Self-flagellation and Cultural Criticism

I was justifiably excited last week when my publisher told me that Kirkus Reviews had reviewed my new book, The Gospel of Self: How Jesus Joined The GOP. I don’t understand this world as much as others do, so I can only rely on what I’m told, but this is apparently quite a big deal. Kirkus Reviews, it seems, is the 900-pound gorilla in the publishing world. As my friend David Weinberger wrote me, “Kirkus is indeed an official Big Deal. It helps set the agenda.” That’s an important observation, because if you seek access to the global information agenda, somebody has to enable that. You can’t just walk into a newspaper and say, “I’ve got something to say.” In our culture, it doesn’t work that way. At least not yet.

So now my little book is sitting there in a most visible spot to be read and reviewed by those who make a living doing such. It’s a step up the ladder of visibility for a perspective that is not discussed as often as it perhaps should be, and I can’t wait to see where this goes next.

I did want to say a couple of things about the review itself, especially in the context of the reality that no review from Kirkus is a bad review. However, it stings when the reviewer says I’m overreaching in the views I represent as a “critical … link in the formation of modern conservative media and as a media prophet.” The former is a judgment call, but the latter is simply a lack of knowledge about my history as a journalist over the last twenty years. I’ve written three books on the subject, and the views I’ve presented have been dissected and critiqued by some of the best minds in the field of journalism and new media. So that part of the review is just wrong. “Here, his own story seems out of place with such grand theorizing.” Those familiar with my work will not view the chapter on media and culture as out of place whatsoever.

The reviewer’s conclusion, therefore – Some intriguing, relevant 1980s history couched in too much self-flagellation and cultural criticism – is actually quite good. So I’m not only delighted that Kirkus chose my book to review, but I also think it’s a fair review and quite useful.

The book is available for pre-order and should be in the warehouse in just a couple of weeks. I can’t wait, for then the real fun will begin.

Just the facts

Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday

The principal assumption of modernity – the human era governed by logic and reason – is that there is an attainable objectivity when it comes to facts, even when applied to historical narratives. This is arguably false, however, when the postmodern practice of deconstruction is applied to any event or occurrence involving multiple narratives. It is perhaps the single most disruptive force of the current era, for a networked citizenry is able to seek out, create, and approve its own narrative while rejecting that of any self-serving hierarchical authority. The election of Donald Trump as President in 2016 was, in part, a reflection of this, for Americans find themselves in a season of questioning facts presented by any group through one-to-many (mass) media, including that which is highly political. Even the top-down messaging from the President of the United States to the citizens of the nation is becoming less and less “factual” with the citizens’ ability to deconstruct any presented narrative.

I view this as a good thing; many others don’t. It would be quite foolish, of course, to assert there are no “facts” in life, but those that drive narrative establishment are fewer and father in-between than you might think.

The 2016 presidential campaign brought to light purveyors of “fake” news, those websites disguised as news websites with deliberately false reports designed to gain pageviews without a conscience. More than for purely economic gain, these sites exploited the zeal of mostly right wingers who were motivated to pass along their lies via social media. One can argue the degree to which such false information influenced the election, but it certainly wasn’t zero. The term “fake news,” however, was too catchy for conservative commentators to ignore, so – in a remarkable feat of doublespeak – they simply applied it to their long time straw man, the so-called “liberal press.” This is the most dangerous leftover from the feast that put Mr. Trump in the White House, and it threatens every single one of our liberties. Since the birth of the Fourth Estate in the French Revolution, the press has served as a check on power in Western Civilization. They did not become such by pleasing the status quo, and this was a given for many centuries. To successfully label the watchdogs as “fakes” through political hackery is a result that could only come from the strategic use of propaganda.

Liberal political bias so dominates the mainstream press, the thinking goes, that it requires a deliberate conservative balance. This is a clever lie that I was partially responsible for spreading during my work as executive producer of The 700 Club in the 1980s. It’s a lie, because it presupposes that whatever we’ve historically known as “the news” is, in fact, politically motivated at core and therefore requires – no, demands – a corrective or “balancing” political response. The mind that drives President Trump’s strategies, Steve Bannon, repeated his description of the press as “the opposing party” in his appearance at this week’s CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) conference.

White House chief strategist Steve Bannon mocked the media for how it “portrayed the campaign, how they portrayed the transition and now they’re portraying the administration,” saying “it’s “always wrong,” during Thursday’s speech at CPAC …

… Last month, Bannon told the New York Times, “The media here is the opposition party,” adding, “They don’t understand this country.” The former Breitbart executive and other Donald Trump surrogates have been combative with the media, often calling CNN “fake news.”

