By Ray McGovern, May 3, 2021
I was happy to be asked by the World Ethical Data Foundation to speak at their Forum this year about the media. I chose to select a couple of instructive “for instances” (short for what the Harvard Business School calls “case studies”) to put flesh on this dismal subject. Still all thumbs at making slides, at the last minute I enlisted the help of my friend Ann Batiza; kudos to Ann if you find my presentation coherent.
I decided, also at the last minute, to begin with a song. And those interested in why I chose Die Gedanken Sind Frei can find a fulsome explanation below. But first, to provide some idea as to my train of thought — and hopefully whet an appetite or two — I’ll just list the titles of the slides in the order shown:
1 — William Casey’s Dream Fulfilled
2 — Ken Delanian: John Brennan’s Dream Come True
3 — Comey: Steele Dossier ‘Verified’, also ‘Not Corroborated’
4 — Chuck Grassley Laments the Department of ‘Just Us’
5 — CNN: Expect ‘Technical Difficulties’ the Moment Israel Criticized
6 — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: Why I Did 9/11
7 — Don Lemon to Ray McG: Huh? Julian Assange NOT a Terrorist?
8 — The Noah Principle
Are Die Gedanken Frei – Really?
On a train hurtling through Germany in September 2015, my former CIA colleague, Elizabeth Murray, was teaching me a German song: Die Gedanken Sind Frei, in English “Thoughts are Free”. We were giving presentations in major German cities on the general theme Wie Werden Kriege Gemacht — loose translation, “How Do Wars Get Started”. We encountered considerable puzzlement at how we could feel free to speak so candidly and fearlessly about the responsibility of our own government for causing chaos in the Middle East. In that light, this old German song seemed worth bringing to mind — and perhaps singing at some point during one of our talks. Besides, we thought it might add a much needed lighter, more hopeful note to our dreary theme.
“Collateral damage”, so to speak, from the various wars in the Middle East was having a palpable effect in Germany at the time, with the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees primarily from Syria. We witnessed this personally everywhere our train stopped — and particularly at the main Bahnhof in the north German city of Rostock when we arrived to give a talk there. The railroad station platform could hardly be seen under the open bags and suitcases of hundreds of Syrian refugees.
Under a huge banner ALLE Sind Herzlich Willkommen!, local German volunteers were serving their Arab “guests” coffee, milk, and bread. The refugees’ relief and joy were poignant, the more so when Elizabeth walked into their midst to add words of welcome, using her fluent Arabic to engage them person to person. I felt a strange mixture of shame at our country’s part in causing so many to have to flee their own country; and I felt some hope as I watched the local Germans “welcome the stranger”. (It was entirely predictable that Chancellor Angela Merkel would eventually have to take heavy flak for observing this key biblical mandate. She did it anyway. In my view, it was the right thing to do.)
After Rostock our next engagement was in Berlin, and as our train sped south, Elizabeth and I were rehearsing — discreetly, we thought — Die Gedanken Sind Frei. Not quietly enough, it turned out. It was not long before the four elderly women sitting across the aisle spontaneously joined the singing — and then almost at once, to our astonishment, the entire car of that train joined in.** When the verses had all been sung, I thanked our four women co-passengers for joining in, adding “You were probably not able to sing that when Hitler was in power.” As with one voice, they shouted:
A forceful way of saying “NO WAY did we stop singing that song; we sang it all the time.” (I later learned that Sophie Scholl, a leader of die Weisse Rose student resistance group bravely played that song on her flute outside the walls of the prison in which her father was detained for calling Hitler a “scourge of God”. Sophie herself was later caught and executed.)
What If You Don’t Know What to Think? As mentioned above, Die Gedanken Sind Frei again came to mind as I was preparing to present to the World Ethical Data Foundation in March. OK, I thought, even under Hitler people felt free to sing a song about being able to have thoughts that are free. But if such thoughts are not informed by accurate information, how much are they really worth? How can they engender action aimed at “doing the right thing”? With those thoughts in the back of my head, I decided to sing the first stanza of the song to begin my talk and then proceed to wrestle with that key question.
I had given my talk the title: “Mainstream Media: Vestigial Organs” — which eventually morphed into “Turnkey Tyranny”. And I sang the first stanza:
Die Gedanken sind frei, wer kann sie erraten,
sie fliegen vorbei wie nächtliche Schatten.
Kein Mensch kann sie wissen, kein Jäger sie schießen
mit Pulver und Blei: Die Gedanken sind frei!
Below is a good literal English translation:
Thoughts are free, who can guess them?
They fly by like nocturnal shadows.
No person can know them, no hunter can shoot them
with powder and lead: Thoughts are free!
It occurred to me later that perhaps I should simply have played the following YouTube of Pete Seeger with a free translation.
**A similar thing happened a week later in Cologne in the cavernous — and very full — Lutherkirche toward the end of our presentation. I froze after singing the first line of the song, gave the microphone to Elizabeth who picked up beautifully and, yes, by the third line the entire church had broken out in song. It was quite moving. For those interested, this very short but poignant interlude takes place at minute 1:13:30 of: