The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images. — Guy DeBord
By Lambert Strether of Corrente
Here’s the linkfest, tossed in buckets.
Brothers in Marathon bombings took two paths into infamy Boston Globe, out from behind the pay wall
Bombs frequent in U.S.; 172 ‘IED’ incidents in last 6 months, by 1 count McClatchy (April 16)
Constitutional government, if any
What rights should Dzhokhar Tsarnaev get and why does it matter? Glenn Greenwald, Guardian
It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon. On Monday we the dilatory paid our taxes and then began to follow the story of a bombing at the Boston Marathon along with everyone else. On Tuesday two of the most powerful and very political economists in the world would have been humiliated by a grad student were they capable of shame. On Wednesday another powerful political economist and policy maker called the moral environment of Wall Street “pathological” and the political system “corrupt to the core” with both parties “in it up to their necks.” And then 10,000 cops locked Boston down but couldn’t find an amateur fleeing on foot from a crime scene while leaving a blood trail. Can’t anybody here play this game? So I’m feeling a bit woozy, and this isn’t going to the best post EVAH, the golden candlestick I send out in the world.
So, okay, three parts. First, I want to put forward the concept — and I know this may come as a shock to you — that the official narrative is not always completely trustworthy. And I won’t even have to mention WMDs, or any discourse that ends in “-er.” Then, I want to put forward another surprising idea: There are many narratives that are not trustworthy, even if unofficial. Finally, I’d like to raise some issues of method, or at least issues about method.
So, about that official narrative and whether you should trust it. In a word, no. Especially you should not trust it when the nice folks from our organs of state security are involved, for the good and sufficient reason that they have a track record of manufacturing the raw materials of narrative — we might call these “events” — to suit their purposes. Anybody ever read James Ellroy’s wonderful LA Confidential? Like that, except reality — making assumptions here — is plus noir plus more densely plotted: “I’m prepared for whatever displays of gratitude [Chief] Parker has to offer,” says Edmund Exley, hero detective, having constructed three alternative narratives for Parker to make an executive decision about and splash on the front pages of The Los Angeles Times (p. 45). Does anybody really believe nothing like that could happen in the city of Boston?
Anyhow, events. Here’s an oldie but goodie from Mother Jones. You know they’re not from the loony left or the tinfoil hat crowd because they publish Kevin Drum, okay?
Over the past year, Mother Jones and the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California-Berkeley have examined prosecutions of 508 defendants in terrorism-related cases, as defined by the Department of Justice. Our investigation found:
- Nearly half the prosecutions involved the use of informants, many of them incentivized by money (operatives can be paid as much as $100,000 per assignment) or the need to work off criminal or immigration violations. (For more on the details of those 508 cases, see our charts page and searchable database.)
- Sting operations resulted in prosecutions against 158 defendants. Of that total, 49 defendants participated in plots led by an agent provocateur—an FBI operative instigating terrorist action.
- (The exceptions are Najibullah Zazi, who came close to bombing the New York City subway system in September 2009; Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, an Egyptian who opened fire on the El-Al ticket counter at the Los Angeles airport; and failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.)
- In many sting cases, key encounters between the informant and the target were not recorded—making it hard for defendants claiming entrapment to prove their case.
- Terrorism-related charges are so difficult to beat in court, even when the evidence is thin, that defendants often don’t risk a trial.
“The problem with the cases we’re talking about is that defendants would not have done anything if not kicked in the ass by government agents,” says Martin Stolar, a lawyer who represented a man caught in a 2004 sting involving New York’s Herald Square subway station. “They’re creating crimes to solve crimes so they can claim a victory in the war on terror.”
So that’s one reason never to trust the official narrative, and especially not this narrative. Anybody who doesn’t take that history into account isn’t thinking with their brains.
But even when the FBI isn’t building and firing its own gun so it can later put a notch in it, the press — and we, the readers and citizens — often get narratives wrong, especially when there’s a moral panic involved, and especially when black or brown or, like, The Others are involved. Reader petridish remarks:
Psychologists have said that impressions formed during the first hours of a trauma like this are difficult if not impossible to dislodge, even if they are proven completely incorrect. Perhaps that’s what Friday was about….
This past Tuesday, the Ken Burns documentary on the Central Park Five (remember them?) aired on PBS [link added]. Long story short: they were filthy, wilding animals with no respect for human life, there was no evidence other than sensationalist media coverage and conventional wisdom, they were convicted, everyone KNEW they were guilty because the cops and the lawyers and the courts and the papers said so, they did their time. The system worked. Except, THEY DIDN’T DO IT.
Well, that sounds like history rhyming (even if rhymes aren’t proofs but only heuristics). If I had time, I’d check back to the wilding coverage and see we’re still using the same tropes today; I’m guessing yes. Of course, today everything is different because digital.
