Who writes the history in a postmodern world?

Slate Image

Slate.com Image

As the American press attempts to deal with its devastating loss of authority in the 2016 presidential election process, it might be useful to review one of its most important, albeit self-assigned roles: creating the “first rough draft of history.” The job of writing history in an era where there is no governing narrative is going to be very tricky, as this election has proven. There is no single explanation of what happened, for each “side” has its own narrative. This is going to increasingly be the case, because postmodernism rejects grand or meta narratives as self-serving and biased in favor of, usually, the ruling class.

“The rich man writes the book of laws the poor man must defend.” Ricky Skaggs

Let’s review: We entered the postmodern era as the internet came into being. Thus, the mantra of Western Civilization is shifting from purely “I think and reason, therefore I understand” to more of a “I participate, therefore I understand” theme. Power is shifting from top-down to horizontal, and this will continue for many hundreds of years. Its end will likely not be dystopian, unless the priesthoods losing their power and control get really ugly. Then, who knows? Meanwhile, and especially for a man of my age, the conflict can be pretty entertaining. Civilization can seem quite unpleasant, uncivilized, and chaotic to those stuck on the modernist bus, where order and equilibrium provide the juice for the drive train.

One of modernism’s beacons of glory is Colonialism, humankind’s grand venture into conquest – often in the name of God – to acquire land and its resources in order to increase the wealth of the conquerers. Colonialism, it turns out, is a special kind of enslavement, for colonies are forced to submit to those who hold the power, and a big part of that power is information – the grand narrative that justifies and maintains the conquest. In order to be in charge in a top-down government, whether democratic or totalitarian, the top must control that narrative. If you’re sensitive to it, you can actually witness such attempts as they happen, and these are even more evident as modernism slowly slips away.

My favorite conservative, William F. Buckley, Jr., once said, “History is the polemics of the victors.” which was his version of the old axiom, “In war, the winner gets to write the history.” This served well in the top-down era from which we’re exiting, but it won’t suffice at all in the future. That’s because history – true history – is an ongoing, ever evolving and complex narrative, one that is highly suited to a connected universe. In the deadline-driven era, it was necessary for the press to provide a finished product for consumption, even if it was just a “first rough draft.” Thanks to hyperlinks and connectivity, however, we’ve no need to summarize and package anymore, for life presents itself as an on-going and chaotic mystery, even though it’s subject to the laws of seasons. Nothing “natural” exists in draft form, finished or otherwise; it is merely one, long, ever-evolving, chaotic mess, while we work our butts off trying to put everything into digestible forms of order.

The history book – with its beginning, middle, and end – will be replaced by search and living links, for the stories that comprise human existence never really conclude; they simply branch off and evolve. Our access to that never ending story won’t require packaging, for the story will supplant the package on the value chain of knowledge.

Essential to order is the myth of objective or absolute truth, the idea that foundational elements of life are set and therefore cannot change, an idea that includes grand narratives, often in the form of religious tenets and beliefs. These, however, fall apart upon honest deconstruction, for somebody always gains while others lose. Therefore, grand narratives are always a zero sum game. The total is the sum of everything. Postmodernism challenges the authority of this by deconstructing narratives to a point of conflict, and this will form a new understanding of history in the centuries ahead.

The best illustration of this today is an examination of the hot button word “terrorist” and how it is used for propaganda purposes. One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, and we cannot resolve this to everyone’s satisfaction as long as both sides are a part of an ongoing narrative, the moving target that I’m calling postmodern history. The ruling authority would have to dismantle our ability to connect – and with it, our organized public disagreement – in order to stake its claim of terrorist or freedom fighter. Hyperlinks provide access to multiple points of view, and that cannot be tolerated by those in charge (the top), for we might then agree with the opposite of what the ruling authority is asserting. The postmodern world is immune from this, and one day in the distant future, we will be our ruling authority. The mischief potential of top-down authority is simply too great to be forever sustained by those requiring a special wool to pull over eyes educated to see.

Oh there are plenty of people trying today to interfere with this natural flow of civilization by demanding control. The best example is the Zionist government of Israel, a country where control of the narrative is essential to maintaining the status quo. Despite being only one side of a multi-dimensional and multi-directional overarching Middle Eastern reality, the Israelis are especially good at controlling the world’s view of their geopolitical nightmare. The greatest evidence of this is the way the government is approaching social media by defining disagreeing posts as “incitement” against them and demanding private businesses such as YouTube and Facebook remove those posts. This is trying to control the narrative in the first degree, but it’s merely a form of global censorship. It cannot be sustained, for the forces against it cannot be controlled in our increasingly postmodern world, and it would be much healthier, if we all agreed on what’s taking place in the Holy Land in such a way that the narrative was more inclusive.

