Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Kings Bay Plowshares 7 and Nuclear Annihilation

Below is a copy of a letter I sent today to the judge overseeing sentencing for the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, a group of activists, several of them elderly, who in April 2018 entered the Kings Bay Trident nuclear missile submarine base in St. Mary’s, Georgia to protest the dangers of nuclear weapons. In October they were found guilty of various federal crimes. They now face up to a quarter century in prison; their sentencing is set for early in 2020.

If you’d like to send your own letter in support, you can learn how here.

****************************

November 26, 2019

Dear Judge Wood,

As a former CIA officer—these days a novelist, activist against torture, and patriotic American—I’m writing on behalf of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7.

I respect the law and I understand it’s your job to follow it. I would only ask that, to the extent possible, you consider how rare and valuable in America are citizens like the accused.

Our country spends almost a trillion dollars a year on the militarymore than the next seven countries combined, four of whom are our allies. Of this, approximately $626 million per year alone is dedicated to public relations. In addition, the Pentagon and various corporate news networks cooperate to promote scores of retired generals as television talking heads. Yet amid all this spending and marketing and information domination, you would be hard-pressed to ever hear how frequently mistakes and miscalculations have taken the world to within an eyeblink of nuclear Armageddon.

There are obvious and unique dangers inherent in fallible humans possessing weapons that, if ever used, will end human civilization and extinguish almost all human life. Yet the government devotes tremendous resources to preventing discussion of these dangers. In such an unequal contest, I believe that anyone with the conscience, courage, and conviction to engage in civil disobedience intended to increase awareness of how close we are tottering to the edge of a final abyss should be cherished and celebrated, not punished.

Thank you for considering these thoughts as you grapple with what would be just for the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, and best for America and the world.

Sincerely yours,

Barry Eisler

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Sadness of Being Human

Yesterday I came across this passage from a recent New York Times article on the Japanese love of cherry blossoms:



The theme of many of Kenko’s passages is impermanence, a central tenet of Buddhism. Wealth, material goods, position, knowledge—all are passing, and all are meaningless. “The truly enlightened man has no learning, no virtue, no accomplishments, no fame,” Kenko writes in another essay, concluding, “All is unreality. Nothing is worth discussing, worth desiring.”
That idea—that everything in life is temporary; that all desire, whether altruistic or selfish in nature, is meaningless—helps explain the culture’s adoration of the sakura. If the cherry blossom can still be relied upon to bloom at a specific time, it can also be relied upon to die soon after: For 51 weeks, one waits, and within seven days at most, one is consigned to waiting once more. The pleasure of seeing a cherry tree in bloom is the sorrow of knowing that it will soon be over. To be in the presence of one is to be humbled before nature, and moreover, to be welcoming of that humiliation. A sakura is the human life condensed into the period of a week: a birth, a wild, brief glory, a death. It is to us what we are to the sweep of time—a millisecond of beauty, a memory before we are even through.
The article continues:
Even now, there is something haunted about the sakura; it is associated with death in a way that people cannot articulate to their satisfaction…

Which of course put me in mind of John Rain's thoughts about Aoyama BochiAoyama Cemeteryin A Lonely Resurrection:

I found myself near Nogizaka Station, and realized I had been unconsciously moving northwest. I stopped. Aoyama Bochi was just across from me, silent and brooding, drawing me like a gaping black hole whose gravity was even greater than that of surrounding Tokyo.

Without thinking, I cut across the road, hopping over the metal divider at its center. I paused at the stone steps before me, then surrendered and walked up to the graves within.
Immediately the sounds of the street below grew detached, distant, the meaningless echoes of urban voices whose urgent notes reached but held no sway over the park-like necropolis within. From where I stood, the cemetery seemed to have no end. It stretched out before me, a city in its own right, its myriad markers windowless tenements in miniature, laid out in still symmetry, long boulevards of the dead.

