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.

The prophet Aaron Swartz

Writers write on this Internet Freedom Day, and so I write.

In 1985, an unknown songwriter named Julie Gold birthed a tune that would become one of the classics of a generation. Always a favorite regardless of who recorded the song, it wasn’t until Bette Midler’s version in 1990 that most of us heard “From A Distance.” Do yourself a favor right now, and click on the link below and watch and listen.

The hook of the song is the powerful and emotional refrain that, from a distance, “God is watching us.” This song came to mind over the past week and wouldn’t let me go as I read about and pondered the death of Aaron Swartz, the techno-prodigy-rockstar who took his own life at the age of 26. Never before have I witnessed the denizens of the network come together in harmony around the death of a pioneer-legend, and it has been a rare kind of corporate look into the soul of Western humanity. It reminds me very much of the counterculture soul of the 60s, and perhaps that’s why I feel so deeply emotional over this tragedy.

It’s because Swartz’s life wasn’t so much about his immense talent as it was about how he used his talent, for the liberty of all. As Jay Rosen pointed out beautifully, Swartz could have been a billionaire but chose a different path.

He could have tried to develop the next YouTube and sell it to Google for a billion dollars, he had the skills for that, but the only thing that really mattered to him was the fight for Internet freedom, which included taking part in democratic politics. That conception of the good, in someone so young, is deeply moving to me.

I didn’t know Aaron, though I knew of his legend, but from what I have read about him he was one of those people (Timothy Berners Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web and Richard Stallman, the founder of the free software movement, are both like this) who believe that if someone is in need of knowledge and you can provide it, but you don’t, you are guilty of a crime against the human spirit. (See this.)

The cause of Internet freedom, which is very often a radical cause, is radical in just this sense: let all who are hungry eat. Farewell, Aaron, my child. Your cause is just.

I feel similarly touched by this, but my thoughts are drawn more to those of the spirit of humanity upon which Jay touches. We’re coming up on the 52nd anniversary of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as president. I remember his speech well, and the charismatic and forceful way in which it was delivered. Communism and the bomb were common enemies, and Kennedy had a wonderful way of threatening our foes while at the same time putting his arm around them. Of course, the speech is remembered most for its conclusion:

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

The counterculture movement in the U.S. was energized that day, and it has lived on in the likes of people such as Aaron Swartz. The press saw it as one thing back then, but those of us engaged in its mission were aroused and inspired by President Kennedy. We were devastated by his murder in 1963, but the cause — as he framed it — lives on even today.

I have to hold back much of what I feel in the wake of Swartz’s death, for to do otherwise would open the door to a form of criticism that I don’t wish to entertain right now. Some day, perhaps, but not now. We ARE spiritual beings, however, and suffice it to say that God IS watching us (from a distance and from within) and talking to us at the same time. Life (with a capital L) talks to us in many ways, and the prophets of history have all paid a stiff price for the privilege of carrying the message.

Prophets were and are interesting and unusual people. They’re not necessarily the kinds of folks that you’d want to bring home to mom with a big grin, saying, “Hey, everybody, here’s my friend, prophet Harry.” The status quo doesn’t generally care for prophets, preferring profits instead. Yet, our history is filled with the wisdom of those who’ve “touched” the raw creative energy that is Life and tried to pass what they found along to the rest of us. Usually, however, we seem unable to “listen” or breathe in that which they are trying to impart. Argue with me if you wish, and if it’s necessary, call me a nutcase, but Aaron Swartz was a prophet, and I know that for two reasons. One, his knowledge was almost otherworldly and could only have come from that same raw source of creative energy, what Richard Adams called “The Unbroken Web.” Those who touch this have always been in our midst, and they’re always a bit “different,” for a venture near the edge cannot help but influence the lives of those who’ve been there and often with tragic results. Two, he eschewed the trappings of the world to teach us that there was serious evil in our midst, although we didn’t, couldn’t, or wouldn’t recognize it. Most of all, the way he gave of himself was godlike, and so I am deeply touched by this man and this event.

The difference between a criminal and a prophet is often in who’s telling the story.

Your concept of evil is based on your world view. Look around. Whether it’s a hypothetical “perfect” girlfriend for the “perfect” football player, a maniac mass murderer loose in a movie theater or elementary school, or our Congressional representatives playing with destroying the economy, it’s safe to say that not only is there something terribly wrong with us, but we seem powerless to do anything about it. Our networked world won’t stand a chance, if every node on the network is in it only for themselves.

