Cut-outs, Assets and Plausible Deniability

Emg.Powers-capitolThe latest NoirPolitik Imogen Trager thriller, Emergency Powers–even more so that my earlier books Faithless Elector and Dark Network–focuses on the clandestine, not-so-cold battle between power hungry conspirators and Imogen’s FBI team.

 

Excerpt from Emergency Powers – (Imogen’s friend and colleague, Amanda Vega, tries to get a handle on what’s going on):

“Until recently, Vega’s experience of casework had been decidedly one-sided. She had known only the righteous, powerful sensation of drawing ever closer to the truth, the hunter pursuing the hunted. But this case was different. The prey fought back. Strikes at these operatives were met not with capitulation—or even retreat—but by counterattacks, flanking maneuvers, rearguard actions.

Her friend Imogen, she felt certain, was the latest casualty.

Was it worse than that? she wondered. Did her notion of this investigation as a war extend to espionage and double agents? As she flew home, staring out the window at the country unrolling below, she wondered if the killing was starting again? Had it ever stopped? And what was the meaning of Imogen’s note ?

Just-Secure.Collusion-RangappaAsha Rangappa, together with Alex Finley, and the aptly named John Sipher, reposted their article about intelligence gathering from JustSecurity.org recently: Collusion Doesn’t Have to be Criminal to be an Ongoing Threat, from December 2017, in which they detail the ways intelligence agencies gather information and “assets.”  It makes for chilling reading, particularly with regard to the opportunism of intelligence officers, and the slippery slope of compromise. It jibes with the background research I did as I worked on the book. 

Emergency Powers delves precisely into this world, taking a deep dive and a realistic look at how assets engaged in an anti-democratic power grab might behave.  The key to the dark network conspiracy (decidedly homegrown in this instance), is that it be small, adroit, nimble.  I’m suspicious of secret armies of henchmen (see here); and the key to the conspirators’ success here is that the numbers of those involved, as well as the communications between them all, be minimal. The thriller examines how the conspirators’ recruitment and training.

“Three may keep a secret,” Ben Franklin opines from the pages of Poor Richard’s Almanac–and the epigram for the book–“if two of them are dead.”

In Emergency Powers, the pendulum of control has swung decisively.  If Imogen fails to stop them, it might never swing again.  And as the final pieces are moved into place the loyal operatives begin to wonder whether they will receive their just–or their eternal–reward.

Emergency Powers is making the rounds of agents and editors right now.  Let’s hope it’s coming soon!

Look for the other Imogen Trager thrillers at: Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager NoirPolitik thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third book, working title Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

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Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

 

 

 

Systemic Weaknesses

We are living through what the comedian John Oliver aptly calls “Stupid Watergate”

In my last blogpost, I wrote about how readers found Faithless Elector and Dark Network to be prescientFaithless is a page-turning thriller about stealing a presidential election by manipulating the Electoral College (published well before the 2016 election, thank you); and Dark Network looks at the exploitation of the the FBI in aid of a conspiracy to usurp the presidency.  Many readers are surprised to learn that neither of the parties is behind the conspiracies.

It’s less that each thriller is forecasting doom and intrigue, but that they examine very real weaknesses in the US system and how they might play out, pitting the feisty heroine, Imogen Trager, against the forces arrayed to abet these power grabs.  She is continually marginalized at the Bureau, even though it is her patient, analytical approach that gets results.

“If the president does it, it’s legal…no matter how he got there.”  

blog.DailyBeast-obstructFor two years now, the terms “collusion” and “obstruction” have been in almost constant use with regard to the Trump presidency.  My current Imogen Trager thriller, Emergency Powers (finished, but in pitch-mode), deals directly with collusion and obstruction of justice–only the conspiracy is so well organized that there’s no room for such charges.

Nor is there a special prosecutor:  if the House and Senate are controlled by the president’s party, and the president appoints a savvy, ruthless, hand-picked Attorney General, the minority party can complain, but it can’t really do anything when one party manipulates all the levers of power.  And since the Constitutional powers are operating more or less as designed, it can’t even properly be called a “crisis.”

EMERGENCY POWERS: When FBI Agent Imogen Trager learns that the President has died in office, she knows it’s no isolated tragedy but the final stage of a dark network power grab. The new president owes his position to a clandestine power that’s avid for greater control.  Over the next six weeks, through the new president, they’ll work to solidify their supremacy.  The pendulum of rule has swung decisively.  Unless Imogen can stop them, it won’t swing again.