I moved deeper into the comforting gloom, along a stone walkway covered in cherry blossoms that lay like tenebrous snow in the glow of lamplights to either side. Just days earlier, these same blossoms had been celebrated by living Tokyoites, who came here in their drunken thousands to see reflected in the blossom’s brief and vital beauty the inherent pathos of their own lives. But now the blossoms were fallen, the revelers departed, even the garbage disgorged by their parties efficiently removed and discarded, and the area was once again given over only to the dead.

I thought of how Midori had once articulated the idea of mono no aware, a sensibility that, though frequently obscured during cherry blossom viewing by the cacophony of drunken doggerel and generator-powered television sets, remains steadfast in one of the two cultures from which I come. She had called it “the sadness of being human.” A wise, accepting sadness, she had said. I admired her for the depths of character such a description indicated. For me, sad has always been a synonym for bitter, and I suspect this will always be so.

Hoping I'll be back there this spring, researching the next Rain book, A Killing Affair.

Monday, September 30, 2019

And...Livia Lone is back, in ALL THE DEVILS!



A search for a pair of serial rapists leads Livia Lone down the darkest and most dangerous trail of her life in a pulse-pounding thriller by New York Times bestselling author Barry Eisler.

Ten years ago, the daughter of Homeland Security Investigations agent B. D. Little vanished into thin air. So did seven other girls—the crimes all bearing the same signature characteristics.

Now the disappearances have begun again. And Agent Little’s efforts to investigate are being blocked by forces far above his pay grade. Desperate, he turns to Seattle sex-crimes detective Livia Lone, the most obsessive hunter of predators Little knows.

Livia will need that obsessiveness, and a lot more. Because the two men Little is pursuing are fearsome. Both Special Forces veterans with a dozen tours in Iraq between them. Both sadists and serial rapists. And one, the congressman scion of the vice president of the United States—a man who will use all the power of the White House to protect his son’s secrets and further his own ambitions.

The conspirators have all the assets and all the angles. And every reason to believe they’ll evade justice, as they always have before.

They don’t understand that for Livia Lone, justice is only a guideline. Revenge is the rule.

Praise for Barry Eisler’s Livia Lone:

An Amazon Best Book of 2016

Kirkus Reviews Best Fiction of 2016 Selection

“An absolutely first-rate thriller…Emotionally true at each beat.” New York Times Book Review

“An explosive thriller that plunges into the sewer of human smuggling…Filled with raw power, [Livia Lone] may be the darkest thriller of the year.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Readers may be reminded of Stieg Larsson’s beloved Lisbeth Salander when they meet Livia Lone, and will be totally riveted by the story of this woman on a mission to right the wrongs in her past.” —Bookish

“You won’t be able to tear yourself away as the story accelerates into a Tarantino-worthy climax and when you’re left gasping in the wake of its gut-wrenching vigilante justice, you’ll belatedly realize you learned a lot about a social travesty that gets far too little attention…Livia Lone is a harrowing tale with a conscience.” Chicago Review of Books

Praise for Barry Eisler’s The Killer Collective:

“Impossibly cool.” Entertainment Weekly

“As usual with an Eisler novel, the plot is full of twists, the prose is muscular, and the action unfolds at a torrid pace. The result is another page-turner from one of the better thriller writers since James Grady published Six Days of the Condor in 1974.” —Associated Press

“In this crackling-good thriller from bestseller Eisler, Seattle PD sex crimes detective Livia Lone, assassin John Rain, and former Marine sniper Dox form a testy alliance to combat a vile conspiracy involving corrupt and toxic government agencies…The feisty interplay among these killer elites is as irresistible as if one combined the Justice League with the Avengers, swapping out the superhero uniforms for cutting-edge weaponry and scintillating spycraft. By the satisfying conclusion, the world has been scrubbed a bit cleaner of perfidy. This is delightfully brutal fun.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Vicarious pleasure for anyone wanting to see the scum of the world get its due.” Kirkus Reviews

“Riveting…Barry Eisler pulls off an Avengers-like feat…” The Mercury News
“Eisler turns the heat up like never before to deliver a fun, fast-paced thriller that’s tailor-made for fans of nonstop action.” —The Real Book Spy

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Republic vs Democracy and Other Drugs

The question of how much weight to give individual votes vs regional concerns is an important one on which reasonable people can differ. But the notion that America is either a democracy or a republic is irrelevant to that question (and to pretty much everything else). Worse, these labels, like so many others, while shedding virtually no light also shed a ton of heat.