This is a political talking point and nothing more, The problem is that conservatives have hijacked the brand “liberal” and redefined it to suit their wishes, They’ve framed the press into an indefensible corner, a false hegemony that requires more than denial to escape.

The truth is that while “the news” may indeed cover politics, it cannot be political at core, for the proper word for that is propaganda, the toy of the public relations industry, not journalism. Granted, there has been a destructive blending of the two over the past 100 years, but there are a great many journalistic enterprises that remain untainted, and they are nearly all newspapers. Ethics matter in journalism, and I say that as a former ethics professor. The First Amendment, which gives the press a unique liberty, requires self-policing. Speech may be free, but consequences, economic or otherwise, are not, and no journalist in her right mind would dare venture beyond ethical protections. This is why newspapers created the editorial page, where leaders and members of the community could express political views based on “the news.” As one who has practiced journalism for over forty-five years, I can state emphatically that there is no liberal conspiracy or political slant to the news. By definition of the word “news,” what is considered news is, well, new, and by that measure, one could accurately state that “the news” is progressive by design. But that does not make it political, and therefore, a political response isn’t justified whatsoever. This is my beef with so-called “right wing news,” for it was created as a political response to the mainstream press, which makes it false by definition. There is no such thing. Its purveyors are living an illusion, and its followers are a mislead group, for the very best one can say about it is that it is propaganda disguised as “the news.”

As it exists today, this group has little regard for facts and has partially fueled the rise of the postmodern culture’s desperation to find, for themselves, order within the chaos that threatens their peace. The mainstream press is astonished at being labeled “fake” or Bannon’s “opposition party” and doesn’t yet have a strategy for fighting the label except to deny it. They cling to the long-established assumption of “objective historical facts,” while the social engineers on the right argue for alternative meanings. While I believe this is all quite necessary for our culture’s advancement, we’re going to have to eventually agree on this business of facts. Rather than addressing ignorance in productive ways, we’re hung up on yelling at each other, although I believe this will pass eventually.

Even arguing the opposite – a “distortion of objective historical facts” – is committing the same error of reason as relying on those same facts in one’s arguments. Those who do are trying to make a case for said facts without evidence. They are merely attempting to make an inarguable argument over often highly questionable assertions they are trying to prove, and it doesn’t work anymore, because people can make up their own minds with just a little research. The idea of objective facts has served our Western culture well, because modernity refined the concept of top-down rule based on this assumption. If the rulers said it was fact, it was fact. It doesn’t matter if the hierarchy is dictatorial or democratic, for both ultimately rely on the power to control narrative in matters of fact. When such hierarchies are revealed as self-serving, however, those on the lower rungs are free to question the narrative or narratives that gave the top its authority in the first place.

What Donald Trump represents is the figurehead of one of these deconstructions, which is reasonable and understandable. Many Americans view their current circumstances as the chaotic fruit of those despicable liberals in charge who always act in opposition to the best interests of their conservative thinking. This would be completely acceptable in a postmodern universe were it not for the false assumptions that created its propagandistic narrative in the first place. Postmodernity doesn’t “replace” modernity, and that’s the problem. One does not give up his ability to think and reason simply because participation and experience suggest otherwise.

The postmodernist may discard historical narratives in her quest for truth, but she must in the process investigate the facts that the authors used to create the narrative in the first place. This is the proper role of deconstruction, for one may reject the conclusions of her predecessors, but she may not do it at the expense of truth, whether objective, absolute, or chaotic.

Facts, we must always remember, do not exist solely to create order, for order, as Henry Adams so brilliantly put it, “is the dream of man,” while chaos is the reality of nature. Therefore, the postmodern mind embraces the idea of factual chaos, while the modern mind must consider such as functionally unreasonable. Thusly, the right wing narrative is as false as the left wing narrative, because neither represents the entirety of chaos. Time and chance do not suit the modernist mind, but these are part and parcel of the postmodern reality and beyond.

Upon consideration of the above, the modern mind will default to its versions of absolutism and especially the nature of expertise that is gleaned from an educational system designed to promote the hierarchy. This boxlike structure rejects anything outside as undesirable and attaches labels that dehumanize through mockery and disdain such people. This includes the “liberal” moniker, which has been defined over the last thirty years as anyone or anything that wants to take away what one has or prevent one from getting what they believe they deserve. It’s neat. It’s simple. And it’s also utterly self-serving, for the hierarchy must protect itself at all costs. Anything else is assumed chaotic, and chaos is never to be accepted in the governance of humans, even though John Wycliffe wrote upon completion of his common English language Bible, “This book shall make possible government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Wycliffe knew that an internal governor was preferable to an external governor, because humans are so easily drawn away through self-centeredness, especially those with power over others.

