Friday, January 26, 2018

Dirty Tricks

You must pursue this investigation of Watergate even if it leads to the president. I'm innocent. You've got to believe I'm innocent. If you don't, take my job.
-- Richard Nixon

What do you think about this memo, Jim? You think there's anything to it?

A rather large amount of my email this week concerns The Memo.

The secret memo drafted by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, which allegedly describes some kind of chicanery at the FBI, particularly within the Russia Investigation. The Memo was supposedly written by Nunes and his staff, and is supposedly based on "highly classified" information that only a select group of House lawmakers have access to.

Now, naturally the various and assorted frothy conservatives have seized on this supposed memo as "evidence" of some "deep state" which is somehow in some way doing something something gazpacho to undermine Trump – and therefore America.

This memo, because of its supposed high level of classification, can't be released to the public.

Thus the problem: We are so far just required to take Devin Nunes word for it.

Apparently the memo is so classified, it can't even be shown to members of the Senate. Which is currently pissing off Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr to no end. And in addition to the Senate, Nunes has apparently rejected requests from the Federal Bureau of Investigation itself and the Justice Department to view the document.

Which is damned curious.

Because it would appear a large number of Republican congressman have seen this supposedly classified memo and, like my own idiot representative Matt Gaetz from the festering carbuncle that is Florida’s District 1, they are on every talk show in the country describing how it’s finally going to take down all of their political enemies and vindicate every suspicion they ever had about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.


Gaetz isn’t on the House Intelligence Committee. Yet it would appear that he is familiar with “every bit” of this classified memo. 

In fact, a lot of Republican congressmen who aren’t on the House Intelligence Committee have, in their own words, seen this memo.


Hell, even former White House Deputy Assistant to the President, Seb Gorka, has apparently seen this memo. Emphasis on former.


Gorky Park here doesn’t work for the US Government any more.

Which makes me wonder how a guy who doesn’t have a clearance, got a look at this supposedly highly classified document and why we’re not investigating this blatant breach of security. It also makes me wonder why if Nunes can show this memo to Gaetz and Meadows and Gorka and any random hobo sleeping off a drunk on the Washington Mall, why he won’t show it to the Senate or the Justice Department or us, for that matter.

But I digress. Also, apologies for that crack about hobos, that was just mean to Steve Bannon for no reason.


Given my own background, my mail is unsurprisingly full of questions.

Do I think there’s anything to this memo?

I do.

I do think there’s something to it.

But probably not in the manner you imagine.


What do I think?

I think the memo is bullshit, through and through.

I think the memo is bullshit written by a guy who is literally (yes, literally) an expert in shoveling bullshit. We’ll come back to that.

Oh, I'm sure there's a memo.

And I'm sure it's all kinds of damning to the FBI.

And I'm sure that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton feature prominently as villains.

And I’m sure that it says everything Republicans want it to say and more.

But I suspect that this memo is just about as reality free as any random episode of Hannity.

Let’s start here, I want you to ask yourself something: what intelligence?

What intelligence?

Ask yourself what every alleged journalist in the country should be asking Devin Nunes right now: what intelligence?

Ask yourself what every Congressman and every Senator should be openly demanding from Devin Nunes right now: what intelligence?

The memo is supposedly based on "highly classified" intelligence. What intelligence?

Where did this intelligence come from? What agency produced this intelligence?

No, that’s not a rhetorical question. It’s a damned important one and everything starts here. What agency?

What agency is tasked and empowered to investigate the FBI?

And not only investigate the FBI, but an active and ongoing FBI investigation.

Who is that?

I mean, it's not the CIA or DIA or NSA or any other federal intelligence agency. That's not their job. Their job is foreign intelligence.  They work for the Department of Defense. They don't investigate domestic law enforcement, and certainly not an agency under the Department of Justice. In fact, there are a couple of very specific laws preventing them from doing so for very good reason.

Those laws exist because once upon a time, a president used national intelligence agencies to target his political enemies. We called that Watergate. And after Nixon’s abuse of the National Security Agency, among others, laws were put in place to prevent that kind of abuse in the future.

This is that future.

So, who investigated the FBI?

The Secret Service doesn't do this kind of work.

So, who does that leave? The Department of Justice Inspector General?

Well yes, that should be the correct answer. The DOJ IG would be the only agency empowered to investigate the FBI.

But the DOJ IG answers to Jeff Sessions and ultimately to Donald Trump.

So, why would the Office of the DOJ’s Inspector General, a member of the Executive Branch turn over the results of such an investigation, assuming they actually conducted one, to the House Intelligence Committee? Who authorized that? I mean, by definition that authorization has to come from the Attorney General. So, why would Jeff Sessions have to ask Devin Nunes to see this memo? Doesn’t he already have access to the underlying intelligence? Doesn’t Trump?

And the IG is an investigatory organ, not an intelligence agency.

The only way this makes sense is if the DOJ IG wasn’t the entity who produced the intelligence.

So, where does that leave us?

Well, see, there is a difference between The Memo and the underlying intelligence that it is supposedly based on.

And there’s a difference between intelligence collection and an investigation. And so it is possible that one or more of those aforementioned national intelligence agencies did indeed produce the underlying information that Nunes used to then write his memo.

In point of fact, that’s the only possible way this information could have been produced, assuming it is in fact legitimate.

But this then becomes even more problematic and raises all kinds of red flags.

See, according to Nunes, the intelligence is highly classified. Not just the information, but how it was obtained. What the intelligence community calls method and means. Capability.

Now, any physical investigation of the FBI, by whatever agency, would have been public knowledge. Somebody would have had to authorize it. Warrants would have to be issued. And if there were inspectors interviewing FBI agents and carrying files out of FBI Headquarters, somebody would have noticed. Somebody would have said something. There would be no way to hide it. But there's been no report of any such thing, not even rumors of such.  Nor would there be any reason to classify such an investigation, because the methodology for conducting it isn’t a secret.

