Nina Burleigh

How the right-wing exploited the coronavirus pandemic to expand its war on freedom

Nina Burleigh, Pandemic Anti-Rights Syndrome

This country is increasingly unmasked in hell. After all, the wealthiest nation on Earth has just hit one million deaths from Covid-19 (and the real number could be higher yet). Meanwhile, globally, according to the World Health Organization, the pandemic death toll has now reached at least 15 million and it isn’t over yet. Not faintly. New variants of Covid-19 continue to arise and there could be more (and possibly worse) to come. In fact, in the U.S., for the first time in a while, the numbers for Covid cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are once again increasing as the latest subvariant of the disease, BA.2, spreads across a country that’s neither vaccinated nor boosted enough and is now unmasking in a major way.

I live in New York City where case numbers are rising rapidly and yet — though this old guy continues to mask — every day in stores, on the subway, wherever I go, I see ever fewer masked people around me. And mind you, on the subject of masking, New Yorkers are relatively good. A friend of mine who recently returned from Texas told me that just about nobody where he went was masked anymore.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone. As an NPR analysis showed last December, almost three times as many people died from Covid-19 in counties that voted heavily for Donald Trump as in those that did so for Joe Biden (and the higher the Trump vote, the worse those numbers got). That should tell you plenty about the subject TomDispatch regular Nina Burleigh, author of Virus, a superb book on the pandemic, faces today: how the Trumpist right-wing has used masking — think: Covid exhaustion — and other pandemic issues to promote its extremist views. (Of course, the recent White House Correspondents Association Dinner, where 2,600 journalists, celebrities, and political types, including the president, packed unmasked into a ballroom in what became a pandemic super-spreader, shows that you don’t have to love Donald Trump to act stupidly.)

As Burleigh suggests, we’re all Covid-exhausted by now, but what a shame if that were to lead not just to the deaths of ever more Americans but of a political system, too. Tom

America Unmasked – Did the Long Pandemic Spawn a New Kind of Repression?

Last month, not long after Florida federal judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle ruled that the transportation mask mandate was illegal, I flew from New York City to Miami. Videos of airplane passengers in midflight ripping off their masks and cheering with joy had already gone viral following the judge’s ruling.

I’ve traveled domestically and internationally many times since the start of the pandemic and I hate the mask as much as anyone. It makes me sneeze and it tickles. After 10 hours on long hauls, I can indeed feel like I’m suffocating. It can be almost unbearable. But after two years of obediently masking up to enter airports and planes around the world, I found my first unmasked travel experience jarring indeed, even though I kept mine on. I was not the only masked person on that American Airlines flight, but I was definitely in the minority.

Writing a book, Virus: Vaccinations, the CDC, and the Hijacking of America’s Response to the Pandemic, about the politics and science of our Covid-19 experience, I came to know and trust public-health policy experts and vaccine scientists. I learned enough about the mRNA vaccines so many (but not enough) of us have received that I regard them as a major medical milestone well worth celebrating. I also accept that scientific understanding is based on uncertainty and the advice of our health authorities is only as good as the latest peer-reviewed article.

So I’ve maintained faith in science, even while understanding its limits. And I also understand the frustration of so many Americans. Who among us didn’t chafe at the pandemic restrictions? Who wasn’t going mad trying to work from a home or apartment reverberating with restless children locked out of their schools?

In March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, I thought the crisis might provoke wider support for a more universal health-care system. Nothing of the sort materialized, of course, although the rapid, government-financed development and delivery of free and effective vaccines — to those who wanted them — was indeed a success story.

Now, in the pandemic’s third year, people are ripping off their masks everywhere as Greek-letter Covid mutations continue to waft through the air.

The viral joy of that unmasking, the giving of the proverbial finger to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), begs the question: Did the pandemic make average Americans more anti-government? Did it bring us closer to what decades of rightwing propaganda had not quite succeeded in doing — generating widespread public support for the “deconstruction of the administrative state” (a phrase favored by Trump crony Steve Bannon)?

Government activity during the first two pandemic years was certainly intense. Trillions of dollars in business loans and unemployment money washed through the economy. At different points, the government even activated the military and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). States also instituted widespread lockdowns and closed schools. The panic, the isolation, and the quotidian inconveniences made some people barking mad.

Of course, a lot of us listened to Dr. Anthony Fauci. We trusted our public health authorities and their recommendations. To many of us, their intentions seemed good, their asks reasonable.

Federal judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, however, thought otherwise. Just 35 when Donald Trump appointed her a district judge, she had never actually tried a case. The American Bar Association had rejected her confirmation due to her inexperience, but like many Trump judges, she was a Federalist Society-approved ideologue and the Republican Senate confirmed her anyway to a district that, by design, has become a nest of extreme antigovernment judges.

The anti-maskers could have brought their case in any jurisdiction. Choosing Tampa was a clear case of legal venue shopping. Other judges in the district had consistently ruled against government Covid restrictions on cruise ships and against mandatory vaccinations. The plaintiffs couldn’t actually select Judge Mizelle, but their chances of getting an antigovernment ruling in Tampa were high indeed.

As it happened, the plaintiffs got her and she relied on definitions of “sanitation” in mid-twentieth century English dictionaries to overturn the statute that allowed the mask mandate. None of them explicitly included the word “mask” in their definitions. So, she revoked it.

The ruling horrified public-health policy experts, although the Biden administration — probably with the coming midterm elections and those viral videos of mask-free joy in mind — decided not to challenge the decision directly. “The continuing concern throughout the pandemic has been the politicization of these public-health measures,” Dr. Bruce Lee, a public health policy expert at the City University of New York, told me. “We know that throughout history during public-health crises there has been a need to enact regulations. The big concern with this mask decision is you basically have a scientific or public-health decision made by a single judge.”

It took that judge just 18 days after arguments — a nanosecond in judicial time — to side with two women who said airplane masks gave them panic attacks and anxiety and so unlawfully prevented them from traveling. They were joined by an organization called the Health Freedom Defense Fund.

Using the Virus to Seed Fresh Political Astroturf

The Fund, based in Sandpoint, Idaho, is run by Leslie Manookian, a wellness blogger and antivaccine activist who, after having a child in 2003, left a career in international finance with Goldman Sachs to become, as she describes herself, “a qualified homeopath, nutrition and wellbeing junky” and “a health freedom advocate.”

Manookian has declined to provide information about the sources of funding for her organization, to which the Internal Revenue Service granted nonprofit status in 2021. It’s likely, however, to be just another green swath on the great field of rightwing Astroturf. While social democrats like me imagined that the pandemic might provoke a more equitable healthcare system, the crew on the right had other plans for how to manipulate the crisis.

Politicians, strategists, and chaos agents ranging from Donald Trump to Sean Hannity and Alex Jones, sometimes backed by dark money, have used the public-health restrictions to fuel their demands for more “freedom” from government. The definition of freedom among this crowd is primarily understood to be low or no taxes, with access to guns thrown in for good measure. In the spring of 2020, for instance, the billionaire Koch Brothers, who once funded the Tea Party largely to crush Obamacare, were among the conservative megadonors who helped activate the network behind the lockdown “drive-bys” of state capitols. Those initial lockdown protests would later devolve into Y’all-Qaeda-style pro-Trump pickup convoys. In Lansing, Michigan, a protest even ended with armed men entering the State Capitol. Among the intruders were members of a clan of gun-loving militiamen who would eventually plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan for restricting their freedom.

The pandemic seeded new Astroturf for the right. America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLDS), for example, was formed during the early months of the pandemic to challenge public health policy in favor of keeping the economy rolling. Besides promoting antivaccine misinformation, AFLDS referred more than 255,000 people to a website created by Jerome Corsi, an author and longtime political agitator, called SpeakwithanMD.com. The site charged for consultations with “AFLDS-approved physicians” about the Covid “cures” ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine that President Trump and his fans so loved.

The messages of such groups (eventually including just about the whole Republican Party) were, of course, amplified by the usual rightwing media outlets — One America News Network, Newsmax, and above all Fox News — that started out by calling the pandemic virus a hoax. When Covid-19 was undeniably killing hundreds of thousands of Americans, the messaging shifted to equating lockdowns, vaccines, and mask mandates with totalitarianism.

Globally, there’s no doubt that the pandemic did indeed release the worst instincts of authoritarian governments. Real autocracies unleashed real abuses of power on vulnerable people in the name of Covid-19. Some of these were cataloged early in the pandemic by the democracy and human-rights organization Freedom House. In October 2020, it found that, in 59 of 192 countries, violence or abuses of power took place in the name of pandemic safety. It reported, for example, that the government of Zimbabwe was using “Covid-19 restrictions as an excuse for a widespread campaign of threats, harassment, and physical assault” on the political opposition there.

In terms of hubris and scale, though, the totalitarian dystopia to beat has been China. Exiled Chinese writer Liao Wiyu published a vivid book earlier this year describing how the authorities there disappeared doctors, silenced the citizenry; and in a harrowing fashion nailed the doors of homes and apartment buildings shut, marking them with red banners to identify contagious inhabitants. The images were straight out of Daniel Defoe’s novel about the bubonic plague in seventeenth-century London, A Journal of the Plague Year, updated with modern gadgetry like biosurveillance.

China’s “zero Covid” response has included epic crackdowns on freedom of movement. Forty-six cities and 343 million residents have recently been under strict lockdown. Some residents of Shanghai, forbidden to leave their apartments, have been running short of food and medicine. Videos of dogs being lowered by ropes and pulleys from apartment windows for daily walks only added an element of macabre hilarity to the scene.

In the U.S., rather than increasing trust in government, the relatively mild pandemic public-health measures instituted by the CDC and state governments only inflamed America’s “freedom” fetish. Claiming that mask and vaccine mandates were the slippery slope to Chinese totalitarianism was certainly a stretch, but one that many on the right have been all too eager to promote. For years, the right-wing echo chamber has been priming the info-siloed and mentally vulnerable with warnings about “FEMA camps” for Christians and conservatives (and, of course, while they were at it, the feds were always coming to get your guns, too).

