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Ronan Farrow and Andrew Bacevich
I’m sharing the regular book reviews — these are more wide-ranging discussions of the themes of a work than a standard review.
RONAN FARROW’s Catch and Kill (2019)
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Weinstein story recently — just watched the hagiographic She Said, which chronicles The New York Times’ reporting; and, now, read Catch and Kill, which documents The New Yorker’s. The feeling — why I think I’m dwelling on it at the moment — is the sense that this is what my generation decided to do with itself. As Zadie Smith wrote in a review of Tár, “I have this sense that every generation has about two or three great ideas and a dozen or so terrible ones” — and the main idea that my generation had was that we could create clear boundary lines in sexual interactions by, first, using journalism to expose the assaults of workplace predators.
I’d missed much of the blow-by-blow of the initial round of reporting and have found myself thinking more about the follow-up — about people like Junot Díaz, who seems to have been somewhere over the line but significantly short of clear-cut assault; about ‘Diego’ in Elizabeth Weil’s New York story who was effectively canceled by his high school for showing friends a nude picture of his girlfriend; about Mary Gaitskill’s fictional Quin, whom she describes as being one of the many, many guys who is “totally in between” being a sexual predator and a straight arrow and whose conduct is very difficult to categorically assess.
This has turned out to be the trench warfare of MeToo — all these head-scratchers about what exactly the boundaries are in sexual dynamics and where the law and the press should show up. Catch and Kill belongs to a different set of concerns — and, in a way, a different era. This was about the impunity of extremely powerful people — Weinstein, above all, but also Matt Lauer, Trump, and, more in the background, people like NBC head Andy Lack or National Enquirer editor Dylan Howard. As keeps being emphasized by Farrow, what matters just as much as the sexual assaults themselves is the system of extremely professional, well-compensated lawyers, executives, pseudo-journalists, and industrial spies who work together to, as Farrow puts it, “protect predators”; and what matters just as much as that is the industry culture that constantly looks the other way, that constantly defers to power and incessantly prioritizes profit and convenience over doing the right thing.
Catch and Kill is so much in the public consciousness that I thought I knew what it was about — about Weinstein, and patterns of sexual assault in media, and The New Yorker, and spies — and, to my surprise, it turned out mostly to be about….NBC. The majority of the book is about the NBC brass developing cold feet over its Weinstein reporting, then slow-walking it, then submitting it to “corporate review”, then killing the story altogether, then actively attempting to deny that it had ever killed it — until, with the accusations against Matt Lauer following Weinstein, the whole NBC leadership toppled like a house of cards. Farrow typically presents himself as a fairly dispassionate reporter — the vibe is of a naif finding himself in the deep dark woods and scrambling for survival as best he can — but he boils over a couple of times, once when he hears the unvarnished account of the most violent of Weinstein’s rapes (“The memory erupted in ragged sobs. You heard Annabella Sciorra struggle to tell her story once, and it stayed inside you forever.”) and once when the feckless-beyond-all-belief Noah Oppenheim, Farrow’s boss at NBC News, delivers his final plea for mercy, saying that the story had been squashed because of “a consensus about the organization’s comfort level moving forward.” That bit of corporate-speak, in place of an actual human apology or explanation, is the last straw for Farrow. He writes:
And there it was, at the end of his arguments: an unwillingness not just to take responsibility but to admit that responsibility might, in some place, in someone else’s hands, exist….That anodyne phrase, that language of indifference without ownership, upheld so much silence in so many places. It was a consensus about the organization’s comfort level moving forward that protected Harvey Weinstein and men like him; that yawned and gaped and enveloped law firms and PR shops and executive suites and industries; that swallowed women whole.
After reading Catch and Kill, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could watch NBC, or any of the channels like it, ever again. It wasn’t just that NBC shied away from a cutting piece of journalism — it was that journalism, at a place like it, in the era of corporate overlordship, was impossible. As Farrow puts it, “Oppenheim scrunched his nose and held journalism at arm’s length, afraid it might get on him.” It becomes completely clear that NBC is media-as-entertainment, with a very light patina of ‘journalism,’ that NBCUniversal makes the critical decisions, and that it is owned by people like Weinstein. “You need to get your boy in line,” said Weinstein of Farrow to MSNBC head Phil Griffin, to which Griffin replied dutifully, “Harvey, he’s not running it with us.” The quid pro quo was both casual and explicit — most memorably, with Weinstein sending a bottle of Grey Goose vodka to Oppenheim in thanks for having had the story spiked, but also in the constant exchange of access for favorable press.
