The Birds of September 11 by Brandon


On my way to Ground Zero on the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, I stopped for a slice a pizza and to clear my head. The previous week had been a somber one; every anniversary recalls the past, but some make you reflect on what's happened since, and a cloud hung over the intervening years. The nation felt like a different, far darker place than before that fateful morning.

Of course, it's easy to mythologize the past. Even the weather of 9/11, an archetypally perfect fall morning, takes on metaphorical overtones: a time of innocence and bounty, golden and pure, as yet untouched by shadow. Through the lens of memory, the United States was running a surplus, the economy was strong, things were good.

Of course they were not. A year before, the dot-com bubble burst, and with it the fantasy of economic security in an information age. A few months earlier, the Enron scandal surfaced -- a Byzantine mix of accounting fraud, rigged markets, political corruption, ill-conceived deregulation, greed and meanness and outright theft -- perpetrated by people who preached the virtues of free markets, and loaned the President their corporate jet.

Enron, we learned in years to come, wasn't an exception. It was a business model for big capitalism in the early 21st century. The same basic blueprint could be read in the financial meltdown of 2008, when investment bankers -- who rewrote laws that once restrained them, pushed high-interest mortgages at the peak of a real estate bubble, bet trillions of dollars that mortgages would be paid even when they obviously wouldn't, then tried to hide these facts -- crippled the economies of North America and western Europe, and very nearly took down the world.

The consequences were quite different for poor and middle-class people than for hedge fund managers and investment bankers. Within a few years, as unemployment soared and cities went bankrupt, the people most responsible for the crisis were even wealthier than before. And between Enron's stock plunge and Lehman's bankruptcy we'd had two disastrous wars, state-sanctioned torture and surveillance, the body politic's split into alternate partisan universes. Pervading it all was a sense of inescapability. Around and around we went, a society spiraling downward and unable to change course.

I jotted down my thoughts, finished eating and walked to Ground Zero. There I said a prayer for the departed -- I don't believe in God, but sometimes one just prays -- and continued to my evening's destination, the Tribute in Lights, which is projected above lower Manhattan each 9/11 night. You've probably seen the tribute, or pictures of it, twin electric blue beams that disappear in the heavens and can be seen from sixty miles away. It is beautiful and utterly haunting and simply immense. For one night, it turns the rest New York's fabled skyline into a row of votive candles.

The year before, I'd seen the tribute from Governor's Island, just below Manhattan in New York Bay. I'd gone there for a concert, and during the opening act people drifted to the shoreline, where they looked at the tribute in wonder and confusion. There was something unusual about the beams: Sparkling white points of light spiraled slowly inside them, hundreds if not thousands, almost like confetti, but confetti wouldn't have been visible from that distance. It also wouldn't have risen. A few people said the lights made them think of souls.

The next day I learned from a friend that the lights had been birds. New York City sits directly in the Atlantic Flyway, the easternmost of North America's four great migration routes. Each fall, millions of birds fly down the Atlantic coast, a stream of energy and life stretching from Greenland in the summer to Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of South America, in winter. Along the way the birds funnel down the Hudson River valley, passing mostly unnoticed above the city that never sleeps.

Scientists aren't precisely sure how birds navigate their miraculous passsage, but the general mechanisms are understood. They sense Earth's geomagnetic field, which provides a frame of reference calibrated by the light of stars, sun and moon. Under certain conditions, however, such as moonless, overcast nights when the brightest lights are man-made, these biological compasses spin awry. Birds fly in circles until dropping from exhaustion onto sidewalks or stoops, or escape so drained as to die later in their journey.

September 11, 2010 had been one such night. The waxing moon was a thin, dim crescent. Clouds covered lower Manhattan. Birds had also gathered for days in wetlands north of the city, grounded by storms that blew against them, but finally the winds shifted to the south. In a tailwind flood the birds were released. The brightest light in the region came from the Tribute in Lights, projected by eighty-eight 7,000-watt xenon searchlights into a dull dark sky.

