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Saturday, November 23, 2013

How “Gotcha” Journalism Mutes the Truth

A few months ago a Pittsburgh labor attorney and human rights activist, Dan Kovalik, penned an op-ed piece for a Western Pennsylvania daily, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Kovalik took up the case of an elderly adjunct professor at a local private university who died virtually penniless, with insecure shelter, and with tenuous health care. In the several hundred words allowed him, Kovalik brought forward Margaret Mary Vojtko's struggle to eke out a living from the meager salaries offered by adjunct university and college teaching employment. Kovalik made no effort to disguise his own solution: he noted that he met Vojtko in the midst of a union organizing campaign, a campaign which promised some relief from the poverty level wages and absent benefits provided by the well-endowed university.

To probably everyone's surprise, Kovalik's account sparked an enormous burst of commentary and interest in the cause of highly educated, but poorly paid university teachers. Other adjuncts realized that their plight was not uncommon, but shared by thousands working in academic institutions throughout the US. The story of Margaret Mary's tragic demise lifted spirits and provoked anger.

Predictably, the Pittsburgh institution that employed Vojtko, Duquesne University, mounted a feeble, but loud defense. Nonetheless, Kovalik's article pressed school administrators to bargain with the union and imparted meaning to a senseless tragedy. In the hard-hitting and noble tradition of muckraking journalists like Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Stephens, and Ida B. Wells, Kovalik offered Vojtko's story as a case study in the plight of thousands of underpaid and exploited college and university level teachers.

Unfortunately, the valuable muck-raking tradition, like whistle blowing, is considered bad sport in the age of stifling corporate journalism and rampant toadyism. Extremely rare socially relevant journalism is either accidental journalism or revelation wrapped in scandal, smut, or corruption. Today's young journalist with an eye to a career understands that entertainment metrics trump shaking a fist to power, that “reality” voyeurism titillates the passive reader, and that ferreting out injustice doesn't pay.

In that vein, Slate magazine, a journal that appeals to middle-class social liberalism, unleashed an assistant editor, L. V. Anderson, to doggedly dig up the real story of Margaret Mary Vojtko (Death of a Professor, 11-17-2013). Undoubtedly Slate's founder, Michael Kinsley, an old Cold Warrior transformed into a leading spokesperson for post-Reagan liberalism, could smell a radical message in the Kovalik article. The subversive Kovalik was actually suggesting that institutions owed a decent living to their employees! He had the audacity to imply that some employees-- those without trust funds-- actually depend upon their employers for their survival! Such a view offends the sensibilities of our betters who are confident of the many charities and helping hands that are always there for the asking.

Dutiful to her assignment, Anderson visited Pittsburgh on a mission:

Kovalik’s not-so-subtle implication was that if Duquesne had negotiated, Vojtko might not have died the way she did...
 But was that true? Who was Margaret Mary—the person, not the symbol of victimhood?
 Through a journey of several thousand words, Anderson familiarized us with personal details of Vojtko's life-- a veritable made-for-TV reality exposé-- cobbled together from interviews with people who have no fear of contradiction or explanation from the dead. She shares with the reader idiosyncrasies, hardships, and foibles that are embedded in every life, but only deemed relevant in our era of embarrassing mass titillation.

We learn that an eighty-three-year-old woman is untidy, forgetful, rigid in her views, mistrustful, and doggedly independent. How these personal attributes bear on her treatment by Duquesne University is left unexplained; how many of us share these personal “flaws” is never addressed. But the not-too-subtle point is that Vojtko could have fared better if she would only have shed her stubbornness and accepted the help that many claim was there.

Undoubtedly that view is held by those who obstinately refuse to accept any responsibility for the behavior of institutions that dominate our lives. Their indifference to the casualties wrought by banks, corporations, insurance companies, universities, military, and government agencies leave millions of Margaret Mary Vojtkos to the not-so-tender mercies of these institutions.

After six thousand tedious words of the minutia and trivia of Vojtko's life, one may be convinced by Anderson that a human life is indeed complex:

The story I uncovered was more complicated than the story that went viral. The reasons Vojtko’s life ended in misery had much less to do with her status as an adjunct professor than tweeters... might believe.

To be fair to the university, though, better benefits and job security would not have altered many of the personal factors that precipitated Vojtko’s crisis. Her hoarding and her deep-seated stubbornness—not her finances—were behind her refusal to get her furnace fixed, or to move to a facility better suited to her medical condition.
To be fair?

To be fair, Anderson would have interviewed any of the thousands of working class retirees living in Western Pennsylvania who would have told her that Vojtko's “stubbornness” was pride-- a pride born of the belief that when a man or woman works hard all of his or her life, he or she should have a measure of benefits and security without begging or accepting charity. Anderson would understand that motives, like lives, are complex even for those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. As do many other workers, Votjko valued her dignity, privacy, and independence. They were not easily surrendered to accept charity or even well-meant help. Those with a finely honed sense of justice are not quick to trade it for the work house or the charity ward, even in its modern incarnations.