As it happened, though, the pandemic also triggered anti-government sentiment outside the usual quarters. Take Jennifer Sey, a self-described Elizabeth Warren Democrat and San Francisco liberal, who was forced out of her job at Levi Strauss & Co., when she started advocating against restrictive school closings. The mother of four and the company’s chief marketing officer, she found it increasingly hard to understand why her children couldn’t go back to school after the first Covid surge in 2020. Irritation and frustration led to public outrage, which led (of course!) to a social media following. She became an online leader of parents for reopening schools. Her employer didn’t like it and soon banished her.

The Anti-Government Infection as a Symptom of “Long Covid”

Public-health policy expert Dr. Lee finds it less than surprising that even Americans like Sey rebelled. He mostly blames the way science was miscommunicated and politicized in public debate in this increasingly Trumpified country. “There needed to be consistency. Once you start straying from science and becoming inconsistent, people get confused. We saw people talking about school closures, and many of them were off in different directions. School closings were not a long-term solution. The increased politicization of science and public health policy is largely a result of certain political leaders and certain TV personalities and anonymous social media accounts. What it does is, it damages — it causes chaos. You hear people saying, oh, they don’t know what to believe anymore.”

The question is: Where are we now? Along with the ongoing pandemic, are we experiencing a full-blown anti-government infection and is that, too, a symptom of “long Covid”? Or is the resistance to government mandates and vaccines simply a response to the Astroturfing of the rightwing echo chamber?

Or, in fact, both?

Conservatives have been smacking their lips over what they regard as signs of a resurgence of the flinty libertarian. “A funny thing happened on our way to democratic socialism: America pushed back,” a Cato Institute commentary proclaimed earlier this year. “Across the country, in all sorts of ways, Americans reacted to the state’s activism, overreach, incoherence, and incompetence and… kinda, sorta, embraced libertarianism.” (Of course, that’s putting it in an all too kindly fashion. Substitute, say, fascism, and that statement feels quite different.)

Conservative commentator Sam Goldman, writing in the Week, hit the same note:

As the pandemic has continued, opposition to restrictions on personal conduct, suspicion of expert authority, and free speech for controversial opinions have become dominant themes in center-right argument and activism. The symbolic villain of the new libertarian moment is Anthony Fauci.

It’s not clear that this represents a lasting trend. An October 2021 Gallup poll found that Americans’ attitudes reverted from a desire for more government intervention at the outset of the pandemic in 2020 to essentially where they had been when Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Since the 1990s, Gallup has been polling American preferences when it comes to the role of government in our lives. The long-term graph shows regular mood swings, although those between 2020 and 2021 were unusually steep.

Note as well that the American response to pandemic regulations differed strikingly from the European one. A study published earlier this year in the European Journal of Political Research explored attitudes in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom, specifically the role of emotions in the way people responded to restricted civil liberties during the pandemic years (including restricted movement through Covid phone apps and army-patrolled curfews). Fear of contagion, not surprisingly, was the chief emotion and that fear led to a striking willingness to accept more government restrictions on civil liberties.

In Europe, safety won. In this country, it seems not. I haven’t seen similar research here (though there has been some suggestion that, in the Trump era, fear has been the driving emotion in individuals who lean right). It certainly seems as if the American response to the pandemic wasn’t to accept more restrictions on civil liberties, not at least when it came to masks and vaccine mandates.

But look more closely and you’ll see something else, something far more deeply unnerving. In these last months, even as masks have come off and booster shots have gone in all too few arms, there has been an unprecedented assault on other civil liberties. Red-state lawmakers are attacking the civil rights of women, gays, and minorities with unprecedented ferocity. In its landmark upcoming ruling that will, it seems, overturn Roe v. Wade, a Supreme Court driven rightward by three Trump appointees has now apparently agreed that there is no right to privacy either.

As political journalist Ron Brownstein pointed out recently, conservative statehouses in red states “are remaking the American civil liberties landscape at breathtaking speed — and with little national attention to their cumulative effect.” In the process, they are setting back the civil-liberties clock in America to the years before what legal scholars called the “rights revolution” of the 1960s.

The speed and urgency with which right-wing judges and legislators are embracing a historic anti-liberty enterprise suggest panic and fear. This anti-freedom movement, ultimately, is not a response to the actions of the federal government or the CDC. It emanates from the frightened souls of the very people who have been shrieking about totalitarianism whenever they see a mask.

Now, excuse me for a moment, while I put my mask on and face an American world in which the dangers, both pandemic and political, are rising once again.

The depth of corruption and depravity in the Trump response to COVID is at risk of being forever covered up

Now that we're all unmasking and the economy seems set to roar into the 2020s, what will we remember about how disastrously, how malignantly, the Trump administration behaved as the pandemic took hold? And will anyone be held to account for it?

The instinct to forget pandemics, as I've pointed out when it came to the 1918 "Spanish flu," has historically been strong indeed. In these years, the urge to forget official malfeasance and move on has, it turns out, been at least as strong. Washington's failure to investigate and bring to account those who led the nation and ultimately the world into the folly of the Iraq War may be the most egregious recent example of this.

In the end, that's why I wrote my new book Virus — to memorialize a clear and accessible historical record of the deliberate and deadly decision-making that swept us all into a kind of hell. I had the urge to try to stop what happened to us from being instantly buried in the next round of daily reporting or, as appears likely now, relegated to the occasional voluminous government or foundation report on how to do things better.

In the early months of 2020, as rumors of distant death morphed into announcements of an imminent pandemic, followed by a patchwork of state and local lockdowns, most Americans were too stunned by daily events to absorb the bigger picture. Memories of those days still click by like surreal snapshots: prepper shopping, toilet-paper hoarders, forklifts moving bodies into refrigerated trucks, and a capricious leader on TV night after endless night talking about quack cures, his own ratings, and how he "liked the numbers low." Meanwhile, he left desperate states to compete with each other for badly needed protective gear.

What looked like chaos or ad hoc decision-making by an improbably elected fraudster president was, in fact, deeply rooted in ideology; specifically, in the belief that the job of the government was neither to exercise leadership, nor activate government agencies to assist the American people. It was to promote private industry and its profits as the solution to anything and everything pandemic.

That ideology led to profiteering, politicized science, and mass death. Now, as the pandemic wanes (at least for the time being, though not necessarily for the unvaccinated) in this country, it deserves an investigation. Somewhere between almost 600,000 and more than 900,000 Americans have died so far from Covid-19, a significant number of those deaths unnecessary, as even the former administration's medical expert, Dr Deborah Birx, has said.

The virus arrived in America after the Trump administration — steered by right-wing Heritage Foundation policy wonks and their donor-class comrades — had already laid waste to key agencies like Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Disease Control. Their instant response to the pandemic was to similarly sideline government emergency-management experts, put inexperienced 20-something volunteers in charge of finding and distributing protective gear, and circulate lists of possible suppliers — one of whom, typically enough, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with no medical contracting experience, snagged a cool $86-million contract from the state of New York for ventilators he would never deliver.

While most of the country hunkered down in a state of stunned paralysis, a faction of Trumpworld recognized the pandemic not for what it took away — human lives and livelihoods — but for what it offered. The chaos of the moment allowed them to road-test their dream system, to prove once and for all that the forces of supply and demand, the instinct to make a buck, could do a better job managing a natural disaster than the government of the United States and its bureaucrats.

Is any of this likely to be investigated? Will anyone be held accountable for what appears to have been a response deliberately mismanaged by religious zealots and crony capitalists, crews equally cynical about expertise, science, and the government's ability to prevent or ameliorate disaster?

What We Don't Know About the Trump Pandemic Disaster

Here, as a start, is a rundown of where inquiries into that disaster now stand.

Buried in the alphabet soup of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act is the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC), established in March 2020 to keep track of the federal money (by now $5.5 trillion) that was to be spent on the pandemic. It's a consortium of agency inspector generals, headed by Michael Horowitz, a career Department of Justice lawyer. His name will be familiar to anyone who followed the Trump-Russia investigations. He produced a report in 2019 that — to the dismay of Trump's supporters — failed to conclude that the FBI had begun investigating connections between Vladimir Putin's Russia and the Trump campaign without legal cause and as a political dirty trick.

PRAC is authorized to conduct oversight of pandemic-related emergency spending of any sort. Its inspector generals have already issued nearly 200 pandemic-related oversight reports and charged 474 people with trying to steal more than $569 million. (Details in its quarterly reports are available online.)

While PRAC has been genuinely nonpartisan in its acts, its focus so far has been on the small fry of the pandemic era, not the truly big fish. In its most recent semi-annual report, for example, it makes clear that 55% of its charges had to do with fraud in the Paycheck Protection Program and 40% were related to fraudulent unemployment assistance claims. Among the bigger PRAC successes: charging a Texas man in a $24-million Covid-relief fraudulent loan scheme last October and seven men in another fraud scheme in which they used their ill-gotten pandemic gains to buy, among other things, a Porsche and a Lamborghini.

The CARES Act also authorized the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to monitor the federal response to the pandemic. Its most recent semi-annual report included 16 recommendations in selected public-health areas like testing, vaccines, and therapeutics, only one of which has so far been implemented. A source at the GAO told me that a report on some contracting irregularities can be expected this summer.

So far, such government self-assessments have shown little appetite for dealing with the true cronyism, profiteering, and disastrous politicization of the federal pandemic response by Trump's minions. Among the schemes begging for a deeper look is Operation Airbridge. Led by the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, it was an attempt to use federal funds to underwrite the air-shipping costs of private companies in an effort to speed the delivery of the kinds of personal protective equipment that were in such short supply last spring. That unorthodox effort included large no-bid contracts granted to a small group of private health-care companies without restrictions on pricing or even on where the desperately needed products were to be delivered.

In the spring of 2020, as hospital workers began popping up on social media and network news programs clad only in garbage bags and makeshift or reused face masks, sometimes in tears and pleading for help, the White House maintained its focus on private enterprise as the way out of the disaster. The administration called for volunteers to staff what would become another public/private bonanza, the White House Covid-19 Supply Chain Task Force, also helmed by Trump family fixer, Jared Kushner.

We don't know what, if anything, Kushner's group actually accomplished. The audacity of the former administration's disregard for federal rules and regulations coupled with the scale of the no-bid contracts they issued certainly attracted political pushback at the time. Democrats and civil-society groups in Washington filed requests for more information about how such contracts had eluded federal guidelines, and where the supplies actually went.

It's possible, however, that we may never know.