You starting to understand?

So, this intelligence that Nunes is protecting, information gathering of this nature would, perforce, have to be clandestine and hands-off. The FBI couldn’t know about it. The public couldn’t know about it. The method and means used to gather the information would have to be covert.

That doesn't leave a lot of options.

Either the House Intelligence Committee has a mole in the FBI's Russia investigation feeding them information (which would be illegal) …

    …OR they have access to the tools and expertise and collection capability of a certain US military intelligence agency.

One that specializes in electronic surveillance, signals and communications intelligence.

And that agency, ipso facto, would have to have the ability to monitor phone calls, emails, texts, and the internal communications of not only the FBI, but an ongoing, classified, investigation into possible government collusion with a foreign power.

And there’s only one US intelligence agency with that capability and that’s the National Security Agency, NSA.

And not only does NSA have this capability, but if what Nunes and other Republican congressmen are saying is true about the intelligence underlying this memo, then they used it.

Against the FBI.

Now, you’re going to want to think about that, take some time, and think it through all the way.

The implications are pretty damned ugly indeed.

First, who authorized this?

Who authorized a US military intelligence agency to spy on the FBI?

Somebody had to. So, who authorized NSA to monitor FBI communications?

There are only two options:

a) Either NSA was specifically tasked with monitoring the FBI, or

b) they were already doing it as part of a larger domestic collection effort.

Each option generates dozens of questions. And not one of those questions has a good answer.

Was there a FISA warrant? If so, what was it based on? Because FISA is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Foreign. And the only way to get a FISA warrant to monitor Americans would be if you had reliable information indicating those Americas were colluding with a foreign target. Meaning in this case, you’d have to have evidence that the FBI, specifically somebody in the Mueller investigation, was communicating with Russia. Or was this done (if it was done) under some secret provision of the Patriot Act or similar such law? Or did they just bypass the law altogether? Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is true no matter how many times you care to run the experiment. Worse, the intelligence cycle in America has been essentially broken and nonexistent since the end of the Cold War. Intelligence agencies have gone from being a supporting function which gathers information in direct response to a specific need to self-licking ice cream cones which gather information for the sake of gathering information based on their own internal tasking. And I’m not the only one who’s noticed this. This is an incredibly dangerous situation. No intelligence agency should be able to generate its own targets, that tasking should always come from an outside consumer. Because the power these agencies command is beyond anything you can imagine, the potential for abuse is almost astronomical, and the only thing holding them in check is that they must answer to higher authority. Since the end of the Cold War, that authority has become increasingly detached.

If the FBI – the FBI! – was a target of domestic spying, what other government departments are under surveillance?

When did it begin? With Bush after 9-11? With Obama? With Trump? Is this intelligence gathering against the US government by US Intelligence assets still ongoing?

What is the scope of this effort? Is monitoring of government communications part of a larger operation? One that monitors us all?

Who is the intelligence consumer? Intelligence isn’t generated in a vacuum. This kind of collection is expensive. It has to be funded. Meaning there has to be congressional appropriations. Meaning there is review and oversight (more or less, often the latter). Meaning there has to be a reason for it. Meaning there has to be a requirement. Meaning that requirement is set by a consumer. Who is that consumer? The President? Congress? NSA itself? Who? Because this very much matters.

How is the information stored? For how long? Who has access to it? What are the protocols for ensuring that it isn’t corrupted or manipulated or edited or sold to Wikileaks? 

Which ultimately brings us to the question of why this information was given to Devin Nunes and the House Intelligence Committee in the first place and apparently not the President.

Because ultimately, the President is the executive agency for any such (assumed) intelligence program.

Which is damned curious indeed.

And it gets more damned curious the more you look at it.

The President is the Executive. Tasking for all the intelligence agencies is ultimately based on his authority.

The President tasks national intelligence, not Congress.

The President is the national classification authority. In accordance with US Code and Executive Order 12356, only the President, or his delegated subordinate authority, can classify or declassify information. Only the President or his delegated subordinate authority can authorize access to classified information.

By law, Devin Nunes cannot declassify or release this memo. Only the President or his delegated subordinate authority can do so.

Nor can Nunes declassify the underlying intelligence. Only the President can authorize that.

Nor can Nunes grant access to that information. Only the President can do that.

Nor can Nunes keep the memo from the President based on “classification,” the President is the classification authority, not Nunes. Nunes doesn’t decide who gets access to classified information, that’s the President’s job.

Which brings us back around to why Devin Nunes has access to classified intelligence information that the president, apparently, does not. Because otherwise why would the Justice Department, which works directly for the President, have to ask Nunes to see the information?

And why is Nunes giving his fellow Freedom Caucus members access to it?


Now, if you’ve been paying attention, you noticed a problem with that last sentence.

As I noted up above, there’s a difference between the intelligence and a memo based on that intelligence.

And there are many layers to intelligence.

First is the method and means used to obtain the raw information, which could be anything from phone taps to intercepting texts to the metadata encapsulating electronic communications (which is separate from the actual data itself) to watching people through a telephoto lens and so on. How the information is obtained is often more classified than the actual information itself.

Next is the raw intelligence, which often makes little or no sense to those not specifically trained in its analysis or without larger context.

And finally there is the finished intelligence product, the result of analysis and validation and weighting, tailored specifically to the consumer and sanitized of anything that consumer doesn’t need to know.

Now, here’s the thing: the consumer, despite all the various cautions that come with the finished product, can draw all sorts of conclusions from intelligence, some might even be accurate. Very often, they aren’t.