Not content with merely “owning” a President, the wealthy, ruthless autocrat known only as The Postman plans to tighten his grip on power by staging a horrific false flag terrorist attack, which will allow his new President to invoke emergency powers and martial law.

As bodies pile up and leads go cold, a break in the case arrives when a dark network operative on the run from the FBI and marked for death by the Postman, reaches out. Trager is wary of trusting him, and not only because he’s offering intelligence that sounds too good to be true.  He’s already tried to kill her once.

That’s the premise of the “noir politik” thriller, Emergency Powers.  It’s not precisely what we’re experiencing in the moment, but as the earlier thrillers have demonstrated, it’s certainly possible.  Unless Imogen and her colleagues can trust and exploit their gap in the armor, it might very well come to pass.

blog.StupidWatergate-OliverWe are living through what the comedian John Oliver aptly calls Stupid Watergate, which is “a scandal with all the potential ramifications of Watergate, but where everyone involved is stupid and bad at everything”

But what if an administration were run by smart, seasoned political operatives?

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third book, working title Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

 

Prescient #NoirPolitik Thrillers

Without law, there’s only power.
DarkNet-ad.WithoutLawThe NoirPolitik Imogen Trager thrillers, Faithless Elector and Dark Network remain prescient and disconcertingly relevant political thrillers.
Faithless Elector, the first Imogen Trager thriller, is about stealing the presidency by manipulating the Electoral College.
Imogen follows up in Dark Network, where the shadowy group, headed by a ruthless, deep-pocketed autocrat known only as the “Postman” tries again to twist and upend the Constitution.  Imogen and the FBI are hard at work, but their efforts may not be enough…
Find out who’s pulling the strings in the prescient (and dismayingly relevant) NoirPolitik thrillers, FAITHLESS ELECTOR -and- DARK NETWORK.  Watch for the next Imogen Trager thriller — EMERGENCY POWERS — coming soon!
Faithless Elector, on Amazon:  http://amzn.to/2l5nl6J
Dark Network, on Amazon:  http://amzn.to/2kbB8ZC

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third book, working title Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

Quorum Sensing

My political thrillers are tense, fraught stories of people confronting forces greater than themselves.  There’s no magic (nor magical realism), no dragons, zombies or vampires.  And yet….Screen Shot 2019-04-11 at 4.35.21 PM

The first two Imogen Trager thrillers, Faithless Elector and Dark Network are made the more disquieting because neither Imogen nor the reader know the identity of Imogen’s conspirator nemesis, referred to only as the “Postman,” nor what it is he ultimately wants.

Despite not revealing him, I had to look at events in the stories both from the perspective of my protagonist and from that of my antagonist. Moreover, I had to look at his enablers.  Who invited the vampire in?  And why?

BlofeldI’ve always wondered what drives people to work for/with the bad guys.  In the James Bond world, for instance, why would you work for Dr. No or Ernst Stavro Blofeld?  Beyond a paycheck (and, sure, that may be enough for some), what draws them in such large numbers?  How do you advertise the positions?  Are they just lackeys from the ranks of some sympathetic war lord?  Again, it’s possible, but that just kind of kicks the can down the road a bit.  I mean, how did the war lord get so many?

Here’s what I think happens: attraction, sorting and dissolution happens constantly, until there’s some critical mass.  Sometimes individuals coalesce into small groups but result in nothing more than pitiable sound and bitter, impotent fury.  At other times, they cause great suffering.  There’s an analog in the natural world, among bacteria, called quorum sensing (from US Nat’l Library of Medicine/Nat’l Inst. of Health). 

Screen Shot 2019-04-13 at 12.57.09 PMBacteria, far from living solitary, cloistered existences, signal to one another, organize and coordinate into cooperating structures in a biofilm with specific roles and tasks.  Indeed, some potentially toxic bacteria never reach a level at which they can do damage, never “initiate gene expression for coordinated activities” (see link above), because their signaling and coordination is not turned on until they’ve reached sufficient mass or strength.

Among groups of people, certain phrases and symbols act as signals to draw out and sort those most sympathetic, amendable or susceptible to a World Power or Ruin message into discrete camps.  In small, uncoordinated groups they may appear benign, if distasteful.  But at some threshold, they become toxic and threatening. And, like bacteria, they will kill the host.

What fascinates me is that the elites who are drawn into this political biofilm are originally attracted not to the dear leader’s vision or objectives, but often view joining forces as an expedient to their own ambitions.  They think they’re the ones in control.  But as I’ve tried to explore in the Imogen Trager thriller series, once the juggernaut is set in gear, it will roll over everything.  And you can’t un-invite the Vampire.