Ventilating Money

In April 2020, a group of Democratic senators led by Elizabeth Warren, citing the administration's secrecy, opened an investigation into the operation. They sent a letter to the six Operation Airbridge beneficiary health-care giants — Cardinal Health, Concordance, Henry Schein, McKesson, Medline, and Owens & Minor — requesting explanations for reports of "political favoritism, cronyism, and price-gouging" in the ongoing supply effort. "Taxpayers have shelled out tens of millions of dollars on this secretive project and they deserve to know whether it actually helped get critical supplies to the areas most in need," Warren said that June.

Three of the six suppliers did, in the end, give the senators copies of memorandums of agreement (MOAs) indicating that they "had complete discretion about how to distribute supplies across hotspot counties" and that "nothing in the MOAs appears to prevent a supplier from sending all of its supplies designated for hotspots to just a single customer in one of the hotspots." The government hadn't, in fact, put any kind of conditions on the cost for that protective equipment and the Trump Justice Department would insist that it was none of its business how suppliers arrived at the prices they charged for it.

Using taxpayer funds to grease private enrichment was, of course, a Trump family tradition, going back to the Eisenhower years when Donald's father, Fred, fleeced the government of millions of dollars in loans aimed at housing World War II veterans. Hauled down to Capitol Hill to explain himself, the New York builder was unrepentant, arguing that a loophole in the law allowed for his private gain and, under such circumstances, only a fool would have left all that money on the table.

What, from the outside, came to look like White House-inspired chaos — of which Operation Airbridge was just one example — should, in fact, be seen as a deliberate effort to disengage the federal government and leave the blame and the logistics problems to Covid-afflicted states, at the time mostly run by Democrats.

On March 24, 2020, for instance, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo begged the federal government to help get more ventilators for what was clearly going to be a surge of coronavirus patients. (New York City's health-care system was already overwhelmed by then.) At the time, hooking patients up to ventilators seemed like the best way to go, though doctors later realized that, for many patients, the tricky disease could be foiled earlier with anticlotting and steroid medication.

"How can you have New Yorkers possibly dying because they can't get a ventilator?" asked Cuomo. Three days later, Trump tweeted, "General Motors must… start making ventilators, now! Ford, get going on ventilators, fast!"

Yaron Oren-Pines, an electrical engineer for tech firms like Google, tweeted back at the president, "We can supply ICU ventilators, invasive and non-invasive." Within days, he turned up on a list vetted by Kushner's team of volunteers and, at their recommendation, officials in New York closed a deal with him.

The only problem: Oren-Pines had no ventilators and had never been in the medical supply business. When he failed to deliver on the $86 million deal, Wells Fargo froze his account and New York canceled the order, demanding the money back, though by summer 2020, it had yet to collect a final $10 million.

The Great Forgetting?

In addition to making various large or politically well-connected health-care companies far wealthier, the administration also lavished staggering billions on a small group of Big Pharma firms for Operation Warp Speed, the project it backed to develop vaccines and medicines to treat Covid-19. Those contracts, too, were written outside normal government channels and the companies themselves were chosen by a panel of industry insiders without any oversight. Many of them stood to (and did) profit from the soaring stock prices of those firms when the news about clinical trial successes was released.

In November 2020, to launch an investigation into that situation, Senator Warren teamed up with Representative Katie Porter (D-CA) to request copies of all federal contracts for Covid-19 therapeutics and vaccines. "The American people," they stated, "deserve to know that the federal government is using their tax dollars to develop Covid-19 medical products at the best possible price for the public — not to line the pockets of wealthy companies by cutting corners in consumer protection, pricing, and quality."

Warren raised questions about a Department of Health and Human Services deal with Gilead Sciences for the pandemic therapeutic remdesivir (part of the "cocktail" of drugs administered to Donald Trump and other Republican insiders like Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani when they got Covid). HHS had indeed acquired a large supply of remdesivir at an exorbitant cost to American taxpayers and Gilead itself would charge American hospitals $3,200 per treatment for it, $860 more than its price in other developed countries.

In addition to Warren, who sent a letter to the administration requesting information on HHS's pricing negotiations with Gilead for the drug, other people also stood up. Whistleblower Dr. Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency (BARDA), for instance, filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that Dr. Robert Kadlec, a Trump HHS political appointee, had engaged in multiple schemes to funnel contracts to politically connected companies — and that this had begun even before the pandemic was even a reality. According to Bright, Kadlec then pushed him out of the government, despite the fact that federal law officially protects whistleblowers.

In his complaint, among other things, Bright alleged that in 2017, a Kadlec friend and Big Pharma consultant pressured the agency to maintain a contract with a company owned by a friend of Jared Kushner's, even after an independent review determined it should be cancelled. Bright testified before Congress, and the fate of his whistleblower suit remains to be litigated.

As for the rest of the inquiries, so far, money and power appear to have eluded the investigators. It's unclear whether Senator Warren's and Representative Porter's requests met with any response from the former administration, or even whether they've continued their inquiry into Big Pharma and no-bid contracting. They have made no further announcements and neither office replied to requests for updates.

You won't be surprised to learn, I'm sure, that the name "Jared Kushner" is so far not to be found in GAO or PRAC reports.

The best chance for public accountability — if not legal liability — might be the House of Representatives, especially its Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, launched in April 2020. The Trump administration blew off its subpoenas for former HHS Secretary Alex Azar and then-CDC Director Robert Redfield to testify in December 2020, and blocked documents and witnesses related to politicized data, testing, and supply shortages, among other areas of inquiry. But the subcommittee did manage to expose emails from Trump political appointees, revealing efforts to skew CDC data. It is also investigating some whopping no-bid or sole-contractor deals that the former administration cut with preferred businesses. One was a $354-million four-year contract awarded on a non-competitive basis to PHLOW, which was incorporated in January 2020 to manufacture generic medicines to fight Covid. It's the largest contract ever awarded by BARDA and includes a 10-year option worth $812 million.

And the House has continued to seek transparency. According to a Brookings House Oversight Tracker, as of March 2021, 30% of congressional oversight letters and 40% of its hearings were related to the federal government's pandemic response. But there are signs that the Biden administration, while more cooperative, is not eager to force agencies to comply with requests the previous administration ignored.

My sense is that the emergency created by the insurrection at the Capitol last January and the desperate need of the new Biden administration to have palpable policy achievements in order to do well in election 2022 has taken the steam out of any inclination to dig deeper into the profiteering, cronyism, political scheming, and chaos with which the Trump administration met the Covid-19 virus. It went far deeper than an article like this can possibly indicate, leaving so many hundreds of thousands of potentially unnecessary deaths in its wake.

Think of it as a memory hole, still brimming with schemes and money.

Copyright 2021 Nina Burleigh

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Nina Burleigh, a TomDispatch regular, is a journalist of American politics and the author of six previous books. Her seventh, Virus: Vaccinations, the CDC, and the Hijacking of America's Response to the Pandemic (just published by Seven Stories Press) is a real-life thriller that delves into the official malfeasance behind America's pandemic chaos and the triumph of science in an era of conspiracy theories and contempt for experts.

The great forgetting: Why past epidemics faded from memory — and why that can't happen again

The second Moderna shot made me sick — as predicted. A 24-hour touch of what an alarmed immune system feels like left me all the more grateful for my good fortune in avoiding the real thing and for being alive at a time when science had devised a 95% effective vaccine in record time.

To distract myself from the fever as I tried to sleep, I visualized strands of synthetic messenger RNA floating into my cells to produce the alien spike protein that attracted my warrior T-cells. I drifted off envisioning an epic micro-battle underway in my blood and had a series of weird nightmares. At about two a.m., I woke up sweating, disoriented, and fixated on a grim image from one of the studies I had consulted while writing my own upcoming book, Virus: Vaccinations, the CDC, and the Hijacking of America's Response to the Pandemic, on the Covid-19 chaos of our moment. In his Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Lifesaver, Arthur Allen described how, in the days of ignorance — not so very long ago — doctors prescribed "hot air baths" for the feverish victims of deadly epidemics of smallpox or yellow fever, clamping them under woolen covers in closed rooms with the windows shut.

Mildly claustrophobic in the best of times, my mind then scrabbled to other forms of medical persecution I'd recently learned about. In the American colonies of the early eighteenth century, for example, whether or not to take the Jenner cowpox vaccine was a matter of religious concern. Puritans were taught that they would interfere with God's will if they altered disease outcomes. To expiate that sin, or more likely out of sheer ignorance, medical doctors of the day decreed that the vaccine would only work after weeks of purging, including ingesting mercury, which besides making people drool and have diarrhea, also loosened their teeth. "Inoculation meant three weeks of daily vomiting, purges, sweats, fevers," Allen wrote.

To clear my thoughts, to forget, I opened my window, let in the winter air, and breathed deep. I then leaned out into the clean black sky of the pandemic months, the starlight brighter since the jets stopped flying and we ceased driving, as well as burning so much coal.

Silence. An inkling of what the world might be like without us.

Chilled, I lay back down and wondered: What will the future think of us in this time? Will people recoil in horror as I had just done in recalling, in feverish technicolor, the medically ignorant generations that came before us?

The Glorious Dead

When America reached the half-million-dead mark from Covid-19 at the end of February, reports compared the number to our war dead. The pandemic had by then killed more Americans than had died in World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War combined — and it wasn't done with us yet. But the Covid dead had not marched into battle. They had gone off to their jobs as bus drivers and nurses and store clerks, or hugged a grandchild, or been too close to a health-care worker who arrived at a nursing home via the subway.

Every November 11th, on Veterans Day, our world still remembers and celebrates the moment World War I officially ended. But the last great pandemic, the influenza epidemic of 1918-1920 that became known as "the Spanish flu" (though it wasn't faintly Spain's fault, since it probably began in the United States), which infected half a billion people on a far less populated planet, killing an estimated 50 million to 100 million of them — including more soldiers than were slaughtered in that monumental war — fell into a collective memory hole.

When it was over, our grandparents and great-grandparents turned away and didn't look back. They simply dropped it from memory. Donald Trump's grandfather's death from the Spanish flu in 1919 changed the fortunes of his family forever, yet Trump never spoke of it — even while confronting a similar natural disaster. Such a forgetting wasn't just Trumpian aberrance; it was a cultural phenomenon.