I realize many will view my statements as vast oversimplifications, but the vision presented here is available to anyone who’s paying attention at the macro level.

We can either participate in the evolution/revolution or sit back powerless as others do it for us.

The real threat to the working class

My dad coming home from work at one of the big furniture factories in Grand Rapids circa 1959.

My dad coming home from work at one of the big furniture factories in Grand Rapids circa 1959.

In the endless litany of analyses over why Donald Trump was elected president, the winner seems to be the cultural subgroup known as “the working class.” All the nostalgia over making America great again was targeted to this group, people who once participated in the American Dream but have lost out to foreign manufacturing, among other things. As a working class guy and a transplant to the South, I can tell you this is serious business down here. Textile mills that used to dot the landscape have moved where labor is cheaper, leaving behind a legion of good people without a way to provide a middle class lifestyle for their families.

Mr. Trump blamed trade agreements that allowed other countries to steal the manufacturing sector out from under us, but he did so without ever mentioning two important aspects of this: cheaper products produced by cheaper labor, which benefit us all, and dramatically increased profits that didn’t have to be shared with the cheaper labor. Assuming all of that was somehow brought back to the U.S., consumer prices would skyrocket, which would not please anybody. I mean, what’s the point of a “good” job, if it means inflation and higher prices for everything from housing to a pair of jeans?

But the bigger story is what’s ahead for the working class regardless of the extent to which nationalism grows as a practical matter. Technology isn’t just disrupting hierarchies and those whose value to the economy is based on protected knowledge; technology is also stripping away working class jobs and will continue to do so at an accelerating pace. By 2019, the Labor Department projects that 40% of the labor force will be self-employed, which doesn’t bode well for those who whose parents went to the office, the plant, the mine, or whatever. No amount of “Yea, America” is going to make corporations care about the lives of their employees beyond what they can do for the bottom line.

And that means the digitalization of the kinds of jobs once thought untouchable will continue. Today, it means little that a truck can transport goods without a driver, but what about tomorrow? Anybody who drives for a living can be replaced. Robotics continue to advance in all directions, as does artificial intelligence, holograms, virtual reality, advanced military weaponry, and many, many other areas. This has brought about serious discussion about the concept of “uniform basic income” or “guaranteed basic income,” in which the government would give everybody money whether they worked or not. The election of Donald Trump, some within the basic income movement argue, may jumpstart the idea, while others, according to a Business Insider article, disagree.

“The election of Trump as president is probably not good news for the basic income movement,” Rutger Bregman, Dutch basic income expert and author of “Utopia for Realists,” tells Business Insider.

And with millions of jobs set to get displaced by robotic automation in the coming decades, Bregman could be right. As Business Insider’s Josh Barro argued, Trump doesn’t seem too concerned about the lack of manufacturing jobs in the future. That lack of clarity has experts like Bregman worried. The president-elect seems unwilling to acknowledge that humans could get booted from entire industries in a matter of decades.

That’s precisely why Trump has every incentive to cozy up to basic income, Pugh says. His fan base has serious fears about the future of the economy.

“Enacting basic income would help to revitalize parts of the country hit hardest by outsourcing and automation by spurring entrepreneurship in those areas.” Or as writer and basic income advocate Scott Santens put it, “Basic income is good for business.”

The working class faces a very difficult future, which is why it’s probably a safe bet that young people will continue to leave rural communities for opportunities in the big city. There are still innovative opportunities available to anyone within the Great Horizontal, but such opportunities demand a different mindset than one based on nostalgia and making American great (again) by going back to an era buried in the sands of human progress. The irony is that rural versus urban is an artificial barrier, for we have achieved a degree of omnipresence never even considered by the planners of old.

Personally, I’ll take small town living with a good internet connection any day of the year.

Announcing my new book

contractI’m very happy to announce that OR Books in New York will be publishing my new book about my days as Pat Robertson’s producer with The 700 Club. We’re going to call it “The Gospel of Self: How Jesus Joined the GOP,” and it should be available by December, which is a pretty quick turnaround for a publisher. You will be able to pre-order via the web in a few weeks, and I’ll keep you posted about that.

