New Medium.com Piece: ‘The Soleimani Strike’

I have a new piece up at Medium.com wherein I offer my thoughts on the drone-strike assassination of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani and U.S. foreign policy more generally.

Brendan O’Neill Doesn’t Want You to Talk About Conspiracy Theories

I have a new piece up at Medium.com offering my own theoretically conspiratorial take on the recent death of multi-millionaire financial guru and alleged teen sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. I speculate in the piece as to what people should really be focusing on in regards to Epstein’s mysterious life, never mind his death.

While poking around the internets during the writing, I came across this piece on the Epstein conspiracy theory mill by the British political commentator Brendan O’Neill of Spiked-Online. In it, O’Neill derides the open discussion of conspiracy theories.

I’ve always liked O’Neill. He is, as I like to say with my tongue in my cheek, one of my favorite commies. He’s one of the small handful of pundits who can actually scribble genuinely critical and logically coherent opinion pieces in this age of emotion-driven, brain-clouded hyperbole. And he’s always been a fearless advocate of completely free and unfettered speech. But I’ll have to respectfully take some issue with him on this one.

He starts off deriding the popular meme circulating through the right-wing web that the Clintons had Epstein murdered. Fair enough. It is indeed a theory entirely lacking in evidence. I make no such claim in my own piece. For what it’s worth, I think Occam’s Razor dictates that the creep did indeed hang himself. He wasn’t murdered by the Clintons or anyone else.

But O’Neill then goes on a rant against the discussion of conspiracy theories in general. My criticism is that he treats all of them equally.

Yes, many, if not most, of the conspiracy theories out there are batshit-crazy. Where did the whole “Clinton body count” meme even come from? So far as I can tell, it originated with the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Clinton Chronicles videos that he peddled on late night TV in the early to mid-1990s. Falwell tosses around all sorts of dark rumors about the Clintons, including accusations that they had various enemies murdered in Arkansas during Bill’s 12-year reign as that state’s governor.

So far as I’ve ever been able to tell, the foundation of Falwell’s rumor mill was laid by the infamous case of the double-murder of the two teenaged “boys on the tracks” in Arkansas during the 1980s. Journalist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard documents a solid circumstantial case in his book The Secret Life of Bill Clinton (terrible title, fascinating read) that the county prosecutor at the time, Dan Harmon, was involved in the boys’ murder and subsequent cover-up. The two murdered boys, Kevin Ives and Don Henry, may have stumbled upon a nighttime drug deal that involved Arkansas state or local law enforcement officers. This occurred during the same time that the infamous CIA operative Barry Seal was trafficking cocaine into the Mena, Arkansas airport as part of the “Iran-Contra” operation. Harmon was eventually arrested for dealing drugs some years later.

Though there’s no evidence to implicate the Clintons in the boys’ murder, Harmon was definitely a connected political player at the time who was jacked into the Clintons’ Arkansas machine. Thus, I suspect, the “Clinton body count” meme was born.

Anyway, everybody knows that the only person the Clintons actually had murdered was Vince Foster.

But I digress. What was I talking about? Oh, right. Conspiracy theories, and how Brendan O’Neill thinks discussing them is bad. They’re bad, says O’Neill, because the people who buy into them deprive themselves and others of agency. They become convinced that everyone is secretly manipulated by dark, sinister forces. They’re anti-democratic because they ultimately pacify people. Why bother organizing for any kind of change if the dark conspiratorial forces always prevail?

Pish. Posh.

Such people as O’Neill singles out for eating up the most absurd nonsense are the most easily duped who will believe almost any hysterical nonsense that Alex Jones shouts into his camera. (Ironically, such people now include, as O’Neill points out, members of the establishment liberal “intelligentsia”, who continue to insist that Vladimir Putin used voodoo social media ads to elect Donald Trump president.)

That doesn’t mean that mature adults can’t entertain the possibility that there really are people–in government, high finance, or otherwise endowed with enormous political privilege–who really do get up to some genuinely shady shit from time to time. Do they “control the world”? Nobody controls the world. But do these aforementioned privileged fucks occasionally get away with fucking over people less politically endowed than themselves? Absolutely.