Note: I’m grateful to Rutgers University for exposing me to this notion of quorum sensing.  I attended the Honors College Capstone presentations yesterday, where I listened to some wonderful presentations regarding Honors Seniors’ research work, where this came up in relation to bacteria on plastics in our waterways.  My daughter’s roommate, a Biochem and Microbiology major, broke it down for me and provided the NIH link. 

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third book, working title Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

 

Northwest Return

Last week, I wrote about transporting a wine cellar across the plains when myScreen Shot 2019-03-07 at 4.04.06 PM family moved from Iowa City to Seattle in 1979.  This week, as I prepare to come back to the Pacific Northwest, to see family and old friends, before heading up to the Left Coast Crime conference in Vancouver, I’m thinking about my time there (1979-2000).Weekly-80s

 

Somehow, two three-year-old Seattle Weekly nostalgia posts helpfully popped up in my feed to prepare me for coming back. As I’ve been thinking about this trip, I find myself, like the character of Miss Gilfillan in William McIlvanney’s very fine, Docherty, dipping into nostalgia “like a narcotic.”

Back-to-back articles, Seattle in the ‘Eighties, and Seattle in the ‘Nineties, did a lot to spur those memories.  I skipped their piece on the ‘Nought’s because by then I was living in the East.

I recognized the Seattle depicted on both articles, though I wonder how much of the present city I’ll know when I come back at the end of the month.  And maybe it’s fitting that I’m writing about this on a cold, drizzly day here in Philadelphia, the better to feed my nostalgia.  The blinds are down, the light is low, and I can hear car tires swishing as they drive past our row house.Weekly-90s

The black-and-white photos in the Weekly articles best depict the Seattle I know (and still love).  In the scattered, flat light of the Northwest, black-and-white photos seem the most expressive.  They pick up nuances and depth of field that often fail to register in dismal color compositions.

Though nostalgic, this blogpost isn’t meant as some dreary yearning for a “lost” city that was better in the past than it is now, because I’m deeply suspicious of any such remonstrances. In the ‘eighties, I endured long, tiresome disquisitions from aging hippies who hated what Seattle had become.  What comes through in such ubi sunt diatribes is the speaker’s lament for lost youth, not any honest valuation of their subject.  Like Miss Gilfillan, “whose mind had closed a long time ago and in another place, wherever she looked she saw only the shapes of her own atrophied prejudice,” you learn nothing new by listening, unless it’s that you should endeavor to order your life so that your future happiness isn’t predicated on holding onto youth.

My family lived in Montlake, on Hamlin Street, “the museum side” of Montlake Blvd., we’d say, though I guess since MOHAI moved that isn’t particularly helpful. In high school, I worked at The Last Exit on Brooklyn (see “aging hippies,” above), for which I have an abiding affection.

I went to Garfield High for sophomore and junior year, and I spent the first semester of my senior year in France.  I graduated from the Northwest School of Arts, Humanities and the Environment, got my BA in English from the U-Dub and then my MFA there, as well.  I was married (twice).  All three of my children were born in Seattle.

The geographic center of my city was always binary, first oscillating between Pioneer Square and the U District, then Belltown and the U.  After the The Exit, I worked the dinner and late night shift at Trattoria Mitchelli and spent my downtime at the J&M Cafe and Central Tavern; while I lived and went to school in the U district.  Later, I also worked for Pioneer Square Theater, running sound for Angry Housewives and understudying props, lights & sound on The Foreigner.  Over time, one of those centers of gravity shifted north to Belltown and the Watertown, Tugs, the Frontier Room, Raison d’Etre, Mama’s Mexican Kitchen, the Two Bells and a number of venues that came and went quickly.  I ran lights for a couple of shows at The Moore.  I even did a summer internship at the Weekly in 1987.

JMc-Palladian88-MGO took

The Palladian, 2nd & Virginia – 1987

Along with friends and family, what I remember and value most about those years in Seattle was an energy and attitude that still animates me; what the writer Clark Humphrey (another Belltown denizen) refers to as Seattle’s “DIY Ethic,” and it touched everything.