One of the quieter storylines of Catch and Kill is Farrow’s gradual disillusionment with television journalism as a whole. After one particularly dispiriting meeting with Oppenheim — during which, Farrow writes, “I tasted battery acid in my mouth and had red parentheses in my palms where I had pressed nails to skin” — he walks into an elevator bank and sees an old poster saying, “NBC is in color now. You can watch it in color. Isn’t it amazing?” and has a moment of thinking: “And it was amazing. It truly was.” But the corruption of the networks in-the-age-of-corporate-overlordship overwhelms the wonders of color. In his first meetings at The New Yorker, after NBC has walked away from the story, Farrow describes himself as “being like those videos where lab animals walk on grass for the first time,” not realizing that he can actually speak freely, that all language won’t be coded in corporate-speak and legalese pushback. By the end, the storyline is of print reclaiming a devotee. David Remnick, the New Yorker’s editor, thinks of Farrow as “a TV guy” and, as the Weinstein reporting is wrapping up, says to him, “You don’t want to keep this forever, do you?,” but Farrow, glancing around The New Yorker’s offices, is surprised to discover that, actually, “I realized I did.”
What emerges from the narrative is the complete failure of institutional culture to hold people like Weinstein — and Lauer and Lack and Howard — accountable. HR, in-house counsel, institutional safeguards, etc, all serve at the behest of the hierarchical structure. As Farrow writes, “With painful frequency, stories of abuse by powerful people are also stories of failures of board culture.” And maybe most chilling to me — of all of the sordid details in Catch and Kill — is the way that Weinstein’s assistants were routinely deployed as pimps and emotional extortionists. One of his victims, Ally Canosa, describes begging off from Weinstein’s advances and heading to her own hotel room only for the “barrage of texts from his assistants to start up: ‘Harvey wants to see you, Harvey wants to see you.’” And, with that, there is an endless appreciation for institutions that do keep it together, that have actual safeguards in place. The New Yorker is a real star of the show in Catch and Kill — with a robust legal team that is willing to stand up to Weinstein’s assorted threats; and a fact-checking department that provides sufficient cover for The New Yorker to go to press with the story without being particularly afraid of a lawsuit.
And what’s striking, in the sort of B-story of Catch and Kill (that of Black Cube and “the world of espionage and endless action”), is the haplessness of the spies to intercept the reporting either of The New York Times or of The New Yorker. In spite of all the cloak-and-dagger drama, it seems like the spies were never close to killing the story once Farrow left NBC and took it to The New Yorker. The sense, with the whole spy episode (which is not so easy to get one’s mind around), is that this assignment was off-brand for them. The spies didn’t like following a reporter or covering for a rapist and, in short order, they had turned on their employers and were leaking all kinds of things to Farrow. In the end, it’s sort of just an interesting glimpse of tradecraft — a whole world that I didn’t really know existed but seems to be fairly far-flung, in which somebody like the deeply-intriguing Stella Penn Pechanac, a Bosnian-Israeli, is able to find an “ideal compromise” between her acting ambitions and military background, infiltrating all sorts of entities, playing a part all of her life.
As for what matters most, the stories of the women harassed, assaulted, and raped by Weinstein (and by Trump, Lauer, etc, etc), the accounts are maybe even more harrowing than we remember them from the initial, careful reporting. There’s Weinstein’s endlessly-repeated routine of inviting women to professional meetings, shifting the meeting to his hotel room, and then demanding that the women massage him or join him in the shower. There’s Weinstein breaking into Annabella Sciorra’s apartment and forcibly raping her. And then there are the threats and the systematic efforts to destroy the careers of women who refused his advances or complained about what he had done.
The overwhelming sense is that the system that was in place before #MeToo was completely unavailing — the law and the workplace institutions were an insufficient recourse. The dam did have to break and if we’re now in a completely different (and deeply problematic) dispensation, in which charges of harassment and inappropriate behavior are settled over social media, it’s also true that the old system of ‘institutional safeguards’ was never, ever going to protect women from systematic assault in highly-hierarchical companies. To get there really did take incredible courage by Farrow and by The New York Times reporters and by the women who broke their NDAs to share their stories. With all of the different twists and turns of the #MeToo era and its never-ending fallout, that initial courage should never be forgotten.
ANDREW BACEVICH’s Washington Rules (2010)
I’ve been concerned in my political writing here that I’ve been drifting too far to the center-right. This probably has less to do with underlying beliefs that it does with living in a liberal part of the country and therefore finding liberal perspectives more immediately annoying than conservative ones. I do mean to take in left-wing critiques, and do scan regularly through left-leaning publications. At the moment, I’m finding — and this is my general sense from reading through The Nation, Grist, TomDispatch, etc — that the left is pretty intellectually bankrupt, rallying around a series of feel-good talking points without much regard to the actual movements of power. But there is one domain where I find the left to still have an abidingly trenchant perspective — and that’s in the critique of America’s military spending and of the military-industrial complex in general.
