Katrina vanden Heuvel, Editor of The Nation, and Co-Editor of Taking Back America And Taking Down the Radical Right Talked with BF in 2004
Katrina vanden Heuvel is a BuzzFlash role model for the media. She is smart as a tack and media savvy. Vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, understands that the masses of America get their information from television, so she regularly does battle on the cable political shows. God bless her. We couldn't handle the idiots she has to deal with.
Katrina vanden Heuvel, Editor of The Nation, and Co-Editor of Taking Back America And Taking Down the Radical Right
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
You know, the Democratic Leadership Council has this mantra about staying in the center. Whenever one of their people trots out that line, I can't help but think of Jim Hightower's great quip, that the only thing in the center of the road are yellow stripes and dead armadillos. Sure, the American people want us to govern from the center, but it isn't the center the Washington pundits and politicians talk about. Citizens want us to deal with issues that are at the center of their lives. They seek a politics that speaks to and includes them -- affordable child care and health care, quality public education, retirement security, a living wage, environmental protection, clean elections and an internationalist foreign policy that will create real security. -- Katrina vanden Heuvel
Vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, understands that the masses of America get their information from television, so she regularly does battle on the cable political shows. God bless her. But vanden Heuvel has the poise and smarts to vanquish the neo-con Porsche pundits every time. She's as good as they get at the media chess game.
Vanden Heuvel has guided The Nation into the 21st Century, reviving America's oldest progressive magazine with great articles, an electrifying array of contributors, and innovative marketing. She is a summa cum laude graduate of Princeton University and a journalist who has specialized in writing about Russian politics and society. Most importantly, she's a dynamite thinker and persuader.
With Robert Borosage, co-director of the "Campaign for America's Future," she recently edited, Taking Back America and Taking Down the Radical Right. The anthology grew out of last year's enormously successful "Take Back America" grassroots conference, which is being reconvened this week in Washington, D.C.
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BuzzFlash: Let's begin with a basic assumption you have in the subtitle of the book -- Taking Down the Radical Right. The argument waging now among Democrats, independents and progressives is: Is this country a country that is susceptible to and interested in a progressive agenda? Are the majority of Americans not being given the information to support that agenda? Or is it, as the DLC promotes, a centrist country that is resistant to a quote-unquote progressive agenda, whatever that might be?
KvH: Oh, I hear you.
BuzzFlash: And the way that plays itself out is the DLC looks at a poll and says: Well, X number of people support this; Y number of people oppose this. So we can't go any farther than where X and Y are.
KvH: I think that's a recipe for a kind of downsized politics of excluded alternatives in this country. Let me come at your question in a number of ways. What is hopeful is that on fundamental questions, Bush and the right are out of tune with the vast majority of Americans. On issue after issue, the polls -- and these are not snapshot polls; these are polls over a consistent period of time -- show that most Americans share what one could call core liberal or progressive values: investment in health care and education over tax cuts; fair trade over free trade; corporate accountability over deregulation; environmental protection over laissez-faire policies; defending Social Security and Medicare over privatizing them; raising the minimum wage over eliminating it. The country prefers progressive alternatives to the failed policies of the conservative right.
I believe that a progressive politics that blames the people as its starting point is dead on arrival. I think just the opposite. I think people are too often misinformed and, in some cases, deceived. We don't have a full marketplace of ideas in this country that in any way reflects the broad, real range of ideas. There's Fox News. You've got CNN. You've got The New York Times. You've got Clear Channel radio. All these talk radio blowhards. Do any of them have a serious discussion about a living wage in this country? Or universal health care?
In too many instances, the idea of universal health care is treated as a wacky left-wing idea, and not a core human right. How often do you see questions raised about alternatives to our hyper-militarized foreign policy? About how we could take some of our obscenely bloated defense budget and invest it in human security needs, and we'd still have the most powerful military in the world, 20 times over. How often do you see in-depth reporting on how the pharmaceutical companies are writing our drug bills, the oil and gas industry writing our energy bills or corporate media writing our telecommunications law? And here, just to be clear, I'm talking about different levels of the media. Sure, The Washington Post or the L.A. Times will have a good investigative series. But if 80 percent of Americans get their news from television -- and that news includes that GOP adjunct of a network, Fox News -- how can we have the healthy, informed debate that is the lifeblood of a strong democracy?
