“We are not the shining city on the hill, we are the bully on the block.”
Award-winning journalist and co-founder of online outlet The Intercept Jeremy Scahill took aim at the idea of American exceptionalism, every one of the last four presidents and the culture of truth-telling in modern politics in a no-holds-barred speech hinged on one simple idea: who is, and who isn’t, telling the truth.
Scahill, who has no formal training as a journalist — and doesn’t believe any is necessary — made his name as a reporter at the radio program Democracy Now!, but is best-known for his longform books Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield and Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. The former shines a light on American undercover operations, and the latter examines the actions of the private military company Blackwater — now known as Academi — during the Iraq War.
One of Scahill’s biggest targets, which cropped up throughout the hour-long Klarman Auditorium lecture and comment period, was Americans’ belief that they are special.
“We need to stop pretending American mythology is American fact,” he said. This American mythology — which creates spaces for Guantanamo torture and ‘Great Again’ slogans — hinges on the idea America is somehow set apart from the rest of the world, Scahill said.
America, Scahill said, has used this idea many times over the years to justify actions that it would otherwise condemn from other leaders’ mouths.
One example was the “Hague Invasion Act,” which George W. Bush signed into law in 2002. Officially named the American Service-Members’ Protection Act, among a variety of sanctions, it allows the U.S. to use military force to liberate citizens or citizens of allied nations from imprisonment by the International Criminal Court, or any other courts acting on the behalf of the ICC.
The journalist condemned today’s romanticization of George W. Bush — who is now seen, Scahill said, as a lovable man sneaking a candy to Michelle Obama — in the face of the current political era. And this American inclination toward rose-tinted hindsight, he said, helped the current president’s campaign.
“The United States of America has always served a white supremacist agenda,” he said. “When Trump says ‘Make America Great Again’, he means ‘Make America Entirely White Again.’”
Scahill’s talk, the 2019 Kops Freedom of the Press Lecture, was an apt venue for the journalist’s directive to the audience: “live as if the truth were true.” It’s a line taken from a Dorothy Day speech, one that Scahill has been quoting in speeches for over a decade, far longer than the “fake news” crises of the modern political era.
“All governments lie. Even the people you like, you voted for, will lie when they are in power,” Scahill said.
This gives journalists a responsibility: hold those officials accountable for what they say and how they act in office.
Those journalists, he said, don’t require formal education in the business or specific qualifications. Scahill himself started as an intern at Democracy Now! before working his way upwards into the role of a foreign war correspondent. Instead, he said, there’s only one reason that young journalists should go into the business: “because it burns in your heart.”
Scahill, who expressed his support for Bernie Sanders, critiqued each of the last few presidents as falling among the liars: “We don’t need a repeat of the Obama and Biden years,” Scahill said, but called the reign of George W. Bush and his vice president Dick Cheney the “lawless regime of war criminals.” He didn’t hold back on Bill Clinton, either, accusing him of leaning on military action to distract from the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
And Scahill made no secret of his contempt for President Donald Trump, whom he said lied more than any other president. However, Scahill warned the audience — to the sound of applause — that Trump was “not the worst president in history,” because, as he said, “Trump never owned people.”
This full-history view of America’s past, in all of its flaws, reappeared throughout Scahill’s speech. After the talk, he took questions from the audience on topics from Edward Snowden to impeachment.
“Even if [the Democratic nominee is] Bernie Sanders, I don’t think they’re gonna let Snowden just come back to the US as a free man,” Scahill said. Snowden — who is currently living in Moscow — leaked information to then-The Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, with whom Scahill and Laura Poitras founded The Intercept.
The need to “protect whistleblowers” was a common thread with Scahill. He called charges leveled under the Espionage Act for government leaks “abominable” — and the attacks against the CIA whistleblower who accused Trump of pressuring a Ukranian leader for political gain are no different.
As of last Thursday, Scahill said that he found impeachment unlikely, but regarded the Democrats’ efforts as worthwhile, if only to energize their base: “It’s an interesting political year,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this post misidentified the source of the quote “live as if the truth were true.” It is instead from Dorothy Day. The Sun regrets this error.