Remember the papers eight years ago? A charming maniac entered the Presidential race as a third-party candidate in October. Over the final month of the campaign, The New York Times mentioned Ross Perot in nearly 400 stories, many of them front-page articles. There was one whole story about a Perot campaign official (“Mr. Swindle joined the Marines in 1959. In 1966 …”). There were two whole features about Ross Perot’s running mate, James Stockdale: his valiant Vietnam service, his colleagues at the Hoover Institution, who thought him to be a man of valor and decency, the book he was writing about Epictetus.
Question: Who is Ralph Nader’s running mate and what did she ever do?
(Winona LaDuke–a longtime Indian activist. But don’t tell anyone I told you.)
The Times is hardly alone among mainstream media in blacking Ralph Nader out (though it has done so with uncommon partisan zeal, the news editors seeming to have taken their cue from a mean-spirited Times editorial urging Mr. Nader to drop out last summer).
And of course, all right-thinking Americans now condemn Ralph Nader. My wife informs me that by voting Green, I’m voting Bush. My mother, who put seat belts in her car in the early 60′s, sends me e-mails saying Ralph is missing the issues that could hurt her grandchildren. Even Anthony Lewis paints Naderites as fringies, and at dinner parties people have gotten angry at me for saying that I like the way he dresses.
All this social nyah-nyahing has had a dramatic effect. Once said to number close to 9 or 10 percent, we Naderites have been whittled down to 2 or 3 or 4. A month ago we were Vermonters who didn’t comb our hair. Now we’re lunatics.
A great deal of that whittling has been at the hands of the mainstream media, and this is the most interesting aspect of the “Disappearing Nader” phenomenon–his marginalization by the press. Even as The Times purveys endless and often repetitive detail on the predictable “journeys” of the two entitled men who are the major-party candidates, we hear absolutely nothing about Ralph Nader’s journey, despite its being far and away the most noble and inspiring story of any of these characters. Ralph Nader is the son of immigrant restaurant owners. He grew up in the small town of Winsted, Conn., the youngest of four children and presumably the most assimilated, the most able of Nadra and Rose’s children to take his energetic father’s belief in civic involvement out into the mainstream (unstopped by Harvard Law School, which bored him to tears), a visionary who transformed the public space.
Now Mr. Nader is, per The Times , “an egotist” undeserving of mention. “As if Gore and Bush aren’t egotists?” says Dan Swanson, my fellow Nader support-group member. “I’m a wise old bird, but even I’m surprised by the combination of hostility and deliberate ignoring of his campaign. When The Times did a piece on his New York campaign manager, the main point was that she didn’t wear makeup. Who ever heard of such a thing?”
But as Mr. Nader would tell you, the blackout isn’t personal. It’s not even about Democratic reporters protecting Gore (though that’s part of it). It’s structural.
Clintonism has profoundly changed our political culture, infusing it with corporate values. In the information age, mainstream voices are members of a highly conventional and overeducated elite, endlessly engaged in a high-pitched battle over the stable center. They play up small differences over grand old issues that have lost their real meaning (is abortion actually at stake in this election? I don’t think so). And, most dangerously, this complacent debate has zero tolerance for the renegade or skeptic.
This last point was made by the seat of corporatization itself, the White House, when it turned on The New York Times and accused it of serving as the William Randolph Hearst of the Wen Ho Lee case. The newspaper, a White House spokesman said, had amplified the baseless hysteria of anonymous government sources and thereby helped to railroad an innocent man. Astonishing.
How did our culture change? One way is that Clintonism has made almost all liberals into globalists and trickle-downers. Times columnists Tom Friedman and Paul Krugman are the two horsemen of utopianism. Every liberal journalist I know gets paychecks with Microsoft’s name on them for doing stuff for Slate. The New Yorker prints a glowing piece about Monsanto without talking about the environmentalists’ concern about Roundup. Just about every journalist I know in the media is now rich, or scheming to be by starting a Web site on the industry.
Indeed, all the concern about Mr. Nader’s reported $3.8 million or however much he’s worth (by the way, he’s a single man, and doesn’t own a thing) strikes me as a guilty projection by liberals of their own abandonment of economic-justice issues (journalists who, when they’re 66, will damn sure be worth more than $3.8 millon). Neolib Mickey Kaus had the honesty to say, when knocking Mr. Nader, that Clintonism has two great things going for it–it’s pro-death penalty and it’s made the country richer. Others are made squeamish by this knowledge. (Mr. Nader is against the death penalty, which actually still means something to some of us fringies.) So they make a giant deal out of abortion. As if George W. Bush wants to renew the civil war over abortion that our side won, convincingly and very painfully (and by the way, David Souter is a far more impressive judge than Stephen Breyer).