When I called New York City's chapter of the Audubon society, I learned that more than 10,000 birds -- yellow warblers on their way to Central America, redstarts headed to Mexico, probably tanagers and thrushes and orioles, too -- were pulled in over night's course. Five times Audubon volunteers briefly shuttered the spotlights, giving circling birds a chance to escape.

It seemed a noble thing to do, keeping our memorial to tragically lost life from accidentally taking lives; and so, for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, wanting to honor the day with more than remembrance, I volunteered, arriving just before dusk at the rooftop parking garage where the tribute's spotlights are installed.

Night fell. The sky over New Jersey turned from blue to purple to black. The lights hummed. Audubon volunteers lay on their backs, staring into the beams and trying to count the birds. There weren't many. Previous nights had favored flight, preventing the buildup seen a year earlier. Except for a few wispy clouds, the sky was clear, and the gibbous moon would soon be full. There seemed to be more people than birds: family members still grieving, tourists posing, a British man with a burn-scarred face who'd been installing floors at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and who mourned the Muslim lives lost since.

Only once, when clouds covered the moon a few hours after midnight, did birds enter the beams in significant numbers. The clouds soon blew away. The birds followed. As dawn approached, the beams were empty. Six days later, the first protesters arrived just down the block, at Zuccotti Park. Occupy Wall Street had begun.

From The Eye of the Sandpiper: Stories From the Living World. To read more, pick it up on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Play Books or Kobo.

Photo: Dennis Leung

Why the WikiLeaks Address Won't Be Found Here by Brandon

In calling on citizens to Tweet the digital address of WikiLeaks, civil liberties activist John Perry Barlow was right to declare that an infowar is on, and online citizens its soldiers. But the WikiLeaks army is not one I will join.

Many people I respect, including my Editor in Chief Evan Hansen, want WikiLeaks to receive the First Amendment freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution to the press. Like any freedom, however, freedom of the press inevitably conflicts with other values, and has never been absolute. It exists only to the extent that people and institutions respect it, and is shaped by ongoing negotiations between principle, consequence and expedience.

In a string of landmark Supreme Court decisions on press freedom -- New York Times Co. v. United States, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., Near v. Minnesota, Food Lion v. Capital Cities, Nebraska Press Assn. v. Stuart -- a common theme emerges: The press can legitimately justify claims to free speech, even when they intrude on claims of national security or due processs or privacy, because of its own care in excercising those freedoms.

Sometimes the Court -- Supreme, or that of public opinion -- upholds them. Sometimes it curtails them. But even curtailments are narrow, and press freedom can be defended in good faith against powerful, often legitimate criticisms because the press acts carefully, with thoughtfulness appropriate to the implications of their freedom. The Pentagon Papers, to use a popular example, were published only after exhaustive editorial reflection, balancing potential harm against potential good.

With freedom comes reponsibility. The New York Times and Washington Post fulfilled their end of the bargain. Against executive and military pressure, the Supreme Court upheld the speech of grown-ups. Julian Assange's intentions are noble and his courage inspiring; should he be charged with crime by the United States, I hope he walks away free or escapes from jail. But to receive the protections of a free press, he must accept the responsibilities of a free press. He has not.

Instead he's avoided them. Many of the latest WikiLeaks documents benefit the public, or could, and many could result in great personal harm; rather than weighing the consequences, document by document, he released them all, and absolved himself of any further duty or obligation -- of any practical conscience -- by invoking his own ideological absolute good, transparency. The ends justified the means.

Much about WikiLeaks is right. But so long as its operators refuse the moral duties incumbent upon a free press, it can't expect to be free.

Image: The New York Times on Sunday, June 13, 1971, via PBS.

Note: I subsequently wrote a gallery for Wired.com on science- and environment-related leaks from the diplomat document release, which felt more than a little hypocritical. On the other hand, since the information is out there for anyone to see, shouldn't it be covered. My final answer to this dilemma was to donate the money I received to Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom organization that's condemned Assange's irresponsibility but fought to keep WikiLeaks online. That seems just about right.

Democracy for Sale by Brandon

For anyone who believes that all people are created equal and entitled to a government of, by and for them, it is a dark moment. The Supreme Court's elimination of limits on corporate political speech guarantees that democratic power will now be directly sold to the highest bidders.