Let me give you a real-world example from my own personal experience: A few days before the Iraq War began, I led a security team onboard an Iraqi flagged vessel in the Persian Gulf. That vessel had once upon a time been a fishing trawler. Now, this is important because a trawler is a very specific type of vessel. A trawler is designed to drag a large net or nets behind itself, that net is called a trawl. There are many types of trawlers, depending on the species of sea creature they’re fishing for. This particular vessel was a stern trawler. Meaning it had a large ramp called a slipway and winch assembly in the stern. In short, the ship was designed to pull a large net behind itself, then when the net was full of fish, pull that net up the slipway onto the deck so it could be emptied. Now, it had been many years since this ship had gone to sea for fish. It was old and rusting and had passed through a dozen owners, each increasingly shadier. And it was in fact, a smuggler. Running contraband into and out of Iraq in defiance of UN Sanctions – and probably a dozen other countries around the Arabian Gulf. One of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of such vessels in every size and shape; smuggling is an old and honored trade in the region. It’s illegal, but not immoral. My team inspected the ship, I spoke to the master, but they were outbound from Iraq and empty and so we let them go. So long as we didn’t catch them shipping oil or weapons or helping members of Saddam’s regime escape, they weren’t my problem.

A day later the war started.

I was a Navy intelligence officer, it was my job to pay attention to damned near everything going on. And so, between missions, I was reading through a stack of strike orders … and I saw the name of that fishing trawler come up. 

Someone had designated that ship as hostile and assigned an airstrike. And that airstrike was on the deck of the carrier preparing for launch. 

Looking at the justification for the strike, I saw that there were “reports” that the vessel was laying mines. Mines? How the hell could they be laying mines? I’d just inspected that vessel, myself, with my own eyes. There were no mines. They hadn’t returned to port. They hadn’t rendezvoused with any other vessel. So, where did they get these mines? This had to be wrong, I thought. But when I queried the strike commander, I was told there were pictures of this vessel laying mines. Well, shit. Can’t argue with hard intel like that. Okay, I thought. It’s my fault. I missed something. It was war. None of us had slept since 9-11, I think. I was running on bad coffee and catnaps. I was doing several missions a day by then and things were starting to blur together. I must have missed something. But I just couldn’t see how.

So I asked for the pictures.

Nobody could produce them.

Several senior commanders told me they’d personally seen these pictures. But when I asked for them, nobody had  a copy.

Now, we were about to kill 40 people, you’d think the intel that strike was based on would be right at the top of the queue. But it wasn’t.

And in fact, when I started pulling the thread, I could not find a source for this supposed intelligence at all.

With some considerable effort, I got the strike called off.

Instead of a bomb, we sent in a SEAL team. And instead of Saddam Fedayeen rolling mines down the stern chute and wishing death to America, they found a bunch of terrified smugglers sitting on a rusty old tub. They weren’t laying mines. They weren’t doing anything except trying desperately to stay the hell out of the line of fire.

So what happened?

What happened was that somebody read my intelligence report. They glossed over the part where we hadn’t found anything and grabbed onto the part where I’d described the vessel type: stern trawler.

Stern trawlers have slipways and winches.

Which might, maybe, sort of, somebody suggested, could be put to use for laying mines. And from there, the speculation grew among various staffers until that vessel ended up minutes away from being destroyed along with forty-three innocent (relatively speaking) Iraqi crewmen. 

It’s war. Shit happens. We were all tired and amped and we’d been told a bunch of garbage by Washington D.C, most of which turned out to be wrong. Sometimes the fog of war is made by your own people. I eventually got a commendation for saving those Iraqi lives, but that’s not the reason I tell you this story. I tell you this story in particular because it’s one of the few examples from my past that I actually can tell you about and because it so aptly illustrates how even trained military commanders can take intelligence information and filter it through their own bias and create hobgoblins where none really exist.

Now, here’s the thing: Devin Nunes doesn’t even have that. He has no intelligence training at all.

No one, not one single member, on the House Intelligence Committee is an actual intelligence expert of any kind. In fact, they're not even amateurs. Not one of them, Republican or Democrat, has any actual intelligence background, no training, no experience. Of the very few members of the committee that have served in the military, none of them served in any intelligence capacity whatsoever. Two were enlisted army grunts, one was a surgeon, one was a JAG, another was a bomber pilot.

Nunes never served in the military. He was never a civilian intelligence analyst of any kind. He certainly doesn't have any kind of degree in it. He has no intelligence background at all. 

Devin Nunes' degree, training, and experience is in agriculture. Specifically, cows.

He is quite literally an expert in bullshit.

You're going to want to think about this.

You're going to want to think about all of this.

Think about it in the context of the Constitution.

Think about it in the context of public perception.

Think about it in the context of government.

Think about it in the context of who has access to this kind of information and how that terrible power could be abused.

Think about it in the context of freedom and liberty and justice and ultimately what that means to the future of the Republic.

You're going to want to think about that, while bearing in mind the very government in question has recently taken to attacking itself, accusing various agencies of being part of some "Deep State.” Agencies such as the FBI. And suggesting that it be either dissolved or completely reorganized. Think about that in the context of this same government attacking the press, suggesting that it be shut down or even jailed for not saying what the President wants it to say.

This, this right here, is how agencies such as the Gestapo or the KGB are born and how information can be turned into a weapon to be used against a nation’s own citizens.

Which leads us to the final question, why isn’t the press asking these questions?

Why isn’t the press demanding answers to these questions?

There’s not much point in being the watchdog of freedom, if you’re going to sleep while burglars ransack liberty.

Until we have a better relationship between private performance and the public truth, as was demonstrated with Watergate, we as the public are absolutely right to remain suspicious, contemptuous even, of the secrecy and the misinformation which is the digest of our news.
-- John le Carre, British Intelligence expert, spy, author

Disclosure: I’m a retired US Navy intelligence officer. I worked in and around the National Security Agency and other various US and foreign intelligence agencies for more than 20 years. I still know many people who work for those various organizations, both civilian and military. Opinions and observations put forth in this essay are entirely my own. I would neither compromise the trust of my fellows nor betray my oath to protect my nation’s secrets. // Jim

Friday, January 5, 2018

It’s That Time Again

As previously noted, every once in a while I have to ask for money.

Having given up military consulting work and having shut down my woodworking business and art studio when I left Alaska, I subsist for the moment solely on income derived from my social media sites and this blog.