You know, the Democratic Leadership Council has this mantra about staying in the center. Whenever one of their people trots out that line, I can't help but think of Jim Hightower's great quip, that the only thing in the center of the road are yellow stripes and dead armadillos. Sure, the American people want us to govern from the center, but it isn't the center the Washington pundits and politicians talk about. Citizens want us to deal with issues that are at the center of their lives. They seek a politics that speaks to and includes them -- affordable child care and health care, quality public education, retirement security, a living wage, environmental protection, clean elections and an internationalist foreign policy that will create real security. We need to broaden the debate in this country, so it's not just about designing elections aimed at winning 5 percent of the electorate in the battleground states.
I would just finally add, look at how the country is ahead of this administration and most of our politicians on the fundamental issue of war and peace. The polls show there's a majority in this country who believe that we've gotten bogged down in Iraq, who want a credible and timely exit strategy. Instead, with each passing day, Bush drones on like the messianic militarist that he is, "We must stay the course." Even hardcore military leaders like General Anthony Zinni, the retired Marine Corps general who headed the U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000, describes Bush's course as "headed over Niagara Falls." This administration is clueless and dangerous.
BuzzFlash: The Nation is probably the leading progressive weekly publication in the United States, and online with daily updates and so forth. How old is The Nation?
KvH: The Nation was founded in 1865, immediately after the Civil War, by abolitionists committed to the abolition of slavery. Like our founders, we still refuse to concede that idealism is irrelevant, and The Nation takes seriously the power of ideas, of conviction, of conscience, of fighting for causes lost and found. And, yes, we're the oldest continuously published political weekly of opinion in America.
BuzzFlash: Well, congratulations.
KvH: It's been going strong. I have to say, maybe more important in this marketplace of ideas, because we're now the largest circulation for an opinion magazine.
BuzzFlash: Has circulation been increasing in the last few years under the Bush administration?
KvH: Since 2000, we've had an increase of about 40 percent in our circulation. So we're about 170,000 in circulation right now.
BuzzFlash: Well, that's great. You mentioned that within these 14 to 16 battleground states that will decide the election -- states like Missouri, Pennsylvania and Arizona, and New Mexico and Florida and so forth -- that that's where Bush and Kerry are expected to fight by "nuancing" issues, not taking great risks, yet just enough differentiation to tip the balance and get the electoral votes.
Despite this DLC type of strategy, progressives say the Democratic Party should be leading public opinion and changing it, just as the right wing did, rather than sitting still and saying, "Public opinion is what it is, and we should go no further than what the polls say." The progressives argue that the party should be telling the truth, the idea being that if you expose the lies of the Bush administration, the public will follow.
KvH: Well, as an antidote to the DLC type of strategy, we are offering Taking Back America. It's a sassy, strategic and savvy agenda to counter not only the DLC approach, but, more important, to take on the right and take this country back from the most extremist administration of our lifetime. The book lays out policies that we believe are commensurate with the size of the challenge in this country. It's filled with ideas about how to build the capacity to reach out to citizens, to mobilize allies, and to identify, recruit, train and support the next generation of leaders.
However, it is not designed as an electoral agenda for John Kerry to run on. It's more about saying, hey, it's time to return to a politics of passion and principle that asserts our values, our ideas and our energy, and to work to develop the independent capacity to drive our causes into the political debate and electoral arena. Taking Back America argues that while we must defeat Bush, it is also more than a matter of changing the occupants of the White House. The challenge requires a coherent critique of the conservative ideas that have dominated the past 25 years, and it requires bold new vision and vast citizen mobilization to counter the entrenched and growing power of corporate lobbies and restore an America that lives up to its democratic promise. I believe that is a journey not of a year but of a decade or more.
That said, I do believe that this is the most important election in my lifetime; I don't know about yours. But we have an extremist administration which has waged an illegal and preemptive war, and which is also waging a war at home -- assaulting the rights of women and minorities and relentlessly rolling back protections for workers, consumers and the environment.
So, this is about beginning that work. It's about keeping true to our values and taking a page from the playbook of the right. Over these last 25 to 30 years, the right has BADLY skewed the debate and the battle of ideas in this country. We know that progressives can no longer continue to play defense in the battle of ideas. The stakes are too high. Nor can we allow ourselves to be cast as mere defenders of the status quo. We must make the debate between our vision of the future versus theirs.