It's a pity that those values are neither understood nor shared by Anderson. When a hundred years ago Upton Sinclair wrote of the workers exploited by the meat packing industry, he undoubtedly knew that many were flawed in character or values. But presenting them in all of their “multidimensional” character, revealing their weaknesses, or pandering to gossip was of little interest to him. Instead, he wrote of the horrific working conditions, brutality, and misery brought on by the industry. He chose to take the side of the weak over the strong.

Today, inequality has reached the extremes of Sinclair's time, yet most of our media chroniclers deliberately ignore the damaged lives, shattered hopes, and even premature deaths spawned by inequality. Turning away from these ugly facts, they-- like L. V. Anderson-- offer casual, flippant bromides: pick up the phone and call for help! As our political leaders work diligently to disassemble the social securities protecting the poor and needy, more and more of our neighbors face the choice of relying on goodwill or accepting a shattered life.

We should be grateful that there are writers like Dan Kovalik who speak out against these outrages.

Zoltan Zigedy

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Looking Back: 50 Years after the JFK Assassination

They are derisively called “conspiracy theorists”. They carry the torch for the beliefs that sixty to eighty percent of their fellow citizens share since the assassination of President John Kennedy. From October 17 to October 19, several hundred gathered in Pittsburgh for the “Passing the Torch” symposium, a forum devoted to many of the leading investigators discussing alternate visions to the US government's official version of the murder of Kennedy.

For three days, a group of ordinary-looking, very well-spoken, collegial people discussed and debated the plausibility of conflicting explanations of the Kennedy assassination. Those who have been misled by the corporately-compromised media would be disappointed with the participants: there were no ominous references to the Holy Grail, Area 51, or Roswell, except in jest. Rather, the atmosphere of the gathering was more akin to a convention of neurosurgeons without the glamor of a glitzy destination. The few cranks-- anti-Federal Reserve exponents and religious zealots-- saw their comments politely dismissed.

Questions and Answers

Broadly speaking, there are two research methodologies that engage assassination investigators. One group of researchers develop, examine, analyze, and debate the physical evidence. The objects of their study are the familiar artifacts: the Zapruder film, the so-called “pristine bullet,” the rifle associated with Oswald, autopsy photos, etc. Of course not all physical evidence is either direct or clearly relevant. Photos, personal accounts, audio tapes, documents, etc. may be merely suggestive and open to broad interpretation. While physical evidence may count as “hard” data, it virtually never fills all of the narrative space between the premeditation to murder and the completion of the act. The judicial system recognizes this oft-occurring opening by placing the “hard” evidence before a jury with the hope that they will have the collective judgment to satisfactorily fill the gaps and arrive at a well-considered conclusion.

But it would be naive to press the idealized courtroom analogy too hard. The court of public opinion, like the real judicial system, allows of differential resources, bias, and clandestine influence. But where honest people recognize that the courts are “overly” fair to the rich, and that the poor suffer a surfeit of fairness, the court of public opinion dispenses entirely with the notion of fairness. With the Kennedy assassination, the government and its agencies have invested overwhelmingly in the Warren Commission/Oswald-did-it-alone version. The US government has resisted, at every step, revealing relevant evidence that might shed new light on the case; it has even denied access to evidence developed to support the conventional view; and it has actively interfered with independent investigations of the assassination. Now-public documents show that the security agencies spied on and interacted with the Garrison investigation in New Orleans. Recent revelations demonstrate that the CIA established their former (1963) chief of covert operations in Miami as their liaison with the 1976 House Select Committee on Assassinations... without revealing this relevant fact (the Joannides affair). This revelation has belatedly driven the formerly compliant final head of that investigation, G. Robert Blakey, into uncharacteristic fits of indignation:

I am no longer confident that the Central Intelligence Agency co-operated with the committee.... I was not told of Joannides' background with the DRE [Revolutionary Student Directorate], a focal point of the investigation. Had I known who he was, he would have been a witness who would have been interrogated under oath by the staff or by the committee. He would never have been acceptable as a point of contact with us to retrieve documents. In fact, I have now learned, as I note above, that Joannides was the point of contact between the Agency and DRE during the period Oswald was in contact with DRE. That the Agency would put a 'material witness' in as a 'filter' between the committee and its quests for documents was a flat out breach of the understanding the committee had with the Agency that it would co-operate with the investigation.

Given that researchers face a hostile government and its lap-dog media, it is truly amazing that researchers have advanced the study as far as they have. Of course hostile intelligence agencies and a media with blinders only reinforce the suspicions that the truth remains to be uncovered.