A few years back, I wouldn’t have believed this possible.

A few years back it wouldn’t have been possible.

But despite the sneering criticism of certain vocal critics, it is possible for a writer to make a reasonably decent living this way.

Yes, writer.

It used to be “writer” was defined as somebody who assembled words and ideas into books, short stories, articles, and perhaps screenplays, fact or fiction, and submitted those efforts via various means to editors at publishing houses or various presses or various media outlets, and then lived on cheese sandwiches hoping a check of some modest amount would come back. Traditionally the profession of “writer” meant you repeated this cycle without healthcare or adequate hygiene or presentable clothes until you died, or gave it up for a real job – both of which happened with distressing frequency.

That model, that definition of writer, still very much exists.

And a lot of writers make varying degrees of living from it.

But there’s a new way to do things and that’s where I am. In that strange new middle ground.

I wanted to be a writer since I was kid. It’s a sickness, writing. A weird mental disorder that makes you sit in front of a keyboard for hours, daydreaming and playing with ideas and wondering why anybody would read the blather on the screen. But my grandmother gave me a Hardy Boys book (#8; The Mystery of Cabin Island) for Christmas one year when I was about 8 or 9. I’d been an indifferent reader up to that point, but that book captivated me and my lifelong obsession with words began right there. Somewhere shortly thereafter, in a staggering moment of epiphany, I realized there were actually people out there who got paid to sit in front of a keyboard and daydream and those people didn’t have to put on pants every day. Hell they might not even own actual pants – unless you consider pajamas legitimate work apparel.

I knew then that’s what I wanted to do.

I’d always intended to go the traditional route, cheese sandwiches and all.

I’d never intended to write about politics. But evidence would suggest that’s where my talent lies – if you’re charitable and agree that it is indeed an actual talent and not just something you could train a chimpanzee to do (they taught ‘em to fly spaceships, so I imagine political pundit wouldn’t be that difficult).

But by the time I was free to write what I wanted (upon my retirement from the military) and I started writing in earnest with the idea that someday somebody would give me actual money for it, the world had changed. How we connect to it had changed and continues to evolve at a rapid pace and a new type of “writer” became possible – well maybe not new new, but perhaps a more modern version of the political broadsides and pamphlets penned by the likes of Thomas Paine.

Ten years ago, hell five years ago, I would never have guessed that Facebook would become my primary platform for day to day short form.  Facebook is a horrible platform for the kinds of things I write. It’s a bastard cross between a blog and public forum and doesn’t do either very well. It’s subject to arbitrary and random censorship. There’s no protection for intellectual property at all. It lacks the most basic of editing tools and formatting functions, its search capability is ridiculous and all but useless. Facebook’s interface, timeline management, and display are one of the single most infuriatingly horrible experiences in an age of limitless customization – limitless to everybody but Facebook users that is. It’s impossible to get any kind of help from the operators and it’s subject to every kind of cyber-abuse from bullying to trolling to sexual assault.

And yet – and yet -- it does one thing very, very well.

It does one thing that other technology cannot do, that traditional publishing venues cannot do.

Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and other social media platforms connect writers to people in an organic, viral, geometrically expanding manner that is completely impossible anywhere else and that has never existed before.

Now, interacting with readers on a real time basis for hours upon hours every single goddamned day isn’t for every writer.

Believe me.

It takes a certain degree of masochism to do it.

In point of fact, a lot of writers become writers because they are anti-social bastards who enjoy living on moldy fake-cheese sandwiches and sitting around all day in dirty pajama pants and who tend to break out in a cold sweat when they actually have to put on pants and go outside where all the other people are.

So real time interaction with their audience isn’t something they consider a feature.

And that’s okay.

“Writer” is a loose enough definition that it accommodates the gregarious right alongside the smelly hermit.

But, if you write well, if you write the things people are interested in, and if you’re willing to interact with your audience directly and in real time, then social media makes it possible for your work to spread far beyond the size of audiences normally available to traditional writers. For example: a few years ago, when I started doing this full time, Stonekettle Station averaged maybe 20,000 visitors per month – and that was after 8 years of writing every single day.  Maybe 3,000 people followed me on Facebook. Two years later, with some considerable effort, my daily Facebook audience exceeds is coming up on 150,000 people and a single long form essay on Stonekettle Station can exceed 60,000 unique pageviews in a few hours.

Social media, for all its ills, has created new opportunity, an alternative to traditional writing models. Not a replacement, a supplement.

And that’s where I ended up. That’s where I exist.

I admit that in my case there is some degree of luck. I happened to be in the right place just as opportunity opened with the right experience and skillset and enough free time to take advantage of it.  It suits me. It’s not easy. Really it’s not. It sometimes (often) takes 14 to 18 hour days, research, writing, swearing at the screen, dealing with trolls and hatemail, it can be incredibly frustrating at times for reasons you never imagine or anticipate. It requires constant attention, a constant presence, and everything becomes grist for the mill, making much of your life public – something that is often less than thrilling to your spouse.

It’s work.

Goddamn is it work.

I’ve been invited to a number of writers’ conventions to talk about this with other writers – or those who want to become writers under this new paradigm. That’s something I’m happy to do. I’ve been pretty lucky and I’m glad to pay that forward. The world is a big place, there’s plenty of room for many, many more writers in this new arena and I’m happy to help get them started.

If every one of those quarter million daily readers signed up for Patreon and donated a buck a month, well, I’d be writing this from the deck of my personal yacht.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way and so every once in a while I need to ask for money.

I don’t like this.

But it’s necessary.

And it’s to your advantage.

Yes, donating to me is to your advantage.

Because this way I am independent. I don’t owe anybody, no business, no agenda, no political party or ideology, no boss, I don’t owe any of them a damned thing.  I write what I write, be it long form, short Facebook posts, or a simple Tweet, to the very best of my ability and as I see it – not as somebody else has directed me to see it. I maintain my social media sites, my Facebook page and the Stonekettle Facebook Group, my Twitter feed, as independent entities, managed by me and me alone to my standards and not some corporate agenda.

