Journal Entry #49

What we have made of ourselves.

NORFOLK, CONN., JUNE 24—Two friends sent a couple of news items this week that prompt in Cú Chulainn a mood of sober reflection. Just who are we in the nineteenth year of our new century—or, better put, eighteen years after the September 11 events? Living, as the existentialists taught us, is an incessant act of becoming. What, then, have we made of ourselves?

How long has it been since we Americans have had cause to take pride in ourselves by way of what we do unto others? The extent to which it is bitter to pose this question is the extent to which it is necessary to ask it. In this connection, I discount the pitifully hollowed-out boasts of missions accomplished one hears on official occasions—each one an upside-down reminder of the emptiness without purpose we have come to share.

Cú Chulainn notes these thought-provoking pieces in the interest of inducing similar reflection among his readers. The Celtic warrior adds a third news report, equally pertinent, that he found the other week in the Washington Post and instantly printed for the file.

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A FRIEND IN WASHINGTON forwarded an item that appeared last Wednesday in The Gray Zone, Max Blumenthal’s estimable publication. It concerns a paper produced by a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Ben Norton, Max’s resourceful colleague, describes C.N.A.S. as a liberal Washington think tank with formidable connections to the Pentagon, the State Department, and N.A.T.O. I have seen more graceful heads, but this one gives the gist of the story, as heads are supposed to do. It is, “‘Wheat Is a Weapon’: U.S. gov–funded, Democrat–linked think tank proposes starving Syrian civilians to weaken Assad.”

You may need a moment to take that in. By all means: Read it again if you wish. I am going by the reactions of those to whom I have mentioned this item. These include a spirited “W.T.F.???” and reference to the sacred nature of fecal matter. James Carden, a valued compadre, put this in the subject line when he sent the piece: “There are some real sick people in this city. Meet C.N.A.S.’s Nicholas Heras.”

I urge readers to meet Nicolas Heras. Those prepared to do so after considering the head his report inspired can read Norton’s piece here.

Heras is a think-tank functionary with a c.v. best described as “code red.” He was previously a researcher at the Pentagon and, before that, at State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor—an agency concerning itself with interventions and “regime change,” as its name plainly indicates. Heras is also a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, another Washington think tank. This gives him a foot in the neoliberal and neoconservative camps at the same time—the distance between the two being, after all, easily traversed.

“Wheat is a weapon of great power in this next phase of the Syrian conflict,” Heras writes. As Norton interpolates, Heras argues that “Washington can pressure its Kurdish allies to restrict the country’s food supply ‘to apply pressure on the Assad regime, and through the regime on Russia, to force concessions.’”

There are a few things to love about this thesis, apart from its bold-faced inhumanity. “Next phase of the Syrian conflict?” The war is over and America lost it. The Kurds can be forced to join in this craven exercise? This is sheer abstraction featuring, not least, a complete misreading of Syrian politics. First Damascus, then Moscow—both will respond to Washington’s pressure and yield concessions? It is an exceptional leap of logic only a committed exceptionalist could make to suggest the vanquished have such power over the victors when the vanquished are American.

If Americans learned to admit once in a while that they have lost something, the world would be a better place and Americans a happier, less lonely people.

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“HOW’S THIS FOR CREEPY?” So asked an Oregon friend when he sent along an item concerning a distinguished scientist at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. I should say, a distinguished scientist formerly at M.D. Anderson: Wu Xifeng was forced to resign in January after 27 years of often-honored service. Her story just now comes to light, via Bloomberg News. Peter Waldman’s excellently reported, well-reasoned piece is here.

At 56, Wu was a dedicated epidemiologist in the cancer field, meaning she researched groups of patients with similar characteristics—ethnicity, D.N.A., eating habits, sleeping habits—to discover patterns embedded in occurrences of cancer. Where do proclivities lie?—this was Wu’s question. By the time she was forced to resign, Wu was No. 1 at America’s No. 1 cancer-research institution. She has authored hundreds of research papers and served in advisory roles at numerous other cancer-institutions, some of which happened to be in China. Like all conscientious professionals, Wu shared her findings with other researchers in the interest of scientific advance. Some of these also happened to be in China, where cancer research is impressively far along.

