Alec Baldwin: Americans have been lied to

Edward Snowden saw things he thought we, as Americans, should know. He valued the truth and thought you could handle it, says Alec Baldwin.

Obviously, we’ve been here before. The United States has been here before. The friction between democracy (or democracy as we like to think of it) and capitalism has often created agonising tensions and dramatic upheavals for America. Those spasms left us at least as demoralised as many Americans feel in the wake of the Edward Snowden-NSA revelations. The reality that the government is spying on Americans on a wholesale level, seemingly indiscriminately, doesn’t really come as a surprise to many, given the assumed imperatives of the post- 9/11 security state. People seem more stricken by the fact that Barack Obama, who once vowed to close Guantanamo, has adopted CIA-NSA policies regarding domestic spying, as well as by government attempts to silence, even hunt down, the press.

Americans, in terms of their enthusiasm for defending their beloved democratic principles in the face of an ever more muscular assault on those principles by the state in the name of national security, are exhausted. If you are a “boomer”, like me, and have lived through the past five decades with any degree of political efficacy, you can draw a line from JFK’s assassination to the subsequent escalation of the Vietnam war, on to 1968 with the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Chicago Democratic Convention and Nixon’s resurrection; from there, to Kent State, the Pentagon Papers, Nixon’s re-election, Watergate, Nixon’s resignation, Ford’s pardon, Carter’s one term and out, the curious Iran hostage situation, Reagan (who brings back a degree of the charm and affability that died in Dallas), Iran Contra, Oliver North, Bush the First (as in first CIA director to become president), Iraq the First, Clinton kills welfare, Gingrich shuts down the Congress, Clinton’s impeachment, the 2000 election, Bush v Gore, Bush the Second, 9/11, Iraq the Second, “Mission Accomplished”, the Swift Boaters, Afghanistan, Gitmo, Assange, Manning, Snowden.

I have left out a good deal. There is, of course, a lot that’s positive running through the American narrative during this time, but I think more bad than good. You look at all of this laid end to end and you’d think the US might have had a nervous breakdown. I believe it actually did.

Americans are pretty basic. Generally speaking, they are a “suit up and show up” type of crowd. In spite of images of rampant obesity running throughout the country, gun laws that border on madness and our debt ceiling made of Swiss cheese, more Americans wake up every day to participate in an experience defined by work, sacrifice and moderate self-denial. They are workaholics who exercise, eat fairly well, drink in moderation and refrain from drugs and extramarital affairs while, perhaps, fantasising about either or both. They are devoted to family, friends, churches and social organisations. They are generous with their money as well as time. When disaster strikes, America is a good place to be.

But one thing that Americans fail at, miserably, is taking their government to task when that government has lied to them, defrauded them, covered up its crimes and otherwise blocked them from knowing essential truths. In political terms, Americans have a strong devotion to afflicting the afflicted and comforting the comfortable. They have a hard time contemplating any meaningful overhaul of the rules of their political system, preferring to say “Please, sir, may I have another” in the face of abuses of power. Americans, despite all of their claims to an “exceptionalism” among the nations of the world, have been lied to for so long about so many relevant topics, they have lost sight of what the truth is.

It seems more difficult, at least to me, to effectively assess historical events that came before my lifetime with the same perspective as those I lived through. Pearl Harbor, Nazi appeasement, Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the Pumpkin Papers feel slightly more remote, more like history, than what’s happened since 1958, the year that I was born. And two great and urgent factors that emerged during my lifetime, I believe, have kept us in a type of karmic stall and prevented the US from growing into what it might have been. One is the Vietnam war and the other is the assassination of President Kennedy.

Kennedy died 50 years ago. Since then, Americans have honoured his legacy, or their somewhat beatified version of it, in every conceivable way. Countless schools, highways, bridges and even airports have been renamed in his honour. Kennedy is not on Mount Rushmore, but in the hearts and minds of many of my generation he exists on his own equally exalted plateau. Yet while a mere photo of Kennedy can still overwhelm one with a sense of loss, while innumerable books have been written and countless words have flowed that till the soil of who Kennedy was, what he stood for and what might have been if he had lived, Americans have not done the one thing you would expect such deep affection for a fallen hero would demand: we still don’t know who killed him.

How much has been written on this subject? Too much, perhaps. To wander into the rabbit hole of JFK assassination theory, one must prepare for a Lewis Carroll-esque tumble through a record, half a century in the making, that is among the greatest lies any society has ever been asked to swallow in the name of moving forward in order to heal itself.

No sane person believes Kennedy was killed by one bitter ex-marine. To be an American today is to accept this awful truth and to live your life with unresolved doubts about your country as a result. Those who promote the Oswald theory do so knowing that some Americans are still incapable of seeing the truth, or they are still working on behalf of the portion of the US intelligence community that remains invested in the cover-up.

Kennedy died because a hell-bent confluence of anti-Castro, pro-interventionist Vietnam war architects believed, after the Bay of Pigs, that Kennedy didn’t have the mettle that a cold war US commander-in-chief required. They swore that Kennedy had to go for the sake of national security. Enter a crew of FBI-monitored American Mafia bosses who had their own beef with the Kennedy White House. A little Fair Play for Cuba here, a bit of David Ferrie there, a touch of David Atlee Phillips and a dollop of Jack Ruby, and it all comes out in a way that adds up to more than a Mannlicher-Carcano and a sixth-floor window. Anyone with eyes can see that Kennedy was shot from the front. Why we haven’t demanded answers after all this time relates to why what happens to Snowden seems so essential to our future.