That seems to be important to you, dear reader, and I take that responsibility seriously.

By remaining independent, I owe only you, the readers, the very best work I can put out and that’s it.

But it only works if you provide support.

I doubt I’ll ever get used it, asking for money, and I’m not sure I want to.  That aversion always, every time, makes me more determined to improve, to work harder, to produce a better product for you and to expand opportunities for YOU to have your say, to interact, in a safe and intelligent forum. For example, I intended to start this subscription drive on the 1st, but I wouldn’t do it until I finished yesterday’s article, Fortunate Son, because I wanted you have content in this new year first.

So, here it is: I’m asking you to donate.

Because my business model is evolving, and because IRS regulations, state and federal laws, etc, all of these things impact this process, I tend to change things up every time.

Here’s how I’m doing it this time:

The donation drive runs from January 1 to February 20, 2018.

I’ll be giving away 20 coveted, one-time only, limited edition Stonekettle Station Pens. These pens will be handmade by me in my workshop and engraved in a manner specific to this particular fund drive. If you follow me on Facebook, or follow my Etsy store, you know how hard it is to get one of these, and how highly prized they are. Donate, and you get a chance at not only a Stonekettle Pen, but one of only 20 of this edition that will ever be made.

I will also be giving away five signed copies of Alternate Truths – the best-selling political anthology which contains my short story: Gettysburg, AND five copies of the sequel: More Alternative Truths, which contains my vignette Doctor Republican’s Monster and my collaborative short, Moses.  

Any subscriber who donates any amount via the PayPal DONATION BUTTON between those dates will be put in the running. Additionally, any subscriber who sets up a NEW reoccurring donation via either PAYPAL or PATREON will be put in the running for something extra (it’s a surprise).

You may do both.

Winners will be announced February 20th, 2018.

To donate, click on the “Donation” button, either embedded in the text below or on the upper right side of this screen and follow the directions.

You may enter more than once. Each donation will be counted as a unique subscription.

If you’ve already donated to Stonekettle Station this month, you’re already on the subscription list.

Those of you who already donate via an automatic monthly payment, you’ll be entered automatically in the giveaway. (See the footnote below for additional information regarding automatic reoccurring donations)

Legal Disclaimer: To be clear, this is not a lottery or a raffle.  Donations are voluntary subscription fees specifically in support of this blog and the associated social media feeds and conducted in accordance with state and federal law.

That is:  you’re paying for content not a chance to win something.

I am not claiming any tax-exempt status or charity. Donations are considered business income and I pay all applicable state and federal taxes on that income and I have the records to prove it.

The items I give away are my intellectual property, created and paid for by me.  As such I chose to randomly gift them to supporters, just as I give away my custom made pens to my fellow writers.  The giveaway list is generated randomly from voluntary subscriptions, since I have no other way to determine who readers are.  You are not donating for a chance to win a prize, you’re paying for the content of this blog and my associated social media feeds and I’m using this opportunity to give something back other than just my usual blog essays, Facebook posts, and Tweets.

As always, thank you for your support.

Reoccurring Payments: If you’ve set up a monthly donation via PayPal and you suddenly realize it’s been cancelled, that’s not me rejecting your money (because I would never do that. I need the money and I’m not too proud to say so). Likely it’s something to do with the PayPal process, usually your card has expired. I have no control over that.

Correction: I originally said “2017” in a several places. Because I’m still typing that by reflex. It’s fixed. 2018.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Fortunate Son

“I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it. If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
-- President Lyndon Johnson, as recorded by staffer Bill Moyers, 1964, while campaigning for the Civil Rights Act

Your privilege is showing

That’s what she said.

I was talking about optimism on Twitter and she cut me off. Your privilege is showing, she said.

Yes, I agreed. My point being that … and she dismissed anything else I had to say and blocked me to prevent any further conversation. And that, as they say, was the end of that.

And that was her privilege, I guess.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Your privilege is showing.

Fair enough, I suppose.

I mean, it’s true. I am privileged. I’m white, male, and straight. And more.

What? You think I don’t know that?

Heh heh. Right.


Let me tell it long, since that’s what I’m best at anyway.

My mom is a child of The Great Depression. And this begins there, in that time.

My mom’s dad kept a journal. Every day of his life, my grandfather would enter at least one line in his journal, the weather, any money that he’d made, jobs he’d done, people he’d met. Unlike his grandson, he wasn’t long-winded. He typically wrote just that one line each day, a brief summary and no more. They don’t say much, each of those entries individually, but taken together they speak volumes. Literally. He left behind a dozen diaries at the end of his long life.

Those journals were passed down to his children when he died. My mother – the family historian – has gone through those books, carefully, years, decades, one line at a time. Scanning them into electronic format, inserting them into the family history. Of course, she lived though much of the events described in those books so there’s not much in there that is news to her.  Rather, the entries serve as prods, reminders, and provide actual numbers, dates, figures, context, a skeleton to hang her memories on.

You see, my grandfather, he didn’t have much in the way of education. He never made it past elementary school, he never had the opportunity.  Grandpa was, well, charitably speaking, strong willed. He knew what he knew and he never had much use for those with fancy educations. Paradoxically, he wanted his own kids to go to school, but then he dismissed anything they learned when it conflicted with his own worldview – a trait that’s hardly unique as such things go, but still aggravates at least one of his daughters many decades later.  When the Great Depression came along, Grandpa had three young children and a wife and not much else. Without an education, or a trade, he was what the history books call a “laborer.” And unfortunately for him, the world was suddenly filled with unskilled and unemployed laborers. All of them with hungry, homeless families of their own.

