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 false narrative of right wing media

(Excerpted from my forthcoming book “How Jesus Joined The GOP”)

In the early 1980s – during my days with CBN – we innovated “TV Journalism With a Different Spirit,” a news animal that sang a different song from others in the journalism world, whether television or print. We knew what we were doing, and it was very clever. In the process, we built the philosophical model for Fox News and many others. Here’s how it worked:

The idea that the press represented only a liberal perspective was developed in the days of Richard Nixon, specifically by his vice president, Spiro Agnew. Agnew argued that the President ought to be able to speak directly to the American people without going through what he viewed as a liberal filter, one that would distort Nixon’s views through its blurred lens. Nixon’s was the first conservative administration in the golden age of television, and it struggled with its inability to control the message during an incredibly volatile time in history. Many others took up the claim in the wake of Watergate. After all, only a political opponent would strive to take down a sitting President, surely not a press that advertised itself as objective.

These complaints fell on deaf ears, because the complainers lacked a media stage from which to make their case. As a result, they had to rely on that same blurred lens, so efforts to “speak against liberals” were dead before they started. We had such a stage at CBN, one of the original ten transponders on the first RCA communications satellite, Satcom 1. Moreover, ours was a video show, and we had the production chops to create whatever we wanted along the artificial plane known as political perspective. It didn’t matter that the press didn’t really belong on this plane, only that it was convenient for our purposes, which we claimed to be preparing the world for the return of Jesus Christ.

So we publicly moved “the press” in its entirety to the left on this political plane in order to insert a convenient fence on its right edge. We placed ourselves (and the ilk of Rush Limbaugh, etc.) to the right of that fence, which gave the appearance of the bigger overall culture being represented under the banner of “news.” After all, most people were either liberal or conservative politically, and politics – or influencing politics – was our real goal. I can’t possibly overstate this reality. You don’t change the world by changing the press; you simply must make the case that the press isn’t neutral, and the rest is easy. The press, of course, helped us with this, because it was easy to pick news coverage hooks that represented a more progressive view of culture for us to hone in on. We were free to assign bias even in cases where the press was simply doing its job.

Dog bites man, it’s not news. Man bites dog, it is news. This simple old metaphor points to the false narrative we created, because the very definition of news is tied to that which is different, that which is, well, “new.” And new always means progressive, for basic conservative logic is tied to the status quo and the maintenance of tradition and its accompanying hierarchies. Many if not most journalists are educated, passionate about their trade, and ethical when it comes to the rules of professional observation. Only in the sense that some of this can be applied to “liberalism” is the press liberal. It’s a fake moniker given to them without their consent by people who need it to be that way in order to fit their own self-serving narrative. There is no conspiracy. Journalists don’t regularly gather to discuss how they’re going to manipulate unknowing masses with lies and deceit. That is much more likely to be found with those who claim participation in “right wing media.”

Evangelical Christians almost always leave out the original pioneers in the pro-life movement, the Catholics. This is an important element in understanding right wing media, for the Catholic Church is hardly conservative. In addition to calling out the pro-choicers for what was actually taking place in the wake of Roe v Wade, Catholics also pleaded the cause of those “unwanted” babies after they were born, and also opposed the death penalty. That, my friends, is the very definition of pro-life. Catholics also tended to vote for the left, so their voice in the debate about abortion carried far more weight than that of any other group. But that voice didn’t fit the narrative of the right, and the squeaky wheel gets the grease. In seizing upon abortion as an Evangelical Christian cause, the political right gained an emotional grassroots appeal to which it wasn’t entitled. The same thing applies to many of the right’s causes, because political power is the real goal.

The mere suggestion that manipulation can result in rolling back laws that are tagged as culturally offensive to some is folly and a chasing of the wind. This includes the idea that if only conservatives could appoint enough Supreme Court justices, they will eventually overturn Roe v Wade. The odds of this ever happening are remarkably small for many reasons, and wishers would do well to consider anyway that the original opinion in Roe v Wade was written by conservative justice Harry Blackmun, a Nixon appointee to the court. Nevertheless, right wing media needs to continually dangle this carrot in order to maintain the hyperbole in its claims as members of the press, albeit with a different worldview.