Colonel Andrew Bacevich, Vietnam veteran, West Point instructor, and unlikely hero of the left, has been making this point for a long time, very cogently, and if I don’t agree with everything in Bacevich’s argument, I do find it important to take it in. As Bacevich writes acidly in Washington Rules, “Call it habit or conditioning or socialization. The citizens of the United States have essentially forfeited any capacity to ask first order questions about the fundamentals of national security policy.”
And, yes, that’s absolutely right. Congress — and, with it, the democratic electorate — seems to have no meaningful oversight over the American Armed Forces and, with that, the extension of American power overseas. As fractious as Congress is, a startlingly bipartisan consensus exists to — as it were — negate Congress’ own authority and to write the Pentagon a blank check every year. At the moment that’s $858 billion, very soon to cross the trillion mark — which is nearly half of all federal discretionary spending. And, incidentally, nobody really knows what that money is spent on — the Pentagon, which has never successfully passed an audit, is only able to account for 39% of its assets. What pops up in the back pages of newspaper and the margins of everybody’s attention is a sequence of foreign wars, in places like Yemen, Niger, Somalia, that have passed through no public debate, that have no discernible purpose, but that contribute to the state of ‘permanent war,’ the war machine cranking ever-forward, and with massive handouts to contractors and the defense industry.
It’s very hard to argue with Bacevich’s central thesis. Were we in a genuine functioning democracy, our public conversations would be all about this military spending and the ways that it is exercised. Since we never talk about it — the defense department’s allocation never creates a ripple in the national consciousness, and even ‘well-informed’ Americans would be hard-pressed to say where the United States is fighting at any given moment — the inference is obvious that we’re not really a democracy. We’re an empire, passed into the condition of being an empire a long time ago (in the ‘40s and ‘50s), and our entire civic life, with our elections and our party politics, is more or less a sort of bread-and-circuses, while the real work of politics is about quietly maintaining what Bacevich calls ‘Washington rules’ — the quiet consensus within the halls of power that keeps the empire humming, that maintains dominant power globally at all times, and that for deeply opaque reasons is far more willing to cut a check for fixing up Helmand Province in Afghanistan than for “fixing up Cleveland or Detroit.”
Washington Rules splits into two parts, both (for different reasons) equally compelling and frustrating. The first part is the history of the post-war period and the establishment of the ‘Washington consensus.’ The real trick to understanding it, Bacevich claims, is through the lens of inter-branch rivalry. The early period of the Cold War, under the laissez-faire rule of Eisenhower, featured the twin fiefdoms of Allen Dulles’ CIA and Curtis LeMay’s Air Force (specifically the Strategic Air Command) dueling for supremacy. Bacevich cites the jaw-dropping statistic that, by 1960, the Air Force had 46% of the Pentagon’s budget share. “By the end of the Eisenhower administration all the elements of the Washington rules were firmly in place,” Bacevich writes — the CIA and the Air Force were in their different ways conducting the Cold War pretty much on their own, the Air Force pushing the massive development of nuclear weapons and edging towards confrontation with the Soviet Union, the CIA creating its own empire around the Third World. In Bacevich’s telling, the two entities were really more concerned with each other than they were with any alleged Communist threat — the “CIA saving the world from the SAC,” as longtime CIA officer Ted Shackley saw it, while the SAC viewed itself as “insulating the United States from any backlash triggered by CIA mischief-making.” Meanwhile, civilian leadership had almost completely abdicated any responsibility, with Eisenhower reduced to “ally and enabler,” and, as he articulated it in his “military-industrial complex” Farewell Address, a sort of hostage of his own Armed Forces.
The ‘60s, in Bacevich’s interpretation, are understood as the Kennedy administration attempting to restore some sort of balance among the various branches but doing so by, at Maxwell Taylor’s instigation, elevating the Army. That, in Bacevich’s view, is what Vietnam really was — the Army catching up to the other branches and the Washington consensus firmly taking hold now with all players at the table (Army, Air Force, CIA, as well as civilian leadership) in sync with one another. Bacevich quotes a 1965 report by National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy advocating for the bombing of North Vietnam by saying, “What we can say is even if this fails the policy will be worth it.” In other words, Bacevich is suggesting, the Vietnam War had nothing really to do with conditions in Vietnam and everything to do with both showing force and creating the inter-agency balance needed to maintain the ‘Washington rules.’ “Somehow, in faraway Southeast Asia, the continued tenability of the Washington consensus was at stake,” Bacevich writes.
