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December 08, 2011

We Have Reason to Think That Some of Snowball's Secret Agents Are Lurking Among Us at This Moment!

UPDATE: See my apology to Tablet for this post

I'm inured to the vacuous, casual brutality of most American writing about foreign policy. So I'm not surprised that Lee Smith, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is clamoring for us to bomb Iran's "oil and natural-gas fields, its ports, power plants, reservoirs, and dams." Or his blithe acknowledgement that this will result in Americans being killed at "the Mall of America, the Port of Los Angeles, Disney World, who knows?" Or that he celebrates our support for both sides of the "bloodbath" of the Iran-Iraq war. Or that he believes that "our inheritance includes the Persian Gulf." Or the predictable fact that, as an employee of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Smith opposes democracy.

Still, I was a little taken aback that Tablet Magazine, where this appeared, plastered "Agents of Influence" across a photo of Leon Panetta accompanying the article:


"Agent of influence," of course, is a term used by intelligence agencies for people in positions of power in another country who they've recruited to do their bidding.

There's nothing explaining this picture in the article; it doesn't claim that Leon Panetta—and others in the Obama administration who aren't clamoring to obliterate Iran yesterday—are Iranian spies. Tablet is just, you know...throwing it out there.

Now, obviously I understand this is the go-to move of all political thugs everywhere, if usually more explicit. The crazy jingoists of every country on earth have always accused their domestic political opponents of being secretly in league with their foreign enemy of the moment. That's why George Orwell wrote about it in Animal Farm:

It seemed to them as though Snowball were some kind of invisible influence, pervading the air about them and menacing them with all kinds of dangers. In the evening Squealer called them together, and with an alarmed expression on his face told them that he had some serious news to report..."I warn every animal on this farm to keep his eyes very wide open. For we have reason to think that some of Snowball's secret agents are lurking among us at this moment!"

So Saddam Hussein accused any Iraqis who opposed him of being Zionist agents (or Iranian agents, or both). Anyone who objected to gulags was in the pay of the imperialist capitalist running dogs. People investigating Joe McCarthy's corruption were Soviet moles. Etc., etc. You could make a list as long as the history of political evil.

But here's the thing: Smith, and all the people involved in Tablet, are from the cultural milieu in which I grew up. They went to Cornell (Smith), or Barnard (editor Alana Newhouse), or Stanford (executive editor Jesse Oxfeld). I always took it as a baseline assumption that we'd all read Animal Farm, and understood who the bad guys were—and why. But apparently quite a few of us saw it not as a cautionary parable, but as a how-to manual. Squealer certainly seems to have a lush life! How can I get a job like that?!?

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at December 8, 2011 11:24 AM

How can I get a job like that?

It's too late, Jonathan - your work history already shows too clearly what you really value. The only possible career path, given where you are starting from - a romantic relationship with someone who has control over passing out jobs like that.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at December 8, 2011 01:33 PM

What! ANOTHER armed robbery? "Ah Vennie, ain't there ever gonna be enough?"

I'm SURE if YOU applied to their website YOU'd be well on YOUR way to a new career.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at December 8, 2011 03:17 PM

"It's too late, Jonathan - your work history already shows too clearly what you really value"

Oh, no, that's quite incorrect. All he has to do is have a (lucrative) change of heart and decide that US foreign and domestic policy really is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds and I think the mainstream press would beat a path to his door. The political mainstream is endlessly forgiving in some ways.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at December 8, 2011 04:55 PM

Nice magazine. Thanks for drawing my attention to it.

Posted by: Not Errol Flynn at December 8, 2011 05:02 PM

If I am reading correctly the passage quoted below, I believe Smith says we need to prevent Iranian nuclear programs because otherwise we won't be able to preserve what our brave grandparents left for us--a way of life featuring the interstate highway system, fresh vegetables, and geographic mobility. See below. It's too bad Kubrick isn't around to redo Dr. Stranglove in 2012, and I particularly like imagining General Smith proclaiming the need for a potential world war in Asia to put fresh vegetables on our plates.

"Let us both commemorate and celebrate the American men and women who handed us as part of our birthright the free trade in Europe and the Pacific that made this country wealthy beyond comparison. A major part of our inheritance includes the Persian Gulf, through which the free flow of oil at affordable prices has made possible much of what we now take for granted, like the Interstate highway system, fresh vegetables on our plate, the social and geographic mobility that is a signature of our way of life.:

Posted by: N E at December 8, 2011 06:55 PM

It is easy to have read Animal Farm and nevertheless embody Squealer's rhetoric. Cf. "doublethink" in 1984. Or just call it cynicism.

The mistake is to assume that your classmates were paying attention to what they were reading. Or that they possessed the moral sensibility to apply it to themselves.

Posted by: seth at December 8, 2011 07:20 PM

Nearly a century of using propaganda in the US has damaged many a mind.

Posted by: Dredd at December 8, 2011 08:20 PM

Jonathan Schwarz last three lines of his OP

"I always took it as a baseline assumption that we'd all read Animal Farm, and understood who the bad guys were—and why. But apparently quite a few of us saw it not as a cautionary parable, but as a how-to manual. Squealer certainly seems to have a lush life! How can I get a job like that?!?"