There was a sense (and I mean this kindly), that the stakes weren’t all that high.  In the ‘eighties and ‘nineties, you were allowed to take chances because failure wouldn’t be catastrophic.  Rents–commercial and residential–were relatively low.  There was space for experimentation and innovation.  Mediocre restaurants didn’t necessarily go out of business, but endured, got better, learning as they went.  Musicians often learned to play while they performed in tiny venues. Writers, painters, actors, could do their day-jobs while working on their craft.  People were open, supportive, engaged. The only downside back then was that if you wanted to be taken (more) seriously, you had to leave–for LA or New York.

I’ve lived all over the city, and contemplating any one spot in isolation is impossible.  I’m assaulted by memory.  There’s both the surface and what underpins it, a jumble of memories, images and contexts, like when your cursor rolls over a cluster of embedded links onscreen.  Each spot isn’t just what it is (or used to be), but who lived there, what happened there, what it was on the way to; what I was doing at the time. 

I lived in a couple of different places in Belltown in the late ‘eighties and ‘nineties, and it was largely in order to be close to Pike Place Market.  Here in Philly, I made sure to locate near the 9th Street/Italian Market, because it reminded me of the Market.  You can even get great seafood there, though primarily from the Atlantic, as you’d expect.

JMc-TDT-Seattle Waterfront 88

Alaskan Way, w/ TDT – 1988

Can’t wait to spend some time in Seattle!  Looking forward to staying connected (and reconnecting!) with old friends.

I want to check out all the neighborhoods where I used to live and spend time: U-District, Belltown, Lower Queen Anne; Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley, Capitol Hill, Pioneer Square, the ID.  I want to check out some of the old and new bookstores.  I will eat at Dick’s Drive-in; will get a banh mi at Saigon Deli on 12th.  I want to see what’s left of the viaduct, what’s left of the places I used to know…and what’s going on now.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third and final book in the series, Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

 

 

What Matters Most

mom-JMc-John.IowaCity

My mother, me, and brother

In the summer of 1979, our family set out from our home in Iowa City, Iowa, for Seattle. My father, a professor, had accepted a position at the University of Washington, and we were leaving the Midwest for good.

The university paid for the big moving van, but we had some things to bring along that my parents wouldn’t trust to anyone, chief among them, my father’s wine cellar, which had been growing for many years. The thought of entrusting those 250 or so bottles to a moving van that was not air conditioned as it traveled across the West at the height of summer was not something my father was willing to do.

Chevy.MalibuStnWe were a two-car family. We had a 1965 Chevrolet Malibu station wagon and a 1969 Buick Electra 225. The Chevy had rusted through in some parts around the fenders, and at the back bumper. My parents had gone to Earl Scheib the summer before, and had come back with a paint job that merely sealed the rust in place and barely approximated the original paint. It was now more of a sea-foam green than the gun-metal blue of the original. There were bare spots where the painters had hastily covered up the logos, and the top coat felt scratchy, like a cat’s tongue. The Buick was still in good shape, though years of Iowa winters were also taking their toll on it, and rust was just beginning to bloom around the rear wheel wells.

It was decided that my father and the wine should ride in the Buick, because it had air conditioning. My mother would drive the Chevy, with my brother, me, and the cat. My brother John, thirteen, and I, fifteen years old, were tasked with loading the wine into the Buick.

The Buick Electra 225 was an impressive piece of machinery, more heavy gun boat than car. To sit in its driver’s seat was to be pilot of a massive vessel, the steering wheel more like a tiller or ship’s wheel. The helm answered sluggishly.

Buick.Electra225

The floor of the back seat held four boxes of wine across, with one stacked on top of each, behind the front seats. The rear seats—more a divan, really—held six more, while still leaving room for the driver to see out the back. The trunk kept six more, a total of twenty boxes—240 bottles. When fully loaded, the Buick sat low on its springs, like a bootlegger’s car bound for Thunder Road.

Contemplating the run across country, my father lived in mortal fear of being caught transporting that much alcohol across state lines. He had vivid daylight nightmares where he tried to explain to a Montana State Trooper that these 20 cases were strictly personal use. He was pretty sure it would be not a winning strategy to point out to said Trooper that 240 bottles consumed at the rate of one bottle per night with dinner was not even a year’s supply.  After loading it up the night before the move, John and I threw a blanket across the boxes in the back. I’m pretty sure I heard my father get up at least once in the night to stand at the window overlooking the driveway so he could check on the car.

We set out from Iowa City on a warm, clear June morning. We headed slowly out of town, past John’s and my school, past downtown, past City Park and then joined the stream of cars on I-80, heading west.