That virus, unlike Covid-19, mainly killed young healthy people. But there are eerie, even uncanny, similarities between the American experience of that pandemic and this one. In the summer of 1919, just after the third deadly wave, American cities erupted in race riots. As with the summer of 2020, the 1919 riots were sparked by an incident in the Midwest: a Chicago mob stoned a black teenager who dared to swim off a Lake Michigan beach whites had unofficially declared whites-only. The boy drowned and, in the ensuing week of rioting, 23 blacks and 15 whites died. The riots spread across the country to Washington, D.C., and cities in Nebraska, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas, with Black veterans who had served in World War I returning home to second-class treatment and an increase in Ku Klux Klan lynchings.

As today, there were similar controversies then over the wearing of masks and not gathering in significant numbers to celebrate Thanksgiving. As in 2020-2021, so in 1918-1919, frontline medics were traumatized. The virus killed within hours or a few days in a particularly lurid way. People bled from their noses, mouths, and ears, then drowned in the fluid that so copiously built up in their lungs. The mattresses on which they perished were soaked in blood and other bodily fluids.

Doctors and nurses could do nothing but bear witness to the suffering, much like the front-liners in Wuhan and then New York City in the coronavirus pandemic's early days. Unlike today, perhaps because it was wartime and any display of weakness was considered bad, the newspapers of the time also barely covered the suffering of individuals, according to Alex Navarro, editor-in-chief of the University of Michigan's Influenza Encyclopedia about the 1918 pandemic. Strangely enough, even medical books in the following years barely covered the virus.

Medical anthropologist Martha Louise Lincoln believes the tendency to look forward — and away from disaster — is also an American trait. "Collectively, we obviously wrongly shared a feeling that Americans would be fine," Lincoln said of the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. "I think that's in part because of the way we're conditioned to remember history… Even though American history is full of painful losses, we don't take them in."

Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland argues that pandemic forgetting is a human response to seemingly pointless loss, as opposed to a soldier's death. "A mass illness does not invite that kind of remembering," he wrote. "The bereaved cannot console themselves that the dead made a sacrifice for some higher cause, or even that they were victims of an epic moral event, because they did not and were not."

Instead, to die of Covid-19 is just rotten luck, something for all of us to forget.

Who Will Ask Rich Men to Sacrifice?

Given the absence of dead heroes and a certain all-American resistance to pointless tragedy, there are other reasons we, as Americans, might not look back to 2020 and this year as well. For one thing, pandemic profiteering was so gross and widespread that to consider it closely, even in retrospect, might lead to demands for wholesale change that no one in authority, no one in this (or possibly any other recent U.S. government) would be prepared or motivated to undertake.

In just the pandemic year 2020, this country's billionaires managed to add at least a trillion dollars to their already sizeable wealth in a land of ever more grotesque inequality. Amazon's Jeff Bezos alone packed in another $70 billion that year, while so many other Americans were locked down and draining savings or unemployment funds. The CEOs of the companies that produced the medical milestone mRNA vaccines reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in profits by timing stock moves to press releases about vaccine efficacy.

No one today dares ask such rich men to sacrifice for the rest of us or for the rest of the world.

The pandemic might, of course, have offered an opportunity for the government and corporate leaders to reconsider the shareholder model of for-profit medicine. Instead, taxpayer money continued to flow in staggering quantities to a small group of capitalists with almost no strings attached and little transparency.

A nation brought to its knees may not have the resources, let alone the will, to accurately remember how it all happened. Congress is now investigating some of the Trump administration's pandemic deals. The House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis has uncovered clear evidence of its attempts to cook and politicize data. And Senator Elizabeth Warren led somewhat fruitful efforts to expose deals between the Trump administration and a small number of health-care companies. But sorting through the chaos of capitalist mischief as the pandemic hit, all those no-bid contracts cut without agency oversight, with nothing more than a White House stamp of approval affixed to them, will undoubtedly prove an Augean stables of a task.

In addition, looking too closely at the tsunami of money poured into Big Pharma that ultimately did produce effective vaccines could well seem churlish in retrospect. The very success of the vaccines may blunt the memory of that other overwhelming effect of the pandemic, which was to blow a hole in America's already faded reputation as a health-care leader and as a society in which equality (financial or otherwise) meant anything at all.

Forgetting might prove all too comfortable, even if remembering could prompt a rebalancing of priorities from, for instance, the military-industrial complex, which has received somewhere between 40% and 70% of the U.S. discretionary budget over the last half century, to public health, which got 3% to 6% of that budget in those same years.

The Most Medically Protected Generation

For most Americans, the history of the 1918 flu shares space in that ever-larger tomb of oblivion with the history of other diseases of our great-grandparents' time that vaccines have now eradicated.

Until the twentieth century, very few people survived childhood without either witnessing or actually suffering from the agonies inflicted by infectious diseases. Parents routinely lost children to disease; people regularly died at home. Survivors — our great-grandparents — were intimately acquainted with the sights, smells, and sounds associated with the stages of death.

Viewed from above, vaccines are a massive success story. They've been helping us live longer and in states of safety that would have been unimaginable little more than a century ago. In 1900, U.S. life expectancy was 46 years for men and 48 for women. Someone born in 2019 can expect to live to between 75 and 80 years old, although due to health inequities, lifespans vary depending on race, ethnicity, and gender.

The scale of change has been dramatic, but it can be hard to see. We belong to the most medically protected generation in human history and that protection has made us both complacent and risk averse.

The history of twentieth-century vaccine developments has long seesawed between remarkable advances in medical science and conspiracy theories and distrust engendered by its accidents or failures. Almost every new vaccine has been accompanied by reports of risks, side effects, and sometimes terrible accidents, at least one involving tens of thousands of sickened people.

Children, however, are now successfully jabbed with serums that create antibodies to hepatitis B, measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis — all diseases that well into the twentieth century spread through communities, killing babies or permanently damaging health. A number of those are diseases that today's parents can barely pronounce, let alone remember.

Remembering Is the Way Forward

The catastrophe of the Spanish flu globally and in this country (where perhaps 675,000 Americans were estimated to have died from it) had, until Covid-19 came along, been dropped in a remarkable manner from American memory and history. It lacked memorial plaques or a day of remembrance, though it did leave a modest mark on literature. Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Katherine Anne Porter's elegiac short story, for instance, focused on how the flu extinguished a brief wartime love affair between two young people in New York City.

We are very likely to overcome the virus at some point in the not-too-distant future. As hard as it might be to imagine right now, the menace that shut down the world will, in the coming years, undoubtedly be brought to heel by vaccines on a planetary scale.

And in this, we've been very, very lucky. Covid-19 is relatively benign compared with an emergent virus with the death rates of a MERS or Ebola or even, it seems, that 1918 flu. As a species, we will survive this one. It's been bad — it still is, with cases and hospitalizations remaining on the rise in parts of this country — but it could have been so much worse. Sociologist and writer Zeynep Tufekci has termed it "a starter pandemic." There's probably worse ahead in a planet that's under incredible stress in so many different ways.

Under the circumstances, it's important that we not drop this pandemic from memory as we did the 1918 one. We should remember this moment and what it feels like because the number of pathogens waiting to jump from mammals to us is believed to be alarmingly large. Worse yet, modern human activity has made us potentially more, not less, vulnerable to another pandemic. A University of Liverpool study published in February 2021 found at least 40 times more mammal species could be infected with coronavirus strains than were previously known. Such a virus could easily recombine with any of them and then be passed on to humanity, a fact researchers deemed an immediate public health threat.

In reality, we may be entering a new "era of pandemics." So suggests a study produced during an "urgent virtual workshop" convened in October 2020 by the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (ISPBES) to investigate the links between the risk of pandemics and the degradation of nature. Due to climate change, intense agriculture, unsustainable trade, the misuse of land, and nature-disrupting production and consumption habits, more than five new infectious diseases emerge in people every year, any one of which could potentially spark a pandemic.

That ISPBES study predicted that "future pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the world economy, and kill more people than Covid-19, unless there is a transformative change in the global approach to dealing with infectious diseases."

Is our species capable of such a change? My inner misanthrope says no, but certainly the odds improve if we don't delete this pandemic from history like the last one. This, after all, is the first pandemic in which the internet enabled us to bear witness not only to the panic, illness, and deaths around us, but to the suffering of our entire species in every part of the globe in real time. Because of that alone, it will be difficult to evade the memory of this collective experience and, with it, the reminder that we are all made of the same vulnerable stuff.

Copyright 2021 Nina Burleigh

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Nina Burleigh is a journalist of American politics and the author of six previous books. Her seventh, Virus: Vaccinations, the CDC, and the Hijacking of America's Response to the Pandemic (Seven Stories Press, to be published May 18th) is a real-life thriller that delves into the official malfeasance behind America's pandemic chaos and the triumph of science in an era of conspiracy theories and contempt for experts.

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Learning to Love America

When people give driving directions to the upstate New York hamlet of Narrowsburg, they always refer to the big red brick schoolhouse at the stoplight. Narrowsburg Central Rural School has been on the hill on School Street since 1929, educating four generations of local children.

Nobody alive in town remembers a time when the campus -- with its white doors, sloping green lawn, and Stars and Stripes snapping in the breeze -- was not there. But last year, bankrupted by local fiscal mismanagement and the woes of the post 9/11 New York state economy, the little school was shuttered. When the last student skipped out of its double doors in the summer of 2005, janitors moved in with packing tape and boxes from a nearby egg farm to empty the classrooms. Among the pupils left behind was my son, a member of the last kindergarten class.

Our family first arrived in Narrowsburg in 2000 as city people hunting for a cheap house. For barely $50,000 we were able to buy the "weekend house" we thought would complete our metropolitan existence. But soon after we closed on the home, we moved to Paris, spurred by the serendipitous arrival of a book contract. When our European idyll ended after two years, and with tenants still subletting our city apartment, we moved into the Narrowsburg house. After growing accustomed to the French social system -- with its cheap medicine, generous welfare, short work week and plentiful child care -- life back in depressed upstate New York felt especially harsh. We'd never planned to get involved in the life of the town, nor had it ever occurred to us that we might send our son to the Narrowsburg School. Suddenly we were upstate locals, with a real stake in the community.

