The Religion of Conservative News

I met a woman this year who has the gift of personal prophecy. By that I mean that she’s genuinely very sensitive and able to offer wisdom and encouragement to people who benefit deeply from her words. We can argue over whether this is a real spiritual gift or whether she’s just good at reading people, but to me, it doesn’t matter, for both are the same thing. There’s no doubt that certain fundamentalists have taken this idea and used it for foolishness, but as a sensitive person myself, I can confirm that “reading” others isn’t a form of magic, nor is it all that unique. One can’t brag of specialness for self-centered purposes when such insight is spread around to many.

Nevertheless, a lot of gifted people simply keep their mouths shut, and this woman is a bit different in that sense. Rather than sharing publicly, however, she usually shares her thoughts only with the person to whom they’re intended. I like that. There’s a genuineness to it, and I respect her for that.

She’s very much a loving Christian and often provides uplifting posts on Facebook, but she also has a significant blindspot. She spreads false information about politics based on fake news sources that she consumes with regularity. When I pointed out to her recently that she was actually “bearing false witness” on one particular piece of delicious clickbait, she got angry and basically told me to keep my mouth shut. Fair enough, although I regrettably have no filter when it comes to such, so I’ve been known to really piss people off. I used to care, but I guess I just don’t anymore.

She actually pulled the post after a few days, and I appreciate that. We really don’t need stuff like that influencing others.

This woman is part of a large group of conservative Christians who struggle with my book, The Gospel of Self, How Jesus Joined The GOP, because they don’t like my position on so-called conservative news. I believe it’s propaganda, and I should know, since I was one of the people who helped create it. A full fifteen years before Fox News, there was The 700 Club and CBN News. We wrote the book on conservative propaganda as news, so any argument that attempts to validate it as real news isn’t really worth having. It’s a chasing of the wind, but it does reveal how far off the mark many of these Evangelicals have drifted. They honestly believe that the mainstream press openly supports a liberal agenda for the country and is their arch enemy in the flesh. They seem incapable of reason when it comes to certain things, and this is one of them.

Kaitlyn Scheiss

Some observers are beginning to see the ritual of nightly consuming Fox News as a solemn rite of worship, an idolatry so deceptive that it’s impacted most of Evangelical Christianity. Dallas Theological Seminary graduate student Kaitlyn Schiess offered such insight in an excellent New York Times article, How to Escape From Roy Moore’s Evangelicalism. It came in a discussion of Evangelicals leaping to the defense of Roy Moore, despite the nature and degree of his history with young girls and allegations of sexual contact.

To Ms. Schiess, this is one more sign that a new ritual has superseded Sunday worship and weeknight Bible studies: a profane devotional practice, with immense power to shape evangelicals’ beliefs. This “liturgy” is the nightly consumption of conservative cable news. Liberals love to complain about conservatives’ steady diet of misinformation through partisan media, but Ms. Schiess’s complaint is more profound: Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson aren’t just purveyors of distorted news, but high priests of a false religion.

“The reason Fox News is so formative is that it’s this repetitive, almost ritualistic thing that people do every night,” Ms. Schiess told me. “It forms in them particular fears and desires, an idea of America. This is convincing on a less than logical level, and the church is not communicating to them in that same way.”

This is a brilliant deduction, and I can verify that the devotion expressed by people such as my friend above borders on brainwashing, because it oversteps facts, truth, and logical thinking en route to its fallacious conclusions. Why not view it as a form of worship? After all, that’s what we did at The 700 Club. Here was a Christian talk show featuring Christian guests, Christian themes, and Christian prayers that was a bonafide substitution for church in the early days of the televangelist movement. When we began to weave news coverage into the mix, there was little question in our presentation that it was as much a part of being a Christian as prayer. When Fox News came into being in 1996, conservatives had already been nurtured and convinced of its necessity and its vision. We did that, and the worse thing we did was to believe our own hype. Pat Robertson is so lost today that he can’t separate the faith from his politics, and he’s still among the top influencers when it comes to the agenda of Evangelicals and the Republican Party.

God is judging this version of the church today, and I’m beginning to hear arguments to this effect from voices other than my own. We need to repent and turn from this wickedness, or the church has little hope for tomorrow. We steadfastly blame others – like those dirty liberals – for the sad state of our nation and the world today, when we should be examining our own hearts.

Ever evangelizing, we shake our fists up at those walking by, as we travel along the flow of the gutter toward the awaiting sewer. “Curse you, World,” is our cry. “You’re all going to hellllllllllllllll.”

