Push. Dig. Push. Dig.

AP Photo

Sometimes, events in media are so bizarre that all you can do is just laugh.

The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University (a great school) has been given a $1.9 million grant from the Knight Foundation “that will provide funding over three years to fund initiatives aimed at ensuring TV news companies remain competitive in broadcast and digital storytelling.” The AP says the money will be used to “research the future of television news.”

Okay.

The story reports that part of the grant will be used to develop “an online hub where newsrooms can see the latest strategies their counterparts elsewhere are trying out.”

“The best way I can describe it is I think it’s going to be a resource where someone can come to this site from anywhere and get a sense of what new ideas are floating around in space, what works and what doesn’t,” said Cronkite Associate Dean Mark Lodato.

The school also plans to become a testing ground for improved local news content and dissemination.

“In an academic space like ASU, you can fail and understand the progress. It’s very hard to do that in a corporate environment when corporate dollars and people’s jobs are at risk,” Lodato said.

This reminds me of the failed “Newspaper Next” project by the American Press Institute over 10 years ago. One thing we learned back then is that it’s pure foolishness to ask the people digging the hole you’re in to come up with a solution to the hole. It’s impossible. They can’t stop digging, and that means every solution involves some form of digging. Dig. Dig. Dig. The money will be used to make sure that TV remains competitive in “broadcast and digital storytelling,” as if that’s a problem. Dig. Dig. Dig. Moreover, the hole doesn’t have anything to do with content in the first place; it’s about paradigm shifts in advertising, so why not study that? Our world today is all about pull strategies, because the devices we’re using to consume content these days are too personal to willingly permit pushing. Again, you can’t ask people pushing to come up with something different, because all they know is push. Push. Dig. Push. Dig. You get the idea.

And, I love how Dean Lodato has already pronounced failure. No need to say it after-the-fact if you admit it up front. Moreover, there’s no more competitive business in all the world than local television news, and if you think stations will drop their pants and reveal their “new ideas,” you’re effing nuts. Besides, that’s what consultants do, right? No, I’m not talking about dropping pants.

Maybe it’s just that I’ve become a total cynic when it comes to this stuff, but I view this as a colossal waste of time, attention, and resources. Besides, the industry doesn’t care. They’re far too busy licking their chops over the $8 billion that’s projected to be spent with them during this year’s mid-term elections. Most of that will likely go straight to the bottom line regardless of whether the fundamentals justify the candidate spending. Therefore, from a corporate perspective – is there really any other that matters? – there’s no problem.

And so it goes.

Is Christianity Under Attack? Well, yes and no!

The better question, perhaps, is “should” Christianity be under attack?

My granddaughter’s class Christmas concert 2017

I was fortunate to attend my five-year old granddaughter’s Christmas program at school this week. The place was packed with proud parents and grandparents watching cute little kids sing Christmas carols from a stage. It’s a big deal for them and a shot of seasonal love for us. Of course, it was very much Christmas, for Alina attends a pre-school program at a Baptist Church, and we’ve been very happy to have had her there. Soon it will be Kindergarten, and things will change.

One of the songs they sang was the old standard, Joy To The World (The Lord Is Come). My mind went immediately to something I’d seen on TV the other night, a holiday ad for Big Lots that used the old Three Dog Night hit, Joy To The World. The ad was all smiles and happiness with gifts, decorations, and a Christmas Tree. The theme was “share the joy with Big Lots.” I mean, it was a nice ad, but the use of an old rock & roll classic to reference the joy of the holiday – and make no mistake, this was a house celebrating Christmas – says a lot about our culture, where we’ve been, and likely where we’re headed. It also speaks to the disconnect between Madison Avenue and the people who caused such an upset in last year’s presidential election.

That’s because one of the most powerful motivators of the Evangelicals who support Donald Trump without question is the heartfelt belief that the Christian faith is under attack in our current culture. So persecuted are Evangelical Christians by a rotting culture, the thinking goes, that we need to fight back with everything we’ve got politically, rather than just give the nation over to the devil by saying nothing. During his campaign, the President assured a drooling Christian right that “We’re gonna bring it back,” “We’re gonna protect Christianity,” and that “Christianity will have power if I’m president.”

This issue of whether Christianity is under attack is complex and difficult to understand on every level. The parties involved have obviously differing views, but the arguments never really take place in the same contextual frame. It’s like competitors playing the same game in different arenas, never really meeting each other face-to-face. One side argues that America was created as a Christian nation by Christians who came here to colonize in Jesus name, while the other side argues that such a belief is irrelevant in modern times, because humankind has come such a long way in the last few centuries. One is a spiritual argument; the other is an argument of the mind. One touts Holy Scripture, while the other relies on education and knowledge. One is upstream with the saints of old; the other is downstream in a hundred tributaries. One believes the Bible is a “living document” while the other sees a certain anti-progressive rigidity in a set of archaic rules. One claims to argue faith; the other claims to argue logic.

Any reasonable, objective study of early American history makes a convincing case that Christianity was so enmeshed in daily life at the time that one must conclude its governance and institutions bore the mark of the cross. Arguing against this requires changing history, although there’s no real reason to do so. When English speaking people landed at Cape Henry Virginia in 1607, their very first act was to plant a cross and claim the land on behalf of their Savior. Any fair reading of early documents – including those of the Founding Fathers – can only be done using the language of the time, because the meanings of key words have changed over time. That means one must use the dictionaries of the era, Samuel Johnson’s classic of 1755 and Webster’s of 1828. When that is done, it takes considerable manipulation to conclude anything other than the truth of the claim that Christianity played a significant role in the formation of the U.S. It didn’t need to be specifically spelled out, because it was assumed at the time. This in no way means America was birthed as a theocracy, but rather a country based on the belief that government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” meant that those same people were already self-governed through their faith. After all, it was John Wycliffe who first uttered the phrase when, upon completion of the first common English language translation of the Bible, he said, “This book shall make possible government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” This is why those same founding fathers saw the need to include the establishment clause in the First Amendment. No single representation of God could never rule a people educated in the truths of the Bible.

As the country has become more secularized, therefore, it’s pretty simple to understand the angst being expressed by certain Christians when, for example, academia and the government unilaterally decided that our most basic calendar headings had to be changed from BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini – year of our Lord) to BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era). There was no debate. No hearings. No input from others whatsoever. Suddenly, textbooks that our children used to study everything were printed using only BCE and CE, and all devout Christians could do was to loudly cry, “foul.” There are also the matters of School Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the personal politics of gender. Is there a battle underway for the soul of the West? Isn’t it pretty obvious?

Google N’gram chart showing use of CBE in books over the years.

So one must conclude that the Christians are right on both counts: That the U.S. was planted and grew with Christianity at its core, and that there has been an attempt – conscious or otherwise – to remove that core from modern culture. However, none of this ends the argument, for there are a great many other cultural considerations to be weighed. Like most things in life, this is not black and white, and the strict Christian Nation crowd deserves its own blame for gutting the fatted calf it now wishes to protect. Besides, the more important matter is that even if we agree that this was birthed as a Christian Nation, what are we to do about it today? The wise answer is nothing.

Christianity is so divided into subsets that no one speaks on behalf of the whole. It’s just not possible. Each denomination makes a case why theirs is the path to righteousness and an afterlife in heaven. Therefore, there really is no such thing as the “Christian perspective” we used to espouse back in my days at The 700 Club. Is that the Catholic perspective or the Protestant perspective? Is it premillennial or postmillennial? Is it pentecostal or reformed? Is it liberal or conservative? Black or white? Judeo-Christian or just Christian. You can see the conflict, which is why the establishment clause is there.

Therefore, by self-division alone, Christianity has lost its influence on the culture, and the voice that’s complaining the loudest is the one that has the money and the resources to be heard, the Evangelicals, eighty-one percent of whom voted for Donald Trump in the last election. And so Evangelical Christianity is the branch that is trying to drag us all in the direction of the theocracy the founders hoped to avoid. This is the group who has joined forces with the Republican Party to “make” things happen that benefit their congregations and their point-of-view. God apparently doesn’t need our faith alone; He wants us to be a powerful political voice as well. This is the group that wants a war with Islam, because it leads to their one thousand years of glory in the name of Jesus. This is the group that needs Republican leadership in Washington to keep them tax free and thriving, so they can recruit support from the mountain top of the one percent. This is the group that wants their prayer to be in public schools, their self-centered gospel to govern programs for the poor, their self-righteousness to dominate human hearts when it comes to personal medical or relationship decisions, their way of life to be the norm and to frame the melting pot, their comfort to be the guiding light regarding who we allow into the pot in the first place, and their music, film, books, and art to be the only choice for all.

As my friend Jeff Jarvis said, “Sharia Law? That’s nothing compared to Armageddon.”