It is time, as Senator Paul Wellstone said in one of his last speeches, not to duck, not to hide, not to bite our tongues or bide our time. Instead of simply being reactive -- a little more of this, a little more of that -- we think it's time for a new narrative, and that the ideological debate in America may be left-right and top-down, but it's certainly not reflective, as I said earlier, of the broad range of views. And we believe in more views and more choices.
BuzzFlash: For us, some of this labeling of left versus right has gotten sort of ridiculous. I mean, is it left to tell the truth and right not to tell the truth?
KvH: Exactly. And how would you classify the Army Times, which is calling what they've seen in these last few weeks an appalling failure of leadership, and calling on Rumsfeld to resign? How do you characterize those professionals in the military who, according to a Pentagon consultant, describe this administration's Iraq policy as "dead man walking"? That's not The Nation magazine speaking out. Also, we've seen trans-partisan truth-telling on two core issues that we care deeply about: Look at the over 200 cities, towns and counties and states which have passed resolutions against the Patriot Act. Those are librarians leading the way; in some cases, joined by the heads of the Chambers of Commerce in those towns. It's a trans-partisan alliance based on principle and conviction.
A central theme of The Nation in this last decade has been how to take on the consolidation of media that we believe is narrowing our choices and the views represented in the media. So it was exciting to witness the emergence of a real media democracy movement with two million citizens firing off petitions to the FCC last summer in an attempt to reclaim the airwaves for our democracy. You saw trans-partisan alliances there, too, what with a group like Code Pink making an alliance with the NRA.
BuzzFlash: Labels, in some cases, no longer have any meaning or use because either you're for democracy or you're not. And it seems that the people who are steadfast for democracy now are on the so-called left, whereas the right wing doesn't believe in one person, one vote, and believes there is an entitlement for them to govern regardless of popular will.
KvH: Absolutely. This administration, for example, has absolutely no interest in the checks and balances that have defined and strengthened the American system. Accountability means nothing to them. And then they throw around this awful term "un-American." At The Nation, we refuse to be intimidated -- even when called names by Aussie gossip rags masquerading as newspapers and by their electronic media cousins, 19th Century Fox, (apologies to Gore Vidal.) In these perilous times, I would argue that one of the core strengths of The Nation is its independence and its willingness to stand up for and defend the spirit and letter of the Constitution against those who would shred it by exploiting our fears.
You know, there's an experiment I've always wanted to do at this magazine: If you took the Bill of Rights into Congress and asked Tom DeLay or some of those GOP House members to sign it, without telling them what it was -- I suspect they may not have read it in a long time -- they might well consider it a subversive document. I think that experiment would go a long way toward revealing the respect and understanding of our democracy among some of the men and women we entrust our Republic to.
This is an issue that should not divide left-right. If one believes in democracy, one stands by those core institutions and values that have defined this country. And that's not what we're seeing.
William Greider, who's in the book -- we published his essay first in the magazine -- has a piece called "The Threat: Rolling Back the 20th Century." I think he makes a very strong argument about how these Republicans, these right-wingers -- and this is partly why the book is called Taking Down the Radical Right -- want to roll back the hard-earned rights and liberties of the 20th Century, and unmake almost everything good about our country, from Head Start to habeas corpus. To take Grover Norquist, that evil guru of the right, at his word -- to so starve government that one can drown it in the bathtub, so that government no longer plays a useful role in the lives of the citizens of this country.
And I don't think that's a left-right issue. I think that's about ensuring that America survives and isn't drowned in a bathtub by these Neanderthal merchants of outmoded ideas.
BuzzFlash: Certainly it's something that we get emotional about. Much of the Bush theocratic agenda that Scalia also espouses -- and Ashcroft -- is actually pre-American Revolution. It is almost monarchical -- Bush believes he ascended to the presidency through an act of God; it certainly wasn't an electoral victory.
KvH: I'm a member of the press, and I know you are, too, and I think we'd both agree that too much of the press has been intimidated in these last years, certainly in the run-up to war, by an administration which has used fear to make its case for war, labeled its critics traitors, worked to silence questioning, rebellious voices, perverted the meaning of patriotism and compassion, and pushed for legislation that would invade our privacy, and roll back media access to information. Yes, there's a waking up period now among much of the media. How can you not wake up what with the horrifying facts on the ground, the disastrous failures of policy, the rank incompetence? Anyway, without sounding grand, I believe that the basic duties required of a free press in a democracy involve upholding the core American values of free speech, of holding the powerful accountable.