Not asking for anyone to take my word for it. Just Google “America Democracy Republic” and see where it takes you.

A few examples:

“For all practical purposes, and in most contexts, ‘republic’ and ‘democracy’ are synonyms. The big difference is that the first comes from Latin and the latter from Greek. To say that the U.S. is a republic, not a democracy, is like claiming to eat beef and pork but not cows and pigs.”

“To say that the United States is not a democracy is correct if democracy is defined in a way that no government on Earth, past or present, qualifies as one. It is as useful to say, ‘The Vietnam War wasn’t a war, because Congress didn’t declare war.’”

“I often hear people argue that the United States is a republic, not a democracy. But that’s a false dichotomy. A common definition of ‘republic’ is, to quote the American Heritage Dictionary, ‘A political order in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who are entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them’ — we are that. A common definition of ‘democracy’ is, ‘Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives’ — we are that, too.”

“If there’s substance behind ‘We’re a republic, not a democracy,’ it’s not as a description of American government. There’s really no difference, in the present, between a ‘republic’ and a ‘democracy’: Both connote systems of representation in which sovereignty and authority derive from the public at large.”

If the concern is over how much weight to give individual votes vs regional concerns, why not just talk about that?

There are tons of other topics poisoned by an addiction to nomenclature. For example, instead of a Manichean death match over capitalism vs socialism (as though there’s a single example of either/or anywhere on earth), why not discuss what services are best provided by the government, and what services are best left to the private sector? An important topic on which reasonable people can disagree, and probably one we could discuss with less shouting, if we could get past our love of labels.

So many labels shed more heat than light. I can’t decide if people are attached to them despite this, or because.

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Red Pill

At a party this past Saturday, I got to talking to a couple people about politics. They asked for my recommendations on what they ought to be reading, so I followed up with an email. And because the thoughts in the email might be useful to others, I thought Id publish them here, as well.

************

Hi B&D, great talking the other night and I hope I didn’t rant too much…!

If you want to take the red pill, here’s what I’d recommend as a start:

1. Left/Right/Center. We’re constantly fed a framework of left/right/center. But how useful is that framework for understanding what’s going on in our society? I’d argue that powerful/disempowered; insider/outsider; 1%/99%; front-row/back-row (hat tip to Chris Arnade for that terminology); establishment (what we call in other countries “oligarchy, but thankfully we don’t have oligarchs, at worst we have only billionaires)/everyone else) is a far more accurate and useful framework.

You mentioned Axios, for example. Beyond the curious notion that a self-declared cross between The Economist and Twitter could on balance offer anything beneficial, what does the sites funding suggest about its ideology (hint: think corporate and establishment)? Not saying funding is necessarily dispositive (The Intercept, which I think is great, was founded by Pierre Omidyar, and does good work in bringing transparency to America’s powerful factions (we have factions, remember; only primitive, dark-skinned countries have tribes)). But I think it’s sensible to ponder what Axio’s (or anyone’s) funders, all of whom are presumably smart, sophisticated people, are hoping to get out of their investment.

Also note that Axios’s founders came out of Politico, the world’s premier media for insider baseball and vapid horserace coverage—what NYU media professor Jay Rosen calls “savvy” journalism. I’d argue that the “savvy” ideology is far more consequential in America than left/right. Certainly it’s more insidious. Listen to political conversations among citizens—how much do we discuss substance, such as “X program would be good or bad for society,” and how much have we been trained to focus on “Oh, X program was a smart/dumb move by Y candidate, it will fire up/disappoint the base, provide difficult/easy attacks for her opponents…”

But “savvy” is barely recognized as a journalistic style or means of political discourse, much less an ideology.