Blending into the physical evidence and further filling the evidentiary gaps are the circumstances and personal ties of the key players in the murder-- so-called “circumstantial evidence.” For example, the bizarre trajectory of Lee Harvey Oswald's brief adult life is breathtaking and complex. He crosses paths with a wide variety of diverse and contradictory characters while taking on equally contradictory personae.

Apologists for the Warren Commission want us to believe that these oddities reflect an isolated, but unstable personality. But the narrative fails the “credible-movie-script” test: No one would believe this tale if it were a movie.

Further, Oswald's Mexico trip the month before the assassination is a surreal saga fraught with confusion, misidentification, and mystery.

Beyond Circumstances

Is there anything that a Marxist could add to nearly fifty years of skepticism over the Warren Commission and the account of the assassination defended by the security agencies, US elites, and the corporate media?

Certainly a strong case could be made for the account offered by the former head of Cuban counterintelligence, Fabian Escalante. His book, JFK: The Cuba Files, based on his careful review of Cuban evidence, presents many new elements of the days, events, and personalities leading up to the assassination, though no citation of his work arose during the three-day symposium in Pittsburgh. In fact, I inquired of a lobby bookseller with a trove of assassination and associated books why he failed to offer Escalante's book in his extensive collection. He muttered something about how youthful Escalante looks in his pictures despite his retirement-- clear recognition of Escalante's work, but an evasion of its absence.

It is unfortunate that investigators ignore his book because he untangles much of the Mexico City puzzle. And his profiles of likely suspects add much to the existing biographies. But one senses a hesitance to accept a contribution from a Cuban official, a remnant of Cold War distrust. Moreover, the investigators, with only a few exceptions, own a rather conventional, naive politics. At the end of the symposium, a panelist posed what proved to be an embarrassing, but revealing question: How many here would welcome a Kennedy Presidency today?

The participants and audience demonstrated resounding approval with an enthusiasm betraying frenzied devotion to a fallen martyr rather than mere respect for a murdered President.

Perhaps it is here that a Marxist can make a modest contribution to our understanding of the Kennedy assassination by adding an element of political realism and historical context.

Regard Oswald's strange course from his adolescence in the mid 1950s through his death in November of 1963. Many point to the incredible twists and turns taken by him through this period. They argue that other forces must be at play: Oswald must have been a puppet. Opponents dismiss this as only indicative of his instability.

But these arguments miss the point.

The real conundrum is in reconciling that bizarre path with the known, demonstrable behavior of the US security services. It was in that period that their covert and overt surveillance reached unparalleled heights. And it was in that time frame that their suppression and prosecution of the left was at its pinnacle. It is simply impossible for Oswald, posturing as a Communist or Marxist militant, to have escaped their constant attention and, indeed, harassment, if anyone in the higher echelons of the many bureaus and agencies believed that posture. Consequently, it would be beyond comprehension that Oswald would have been where he was alleged to be at the moment of the assassination without those many security offices discounting his “leftist” credentials.

Reflect on the following:

Oswald was allegedly a self-proclaimed Communist in his adolescence before his Marine Corps enlistment and remained so during his 35 months in the Corps (Oct. 1956-September 1959), often sharing his politics with fellow Marines. Despite his openness, he was given at least a “confidential” security clearance and assigned to a secret U-2 base in Japan. He was trained in sophisticated radar tracking and had access to much sensitive information.

At the same time, hundreds of Communists and thousands of liberals were under surveillance, lost their jobs, or were in jail. Communist leader Claude Lightfoot was sent to jail in 1956 when Oswald joined the Marines. A year earlier, copywriter Melvin Barnet was fired from his job at the New York Times for his political views. The infamous FBI COINTELPRO, a program of active measures against Communists and other leftists, began in 1956. Leaders of the ACLU were informing to the FBI in that period. A Professor at the University of Michigan, Chandler Davis, went to jail for his views in 1959, at a time Oswald was espousing Communism to his fellow Marines.

Is Oswald's story credible? Did he escape the net that captured liberals who were victimized by snitches and liars? What accounts for his immunity?

Upon discharge, Oswald set off within 10 days on his voyage to the Soviet Union and defection. Investigators quibble over the formalities of the defection, but no one questions that Oswald made the strongest political statement by surrendering his passport and taking residence in the USSR from late 1959 until June of 1962. After stating his misgivings about the USSR, he was smoothly integrated into a nest of anti-Bolshevik Russians living in arguably one of the most rabidly reactionary, anti-Communist cities in the US, Dallas, Texas (the other candidate being Miami, Florida). Oswald and his young wife quickly find friends who would, by inclination, stand off from his politics, social status, and manners. At no time does this produce a backlash commensurate with the tenor of the times.