This has been quite an adventure, and I’m very proud to be associated with OR Books. They are a unique independent publishing company embracing “progressive change in politics, culture and the way we do business.” Believe me when I say we are a perfect fit, and I am so, so excited.

As you likely already know, I’ve been working on this book for 18 months and thinking about it since I left CBN in the wake of Pat Robertson’s run for President in 1988. It’s a book for Christians – especially Evangelicals – although its message will be a very hard sell to this group. It will do well with Christians on the left, but it’s really for everyone who was ever influenced by the hard wind that blew in the era of the televangelists in the 1980s. “The Gospel of Self” is my term for the broad use of the Bible as a self-help manual, a handbook for personal salvation, as opposed to the bigger issue of pleading the cause of the poor and the afflicted. I will get a ton of criticism for my views, but the facts are always what really matters in the telling of history. I provide documentation, including portions of my sworn testimony with the Criminal Investigative Division of the IRS. It’s a compelling story and includes my postmodern predictions for the future of the church.

I’ve been writing about online marketing for over 15 years, and this will give me a chance to try some things that haven’t been done as well as doing things the mass marketing way. Can you tell I’m pretty pumped?

A great big thanks here to Jeff Jarvis, my old friend and colleague from the trailblazing days of early blogging. Jeff is the one who opened this door for me, and I will forever be in his debt.

Another big thanks to my newer friend, Brian McLaren, who has been a strong supporter of this effort. McLaren is a prolific author and the key founder of the Emerging Church movement. His work dovetails nicely with mine over the last 20 years, and I’m proud to call him a friend. He has a new book coming out next month that I’m looking forward to reading. I could not have stayed the course of my vision without Brian’s encouragement.

Of Spectators and Participants

spectatorsIn response to many questions years ago about the nature of postmodernism as a cultural era, I described it as the “Age of Participation,” for technology was making it possible for us to participate in culture in ways that were once impossible. As a young boy, I used play “bombs over Tokyo” with marbles in the back yard. We were about ten years downstream from World War II, so the name of the game was a reference to the war. When we were able to buy toy planes, we’d play the same game, but it took a great deal of imagination to actually put ourselves into such a game of good guys and bad guys.

Such it was with just about everything we did, from cowboys and indians to our little rubber models of Disney characters. It was all about making up some story and interacting with each others toys. Not so today.

Video games are so advanced today that the Armed Services actually use them as simulators to train the people who defend our freedoms, and this is what I mean about the Age of Participation. We are no longer forced into a spectator role in our games and entertainment; we can actually be a part of the experience, and this is only going to become more and more immersive.

But it’s way more than just games and entertainment. The Age of Participation will unfold as one in which free people are deeply connected and able to participate in a great many other walks of life. This is a staggering threat to our cultural status quo, which demands that the have-nots be spectators and not participants. It’s right out of the mind of social engineer and father of professional journalism, Walter Lippmann, who with his buddy Edward Bernays wrote the books on how respected intellectuals should run things for everybody else.

Bernays wrote: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.”

In his 1955 essay “Walter Lippmann and Democracy,” Herbert Aptheker refers to Lippmann as an “offended and frightened snob” to say such things as these:

“…there is no possibility that men can understand the whole process of social existence.” Forgetting “the limitations of men” has been our central error. Men cannot plan their future for “they are unable to imagine it” and they cannot manage a civilization, for “they are unable to understand it.” To think otherwise, to dare to believe that the people can and should govern themselves, that they can and should forge social systems and governments enhancing the pursuit of their happiness here on earth—this is “the gigantic heresy of an apostate generation…”

In writing about Lippmann, contemporary intellectual Noam Chomsky published the following insightful paragraph:

“The public must be put in its place,” Walter Lippmann wrote, so that we may “live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd,” whose “function” is to be “interested spectators of action,” not participants. And if the state lacks the force to coerce and the voice of the people can be heard, it is necessary to ensure that that voice says the right thing, as respected intellectuals have been advising for many years.

As we look at the chaos of today’s election season, we would all do well to remember that the whole system needs the kind of reinvention that only an informed and involved public can produce. In this sense, I have hope that 2016 is a part of the forthcoming cleansing and not something to be feared, an awakening on many levels that we’re all tired of being led around by Chomsky’s “respected intellectuals” for their own benefit and not ours. This will require a different kind of education than what’s being discussed today, one that I view as inevitable so long as we are connected and able to share freely amongst ourselves.