Snowden saw things he thought we, as Americans, should know. He valued the truth and thought you could handle it. He thought you needed it. Here, in America, 50 years after Kennedy was murdered, after 50 years of destroyed or altered records and vital evidence, someone risked his career, reputation and even his life to bring you the truth about what US intelligence is keeping from you.

I am uncomfortable, no doubt, with the idea that exposing secret government information could jeopardise the lives of US troops or operatives. The efforts of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden carry with them the possible risk of real harm to US forces and agents. But I believe that without a random appearance by the truth now and then, from whatever source, we learn nothing. We are thus doomed to remain on a course bound for not only threats to our own security from within, but a spiritual death as well. As long as we choose to remain in the dark we risk a further erosion of our true nature.

And then we become a nation defined only by our consumption. We are closer to that now than we have ever been. Watergate is the dividing line in the American consciousness, separating the time when we suspected from the time we confirmed certain truths about our government. Setting aside Nixon’s own political campaign operations, Watergate’s subsequent revelations about Vietnam alone changed for ever the way a generation viewed their country and its motives. The government knew the war could not be won and yet ventured on out of pride, greed, ignorance and hatred. Fifty years laced with singlebullet theory, Eric Starvo Galt, the LAPD destroying the RFK crime scene, J Edgar Hoover, the Chicago Seven gagged in court, Nixon, Laos, Howard Hunt, Daniel Ellsberg, Woodward and Bernstein, gas shortages, airline deregulation, Ed Meese, Richard Secord, Dan Quayle, “Read My Lips”, Shutdown One, Kenneth Starr, Richard Mellon Scaife, hanging chads, Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US, yellowcake, Valerie Plame, Cheney, birthers, Shutdown Two.

That is quite a run and a reality that bears certain consequences. I am mistrustful of my government. I think it lies to us, reflexively and without a scintilla of compunction, on a regular basis. That mistrust began on 22 November 1963. In honour of the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, I stand for truth. I stand for more truth and transparency in government. The intelligence community believes that most Americans don’t want to know how the sausage is made. But I can handle it. I think most Americans, a pretty tough bunch, can handle it, too.

Alec Baldwin is an actor and author. Follow him on Twitter: @AlecBaldwin

Americans wave flags at Barack Obama's second inauguration as president. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

Credit: Getty
Show Hide image

Why we should still care about the Commonwealth

It may be a relic of the Empire, but smaller countries in particular benefit from remaining members. 

On the face of it, the Commonwealth is a strange beast. A hotchpotch of 53 nations, covering a quarter of the world’s land-mass, its leaders represent (after a fashion) a third of world’s population.

Born out of the Empire, it was Whitehall’s answer to the conundrum of what to do with an imperial estate that had grown rapidly and uncontrollably. What to do with this giant mess troubled civil servants as early as 1887, and was discussed at a series of imperial conferences. It was only in 1949 that the term “British” was dropped from its title and the modern Commonwealth was born.

Yet, despite its odd history, it remains an attractive option, especially for the world’s smaller states. The Commonwealth is rather like a battered, mended, shabby coat that almost anyone can put on. Its Secretariat resides in the fading grandeur of Christopher Wren’s Marlborough house on Pall Mall. It’s a place Commonwealth leaders can pop into during visits to London; to complain about the rudeness of British politicians, or to ask for advice.

This gives a hint as to just why leaders like it. States like Australia or India have little need for the organisation. But how else would tiny Nauru, in the Central Pacific, with a population of just 10,900 ever have its voice heard? Britain, with its seat on the Security Council, has a responsibility to oblige. The British gift to this week’s meeting is a £61m fund to fight plastic pollution in the oceans.

Leaving aside the concerns of Commonwealth leaders, I was struck by how often I came across the organisation during my time as the BBC’s World Service’s Africa News Editor. Tramping through the East African bush I would stumble across men such as an Indian vet, who had been flown in at short notice to help stamp out some virulent livestock disease. Commonwealth connections can provide assistance from everything from farming to the judiciary. It is this kind of quiet backup that is really important in an unassuming sort of way.

The Commonwealth is full of strange nooks and corners. The CDC (until the Blair government reformed it, the Commonwealth Development Corporation) funds commercial investments. Some investments have been criticised by organisations like War on Want for being too commercial. But for cash-strapped businesses in Africa and South Asia CDC can be a lifeline, committing $1.3bn of direct funding since Commonwealth leaders last met in 2015. Its investments support businesses with over half a million employees.

A brand-new code of conduct to help the media has just been drawn up; put together by a group of journalists drawn from across the globe, with a fair smattering of former BBC staffers. It is full of the sort of worthy aspirations that such drafts normally include. The state and prime ministers are unlikely to give it a second thought.

It was only at last week’s launch that its importance was brought home. One journalist after another stood up to explain the pressures their colleagues were facing: the death threats in rural India, or the attacks on the press in Rwanda. The principles urge Commonwealth leaders to ensure that “journalists can work without fear of attack, intimidation or interference, and to take prompt measures to protect them when they face a serious threat of harm or are subject to attack”. Without sanctions or a monitoring mechanism it is unlikely to be of much immediate help, but slowly – perhaps imperceptibly – it might seep into the patina of the organisation. World leaders don’t like to be called to account.

Britain itself is unlikely to benefit directly from this week’s Commonwealth summit. It is certainly no substitute for membership of the European Union. As Peter Mandelson argued: “for most Commonwealth producers the UK was chiefly an easy route into Europe.” Perhaps the people who have gained most from the gathering have been the Windrush generation. Acute embarrassment at their plight, just when so many Commonwealth leaders were in London, forced Theresa May’s government into a sharp U turn and an abject apology.

Perhaps the Commonwealth is not so bad, after all.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. His most recent book is a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.