It wasn't until late 1962 that Junius Scales, a district functionary of the Communist Party in North Carolina, was released from prison for merely being a Communist. The Smith Act, The Internal Security Act, the Immigration and Nationality Act, and the Communist Control Act remained in full force in this period, all aimed at suppressing and repressing Communists. Spanish Civil War vet and Communist Archie Brown was arrested in 1961 under the Communist Control Act. In 1962 and 1963, Jack O'Dell was forced out of his leading role in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by the Kennedy administration for his alleged Communist affiliation. The US government pressed again to revoke Paul Robeson's passport in 1962. The Berlin Crisis, the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 and the October Cuban missile crisis of 1962 brought anti-Communism in the US to a boil.

It was in the midst of this atmosphere that Oswald brought his crackpot leftist ideas to Dallas and into the arms of anti-Communist fanatics. While working at an enterprise engaged in classified military work, Oswald contacted both the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party-- he had maintained subscriptions to their respective newspapers since his return to the US. Unlike thousands of people who were denied employment, experienced harassment, or found their names on watch lists, Oswald enjoyed a charmed life within a cesspool of right-wing intrigue and anti-Red hysteria.

The spring of 1963 brought Oswald to New Orleans where he mounted a one-man campaign to establish left credentials while blatantly drawing attention to his activities, a bizarre goal for an authentic leftist in a hostile environment and with no allies. Warren Commission apologists like Gerald Posner answer that these actions only prove that Oswald was unbalanced and unpredictable.

But that evades the pertinent question.

Where were the security services that were systematically hunting, harassing, and persecuting everyone in the US with even a pinkish tint? How does Oswald escape their net? Did anyone in the US leave such a trail of provocative left-wing foot prints as did Oswald?

Before, during, and after Oswald's pro-Cuban adventure in the deep South, critics were threatened, beaten, and even killed for opposing segregation. And yet Oswald's television notoriety earned by defending revolutionary Cuba brought a violent reaction only when Oswald provoked one. Lee Harvey Oswald was perhaps the only self-proclaimed leftist in the US who traveled, lived, and acted with impunity during this repressive era.

Immediately before leaving for Mexico in September of 1963, Oswald telephoned the head of the Texas Socialist Labor Party to mention that he wanted to meet before he left for Mexico City, a conversation that was surely overheard by authorities. What would be the likelihood that the correspondence between two public Marxists would not be the subject of interest in these repressive times and in the paranoid South?

Border crossings were, as they are today, designed to filter those worthy of scrutiny or detention. Yet Oswald went on his merry way to Mexico City with his passport and visa intact. For years, Mexico had been a haven for political expatriates and fleeing victims of the blacklist. All were under constant attention from US and Mexican authorities. Like Portugal and Spain in World War II, Mexico was to the Cold War a hot bed of spying and intrigue where all the antagonists maintained robust stations. Enter Lee Harvey Oswald. Flashing his leftist credentials, Oswald visited and revisited the Cuban and Soviet embassies loudly touting his desires to travel to Cuba and the Soviet Union. Without doubt, these plans were exposed to US authorities, who, uncharacteristically, did virtually nothing. Should his plans have been actuated, he could have been the US's first double-defector! No one seemed too alarmed in the higher echelons of the CIA and FBI.

This tortured history could easily be dismissed as the expression of an unstable, twisted mind. But that dismissal would only strengthen the oddness of the lack of action on the part of the US security services that would have had to curiously dismiss Oswald's vocal leftism and uncommonly audacious expression of that postured leftism.

Viewed from the Marxist left, Oswald's showy exhibition with a gun in one hand and a copy of The Worker and The Militant in the other smells of a provocation. Even a newcomer to the culture of the left knows that Trotskyists and Communists are water and oil. Thus, for a “veteran” of the left like Oswald to go to some lengths to make such a display is only intelligible if he were seeding evidence for some unrevealed purpose. Was the carefully posed picture meant to impress the left? Of course not. Was it meant to make a different impression?

Oswald was likely the only “leftist” in the US to never make first-hand, direct contact with other leftists, to never attend a meeting, to never join an organized demonstration or vigil in 6-8 years of off-and-on “activism.” He was well known as a “leftist” to non-left acquaintances and co-workers as well as much of the general public. But the broad left only knew him through correspondences.

In the end, it is impossible to reconcile Oswald the “leftist” with the unlikely indifference of the US intelligence and police establishment. At the same time, it is impossible to accept the authenticity of that leftism.

But if Oswald was not genuine, if he was only posing as a leftist, what was he really?

Since the intelligence and police agencies ignored Oswald as though they knew he were not a leftist, since he slipped easily through the net that captured thousands of the faintly pink, who did they think he was? He certainly did plenty to deserve their attention, attention that they seemed determined not to give.

Until we know who Oswald really was, we will never solve Kennedy's assassination.

Zoltan Zigedy