Right wing media is not, nor will it ever be, a part of the press, for its core purpose is the manipulation of culture through distortion, the very thing it assigns to the so-called “liberal” media. Moreover, many contemporary right wing media outlets are nothing more than political operatives with the sole purpose of repeating over and over again their purely political arguments. To this end, nothing is out-of-bounds, for baseless and provable lies are fair game in a sea of ethical emptiness. Again, the irony is that these groups practice out loud the very things they accuse their political opponents of doing in disguise, as if that somehow justifies deliberately “balancing” the public square by any means necessary. Even when bonafide “fact checker” organizations prove beyond a reasonable doubt the falsity of certain claims, these political hacks continue to repeat the allegations, presumably because they feel under no obligation to retract or otherwise accept responsibility for such lies. Moreover, they know that as long as they can keep the drum beating, there are people “out there” who’ve been trained to listen regardless of the evidence.

The press is a political animal only insofar as it covers politics, and even I have to admit there can be mischief in this particular hen house. NYU journalism professor and author Jay Rosen has been studying this for 30 years and refers to the Washington Press Corps in particular as the “national press or political press.” He argues strongly for transparency and accountability and against opacity and demagoguery. He’s also acutely aware of the difference between “journalism” and this “political press.”

If your job is to make the case, win the negotiations, decide what the community should do, or maintain morale, that is one kind of work. If your job is to tell people what’s going on, and equip them to participate without illusions, that is a very different kind of work.

The press is the latter and politics is the former. Right wing media, however, claims to be the latter while functioning as the former, and this is why its narrative is a fraud. Again, there is no such thing as “right wing media.” It is entirely political, and we shouldn’t stand for it. Drudge is not a journalist. Hannity is not a journalist. Limbaugh is not a journalist. A thousand websites with “news” in their titles are not practicing journalism whatsoever. They are like the local advertiser who presents his commercial message during the 6 o’clock news disguised as a news bulletin. There are ethical rules against this, but in desperate times, there are also exceptions.

Finally, nearly every attempt to create a “left wing media” has failed, the most visible being Al Franken’s program on the Air America Network. Billed as an alternative to conservative talk radio, Franken’s show never garnered the ratings of his counterparts on the right and certainly didn’t inspire a generation of progressive radio talk shows. While there are some successful progressive programs today, there doesn’t appear to be a wellspring of an audience for this fare, perhaps because it’s so obviously there only to counter the right.

Right or left, these “media” are political activists and not members of any journalistic effort whatsoever. We’ve got our work cut out for us, if we are to educate the public about how they’ve been duped and manipulated by smart political operatives, those who only have their own best interests in mind. We pioneered this in Virginia Beach, and while our motives may have seemed to be just at the time, the truth is we were just another group of social engineers with the political motivations of power and influence.

The GOP’s currency of envy

Heinz 57 variety political guyI’m such a Heinz 57 variety political guy that it’s really hard to fit myself into anybody’s pigeonhole. I like it that way, and my suspicion is that I’m not alone. We are silent, or so it seems, because no one truly speaks for us. We are offered choices that really don’t matter at the dawn of a new era (postmodern) in which the best we can do is hope for something different. Just like life itself, we can either live it or hope to live it, the former coming with great risk while the latter offering the same old, tired-but-comfortable options.

Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative and many other political groupings are all designed by our top-down culture to suit, well, our top-down culture, but if we believe that “top-down” doesn’t cut it anymore, then we need to start thinking differently when it comes to how “we, the people,” govern ourselves and, by extension, our country. Anybody wishing to start something new must fit himself into the old political portal mindset, which is by nature designed to prevent such intrusion without incredible cost.