The real American dream is self-governance, and without it, there is only the nightmare of the bayonet.

Donald Trump is by no means the end of this cultural shifting, but he is quite likely the beginning. For those of us in the trenches of life, we must do three things that are quite necessary in order to assure a bright future for our progeny.

First, we must protect at all costs our ability to freely connect. The web is open, for example, but Facebook is not, and this will drive darknet and backbone development in the decades to come. Net neutrality is the most important issue facing our culture, but most people don’t even know about it, which will enable corporations to steal the net from us. This will favor the haves, and we will be worse off than before.

Two, our day-to-day activities must include the recognition of narrative in those with claims of truth, any truth. This will be a challenge, for the education must begin with children. It is, however, an opportunity for someone. The dream that if we just work hard and keep our noses clean, we will be rewarded is a self-driven illusion of the ruling class, the only ones who really reap the rewards of a satisfied, lower-class labor force.

Finally, we must prepare ourselves and our children for an era of work very different from our parents. They’ll probably work at home or a home office of sorts. That means space, tools, a stout internet connection, and privacy. I agree with Mark Cuban that creative expression – and especially the ability to interpret data and provide creative analysis – is the job skill that will be most coveted downstream and especially in the near future. If you’re going to opt for college, move basic liberal arts to the top of the degree list, but it would also be useful to consider options outside college that will stretch the creative mind.

In essence, I view all of this as a necessary evil that we must get beyond. My entire life has been lived in a growing slough of bull crap, and humanity – free humanity – will never reach its potential in such muck. Life is certainly hard enough without being forced to trudge through the senseless nonsense designed to trap us all forever at the bottom of order’s pyramid.

Let chaos reign, at least for awhile.

The Revolt Doesn’t Belong To Donald Trump

My own general dissatisfaction with where our culture was heading was perhaps the biggest reason I began studying postmodernism nearly twenty years ago. To me, the important issues of the day were all about our advancing culture and the opposing forces fighting for control of the destination. It was pretty clear to those of us from the Sixties that our dream had utterly collapsed and that self-interest was increasingly the modus operandi of the masses. Following such a shift downstream leads to the whole thing collapsing on itself, and the signs of a revolution were ever-present for those with eyes to see. This is the reason why I view the presidency of Donald Trump as actually an odd form of cultural correction, one that will show us that we’re all in this together.

This is on my mind today, because of a short paragraph in Politico’s insightful story last week about the President’s most influential adviser, the alt-right’s Steve Bannon:

“The West is in trouble. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that, and Trump’s election was a sign of health,” said a White House aide who was not authorized to speak publicly. “It was a revolt against managerialism, a revolt against expert rule, a revolt against the administrative state. It opens the door to possibilities.”

Let’s look at this again. It was “a revolt against managerialism, a revolt against expert rule, a revolt against the administrative state.” I have no argument with this, for I believe this rationale is spot-on postmodern thinking. Managerialism is another term for colonialism. Expert rule is what we have when institutions created to serve become the ones demanding to be served in our relationships with them. The administrative state is that of the top-down orchestration (manipulation) of those at street level. So, yes, this is indeed descriptive of the revolution of postmodernism.

However, Donald Trump is on the wrong side of all of this, for he and his methods describe the antithesis of the revolt, an autocrat whose self-interest far exceeds that of mortal men. To the President and his ilk – the one percent – capitalism is the lifeblood of liberty, but in the famous words of John Milton: “License they mean when they cry liberty.” We must always maintain a wise skepticism whenever we hear people at the top hollering about liberty, for there is a vast difference between it and the self-centered grabbing of license.

Webster’s 1828 Dictionary definition of license: 2. Excess of liberty; exorbitant freedom; freedom abused, or used in contempt of law or decorum.

So what are we to conclude?

There is indeed a revolution underway, and it’s against those very things offered by the White House aide quoted in the Politico piece. Donald Trump’s campaign may have tapped that energy, but he is a counterfeit solution – the archetype of what the revolt opposes. The kindest thing that can be said is that his supporters – filled with the spirit of change, but based on their own selfish needs – require a dramatic event that will shake them to the core and shine a light on the real revolt. We all need each other more than any of us cares to admit. We’re all riding the same lifeboat in a universe toxic and hostile to our carbon-based hosts.