In the fall of 2004, we enrolled our son in kindergarten at the Narrowsburg School. The school's reputation among our friends, other "second-home-owners," was not good. "Do they even have a curriculum?" sniffed one New York City professor who kept a weekend home nearby. Clearly, Narrowsburg School was not a traditional first step on the path to Harvard. As far as I could tell, though, no one besides us had ever set foot inside the building. When my husband and I investigated, we were pleasantly surprised. The school had just been renovated; it was clean, airy, cheerful. The nurse and the principal knew every one of the 121 children by name. Our son would be one of just twelve little white children in a sunny kindergarten class taught by an enthusiastic woman with 18 years' experience teaching five-year-olds.

Still, for the first few months, we felt uneasy. Eighty of Narrowsburg's 319 adults are military veterans and at least ten recent school graduates are serving in Iraq or on other bases overseas right now. The school's defining philosophy was traditional and conservative, starting with a sit-down-in-your-seat brand of discipline, leavened with a rafter-shaking reverence for country and flag. Every morning the students gathered in the gym for a "Morning Program," open to parents, which began with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a patriotic song, and then discussion of a "Word of the Week." During the first few weeks, the words of the week seemed suspiciously tied to a certain political persuasion: "Military," "tour," "nation" and "alliance," were among them.

But it wasn't until our boy came home with an invitation in his backpack to attend a "released-time" Bible class that my husband and I really panicked. We called the ACLU and learned this is an entirely legal way for evangelicals to proselytize to children during school hours. What is against the law is sending the flyer home in a kid's backpack, implying school support. After we called to inquire about the legality, the ACLU formally called the principal to complain. She apologized and promised never to allow it again. While we were never identified as the people who dropped the dime to the ACLU, there was clearly no one else in the school community who would have done so -- and the principal never looked at us quite as warmly again.

Shortly afterward, another parent casually told me that she wanted to bring her daughter's religious cartoon videos in to share with the class but couldn't because "some people" might object. When we later learned that the cheery kindergarten teacher belonged to one of the most conservative evangelical churches in the community, we were careful not to challenge anyone or to express any opinion about politics or religion, out of fear our son would be singled out. Instead, to counteract any God-and-country indoctrination he received in school, we began our own informal in-home instruction about Bush, Iraq and Washington over the evening news.

Learning to love America

Politically, Narrowsburg is red dot in a blue state. It is not named for any small-town frame of mind, but for the way the Delaware River narrows at the edge of town, then widens into a serene, lakelike eddy that at twilight mirrors the lights of town and the ranch-style houses on the flats. The towering pines along the river are nesting spots for bald eagles that soar year-round in pairs above Main Street and swoop down into the river to sink their talons into trout sighted from a hundred feet up. That year, driving to school every morning along the water, my son and I witnessed the wind gradually scrape away the bright foliage, the snow fall and the ground freeze. In the white, leafless months, we could see the entire span of the Delaware River valley from the car, a long arc of pastoral perfection.

If you knew nothing else of the world, if you were just five or six or ten years old, and this place was your only America, you wouldn't have any reason at all to question the Narrowsburg School's Morning Program routine. Hand over heart, my son belted out the Pledge with gusto every morning, and memorized and sang the Star Spangled Banner. I never stopped resisting the urge to sit down in silent protest during the Pledge. But I also never failed to get choked up when they sang "America the Beautiful."

Listening to their little voices, I felt guilty for being a nonbeliever. When I was five years old, in 1965, did I understand what my lefty parents were saying about the Kennedy assassination, Watts and dead soldier counts? Who was I to deprive my son, or his 11 kindergarten chums, of their faith in a nation capable of combining "good with brotherhood?" In a five-year-old's perfect world, perhaps such places should exist.

That November, at the school's annual Veterans' Day program, the children performed the trucker anthem God Bless the USA (one of the memorable lines is "Ain't no doubt I love this la-aand, God Bless the USA-ay!"), as their parents sang along. About a dozen local veterans -- ancient men who served in World War II, and men on the cusp of old age who served in Korea and Vietnam -- settled into folding chairs that had been arranged beneath the flag. When the students were finished singing, the principal asked the veterans to stand and identify themselves. Watching from the audience, I wondered if anyone would speak of the disaster unfolding in Iraq (it was never a Word of the Week).

No one did. The men rose and stated their names, ranks and theaters. Finally, a burly, gray-bearded Vietnam veteran rose and said what no one else dared. After identifying himself, he choked out, "Kids, I just hope to God none of you ever have to experience what we went through." Then he sat down, leaving a small pocket of shocked silence. No one applauded his effort at honesty. On the contrary, the hot gym air thickened with a tension that implicitly ostracized the man, and by extension -- because we agreed with him -- me and my husband.

A month later, just before Christmas, my son and I drove together into New York City with bags of children's clothes and shoes he and his sister had outgrown. The Harlem unit of the National Guard was putting on a Christmas clothing drive for Iraqi children. On the way into the city, I tried to explain to my son what we were doing, and -- as best I could -- why. As we crossed the George Washington Bridge and the Manhattan skyline spread out below us, I began to give him a variation on the "Africans don't have any food, finish your dinner" talk. I wanted him to understand how privileged he was to live in a place where bombs don't rain from the sky. It was a talk I'd tried to have before, but not one he'd ever paid much attention to until that day, trapped in the backseat of our car.

In simple language, I told my son that our president had started a war with a country called Iraq. I said that we were bombing cities and destroying buildings. And I explained that families just like ours now had no money or food because their parents didn't have offices to go to anymore or bosses to pay them. "America did this?" my son asked incredulously. "Yes, America," I answered. He paused, a long silent pause, then burst out: "But mommy, I love America! I want to hug America!"


Shedding patriotism

A month after the Christmas outburst, the first rumors that all was not well with the school began circulating. Fiscal mismanagement, high fuel and retirement costs and the depleted state economy had created a huge and unexpected cash shortfall for the tiny district. The parents of Narrowsburg School soon had a figure: It was going to cost just over $600,000 to keep their school open for another year. Chump change in Washington and New York City, but impossible to collect in a town where the median family income is barely $45,000. By late June 2005, the little school's fate was sealed. To my surprise I found I was deeply sorry about it.

The patriotization of our son was thorough enough to survive the summer. He decorated his birthday cookies with red, white and blue sugar, and in his summer camp program, when doing arts and crafts, those were the colors of paint he favored. "I made the stars red, white and blue -- like the flag!" he exclaimed, holding a paper mobile he'd strung together.

Now it has been almost a year since my son scampered down the steps of Narrowsburg Central Rural School for the last time. We've since returned to the city, driven back to urban life more by adult boredom and the need to earn a living than our children's relative educational opportunities. Our son is now enrolled in a well-rated K-5 public school on Manhattan's Upper West Side; he's one of two white kids in his class. Not surprisingly, the Pledge of Allegiance is no longer part of his morning routine. Come to think of it, and I could be wrong, I've never seen a flag on the premises.

My husband and I realized, though, that Narrowsburg did more than mold our boy into a patriot. He can, it turns out -- despite the warnings of other city parents -- read at a level twice that of his new peers. Since we returned to the city, he has learned how to ride a bike, long for an X-Box, practiced a few new swear words, and, somehow, learned the meaning of "sexy." He has pretty much stopped favoring red, white and blue.

How soon childish national pride is shed, I sometimes think now, and not a little wistfully. Only once it was gone did I realize that, after our initial discomfort, my husband and I had begun to see our son's patriotism as a badge of innocence. His faith was a reminder to us that the reason we are devastated by the war in Iraq and the Bush presidency is that we too love America. We too want to believe in its potential for good and brotherhood.

Our family now visits the Narrowsburg house only on weekends and holidays. Sometimes we pass the stately red brick school building, so recently renovated with thermal windows and elevators for the disabled, a town landmark for 75 years. The flag still flies there, but the doors are padlocked and the windows are black.

A different version of this article first appeared on Salon.com

Bullies Ascendent

Bully – n, blustering browbeating person, esp. one habitually cruel to others who are weaker; ... vb: to treat abusively. – Webster's Dictionary

Thanks to satellite television, even pygmies in the Central African bush are familiar with the bullying ways of George W. Bush and his men. The swagger, the smirk, and the Abu Ghraibsters' photos are logo enough for Islamist recruiters. Europeans fear and revile us for the same reasons, while in China, they simply stay out of our way.

Americans know that Bush's international bullying has diminished our reputation in the world as a nation of law and reason. Some Americans – Bush's xenophobic base – love exactly that about him.

Iraqis are the poster victims of Bush's bullies. The war has killed at least 100,000 civilians, according to Johns Hopkins researchers. What no one talks about is how the Bush bullies have affected us here at home, so that we, as a society, have grown accustomed to menace and threat as replacements for debate and persuasion. Quotidian bullying could be this president's true and lasting legacy – beyond debt and war – to America.

The "yuppie riot" organized out of Texas bully Tom DeLay's office during the 2000 vote count in Miami set the tone. Those buttoned-down brown-shirts, the Bush-Jugend if you will, have not regrouped for public displays of force since. They haven't needed to. The president himself, by example, has emboldened natural bullies and made new bullies across the nation.

Here at home, we have watched the Bush bullies kicking the already down, again and again – with the gay marriage amendment, the cash grabs for the already rich, the silencing of dissent by the Patriot Act, the immigrant roundups, and the complete and utter absence of concern for improving health care.

The triumph of the bully is especially noticeable as the election draws near.

RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie recently sent a letter to Rock the Vote in Washington, accusing the organization of "malicious political deception" for sending sample draft cards via e-mail to educate their 600,000 e-mail members about the draft. In his letter to the organization, Gillespie wrote: "As a non-profit organization that enjoys the benefits of being formed under 501 (c )(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, you have an obligation to immediately cease and desist from promoting or conducting your 'Draft' campaign."

In the current climate, an overt written threat by a governing party official to revoke non-profit status is hardly worthy of press attention. This is a year when pepper spray fired from paintball guns onto small-town children barely gets ink.

President Bush's visit last week to Jacksonville, Ore., a tiny mountain town of fewer than 3,000 souls, was heralded by the usual black helicopters bristling with guns. When peaceful protesters lined the main street hoping the President might glance at their signs from his bulletproof limo, they were shot at with paintball guns firing pepper spray.

