Mar 01, 2017, 05:55AM

Planespotting and the Persistence of Facts

These are strange times to be an American.

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Sitting in a Chicago cafe in 2013, I had one of the strangest conversations of my life. The place was empty and I'd taken the big table by the window so I could stare at North Michigan Ave. in the rain when I wasn't typing on my laptop. Normally, I prefer to work in a library or even the park, but it was coming down hard and I was on a deadline, fourth cup of coffee, the table covered in documents, my ancient laptop wheezing.

I've written most of my freelance pieces in cafes, diners, subway trains, bars, or in the occasional bus station. And, out of necessity, I've developed the ability to shut out my surroundings. I was doing that in the final stretch, writing hard, focused. So I didn't notice the man in the coal gray suit until he pulled up a chair and set his briefcase on the floor.

He gave me a wet handshake, raked back his wavy blond hair, and smiled. “I can't believe I ran into you.” Startled, half-wondering whether he really did know me, I said I couldn't believe it either.

He was slicked up like a Republican senator. I can recognize a decent suit when I see one. His was maybe high-end Brooks Brothers. He had a royal blue tie, silver cuff links, and a certain intensity in the way he grinned, as if the grand synchronicity of the universe had kicked in for him yet again. Some people have the gift of good timing. I don't, but I knew a number of entrepreneurs in Chicago who depended on it and depended on me to ghostwrite for them while they were out being in the right place at the right time.

“So look,” he said. “I want you for the job, but we need you tonight.”

“I've got a job.”

“I know you've got a job.” He frowned at his watch. “You'll have to drop that.”

We looked at each other. I actually had nothing lined up after I submitted my current writing. Maybe this guy really did know me and some lucrative freelance gig was about to bounce effortlessly into my lap. Maybe that was what good timing felt like. Didn't it happen to everybody now and then? But then I looked over at the scowling barista, drying her hands on a dishtowel as she walked towards us, and I knew.

“You'll need a GX11.” He glanced at the barista, picked up his briefcase, and shook my hand again. “You'll have to get that yourself.”

I nodded and thanked him, which made him really happy.

“This is gonna be great,” he said.

The barista faced him and pointed at the door. “Out.”

He smiled broadly at her. “I know. I know. I'm already late.” Then he waved at me. “Expecting great things!” When he turned, I saw that his suit jacket was ripped up the back and that he was wearing sneakers that didn't match.

The barista sighed. “I'm sorry. He does this all the time.” We watched him try to hail a cab at the corner and get splashed when it wouldn't stop. Then he walked past the cafe window and looked straight at me, no recognition in his face. I wrote the whole encounter down, thinking I might use it someday.

By the time I ran out to offer him a seat back at the table and a cup of coffee, he was gone. I never saw him again. But I did learn that a “GX11” is an electric contactor, like a relay, used for switching a power circuit. So he must’ve had some background in electronics and he must’ve made some money in it before life did whatever it did to him. I never learned his name, but I've thought about him often over the years, especially when I encounter someone particularly delusional. Lately, I've been thinking about him a lot.

The modeling function of the human brain is impressive. Through pattern recognition and analogical thinking, we’re capable of creating/assuming the existence of entire subjective universes of meaning for ourselves, whether through art, literature, philosophy, science, or any other way of knowing that can be expressed in systematic, structural terms. And while we may sometimes wonder how true-to-life our subjective constructions are, we nevertheless tend to live as if what we believe is actually true. We prefer our selective vision of reality, weeding out inconvenient truths that upset us as in Dale Wasserman's Man of La Mancha when Sansón Carrasco points out that knights haven’t existed for 300 years and Don Quixote responds, “Facts are the enemy of truth.” They sure are these days, señor, at least for Don Trump and Sancho Spicer.

Truth, in an artistic sense, may be a matter of interpretation and may run deeper than objective facts. We can accept this in a course on Cervantes. But the Trump administration would like us to take a subjective, almost impressionistic approach to issues of domestic policy, federal law, national security, and geopolitical relations. Hence Kellyanne Conway's amazing magical invocation, “Alternative facts,” summoning forth the Zeitgeist of a post-truth world that ultimately, cynically emphasizes authoritarian power above all else.

Those of us who appreciate good journalism would instead prefer our facts served cold without a side of delusion to make them sweeter, GX11 or not. Stephen Colbert put it like this last December on Face the Nation: “I coined this word called truthiness… [which is] preferring to believe what feels true to you rather than what you know the facts to be… and then there’s post-truth, which is not associated with the facts. As a matter of fact, one of Trump’s surrogates, Scottie Nell Hughes, said that facts don’t matter anymore, that there are no facts. That’s truly in a whole new world.”

When I heard that, still in the throes of my election despair, I agreed. But now that I've been following the various developing sub-plots in the Russian hacking scandal and its subsequent, highly bumbling, not-intelligent-enough-to-be-compared-with-Watergate cover up, I'm less inclined to believe we've entered the dark night of the American political soul. As the saying goes, “After hubris comes Nemesis” or, more accurately, “Koros to Hubris to Ate to Nemesis”—after the hunger for power comes arrogance and moral blindness, giving rise to madness and ultimately vengeance. According to this, we should be somewhere in the hubris phase with overtones of madness creeping in right on schedule. And vengeance is coming.