If there is but one truth about this particular group of Christians that should make us all wary, it is this: they will never be satisfied with just one victory in the culture wars. You can take that to the bank, and it represents the only tape that must be played out to the end for us to realize that – as a self-governing people – we cannot and must not let our guard down. The history of humankind is littered with the tragedies of those who fell for idolatry, the promise of magic, and the fallibility of human nature. You want civil rights rolled back? Say nothing. Do nothing today. You want women to return to the status of chattel? Say nothing. Do nothing today. You want slavery brought back? Say nothing. Do nothing today. You want corporal punishment in the public square? Say nothing. Do nothing today. You want a culture dominated by fascist fear and bayonets? Say nothing. Do nothing today.

Finally, from an historical perspective, there’s a great difference between a culture being overthrown and one that self-destructs, which is what’s really happening here. If, as the Evangelicals insist, they were the ones who built this country – and there’s considerable evidence to support that view – then its collapse must be birthed in the same womb. You cannot claim leadership for the one without responsibility for the other. This is the major blindspot of those who argue that the devil or the liberals or the communists or members of any other group are at fault. Therefore, positing that Christianity itself is the victim here is utterly self-serving, and it’s also useless in trying to do anything about the evils around us. A slipping culture needs no outside help, if the ruling class within that culture cannot or will not accept responsibility for the slippage.

The ruling class in America today, we must now conclude, includes certain powerful and vocal elements from within the entire Judeo-Christian Western hegemony. The nobility of yesterday has been replaced by panting thieves for whom license is the desire demanding to be fed. Thinking has been replaced by a mindlessness not found among past generations, who survived and even thrived despite having to solve real problems like slavery, sickness, world wars, and the rights of individuals.

Those past generations wouldn’t recognize the Christianity that’s “under attack” today.

The Winds of Change

Hello, friends. I feel a familiar tug in the wake of recent dealings with The Huffington Post, and I need to take a step back and reconsider everything regarding my mission in Life as I continue to get older. I’ve got another book in the works, and perhaps that’s where my attention needs to be right now. I’m tired of being broke, and the book that I’ve dedicated my life to over the past couple of years (The Gospel of Self: How Jesus Joined The GOP)  isn’t selling like I thought it might. But this latest business with the online publication I’d hoped would help has left me a bit cynical and very disappointed

I’ve enjoyed commenting on current events for HuffPost, but this episode affirms my belief that our society has no real wish to deal with its problems, because we are complicit in their continuation, even to the point of rooting for them. My piece on Harvey Weinstein was rejected due to “the assumption of pathology and the discussion of victims’ responses and clothing choices, among other things.” This is, of course, their right and perhaps even their duty, but it tells me that despite my experience on the issue, my opinion simply doesn’t matter. Offered the confessions of a reformed serial sexual predator, the editors couldn’t bring themselves to consider another perspective in the matter. Meanwhile, I’ve read countless expert and non-expert opinions on Weinstein, all of which make assumptions of pathology or character defects. This is similar to responses I’ve received regarding articles about Christianity that I’ve produced, so I’m thinking that perhaps it’s time to just move along. One of the great tests of leadership is to turn around and see if anybody’s following. Just like what happened in media circles, with religion and feminism, there’s too much at stake to risk going off-road with sacred cows. And so, I need to back away – at least for a bit – and give some thought to where I go from here.

I’ll continue promoting my book, because I still believe it’s an important read in the age of Trump. I got an invitation to participate in a major book event in Tucson in March, and that’ll be a lot of fun.

I’ll publish here the article that was rejected by the folks at The Huffington Post and let you be the judge. It took guts to step out and admit what I did in that piece, but I really thought it would help advance the discussion. I know where Harvey Weinstein is getting treatment, and I know who is helping him. I’ve taken very similar steps, but apparently that’s of no consequence.

We’ll see.

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.

The news after Roger Ailes

What will history say about Roger Ailes? It won’t be kind, if the initial reaction to his death is any indication. I’ve seen him described as despicable, a career sexual harasser, a purveyor of conservative garbage information, slimy, dirty, unethical, one of the worst Americans ever, bloodthirsty, and responsible for turning Americans into “a hate-filled, paranoid, untrusting, book-dumb and bilious people whose chief source of recreation is slinging insults and threats at each other online.”

Holy crap, and this was even before he was buried!

Rolling Stone was among the harshest:

Like many con artists, he reflexively targeted the elderly – “I created a TV network for people from 55 to dead,” he told Joan Walsh – where he saw billions could be made mining terrifying storylines about the collapse of the simpler America such viewers remembered, correctly or (more often) incorrectly, from their childhoods.