Globalization has transformed our politics in ways that no one is coming to terms with. Our President is no longer the leader of the free world, a righteous and sometimes minority position that lasted for 50 years, where he was beholden to democrats around the world. His new job description is impresario of material growth, everywhere, from China to China Lake. Like it or not, he finds himself putting his arms around human-rights abuses in China and child labor in Indonesia. He cannot threaten the advance of global capital.
The American mainstream is now so invested in that advance that it has become intolerant of dissent. The new elite is composed of Rhodes scholars who speak in bland, conservative, calm voices, and you are fringe if you think that the gap between the rich and poor is a giant issue, or that the government might have fucked up at Waco. Eight years ago, Ross Perot believed that Republican operatives had invaded his daughter’s wedding–and he got to be in the debates. Ralph Nader is one of the most powerful minds in America–and he can’t even get into the spin room.
That spin room is a court as powerful as any in history. Well-paid journalists identify with assistant secretaries, and it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for such people to acknowledge that the government that is sponsoring this juggernaut might lie about important matters. The unmasking of the hateful case against Wen Ho Lee was left to his lonely lawyers, teamed with an incensed Reaganite judge. The numerous, and staggering, questions about this administration (what did they know about the siege at Waco before 20-some children died? Did Clinton bomb the Sudan and Iraq out of his personal domestic political needs?) have again and again been left to lame outriders to investigate. But as Watergate showed, big questions about government will only be raised if there is a powerful coalition within the elite that push them.
I turn to my favorite government story, the one it tells us about TWA 800. The fascinating thing about this case is the way that the skeptics have been isolated in this country, notwithstanding their considerable stature.
Begin with a member of the official government investigation that has bravely challenged the findings: The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers has virtually ridiculed the claim that old wiring initiated the blast, and pointed to holes in the fuselage that seem to suggest a high-energy explosion outside the plane. You will never read about that in the mainstream press.
The machinists join an impressive company of marginalized critics. On the center right, there is the Association of Retired Aviation Professionals (ARAP) and former staffers to Congressman Michael Forbes, whose district the plane went down in (notably his former administrative assistant Kelly O’Meara, now a reporter for Insight ). There’s former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Thomas Moorer, there’s Accuracy in Media. There’s the Village Voice and the widow of a Lockerbie victim who was appointed to a select Presidential commission on airline safety and who has now sued the government, saying her dissent on TWA 800 was cast aside. On the lib-left, there are Dr. Tom Stalcup and Graeme Sephton, who have brilliantly analyzed the government’s radar data for the Flight 800 Independent Research Organization (or FIRO). There’s former CBS producer Kristina Borjesson, who went out the door in part over this case. Not to mention all the eyewitnesses on Long Island, whose accounts are insulted in the latest National Transportation Safety Board report.
Some of the questions these people raise are so compelling– four seconds of crucial data from the flight data recorder seem to have been removed, says former TWA pilot Howard Mann–that any reasonable person who hears them has to at least question the official version. These questions have been taken up in countless places outside the mainstream. The French and Australian press have covered Stalcup and Sephton, for instance. Or there’s the respected travel writer Joe Brancatelli of biztravel.com, who has attacked the F.B.I. for bullying the NTSB and corrupting the investigation. A poll by Aviation Week lately found that two-thirds of its respondents did not believe the government findings on TWA 800.
But the Clinton court cannot abide the skepticism. The critics are routinely written off as conspiracy theorists, their points blacked out. The idea that our government might lie about, say, a blown military exercise off Long Island is simply too preposterous, and damaging to world progress, to ever be discussed. It’s Wen Ho Lee all over again.
Ralph Nader has called this a “democracy gap.” In which affluent corporations want you to spend your citizen-time this fall arguing whether the journey of an overstuffed daddy’s boy from Tennessee is more compelling than the journey of a moronic mama’s boy from Texas, much as you spent August arguing whether the corporatist Richard Hatch or the bleeding heart Kelly Wiglesworth should get the $1 million on Survivor . So please don’t get angry at us Nader people. We got voted off the island a long time ago.