So, Grandpa did whatever he could. He delivered milk for local farmers. He borrowed teams of horses and tilled fields. He picked apples and dug potatoes. He plowed snow. He did odd jobs, carpentry, digging ditches, whatever he could find. Most times, if he was lucky, he’d get paid in kind. My mom said that the wages for a week’s worth of backbreaking work might be a bushel of potatoes, and that was a good week.

And this is where those journals come in. He logged every bushel of potatoes or basket of beans or peck of apples or whatever bit of money he might bring home.

And so we don’t have to guess about certain things that happened 80 years ago, because he wrote them down.

In 1938, a First Class stamp cost 3 cents, a gallon of gas was a dime, and a movie ticket would run you a quarter.

The average income in 1938 was $1,731 per year. If you were lucky to have a job.

Grandpa? He made $8o that year.

But here’s the funny thing: he was one of the lucky ones.

Oh yes.

He was lucky, even down there on the bottom end of the income scale. Poor. Impoverished. As lean as it was, they made it. They got by. Grandpa didn’t have to leave home and ride the rails to find work like so many others. He was there, home most nights with his family. They had a place to live, with relatives, but they had a place. My grandparents lost a child. My mom and her siblings had to go out back to the outhouse in the Midwestern winter, they didn’t have much to eat, they were cold a lot, but they got by.

They survived the Great Depression.

But they were lucky in another way too.

One day, my mom brought home a friend from school, like kids do.

The friend wasn’t white.

I honestly don’t remember what ethnicity the friend was, not African American, but not white either.

My grandparents were scrupulously polite to their guest. But after she’d left, my mother was given strict instructions to never, ever, bring home such a person again.

And the reason?

My God, what would the neighbors think?

What would the neighbors think?

See, even there, at the bottom of the economic ladder, living hand to mouth, day by day, one precious bushel of potatoes to the next, in the midst of The Great Depression, they still had … that.

They were white.

That moment, seven or eight decades on now, is still vivid to my mom. She tells me that story and she’s still outraged by it. But, it’s instructive. It says much about how our society, the one we live in now, came to be. This wasn’t the Segregated South. This was Michigan. And those attitudes weren’t unique to my grandparents, they were quite common.

You don’t think I know that I’m privileged? You think my own history doesn’t remind me of that?

War followed The Great Depression.

I had an uncle who was a Navy corpsman on the beaches at Normandy, and another who was a Seabee at Midway.

They were just ordinary men, ordinary Americans, who went to fight for their country when called.

They fought alongside black men, African-Americans, who were also ordinary men who also went to fight for their country when called.

My uncles came home to parades and a newly burgeoning middle class, to opportunity and good jobs, brand new homes in the newly created suburbs. The privations of the Depression and war were behind them. Hollywood made movies about them, and up on the screen John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Red Buttons, Eddie Albert and Richard Burton immortalized their heroic actions in the Pacific and on the beaches of Europe.

But the men they’d fought beside? The African-Americans of the 92nd Infantry Division, the Tuskegee Airmen, the cooks and stewards on every navy warship? Those men came home to second class citizenship, to Jim Crow, to discrimination in nearly every facet of their lives. Nobody made movies about them. It never even occurred to anybody do so. Not back then.

Then came the Fifties.

That wonderful decade. That single moment in American history, right? When everything was perfect.


You’re going to tell me about Korea and McCarthyism and Segregation?

I’ll do you one better. I’ll give you a time machine and let you sample the 1950s directly for yourself.

Ever watch Grit? The TV Channel, “TV with backbone.” There are a number of similar cable channels. Here you will find Death Valley Days in perpetual rerun. Laramie, Gunsmoke, Tales of Wells Fargo, Have Gun Will Travel, Stories of the Century, The Rifleman, Rawhide, Wagon Train, and, of course, Bonanza. In between, the movies: High Noon, Shane, The Gunfighter, The Man from Laramie, The Big Country, Bend in the River, Bad Day at Black Rock, Broken Arrow, Hondo, Rio Bravo, Forty Guns, and the classic Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

What do the 1850s have to do with the 1950s?

Well, you see, my mother-in-law lives with us. She grew up back when those shows were popular. She doesn’t process modern material very well, but she remembers Miss Kitty and Marshal Matt Dillon and Jess Harper  and The Virginian well enough. And so we keep the big TV in the living room on the Grit channel, and for much of the day she enjoys the old shows. And if she loses the plot, well, most of those episodes were similar enough that if you miss part of one and pick up another, it doesn’t really ruin the story, even if they are different shows.

What’s this got to do with privilege?


Take a day, take a week, and watch. Watch the 1950s.

Every character is white. There isn’t a person of color anywhere in that uniquely American narrative, I know, I’ve looked for them. Every once in a while you’ll get a movie set near the Civil War, then perhaps there will be a black face or two among the cast. Caricatures, either Mammy or Stepin Fetchit. And Native Americans fared even worse. At least the black characters were played by black actors, the Injuns were always white men in loincloths and rouge. Or sombreros and cork, depending on how close to the border things were. And for comic relief, there was always Ching, or Chang, or whatever the lone Asian character in every western laundry was named (I looked up the role in John Wayne’s 1963 vanity project McClintock! Ching, played by H.W. Gim wasn’t even credited, despite having a fairly large speaking role for an Asian actor at that time. Veddy Funnie! Veddy Funnie!). Every stereotype exists on the lone prairie of the 1950s, from wise native sidekick to the endless white women who got themselves raped to death by rutting bucks on the warpath. And those women, a more helpless lot of pearl clutchers there never were. Thank the White Christian God there were all those manly men to keep them safe. Every problem is resolved with a gun or a sound thrashing. Or both. Every week the savages are routed again, and handsome white men saved the day with their trusty six-shooters or that weird sawed-off saddle-gun Steve McQueen carried in Wanted: Dead Or Alive.  If the woman’s man was killed, he was a weak sissy anyway, and by the end of the episode she’d found herself a better one to keep her safe.

Want to guess how many LGBT people you might see? Or disabled? Or Non-Christian?