I’ve written many times about historian Chris Lasch and his wonderful 1990 essay, “The Lost Art of Political Argument.” This lengthy essay is eye-opening, especially as it relates to Lippmann and Bernays, for Lasch makes the case that the fall in citizen participation in the political process in the US is directly tied to the rise in the professionalization of the press. Participants need argument; spectators need a view of the arena in which others play, and that has been the role of an elitist press for many years.

We need lessons on arguing a position instead of simply passing along memes that tickle our ears but were created by somebody else. That’s simply lazy.

  • Let’s argue and not inflame, knowing that those who wish only to inflame are playing us through our emotions and fears. The only people in this for us are us, and we need to resist the temptation to be conduits for somebody else’s gain. In politics, nobody speaks the truth, for truth is not the goal of politicians. It must, however, be ours.
  • Ad hominem attacks are never allowed. Following this simple rule alone would lower the decibel level considerably as we worked out our differences publicly. Sadly, those who are smart in the ways of marketing know how easily people fall for character attacks in the place of reasoned argument, which makes the American public complicit in the hubris and hyperbole coming from those they support.
  • Argument is not a dirty word. It’s just a noun. In Webster’s 1828 dictionary, the first definition reads like this: “A reason offered for or against a proposition, opinion, or measure; a reason offered in proof, to induce belief, or convince the mind; followed by for or against.” In other words, it’s simply stating your case with reasons. Too much of what we have today is the parroting of marketing or propaganda without reasoning, neither of which come close to Mr. Lasch’s use of the word “argument.”
  • Reasoning must be fact-based. Following this would be the most useful rule, because much of what we pass along today are emotional responses to triggers we “just know” we understand. This is useless in the creation of an argument, but it is so clearly satisfying to those resonate with the message solely on an emotional level. Smart marketers are able to use emotion in stating what they’re selling, and we all badly need to be educated about this trickery. Emotion is not to be confused with passion, for there is certainly a place for passion in the expressing of one’s argument. Those who argue that passion is the enemy of reason are blinded by their own arrogant convictions of rightness.
  • Facts from both sides in an argument must be on the table. This is why reason is so important to the art of argument, because the idea isn’t to blow the other guy’s facts off the table; it’s all about proving those facts to be otherwise. If that cannot be done, then your argument is weak, and this is why public debate is so useful. We’re all entitled to our opinions, propositions, and convictions, but unless we can state them in an argument, we run the risk of falsehood creeping into our consciousness.

The outcome of public debate will often depend on consensus, and we must be prepared to accept that, although we can always go back and hone our argument so as to make it more convincing. There is no appeal process. We accept and we move on. We take the matter up again the next time public debate brings it to the table in the process of our participatory culture. Nothing can be set in stone.

If we no longer wish to simply exist as manipulated spectators, then we must agree that participation involves a willingness to set our own wishes aside occasionally for the betterment of the whole. That means being prepared to listen along with stating our own case.

Call me idealistic, if you wish, but I don’t view the future through dystopian lenses. Life wants the human race to survive and thrive. I’m convinced that the explosiveness of the early twenty-first century is a necessary stage through which we all must pass, because as big as the world seems, it’s really just an island that we share in the midst of a vast and mostly dead universe.

We need each other. We really do.

Chapter One of my new book

As political events began to take shape last year in the U.S. and specifically with the candidacy of Donald Trump, I began gathering all of the documents from my days as Pat Robertson’s producer in the 1980s. I could sense what was happening and felt a sense of responsibility for at least some of it, for as producer of The 700 Club, I had played a key role in our efforts to influence Republican Party politics. I began writing my story – the story of How Jesus Joined The GOP. The book is about to be published, but the need to get at least some of the information into the public debate right now is great. Hence, I’m publishing Chapter One here today for your perusal.

Chapter One: The Seeds of Modern Discontent

If I must publish the whole book online, I’ll do it, for the people addicted to Donald Trump are ushering in something they really don’t understand. Trump supporters represent a serious and significant threat to freedom, and the sad thing is that most of these people formed the core of our audience target back in the early 80s. The fears they express were planted by us, and while I’m not saying it was insincere, cynical, or corrupt, I am stating that it was a deliberate attempt at social engineering. People need to know this, for we preached what I’m calling “the gospel of self.”

