Eleven Minutes With Ken Silverstein and Andrew Stewart About the Strange Case of The Crayzone, the Sputnik Left, Tourist “Journalists” and the Anti-Imperialism of Fools

[Correction: The image of Max Blumenthal with a bag on his head was photoshopped. My bad (KS) for thinking it was real. Blumenthal’s bad for being such a hack apologist and human skid mark that I fell for it.]

There is quietly coming into being an international school which might be described as Bolshevism for the Cultured Bourgeoisie, or more concisely, Socialism for the Radical Tourists — Leon Trotsky, 1936.

Image by Cambell Grant

[Note: This is a long introduction to a podcast episode, featuring Andrew interviewing Ken. We think you’ll find it a helpful guide to the Sputnik Left, and specifically The Grayzone and Max Blumenthal, but if you want to skip straight to the podcast, scroll down to the link at the bottom of this story.]

For the past few years, it’s been hard to ignore a strange notion of “anti-imperialism” on the left that mimics the absolute worst apologias for Stalin. It operates on the absurd logic that all targets of American foreign policy are praiseworthy based solely on the existence of the aforementioned cross-hairs.

There are many ways to challenge the Sputnik Left’s slobbering sloganeering. One is simply to offer facts to counter their stenography, but facts don’t matter much to this crowd — Max Blumenthal’s The Grayzone is the most prominent participant — because they selectively pick and choose their facts. If the New York Times, the BBC, or Human Rights Watch mentions rapid economic growth in China, that’s a fact for the Sputnik Left. If they mention atrocities in Xinjiang — and those atrocities are real and horrifying — the very same sources are dismissed as unreliable tools of Western imperialism. (*)

Within hours, out pops a Crayzone story rebuttal that portrays the detention, reeducation and labor camps in Xinjiang as being nothing more than a network of upscale Holiday Inns, where Uighur people are treated with kindness and dignity. That provides the Chinese Foreign Ministry with fresh fodder for its Twitter feed, where it practices rampant denialism about Xinjiang.

Yes, I know, Gady Epstein works for The Economist and that’s a tool of Western imperialism. Case closed, Xinjiang is a paradise for the Uighur people.

But there’s another way to counter the Sputnik Left, which is simply to note that its denizens have fundamentally surrendered their allegiance to basic journalistic ethics in the name of prestige and compliments (and, in some cases, cash) from foreign states and their agents. (See, in addition to China, Russia, Venezuela, Syria and Nicaragua.)

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro utterly desecrates the Sword of Bolivar by letting toy warrior Max Blumenthal play with a replica. Fair Use.
Oh look, here’s Maduro recently receiving a Samurai sword from nut job Steven Seagal. Nothing to look at here, move along folks. Fair Use.

When Andrew was a reporter at a college newspaper, he was flown down to New York City to attend a critics’ sneak preview of the abysmal Andy Samberg vehicle, Hot Rod. The studio put him and other college kids up in a swanky hotel, hosted a great screening with a Q & A afterwards with the stars, and sent him to a posh restaurant in Soho to wine and dine with the cast. This was an implicit bribe to wrangle a positive review for an unfunny movie that should have been relegated to Comedy Central.

We see the same thing take place with “journalists” who are effectively official guests of state, and who don’t reveal who’s paying their bills. The idea that one can conduct real reporting in the presence of a state-selected supervisory chaperone is abominable to the very core of our being. Is this the craft of Edward R. Murrow or a kindergarten field trip to the zoo? It’s rather easy to spot this fraudulence. A key phrase is when an author writes that he or she were part of “an official delegation.” This is a fancy way of saying “all-expense paid vacation to Disney World,” complete with the Mouseketeers.

Journalism is, of course, a highly subjective project, but that is tempered by professional ethics and standards. The Society of Professional Journalists is able to fit them onto a bookmark. These are not complicated or even difficult guidelines to follow and anyone who says that they are “petit bourgeois ideals” is an idiot.