There are only two intellectually honest ways to defend the decision. The first is to argue that there should be no restraints of any kind on any speech in any situation. Supporters of the Supreme Court's decision have not made that argument, nor will they. Nobody wants to be trampled during the proverbial joke cry of "Fire!" in a crowded theater.

The second honest defense is to consider people to be fundamentally unequal, deserving of different rights, which justly are distributed to whoever can afford them. This is another way of saying, "There is nothing wrong with slavery; after all, a slave can always buy his freedom."

That being difficult to say in public, or even to acknowledge in one's own soul, supporters of the Supreme Court's decision contort logic, common sense and common decency to rationalize the transfer of power from poor to rich. Many of their rationalizations are contained in an essay by Bradley Smith, a Capital University Law School professor, in National Affairs.1

According to Smith, campaign finance limits are tainted by a regulatory version of original sin: the roots of reform are impure, so its fruit is forever poisoned. "Far from being born of lofty ideals, federal campaign-finance regulations were, from their inception, tied to questionable efforts to gain partisan advantage," he writes. Implied is that opposition to regulation was non-partisan — which is laughably wrong, but would be irrelevant if true. Partisan maneuvering is intrinsic to multi-party politics. Smith may as well decry America's founding by anti-Tory native landowners, or support for emancipation by northern textile exporters tired of competing with cheap slave-made linens.2,3

Smith's disingenuousness allows him to strike a pose of righteous lamentation. He regrets that early reforms "did little to stem the overall flow of money into campaigns, due to weak enforcement mechanisms and various loopholes that could readily be exploited." Neither did the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, followed by McCain-Feingold in 2002, have their intended effect. Incumbents who once outspent challengers by half now spend twice as much, or more. Writes Smith, "The effect of campaign-finance regulations has therefore been to help the people who passed them and to strengthen special interests, rather than to cleanse American politics of the influence of self-­interested ­factions."

Such cleansing is not the purpose of campaign finance regulations. It's not possible. The purpose of regulation is to minimize imbalance — a subtle but important distinction. Our Founding Fathers understood this: they knew politics to be inherently dirty, and designed a political system with checks and balances that contained and channeled the corruptions of its members. In the right circumstances, good things can come from a clash between competing self-interests. Conservatives preach this when discussing markets, in which the wealthy have already prevailed — but in politics, where public interests are not entirely aligned with their own, they conveniently develop amnesia.4

Of course, those who think corporations and unions should be able to spend unlimited amounts of money to control political offices would argue that competition is precisely what they are supporting, and that regular citizens can pool their funds to compete with wealthy corporations. This is risible. Ten percent of Americans own one-half of its assets — an income discrepancy unprecedented in modern history, and one that is widening at ever-faster rates. The majority of financial power is concentrated in a tiny minority; conflating finance with politics logically expands the inequality. Smith makes no mention of these numbers, but argues that political power is now distributed unequally because campaign finance limits "elevate those with more free time — such as retirees and students — over those (like most working people) who have less time, but more money." To consider these two inequalities comparable defies reason.5

Smith is at least right that the influence of special interests on American politics has expanded in recent decades, though he fails to consider whether in the absence of campaign finance law it might have expanded even more. This failure is unsurprising: whatever motivates Smith and the conservative Supreme Court majority, it is clearly has nothing to do with democratic ideals or the public interest. If it did, they would argue for improving McCain-Feingold and the FEC restrictions, which at least recognize that corporate and public interests are not necessarily synonymous, and that the "marketplace" is not an ideal space for political debate between supposed equals.

Instead of improving the system, they call for its destruction. Instead of ending existing injustice, they would fuel it. Some people have said that American democracy in the corporate age is on life support. The plug has now been pulled.


1. Overtly absent from Smith's essay — though implicit in its every word — is the assertion that individuals and corporations are equivalent entities. That they are not is almost paralyzing in its self-evidence. As an exercise, I find it instructive to imagine telling Thomas Jefferson that the East India Company deserved the same rights as he.