Anatomy of a Fake News Story

At the height of yesterday’s scramble for information about the horrific breaking news scene in Sutherland Springs, Texas, a Neo-Nazi’s tweet was used by a Santa Monica news outlet to identify the shooter as a convert to Islam. Follow me here, because while it isn’t physics, the story is a bit confusing.

It begins for me with scrolling Facebook and finding a post from a friend – an outspoken Christian woman in Australia – with a link to the Santa Monica Observer and a headline: “Islamic Convert is Shooter in Church Shooting in Sutherland. He Left Online Manifesto.” I’ve been fighting Islamophobia for a great many years, and so this peaked my interest. I’d seen this nowhere else and had suspicions about its truthfulness.

The Santa Monica Observer has a questionable reputation. In fact, Santa Monica itself seems to have a lot of experience with fake news and fake news sites. It would be a great study for someone interested in the role of journalistic dishonesty in a single community. I’ve no wish to prove or disprove that this free newspaper is a source of fake news, only that it participated in this particular event.

Below is a screen grab of the same link today. Note two things. The company is partially backing away from the story, although the sub-headline still contains a reference to the Islamic connection. Most importantly, however, note the link displayed in the browser, as it contains the original headline. This happens often with content management software when a headline is changed in the copy, because the link is established based on the original headline.

The article sources the claim as follows:

Mustachio Tweeted: “#texaschurchshooting shooter is 29 year old US Airman turned Muslim convert, Samir Al-Hajeed. His manifesto is making its rounds on the web.”

The Arab name provided – Samir Al-Hajeed – has been used in other fake news stories about mass shootings, including Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock.

“Mustachio” is Millennial Matt™ Groyper, and the account has been active for a month. Ol’ Millennial Matt™ has a profile picture identifying himself as a Kekistani, a Reddit White Supremacist group that satirically worships a god with a frog head and Donald Trump’s hair. The group’s flag is a take-off on the Nazi flag and is often seen at Neo-Nazi, Alt-Right, and White Supremacy rallies. How and why the Santa Monica Observer would come across this tweet isn’t known, but the most obvious explanation is that the paper follows the account. Either that, or they were tipped and failed to follow through on the obvious conflict-of-interest.

The point is that the Santa Monica Observer article’s premise is utterly false.

Finally, to the woman who posted this link on Facebook (you know who you are), you are responsible for this and will be held accountable in the end for bearing a false witness, which I seem to recall is anathema to the God you say you serve. Christianity Today yesterday published an article about how gullible evangelicals are to this sort of thing based on activities by the Russians during the 2016 Presidential campaign.

“Army of Jesus” was among 470 Facebook pages created by the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg…
…the fake Christian account had over 217,000 likes. (For comparison, that’s more Facebook likes than some established, politically conservative evangelical media outlets, such as World or Charisma magazines.)

Let’s face it: Many Evangelical Christians are easily manipulated and believe many things that are false to be true, simply because they resonate with deeply-held beliefs. My friend in Australia is apparently one of them.

When “great economic news” isn’t

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

I’m not sure why I feel so compelled to make this post other than to document to my own satisfaction the outrageousness of Donald Trump’s complaint that the mass media is ignoring “the great economic news” since he took office. This ridiculous campaign to ping the minds of his supporters follows the pattern that I and many of my friends have expressed as honest concern for America. It’s the responsibility of every citizen to keep themselves informed, and I guess that’s what I’m trying to do here.

So, with apologies for burying the lede, let’s begin with the president’s assertions and his evidence.

The Dow and the Nasdaq are up since January. Well, yes, but they’ve been trending up for many years (since the collapse in 2008 corrected by Trump nemesis, Barack Obama).

According to Mother Jones, employment for the “drilling and energy sectors” has been flat since Trump took over, and “the S&P 500 Energy Sector has been dropping all year and is well below its Election Day level.”

600,000 new jobs? This is highly misleading, but who cares, right? Newsweek did some necessary research: “So far in 2017, the U.S. economy has added an average of 178,000 jobs per month—slightly lower than the 2016 average of 187,000 under the Obama administration. And Trump is currently some way short of his promise to create 25 million jobs in the next decade, or 208,333 per month.”

Unemployment has been on a downward path for many years, including when that awful Barack Obama was in office.

There are no real studies on “enthusiasm,” so even if we give that to the president, the whole glowing Twitter report is badly inflated.

What Donald Trump has accomplished with these tweets, however, is to make yet another assault on the press as “fake news” and provide talking points for followers who will gobble them up like candy. This is beyond dangerous for a free society that must rely on accurate economic forecasts to help the rest of us cope. Here’s what I mean.

The 1,000 Carrier jobs that Trump “saved” during the election were not saved at all. All will be gone by Christmas. The new coal mine that was opened in Pennsylvania was approved long before the president was even elected. According to CNN Money, “Get ready for more ‘closing sale’ signs in the windows of your local retailers.” It’s really quite dismal for retail. Malls closing. Department stores closing. Even mom & pop stores are closing. And then there’s this from CNN Tech:

Robots have already cost millions of factory jobs across the nation.

Next up could be jobs at your local stores.

 Between 6 million to 7.5 million existing jobs are at risk of being replaced over the course of the next 10 years by some form of automation, according to a new study this week from by financial services firm Cornerstone Capital Group.

That represents at least 38% of the current retail work force, which consists of 16 million workers. Retail could actually lose a greater proportion of jobs to automation than manufacturing has, according to the study.

There’s absolutely nothing about any of this that’s coming from the White House, least of all a plan on how the have-nots (you and me) will deal with this stuff. Maybe that’s what makes me so sick about the prancing Donald Trump, who is really only in this for himself and his silk stocking buddies.

Redefining Compassion

The Trump administration’s budget reveals a dramatic dismissal of programs designed to help the poor, including some, such as Medicaid, that have great favor with the majority in the land. This should surprise no one who’s taken the time to study the platforms of both the Democratic and Republican parties, because much of conservatism has always been about the worship of the individual and the protection of wealth. Poverty is one of those sticky issues that clearly divides, for in the narrative of the GOP, poor people are takers who take from the pockets of the wealthy. This cynical view is best depicted in our current administrations attempt to “redefine compassion.”

In the name of decreasing government spending, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney made this remarkable statement in front of the House Budget Committee on Wednesday:

“We no longer want to measure compassion by the number of programs that we have, or the number of people that are on those programs,” he said. “We want to measure compassion, true compassion, by the number of people we help to get off those programs.”

takemefishing.org

Trump supporters, including Evangelical Christians, will see this simply as the old adage “Give a man a fish, and you’ve fed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you’ve fed him for life.” This is part and parcel of the Gospel of Self and a very useful metaphor for those pushing a political agenda along with the faith. Unfortunately, the concept misses on two rather enormous assumptions. One, for it to be true in practical terms, the idea assumes an endless supply of fish for everybody, and the truth is that all resources are limited and mostly in possession of the top fishermen, those who also own the best lakes and streams. You can teach a man to fish all you want, but unless the supply is available to all, the story falls apart. Two, and this is a biggie for the Christian crowd, Jesus actually tied poverty to the unrighteousness of God’s people as written by Moses in the Torah in Deuteronomy 15. Therefore, the dream of redefining compassion by teaching people to fish directly contradicts the message of the Bible, which always includes restrictions on the rich getting too rich. Instead, the evangelical message offers the idea that humans can somehow “manage” their way out of poverty while others maintain a selfish grip on resources and income. Not happening.

So once again, I’m forced into the corner of declaring that the church is under judgment, not the nation of the United States, western culture, or “the world,” and it specifically relates to this issue. It’s not about visible “sins” that the faithful rail against and in so doing blame the victims of poverty instead of their own greed. It’s about a certain group of believers who espouse a formulaic version of life through their faith. That’s why this – and my book specifically – is a message for Christians, for the pathway to truth is the willingness to challenge one’s own assumptions, whether you call yourself a Christian or not.

Please do not interpret my statements as disrespectful, for I find nothing disingenuous about Mr. Mulvaney’s view or that of the many Evangelicals who subscribe to the fishing metaphor. I fully believe they believe this to be THE solution to poverty. The same day Mulvaney was testifying, HUD secretary Dr. Ben Carson – an Evangelical – was on Sirius XM radio being interviewed by his longtime ally Armstrong Williams:

“I think poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind. You take somebody who has the right mindset, you can take everything from them and put them on the street and I guarantee you, in a little while, they’ll be right back up there. And you take somebody with the wrong mindset, you can give them everything in the world and they’ll work their way back down to the bottom.”

Dr. Carson went on to add that this mindset begins in childhood and is passed along by parents. He, too, favors the “teach a man to fish” model, noting that there’s both “economic poverty” and “poverty of the spirit,” what he called “that defeatist attitude.”