Well, maybe not. The digerati — and I include myself in this — did not do well at all in this story, with collapse following two separate pathways to misfortune. The first pathway was lay analysis of digital imagery on Reddit, which set out to crowd-source the perp from the online data and got things really, really wrong. Salon:
Remember how thousands of Reddit users and 4chan people spent the days after the bombing combing through every available photo and frame of video of the site of the bombings, searching for the perpetrators, and they found a bunch of guys with backpacks — so many guys they made a spreadsheet! — and (inadvertently) allowed the New York Post to identify, on the front page, two innocent people as the bombers? And remember how when the FBI released images of the actual suspects, neither of them had been spotted by Reddit or 4Chan or any other online sleuth? Well, armed with this new, clearer photo, and giddy from having uncovered it, the message board investigative geniuses then determined that “suspect two” was a missing college student.
I’m going to stop there without mentioning the student’s name, because I don’t want to cause the college student or his family more trouble. Unfortunately, I passed the link on the Reddit work on to Yves for Links, so I played my own tiny role in the crowd-sourcing. (There needs to be a word for crowd-sourcing that goes wrong. Besides “witch hunt,” I mean.) In my own defense, there were other accounts I trusted linking to it, and I remembered depression as a factor in other mass killings by disaffected young men. And it was a story. I’d also done some reading on Reddit’s moderation policies, because they’d done some really good Ask Me Anything sessions, so I was impressed with them and more importantly saw critical thinking being done. But whatever Reddit had going for it clearly wasn’t enough in this case; perhaps there’s no such thing as crowd-sourcing forensics; I don’t know. One might also question the very idea of lay analysis of digital industry: There’s an entire arms race of PhotoShop fakery and detection. Not that the powers that be would ever introduce fake data into the digital stream [snort, rendering the provenance of every digital document critical, and yet often not available].
The second pathway to misfortune for the digerati was Conspiracy Theory (CT). Of course, distinguishing CT from informed speculation on the fly isn’t so easy (even after one rules out certain sites and styles of discourse a priori because WordPress doesn’t have a waldo plugin and you left your latex gloves at home). And, as we see from the Washington Monthly article above, it’s an unfortunate fact that there really are conspiracies. (Of course, by The Sachs Conjecture, the state is owned and operated by sociopaths, so really, what would one expect?) George Washington takes one such down in the Link Fest above, and I fell for another. In Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2, Hamlet baits Polonius:
HAMLET Do you see yonder cloud that ’s almost in shape of a camel?
POLONIUS By the mass, and ’t is like a camel, indeed.
Ham. Methinks it is like a weasel.
Pol. It is backed like a weasel.
Ham. Or like a whale?
Pol. Very like a whale.
Humans have a tendency, which I’m sure was and even may be adaptive, to project patterns onto the world. Sometimes there is a camel, or whale, or weasel in the world; but often, there are only clouds. My particular weasel was the idea that the British 7/7 attack (backpacks, subway) had a signature that was similar to the Boston Marathon bombing; but on examination, and circulation among people more expert in CT than I am, there were only clouds. (I’m not going to link to it, but it’s still up on my site.) Fortunately, this idea was not an especially virulent form of CT, because it was falsifiable (and perhaps as importantly, I framed the discussion that way, and allowed the idea to be falsified. This was painful for me, since I like to be right (shocker, I know) but I also hate to feel taken.
So finally to issues of method. I retain, perhaps naively, the idea that truth is important (see on this point Terry Pratchett’s The Truth). We are enmeshed in a fabulously complex system of bullshit and lies, and it’s not possible to combat that system with lies of our own, or bullshit, no matter how good [lambert blushes modestly] we may be at it; we simply don’t have the budget, or the institutions. So even leaving the moral issue aside (the whole “bearing false witness against thy neighbor” thing), the truth is the only way forward (and not just for “the left,” whoever and whatever that may be).
But the truth, at least for “the news,” seems quite difficult to discern. Events are manufactured by state or corporate actors; our famously free press promotes narratives that have at best a discounted relation with reality (and while experience can help us figure the discount, it’s still subject to arbitrary revision). We ourselves, digerati, crowd-source ourselves into witch hunts or go down the CT rabbit hole. Is there a method — besides constant critical thinking and/or curation — to avoid these issues? We can avoid the news, or at least reduce our exposure to it, by turning off our TVs, but is there a way to make the news (in Robert Johnson’s word) “wholesome”? Good, clean, and fair, like slow food? And all without reproducing another structure with “new boss” sociopaths at the top?
Well, I’m not going to answer questions like that this morning. So I’d like to make a more modest request. I don’t think I’m the only one to feel that I’ve lost control of the narrative; I think the elite feels that way, too. We have, once again, the spectacle of an elephant being stampeded by a mouse. Leaving aside the human tragedy, in historic terms, the Boston Marathon bombing was not the Battle of the Somme, the Blitz, or (as Yves points out) the IRA bombings in London. Somewhere in their withered, austere souls, the powers that be must know this, and sense the shoddiness of their performance. Macbeth:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Yes, I’d say Macbeth lost control of the narrative in a big way. Fortunately, most of us don’t feel that way. That’s because we aren’t elite sociopaths.
So what I would like to know is this:
Is the official narrative of The Boston Marathon Bombing taking hold in the world beyond The Spectacle? That is, the world where human relations are not mediated by images? (I know, it’s hard.)
What does your cab driver say? What does your hairdresser (or barber) say? What do the kids say in school? What do the bar flies say? And so forth.