2. An obvious counter to my example of Emancipation-era northern textile manufacturers is that they show how businesses can act in good conscience. (Smith gives another example: at the beginning of the 20th century, many corporations opposed segregation because they "did not want to pay for two sets of rail cars, double up on restrooms and fountains, or build separate entrances for customers of different races.")  But there's no doubt that corporations can behave well, and cherry-picking examples of either good or bad behavior is beside the point. People should not be forced to rely on corporate grace, and they need political recourse when corporations act against the public interest.

3. I've gone heavy on slavery-referencing examples, perhaps to balance Smith's playing of the race card. The aforementioned corporate champions of cost-efficient racial equality were, he notes, the enemies of South Carolina senator Ben Tillman, an early campaign finance reformer and segregationist. It's reasonable for him to mention this, but also a handy debater's trick: "You support campaign finance reform? Did you know it was invented by racists?"

4. There's an echo in this rhetoric of that ancient political refrain: [Insert state or national capital] is abominably corrupted by backroom deals and insider business-as-usual, and it's time for [insert political candidate] to clean up and restore government to the people. Every now and then someone means it, but usually it's just another sales pitch by someone happy to conduct their own backroom business. But this is more than a cheap political ploy: in the hands of a conservative bent on dismantling government and turning its remnants to corporate service, it's a path to destruction.

Thomas Frank writes eloquently on the infiltrate-loot-destroy tactics of modern conservativism. It sounds so awful and so cynical that one wonders if it's really a conspiracy theory — and then one is presented with the fact that, from 2000 to 2005, under President George W. Bush, Bradley Smith chaired the Federal Election Commission.

5. Speaking of "defies reason," it's worth contemplating the trajectory of Smith's argument: campaign finance reform is a failure because it's allowed wealthy special interests to flood the political system with money. However, money is not actually important to deciding electoral races. Campaign finance reforms have also favored people who have little money, but lots of time — so eliminating reforms will restore balance.

Any combination of these statements is self-contradictory. That Smith describes the arguments of his opponents as Orwellian is, well, Orwellian.

Image: Sjoerd van Oosten

Objectivity, Partisanship, Journalism, Obama by Brandon

As a science journalist who often covers politics, I feel obligated to disclose that I volunteered last weekend in Cleveland, Ohio for the campaign to elect Barack Obama.

This may make some readers uncomfortable. Until the first door opened it made me uncomfortable as well; not because I believed my ability to fairly cover science policy in the future would be compromised, nor even because I feared that the perceived conflict of interest would turn readers skeptical or editors wary, but because it ran counter to my fundamental identity as a journalist — someone who doesn't throw his lot in with a party or movement, much less a charismatic individual, but stands aside, loyal to the pursuit of truth. An advocate, not a partisan.

I was also discomfited by the rhetoric surrounding the volunteer experience, the descriptions of meaningfulness and fulfillment in tones verging on religious. Whether or not I am whole is, perhaps, a question yet to be concluded, but I do not turn to political participation to answer it.

But at the level where I feel certain of the difference between fact and opinion, I believed that Barack Obama needed to win this election in order for America to have a chance of reversing its decline.* So I went to Cleveland and wore an Obama button and knocked on doors and reminded people to vote. It felt good.

It was instructive, too: in large parts of the neighborhood to which I was assigned, perhaps one house in eight was boarded and abandoned, and most of the rest were slowly, obviously falling apart, residents no longer able to replace broken doors or shattered windows. More restaurants were shuttered than were open; only a few convenience stores were still in business. The area seemed to have once been handsome; the homes were well-built, lawns wide and streets tree-lined. This wasn't merely poverty. It was hopelessness embodied.

I have been in places far poorer, but the sheer, pervasive air of decline was something new. For all the economic collapse has affected me, constricting and making uncertain and provisional my hopes and dreams, its threat has been one of stasis rather than fall. But this neighborhood, which by all accounts is unexceptional in the once-great eastern industrial cities and in the towns between America's seaboards, seemed ready to vanish, to fall back into the earth. The fate of its residents would not be good.