M.D. Anderson and the National Institutes of Health, which dispenses roughly $6 billion yearly in support of cancer research, greatly approved of Wu and her work. Collaborations with colleagues are how breakthroughs are achieved. Then came the current wave of xenophobia and anti–Chinese fervor we Americans are now encouraged to indulge in. And then came the F.B.I., with which the N.I.H. and M.D. Anderson have cravenly cooperated.

The Feds’ interest in Wu and other Chinese–American scientists began in 2017, just as our twenty-first century rendition of the old yellow peril was gathering momentum. M.D. Anderson voluntarily gave the bureau access to the email of 23 research scientists on its staff “for any purpose … at any time, for any length of time, and at any location.” When Waldman asked, M.D. Anderson would not tell him how many of these 23 were of Chinese ethnicity. Wu was, obviously, and she cannot possibly have been the only Chinese–American on the F.B.I’s list.

The bureau’s investigation of Wu lasted three months. Her mail archives were seized and combed. Professional associations and collaborative efforts, so recently applauded for their productive results, were suddenly suspect if they involved Chinese scientists. So were Wu’s advisory engagements if they were at Chinese institutions. It was in response to all this that Wu resigned, instantly accepting a position as dean of a school of public health in Shanghai.

The scientist as espionage agent: This was and remains the F.B.I’s theme.

“Creepy” is too mild a term for what has befallen Wu—and dozens of other scientific researchers who happen to be of Chinese ethnicity. “Wu hasn’t been charged with stealing anyone’s ideas,” Waldman explains, “but in effect she stood accused of secretly aiding and abetting cancer research in China, an un–American activity in today’s political climate.”

Well put, Peter Waldman. Good you worked the term “un–American” into your narrative.

Here is Waldman’s thoughtful upsum, and the italics are mine: “The collateral effect, however, is to stymie basic science, the foundational research that underlies new medical treatments. Everything is commodified in the economic cold war with China, including the struggle to find a cure for cancer.”

There is an excellent audio podcast embedded in Waldman’s piece. It is titled “The New Red Scare” and is not to be missed. “The National Institutes of Health and the F.B.I. are purging Chinese scientists from U.S. research institutions,” it begins. “Civil liberties issues aside, this is no way to cure cancer.”

“Purging.” Another word it is well we readers confront—this one, like “un–American,” bearing a weighty historical load. And now it is what Americans do.

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THIS FINAL ITEM concerns another of the hyphenated among us, a Jordanian–American novelist named Natasha Tynes. The Washington Post published a piece about Tynes June 8. I gather quite a lot has been published about Tynes and her travails. Here is the Post piece I read.

Tynes is a Washington resident who, apart from writing novels, works in the World Bank’s publicity department. She is a mother of three, the Post informs us. And until recently she was to release her new work of art, They Called Me Wyatt, this month. An independent publisher, Rare Bird Books, had contracted to do the honors.

Everything changed for Natasha Tynes on the morning of May 10, when she was riding the Washington subway to work. During her journey, she spotted a Metro worker eating breakfast on the job. This is against the transit authority’s rules, and we can surmise that Tynes knew this.

Tynes shot a photograph of the transit worker and sent it out on Twitter. She captioned the image, “When you’re on your morning commute & see @wmata employee in UNIFORM eating on the train. I thought we were not allowed to eat on the train. This is unacceptable. I hope @wmata responds.”

The transit worker was female. The transit worker was black.

Social media instantly lit up in howling, hyperbolic protest. Tynes deleted her photograph less than half an hour later, offering an apology for the “short-lived expression of frustration.” She also called the transit authority to make sure the employee was not punished in any way.