I hope you will take the time to read this, and that you will share it with your friends.

Donald Trump and the melting pot

memorial-day-2016One of the most profound cultural changes in the United States during my lifetime is the ongoing shift in the governing metaphor from a melting pot to a multicultural tapestry. Immigrant populations are generally grouped by marketing demographic lingo or self-identify as hyphenated residents. White people are thought to be the only “group” that still identifies with the term “American.” In the tapestry metaphor, perhaps whites are a common thread that holds the others in place. Nevertheless, the cloth is constantly morphing in color and pattern, and perhaps that’s one of its beauties – a freshness that’s determined by its ever-evolving threads.

The Washington Post studied this in 1998, and I’ve kept one of those articles in my bookmarks for reference. Let’s just say that almost twenty years later, the prophecies contained here are coming to pass, including the reality of dual economies. This was a profoundly important newspaper series, and I wish they would repeat it, for it’s at the very heart of the Trump phenomenon that everyone is clamoring to understand.

”The Ozzies and Harriets of the 1990s are skipping the suburbs of the big cities and moving to more homogeneous, mostly white smaller towns and smaller cities and rural areas,” (University of Michigan demographer William) Frey said…

…Frey sees in this pattern “the emergence of separate Americas, one white and middle-aged, less urban and another intensely urban, young, multicultural and multiethnic. One America will care deeply about English as the official language and about preserving Social Security. The other will care about things like retaining affirmative action and bilingual education.”

…the persistance (sic) of ethnic enclaves and identification does not appear to be going away, and may not in a country that is now home to not a few distinct ethnic groups, but to dozens…

…For the affluent, which includes a disproportionate number of whites, the large labor pool provides them with a ready supply of gardeners, maids and nannies. For businesses in need of cheap manpower, the same is true. Yet there are fewer “transitional” jobs – the blue-collar work that helped Italian and Irish immigrants move up the economic ladder – to help newcomers or their children on their way to the jobs requiring advanced technical or professional skills that now dominate the upper tier of the economy…

…Though there are calls to revive efforts to encourage “Americanization” of the newcomers, many researchers now express doubt that the old assimilation model works…

…Many immigrant parents say that while they want their children to advance economically in their new country, they do not want them to become “too American.”

Donald Trump’s followers are clamoring for a return to the days when the melting pot was the governing metaphor. His campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” is a signal to anybody listening that the tapestry hasn’t worked, isn’t working, and won’t ever work. In this sense, Donald Trump is a very mainstream candidate for President, because this message resonates so clearly with those who long for a country that promised equality through assimilation. American media, however – who long ago crossed the bridge into multiculturalism – keep badly missing it in trying to figure out what drives Trump loyalists. While it may be correct that the vast majority of Trump supporters are white, this conclusion distorts reality by moving it into a racial discussion. The melting pot, to the press, is by now a deviant thought in today’s culture and therefore is not to be considered for coverage except within Daniel Hallin’s outermost sphere. This is the fault and problem of the press and not of concern whatsoever to Mr. Trump, who keeps speaking past their filters (something pioneered by Ronald Reagan) and directly to those who self-identify as “Americans.”

trumptacobowlTake the case of his tweeted picture on Cinco de Mayo. It featured Mr. Trump eating a taco bowl and proclaiming his love for Hispanic people due to their food. This was greeted as tasteless, crude, and racist from the press but is a perfectly logical proclamation from the “American” perspective, because the melting pot is viewed as better for having Mexican food added to it. This perspective is not necessarily dismissive, for the same could be said of foods from Italy, Ireland, or China. Assimilation is what’s on trial with Donald Trump. It seems ignorant to most, because we crossed the bridge to the tapestry metaphor long ago.

Let’s think about this on Memorial Day, because the flag with which we decorate the graves of brave men and women who gave their lives for our freedom is symbolic to plain “Americans” in a way that’s different than those who identify as a hyphenated minority. No single view has to be right or wrong here; just different, and that’s all right. For all the criticism the melting pot has received, we simply cannot ignore the history of its great strength, for those very soldiers we celebrate today sacrificed everything for it, and we could not have survived two world wars without it. It makes me wonder how well we’d do with such today.

Melting pot or tapestry, we’re still individual parts of a whole, and we need to move that to the front burner as our cultural civil war rages on. If Donald Trump forces us to consider it and talk about it, then the madness that is our presidential campaign in 2016 will have been worth it.