The killer, though, is that the most sinister conspiracies are carried out right before our eyes: The false pretext for the Iraq War; the false pretext for intervening in Libya; hell, the false pretext for the first Iraq War; the Big Bank bailouts of 2008–the biggest heist carried out in U.S. history–and in broad fucking daylight right on our television sets–are just a few examples of the plots that have been carried out right in front of us in recent years. Most of us are just too duped by the daily propaganda of the usual news outlets to recognize them for what they really are.

And never mind about Jeffrey Epstein’s death–how the hell did he get that secret non-prosecution deal with the feds back in 2008? It’s not unreasonable to speculate that if he had lacked all of his high-flying social and political connections, they would have been more than happy to throw the book at him and make him into the poster boy of the evil denizens from whom they protect us and our daughters on a daily basis–oh what we would do without the ever-vigilant federal agents of law enforcement?!

So, sorry, Brendan, but the rest of us do intend to continue speculating, and to openly discuss our speculation, about what socially and politically powerful people do when nobody’s watching them, or caring enough to hold them accountable. It is sheer speculation, of course. But the difference between speculation about conspiracy theories and the kind of speculation that political commentators such as yourself frequently indulge in is only a difference of degree, not of character.

And it is, in fact, quite democratic in its own way. It’s the way we ordinary folk remind ourselves and one another that as the ruled, we need to watch out for what the rulers are up to. That they may only be interested in serving the public good rather than their own personal gain sounds a little too much like a, well,–wild conspiracy theory.

A Disappointing ‘Vice’

I finally got around to watching writer-director Adam McKay’s Vice on Amazon Prime. I’d been eagerly anticipating a viewing ever since the first trailer came out but just never had the chance to catch it at the theater. I was overjoyed when my wife and I had a couple of hours to spare for a movie at home and she suggested watching it. And so we watched it.

And what a massive disappointment.

Vice is a rambling, chaotic mess. It can’t seem to decide what kind of story it wants to tell about Dick Cheney. There isn’t anything revealed about him that is particularly surprising or insightful, other than perhaps his wayward youth. (Something he has in common with George W. Bush.) Cheney was apparently something of a ne’er-do-well who lived under constant threat of abandonment by his wife, Lynne. It all changed, at least according to the film, when he went to work as an intern in Washington, D.C., and he happened to hear a welcome speech by a U.S. congressman from Illinois named Donald Rumsfeld. That was when Cheney decided that he was a Republican and wanted to spend the rest of his life in politics.

Some of the episodes of Cheney’s life that the film chooses to delve into seem a bit odd to me. Yes, it goes into the 9/11 attacks and his immediate push to at least partially blame it on Iraq, but it barely touches at all on his time as secretary of Defense under Bush Sr. Cheney was instrumental in pushing the U.S. into war against Iraq the first time as well, and under just as patently false pretenses as those that were offered for the second Iraq war. One of the most egregious humdingers was the claim that classified U.S. intelligence surveillance photos revealed that hundreds of thousands of Saddam’s forces were amassed along the Saudi border. That’s what convinced the Saudis to allow their country to serve as a base for the U.S. and its allies, from which they would launch their “Operation: Desert Storm.” (Osama bin Laden later cited the continued U.S. military presence on Saudi soil after the war’s end as one of his main beefs against America.) No such surveillance imagery has been confirmed to this day. It was simply a lie.

It goes completely unmentioned in McKay’s film, however. Instead, he spends time on Cheney’s efforts, in collaboration with anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, to roll back the estate tax. I don’t know, if I were making a movie about Dick Cheney, I would find Cheney’s manipulating the country into a war far more dramatically compelling than a subplot about tax policy, but maybe that’s just me.

McKay deserves some credit for at least making some attempt to humanize his subject, such as Cheney and his family grappling with his daughter Mary coming out as a lesbian at a time when social acceptance of homosexuals was not nearly as common as it is today, not to mention the political implications for Cheney in light of his conservative constituency. The film depicts him as being rather forward-thinking and unconditionally accepting of Mary as she is, and McKay understandably sees this as one of his subject’s redeeming qualities. But it seems almost tacked onto the film as an afterthought, as though somebody forced McKay to mention at least one thing about Dick Cheney that he found positive.

As far as Christian Bale’s performance is concerned, it looks like he got an Oscar nomination for doing an excellent Dick Cheney impression. 

Any good biographical film should seek to understand its subject, to try to find out what makes him tick, how he sees the world and his place in it. I can’t say that I gleaned anything of the sort from Vice.