Why does this administration hate a free press? It certainly has a kind of perverse relationship, at best, with the press. Think of it this way: King George of 1776 hated it when the American press challenged his reign. So why should we expect the King George of 2004 to react any differently? This administration certainly has monarchical qualities. There's a sense of entitlement, a sense that they should not be scrutinized, that they are above the law, and that citizens should just leave it to them to decide what is in the peoples' interest. Think of the danger of unlimited power in the hands of limited minds.
BuzzFlash: Scalia, who is a member of Opus Dei, and is also a theocrat, emphasizes in his talks before college audiences that the Constitution is a document of God. If one were even to accept at face value a strict constructionist's viewpoint -- which Scalia doesn't in reality accept because he's actually an interventionist judge and an activist judge in defiance of the Constitution -- but in any case, if one were to accept what he claims as strict constructionism, we would still have slavery in this country and women wouldn't have the right to vote.
KvH: I think that's absolutely right, and I think that speaks to another issue, which you raised: the question of how people categorize our politics as liberal, top-down this and that. I do think, though, that in defense of liberalism, look at some of the advances that have occurred in this country, from Medicare and Social Security to child labor laws, suffrage for women, the 40-hour work week. These were reforms that were fought for by citizen movements, and taken up by liberals -- and almost always opposed by conservatives at the time. I wish that liberals would take their own side in a fight. Too often, good people back down because the right has demonized that term for too long.
Who fought for an increase in the minimum wage? Who brought you the weekend? The weekend was really an accomplishment of the labor movement, which, through collective action, brought change to millions of people's lives. This sense of what collective action can accomplish is something this administration would like to wipe out. And our media does little to encourage citizen participation. After all, how do people make wise choices without full information about their leaders, their policies and the truth or falsehood of their statements?
Gore Vidal, a contributor to The Nation, likes to talk about the United States of Amnesia. Again, it's not about blaming Americans. It's what goes on in our culture and our media, and in the way history is used as a tool to cow people instead of enlightening them. That is a danger. Too many forget about how change and progress and reform happened in this country. The Voting Rights Act or child labor laws or food safety regulations didn't fall from the sky. Just read Bill Moyers' remarkable speech, "The Progressive Story Of America" -- it's the last chapter in Taking Back America-- to understand the historic context of today's struggles.
BuzzFlash: There's a fundamental tenet of the radical agenda -- the radical extreme agenda of the Bush cartel, as we call it -- that includes the sort of second column or the fifth column in the judiciary, like David Sentelle, and Rehnquist and Scalia, and Clarence Thomas and others. And formerly Lawrence Silberman, who now in a farcical, tragic way, heads this "yet-another-whitewash" Bush intelligence commission.
KvH: Like putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop.
BuzzFlash: They are fundamentally anti-democracy in the sense that they do not respect majority rule. If majority rule disagrees with what their opinion is of divine law, which Bush and Scalia believe they are implementing here on earth, then they believe majority rule should be overruled to go back to some sort of non-existing static ideal of some document from 1776. Just as different people have interpretations of the Bible, different people have interpretations of the Constitution. That's what we have a legal system for, to try to sort that all out. But, nonetheless, they're saying, "Well, the majority doesn't agree with us, so we're going to assert ourselves over the majority because we know better and we have divine inspiration."
KvH: One could call it a different interpretation of the Constitution, or one could call it shredding the Constitution at every opportunity. The other thing that flows from what you say is that almost every day there's a story of some Republican legislator, usually Tom DeLay or someone in the administration, and this goes back to John Ashcroft immediately after 9/11 -- equating dissent with disloyalty. That tic they have -- I am reminded of Dr. Strangelove and his tic -- has resurfaced today as decent and honorable people, from across the political spectrum, call for holding this administration, the defense secretary and others who've shredded international law, accountable for the horrors not only at Abu Ghraib, but in detention facilities that the U.S. built and runs around the world in the aftermath of 9/11.
I've always believed that real patriotism means not only defending, but also improving our country, via debate, dissent, elections -- all of these representative institutions that are supposed to channel and be part of expressing the will of the citizens. It's not something that seems organic, if one might say, to the very cramped and perverse definition of patriotism some of these people hold.