CNN the next morning gave a few chipper, upbeat seconds to the abuse. Transcript: "Well, good morning, Heidi," Suzanne Malveaux said. "Of course, as the campaign heats up, so do those protests, as well. It was last night in Jacksonville, Ore., is where there was a group of protesters blocking the street along the motorcade route. And a group of local police hit them with pepper. This is fire from paintball guns. A couple of people were arrested during that scuffle. But for the most part, things were rather peaceful.

"There were also a lot of Bush supporters that were along that route. And for the most part, President Bush, of course, projecting optimism along the campaign trail."

Of course, Suzanne.

In fact, Jacksonville residents reported after the attacks that even small children were sprayed, and innocent bystanders shot in the back at point blank for helping the fallen.

The bullying of protestors has been common throughout this campaign season, in small towns and big cities. Under the guise of rooting out terrorists, the Bush security forces have arrested protestors within a wide perimeter around the president, and for the least offensive reasons.

Protestors at Bush campaign venues are routinely asked to remove signs, cover themselves and generally take their expressions of protest away from the President's line of sight or hearing.pHecklers who manage to sneak into his loyalty-tested appearances are arrested.

In Charleston, W. Va., near a presidential appearance earlier this year, a couple was wearing shirts that included a photo of the president and the word "Bush," under the international "no" symbol.

When they refused a request from armed men to cover their shirts, they were arrested, handcuffed and jailed for trespassing. The charges later were dropped and Charleston city officials apologized, saying the arrests were made at the behest of the Secret Service.

They don't stop at intimidating protestors; actual voters are fair game too. Salon has reported that during the last two decades, various arms of the Republican Party, or groups working for Republican candidates, all over the country have organized off-duty cops to patrol heavily minority precincts, put up threatening signs, and mailed out bogus "bulletins" warning of the consequences of voter fraud.

There is no reason to think that on this critical election day, these same bullies won't be out in full force practicing the tin-pot dictator's voter intimidation skills they've been refining for 20 years.

In an interview this week, Democratic Party lawyer David Boies told me that one of his greatest fears for election day in Florida is that "security" forces of one stripe or another will again set up roadblocks in minority counties to suppress the black vote, as they did in 2000. Because the presidential election cannot be re-voted, the incentive for outrageous strong-arm tactics on election day will be very high, Boies said.

Ad hoc pro-Bush bullying is even more frightening than the organized stuff. In Crawford, Texas, college interns – not just paid staff – at the local paper have received death threats since the editors of the Lone Star Iconoclast endorsed Kerry instead of the hometown favorite.

The bullies who have gained the most under the Bush regime are the former soldiers now styled as "security contractors." Twenty-thousand of them are right now bullying poor Iraqis for hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars per day, their "cost-plus" contracts unchecked by disinterested audits.

WVC3 Group, Blackwater and dozens of other spook-named outfits are retirement havens for bullies who miss the action. Staffed by ex-military pros in their 30s, 40s and 50s who never lost the taste for hunting human prey with night vision goggles on, they now have a whole country full of cowering pups to kick around. And they get paid three or four times more for it than if they were actually serving in the U.S. armed forces.

These mercenaries know who ultimately tosses them red meat, and while they nominally serve in America's war on terror, they will pitch in for the bully-in-chief here at home. One of them, Carlton Sherwood, an employee of the WVC3 Group, "an anti-terrorism firm" based in Reston, Va., produced the notorious anti-Kerry screed that Sinclair Broadcasting recently shoved at its hapless midsize-market TV consumers.

Yet even these bullies are bullied.

The News & Observer of Raleigh recently reported that contractors wanting to work for Blackwater in Iraq must sign contracts that compel them to pay Blackwater a quarter of a million dollars in instant damages if they reveal details of the contracts or work.

Not once has our president distanced himself from any of these tactics, never once called his bullies to heel. With his smirk and silence, he has encouraged and emboldened them.

To the rest of the planet, America is the bully on the block. Living on the inside with the bullies has damaged us in ways I leave it to the sociologists and psychologists to describe. Tuesday night will tell whether the majority of Americans want to shed the label and expel the bullies, or remain behind the line and watch them kick whomever else they find on the ground.

Desperately Seeking Sanity

It isn't the 1950s, but you wouldn't know it from the baby gold rush in Manhattan these days. Everyone I know is either pregnant or has just given birth, is fighting for a place in preschool, or cashing in their IRAs for multiple rounds of IVF. Oh, and adopting.

When I walk the streets of the East Village, my old haunts before I reproduced myself out of the city, I see young men hunched over tables in the café windows and for a moment, I think I know them. Then I remember, the guys they look like are all daddies now. They have jobs, and no longer linger over espresso, looking like they're reading Dostoevsky or dreaming of the day when their screenplays might sell.

Their girlfriends, those lissome working babes who thought nothing in the 1980s of having abortions and smoking cigarettes, consider themselves lucky jackpot winners because their ovaries functioned. Some of these gals still have jobs, and even care deeply about their jobs. Others are drifting, drifting away from the office, ceding that realm to men, while they learn the best way to remove stains from Onesies and transition from bottle to sippy cup.

We don't live here anymore.

We have all been vaporized from the vibrant streets of Manhattan, teleported into the domestic realm, for better or worse, and with varying degrees of shock, joy, misery.

That's why I like the new ABC hit "Desperate Housewives." As a mother of two dabbling in stay-at-home housewifery only at peril of my mental health, I couldn't agree more with the premise that women who stay home all day go utterly mad.

I'm a working mother who would rather fight than quit my job, and I'm sick of hearing about the "complexities" of modern women's lives. I'm tired of the very sound of the words, the earnest lexicon, the endless lather over how we can "manage" to "juggle" our "choices."

As Mary Cheney would probably say, in another context, it's not a choice.

"I admire the way you're keeping so many balls in the air," some well-meaning person (female) said recently. Fuck you, I thought, smiling. I wouldn't have it any other way.

I have heard women say they actually prefer to stay home with their children. I don't personally know anyone who can say that believably. In fact, I've always detected a whiff of scary depression inside the minivans and cozy homes of stay-at-home mommies, starting with my own mother's house in the 1960s. I think I suffer from vicarious post-traumatic stress disorder – the lasting psychological consequence of watching my mother trapped alone in the 1960s with three children, including me.

So "Desperate Housewives" rings true on a fundamental level, even if it's a little fake. Wisteria Lane is a mythic place, where the wives are admirably taut, and don't have to work. Financially set, thin mothers (most of them), they are living out the final stage of the fantasy that hip baby-dreamers in Manhattan are chasing. They have found the golden key, turned it in the lock and entered:

Hell.

"Desperate Housewives" puts the lie to all the post-mod happy homemaker myths, rehabilitated and updated for this decade's baby boom. The collective memory has erased Betty Friedan, and we're all back to believing that real fulfillment starts at the business end of a baby.

I suspect that even the healthy, seemingly happy women who stay home with their children all day for years at a time are secretly on Prozac. The only women I know who could do it had to be medicated. It's a simple fact that the adult attention span is longer than the infant and toddler attention span. The worst thing about spending vast amounts of time with baby is losing access to that part of yourself that can focus. Some women seem to give it up with ease, others need to be medicated to turn it off.

A part of me relates to all of the characters. One critic's cliché is another's archetype.

My favorite character, Bree, is Martha Stewart on crystal meth. I too get that mad urge to put things right in the midst of family chaos at least five times a day. I recognize exactly how insane it is when I'm reaching down to wipe up a smear of spilled dinner on the floor, while at table level baby is reaching for a knife and five-year-old is knocking over his milk. But I still can't stop myself.

I've screamed for order at dinnertime, if only in my head. I know the sound of the other screams too. I've not tried it yet myself, but I recognize the motivations of the sexy woman who seduces the high school kid to get revenge on her self-absorbed husband, and of the divorcee who can only get over her husband's infidelity by catching the eye of the plumber. Last but not least, I know well the career woman pretending to like staying home with four brats, haunted by the ghost of her former life.

There are bits of each of the Housewives in me, whenever I'm pottering around the house on a weekday, picking up toys, dressing for nobody.

I've actually experienced a version of the scene with Lynette being pulled over by a cop because her unbuckled, rowdy brats in the back seat attracted his attention. The cop backed down, but my son has never forgotten that mommy can be sent to jail for a long time – maybe forever – if he unbuckles again.

Like Lynette, I also know that hell is other parents (the fat woman ready to call a social worker after she left her kids on the side of the road as a buckle-up lesson). I could even donate a colorful scene from my real life to the writers: being screamed at by a pack of toothless female rednecks in a diner and having the short order cook emerge from the back and threaten to call the state police on me for leaving my sleeping infant in the car seat outside while I ordered something to go for my five-year-old, who then disappeared off into the video rental section of the fine establishment.

The show was created by a man and six of the ten writers are men, but the sex – so far anyway – isn't the gay male fantasy Sex and the City variety, where poor Sarah Jessica Parker and three other perfectly fine actresses spent years channeling the queen-y, voracious desires of Michael Patrick King. The Housewives treat sex the way real married women do – as another necessary bodily function, if not a household chore.

ABC, the critics and its advertisers, are surprised at the show's popularity. It attracted 20 million viewers an episode, the majority, 63%, of them adult and female, in the first two weeks. Not surprisingly, the critics rate it below the high-end cable shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, to which, in tone at least, it owes some debt. This is the female version of those satires, and the fact that it showed up on network television in the age of reality-based swill is a welcome sign.

One female critic complained that "Desperate Housewives" is just another show about women written by a man. It is that, but I don't agree it's a problem.

Men know what housewifery does to women. That's why they're still avoiding it.

The Son of Reagan

He clears brush on the ranch and swaggers around on city streets in cowboy boots. He favors the diction of the common man, casually mispronouncing words so as not to alarm the public with erudition. He wears his military uniform not with the sober formality of a general, but with the cultivated ease of a Hollywood actor.

No, Ronald Reagan did not invent political machismo; he was just its greatest practitioner in modern American politics. The credit belongs to new-state politicians back in the 19th century who invented what historians call the "Barbarian style." To set themselves apart from and above effete, windy, educated Easterners, the "Barbarians" strolled Capitol Hill in backwoods breeches, packing sidearms, spitting chaw every two minutes and swearing like sailors. Our politicians today who chop wood, ride shotgun in a pickup truck, and butcher the English language – all for the benefit of the television camera nearby – are their descendants.

