THE VOA FOLLIES

by , July 06, 2002

The neocons are up in arms – one of their own has been fired from his position as a "journalist" at the Voice of America and may be on his way to becoming the Mumia Abu Jamal of the War Party. The cause of Stephen Schwartz, a writer formerly known as "Comrade Sandalio," has been taken up by William Safire and Ronald Radosh. In a column berating the "accommodationist" US State Department supposedly in control of VOA – whose news director is under the illusion that he heads up a real news-gathering organization, instead of a propaganda arm of the US government – Safire writes:

"An excuse may be leaked, but I think the real reason is ironic: the former San Francisco Chronicle reporter is an outspoken dissenter from the news director’s views. Schwartz, a contributor to the conservative Weekly Standard, is critical of Saudi and Syrian support of terror."

But it sounds like Safire may be all-too-aware of the real real reason Schwartz was kicked out, because he goes to describe Schwartz pretty accurately:

"The abrasive reporter, 53, who covered the war in Bosnia and Kosovo firsthand, was unpopular with deskbound colleagues."

"Abrasive" is putting it mildly. When we linked to one of his diatribes in this column, Antiwar.com received a phone call from someone purporting to be Schwartz’s lawyer, threatening to sue us. We told him to drop dead.

I’ve known the voluble Schwartz for years. He used to be a local "character" here in the Bay Area, whose antics are best exemplified in a May 6, 1987 story in the San Francisco Examiner:

"When ‘New Age Rightist’ Stephen Schwartz discovered graffiti calling him ‘the philosophical whore of North Beach,’ the former Trotskyite turned red with rage. He uncapped his felt-tipped pen and was printing a reply to the scurrilous scribblings when he was busted by Mayor Feinstein’s anti-graffiti police squad on a charge of malicious mischief, defacing the wall of a Vallejo Street construction site.

"Schwartz…has demanded a trial to exonerate his exercise of free speech.

"’I was just going to answer that I was not the philosophical whore of North Beach,’ said Schwartz, 37."

Fifteen years later, Schwartz is still defacing public property, demanding that we all pay for his "right" to "free speech" – this time, by giving him free rein to peddle his conspiracy theories that demonize America’s Arab allies, via the Voice of America. Of course, Schwartz has every right to believe that the Saudis are the number one enemy of mankind, and that we need to engage in a new cold war with practically the whole of the Muslim world except the Sufis, and the Bosnian branch of Islam. But at a time when we are trying to enlist the aid of our Arab allies in a war against Al Qaeda and allied organizations, Schwartz’s firing is hardly surprising. Indeed, it raises the question: "Why was he hired in the first place?"

Although I haven’t seen him skulking around North Beach lately, it seems Schwartz is still a philosophical whore. Here is someone whose long march through the ideologies started out on the far-left fringe of Trotskyism – as "Comrade Sandalio," he was the leader (and sole member) of the Fomento Obrero Revolucianario of the United States (FOCUS) – and wound up on the opposite shore, where he became "Suleyman Ahmad," the Jewish convert to Islam and a self-described "New Age rightist."

No matter what sort of ideological drag he turns up in, however, Schwartz always sings essentially the same song. During his travels through the Balkans, he teamed up with Albanian Catholics, whom he claims were "threatened by Christian Orthodox imperialism – ‘Yugoslav,’ Macedonian, Greek." Clinton had barely begun bombing some of the oldest cities in Europe when Schwartz popped up on Bay Area television cheerleading the Kosovo war. Now the enemy is Wahabism, instead of Orthodoxy, but it’s the same old story: the US must conduct a religious war to suit Schwartz’s latest persona – whatever that is.