They knew this. And they believed that Barack Obama would save them. I was unprepared for that, and I feared for their eventual disappointment, but the sincerity of their belief was humbling. It wasn't the sort of support to which I am accustomed — the outrage of well-educated liberals, grounded in principle rather than immediacy, able to contemplate a retreat to Canada if McCain won or a change in profession if the economy worsens. Not that such outrage, or such plans, are invalid; they are, after all, my own. But these people had nowhere to go, and they believed in what Barack Obama represented.

Whether their belief is well-placed can be debated, but its existence cannot. And its sheer, visceral realness is meaningful in itself. There is something incredible about inspiration, about hope . That Obama can provide it is significant, is a force for good, in a way I didn't previously comprehend. Hope started to grow in me, as well: not because Obama is perfect or wise, or his platform guaranteed of success, but because his presidency makes it possible to conceive, for a moment at least, of change.

Had John McCain won, or had Hillary Clinton defeated Obama in the Democratic primary and then taken the presidency, nobody would have danced in the streets. Dance we did, in cities across the country, in Brooklyn where I watched the results and poured into the streets with everyone else, hugging strangers and screaming and floating for a few hours on a feeling so uncommon now that I'd forgotten it: possibility.

Tuesday night was one of the most beautiful nights of my life, and I'll never forget it.

So what does this mean for me as a journalist, or for someone who sees an article of mine on the science policies of the Obama administration? In my defense I submit only that it's better to take a side openly than in secret; and that, in the end, I was motivated not by a desire to win but by a dream of what our society could and should be.** That dream now demands a return to my role as a journalist, loyal first and foremost to moral principle and the pursuit of truth. I'll cover Obama with the same rigor and skepticism as I did the Bush administration, if not more. His promises, and the people to whom he made them, deserve no less.

Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I voted in Maine, and selected a Republican, Susan Collins, as my Senator; and for offices in which I didn't know the nominees, wrote in myself or my friends.

* The consequences of climate change — agricultural and hydrological disruption, the resulting disease and dislocation and economic turmoil — are arguably the greatest challenges now facing the nation; overcoming them will require the transformation of our energy infrastructure and economy. That in turn will require a radical departure from what has been the political status quo; so will the management of a health care system that will soon devour as much federal money as the military.

Perhaps John McCain would have been able to lead the country on such a radical path, but I was not certain. Moreover, I was completely unconvinced that he could take the steps necessary to repair an economy wrecked by greed and the deregulation of corporate finance — a deregulation in which both Democrats and Republicans have been complicit, but McCain long cheered. And the willingness of McCain to put a wholly unqualified Sarah Palin in line to inherit the country's command purely for the sake of obtaining power erased any faith I had in his  clarity of judgment.

** I'm aware that pure objectivity is, to some, a journalistic ideal. Non-partisanship is not, however, the same thing as objectivity. To quote Joan Didion's "Insider Baseball ":

When we talk about the process, then, we are talking, increasingly, not about "the democratic process," or the general mechanism affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs, but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals, to those who manage policy and those who report on it, to those who run the polls and those who quote them, to those who ask and those who answer the questions on the Sunday shows, to the media consultants, to the columnists, to the issues advisers, to those who give the off-the-record breakfasts and to those who attend them; to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life. "I didn't realize you were a political junkie," Marty Kaplan, the former Washington Post reporter and Mondale speechwriter who is now married to Susan Estrich, the manager of the Dukakis campaign, said when I mentioned that I planned to write about the campaign; the assumption here, that the narrative should be not just written only by its own specialists but also legible only to its own specialists, is why, finally, an American presidential campaign raises questions that go so vertiginously to the heart of the structure.

I watched the first and third Presidential debates on CNN. After each one, the network cut to a panel of analysts, of whom many had previously worked for the Democrat or Republican party, who judged what we had just seen purely in terms of framing and performance. That sort of ostensibly evenhanded coverage, which subjectively favors a political process in which any statement of policy, belief or fact is rendered immediately superfluous, is a betrayal of democracy and the country; it is far more destructive than the worst and most cynical partisanship; and now that the election is over, I can only hope that CNN's political desk and producers move on to more socially valuable tasks, such as foreclosing on the elderly or denying medical comfort to the terminally ill.