Furthermore, the blatant hypocrisy on the part of the Sputnik Left is undeniable. As noted above, a good number of these hacks, either casually on social media or more seriously in their writings, offer vitriolic criticism of the Western mainstream media and its undeniable subservience to the imperial project. (Which doesn’t mean that some mainstream reporters don’t periodically do extraordinary work.) How many times has The Grayzone published dispatches skewering sycophantic news coverage from the New York Times or similar outlets? Yet it turns around and shamelessly regurgitates talking points from RT. The phrase “conflict of interest” exists in their vocabulary because they sure love to use it, it just never applies to them.

Here’s a story that Ken wrote, about his encounter with Blumenthal at a “solidarity” junket to Caracas in 2019. (This story includes Blumenthal’s memorable line to Ken, “Well, all your father ever did was fuck your mother and leave his semen in her.”) For Ken, this was his first and only solidarity junket. For Blumenthal, it is one of many.

Also, note the difference in their reportorial approach to the visit. Ken was disgusted — hundreds of activists were flown in from around the world to drink cocktails adjacent to a hotel swimming pool, money that would have been better used if given directly to poor Venezuelan families — and reported from the barrios of Caracas. Blumenthal, accompanied by his ever faithful lap dog, Toto, applauded Venezuelan officials that offered empty, stale revolutionary bromides to the crowd. He and Toto (Ben Norton) managed to suck up enough to score an interview with Venezuela’s vice president. Well done, boys!

Max & Ben at the conference in Caracas. Fair Use.

Speaking of Toto, you really must check out his Twitter. Remember how Joe Biden, in one of his few notable achievements, said that Rudy Giuliani was incapable of composing a sentence other than “a noun, a verb and 9/11”? Well, Toto’s entire Twitter is a noun, a verb and imperialism, regime change and pro-fascist NATO.

(Ken, at least, sometimes agrees with Nomiki Konst and sometimes disagree with her. She is not a “tool of imperialism.” Norton, it must be granted him, has a rare talent. Even when you generally side with him, he’s such a Stalinist hack and apologist for US enemy states that you want to disagree with him.)

The Crayzone‘s coverage of Syria is also appalling. One can argue that Bashar al-Assad, despite his government’s corruption and brutality, is the best bet for Syria for the time being — just as one could argue that Saddam Hussein may have been better for Iraqis, on balance, than what followed him, and ditto on Muammar Gadaffi in Libya. One cannot argue, as The Crayzone effectively does — that Assad’s government is progressive and good for the Syrian people.

Crayzone “reporters” Blumenthal, Norton and Aaron Mate endlessly seek to dismiss allegations that the Assad government used chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria in April 2018, and point to rifts within the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) about whether the attack occurred.

Fine, let’s assume for the sake of argument that the Syrian government attack on Douma didn’t occur and the OPCW made it up. So the fuck what? Does that mean the Syrian government didn’t carry out any chemical attacks? Does this mean that Assad didn’t torture suspected “terrorists” at the behest of the CIA during the George W. Bush years, even when those suspects, like Maher Arar, were innocent? Does that mean the Syrian government doesn’t torture its own citizens? No, it does not, according to multiple sources, like this New York Times story. (The Times is an agent of imperialism, your source is tainted, is the inevitable reply from The Crayzone corner.

It’s possible to have a nuanced discussion about Syria. Yes, the opposition to the Assad regime is highly problematic and includes many Islamic radicals. Yes, Assad, along with Iran and Hezbollah, should get a large share of the credit for saving the West from ISIS. (For a nuanced view on the Douma attack and the role of the OPCW, see Ken’s friend Jeff Morley’s story at CounterPunch. Yes, I can already hear the wagging tongues at The Crayzone, Morley is a tool of US imperialism, just like Konst and the Times.)

No, this does not make Assad a candidate for the “Benevolent Ruler of the Year” award, as The Crayzone would have it. Nor does it make it OK for Blumenthal — and this is really sickening — to mock Syrian parents and children who feared they would be gassed by Assad’s forces.

Blumenthal was still chortling about alleged gas attacks on children two years later. He even took time out to mock them at his wedding.