So, what’s up with all the phony names, and the different ideological guises? Is the guy a nutball, or just an opportunist? In an amusing account of his friendship with Schwartz, Keith Sorel tells a story that provides a clue: After agitating against unions in his ultra-leftist magazine, The Alarm, declaring them "enemies of the working class," Schwartz abruptly decided to go to work as the "official historian" of the Sailors Union of the Pacific "in order to gain access to their archives." But it was necessary to keep his political past a secret:

"The Alarm had been sacrificed so he could get a union job. He couldn’t work as the official historian of a union and allow it to be known that he was the author of a publication that in its first issue had described assassinations of union bureaucrats in Italy by urban guerrillas as ‘viscerally pleasing.’ He argued that any confusions caused to readers of The Alarm would be well worth the ultimate value of this book to a resurgent wildcat workers’ movement in the United States. The Alarm would be resurrected after he’d finished his book. I respected his machiavellian attitude. I liked Schwartz. I thought he was for real and I wanted to believe him."

From the sectarian politics of the left-communist fringe to the halls of the Institute for Contemporary Studies and on to the Voice of America, this chameleon has changed his spots several times over, but always, you’ll note, in search of a job. The only problem is that he has to blot out half his resume in search of the next one.

Aside from opportunism, however, there is an ideological theme to Schwartz’s recent career: Wherever there is a war, there is Stephen Schwartz, hovering vulture-like, demanding an escalation of the conflict. From the class war, to the Kosovo war, to the "war on terrorism," the war-bird Schwartz pops up on every battlefield, like some macabre jack-in-the-box, braying for the blood of the "oppressors."

To the neocons, however, Schwartz is another heroic government "whistle-blower," blowing the whistle on the "accomodationist" US State Department. Radosh paints us a portrait of Schwartz as a political martyr:

"Andre de Nesnera, dismissed Schwartz, claiming that his work was not competent. Given the major journalistic scoops of Schwartz, the apparent ”reason’ is clearly nothing but the usual bureaucratic excuse offered by the cowards running the VOA shop. Schwartz obviously was let go because he refused to toe the line…."

It’s funny that Radosh touts Schwartz as a crackerjack "reporter" and regales him with "five in-house rewards for his reporting" in the San Francisco Chronicle: the joke is that a good portion of his literary output consisted of obituaries written for that newspaper. His specialty was panegyrics to dead lefties. Whenever some ancient leftist of note croaked, the Chronicle wheeled out Schwartz to pen a paean to the departed. So, what was his big "scoop" – that Gus Hall was buried in his best suit?

The attempt to turn Schwartz, a.k.a. "Suleyman Ahmad," a.k.a. "Comrade Sandalio," into some kind of political martyr is bound to backfire as soon as the spotlight falls on the alleged "victim." Indeed, his initial hiring calls into question the whole rationale for the existence of VOA and the attendant propaganda apparatus left over from the cold war and now being revived and expanded by the proponents of the "war on terrorism."

There’s plenty of plush government gigs to go along with all the hopped up "axis of evil" rhetoric, which is why dubious characters like Schwartz were the first to plunge their snouts into that particular trough. Now that the cold war is over, and knowledge of the intricacies of the Stalin-Trotsky dispute won’t get the aspiring "expert" very far, the new anti-Muslim cold war is the neocons’ meal ticket for the next decade or two, or so they hope: that’s the real motivation behind the campaign to "Free Stephen Schwartz," the neocons’ newest poster boy.

Radosh’s complaint that Schwartz was fired because he failed to "toe the line" is utterly incomprehensible. To begin with, this is a federal agency we are talking about here: not the voice of America, but the voice of the American government. Isn’t "toeing the line" part of the job description? Which brings me to my main point, which is not Schwartz, but the VOA itself.

We don’t need an official government agency pumping propaganda and a lot of hot air into the political atmosphere of the Middle East. The example of the United States, as a free and prosperous commonwealth, is sufficient to inspire the admiration of many, and the envy of a few. We will never win over the latter, and should be content to let Hollywood mobilize the allegiance of the former. Baywatch is a better – and far more effective – advertisement for American values than the incitements of an embittered ideologue.

Read more by Justin Raimondo