No Comment — October 24, 2007, 8:05 am

A Primer in Political Persecution

A United States Attorney, an embittered Republican who has been defeated in a series of election contests, had a meeting with attorneys for a criminal defendant, a prominent Democrat, at the outset of the case. “I know your client thinks he’s innocent. He’s offered to take a lie detector test. I’m not interested in that. In fact, I’m sure he’d pass the lie detector test. And in fact, I don’t have the evidence to make out my case. No matter. I just plan to throw shit at the wall and sit back and watch as some of it drips down on him. We’ll get him.”

This egregious breach of responsibility by a law enforcement officer, who is essentially admitting that he’s using his office for political persecution, is not drawn from a gothic novel. It happened just a few years ago. And the victim was actually convicted and is now sitting in prison–thanks in significant part to the extremely dubious conduct of the federal judge who oversaw the case. A federal judge who, moreover, was openly tantalized with the prospect of a judicial promotion by the Bush Justice Department as the case was running. We’ll hear more details on this story in a later post. But it furnishes a good glimpse into the total depravity of political prosecutions that stains the Bush Justice Department. And it relates to a case which wasn’t discussed in yesterday’s hearings in the House Judiciary Committee–one of many.

Yesterday, John Conyers’s Judiciary Committee conducted hearings into a slew of politically motivated prosecutions brought by the Bush Justice Department. Decent overall coverage of the hearings in today’s New York Times and on the AP wire. The Times editorializes this morning:

Every time we take a look at the United States attorney scandal, more evidence emerges that Alberto Gonzales politicized the Justice Department to the point where it sometimes seems like a branch of the Republican National Committee. Yesterday, for example, Richard Thornburgh, a former Republican attorney general, told a Congressional hearing that his client, Dr. Cyril Wecht, a Democratic officeholder in Pennsylvania, was indicted on federal charges that should not be federal charges by a United States attorney who targeted Democrats.

At the same hearing, more evidence emerged that the prosecutions of Don Siegelman, the former Alabama governor, and Paul Minor, a prominent Mississippi Democrat, may have been political hits. And a University of Missouri professor testified that his statistical analysis showed that the Justice Department engaged in “political profiling. . .”

Mr. Siegelman’s lawyer, Doug Jones, said the investigation of the former governor was very limited until it turned around “180 degrees” in late 2004, after Washington officials told local prosecutors “to go back and look at the case, review the case top to bottom.” That is consistent with the account of Dana Jill Simpson, a Republican lawyer who says she was on a phone call in which Republican operatives said Karl Rove was involved in the prosecution.

But perhaps the most appalling thing in this hearing was the infantile behavior of several of the committee Republicans. They refused to treat the charges as serious. They viciously assailed the nation’s most prominent former Republican Attorney General, who led the charge at the hearing, apparently viewing him as a traitor to their highly partisan cause. And they committed the most serious offense a Congressman can commit: they were uninformed. Egregiously ignorant. About all of the cases that came before them. They wound up looking like willing participants in a politicized justice process. And some of them may well turn out to be just that.

Here’s my take of the most dramatic moments:

  • Dick Thornburgh, Bush’s (41) Attorney General, gave conclusively damning testimony about politically motivated prosecutions in Pittsburgh. He focused on the case of Dr. Wecht, but noted two others. His testimony went completely uncountered by the Justice Department. Catch the video of his testimony here. Paul Kiel has a good summary of the whole interchange here. U.S. Attorney Buchanan went after prominent Democrats and she always took great care to line up her cases with the election season. And she only went after Democrats. When a series of very serious allegations appeared in print concerning federal campaign violations and misappropriations concerning Republican Senator Rick Santorum, she did absolutely nothing. She did not even pretend to investigate them. For Buchanan, the office of U.S. Attorney was a political tool, there to advance the electoral interests of the G.O.P. Which helps explain her rise to favor under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

  • Former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who advised Gov. Siegelman early in his case, described how the prosecutors in Montgomery told him the case was over in 2004 because they had no evidence to make it out. And then, they said, Washington ordered them to go back and put it together anyway. From that point, it was completely obvious that political appointees in Washington were running the case at every step. Laura McGann has a good summary of the Jones testimony here. Note how Jones’s testimony lines up perfectly with the testimony of Republican lawyer Jill Simpson’s account of the intervention of Karl Rove in the case. And note the remarkable failure of the U.S. Attorney in Montgomery, Leura Canary, to appear and contest the charge. Along side her refusal to turn over the documents that would shed light on the case. Indeed, Canary’s own recent conduct condemns her all by itself.