Decades later, black cowboys appeared, alongside actual Native American actors, maybe even a few strong female characters. But not back then, not in the 1950s, that perfect decade of America.

You watch those shows, in endless rotation, you can see it.

You can see the attitudes and the not-so hidden forces that shaped modern America’s outlook.

The 50s were perfect. If you were white.

If you weren’t, you were invisible. Uncredited.

You don’t think I see it? That the heroes of all of those shows, the heroic narrative that still underlies America to this day and shaped my parents’ generation, you don’t think I noticed that those men all look just like me?

I grew up in the Midwest not far from where my own parents were born.

It was the 1960s by then, Vietnam, Civil Rights, the world was coming apart at the seams.

But not for me.

I lived in a small safe modern town. One of those new suburbs, built in the 50s after the war. I grew up in a new house, one my parents had built. We weren’t rich, not by any stretch of the imagination, far from it. I think everybody in town was better off than us. My parents had some hard times, but we got by. Somehow, like their parents before, they always found a way to make it through. I’m pretty sure my mom went without lunch a few times, so that we kids had enough to eat. I remember a few nights when we ate pancakes, because that’s all there was. But we got through.

And war was a long way away. I had a cousin serving over there, but then who didn’t? The protests in Washington and LA and New York didn’t touch us other than as stories on the news.

More, the race riots in Detroit, Newark, Memphis, and Los Angeles passed us by. It would have been hard for black people to raise a riot in my town. Mostly because for all intents and purposes, there were no black people.  I didn’t know any. There were no black students in my elementary school, none in Jr High, maybe one – a exchange student I think – in high school.

Let me tell you about the first time I encountered a black man.

It was at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Not the new one, but the fabulous old art deco building on Jefferson Avenue, designed by Roger Allen and built by the WPA back in the 1940s. I don’t know how old I was, not very. Five, six maybe. We’d gone on a field trip from school, dozens of screaming First Graders having a wonderful adventure under the bones of the museum’s famous blue whale skeleton in the main gallery. There were other schools there, of course, including at least one black one. Those children were as strange and alien to me as the exhibits. But like us, they were all running to and fro, as the teachers tried desperately to corral us all into our proper groups for return to the buses and our boring old lives back in the suburbs. As I dodged around a display, a huge hand suddenly grasped me by the shoulder and pulled me up short and I looked up startled to see a black man on the other end of that arm. He wasn’t looking at me, he was just grabbing children, trying to gather up his own flock no doubt and I’d gotten snagged by accident.

He had several other children, dark skinned with wide white eyes staring at me, the alien now. He held them by the collars with his other hand and he was shouting to for the rest of the class.

He glanced down …

… and his hand opened in shock, releasing me.

It’s been a long, long time, fifty years or near enough, but I can still remember the look on his face.

He was afraid.

Of me.

Chastised, I scampered over to my teacher. I remember the look they exchanged, white teacher and black. The look on his face while he waited to see what would happen next. There was a nod, mutual understanding, and then we were all headed for the buses.

I don’t know if he ever thought about that moment again, but me? I’ve often wondered about that man, in the years since.

I can still see him. I’m sure I would recognize him today.

I never forgot the look on his face.

A black man who’d accidentally grabbed a white child in a public place in 1967.

While not far away Detroit burned.

You don’t think I know? You don’t think that even as a kid, I knew?

I was a lousy student.

My parent weren’t rich, or even modestly well off.

Everybody I knew went off to college, got married, got jobs, became something.

Not me. I stuck out a few classes at the local Junior College for a few years, worked a few factory jobs, worked in a few restaurants, had a girlfriend or two. But I wasn’t going anywhere.

So I joined the military.

I was able-bodied enough to do so. I had the aptitude they needed.  I didn’t have any better prospects. So I enlisted. Why not?

But it was more than that.

Looking back, I had the luxury of being a lousy student. My grandparents never had that option. A bushel of potatoes was important to them, they would never have squandered a chance at education, a chance to get ahead.  My uncles, in that war, they didn’t get the option. They signed up because the country needed them. Those invisible people in the movies of the fifties, the comic relief, the stereotypes, the caricatures in those old movies, they never had the luxury of not working. They took whatever came along, because they had to, no matter how demeaning. That black man from the museum, did he serve? Did he join up? Back when doing so wasn’t an adventure, but a chance at getting killed while peeling potatoes and washing the white soldiers’ laundry?

I don’t know.

But I was good at it.

I joined up as a nobody – like everybody else. Twenty years later I was an officer, with a wife and son and a college degree, the experience of having led men and women in war, and having served with and for men, women, black and white, gay and straight, and with a much, much broader understanding of the world and the people in it. Having walked the soil of six continents, having seen oppression and hate and bigotry and injustice in every corner of the globe – most at the hands of men who looked just like me.

I retired as a Chief Warrant Officer. In the navy, that’s something. People tend to scamper out of your way pretty goddamned quick indeed.  You tend to get only the shittiest of missions, but it’s because those are the jobs only someone like you can do. That’s what they pay you for. The rank commands enormous respect. Uniquely so. And only a small handful ever pin on those bars.

How did I make it so far, when others didn’t?

Was it skill? Experience? Aptitude? Determination? I’d like to think so.

But the military is still to this day overwhelmingly a white man’s world.

You think I don’t know? You think I don’t wonder?

And now, here I am.

Somehow, in some way that I’m not quite sure, I’m here.

Somehow, I became a successful writer.

And I am successful. A hell of a lot more successful than most.  A quarter of a million people read me damned near every day across multiple platforms. I’ve got a loyal fan base that stalks me at conventions and asks for my autograph. They wear T-shirts with my likeness and clutch pens with my logo stamped on the shaft and I can’t make either fast enough. I churn out words, and they get shared (or stolen), across Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and a dozen other platforms before I can finish correcting the typos. Editors and publishers contact me and ask for contributions to their various projects or ask me to give up what I do and join their organization. I know writers who’ve penned a dozen best-sellers, books that have been turned into Hollywood blockbusters, who post comments online and nobody reads them. I post a picture of my goddamned cat, and it’s shared a thousand times.