BuzzFlash: Putting the corporate ownership of the media aside for a moment, I want to discuss television in general. We're in an age, no matter who owns the media, and delivering for the most part the White House agenda as actual fact --
KvH: Well, take Fox TV -- pleeeez. It's not just that Fox is an adjunct of the GOP, but sometimes it's just the official or conventional view. That's what you get -- a very suffocating consensus on a range of programs. So it's not only that it's the right wing, but it's narrow, official.
BuzzFlash: Democracy is at a crisis to a certain degree because of the pervasiveness of television as a vehicle for information. What the Bush administration relies on -- not unlike some other campaigns; Bush just has more money -- is that if they air an ad that says John Kerry wasn't a hero, and he defamed war veterans by claiming they committed atrocities, the polling the next week shows that a significant number of voters believe it. The television medium, regrettably, works for negative ads.
KvH: Wait a minute. What strikes me is that this ruthless Bush White House is savvy in getting out there with unprecedented gobs of money. And Karl Rove hasn't even unpacked his bag of dirty tricks yet. But look at how, even with all that money, Bush's job numbers are sinking. Reality takes its toll. The danger is the old issue of the money pouring into the system, and how do we ensure that organized people trump organized money.
At the same time, I do believe that if Kerry was speaking with more passion and boldness you'd see his numbers ramping up. At the moment, Kerry has the benefit of the anti-Bush momentum. Not only that events are bringing this president down, but as my co-editor Robert Borosage told the Washington Post the other day, "Bush organizes the base for Kerry in the way that Clinton organized the right for the Republicans." As a result, "there is a lot of space for Kerry to find his own voice without having to worry about massive disaffection" on the left.
I would add, just on a hopeful note, that I do think that there is the emergence of a real media democracy movement, and that the Internet, without overstating its current role and future promise -- and you, BuzzFlash, are part of this movement -- is playing a very important role in holding mainstream media accountable, in holding lying and deceiving politicians in this White House accountable, and in getting out the truth on some of these core issues which the White House wants to cover up with a veil of secrecy.
BuzzFlash: We've written editorials about this more than once, which is basically that some so-called "liberals" and "progressives" have an elitist attitude toward television.
KvH: I was very interested in your e-mail expressing concern that Kerry held that view about TV. Eighty percent of Americans get their news from TV, and I think you have to contest in that arena. You can't cede it to the mainstream or the right wing; you have to be out there fighting to get your ideas and arguments heard and debated. But I think Kerry understands the power of TV. Hell, his campaign is pouring millions into it, gearing up for one of the largest pre-Labor Day advertising campaigns. So there is definitely an awareness on his part of the power of TV to shape images and to shape his candidacy's definition in people's minds.
I am an editor of a magazine with a small circulation, though, as I said earlier, we're now the largest circulation weekly of opinion. And I also do quite a bit of TV. And I get on TV because I think you're reaching millions of people you're not going to reach through The Nation, and that there are people out there who share the values of The Nation, and who, when they learn about a publication which shares some of their views, e-mail to say: I didn't know about The Nation; couldn't agree with you more -- can we get subscriptions?
I believe there are millions of progressives in this country. The problem is our media basically ignore them, their concerns and values. So, you'll find that in many places in this country, people are living atomized lives. They don't hear or see their views reflected on TV or on the local radio and they may begin to think they're crazy because they hold unpopular views, ones no one else around seems to share or understand. When they do hear someone talking about universal health care or the need for a credible exit strategy out of Iraq, they then begin to realize there are others. I think that's important.
Look at the power of the Internet to break through the traditional media, which ignored the vast -- indeed, majority -- opposition to the war against Iraq. Through the Internet, alternative media and traditional organizing and activism, on Feb. 15, 2003, over 12 million people came out on the streets in over 700 cities in 60 countries and on every continent.
At home, in this election, everyone now understands you need the voter contact. You need the real on-the-ground organizing, get-out-the vote efforts, as well as TV ads. That seems to be a lesson the right has learned, judging from what they're doing in Ohio, in many other states, and judging from what they're doing with the odious Ralph Reed heading up some of these on-the-ground strategic get-out-the-vote efforts. So I would argue you need both the high contact work and air war stuff. Anyone who's elitist about television does so at some peril to his or her political life, and to the life of their ideas in this political world.
BuzzFlash: I started BuzzFlash, which has grown from 34 readers a day in May of 2000 to more than 150,000 a day now, because Democrats I talked to, including some unnamed high people in the Democratic National Committee, were --
KvH: Were clueless about it, right?