  • An update from the university professors who issued a prior explosive study showing that the Justice Department was bringing cases against Democrats rather than Republicans all across the country. With officeholders roughly equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, the DOJ brought 5.6 prosecutions against Democrats for every one against a Republican. What were the chances of this ratio coming out of random selection? “One in 10,000.” In other words, the deck has been politically stacked and dictated.

  • Virginia Republican Randy Forbes, with what looks like a pile of clippings from the Birmingham News in front of him, claims that Jill Simpson had no independent evidence demonstrating that she was in on the phone call with Rob Riley’s office and points to three affidavits submitted by Riley and two cohorts saying she wasn’t on a call. He presses for a Justice Department investigation of Simpson. (Indeed, I’m sure it’s underway; the Bush Justice Department reflexively attempts to criminalize anyone who criticizes it.) Alabama former federal prosecutor Artur Davis then turns Forbes into a grease spot in his own chair by pulling out the telephone records that establish that Simpson was, indeed, on the phone. (Someone was lying. Indeed, it looks like three people were lying. Forbes, Riley, and his friends made the mistake of relying on the Birmingham News and its consistently bogus reporting on the case. They forgot that there’s “no news in the B’ham News.” Just political propaganda.)

  • Rep. Hank Johnson discussed the prosecution of Georgia State Senator Charles Walker. “I wondered about his innocence before I even became a congressman,” Johnson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

A few observations:

  • Perhaps the most astonishing thing is the defense mustered by the Department of Justice. There wasn’t one. Evidently they’ve decided, in light of the problems faced by prior Justice Department officials–who testified there were no problems in the U.S. attorneys scandal and are now hoping to avoid perjury prosecutions–that silence is the best policy.

  • Another point that may be increasingly obvious is that the Birmingham News was given the job of preparing the Republican defense to the Siegelman accusations. The B’ham News editorials and articles were simply parroted by several Republicans on the committee (when they could recover from their apoplexy over the fact that Attorney General Thornburgh was leading the charge). In particular, look at the News’s editorial today and its laundry list of pathetic excuses. “The Justice Department is a political creature,” writes the Pravda of the South in its half-hearted attempt to justify the shenanigans in which it, as a newspaper, was fully engaged. Of course, Comrade Vyshinsky would fully agree.

  • But this meant that the Republicans got tripped up by the B’ham News’s gross mistakes, in particular their inept reporting team’s failure to examine the backup documentation that Simpson produced, including the telephone records–not to mention the incoherent logic of the attack line it has developed. (There are quite a few other nuggets there, by the way, which back up Simpson on other critical statements. And that’s not getting into the corroborating witnesses, who are also waiting in the wings.)

  • Note some of the more absurd arguments: “the war on terror” is cited as a defense for political prosecutions, and was mentioned by the Mobile Press-Register. Of course: if you’re at war, you’re entitled to persecute the opposition political party by bringing bogus prosecutions. What is this nation sinking to when mass-circulation newspapers and members of Congress publicly utter such rubbish?

This is what happens when partisan politics becomes the be- and end-all, and when the notion of dispassionate justice is left in the dust. In the words of the great Cicero, we all have a duty to stand ground against injustice whenever we see it. Injustice done by one human against another is bad. But when the injustice corrupts the very apparatus of the supposed administration of justice–the prosecutors, the courts–then there is a duty to scream bloody murder, to expose the wrongdoing, and to bring it to an end. As Cicero said, those who fail in this duty are no less culpable than if they betrayed their own parents, their friends or their country. For that is precisely what they are doing. The hearings convened by the Judiciary Committee are a test of this nation’s mettle and of its commitment to its most fundamental values. Will these injustices, now exposed, be allowed to stand? The Bush Administration rests its hopes on its ability to stonewall, on inertia, and on the insidious call to inaction, like the voice that emanates each day from the Birmingham News. But its conduct is an act of betrayal which cannot be allowed to stand.

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October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

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