Who Killed the Dissident Left?
One journalist's suspicious death would forever transform how they cover the Deep State.
Ten years ago, Edward Snowden changed American history, but he changed the future too. We're living in it, one week before he lifted just a corner of the rug, carpeting over our new regime — the one that now has all but replaced the country we knew. Americans tuning in to "Real Time with Bill Maher" heard a puzzling message from the world to come, sitting between Obamacare architect Nira Tandon and some third person I no longer remember, sat one James Polis.
Bill had steered the conversation toward the possibility of government overreach, and I cautioned the panel that just because the Bush Administration had ostensibly shuttered its Total Information Awareness project didn't mean the military-industrial complex, the intelligence community, or the administrative state weren't still pursuing exactly that. Not for the first time on that panel, I drew some funny faces — and not the haha kind either — but yesterday's riddle is today no laughing matter.
In the wake of Snowden's disclosures and others to follow, some of the most vociferous criticism of our government, crossing the Deep State Rubicon, came not from the right, but the left. In the long, often sad 2010s, if you wanted to hear from people mad about malevolent government, angry about corporate corruption, wary of the globalization agenda, and fired up about protecting the little guy, chances were you had to look to the so-called dissident left. I should know.
After the financial crisis blew out my hopes of landing a 10-year track job in academic political theory (I'll wait for you to finish laughing), I left the Beltway swamp for the relatively noble and upright world of Hollywood, where as a disaffected conservative fronting an indie rock band, I was the perfect token right-winger for high-profile new media brands like Vice, Good Riot, The Huffington Post, and The Young Turks.
I worked with them all and yes, made lots of trendy friends. We were cresting a wave, riding the dragon, speaking our minds. We were the thorn in the side of the increasingly smug and aloof Obama administration — the one that began America's proud tradition of painting rainbow colors on killer robots tasked to take out those unfortunate souls listed on its so-called disposition matrix. One name that didn't appear on any lists, at least none leaked or otherwise made public, belonged to one of the rising stars in my circle of hot media friends.
City of spooks
His name was Michael Hastings. Michael skyrocketed to fame as a real-deal conflict journalist — the kind that made Vice's potentate Shane Smith a very wealthy man. Michael had both the access and the balls to take down Obama's top dog in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, with a single kill shot of his own — one scorching story in Rolling Stone magazine.
I wasn't a part of Michael's inner circle, but I was close enough to see firsthand what he had helped achieve: a creative, confident nerve center of anti-establishment politics in the heart of Los Angeles, centered around Oliver Stone and expanding across time zones to include the likes of Glenn Greenwald, who had recommended me as an in-studio guest to The Young Turks before he became an enemy of the state. But Glenn, as you probably know, is still with us — alive and well — and the same, alas, cannot be said of Michael.
A scant 12 days after Glenn first published Snowden's bombshells, Michael's Mercedes, with Michael behind the wheel, veered abruptly off the pavement, traveling south on Highland Avenue just past Melrose, across from Matzah Pizzeria, and impacted one of the tall, glamorous palm trees lining the median. The vehicle instantly burst into flames and charred the victim "beyond recognition." The incident took place shortly before 4:30 in the morning that dark Tuesday.
No investigation into Michael's death was forthcoming; his coroner's report was unceremoniously sealed. He had disappeared into a hole as dark and obliviating as any of his country's secret and illegal black sites. And so, in a sense, his country had done the same.
BuzzFeed Chief Ben Smith, who had Michael on payroll, told the press he was shocked and devastated. But words like that couldn't capture the body blow that had caved in the hearts of Michael's friends and loved ones and swiftly shattered the dissident media scene that he had proven to be the heart of. So began what became the systematic roll-up of the dissident left, eventually sidelining even Bernie Sanders and transforming the Democrats from a party with a partisan base mobilized against corruption, globalization, and militarization into one where both the elites and the foot soldiers were slavishly devoted to all those once so terrible things.
I don't know exactly what happened to Michael that terrible night, but I didn't tell the press when they came calling that I knew where Michael had been before he climbed into his car — agitated but very unsuicidal — and began what he had intended to be a quick trip out of town. I knew the last two people he had spoken to before he died, and I knew what he had said to them. I knew something was very wrong, and I knew nobody was ever going to find out what it was. No investigation into Michael's death was forthcoming; his coroner's report was unceremoniously sealed. He had disappeared into a hole as dark and obliviating as any of his country's secret and illegal black sites. And so, in a sense, his country had done the same.
I've never spoken publicly about any of these details until now. Ten years of silence can do that to you. The list of people present at the creation of the first political media scene in the age of social media was short in 2013, and the list of those still kicking today is shorter still. There's never been a proper retrospective of just what happened to our government, our media, and our political institutions since Michael Hastings was so quickly removed from the national equation. Even though, with the benefit of hindsight, the strange concurrence of the death of New Media and the death of the dissident left goes beyond the realm of the uncanny and into the realm of the suspect, it stinks. Not just with the stench of death, but of murder most foul.