2. Bias. The notion of “bias” in media is bullshit and inherently propagandistic. Bias is just the bad word for worldview—that is, “worldview I don’t agree with.” But everyone has a worldview, so “X is biased” is a truism that conveys zero useful information. What we should be asking instead is, “Is this coverage coherent and defensible, is the journalist aware of and open about her biases, does she show her work?” Again, Jay Rosen, linked to above, is terrific on this.

More on the “bias” dodge in The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled. With some links to writers to follow if you’re curious.

3. American Violence Is Always A Force For Good. Of course we don’t call it “American violence.” We don’t even have wars anymore, with “military interventions” more the done thing. Here’s me trying to explain to a Martian why American violence is good and indeed exceptional (how could it not be, given American Exceptionalism? A phrase well worth pondering). I did my best, but I think the Martian was more persuasive.

I think it’s critical to remember that we’re all wired to cut ourselves (and, by extension, our in-groups) enormous slack. See, for example, the Fundamental Attribution Error. This is why Ken Burns could conclude that America’s war in Vietnam—where we killed as many as two million civilians and another million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters was a “tragedy,” like a hurricane or cancer or other act of God that isn’t subject to human policymaking and deliberate decisions. And why no western journalist would ever describe, say, the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan in similar terms.

But what should we say about a country that goes all the way to the other side of the world and kills three million people to spread its ideology (I know, I know, all our wars are about defending, never about spreading, only Putin spreads;)) if we didn’t know the country in question was us? Would we say, “Oh, they meant well, and sure, maybe mistakes were made, but only with good intentions, and when they kill three million people in pursuit of their geopolitical objectives, on balance they’re always a force for good, thank God for that country and we should absolutely trust them with thousands of nuclear weapons, because on balance we’re all safer because of those weapons…?”

(Especially when you consider that the country in question is the only one to have used nuclear weapons in anger, ever. And that’s leaving aside the long and terrifying history of nuclear mistakes and terrifying current vulnerabilities. But I digress.)

Or would we reserve that narrative exclusively for ourselves?

4. Chomsky. The ultimate red pill is Chomsky. Here’s a five-minute cartoon primer on his seminal book, Manufacturing Consent. Note the need for an external enemy, which by amazing coincidence, we always seem to have.

5. Democracy Now! The Chomsky video above is narrated by Amy Goodman of Democracy NowThis is a great general news program. It’s easy to understand DN as leftist media, but again, consider whether left/right is the most useful and accurate framework for understanding what DN is doing, or whether there is something more relevant and important about their priorities.

6. Socialism. I know, I know, the bogeyman! Almost literally, in the sense that the bogeyman doesn’t exist and was invented as a means of scaring powerless children into compliance. America is so massively a corporatist society (but how often do you hear about corporatism in establishment media?) that the notion of socialism as something we should fear actually happening here would be hilarious if the demonization of this word hadn’t been so effective at shutting down conversation about what programs the government can and should sensibly provide, and which are better left to the private sector. Instead, anything America’s oligarchy doesn’t want, it can just label with the fear word “Socialism!” and the conversation is over. In fact, politicians have traditionally been so afraid of being branded socialist that the conversation never even gets started.

Thank Bernie for changing that, BTW. :)

And remember, it’s worth considering “But how can we afford that?” is only asked of social programs, never of our endless wars and trillion-dollar annual war budget. Medical insurance for all? How can we afford that? Space Force? No questions even asked!

Why would that be? Where does it come from?

“We can’t afford X” simply means “X is not a priority.” The same as, “I don’t have time for X” means “X is not a priority.” We’ve all had relatives die of cancer. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I wonder whether, if we diverted a bit of our annual near trillion-dollar war spending orgy—in which we spend more on the military than the next seven countries on earth, five of whom are our allies—to cancer research, whether it might have helped my mother. No way to know, of course. But it couldn’t have hurt.