When it arrives, it’ll have a press pass and it’ll be holding a voice recorder and a laptop. Much of the news media has been galvanized by the President's surliness and the lurid, transparent criminality that has surrounded him since well before the election. The press corps is not interested in interpretation as much as documentation. They're applying Philip K. Dick's standard: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.” In other words, what we know is far more significant than what the Press Secretary says it means. Interpretations of Monet's water lilies can change. The non-alternative facts are here to stay. Some of them, we're discovering, involve plane call signs, itineraries, and what are beginning to seem like a pack of bold-faced lies told by Cohen and, ultimately, Trump. Consider, in particular, Louise Mensch's excellent bit of investigative research, “Planespotting: Michael Cohen’s Amazing Journey. It takes us a bit further down the road through Ate to Nemesis.

Last week, UK Business Insider pointed out that Cohen has told four different stories to news organizations regarding his ties with Russia and his interactions between interested parties there and General Flynn. Although Cohen is hiding behind “#fakenews” and threatening to lock out journalists (he told Business Insider to “Change your fake story or lose my number”), there are enough inconsistencies in his many ill-advised public statements to prick up the ears of Nemesis' own press corps.

Cohen gave “fatuous and whataboutery excuses” in response to reporter Louise Mensch's attempts to verify the Steele dossier, which claimed Cohen had met Russians outside the US to pay off hackers “who had attacked Clinton, and a company that ran a Twitter botnet.” In “Planespotting,” Mensch foregrounds her research by noting that: “I took as my starting point the idea that the Steele dossier should be believed and would be for the most part correct; and that it was more likely to be right than wrong. The reason I took this attitude is that all three heads of US intelligence agencies had included Steele’s dossier as an adjunct to their report to the President.”

That is utterly extraordinary and represents a massive vote of confidence in Steele’s work. The heads of the FBI, CIA and NSA are not in the habit of including tabloid sensationalism in their official reports, whether as an adjunct or anything else. Then Mensch goes on to school the reader with a dose of factual objectivity that won't be going away. This in spite of the Trump Administration's best efforts to treat facts like a French oil painting from the 1920s. By comparing Cohen's social media footprint to his various stories about his whereabouts on August 19-22, she finds numerous inconsistencies for the time in which the Steele dossier puts him in Prague paying off hackers.

In fact, although Mensch is careful to make no direct allegation that Cohen flew to the Bahamas and thence to the EU / Russia, she adds that he’s “accused of having met with Russian intelligence, and it is highly likely that were this to be true, the Russians could get him in and out of America without a passport being stamped at all.” In Europe, he could’ve had a meeting on the plane without disembarking or used “any number of other ruses by which a state spying actor could disembark an asset.” All of this is currently speculative, but it’s well-researched speculation based on the highly credible report by Christopher Steele, who the Guardian calls “one of the more eminent Russia specialists for the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).”

Moreover, Mensch has documented disappearing flight histories and irregular/inconsistent flight registration data, which “certainly does not prove Mr. Cohen went to the Bahamas or met with anybody in Moscow. But as he was not where he said he was, and as he is keen to pretend that Twitter data can alone prove whereabouts, I believe that it is worth asking about.” As I’ve observed before, it's axiomatic that when it comes to DC politics, the truth eventually emerges.

These are strange times to be an American, in which dread and idealism clash violently in our national discourse. We're going through an existential crisis: we smile and glad-hand perfect strangers, offering each other opportunities that don't exist, wanting desperately to believe “this is gonna be great” though our suits are ripped, there's nothing in our briefcases, and nobody has a GX11 on them at the moment.

The year I met my strange friend in downtown Chicago was also when I began my novel, Velouria, sitting below the Lincoln Memorial. It’d taken some effort and too much gas to travel across the country by car while also working. But it showed me the good parts of my country. In Teddy Roosevelt National Park, I woke up to wild mustangs. Camped on the beach in Oregon during a rainstorm, reading a book on goddess worship in Ancient Egypt. Watched a blue heron hunt off Whidbey Island in Washington State. Drove 2299 miles of US highway, though herds of bison, forests, and flat green field that touched the horizon. Standing outside the Civic Opera House in Chicago, where my Great Aunt Alice used to sing, I listened to the only extant recording of her performances on my iPod. Then I finally arrived in DC, which was a bigger-than-life metropolis of museums, monuments, and temples to an extremely powerful set of ideals. I had the opportunity to explore the museums and the Library of Congress for two straight weeks that year. Spend some time in the Library of Congress' main reading room and you, too, might believe in the American experiment. I do.

So, like many Americans, I'm not willing to surrender my country to a crime syndicate. Given facts we (non-alternatively) know about Sater, Cohen, and Trump's very well-documented ties to Russia, the scandal seems to be growing by the day in both scope and seriousness. The treasonous thread is unraveling through Russian hackers, through what is beginning to look like a clandestine purge in which multiple Russian officials (including activists and opposition leaders) are being murdered, and through the bumbling prevarication of the major players. And it's heading straight for Trump. Granted, impeachment is still a long way off. But impeachment, which is a political rather than criminal issue, may not be necessary. Treason trumps everything.

Koros to Hubris to Ate to Nemesis, Mr. President. Soon. Very soon.


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