In 2019, Ken tried very hard, and during two separate trips to Lebanon, to get a visa to go to Syria and interview Assad. I had backing from prominent pro-government officials, who knew he opposed US regime change plans for Syria, and it looked like the Syrian embassy in Beirut was going to grant him a visa.

In the end, it declined — unlike in the case of Blumenthal and his merry band of pro-Assad apologist nitwits, who in 2019 were granted visas to attend a “labor conference” in Syria and sucked up to the government. Check out Blumenthal’s revolting Twitter feed from the conference lovefest here. (Maybe someone at the embassy used Google and ascertained that Ken was not reliable and Max and his crew were?)

What was especially revealing was the reason Ken’s visa request was turned down. The Syrian embassy informed him that all he needed to get a visa, in addition to the usual steps he’d already fulfilled, was to get one single solitary Syrian citizen to sign his application and “take responsibility” for him.

You’ve probably guessed. No one would, and Ken had multiple close friends from Hezbollah who told him they had a sister or mother or father or brother or cousin or niece in Syria, and one of them would surely sign. Of course, no one would because if one had signed and he had subsequently written critically about Assad, his or her family would have been at extreme risk of reprisals from the government’s brutal security forces and intelligence agencies.

And had any of them signed, he would have been severely constrained in what he wrote about Syria after the trip and in the future — for example, he wouldn’t be writing this story.

By the way, none of Ken’s Hezbollah friends told him their relatives were afraid to sign, but it was pretty obvious given the constant stream of unexplained apologies he received. Furthermore, not long before traveling to Lebanon, Ken was in Miami reporting on an ICE detention camp for immigrants called Krome. He met an anti -Syrian government refugee and Uber driver, who he paid off the Uber books to drive him to meetings and Krome and other ICE facilities over the next few days.

The driver was at first overjoyed to hear Ken might be traveling to Syria and gave him his family’s phone number in Damascus. But on Ken’s last day in Miami, the driver told him specifically that it wouldn’t be a good idea to visit his family because it could put them all at risk. Would his family been detained or tortured or killed or in any way been put at risk if Ken had visited them and criticized Assad? There’s no way to know for sure, but it’s clear that the Assad government has instilled a culture of fear among the Syrian people.

We’ll close by raising the question of money, specifically whose money funds The Crayzone? Despite being asked repeatedly about this, Blumenthal and his sidekicks refuse to answer questions about this.

We have a theory: its junket journalism funding comes from a combination of organizations close to foreign governments — that much is known — and from people in the milieu of Max’s awful father, Clintonite hatchet man Sidney Blumenthal. That’s actually known, too, as Andrew detailed here. The only real questions are how much money it receives from these sources and in what amounts from each?

This 2015 article by Ken in the New York Observer may be one reason neither Blumenthal likes him. Fair Use

Wherever it comes from, The Crayzone‘s funding is dark. Washington Babylon‘s is not. Since being founded in 2016, we’ve raised very little money, maybe $70,000 or $80,000. If we had a bookkeeper we’d be more precise, but that’s a pretty good estimate. A majority has come from small donors, but we received three $10,000 grants. Thee donors asked to remain anonymous, but we can say two of those grants came from a lefty foundation and one came from a pro-Trump Republican. None of it altered our coverage — and the last grant came more than two years ago, which sort of shows we’re too independent and unreliable — unlike the entirely predictable Crayzone — for most people’s tastes, and especially people with money.

Speaking of money, we could really use some.  We would be eternally grateful and show all kinds of appreciation if you could help us out either on a monthly basis via Patreon or by sending us a one-time contribution on PayPal.Me. Otherwise, you are welcome to check out our Web Store and buy some of our primo merchandise! And for god’s sake, subscribe to our free newsletter, because one of these days Washington Babylon will almost surely be banned by Facebook and Twitter, and we’ll have to go to a daily newsletter format.

OK, after all that, you can listen to Andrew’s interview with Ken here:

Episode 6: Ken Silverstein
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