“I think the majority of people don’t have that defeatist attitude, but they sometimes just don’t see the way, and that’s where government can come in and be very helpful. It can provide the ladder of opportunity, it can provide the mechanism that will demonstrate to them what can be done.”

In my experience, this is the thinking that dominates the Evangelical Christian crowd who believe that their form of “salvation” includes prosperity of mind, soul, body, and pocketbook. This set of religious rules can be highly self-centered by providing future rewards in this life and in Heaven for teaching people to fish. So it’s not just about the teaching; it’s about the reward for so doing, which doesn’t depend on the outcome. Hence, it’s very easy to say “teach a man to fish,” because that’s where the responsibility ends.

It would appear the Trump administration is attempting to change the way Washington looks at spending by invoking the shallow thinking of certain Evangelical Christian teachings, which is, I suppose, exactly what Mr. Trump’s followers asked him to do. They will try and it will all fail, because those teachings are self-centered and conveniently bypass entirely the “love your neighbor” mandate. Oh I know the contrary arguments. I used to believe them and teach them myself.

Life is not manageable, no matter what you believe. Life is chaotic. Order is “the dream of man,” as Henry Adams noted long ago. And the book says that “time and chance” occurs to everyone anyway regardless of their faith and witness.

You want to redefine compassion through a spiritual message? How about “Thy will, not mine be done?” Living life on life’s terms (and not my own) is the greatest personal challenge we all face in the expression of our compassion for others.

Resistance is the postmodern way

Up in Manitoba Canada, a Star Trek fan has had to give up his personalized Borg license plate ASIMIL8 because it was judged offensive to indigenous people. The Borg, of course, are a fictional evil species that force assimilation with the clever marketing phrase “Resistance is Futile.” It has absolutely nothing to do with indigenous Canadians, but the suggestion that it does isn’t frivolous in the least. It has broad ramifications for Western culture and bears a few words as a post-colonial gesture.

You could say that the Borg represent the very essence of Colonialism, the demand that those being colonized assimilate into the culture of the conquerors, the colonists. This means everything from adopting commercial, legal, and language norms to religious faith. The conquering merchants are happy, because the colonies produce profit. The conquering churches are happy, because it means more members and their tithes. This, of course, is all completely disguised as the betterment of those being colonized, but that’s mostly just hooey. Self-centered gain has always been the real motive of the “civilized” colonists, which was brilliantly played out in the Starz television series “Black Sails.”

There is, however, another critical form of assimilation in Western history and that is the requirement that those becoming new members of the colony from the outside be required to likewise assimilate. This is the birthplace of the thinking that all who wish to be American must speak English, fully embrace American customs, traditions, laws, commerce, and submit to all forms of government. This was the basis of “The Jewish Question” or “The Jewish Problem” in Europe that began in the Nineteenth Century and ended in Hitler’s “Final Solution.” The issue was the refusal of the Jews to fully assimilate into the cultures they called home, instead choosing to remain fully Jewish, with their own customs, traditions, and beliefs. This is arguably problematic for the home culture, yet it’s seldom discussed as relevant to the evil of the Holocaust and in its wake, the creation of the Zionist State, Israel. The irony of Israel’s assimilative demands of Palestinians is not lost on observers of conflict in the Middle East.

At home, assimilation is a major concern involving Muslims, for the government of Donald Trump is demanding a rising degree of assimilation than its predecessors ever imagined. The message to Muslims in America today is xenophobic: assimilate or go back to where your appearances and practices are the cultural norm. Join us or go home. The same mandate is placed upon refugees from Mexico and beyond. Speak our language. Join our society. Pay your taxes. Or go back home.

So this business of the fictional Borg versus the indigenous people of Canada is more than appears on the surface, for one must ask the question, “Where does it stop?” At what point is it proper to demand assimilation and at what point is it not? In the early part of the Twentieth Century, the demand was made that refugee Catholics be rejected, because they couldn’t fully assimilate into mostly Protestant America. Were the Catholics offended? Did it matter? Is the patriarchy right to demand assimilation of women? Do we care if women are offended by such? It would seem this question is of lasting importance to our Constitution and the very things that Mr. Trump assumes make America “great” again. It is a fundamental matter for anyone attempting to govern diversity. Do you take the hard road of encouraging diversity or the tried and true method of demanding assimilation? They cannot fully coexist.

Milton wrote the famous line, “License they mean when they cry Liberty.” Those who would fall on the side of liberty understand the value of voluntary assimilation just as they do the right of free people to function as a colorful thread in the tapestry that America has become. Those who fall on the side of license, however, demand assimilation and seek primarily the freedom to take anything and everything that benefits their own demands.