Reagan’s genius was to update the style for the 20th century, infusing it with the right dose of sensitivity to appeal to the modern voter. His Hollywood horseback training and western backdrop provided the buckskin, which he softened with his ability to read his lines with feeling. This was a cowboy who might sometimes cry.

Given his immense success, it's no wonder that the Republicans have been doing their best to replicate that magic formula ever since – more so now that they find themselves mired in a close presidential race.

To the glee of his political handlers and supporters in the right wing media – the Reagan-izers – Son of Bush is well on his way to reinventing himself as Son of Reagan, just in time for Election Day.

On the last night of the Republican convention, it was clear that W. had finally caught on to one of "Great Communicator's" best tricks, reading a speech with emotion, if not always comprehension. There was a newfound pathos in his voice, and a new sincerity in the eye. To complete the picture of Reaganesque mystique, a wife emerged at the end in a bright red suit to gaze at him in silent adoration. The only thing missing was the Gipper's slicked back do, all Grecian formula and hair oil.

Though revved up in this election year, the process of Reaganizing Bush has been long and ongoing, harking back to 1999 when he bought the ranch in Crawford. W. needed the ranch not just to kick back (he could do that just as well in Kennebunkport), but to have the right backdrop for his upcoming political cameos in the 2000 presidential election.

To really pull on the Gipper's boots, though, W. needed more than just the 1,600 acres. He had to recast himself as a "revolutionary,” just as Reagan styled himself as the Che Guevara of those oppressed by high taxes, welfare mothers and gum-mint.

In 2000, Bush had to content himself with battling the grave domestic peril of Clintonian amorality. He was still missing a furr-in enemy, one that was suitably satanic in spirit and big enough to inspire superpower-size military vengeance – his very own "evil empire." So it must have come as a relief when Osama bin Laden stepped up to the plate in 2001, and made ''evildoers'' an integral part of the presidential lexicon.

Not satisfied with a mere global terrorist organization like al Qaeda, the Reaganizers went on to coin an entire "Axis of Evil," which included a handy list of future enemies – Iran, Iraq and North Korea – just in case anyone expected a simple victory in Afghanistan to vanquish the metastatic foe.

The Republicans have little to complain about when it comes to W., whose word-mangling vocabulary - Eye-rack, New-Kew-Ler – is every Reaganizer's dream. They do dote on every sign of those low verbal SATs.

When former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan was asked about W's grammatical tics in an online discussion arranged by the Washington Post earlier this month, the professional wordsmith who sometimes teaches at Columbia pronounced herself charmed – even converted – by his verbal incompetence:

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The South Will Rise Again

On a recent trip through South Carolina, I visited the Museum of the Daughters of the Confederacy in Charleston. The charming curator there, June Murray Wells, is a trim 70-something raconteur who remembers being asked to pull tight the corset stays for bird-like nonagenarians in the 1940s whose daddies really had worn the grey in the Civil War.

With Hurricane Charley bearing down on us, Mrs. Wells reminisced about the last big hurricane to slam Charleston — Hugo in 1989 — and walked me over to a display case which, she said, held the single most precious object in the Museum’s entire collection, one that provoked thousands of concerned letters from across the South after the big storm, inquiring about its safety.

On a bed of red velvet, I saw what pearl of great price had survived. A single coiled yellow-gray strand of Robert E. Lee’s hair, purportedly trimmed from the actual corpse’s head.

Medieval relic worship cannot surprise anyone who has spent any time at all in the Palmetto State, where state legislators famously refused to take the Confederate flag down from the Statehouse dome in this new millennium. Charleston is, after all, home to the Citadel, whose towering pink faux-feudal crenellated walls still cloister fresh generations of Southern men who sport spit-shined swords and memorize the fine and not so fine arts of war.

That Old South, though, is crumbling away, notwithstanding the integrity of those walls. The change has not been sudden, but more of an erosion. Slowly, slowly – as slowly as the hundred long years of Strom Thurmond’s life – the reign of white and black men who came of age in an era of separate drinking fountains and burning crosses is ending.

Republicans – as they are wont to remind black voters – freed the slaves under Abraham Lincoln. The South was dominated, though, by white male Democrats throughout the first half of the twentieth century, until LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Southern majority turned to the Republican Party, which has been quadrennially tossing racist red meat to poor whites ever since. LBJ predicted that was ahead, remarking, when he signed the law, “I have signed away the South for a generation.” It turned out to be two.

But forty years later, with Thurmond’s death, the retirements of North Carolina’s Jesse Helms and now, Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, and Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia in 2004, the old conservative bulls in the Senate who have retarded the South’s social progress for decades are finally letting go.

There are to be sure, relics still in power. But with each passing year, their luster dims, their strength wanes. There’s the oleaginous disgraced former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. As slick in person as a shiny patch on the Missisippi Delta – and nearly as toxic – he’s still befuddled over being betrayed by his fellow Republicans after publicly pining for the good old days of separate but equal, a sentiment with which, he surely thought, any Southern man would concur.

Turncoat Democrat Zell Miller of Georgia put in a career-zapping performance that marked the end of his political life when spoke before Dick Cheney on the convention podium on Wednesday. The Democrat running for his Senate seat is an African-American woman, United States Rep. Denise Majette.

The departure of the old white boys isn’t the only needed change. It’s possible that the black civil rights leaders themselves, men like John Lewis, must move on too before the Old South can finally rest in peace. The rhetoric and imagery of black men who cut their political teeth marching in the 1960s, while genuinely heroic, will have to give way to make room for younger black men and women speaking for a generation of Southern blacks whose problems are more complicated than separate drinking fountains.

The change-over couldn't come soon enough. In spite of conventional thinking that says the Voting Rights Act changed the South, poor Southern whites and blacks are still paying the ultimate price for the continuing lock-hold of Old South values on the region’s – and the nation’s — politics. Those quaint-sounding values – chivalry and honor through military heroism – have justified centuries of anti-feminism and countless unnecessary young dead men.

An analysis by The State, a South Carolina newspaper, on Iraq casualties shows the war's death rate for South Carolina – the 26th-largest state – is eighth in the United States, with almost one death per 200,000 residents. That's 50 percent above the national average.

To his credit, Sen. Fritz Hollings has proposed reinstating the draft "because of the inequality for those who have to serve.” Fighting to replace Hollings are Democrat Inez Tenenbaum, state superintendent of schools and Republican Rep. Jim DeMint. Both of them were too young to have voted before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In North Carolina, Sen. John Edwards, Sen. John Kerry's running mate, won his seat from the outrageously Old South pig-farming millionaire Lauch Faircloth, who made his fame by handing over his Senate offices for the use of anti-Clinton hate groups in the 1990s. Edwards served just one term, then opted out of the Senate, leaving former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles as the Democratic candidate this year, who lost to Elizabeth Dole in his first try for a North Carolina seat in 2002. Bowles is widely expected to win against his opponent, Republican Richard Burr, a five-term U.S. House member. Edwards and Bowles, and some of their Republican counterparts represent the new South in their focus on economics — not race – to win over the potential swing vote comprised of Nascar Dads.

It might take a while for the political transition in the New South to emerge and triumph, but signs of its arrival are evident everywhere in South Carolina. Governor Mark Sanford, for example, is a young and relatively moderate Republican who cut his teeth in Congress as part of Newt Gingrich’s wild-eyed Contract-with-America freshman class of 1995. He had the cunning, however, to cut and run back to the executive post in his home state rather than continue associating himself with the extremist wing in Washington. Famous for his ascetic style (he slept in his Congressional office rather than spend taxpayer money on an apartment) he has promoted and signed into law various reforms aimed at opening the South Carolina political process.

So political change is afoot in the South, and the people and landscape are changing as well. After leaving the charming Mrs. Wells in protective charge of Robert E. Lee’s hair at the museum, I moseyed into the countryside beyond Charleston and into the live oak swamps on the Magnolia Plantation, a 600-acre former rice farm turned wildlife refuge.

After bicycling around the old gardens, planted by a member of the Civil War generation who lost his house to Sherman, but who managed to hang onto the property, I met the current owner of the plantation. Taylor Nelson, 27, wears his long hair in a pony-tail and sleeps in a small cabin on the grounds. Committed to conservation, he worries about the effects of the proliferation of nearby housing subdivisions on the region’s fragile wetlands. This 12th generation descendant of slave-owners lives with the Old South ghosts in his own blood, perhaps that's why he wears a red Kaballah string on his wrist.

Arnett Lost in the Spin Cycle

As I write these words, Peter Arnett is presumably packing his bags and hailing a taxi to drive him over the Jordanian border and his future life on a pension.

As in Gulf War One, Arnett was the last American TV journalist broadcasting out of Baghdad. In 1991, he was denounced as a traitor for showing civilian life and death under American bombing, but CNN kept him on the air. Now, after just 11 days of wartime footage on the ground for NBC, not only is his loyalty suspect, he's out of a job too.

In these days of lies and propaganda swallowed whole and dissenters chewed up and spit out similarly, what's amazing is that the old war dog lasted through almost one whole spin cycle before getting the boot. But then, his traitorous crime was committed on a weekend, when only the right-wing watchdogs who never sleep were holding the perimeter.

A brief review of the chain of events before this episode gets flushed away by the next media industry profile in courage is in order.

Arnett gave an interview to Iraqi television in which he said what reporters have been reporting in the U.S. and all over the world for days: "The first war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance. Now they are trying to write another war plan."

This was not news to the Iraqis. It's also not an opinion, having been reported worldwide for days.

To take one example, Newsweek quoted Lt. Gen. William Wallace, the Army's ground commander in Iraq that, "The enemy we're fighting is different from the one we war-gamed against." Newsweek added that, "Because of the fierceness of the resistance and overextended supply lines, the war is going to take longer than predicted, Wallace told reporters." Arnett went on to state that footage of civilian casualties in Baghdad possibly gave ammunition to American war protesters. Not news either.

He then apparently tacitly praised or thanked the Iraqi information ministry for letting him and other reporters continue to cover Baghdad during the 12 years since the Gulf War. That's certainly a notion many would dispute, given that journalists are disappearing from the streets of Baghdad, but not terribly atypical journalistic pandering either.

Arnett's Interview with the Enemy gave the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz an easy Monday morning story with which to scandalize the capital.