I have to confess I have spent about sixty percent of my times an adult wondering about the same thing.

Posted by: Elise Mattu at December 8, 2011 09:06 PM

Reading that article, "banality of evil" comes to mind. Oh, our blithe imperialists are such rascally scamps! I particularly like the part where he argues that what makes America a superpower "is not our values, but our policies," which I suppose could be regarded as true... but to me, "policies" suggests some degree of thought or success through better ideas, as opposed to the exercise of raw power he's celebrating throughout the piece. And hey, a few thousand dead civilians (or more, who can say?) is a small price to pay for America's exceptional war porn.

I remember as far back as the 80s (although I'm sure it goes back farther) many American triumphalists claiming Animal Farm as their own, because they thought it proved those filthy Russkies were wrong, America was free, capitalism was where it was at, and revolutions by the downtrodden were doomed. Basically, they were championing the pigs, although not all of them realized that. To them, Animal Farm was further proof of their superiority, not something to spur deeper reflection. (Others probably did see it as a great gig.)

Posted by: Batocchio at December 9, 2011 04:52 AM

This is the best blahg on the interwang, bar none.

Posted by: saurabh at December 9, 2011 05:46 AM

i'm kind of wondering if a class of first graders was asked to draw pictures of triumphalists, what would they draw?

Posted by: N E at December 9, 2011 07:26 AM

Obviously Lee Smith has been tasting the hoi polloi lately.

Posted by: Dredd at December 9, 2011 08:40 AM

I don't think they read any of Orwell's work in public school, nowdays - probably prohibited. I know none of the "young people" I've asked have ever read it or I think even heard of it, but this is in the Deep South.

Posted by: knowdoubt at December 9, 2011 10:19 AM

So....the Obama Administration isn't trying to ramp up a war with Iran? They're not the good cop to the Republicans' bad cop? Oh-kay.... I suppose that's why Panetta wants those defense budget cuts.

Posted by: tom allen at December 9, 2011 11:41 AM

So....the Obama Administration isn't trying to ramp up a war with Iran? They're not the good cop to the Republicans' bad cop?

You fool! It only LOOKS like Panetta et al are boring, standard-issue imperial time servers, whose only objection to obliterating Iran right this second is that it might damage our other imperial interests. But IN REALITY, they're highly dangerous Iranian secret agents...burrowing into the National Security State beginning in the early 1970s so they can seize the moment in 2011 and destroy us from within!

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at December 9, 2011 12:53 PM

Previous commenter Knowdoubt: my experience is that young people have often read Nineteen Eighty-Four, but no other Orwell. The novel's attack on Stalinism is well taken, but the more general statements about official falsehoods and state violence not as much, I think. Probably only a minor fraction realize that Orwell was a socialist. The American right has claimed him well, by keeping Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm and forgetting his other works, which are quite explicitly critical of the existing order in capitalist countries.

Posted by: Cloud at December 9, 2011 06:23 PM

In my personal opinion, just about every scrap Orwell had published is worth reading. He's the kind of writer who is fascinating even when discussing authors of a century ago I've never read, and who can start an essay about postcards and turn it into an epic (yet eminently sensible) meditation on dualism and the human condition.

Posted by: Cloud at December 9, 2011 06:34 PM

I read Animal Farm on my own in the fifth or sixth grade. A year or so later I read 1984, also on my own; it's hard for me to believe that I read it so early, but I'm pretty sure I did, because (1) I didn't understand the sexual parts; and (b) by the time I went to junior high school I already had figured out that pep sessions were the Two Minutes' Hate. I'm amazed that American schoolkids have ever been allowed, let alone assigned to read 1984, given the large role that sex plays in it.

I credit Animal Farm with having begun my long swing to the political left, and I'm baffled by people who see it as taking the American/NATO side in the Cold War. Sure, it's anti-Soviet, but it depicts capitalists (represented by the farmers) as without any redeeming traits at all. It was often said that Orwell showed that Capitalism and Communism could not co-exist, even though the books ends with the Communists and the Capitalists sitting down to dine together. They get into a brawl, but the story concludes with the animals looking at them with bewilderment, because it was impossible to tell which was which. If I'm not mistaken (I don't have a copy handy), those are the last words of book. So really, Real Amurricans should oppose its being taught to our children, because while it's anti-Soviet, Animal Farm is also viscerally anti-capitalist.

Posted by: Duncan at December 9, 2011 06:56 PM

You don't think it more likely Tablet regard Panetta as an "agent of influence" because he scolded Israel - more than for the Iranian stuff? Which is funny for all sorts of reasons.

Posted by: weaver at December 10, 2011 05:16 AM

Thanks Cloud for your comments and links, I now know more than I did about Orwell and thanks to Duncan for additional enlightenment. I still think it is no accident and sad that it isn't required reading, at least by High School.

Posted by: knowdoubt at December 10, 2011 06:18 AM

that red-lining cracks me up.

i think all publications should appear that way. that would be an eye opener.

Posted by: N E at December 12, 2011 12:51 AM