BuzzFlash: They completely dismissed the "Drudge Report." They said, "Oh, that's just trash; idiots read it." They dismissed Fox TV. I know things have changed since 2000, but much of that cultural disdain is still there.
KvH: Let's not forget one important change on our electoral landscape this season: Howard Dean. He shouldn't be relegated to some minor footnote in this campaign. I really think that with all the fallout and the mistakes, what he did with the Internet, how he used it, was an important testament to its strength, both in terms of its ability to break the big money grip on the Democratic Party, but also how he used it to energize and engage through a medium that had been ignored or treated contemptuously by the Democratic National Committee and more mainstream politicians.
Why is a tool like this so important? As I lay out in my chapter, "Building to Win," to effectively challenge the right, progressives must have more than good ideas. If our whole is going to equal the sum of our parts, we need to build a powerful infrastructure that can reach out to citizens with our values and ideals. I lay out a number of elements. One is electoral. One is movement. One is a coordinated vehicle for national and local issue campaigns. And the other is about media. So I think there is more savviness, more awareness. Events, defeats -- these have been a wake-up call in these last years.
BuzzFlash: Part of being a progressive, and really part of being a secular believer in democracy, is to believe in evolutionary change and majority rule as things change.
KvH: Well, evolution is a dangerous word around this country.
BuzzFlash: Yes, it is. But all that said and done, in the last decade, the Republicans have been masterful. The far right, particularly Karl Rove and Lee Atwater, his mentor, have played the cultural populist and gotten the Democrats to back off of any populism. Gore's campaign was derided for being populist, whereas we felt it wasn't populist enough. They play cultural populism by appealing to the cultural values of the middle class, of the Evangelicals, of the still-believing Catholics -- and they're masterful at it.
KvH: They are masterful. But how far does it go? The guns, God and gays mantra can be overtaken by a different mantra of jobs, health care, education; maybe sass that up some. But if you had someone speaking and pumping up the volume, as John Edwards did fairly successfully with his two Americas theme -- which is not about class war; it's about a more hopeful America -- I think you would see a real overtaking of this fairly insidious campaign on the part of the right to, in so many cases, work to make decent Americans vote against what is in their interests.
Time and time again, it's a distraction from the reality that people are working harder, earning less, and tolerating a world where their children will be economically worse off. It will mean pumping up the volume around some core populist ideas, and to do so in a hopeful and visionary way that speaks to a better America, and not to a kind of trench warfare with a right wing that has been masterful, but in ugly ways and to ugly effect.
BuzzFlash: Let's talk about the torture and abuse in the Iraqi prisons. The historical context is that as early as a month or two after 9/11, articles appeared where the Bush administration was floating the idea of torture and saying it might be necessary.
KvH: We had a cover story in March 2003 called "In Torture We Trust?" Stories of U.S. involvement in torture were out there. Our piece made reference to a Washington Post front-page story from Dec. 26, 2002,detailing allegations of torture and inhumane treatment involving thousands of suspects apprehended since the Sept. 11 attacks. The Nation called -- and now many other groups, newspapers and politicians are doing so -- for Rumsfeld's resignation over a year ago. There were a number of reasons: for misleading and misrepresenting a nation into war through hyping the threat from Iraq; for misleading the nation about the horrible human and financial costs of this war; and for shredding international relationships and alliances. Our editorial even condemned Rumsfeld's cavalier and arrogant contempt for questions raised about the treatment of Afghan detainees.
This was over a year ago! We were mocked by The New York Times for our editorial, but then they came around a year later to calling for Rumsfeld's head.
Now this administration and its GOP minions are going to try to do a cover up of what is a metastasizing torture scandal because the standard operating procedure of this White House is stonewall, stonewall, stonewall. You've written about this. John Dean's terrific new book shows that the contempt and the disregard for law, and the valuing of secrecy, are the reasons we have a legal black hole in which these abuses occurred. The line of command and the responsibility should go all the way to the top, and Rumsfeld needs to resign.
And Bush needs to be voted out. One hopes for a truly democratic election, unless their judges get hold of it once again. But we need democratic regime change in Washington. Rumsfeld's head rolling is one political price they should pay for their abuse and contempt of democratic norms, for undermining the legitimacy of America in the world, and for undermining the security of U.S. men and women in the field, and for a whole slew of other reasons.