Kurtz, ever fair-minded and eager to get "both sides" for his stories, solicited an opinion from National Review editor Rich Lowry who called Arnett an "agenda-driven reporter." Howie also downloaded some quotes from the ravers on Fox to complete his balanced roundup of reax. The White House weighed in that Arnett was "ignorant" of war plans. Howie printed that assertion without noting that no one in the White House has spent a fraction of the time in that war Arnett, the veteran war correspondent, has.

The Wall Street Journal's reporter -- probably also scanning Fox -- picked up the story too, focusing almost exclusively on Arnett's seeming praise of the Iraqi info ministry. Sunday night, while Kurtz and the Journal reporter were typing away, Arnett still had a job -- a nasty one certainly, under nightly bombing, but someone ought to do it.

When he went to sleep, NBC was still behind him all the way, pointing out that he and his crew "have risked their lives to bring the American people up-to-date, straightforward information on what is happening in and around Baghdad" and calling his remarks "analytical."

Oh, how efficiently does a single spin cycle wash away the stain of a Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent during this wartime! By Monday morning, in the wake of the two stories in key establishment newspapers -- and the right-wing howl always inching toward "booooycooottt!" -- NBC and National Geographic had ditched their courageous reporter faster than you can say Tokyo Rose.

"It was wrong for him to discuss his personal opinions" on Iraqi state TV, said NBC President Neil Shapiro. National Geo simply said the Society had not been consulted and had it been, Arnett would have been told not to talk to the Iraqis.

Arnett's mistake -- a big and foolish one -- was to behave like a reporter first, and a Pentagon spokesman second. Having been called a traitor on the floor of Congress 12 years ago, he ought to have learned by now.

The irony of all this is that if we really want to "liberate" Iraq, giving them a taste of the First Amendment in action, with an American reporter free to speak his mind anywhere and anytime, might have brought us a step closer to that stated goal of "winning hearts and minds."

But then, as everybody in the world knows -- and the Iraqis are the last people to need Arnett to tell them -- that Big Ole' Compassionate war plan has been sacked, just like Pete.

Nina Burleigh is researching a book on the scientists who accompanied Napoleon into Egypt. Her book about James Smithson will be published in September by William Morrow.

Missing the Oil Story

Recently I attended one of those legendary Washington dinner parties, attended by British cosmopolites and Americans in the know. A few courses in, people were gossiping about the Bush family's close and enduring friendship with the Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar, dean of the diplomatic corps in Washington. By the end of the evening, everyone was talking about how the unfolding events were going to affect the flow of oil out of Central Asia.

I left wondering whether 6,000 Americans might prove to have died in New York for the royal family of Saud, or oil, or both. But I didn't have much more than insider dinner gossip to go on. I get my analysis from the standard all-American news outlets. And they've been too focused on a) anthrax and smallpox, or b) the intricacies of Muslim fanaticism, to throw any reporters at the murky ways in which international oil politics and its big players have a stake in what's unfolding.

A quick Nexis search brought up a raft of interesting leads that would keep me busy for 10 years if the economics of this war was my beat. But only two articles in the American media since September 11 have tried to describe how Big Oil might benefit from a cleanup of terrorists and other anti-American elements in the Central Asia region. One was by James Ridgeway of the Village Voice. The other was by a Hearst writer based in Paris and it was picked up only in the San Francisco Chronicle.

In other words, only the Left is connecting the dots of what the Russians have called "The Great Game" -- how oil underneath the 'stans' fits into the new world order. Here's just a small slice of what ought to provoke deeper research by American reporters with resources and talent.

Start with father Bush. The former president and ex-CIA director is not unemployed these days. He's been globetrotting as a member of Washington's Carlyle Group, a $12 billion private equity firm which employs a motorcade of former ranking Republicans, including Frank Carlucci, Jim Baker and Richard Darman. George Bush senior and colleagues open doors overseas for The Carlyle Group's "access capitalists."

Bush specializes in Asia and has been in and out of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (countries that revere him thanks to the Gulf War) often on business since his presidency. Baker, the pin-striped midwife of 'Election 2000' was working his network in the 'stans' before the ink was dry on Clinton's first inaugural address. The Bin Laden family (presumably the friendly wing) is also invested in Carlyle. Carlyle's portfolio is heavy in defense and telecommunications firms, although it has other holdings including food and bottling companies.

The Carlyle connection means that George Bush Senior is on the payroll from private interests that have defense business before the government, while his son is president. Hmmm. As Charles Lewis of the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity has put it, "in a really peculiar way, George W. Bush could, some day, benefit financially from his own administration's decisions, through his father's investments. And that to me is a jaw-dropper."

Why can we assume that global businessmen like Bush Senior and Jim Baker care about who runs Afghanistan and NOT just because it's home base for lethal anti-Americans? Because it also happens to be situated in the middle of that perennial vital national interest -- a region with abundant oil. By 2050, Central Asia will account for more than 80 percent of our oil. On September 10, an industry publication, Oil and Gas Journal, reported that Central Asia represents one of the world's last great frontiers for geological survey and analysis, "offering opportunities for investment in the discovery, production, transportation, and refining of enormous quantities of oil and gas resources."

It's assumed we need unimpeded access in the 'stans' for our geologists, construction workers and pipelines if we are going to realize the conservation-free, fossil-fueled future outlined recently by Vice President Cheney. A number of pipeline projects to carry Central Asia's resources west are already under way or have been proposed. They would go through Russia, through the Caucasus or via Turkey and Iran. Each route will be within easy reach of the Taliban's thugs and could be made much safer by an American vanquishment of Muslim terrorism.

There's also lots of oil beneath the turf of our politically precarious newest best friend, Pakistan. "Massive untapped gas reserves are believed to be lying beneath Pakistan's remotest deserts, but they are being held hostage by armed tribal groups demanding a better deal from the central government," reported Agence France Presse just days before September 11.

So many business deals, so much oil, all those big players with powerful connections to the Bush administration. It doesn't add up to a conspiracy theory. But it does mean there is a significant MONEY subtext that the American public ought to know about as "Operation Enduring Freedom" blasts new holes where pipelines might someday be buried.

This is Nina Burleigh for TomPaine.com.

Nina Burleigh has written for The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and New York magazine. As a reporter for TIME, she was among the first American journalists to enter Iraq after the Gulf War.

Forgetting Foreign Affairs

Regular CNN viewers might think that a small group of foreign correspondents normally stationed overseas who were reporting from the States last week were called back home because of the disaster. The truth is more ironic and is one piece of a bigger, troubling trend in US media's foreign coverage.

At least four CNN overseas reporters just happened to be in the U.S. on September 11 because they had been called home to be told that they were either about to lose their jobs, or were going to have to start working from their homes to save the company money.

Foreign news cutbacks are not a recent phenomenon. National newspapers and magazines have shut scores of overseas bureaus in recent years. The cutbacks not only save money for the beancounters but reflect an editorial decision-making process that judges Americans' need to know based on focus groups. This tool of advertisers and political consultants has declared that "serving the public" means more stories about cars, celebrities and cures that don't involve pain. Forget foreign affairs.

The foreign news blackout means that the rest of the world knows far more about America than we know about ourselves, let alone what we know about them. And this triumph of ignorance means that Americans can't even comprehend what motivates those who hate us.

Thanks to these so-called "editorial decisions" at the big news organizations, Americans have little to go on to assess Osama bin Laden, his followers, the Arab people, and the states that we are told by the President harbor the terror networks. The White House would have the public believe that we're hated because we are the land of the free. If only the current state of affairs were so simple.

The last time I visited Baghdad, as a reporter in fall 1998, there wasn't much of a market for a story in the U.S. about bin Laden's popular allure on Arab streets. No matter that he had been the FBI's most wanted man for several years. Editors I worked with then were rarely interested in stories about Arabs that didn't involve an immediate crisis.

But there was a story. On that same trip, I met a young man in Jordan who drives visitors around Amman for a living. One night I asked him what he knew of bin Laden, who at the time had just been the target of an America bombing campaign for allegedly blowing up American embassies in Africa, killing hundreds. I was surprised when the young man's entire voice and demeanor changed.

"Osama bin Laden," he whispered reverentially, dragging out the vowels. "He sleeps under trees. He doesn't care about money or sex. He is pure."

The young man went on to explain that cassette tapes of bin Laden's speeches were quite popular in Amman, easily acquired and passed around among his friends. He also said if the Jordanian police nearby overheard him uttering bin Laden's name to me, he'd be in trouble. Over the next few days, we talked some more about his idol, and I was always shocked by the palpable reverence in which he held bin Laden.

This man was not a terrorist and not a martyr-in-training. He was a practicing Muslim Jordanian with a lot of exposure to Westerners. I learned then that bin Laden's power over him had less to do with the Americans and more to do with intra-Arab politics. In Jordan, where many Palestinian refugees and sympathizers live, he said the Saudi sheiks -- not Israel -- are seen as a major corrupting element among the Muslim population. The oil-rich Saudis practice ascetic restraint at home, but cross the border into Jordan to buy British booze and Iraqi or Jordanian women. My driver said he knew this firsthand.

Many Arabs -- not just bin Laden and his suicidal followers -- view Saudi moral corruption as a cancer on the whole region. From talking to this young man and his friends, I realized that for a significant number of poor Arab Muslims, hatred of America was only one part of bin Laden's complex allure. Curiously -- or perhaps not given their total isolation -- once inside Iraq I didn't find anyone on the streets of Bagdad who had even heard of bin Laden.

But back in the States, a heard-on-the-streets story about this man on the FBI's most wanted list wasn't wanted at all. The lack of interest in Arab affairs that I experienced as a freelance journalist was not just a symptom of the fashion- and buzz-infested glossy magazines. The television networks, newspapers and magazines have all been cutting back on foreign coverage for years. A few months ago, one of the nation's biggest news magazines cut loose a group of reporters, among whom was their most experienced Middle East war hand.

Yet with several years of diminishing foreign coverage behind us, Americans face today's disaster in a knowledge vacuum. Sadly, we have no indication that Bush's advisors are any more informed on the complexities of the Arab region than the general population. Their public statements don't show it. And it doesn't look like the American media is poised to shed much light either as we enter darker days.

Nina Burleigh has written for The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune and New York magazine. As a reporter for Time magazine, she was among the first American journalists to enter Iraq after the Gulf War.

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