In this sense, his Fox News broadcasts were just extended versions of the old “ring around the collar” ad – scare stories about contagion. Wisk was pitched as the cure for sweat stains creeping onto your crisp white collar; Fox was sold as the cure for atheists, feminists, terrorists and minorities crawling over your white picket fence.

Roger Ailes was eulogized Saturday as the architect of conservative TV, but while he was the founder of Fox News, he didn’t write its playbook. That was done fifteen years earlier in Virginia Beach, Virginia, the home of the Christian Broadcasting Network, Pat Robertson, and The 700 Club. I know, because I was there and participated in the creation, development, and execution of “TV News With A Different Spirit,” a genius level rewriting of the rules of journalism and marketing to suit a politically conservative audience. There isn’t one strategy or tactic used by Ailes and Fox News that we didn’t pioneer earlier, and it’s vital to our current cultural conundrum that we understand this. That’s because the term right wing media is not only supportive of Republican Party politics but it’s undergirded by a worldview that is entirely Christian of the fundamentalist, evangelical ilk. Zeal always trumps reason with those who practice extreme forms of religion, so it’s not the political conservatism that matters; it’s the Christianity that places itself above reason in its ability to easily govern the lives of participants.

What this means is that arguments by reasonable people are automatically dismissed without consideration, because they are determined to be contrary to the faith. Rationalized responses become fact, regardless of their absurdity, because “God chooses the foolish things of the world to confound (shame) the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:27). Hence, the many references among Evangelicals to Donald Trump as being like Cyrus the Great, the pagan Persian king that God “put in power” in order to free the Jews from Babylon and return them to Jerusalem where they rebuilt the temple. If Trump is a “Cyrus,” then, the thinking goes, it’s unnecessary to excuse his behavior, for God is using him anyway. The end justifies the means, although nobody is saying what that end will be.

…Trump had been elected by God…He was a warrior against the global “demonic agenda”, “raising the warning cry about the unraveling of America.” Trump’s obvious faults and flaws only confirmed the prophecy: Cyrus, like Trump, was powerful, rich, and pagan, not at all godly…

…Many Evangelicals who voted for Trump continue to have an abiding faith in his presidency. Just as Cyrus returned the Jews to Jerusalem, and restored their wealth, so Trump, they fervently believe, will restore a lost world of personal safety, psychological security and material prosperity.

The point is that unless you’re prepared to discuss the Cyrus argument, nothing else matters for those who put Mr. Trump in the White House in the first place. Just because the culture is uncomfortable with arguing religion does not mean that the basis for our differences aren’t essentially religious. The fact that we’ve generally dismissed such debates is what energizes the engine of American conservatism today. It’s what allows poor Republicans to vote against their own best interests and blindly sit by while the GOP deepens the pockets of the haves. The response of Christians is “I don’t care about his character as long as he gives us conservative Supreme Court justices.” To these well-intentioned people, abortion and same-sex marriage are the essence of all that’s wrong with our culture, and, by God, they’re going to fix it.

You can say what you wish about Fox News, but don’t be fooled into thinking there isn’t the constant hum of religious superiority that seeps through all of its programming, for contemporary political conservatism is sustained by evangelical Christianity.

Whatever you think of Roger Ailes, you must also concede that his efforts brought to the surface what had previously been hidden and assumed irrelevant by the progressive culture. Contrary to blaming Ailes for dividing the country, we should thank him for bringing that division into the light, where we might be able to actually do something about it. Actually, I don’t think we have a choice; we simply MUST do something about it in order to bring a sense of unity among us as a people. The problem, of course, is what to do and perhaps moreso, how to do it.

To me, it’s a personal journey that each of us has to make. It just won’t happen overnight in a one-to-many environment, because the “one” always – ALWAYS – begins and ends with self-interest. Neither side in this zero-sum game can “put forth” an unbiased representative to participate in an open debate. This can only lead to same-o, same-o. And this has always been the problem – even perhaps the cause – of our division. Each side instead must challenge, with open minds, its own assumptions, those that undergird what is presented as absolute truth. It is the unfortunate thinking of humans to posit that one cannot be simultaneously just and merciful anymore than one can be simultaneously liberal and conservative.

Meanwhile, we need to hear Christian arguments that challenge the assumptions of the right wing crowd, because that’s where the real battle lies. It’s THE challenge to journalism in the wake of Roger Ailes’ passing.

How ironic that our current president – the beneficiary of all that fundamentalist faith – would be lecturing Muslims in Saudi Arabia this weekend about Islamic fundamentalist extremism.