Can we learn to ask not what Life can do for us but what we can do for Life? Aaron Swartz thought so.

The postmodern world of which I write is one of participation. Whereas modernity celebrated the ability to study, chart, reason, and, in so doing, understand the unknown, postmodernists develop their understanding on top of all that by including what they’ve experienced. Therefore, the mantra of postmodernism is “I participate or experience, therefore I understand.” God in the postmodern world is removed from His formerly hierarchical throne — a place where He speaks to people through the priests of the hierarchy — and is spread across all of humanity in a form that Biblical scholars would call “the Holy Spirit.” If there is to be a vast spiritual awakening in our world, it’ll be everywhere and in the streets, not in the superchurches of America’s suburbs.

We will be hypernetworked if and when the awakening happens, and it won’t take place unless the network is free.

Thank you, Aaron, for your tireless efforts to that end.

R.I.P. Sandra Seich

Sandra Seich

Sandra Seich

My old friend and business partner, Sandra Seich, has passed away. She died Christmas Eve following a four year battle with breast cancer.

I met Sandra at a time of transition in my life. I’d left TV news in late 1998 and was searching for some sort of meaning to everything that was happening around me. Sandra had authored a fascinating personality study mechanism called ANSIR, A New Style In Relating. I took the test and was flabbergasted at how well it spoke to me, so I contacted her.

We formed a partnership, and I put my life’s savings into the company and became its president. We had a little B2C business running and ran into some investors from a business incubator in Huntsville, Alabama. They introduced us to others and soon valuations of $100 million were being bandied about. We changed the business model and built an advertiser-supported online community, based on personality. When the bubble burst three years later, we lost everything. Had they had the courage to stick it out, we’d have been a hybrid of eHarmony and MySpace. Sigh.

Sandra was a genius by most definitions. She could read people at the age of 10. It’s a shame she never got the recognition she truly deserved for that. Who knows? Perhaps someone will pick up the mantel and move forward with it. Like all geniuses, she had her edge, but that was a small trade-off for the knowledge she intuitively possessed. Her book, The 3 Sides of You, is still available via Amazon.

Sandra taught me much, and while our parting wasn’t under the best of circumstances, I have always bragged about our friendship when the subject came up. I learned about people from Sandra Seich, and I use that knowledge even to this day.

Rest in peace, Sandra, and may God hold you forever in His loving arms.

R.I.P. Randy Pausch

You were an inspiration to us all.

R.I.P. George Carlin

I’m saddened this morning with the passing of my generation’s comedian, George Carlin. Comics, poets and artists are the prophets of contemporary culture, striking out against the status quo for its absurdities. Nobody did it better in my lifetime than Carlin. And when a modern prophet passes, we’ve all suffered a loss.

His most recent HBO specials were just a vapor of his real genius, and it was clear he was getting old (he was 71). But who of my generation isn’t? I wish he’d struck out against old age, but he didn’t, and his humor just wasn’t what it used to be. I hope his passing will result in an outpouring of some of his earlier and mid-career stuff, because this was a funny, funny man.

I loved George Carlin, and like most people my age, I use some of his stuff in everyday language. My favorite is: “These are the kinds of thoughts that kept me out of the good schools.”

The world is better for him having been here.

(UPDATE) I’ve been sitting here thinking about the cultural contributions of Carlin compared to Tim Russert. Will it be all-Carlin-all-the-time tonight?

Carlin’s brilliance was in his ability to call “bullshit” in the most unusual ways. Here’s a famous line from the “hippy-dippy weatherman:” Weather forecast for tonight: dark. Continued dark overnight, with widely scattered light by morning.

And as a nature lover, this was always one of my favorites: The caterpillar does all the work but the butterfly gets all the publicity.

I’ll bet the search engines are clogged with Carlin traffic today.

R.I.P., William F.

William F. Buckley has passed away at the age of 82. He was hard not to like, for me anyway. While most people considered him terribly stiff and boring (and oh so friggin’ conservative), I found his ability to extemporaneously deconstruct arguments to be inspiring. And he raised “leaning back” to an art form.

His position that abortion is not a legal issue and therefore should not be permitted or not-permitted by law impacted me on many levels, and I’ve more than once paused and appreciated him for that.

As I do today.