We are at a crossroads with this matter, my friends, and we’re each going to be asked to be counted for our own place along this spectrum.

War Propaganda as “Weaponized Narrative”

Weaponized Narrative Is the New Battlespace is a fascinating and highly perceptive take on the use of manipulating narrative to impact culture. The idea is that individuals, institutions, and nations are using disinformation campaigns to manipulate others to their bidding through the creation of easy-to-understand stories that support the interests of the storyteller. Technology is the bad guy.

Weaponized narrative seeks to undermine an opponent’s civilization, identity, and will by generating complexity, confusion, and political and social schisms. It can be used tactically, as part of explicit military or geopolitical conflict; or strategically, as a way to reduce, neutralize, and defeat a civilization, state, or organization. Done well, it limits or even eliminates the need for armed force to achieve political and military aims.

The efforts to muscle into the affairs of the American presidency, Brexit, the Ukraine, the Baltics, and NATO reflect a shift to a “post-factual” political and cultural environment that is vulnerable to weaponized narrative.

The writers, however, Brad Allenby and Joel Garreau, oo-directors of The Weaponized Narrative Initiative of the Center on the Future of War, a partnership of Arizona State University and the Washington think tank New America, make four critical errors in their own narrative.

  1. The most glaring is that the entire concept is framed within a modernist world view where top-down, one-to-many-communications is the operating mechanism for communicating deceit. This embraces the worship of order, the vision of a psychopath (benevolent or otherwise) seated at a command and control desk pushing levers this way and that with a sinister smile enveloping a cigarette that appears to have been there for at least a week. Elevating this to an act of war is old wine in new wineskins, because reality isn’t nearly as Orwellian as the fear-mongers would have us believe.
  2. The second error works with the first. It’s a blindness to the disruption created by the bottom of today’s communications pyramid being able to talk with each other and back “up” to the top. This ability turns mass marketing on its head, although you’d be hard-pressed to find any institution that will embrace it. Some political types are tapping the space, but it is always with the assumption that it can be used to get others to pass their narrative around. This is just more modernist thinking, and the future will include educating the bottom in such a way that fooling them will get more and more difficult. I realize some will call this utopian, because it’s too chaotic and we still live in a time where a disruption to order can only be dystopian. I reject this assumption. At best, therefore, this “weaponized narrative” is temporary and not systemic, as the writers believe.
  3. Thirdly, while presented as something new, it really isn’t. Controlling narrative has been around for centuries. It was practiced by the Roman Church until the printing press allowed the laity to access that which had been reserved for the priesthood, and everything changed. It was called “propaganda” by the father of public relations Edward Bernays, a social engineer who used a form of weaponized narrative on behalf of his clients, including the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Bernays was a member of the Creel Committee, organized by Woodrow Wilson to help America justify getting into World War I. If this isn’t “weaponized narrative,” I don’t know what it is.
  4. Finally, how does one pen an article about weaponized narrative without mentioning the real experts at the practice, Israel? The fear of being tagged antisemite blocks all reason when it comes to investigating this phenomenon, for not only is Israel writing the book on how to weaponize narrative, they are doing it in full view of everybody. Within the public information office of the State of Israel are special departments who work with companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to quash anything they view as “incitement” against the crimes they commit daily in the Middle East. This is a frightening reality, for Israel can turn any event into self-defense, regardless of the heinousness of crime. It truly boggles the mind that two highly intelligent people can publish an introductory article on a concept so important without even a mention of the successful efforts of hasbara.

The article also presents America as behind other players in the world in this skill, but the jury is still out on that one. It’s self-serving in the spirit of the Shirky Principle, for the effort the writers are leading attempts to understand weaponized narrative and present solutions. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt here, for the article really does present some brilliant thinking and prose:

Narrative is as old as tribes. Humans are pattern-seeking storytelling animals. We cannot endure an absence of meaning. Rather than look up at the distribution of lights in the night sky and deal with randomness, we will eagerly connect those dots and adorn them with the most elaborate – even poetic – tales of heroes and princesses and bears and dippers. We have a hard-wired need for myth. Narrative is basic to what it means to be human.

It’s easy to critical, but this is not nitpicking. The solution to any form of totalitarianism is along the bottom of the new communications pyramid, and I don’t think these manipulative storytellers can count on ignorance forever.

BONUS LINK:  U.S. To Build A “Weaponized Narrative” Into The Future Of War