I was the executive producer of The 700 Club in the early 80s, a wonderful adventure to which I gave my all but ended up broken. I was an outsider, of sorts, and even though I often led worship services at the ministry, I’d like to think I still managed to nourish and maintain my observer roots. In board room meetings on a host of issues, for example, Pat Robertson would often look at me for reaction to what he was proposing-cum-ordering, because he knew my head could and would move in both directions. I’m proud of that (book forthcoming some day, I promise), and while I’m sure many thought I was conflicted internally, the truth is I rather enjoyed being in that place at that time. Never try to judge what somebody’s thinking on the inside by his or her outside performance or circumstances.

Nobody ever asked me about my politics at CBN; it was simply assumed, and I count the many wonderful discussions – and even debates – with remarkable thinkers while there as one of the greatest joys of my life. You’ve probably never heard the name, but Herb Titus has one of the most remarkable minds of the late 20th Century. We often had super intellectual thinkers on the program, and I had the chance to learn from each of them. Dr. Benjamin Mays, for example, on what’s wrong with youth today:

“Because we are so extraordinarily afraid to let them experience the same hard times that helped shape our own character.”

American Thinker Logo image

“American Thinker”

That’s a long path to introduce you to a publication you’ve probably never encountered but that I often enjoy, American Thinker. It’s a conservative “think” publication, and since the reason for much of my writing is the challenging of assumptions, it’s a great place to do just that. Can my/your arguments that are counter to contemporary conservative positions stand up to genuine and passionate intellectual scrutiny? I find this a good place to bounce things around in my mind. I was doing this recently, when I came upon a fascinating argument about the currency of envy in a piece called, “Obama and the Infernal Serpent, by Jeffrey Folks, a prolific writer and conservative thinker from Knoxville, TN.

Mr. Folks charges President Obama and all Democrats with “wealth envy,” something he decries as evil and contrary to both the ancients and Christian literature. His opening statement reveals the flaw in this logic. “Envy of the rich,” he writes, “is actually one of the seven ‘deadly sins,’ according to Christian belief.” I’m sorry, but the phrase “of the rich” isn’t something I can find in my studies of those seven deadly sins. But he goes on:

The ancients understood envy better than we do today. Envy was always associated with snakes because it is a destructive emotion that creeps into one’s heart. It is sluggish, gradually overturning one’s nobler feelings and replacing them with venomous hatred. Like our current occupant of the White House, whose speeches have become harsher as the campaign draws on, envy is ruthless and unsmiling.

Once unleashed, envy knows no bounds. It slithers into men’s hearts, poisoning their relationship to others, destroying families, ruining friendships, and making the governance of society impossible. That is what has now been unleashed in America. Employing the tactics of Saul Alinsky, Obama approaches every political problem with the intent of isolating his target and exploiting the destructive emotions of envy and distrust.

All of Obama’s talk about “fairness” is nothing but an attempt to gin up a sense of grievance and exploit it for his own purposes. The rich should be taxed more, he says, not because it would bring in more revenue or because they are not taxed enough already, but because they need to be punished. We hate them because they have succeeded and we have not. Even 2,800 years ago, that kind of populist demagoguery was understood to be dangerous.

I love words like “envy,” concepts that human beings have struggled with since the beginning. We seldom talk about these kinds of things, preferring instead to leave that to the clergy, “where it belongs.” That’s a shame, because concepts such as this undergird many other things that we do talk about, and the dangerous assumption in those conversations is that we all agree on the properties, practices and consequences of such big ideas. When was the last time you thought about the role that envy plays in your life, or in anybody else’s life?

This is the kind of 30,000 foot, big thought process that often drives conservative thinking. I find it fascinating, because while I find his conclusion erroneous, Mr. Folks isn’t stupid, illiterate, or full of crap. He’s followed the thing back to word root origins, and has put his honest and sincere beliefs out there for anybody to read. If you want into the collective mind of conservative intelligentsia, you must occasionally drift into this kind of reasoning, because a logical path that produces illogical results has to begin at a twisted point. Challenging arguments on this level will help your results in debating all contemporary issues, because these underlie and provide motivation for arguments that many miss, because they simply don’t see it. But here we have it, spelled out for us by a very smart fellow.