The way this issue is being treated on some of the talk shows -- and I had the misfortune to be on Joe Scarborough'S MSNBC program; it really was a scandal -- they were basically saying, well, a little bit of torture here and there, it's horrible but let's move on. Literally: Let's move on.
BuzzFlash: And they're blaming the individuals.
KvH: Exactly. Blame the kids who, in some cases, joined the military because they couldn't find jobs in their towns. This goes way back to Jessica Lynch, which is another story, another face of the war.
BuzzFlash: Now one question leads to another, but I'll try to keep it to two. So The Nation had this article about floating the torture idea, and there's been an alleged massacre in Afghanistan, where 3,000 Taliban allegedly died with Americans present, and so forth. It's pretty well documented that the administration knew exactly what it was doing.
KvH: They averted their eyes, or they tried to suppress information. Every day, we get more stories about how the Red Cross came through with scores of reports, right? And they met with Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Paul Bremer. Where is the accountability? Eyes were averted. Eyes have been averted in previous instances in our history to great horror and to the detriment of our country's credibility. So eyes were averted when human rights groups and the Red Cross came forward with these issues about torture in Abu Ghraib and other detention centers.
Part of it, I have to say, goes back to something in the Washington Post today. If you noticed in the "Style" section -- you may not read that -- but there was until just recently a medal given to those who fought in this war. You might say, well, the Iraq war. No, it's called "the global war on terrorism." You've probably seen this. And the danger of cynically and deceitfully blurring the lines, of conflating the struggle against Al-Qaeda with the invasion of Iraq by referring to both as "the war on terror" accelerated the slide into a mindset in which torture and abuse became acceptable ways of treating the enemy. In fact, as a recent report from the prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies reveals, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have only accelerated recruitment for Al-Qaeda.
So you see how the abuse of detention practices in Guantanamo was basically exported to Iraq, where you have thousands of innocent men and women picked up in Iraq, and treated like terrorist suspects, because of the blurring of lines which came from the top via directives, via repudiating the Geneva Conventions, and the rule of law. This is not about rotten apples. The barrel is rotten. A rotten barrel has set up this framework, set up this construct. That's what we see now being exposed and bared, thanks to a courageous whistle-blower in the military, thanks to an Army general whose report was unsparing in its condemnation, and thanks to journalists like Seymour Hersh.
That shows that there is some resilience, we hope, in the system -- that right will be done. But it's tough because television can so disinform and pervert and distort. And then we have a president and a defense secretary who are basically outraged over the outrage, despite their weak apologies. So how do ordinary Americans who have good intentions, but are listening just to talk radio or watching Fox TV, where do they come out in all this, with what views?
BuzzFlash: I think liberals and progressives for far too long have made the mistake that because it appears some of these things are so preposterous to us, well, the average American must know that. But they believe what they hear, because that's what they hear. They don't read everything we read. That's not what they're doing. They're going about their lives.
KvH: Well, some people are holding down two jobs. How do they have time, right? I think of what Barack Obama said the other day in a profile in The New Yorker. Obama is one of the most exciting Democratic candidates out there these days -- running for the senate seat in Illinois. As he said, "People are whupped....unless it's your job to be curious, who really has the time to sit and ask questions and explore issues"? We have to remember that's the case for millions of Americans who get a quick snapshot of what's happening. How do we change or affect their views?
BuzzFlash: And they just watch maybe the evening news and that's their news. Studies have shown young people, for instance, blur the distinction between the political jokes on Jay Leno or the negative ads, or what they see on television.
KvH: What about the kind of subversive independence of some of those programs like "The Daily Show"?
BuzzFlash: Jon Stewart, yeah.
KvH: There you may find a younger generation which is more independent minded and better able to be critical minded about the hypocrisies of political leaders. I think there is a lot of vibrancy in popular culture. And it's not just a left-right thing. There's often quite a bit of truth-telling and seeing through bullshit, and seeking out of authenticity, that I think may bode well for a younger generation.
BuzzFlash: OK, we have this context where we know that the Bush administration was floating that they were probably going to use terror. We have other incidents like the case of an innocent Canadian who was picked up at an American airport and deported to Syria just so he could be tortured in Syria without the Bush Administration having its fingerprints on him. They found out that he was guilty of nothing, and he returned to Canada and is now suing the U.S. We have what is clearly a policy of not just closing the eyes to torture, but permitting it and encouraging it.