Our cat, Wayne, was a seal-point Siamese. He was normally sixteen pounds of yowling, marauding menace, but car rides reduced him to mute terror. On the veterinarian’s advice, we’d slipped him a sedative. We put a tension bar across the two side windows of the “very back” of the station wagon and attached his leash to it, so he could move about, which we had hoped would help him cope.

John-JMc-Wayne.IowaCity

John, Wayne & me

What became clear, even before we had passed Coralville, was that far from sedating him, the drugs had only served to make Wayne feel trapped, like someone in a dream from which they can’t quite wake up, the “witch’s ride,” where you feel paralyzed to move and unable to end the dream, hovering in some trance. The poor cat was a drug-induced prisoner in his own body—and deathly afraid.  His eyes were glaucous, mucus-filmed and his nose drained like someone with a bad cold. Barely ten minutes into the trip, he had succeeded in pulling the tension bar out. I reached back, unhooked him from his leash and put him in my lap. He struggled out of my grasp and onto the floor where he crawled under the front passenger seat, where he stayed for the duration of the trip.

Which was long—four days and three nights across the vastness of the West. It was made longer because my father refused to drive even one mile over the speed limit, once again hoping to elude suspicion. John and I argued, my mother tried to make us feel we were embarking on a great adventure, and the cat cowered under the front passenger seat. Seven hours later, we stopped for our first overnight in Mitchell, South Dakota.

I went into the lobby after my father, because I wanted out of the car. He was standing at the front desk.

motel.generic

“Do you have a ground floor room?” he asked. “Something out of the way?”

They had indeed, and we drove to the back of the motel, where the asphalt parking lot opened out onto the vastness of South Dakota scrubland. My father backed the car into the parking space right in front of the door. Dad went in and cranked up the air conditioning as my brother and I unloaded the Buick and brought the boxes into the motel room, stacking them neatly, under my father’s direction, against the near inside wall. A quick trip to McDonald’s across the parking lot, and John and I went to the tiny motel pool. My mother and father sat vigil in the motel room with the curtains drawn.

In the morning, John and I began loading the car. It was barely 7am, but already the heat was rising, and the dun colored landscape seemed to buzz with latent malice. My father had taken the extra precaution of starting the car and running the air conditioner as we loaded. “Keep the doors closed in between loads,” he advised from the bathroom as he shaved. We put a blanket on top of the boxes, and we set out, a mini wagon train crossing the prairie.

iowa-cornAs the elder brother, I regarded being able to sit in the front passenger seat as my prerogative, and my mother allowed me, if only to keep me and my brother apart. Where the first day had failed to instil any sense of a grand adventure—we’d been over much of this ground before on a trip to Colorado two years before—the second day at least held a kind of rhythm and sense of progression. Cornfields slowly gave way to dry pastureland, which gave way to the badlands and dizzying heat.

NE.pasture

Even with all the windows down (there was no danger of the cat ever coming out from under the seat), traveling at exactly 55 mph, the heat was scorching, the car seeming to roast us as we stuck, slipped and melted into the vinyl seats. John and I did discover a trick to cool off—even for a moment: all it took was to lean forward in your seat, grab a bit of sweat-soaked shirt and tug it away from your back. Leaning back again, the shirt would give a pleasant chill. He and I worked it out that waiting eight to ten minutes provided optimal chilling effect.

badlands.SDAs the sun pounded the car, and I counted the minutes till the next time I could cool down, I would stare at the back of the Electra 225 directly ahead of us and wonder how much nicer it must be in there, sitting on cloth seats. Its Goddamned windows were rolled up! There was an FM radio too.

The jolt of cool, ozone-scented air the Buick exhaled each evening when we’d unload it was the closest we came to knowing those first few days. Strangely, John and I never quite resented the wine or the arrangement. It was more an obligated nuisance, like making allowances for a grandparent—of course grandma gets the comfy chair in the air-conditioned living room where we can’t watch afternoon cartoons on the TV.

The third night, on our way to Missoula, the Chevy died less than ten miles away from the Little Bighorn battle site. We sat by the roadside with it while my father drove to Billings, an hour away, to rent a car. He came back with an Oldsmobile 98. Since the Olds had a much newer, better air-conditioning system, John and I dutifully loaded it with the wine from the Buick.

The fourth night, we were in Seattle, at our new house in the Montlake District, just south of the University of Washington campus. John and I unloaded both cars this time before we were allowed to explore the new house, which, it turned out, already had a space for a wine cellar.