The ‘70s are understood as a disruption of the Washington Consensus, which was then soldered back into place by the late ‘90s with Madeline Albright and William Cohen as the epitome of the Consensus-recalibrated. The real split that came to the fore in Iraq was, Bacevich writes, between a doctrine of conventional warfare advocated for by Colin Powell and practiced in the Persian Gulf War and Donald Rumsfeld’s vaunted ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ — with tech and information replacing conventional weaponry and with the United States’ edge in technological development at the turn of the millennium perceived to give the U.S. complete global dominance. Like the failures of Vietnam, the Iraq insurgency should have forced a profound reevaluation of the Washington Consensus — as Bacevich writes, “Rumsfeld’s much-hyped formula for military supremacy turned out to be ersatz” — but, instead, and this is the real focus of Washington Rules, the Consensus took a different direction, with the deeply-discredited Vietnam-era principle of counterinsurgency (COIN) applied to Iraq and Afghanistan and with a reform-minded president, Obama, all too easily persuaded to double-down on military operations rather than withdrawing from them.
If the historical passages of Washington Rules are marred by a somewhat reductionistic tendency (I don’t think it’s fair to assess the Kennedy administration as being simply a tool of the Army), the chapters on the 2000s run the risk of turning into a screed. Bacevich really hates David Petraeus and he never pauses to consider any perspectives that might run counter to his own. It’s taken completely for granted that the United States is the sole superpower and is, in a sense, the only nation with any agency, and it goes similarly unquestioned that the practice of overseas warfare can only result from a sort of bureaucratic self-satisfaction. On the topic of Russia and China, Bacevich writes, “Josef Stalin is long gone, as is the Soviet empire. Red China has simply become China….where promoting exports ranks well above Mao’s teachings.”
Those lines have not aged well in the intervening decade, and Bacevich’s insistence that any rational, non-militaristic policy would result in the immediate drawdown of U.S. forces around the world doesn’t take into account the counter-argument that there are other powers, that the United States does have adversaries, and that a reduction of imperial energies may not exactly lead to a concert of nations but would simply result in other imperial powers picking up the slack. In one of the most questionable passages in Washington Rules, Bacevich writes: “With the advent of World War II, the tradition of America as exemplar — now widely and erroneously characterized as isolationism — stood discredited.”
That seems, clearly, what Bacevich would like to return to — a vision of republican virtue, as laid out by George Washington in his Farewell Address and continued up until the 20th century. The issue is that times changed, the world became more global, and America, whether it wanted to or not, did get pulled into international politics. With the outbreak of World War II, the idea of remaining proudly natural was isolationism — I’m not sure how Bacevich manages to quibble with that word. And the result of World War II was that America found itself with various international entanglements. I’m not sure at what point Bacevich would have wanted to retreat into republican virtue — by not participating in Land Lease? by not instigating the Marshall Plan? by not extending protection to a variety of countries, West Germany, Austria, South Korea, Taiwan, that really were at risk of invasion by Communist powers? It seems difficult, as Bacevich seems to want to do, to treat the 1970s as a golden era of U.S. foreign policy — I’m not exactly sure how he interprets OPEC or the Iranian Hostage Crisis. And, of course, I’m not sure how he would spin the present — with Putin on the offensive, with the Soviet empire not exactly looking ‘long gone,’ and with China both militaristic and expansionistic.
I have to say that the Ukraine War strikes me as speaking to the wisdom of the Washington Consensus. The Pentagon’s bloated budget, the United States’ global presence, did seem ripe for reevaluation through the 2000s and 2010s, but, when Russia invades a sovereign country that has no wish to be part of Russia, it turns out that the sole guarantee of Ukraine’s continued independence is American munitions and American financial support — exactly the exercise of imperial power that Bacevich, writing in 2010, was so contemptuous of.
But if American support for Ukraine turns out to be that unlikeliest of events, a ‘just war,’ that does not, however, obviate the rest of Bacevich’s argument. He’s right that the Pentagon’s budget and the doctrine of global domination should, at the very least, be questioned as part of the democratic process. He’s right that something different and possibly irrevocable occurred in the 2000s — he blames Petraeus — with the state of ‘permanent readiness’ shifting to a state of ‘permanent war’ and with various dirty wars, under the COIN umbrella, proliferating around the world. “Challenging the Washington Consensus requires first establishing the proposition that viable alternatives to permanent war do exist,” Bacevich writes. And Bacevich, I believe, is right in his basic analysis of the ‘50s, of Vietnam, and of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars — the ostensible enemies didn’t really matter and were ever-shifting. What mattered were the branches of the Armed Forces, the ambitions of specific chiefs, and then the rectifying work of civilian regimes to smooth over disagreements in the Armed Forces usually by making the pie larger and spreading it around more equitably as opposed to seriously engaging with the underlying purpose of one or another conflict.
It’s really wild that these sorts of conversations are still considered ‘fringe.’ They’re in the public record but not part of mainstream history, and the implications of this mode of thought are almost never discussed in mainstream media. The justice of a conflict like Ukraine aside, this is the conversation that we should be constantly having. I’m not sure that Bacevich’s vision of republican virtue is possible — personally, I’m more of an avowed imperialist — but it is true that the Washington Consensus has almost nothing in common with the United States’ founding values and we really are overdue to have a reckoning with that.