Uncapitalized Thoughts on Democracy by Brandon

Update: Aw, screw it. I'm tired of feeling cynical and (relatively) disenfranchised. This post suspended until further notice.

An email dialogue about democracy with a fellow media grunt who, after an argument about Barack Obama's election chances, sent this article in a message entitled, "ain't gonna be as easy as you think."

BK : so he kisses their ass, makes some conciliatory promises, maybe even taps hill. bottom line, we're in a recession verging on depression, and nobody votes for the status quo in that situation, especially when the status quo is embodied in the least-charismatic presidential candidate since dukakis.

FMG : really, i think you're being awfully reductionist about this...

BK : since when was reductionism necessarily wrong : ) everyone wants this shit to be complicated, so as to justify all the time and energy spent following and dissecting it, and in a larger sense maintain the illusion of our democracy being fundamentally healthy.

FMG : our democracy is fundamentally healthy...i mean comparatively. and the thing is voting for obama is going to come down to a gut reaction kind of thing, which frankly i don't think the midwest can pull off. he'll lose. you'll see.

BK : i agree. an obese, asthmatic, sclerotic diabetic with a serious drug problem but good intentions is comparatively healthy, compared to someone with late-stage terminal cancer.

the midwest? fuck 'em, and even if some democrats stay home it's not like the republicans will come out for mccain. he'll nail both coasts, come out ahead in the southwest and at least break even in the midwest, at which point you'll buy me dinner.

FMG : i so disagree. our democracy works: "government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system."

this is largely our system, with a few notable exceptions. but lookit, it's better than anything else floating around out there.

as to the midwest, an awfully big swatch of land and votes. and don't underestimate the republican machine. as much as they hate mccain, they hate obama more. and you can be damn sure that with a dem congress they ain't going to sit idly by and let obama take the white house.

BK : i think the scandinavian and western european democracies shame ours, even if they're arguably inadequate to dealing with certain issues of scale. same with canada.

and outside of towns, small cities and small states, can you really argue that power is exercised directly by people in electing their agents? yes, we vote, but monied interests are far more influential.

i'm willing to entertain the notion that a predominantly non-voting electorate is a good thing, having separated genuinely interested people from the non, and -- more importantly -- that the restriction of power to an oligarchy whose influence is totally disconnected from the election cycle is a good thing. but it's hard to call that democracy, so long as the word means what we always thought it did.

if the repub machine is smart, which it is, it'll cede this election to obama and pounce in four years when people are shocked, shocked to discover that lead hasn't yet turned into gold. hence mccain, who for halloween should wear horns like the sacrificial goat that he is.

p.s. i think we have generally excellent regulatory agencies, and vote Kucinich in 2012.

Note: For the record, I think Obama's going to win and will vote for him, but am confounded -- though not surprised -- at the feelings of betrayal voiced by his supporters. Did anyone expect otherwise, except in a tactical sense -- i.e., the appearance of idealism was his greatest asset; it was stupid to squander the Obama brand?

That said, his present compromises don't seem any more or less real than his earlier idealism. There's nothing less relevant in American presidential politics than the concept of "real."

Image: Balakov

Not All Defeats Are Created Equal by Brandon

The scorn heaped upon Hillary Clinton for continuing to campaign despite the near-impossibility of victory is, I suspect, related to the nature of her constituency and of the people criticizing her.

Old, working-class, white and rural: hardly the sort of people whom national political reporters, being young-ish and upper-middle-class and urban, take seriously. (The whiteness they have in common, but of a different sort.)

Were the candidates' positions reversed, the same journalists would rightly praise Obama for refusing to quit, for forcing the party establishment to acknowledge the young and dark-skinned and liberal. But instead we have the Hillary Deathwatch, because who cares about poor old white folks who live in the country?

Some defeats are better than others for our democracy. When Hillary Clinton finally loses, I'll remember her as a winner.

Image: Brett Weinstein