That is the essence of the revolt. It is of the people, by the people, and for the people, and it does indeed open the door to possibilities. Moreover, it’s in part about the faith of the people, especially Christianity, a brand that has been hijacked and now represents something highly repulsive to the postmodern mind. It would be foolish to examine contemporary culture without this understanding, for young people especially are fleeing the brand at record levels.

Many of my Christian friends point to 2 Chronicles 7:14 and gleefully apply it to America today in defense of their vote last November. The verse is Solomon’s prayer for repentance in the wake of the completion of rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. Of critical importance is this portion – it’s God speaking – “then I will hear from heaven and I will forgive their sin and heal their land.” Applying this to America, however, requires looking past the beginning of the statement: “If My people who are called by My name repent …” So the ancient message is to God’s people, not the separate nation in which they live.

If this message applies to our culture today, it ONLY applies to the very Christians who are pointing their fingers at the culture when they should be looking in the mirror. Regarding President Trump, the old idiom applies: Be careful what you wish for; you may actually get it. This is part of reason I wrote my new book, The Gospel of Self: How Jesus Joined the GOP.

Finally, this (the Trump Presidency) is something we all must go through. There is no above it, below it, or around it. We must go through it. If we do, we’ll come out on the other side better for all that we’ve learned together, for we see through a glass darkly, while history has a clear view.

We must never give up in fighting for truth, for as the aide noted, the door is open for possibilities.

Using the Bible to justify selfishness

Luke 10:25-37 (NIV)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Evangelical Christians were among Donald Trump’s staunchest allies during the 2016 campaign, and they remain a group the President can count on as he implements even the most extreme of the positions he proclaimed would make America great again. Chief among these for Evangelicals are: religious freedom allowing for rejection of liberal mandates such as being forced to serve those with whom they disagree theologically (and socially); the ability to have their children pray in school and be exposed to Biblical absolutes; returning to a culture within which access to safe abortions is illegal, and this despite the fact that the abortion rate is now where it was BEFORE Roe v Wade; eliminating the threat of evangelism from what they view as the false religion of Islam and in the process making sure their neighborhoods will be Muslim-free; and a return to a time when – in their opinion – the voice of Christianity was sought, heard, and embraced as relevant by the culture as a whole.

I remain convinced that this group is the most important to reach with the message of the potential for mischief and danger from an autocrat President of the United States. It also happens to be the most difficult to reach, for their perceived authority comes from a Bible that is taught to them as errorless and to be obeyed by those seeking the promised, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” and a guarantee of an afterlife of heavenly bliss. We will not succeed in efforts to convince this group without attacking certain assumptions they’ve been led to believe are absolute according to Holy Scripture. This struggle is private and behind-the-scenes, because it often takes place in forums not considered by those who view the issues as entirely political. These forums are then passed around for the horizontal consumption by others of their ilk.

Today, I want to delve into one of these private discussions, this one via a simple article on Herman Cain’s right wing website. There are a great many “Christian” blogs and websites, and while many bloggers using that label are not of the political right wing, it is the Evangelicals who make the most noise and speak loudest about the brand. Hence, the battle is entirely with those Evangelicals who represent the political opinions of the far right, which is what writer Dan Calabrese has done in this article headlined, “What does the Bible really say about taking in Syrian refugees?” Here are a few pertinent quotes from Mr. Calabrese regarding the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which he views as wrongly exegeted by those arguing it represents God’s will for dealing with refugees:

“As liberals often do, they take directives aimed at individuals in the Bible and try to make them the responsibility of the state.” He makes the case that, because the Samaritan took the injured man to an inn rather than his own home, he was revealing the wisdom of not bringing a potential problem into his own home. Thus, he reasons, it’s relevant to the discussion of Syrian refugees. Of course, this is Mr. Calabrese’s opinion, his interpretation, not the Bible speaking directly to us, and this, of course, is the problem. The Bible says nothing about the Good Samaritan avoiding danger, so that is an assumption. “As liberals often do” is also a convenient, pejorative, and condescending put down designed to frame whatever absurdity follows as a given, when it’s at best a mere guess.  He goes on to add:

“What the left wants to do in the case of the Syrian refugees is use the power of the state to force an entire nation to welcome people into their midst without any effort to ensure that members of ISIS with evil intentions were filtered out. That’s not compassion. That’s national suicide.” How does one respond to the many assumptions here? One, refugees ARE vetted – often vigorously – so there doesn’t exist a zero-effort absolute when it comes to identifying members of ISIS. Two, the statement assumes that the President’s anti-Muslim initiative WILL effectively rule out those with evil intentions. This is utterly absurd in addition to representing a straw man that serves only to distract, for terrorism isn’t a problem of religion. It’s organized crime and needs to be treated accordingly. Finally, the statement assumes that the matter is black and white, that anything other than a unilateral denial of entry is self-inflicted death. It makes for a good soundbite, but it’s simply exaggerated illogic. But he goes on:

“It would make more sense for them to be resettled in majority Muslim countries anyway, and we can do a lot of things to support that process.” This has nothing to do with the Bible but speaks loudly about the writer’s religious bias. I’m sure the refugees would rather stay with their own homes in their own countries, but each has made a decision that such a proposition is untenable. They seek freedom, not further distress. To which “Muslim countries” would the writer have us divert the stream anyway? Has anybody inquired as to their willingness to participate? How does it follow that their faith has anything to do with where they settle anyway? I understand this absurdity, because it comes from Islamophobic thinking, which is really at the core of Mr. Calabrese’s reasoning in the first place.

The point is this is nowhere near the God I serve, and the interpretation of scripture in this manner is not only without merit; it’s entirely self-centered. It’s redlining on a national scale and against everything for which our country stands.

I’m not surprised at all, however, for what we have here is a generation nurtured on the Gospel of Self. It’s bad enough that we’re naturally inclined in that direction, but this is self preservation gone to seed. Not only that, but it also denies the very power that its proponents claim protects them, and it reeks of the very unBiblical “God helps those who help themselves.”

The scope of the battle over the minds of those so inculcated is enormous, but it’s quite likely the one that matters most.

The People of the Moment

(AP Photos/Bebeto Matthews)

Here’s the latest in my ongoing series of essays:

People of the Moment

This is a long read, but something I feel is vitally important today, so please know that going in. It’s also likely to be quite controversial, because it regards the contemporary “Christian” brand and the desires of many to rid themselves of what that represents. The document isn’t a formal proposal; it’s offered only as food for thought to be used in the broader discussions of the issues presented. I mean harm to no one, especially my many friends who practice the various forms of Christianity available to people today. To me, I’m speaking the obvious, but I recognize that my mind’s thoughts are often very foreign to those who read my work.

Please enjoy. I’m sure I’ll hear back about this one.

Understanding “Alternative Facts”

Here’s a little perspective on the matter before us: Marketers have been lying to us since the days of the snake oil salesman. I’ve told the story before of the TV commercial I witnessed many years ago during the grapefruit diet fad. The ad was for so-called grapefruit pills that would help people lose weight. At least that was the assertion of the creator of the commercial. One scene featured a guy washing a horse who turned to the camera and actually said, “It’s so darned easy, it’s GOT to work!” If the FTC ever wanted to crack down on false advertising (they won’t), it would open the eyes of consumers everywhere.

There are many, many ways for marketers to lie. There’s lying by omission. When tissue companies, for example, sell the same sized box with fewer tissues inside for the same or slightly reduced price as before, they are lying to increase profits while giving the impression of holding the line on consumer costs. Welcome to the world of Madison Avenue and the secrets of mass marketing.

Well guess what? People are slowly catching on to these lies, and they’re sharing their knowledge with their families and friends, some of it via social media. It’s getting harder and harder to get away with such, even though there are still a substantial number of folks who’ll believe that it’s so darned easy it has to work. This is where we find ourselves today with all forms of mass media in the worlds of politics and news.

I have an ongoing study, for example, of events in the Middle East, thanks to my family living in Amman, Jordan. There are publications working to deconstruct the Zionist narrative that has been the public face of Israel since 1948. We all need to learn more about narratives, and especially those that undergird even our most basic assumptions of life, for very often these narratives are propaganda and very definitely false, at least to the point where they deserve regular review and often deconstruction.

All of this is to say that KellyAnne Conway’s “alternative facts” is really a fruit of what’s been taking place for years, that is the struggle of those who need to maintain narrative control in a media environment that questions narrative as self-serving propaganda. This is the beauty of our newly connected universe, for it’s impossible now for an institution (and government is certainly an institution) to maintain its own version of truth at the expense of those at the receiving end of their “service.”

This is going to get much worse in our culture, until we all learn that such falsehoods begin with lying to ourselves. Shakespeare wrote: “This above all, to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as night the day, that thou canst not be false to any man.”

May that day come quickly.