Still, no matter how you cut it, there’s no way anyone can dispute that America cares more about maintaining a grotesquely bloated military than it does about curing cancer. And pretty much everything else. That’s not because we can’t afford those other things. It’s because we’ve decided spending money on war (oops, I meant to say defense!) is more important.

Anyway, given how effective America’s various power brokers have been in demonizing the S word, and given how marginalized the concept is in America, it stands to reason that an avowedly socialist magazine could be a useful antidote for the nonstop western self-congratulation and endless cheerleading for western wars (sorry, interventions) you’ll find in, say, The Economist. In this regard, I recommend Current Affairs.

The main thing is, whatever flavor of establishment media you might be consuming, you’re still consuming an establishment ideology. The Wall Street Journal isn’t a meaningful balance to the New York Times. Likewise MSNBC and Fox. If you want balance, you have to look beyond the obvious, which is what’s most readily available. And all we’re supposed to see.

A final thought:

As a species, we’re hardwired to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. It follows that we would tend to consume news that comforts us by supporting background assumptions rather than news that discomforts us by calling those cherished assumptions into question. If I’m right about this, it follows that we should probably discount the comforting news, knowing our attraction to it is probably more a function of our internal emotional and psychological longings than of its inherent accuracy or utility as anything more than a kind of security blanket.

If you’re still reading, thank you for listening. And of course feel free to disregard. Theres always the blue pill, and in fairness it is much easier to swallow.

:)

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

If you read my books, you’ve heard of Gavin de Becker, because in my author notes I frequently cite his excellent book The Gift of Fear.

And if you read the news, you’ve heard of him because he’s working with Jeff Bezos in connection with the National Enquirer’s blackmail attempt.

This morning, I came across the following open letter de Becker wrote years ago to Hollywood talent agent Ari Emmanuel in connection with Mel Gibson’s infamous drunken tirade. It is so worthwhile—and so applicable to our toxic social media zeitgeist, in which the common default setting is to assume (and accuse) the worst of anyone we disagree with—that I’m posting it here. I hope it will be widely read. If you agree that it’s worth considering, please share it.

*********************

Dear Ari:

My comments here are not personal; I don’t know you, and Mel Gibson is not a client. Rather, I’m writing about ideas. I read your letter urging the industry to take action “by professionally shunning Mel Gibson and refusing to work with him.” I expect you will one day forgive him—at that moment, you’ll see firsthand that words spoken in the heat of one situation don’t always retain their meaning over time.

About his alleged anti-Semitism, you wrote, “Now we know the truth.”

I haven’t found a lot of truth in drunken tirades. A drunken spouse spits out the words, “I never loved you anyway!” Is that truth? A drunken idiot boasts that he can “take on the whole goddamn bunch of you, you bastards, come on, I’ll kick your asses.” Is that truth?

Mel also reportedly said, “I’ll f*ck you” to the Sheriff’s deputy and that he’d spend all his money to get even with the deputy, but you probably don’t believe he’ll retain those ideas over time. You see, we pick and choose which words to invest with credibility. We project motives onto people based upon what their words mean to us, because it’s very difficult to reliably know what their words meant to them at the moment they were spoken (particularly when they’re out of their minds drunk). And we’ve all learned that words don’t reliably represent beliefs. Some people have probably learned that on phone calls with agents, Ari (“You should be getting double what your agents have been getting you; you’re my most important client; I’d never suggest anyone else for that part!”).

After thirty years of predicting intent through assessing words and context, I can tell you if we start taking the things people say when very drunk or very high or very angry as their enduring truth, we’re all going to have to reassess many relationships. Not long ago, one of my sons told me, “I hate you, Man!” I decided he didn’t mean it. Under the Ari-rule, my forgiveness came too easy.

I recognize there is also some history in this situation. People had already speculated on Mel’s views about Jews, so words he might choose could be clues to those views—as we’ve seen on the news. (Do the rhymes represent flippancy about anti-Semitism? No, but it’s hard to tell what’s in someone’s heart, isn’t it?) If one honors the larger context of Mel’s words playing into a preconception some people had, then one must also honor the smaller context: This was crap he said while very drunk, while being arrested, while scared, upset, out of his mind. Is anybody really able to enter that mind and identify “the truth” within all the raw humanness?

You wrote that “alcoholism does not excuse anti-Semitism,” which is obvious. Also true is that alcoholism cannot be used to prove anti-Semitism. You describe your position as “standing up against bigotry.” I suggest that your position is bigotry, bigotry about alcoholism. And more than that, it’s bigotry about humanness itself, for every one of us has said terrible things.

I’ve heard (sober) agents say things so hateful and unkind that even Deputy Mee wouldn’t jot them down. Speaking of stenography during drunk driving arrests, that’s happened all of one time in the history of the planet earth, because cops don’t give much credence to the crap drunk people say. Even the man who was most abused, Deputy Mee himself, even he says, “That stuff is booze talking.” And he says, “I don’t want to ruin his career,” while you advocate ending Mel’s career outright. A list of people who can’t work in this town based on what someone assumes they believe—didn’t Hollywood already suffer that experience?

Your standard would be very tough to apply fairly. If there were suddenly a public transcript of all the thoughts that ran through our heads on our worst days, we’d have trouble finding anyone we’d want to work with—including ourselves.

You refer to “tragically inflammatory statements”—as if Mel had said this stuff while addressing the U.N. You take words that were sputtered in the back of a police car and link them to “escalating tensions in the world.” That’s inflammatory. And the phrases in your letter are the ones long used to inflame: “standing up against; times in history; how much is at stake; cannot stand idly by.”

There is anti-Semitic violence in the world—and there is Mel Gibson. They are two very different things.

For God’s sake, Ari, Mel hasn’t said, “Forget about it!” He’s owned what he did, called it reprehensible, apologized, said he wants to understand the dark places those words came from, has gone into rehab, and hit his saddest rock-bottom—right in front of the whole world. He’s hardly getting away with anything.

When you do forgive Mel, you’ll be in the good company of many Jewish leaders, and if you wonder why so many have been willing to forgive him, consider that Jews, having been profoundly victimized by intolerance, know the value of tolerance.

We all have our prejudices, our bigotry, and our zealotry. It’s all in all of us. We’re built of the same ingredients, just different recipes. Accepting that truth can help us feel compassion for Mel and his family, right now when they need it. But I understand you’re still angry. I truly do. The whole thing will pass, and I’m sure you won’t be going through your client list identifying the ones who’ve said hateful things, abusive things, racist things—and asking the industry to stop working with them too.

You’re the one who boldly said “standing up against bigotry and racism is more important than money.” It’s a position that would be heroic—except for the hypocrisy. We all fall down. How quickly do we get up and make amends? That’s what endures.

—Gavin de Becker
Author of Bestselling Books about Violence and Words
Bar Mitzvah 1968, Graduated Hebrew School 1969
Never Been Really Drunk
Said Plenty of Regrettable Things When Sober

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Economist: War Is Peace

Two op-eds in this week’s Economist that are doubly interesting side by side. In one, the magazine claims that “America is not at war.” The other castigates Pakistan for impoverishing its people through military spending.

I guess one way of pretending that western military spending doesn’t impoverish westerners is to suggest the phenomenon exists only in exotic, faraway places like Pakistan. And another way is to pretend that America isn’t at war. Not in Afghanistan, not in Iraq, not in Syria, not in Yemen, not in Africa or anywhere else.

I don’t think the term “fake news” has a favorable heat-to-light ratio. But if “America is not at war” isn’t fake news, it’s hard to imagine what would be.

If Pravda had written during the Russia’s war in Afghanistan that the country wasn’t at war, it’s a safe bet the Economist would have been quick to denounce the notion as Orwellian propaganda. What should we call it when the claim comes from a western publication?