But it proved too late. The horse was out of the barn.

The ensuing fracas raged so far beyond imaginable limits that Tynes felt called upon to contact Rare Bird Books in Los Angeles. A Rare Bird executive reassured her there was life beyond a Twitter storm. All would be well.

All was not well.

A few hours later—it is still May 10th—Rare Birds issued a statement denouncing Tynes for “the policing of a black woman’s body,” and for “jeopardizing a person’s safety and employment.”

Then Rare Bird dropped her publishing contract. Preorders were canceled.

Then the World Bank placed Tynes on administrative leave.

Then Tynes was hospitalized with acute anxiety, later retreating to Jordan for her family’s sake.

And then Tynes sued Rare Bird Books for $13 million. The lawsuit, filed in L.A. by Bill Moran, the estimable media lawyer, noted online threats, alleging Rare Bird had incited them. Moran had the good sense to note Tynes “did not police a black woman’s body,” a very excellent point. She “did not engage in any act of racism,” Moran’s suit added, “and took no action that could have possibly jeopardized anybody’s safety.” Two more excellent points.

And there Cú Chulainn will leave the unfolding tale of Natasha Tynes.

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FOR SOME REASON I do not feel qualified to explain, these three disparate events coalesced in my mind over the past few days. Like the minds of many others, mine has been on the startling, not to say troubling events unfolding in the Persian Gulf. All combined to produce the questions posed at the start of this Journal entry. Let me attempt to trace a train of thought.

I read Washington’s fever for war with Iran as a mark of precisely what it is intended to obscure. It is the fever of a declining power. It indicates the onset of desperation among our policy cliques. All we can do is spoil any sign that a world order worthy of the phrase may emerge, leaving behind our decades of preeminence. This spoiling America does at every turn. For the moment, our eyes are on Iran. There is also Europe and Russia, China and the western Pacific, Northeast Asia.

What is decline made of? Of what does its basic fiber consist?

Of more than wildly miscalculated foreign policies and battlefield defeats, I would say. It might be argued that these are mere symptoms of decline as one finds it at its irreducible base.

In my view decline occurs first in the corrosion of social and family relations. The decline of an empire begins in the bars, clubs, schools, bowling alleys, and living rooms of Americans. They call each other names or think they have been called names. So and so is a Nazi, so and so called me a Nazi—never mind these might be two siblings. You’re anti–Semitic, you’re a Putin puppet, you’re an Assad apologist. Wyoming is a red state, Massachusetts is a blue state. I watch MSNBC, you watch Fox News. Hatred, contempt, and intolerance are recrudescent everywhere. In this line it is the illiberality of liberals Cú Chulainn finds most pernicious. Nearly two centuries on, they are de Tocqueville’s “soft despotism” made flesh.

This is how nations decline. Military defeats are only one measure of the process, and not the most important. It is a matter of the gradual, day-to-day fraying of all kinds of social relations. Friendships end. Families come undone. Fewer and fewer people trust fewer and fewer people. Fewer and fewer people talk to fewer and fewer people.

It begins to look like a form of madness, and one should not be taken aback by this term.

All Americans alive today have taught one another that they would go on forever triumphant, success would always be theirs, no misfortune would ever befall them. There was an assumption of immunity—this deriving from an innate superiority, an apartness and aboveness from all others. I am describing the psychological scaffolding of every American any American is ever likely to meet. What would one expect to happen when lifetimes of presumption turn out to be made of … mere presumption? There is a kind of interior collapse, a confusion, a fear, a disturbance, a desperation—sometimes quiet but often not. This is what I mean by a kind of madness.

Nicolas Heras, his colleagues at C.N.A.S., and the people who sign their checks; the stooges at the N.I.H. and M.D. Anderson, the paranoids in the F.B.I.; the P.C. police and all who cower before them: Odious all, one might say, and fair enough. But N. this B: These people are what we have made of ourselves.

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