I wish no disrespect to Mr. Folks or any of the people at American Thinker, but his argument avoids one very important piece of ancient literature in order to arrive at its conclusion. Finally – and forgive me – I have reached the point of this treatise. To accuse Mr. Obama of “wealth envy” disregards the role of envy in the amassed fortunes of those wealthy people that Democrats are alleged to envy and even hate. As much as Mr. Folks believes the President’s words to be “populist demagoguery,” he is himself engaging in a non-populist form of demagoguery, one that appeals to those who are rich, the ones the Democrats are supposed to envy.

The book of Ecclesiastes is clear on this matter.

4:4 – “And I saw that all labor and all achievement springs from man’s envy of his neighbor.”

So here, the author, presumed to be King Solomon himself, notes that in his observations of life, he’s discovered that human achievement (skill at work) has its roots in envy, which puts a different spin on the use of the word to disrespect only one swath of the political spectrum. The rich exploit envy and are filled with it themselves, for the competition to have the biggest this or that or more of this or that is, in fact, an expression of envy. Moreover, envy flows through every pore of those inside the velvet rope, those who wield power and influence and work to keep others outside its lure of being in control or even “in the know.” How hypocritical is it, then, to argue that one’s envy is the evil “infernal serpent” while another’s is simply dismissed as irrelevant, pointless or worse, not a part of the argument whatsoever?

Wealth envy, it seems, is the flip side of the coin of position envy and very much the same thing. The carrot and the stick is a good thing to those in power, because they are the ones holding the stick. This is not only envy; it’s a form of every one of those seven deadly sins: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. Those chasing the illusive carrot are rarely allowed to get it, and when some do, they are held up as examples of now envy works for the good of all.

Mr. Folks goes on:

All of Obama’s talk about “fairness” is nothing but an attempt to gin up a sense of grievance and exploit it for his own purposes. The rich should be taxed more, he says, not because it would bring in more revenue or because they are not taxed enough already, but because they need to be punished. We hate them because they have succeeded and we have not.

This is the logical conclusion of thinking that begins in the wrong place, and it’s rampant among today’s popular conservative intelligentsia. It’s not that the rich believe themselves better than others; it’s that they believe they can be different than others (e.g. above others), because they’ve earned the right to be so. This is the existential battle between conservatives and liberals, and arguments justifying either position aren’t helped by logic that begins in the wrong zipcode.

By being classified as one of the seven deadly sins, envy is, therefore, a part of human nature and present in us all, not just one group. At the very root of colonialism, for example, is the envy of resources, and justification for seizing such resources in the name of God is a sham disguised as nobility. All colonialist institutions are corrupt in this way, and the protection of one’s place within the hierarchy is likewise self-centered. The French saying noblesse oblige (nobility obligates) undergirds the community chest, but is it really not today simply a tax exemption?

I don’t claim to understand rich people. I grew up in the home of a World War II veteran who settled back home in Michigan as a worker in the furniture factories. We were Adlai Stevenson supporters in the 50s, which carried with it a natural disdain for the “silk stockings” of the old GOP. “Fringe” in the GOP these days points to religious zealotry, but in my youth, it was more about the party of management, corporations, and the wealthy. Today, the religious right is a clever straw man thrown at the opposition and a recruiting tool for the “real” GOP – the fat cats of my dad’s era.

I’m in that 30% tax bracket, and I can’t help but cringe upon hearing that a guy like Mitt Romney doesn’t pay more that 13%. The “deadly sin” that I’m feeling, therefore, is anger, not envy, and there’s a big difference. I don’t want his 13%, because I honestly feel that paying my fair share is just that, fair. Would I like to pay less? Sure, but not at the expense of others, because I really do think we’re all in this together. And what I find illogical is that anything that justifies such a discrepancy is, on its face, contrary to the best interests of the whole.

Jeffrey Folks represents a part of our culture that judges the motives of others based on its own character defects. It’s human to envy others, especially those who have the whirling, sparkly things the have-nots don’t. But it’s foolish (and sloppy thinking) to assume that this has anything to do with the real motives of those who exist beyond the iron gates that separate one from the other. Out here, it’s about survival, not the easy life.

Remember, the Morlocks didn’t envy the Eloi; they ate them.