made no sense. Why would Assad, who was winning the war, risk antagonizing the world (and his people)? Why would he cross a redline drawn by the US, risking retaliation? He wouldn’t, and he didn’t. Almost certainly, these gas attacks were false flag attacks by the rebels to trigger American attacks against Syria (which they did). I have learned to ask the basic question, Cui bono? (who benefits) when reading the news. The answer is often not the party being blamed by the MSM.
As with Syria, so with Venezuela and Bolivia, with Russia and Ukraine: if you can put aside the dominant narrative promulgated by the MSM, you can find dedicated, dogged investigative journalists who challenge and debunk it. Unfortunately, the debunking necessarily lags well behind the false story. And in our short news cycle, it gets lost. Moreover, skeptical journalism gets published only in small, independent outlets. The MSM generally does not retract its stories. If it does, it does so in a whisper, someplace where the retractions will not get noticed. If you look for them, you can find them, but you have to know to look.
The most authoritative debunkers of the Russiagate/Ukrainegate narrative have been, interestingly, a group that calls itself Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). Its work appears regularly at Consortiumnews.com, which was founded by Robert Parry, who broke the Iran-Contra story. The VIPs are retired intelligence officers who resent the cooking of intelligence for political ends. (Their first post was published on the day that Colin Powell testilied [sic] to the UN Security Council and the MSM stenographers published his lies; since then, they have an excellent track record.) Their retirement frees them to voice their views without permission or repercussions. The VIPs, one of whom, Ray McGovern, briefed Presidents during the Cold War, can hardly be accused of being soft on Russia.
They have shown that the so-called "hack" of the DNC emails was almost certainly a leak. Forensic examination of the megadata by William Binney, former NSA Director, indicates that the data could not have been stolen over the internet; so much information could not have been transferred as quickly as claimed. In any case, recently declassified documents reveal that Shawn Henry, the president of CrowdStrike Services, the company tasked by the DNC with examining the server (which the DNC refused to release to the FBI) admitted under oath that there was no evidence of email having been "exfiltrated," as had been reported in the corporate media and universally believed by liberals.
One irony of this, of course, is that the emails published by WikiLeaks, whose authenticity no one has challenged, were proof of the rigging of the Democratic primary by the DNC: i.e., election meddling. Given the damaging content, it seems far more likely that this was a leak by a disgruntled insider, but the blame of course is put on Russia.
As for the supposedly election-meddling social media activity. It was not directed by the Kremlin; it began before Trump was nominated and continued well past the election. The actual ads were mostly puerile, unsophisticated (and not in fluent English); many favored Clinton; some were not even about politics. It was mostly clickbait. The bottom line is that the financial investment was infinitesimal compared to those of the two candidates. This can’t have had any discernible effect on the outcome, much less a decisive one. (This is leaving aside the glaring hypocrisy of Americans complaining about meddling in our elections, when the US is the world champ in that endeavor.)
But the Russiagate narrative has served, as it was intended, to deflect attention from the failures of the Clinton campaign – and more generally from the Democratic party’s embrace of neoliberalism at home, betraying the working class, and imperialism abroad. Regrettably, too, it masks far more serious obstacles to fair elections: the Electoral College, voter-suppression, gerrymandering, Citizens United, and so on – i.e., the factors presumably in American control.
Its promotion by the MSM has fostered widespread paranoia about Russia. Thanks to the DNC and the MSM, neo-McCarthyism is epidemic among Democrats, who see Russians (I almost said Commies) under every bed.
As the late Stephen F. Cohen insisted (not in MSM, which blackballed him), this is a dangerous delusion; it significantly increases the possibility of a hot (nuclear) war.
Perhaps most alarming, in the MSM Russiagate eclipses the truly existential threat of the climate emergency. The MSM fiddles while the world burns.
Most of my friends are academics, artists or other intellectuals. It makes me sad – and crazy – that these people, who are smart and sophisticated – not "low information" voters – fall for this stuff, which is counterfactual faith-based journalism.
I could go on to list other MSM truths that I regard as "fake news." But there’s little point. It’s not that I expect my friends to believe me rather than the New York Times. What I’d like is for them to be willing to consider alternative interpretations of events and to explore non-corporate media.
Why? Well, consider the view of Noam Chomsky, who (with Edward S. Herman) long ago exposed how the MSM "manufacture" consent; he considers Russiagate a huge gift to Trump, which could hand him the election. Or consider what William Casey, director of the CIA, said when asked by incoming President Ronald Reagan to describe his agency’s mission, "We’ll know our disinformation program is complete when everything the American public knows is false." Part of the mission of the intelligence agencies has been to infiltrate American media and gaslight the public. But, as I suggested above, this does not prevent honest analysts from reaching their own conclusions.
I try not to blame my friends for being misguided by the MSM. After all, only a few years ago, when I read only what my friends read, I believed as they do. It’s not that I’m smarter, or more (or less) liberal than they; it’s just that I’ve made the effort to peek outside my info silo, the liberal echo chamber.
I try not to be too disputatious in conversations with friends. I don’t want to alienate them. Life is lonely enough during the pandemic without becoming persona non grata, never invited back.
On the other hand, why should I silence myself? Why should I nod sagely as friends spout what I regard as nonsense? Well, there’s no percentage in it. Sadly, conversation alone doesn’t convince or convert. Politics has become polarized and tribalized to a frightening degree; evidence and argument don’t seem to matter. People believe what they want to believe. The light bulb has to want to change. Or at least, to be open to changing. And, to be fair, it takes time and effort to explore alternative media.
But I want my friends to know that while we may all oppose Trump, we are hardly on the same page. In such circumstances, old friends should be able to agree to disagree. But how can my friends and I agree to disagree if they don’t know that we disagree?
So I will continue to speak out. Silence feels like collusion in delusion. And the stakes are high.
G. Thomas Couser is retired from Hofstra University, where he taught English and founded a Disability Studies Program. His books include Vulnerable Subjects: Ethics and Life Writing (Cornell 2004), Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing (Michigan 2009), and Memoir: An Introduction (Oxford 2012). His most recent book is Letter to My Father: A Memoir (Hamilton Books, 2017).