JMc-9thGradeBeginning the next year, with my 16th birthday, we would drink a Chateau Latour, Margeaux or Lafite from the year of my birth, 1964; and beginning with John’s 16th birthday, we’d drink a ’66 from one of those chateaux. I was glad my parents had had the foresight to take care of the wine, glad to have played a part in it, and glad to share in it.

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third and final book in the series, Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

 

Oldthinkers Unbellyfeel Ingsoc

Contemporary politico-corporate bullshitters have weaponized their discourse…

Harry Frankfurt’s Reflections on B. S. (1986), like Corinne Purtill’s recent essay “The difference between a snafu, a shitshow, and a clusterfuck,” does a nice job of distilling the differences, nuances and attendant dangers in an overlooked lexicon.  But there’s more, piled higher and deeper.

Screen Shot 2019-02-17 at 16.50.40Like the differences between “shitshow,” “clusterfuck” and Snafu eloquently described by Purtill and discussed in an earlier post, there’s also a crucial difference between bullshitting and lying. As Frankfurt notes, the difference concerns truth value: one must believe that one knows the truth, in order to conceal it, to lie; whereas, the bullshitter has no necessary relation to truth.

Frankfurt notes that we have all dipped our toe in the swelling tide of bullshit (if not, er, stepped in it); and, like art, we all think we know it when we see it. Often, as the advice a father gives his son makes clear in Eric Ambler’s Dirty Story, we regard one as preferable to the other: “Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through,” says the father.ambler

So, is bullshitting preferable to lying?

I would say that now, 30-plus years on from Reflections’ first printing, it’s the wrong question: in the corporate and political realm, bullshit and lying have become the same thing. Indeed, now, it’s lying by bullshitting.

Journalist Timothy Egan weighs in on a related subject with a NY Times piece this past week on euphemism: “The most egregious of political language fraud,” Egan writes, “as George Orwell noted in his seminal essay on the subject, is used for ‘the defense of the indefensible.’ To that end, the Trump administration has been a fount of criminal circumlocution.”

politics-engl-orwellThough Egan quotes from ‘Politics and the English Language,’ he may indeed be guilty of euphemism himself when he fails to call Trump’s “criminal circumlocution” what it is: bullshit.

Frankfurt’s notion of “truth value” evokes an image in which a lie erects a wall concealing the truth, while bullshit merely litters the pasture. Today, however, contemporary politico-corporate bullshitters have weaponized their discourse, and the most adept practitioners (Mark Zuckerberg, the current president,the Senate majority leader, Lindsay Graham spring to mind) now make the wall out of bullshit to hide or obscure the truth.

“Ah, they’re just bullshitting,” we say of the politician or the corporate flack, and so they often are.  And we stop listening. More to the point, we may grow weary and stop paying attention. In either case, we’ve come no nearer to truth or accountability.

The misidentification of and our winking attitude toward bullshit carries dire consequences. In George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (1946), he equates bad prose with oppressive ideologies, and he’s not wrong. Language exists to convey and reveal thought, and when it’s used to do the opposite, we should be concerned.

“Some comfortable professor defending Russian totalitarianism,” writes Orwell, can’t say outright: “‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.’” People would be aghast. And rightly so. To get there, you would need to hide behind opaque, obtuse language, disguising what you’re saying (perhaps even from yourself), as:

“While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods…”

The above is a species of euphemism; and it might succeed as rhetorical pabulum precisely because it conjures no concrete images, and shades its meaning with ponderous, sonorous dependent clauses, but that’s not what rhetoric does today.

I part company with Egan’s euphemism diagnosis because it sounds like “spin,” an older form of deception.  While it seeks to disguise, spin can at least be decoded by reading between lines. Bullshit in its contemporary guise, by contrast, is about overwhelming. It seeks to shift so much bullshit on everyone and anything that there is nowhere to step. If there were lines to read between, they’ve been buried under steaming mounds.

Trump-emgTrump’s speech this past Friday invoking emergency powers to build a border wall is the apotheosis (or nadir) of bullshit, and it differs from earlier bullshit only in degree. During his speech, if it can be called that, after a series of dismaying, unrelated digressions, after using the word “invasion” seven times; after flinging the bullshit every which way he can, he states that his emergency declaration isn’t actually urgent at all, but an expedient. And yet, admitting that, he will go forward.  Because….ya know.

Screen Shot 2019-02-17 at 16.43.43The only truth attached to this administration was scrawled on the back of the First Lady’s jacket: “I really don’t care. Do you?”

Which is the administration’s surprisingly consistent message behind all the bullshit.

 

 

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third and final book in the series, Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

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