I often feel like an impostor.

Which is not at all unusual for a writer.

But authors that I’ve read and admired for years, decades in some cases, come to me for help, for advice, for promotion – and I think, goddamn, I should be asking you for advice, and sometimes I do, and they give it and that ain’t nothing because a writer’s time is the thing they have the least of. They do it because we are friends, colleagues, and how in the hell did that happen? I fuck around on Facebook, they write real books. They are writers, I’m a blogger, at best a columnist. And yet, my endorsement can make a book a best seller. And my ire can destroy a person, when a hundred thousand flying monkeys descent on some hapless miscreant who had the temerity to cross me online. And I’ve used that power for both things, sometimes to my shame. I’ve also used it to get a rescue team and a planeload of supplies to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and to raise $15,000 in one night for a family who had lost their father, and for a number of other causes that you don’t need to know about. It evens out.

I worked to get here.

Ten years it took. Of writing every day. It turned into fame of a sort. And into a real job, one that takes all of my time, 14, 18 hours a day, seven days a week sometimes. It pays well enough. Well enough that I could pay for my son’s college tuition (who is a far, far better student than I ever was), well enough that my wife could give up her career and everything she’d worked for and we could move cross-continent to take care of her ailing mother. Well enough that I can help others when the opportunity arises.

Why am I successful at this when so many other more talented writers are not? Is it my skill? My experience? My background? Luck? Happenstance? Right time, right place, just as the world of writing changed?

Why did this new medium, this new publishing model, allow me to jump over writers who’ve been busting their collective asses since before I was born? That’s a privilege I bet you didn’t see coming, but I think about it nearly every day.


I don’t honestly know.

But you have to wonder if I would have been this successful if I’d been black. Or gay. Or female. Or less than able-bodied. Or less privileged in some way.

You have to wonder if doors opened for me, because of who I am, that would have been locked for others.

I don’t honestly know. Because I’m not those people and I never lived their lives.

I’m white.

I’m male.

I’m straight.

I’m still mostly able-bodied and nimble of mind.

I’m at an age where men become dignified, and women get discarded for a younger model.

I’m certainly not rich and I don’t dare stop working for even a minute, but in nearly every other way, I benefit from this society simply because I am who I am.

You think I don’t know that?

Do you honestly think I don’t know?

The best I can do, is be aware – woke, in the popular parlance of our time – and acknowledge that privilege exists and I more than most benefit from it.

No. No.


Wait. No. That’s wrong. Scratch that. That’s not the best I can do.

We were talking about optimism.

A few weeks back, before Christmas as congress went in to vote on the Republican tax reform bill, someone asked me on Twitter, “What can we do!”

Nothing, I answered.

Not a goddamned thing.

It’s too late. The time to have done something was in 2010, when you gave up the House.

The time to have done something was in 2014, when you gave up the Senate.

The time to have done something was a year ago, when you couldn’t bring yourself to vote for the “lesser of evils.”

Now? Now there’s not a goddamned thing you can do. The opportunity, the opportunities plural, have passed.

Please, don’t. I’m not attacking you. Don’t take it personally. I’m sure you did something. My comments were directed at a momentary audience, at a passing situation on social media. They were made as a general statement about a particular situation. So unclench, push away the keyboard, let me finish. Please.


Your privilege is showing, someone sneered.

How dare you, straight, white, able-bodied man, tell anyone who to vote for? How to be a citizen? How to anything?

How dare you lay this pessimism on us?

That’s what the initial anger was about, they’d taken my pragmatic comment as pessimism.

I’m not certain pragmatism is privilege. But OK. perhaps.

But that didn’t change the fact that men of privilege, those elected to power, were about to pass a law and there was not one goddamned thing any of us could do about it.

But they wanted me to come up with something, and they were outraged when I didn’t. When I produced … pragmatism.

So, that’s it?

Depression, Stonekettle? You’ve given up? There’s no hope?

Hang on, no, I answered. No. You misunderstand. There’s no hope about the tax bill, they are going to pass that. It’s inevitable. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope for the future. That doesn’t mean this course can’t be reversed – and by course I don’t just mean tax giveaways to billionaires, I mean the whole thing. Civil rights. LGBT rights. Healthcare. The courts. Social safety nets. Peace. All of the damage this horrible administration is doing to our future.

But it’s going to be hard. We’re going to go backwards first.

There’s no escaping it now.

What you mistake for depression is pragmatism.

And you’re going to have to face it.

But, there is always hope. Of course there is. We’ll recover. We’ll take back our society. We’ll prevail.

That’s what I said.

And if you think they were mad about depression, they were outraged by optimism.

How dare you?

How dare you tell us it will be OK, they said. Fuck you, Cis White Man, ableist, your privilege is showing.

Your privilege is showing.

Well … yeah.

Of course my privilege is showing.

There’s no way to hide it, even if I was so inclined. Which I am not.

I’m not going to lie about who I am. I’m not going to dismiss it, or pretend that it doesn’t exist.

And so, the best I can do is to use that privilege to help others. To write about it. To call it out whenever and wherever. To get it out in front of half a million people. To get the supplies where they need to go.  To raise the funds. To lend a voice. To listen. To be an ally. To be a general if need be.

To be pragmatic when necessary.

Like my grandfather, perhaps my role in the coming fight is to record it, line by line, day by day, so that future generations will know that we were here.

Maybe you’ll cut off conversation and walk away.

Maybe you don’t need me.

But I volunteer just the same.


Because it’s what I’m good at.

And because optimism must never, ever be solely the privilege of a few.

It should be the birthright of us all.

Cassian Andor: The temple's been destroyed, but she'll be there waiting. We'll give her your name and hope that gets us a meeting with Saw.
Jyn Erso: Hope?
Andor: Yeah. Rebellions are built on hope.
-- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story