KvH: And of issuing a Pentagon directive essentially authorizing the use of cruel and inhumane treatment to get information out of detainees. I would add that there is a line among right-wing talk show hosts -- again, I refer to my effort on Joe Scarborough to say something of value -- that the Congress could have intervened, that they were asleep at the wheel. Well, it's not true. There are people like Senator Leahy, who tried over a period of time to get information from the State Department and the Pentagon about alleged abuse, and he was met with stony silence. There are some who have been conscientious legislators. But the administration's consistent pattern of keeping Congress in the dark because it doesn't believe in the system of checks and balances is revealed all too clearly in this matter.
BuzzFlash: Here's the question I have about the media: Papers like the Washington Post and New York Times -- even though they've been critical of the torture and abuse -- why aren't they running long series, talking about this whole history where it was pretty apparent that the Bush administration was supporting a policy of torture and abuse?
KvH: Well, the Post did have a story on Dec. 26, 2002 -- not a very good day to try to present breaking news, the day after Christmas. The story detailed allegations of torture and inhumane treatment involving thousands of suspects apprehended since Sept. 11. It went on to lay out a system in which these detainees were sent to overseas CIA interrogations, completely off limits to reporters, lawyers, outside agencies. They were routinely "softened up" by U.S. Army Special Forces. And the story went into some detail. The same article reported, as you mentioned earlier, that approximately 100 suspects were transferred to U.S. allies with great human rights records, like Saudi Arabia and Morocco, where brutal torture methods were used against these detainees. So the pattern was beginning to be laid out. And there were smatterings of other stories. But then there was silence.
Some of that has to do with the way the administration intimidated all institutions after Sept. 11. It was a time in which questioning, as I said earlier, was equated with disloyalty, with being soft on terrorism. That remains a message that's sent from the top. And that is terrifying. Sure, we need to find a balance between liberty and security -- our legal correspondent David Cole has written eloquently about that -- but we must be vigilant that in the process we not lose and not subvert the very values we claim to uphold.
I read the Washington Post very carefully these days. I find it the most useful paper when it comes to reporting on developments in Iraq and the frauds and follies, high crimes and misdemeanors of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, the neo-cons -- the whole crew. That's not to say that I think the Post's op-ed or editorial pages are so enlightening. In fact, in the run-up to war, the editorial pages were like an outpost of the Defense Department. And I disagree with many of its columnists. But the reporting has been, in this past period, very strong in terms of laying out a pattern of failure and deceit.
Now, why wasn't it earlier? Well, it's a company paper -- housed and located in Washington, D.C., sensitive to official power, to the administration in power and to the shifting to the center/right. We had a good piece by one of our ace interns on our site last summer which looked at why the Post wasn't putting Walter Pincus' revelations about the administration's deceits regarding WMD's and other matters on the front page. After the war, Pincus and Bart Gellman and Dana Priest and others were all over the front page. But it was late. Would a more aggressive establishment media have halted or slowed down Bush's drive to war? Hard to know. I'm pessimistic because this president lives in a Bush bubble. He has said openly, boasted in fact, that he gets his news from his "objective" advisers.
BuzzFlash: Last question. BuzzFlash actually failed for words yesterday to describe this incident where George W. Bush went to the Pentagon, after these horrific pictures of torture and abuse and humiliation emerged from Iraqi prisons, to show his support for Rumsfeld. He goes to Rumsfeld's office, and we are told he is shown some of the photographs of torture. The official statement from the White House Press Office was: "He viewed them with disgust." Then he basically embraced Rumsfeld and said Rumsfeld is doing a superb job. What in the world is one to make of this?
KvH: It's a pattern of deep and disturbing disconnect with reality that has characterized every moment of this presidency. It's part of the arrogance and the cavalier contempt for the very liberties which make this country strong. Their brazenness does make one speechless. But Bush has never been noted for any deep introspection or curiosity. The compassionate conservatism was a lie from the beginning. It is now crystal clear that this crew will do whatever it takes. Paul Krugman, who has been a superb chronicler of this selected administration, I think said it well a month or so ago in a column, where he described how they will not be bound by checks and balances. Their attitude is close to one of an elected dictatorship. I would simply qualify that and say selected dictatorship.
BuzzFlash: Well, Katrina, thank you so much for your time.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW