Now is not the time for those of us who enjoy the privileges of our color to recede into the background. Now is the time to acknowledge the struggle of our black neighbor, and to engage in our own struggle for self-awareness regarding all the ways our privilege allows us to participate in systemic evil without even having to consider that we are participating in that evil. Now we confront our numbed consciences to learn what it means to be racist. To turn our hearts and minds to learn what it means to be anti-racist. And to learn what it means to participate in the suffering of a fellow human being.
Is it not for you to know justice?—
2 you who hate the good and love the evil,
who tear the skin from off my people,
and their flesh from off their bones;
3 who eat the flesh of my people,
and flay their skin from off them,
and break their bones in pieces,
and chop them up like meat in a kettle,
like flesh in a caldron. (Micah 3.1c-3)
Permit me to share a little bit of my personal story with you. When I was an undergraduate student many years ago I studied Classics at a major public university in the Midwest—Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Coptic. I loved the experience, especially reading Classical Greek poetry, in addition to history and philosophy by writers like Sappho, Homer, Plato, Xenophon, Sophocles, Herodotus, Thucydides, Cicero, Virgil, Tacitus, and so many more. I had the opportunity to learn other languages, like German, Sanskrit, and Lakota Sioux. One semester I was studying five languages at the same time and German bit the dust. I picked it up again later when I had more time. We all have our limits.
Sanskrit is an ancient language on which so many other Indo-European languages have their basis, and in which there are countless extant writings of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Lakota Sioux is a language indigenous to the Great Plains region where I grew up. I had the opportunity, but I chose not to study Sanskrit and Lakota. I have very few regrets, but this is one of them. I did, however, pick up two more languages in grad school related to my academic interests, Aramaic and Syriac. I still have the desire to study languages. I am currently developing my use of French. Arabic, Ethiopic, Modern Hebrew, and Russian are on my list.
By now I hope you get my point. Studying languages is a way of learning another culture. It is very much an education in itself. And it opens doors for expanding friendships and relationships beyond the small world I inhabit. I like it when my perception of the world grows beyond just where I live.
This is also true of being a preacher and teacher of the Bible. You can certainly be an effective preacher and an effective teacher for the church without knowledge of Hebrew and Greek. There are many excellent translations available. So why reinvent the wheel, right? But I’m not just talking about translation. I’m talking about developing your exegetical skills, deepening and broadening your ability to interpret biblical texts by engaging the linguistic culture of the Bible.
So much of the Bible, when it is translated, involves the translator making a choice that doesn’t really come through in the translation, a nuance here and a fine grammatical point there, that can send the interpretive imagination in a number of different directions and, more often than not, in directions you never expected. This is the kind of thing that can deeply enrich and give more authority to your preaching and teaching. Think about it.
As a student at Ecumenical Theological Seminary you can contact the registrar to enroll for full credit and learn Greek and Hebrew for a grade or, to lighten the pressure, take it pass/fail or as an audit. If you are not enrolled in a program at ETS, you too can learn the biblical languages. Contact the registrar for details.
James Waddell, S.T.M., Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Biblical Studies
Director of the Masters Programs
Ecumenical Theological Seminary
As I do some preliminary preparation for a proposed (possible) travel seminar to Rome/Italy for summer 2020 (the topic of which is Roman economy of dominance and exploitation of enslaved peoples and its impact on the New Testament), I found a short segment of Rostovtzeff’s The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire to have a poignant (if not downright chilling) prophetic relevance for our American context today. Describing Greek economic conditions during the Hellenistic period Rostovtzeff writes:
“The primary cause of the steady decline of economic life in Greece proper was the constant, almost uninterrupted, succession of wars in which the cities were involved in the fourth and third centuries B.C. These wars, in spite of many efforts to minimize their ruinous effects and to subject them to some inter-state regulation, became ever more bitter, more cruel, and more disastrous for all the participants, whether victors or vanquished. The practice of devastating the enemy’s land, of destroying his crops, his vineyards and olive-groves, of burning down farm-houses, of carrying off and selling men and cattle as war booty, of feeding the troops from the resources of the invaded lands, became increasingly common. Some states, for instance the Aetolian league and the Cretan cities, specialized in conducting wars of robbery on land and sea, and the other states, not excepting the great Hellenistic monarchies, followed them on this fatal path.
“Concurrently with the external wars there raged within the Greek cities, alike in Greece proper and in most of the islands, an unceasing class-warfare, which originated in the steady growth of a well-to-do bourgeois class and the corresponding impoverishment of the masses. This class-war made the growth and development of a sound capitalistic system very difficult. Indeed, it made a healthy economic life within the city-states almost impossible. The strife in the Greek cities assumed more and more the character of an almost purely social and economic struggle. The main aim of the struggle was, not the increase of production by the betterment of labour conditions and the improvement and regulation of the relations between labour and capital, but the redistribution of property, which was generally achieved by violent revolutionary means. The war cry was the immemorial one of gēs anadasmos kai chreōn apokopē, redistribution of land and abolition of debts. This cry was so freely used as early as the end of the Peloponnesian war that the Athenians introduced into the oath of the Heliasts in 401 a clause which forbade the putting of such an issue to the vote. In the fourth century the fear of a social revolution was constantly present to the minds of Aristotle and Isocrates, and in 338 the League of Corinth formed a sort of association for protection against it. It is significant of conditions in Greece during the third century and later that a clause forbidding the redistribution of land and the cancellation of debts was introduced into the oath of the citizens of Itanos in Crete.
“The revolutions which aimed and such a redistribution of property were utterly disastrous for Greece. Revolution and reaction followed each other with brief delays, and were marked by the wholesale slaughter or expulsion of the best citizens.”
Rostovtzeff’s insights were critical of state run economies within Hellenistic monarchies. In other words, what in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries we would refer to as Fascist nationalist states, not social democracy or democratic socialism where the workers (rather than the state) have a much greater voice in the choices that are made regarding the distribution of wealth and the means of production (as labor is assigned a greater value in terms of means of production). Those who equate social democracy with state (Fascist) control of the means of production are lying to you. Rostovtzeff was critical of unregulated capitalism that trampled on the rights of the laboring classes. His interpretation of Hellenistic social and economic history is a poignant message for us today. Constant warfare in the Hellenistic period was transformed into a form of entrepreneurial capitalism by some Hellenistic cities. Privatization of warfare by the American politic reflects our ignorance in repeating this historic Hellenistic failure. Unfettered capitalism run amok, capitalism that doesn’t take into consideration the well-being of its working class, combined with an unrestrained engagement in self-interested and endless warfare, is a threat to a nation’s social and economic stability, and ultimately in the long run to the survival of the people themselves. May we please not be forced by the powers to have to learn this lesson again?
I have a new publication as co-editor that has just been released, Wisdom Poured Out Like Water: Studies on Jewish and Christian Antiquity in Honor of Gabriele Boccaccini, Deuterocanonical and Cognate Literature Studies 38 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018). The book is co-edited by the late J. Harold Ellens (Ecumenical Seminary, Detroit), Isaac de Oliveira (Bradley University), Jason von Ehrenkrook (U. Mass. Boston), James Waddell (Ecumenical Seminary, Detroit), and Jason Zurawski (U. of Groningen), all former Ph.D. students of Professor Gabriele Boccaccini of the Department of Middle East Studies at the University of Michigan. The volume is published by De Gruyter and is now available. Volumes like this are usually priced for library purchases. To soften the blow of the cost of the entire volume for individuals, specific contributions to the volume are also available for purchase on the De Gruyter web site. My article is titled, “‘I Have Been Born Among You’: Jesus, Jews, and Christians in the Second Century.” Click here to read my contribution to this volume.
I mentioned last week in an article I wrote about the historic roots of the troubling marriage between conservative evangelicals and conservative politics today that some prophetic voices have sounded the alarm that our democracy is already dead, and that what we now have purely and simply is an American plutocracy. Chris Hedges writes (from his first-hand experience of living among them) an article about the predilections of the uber-rich. Hedges observes that when they govern, it is not from the perspective of public service, but an insatiable sociopathic desire to serve themselves while they destroy the norms of society. This is an important read, in order to understand better the present socio-economic context we are living in and what we need to do to address it.
Do you ever wonder how American politics has become so polarized? Certainly, American politics has been contentious in other periods of our history when our nation faced many dangerous and complicated challenges—the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights. Political polarization today has taken a dramatic turn in the last 40 years, an entire generation of American politics with discernable outlines of a trajectory that in large part involves the relationship between politics and religion.
In the ancient world religious myth was used by rulers to coerce their subjects into complying with their wishes. Because religious myth made claims for the divine ancestry of the ruling classes, to resist the will of the ruling class was to resist the will of the gods and such resistance left one open to the terrors of divine punishment, usually and swiftly meted out by the ruling classes themselves. Consequently, the laws and commands of the ancient ruling elite were treated as divine law with citizens in subjected (forced) compliance.
This was generally true of the ancient East Asian cultures where dense populations experienced strident competition for material resources and warranted the development of religious traditions grounded in the desire to encourage ethical behavior toward one’s fellow human being. Karma came to be defined as an impersonal force driving the inescapable (and just) consequences of one’s actions toward others.
Karl Marx’s famous position on religion as the opiate of the masses was due in large part to his criticisms of the exploitative nature of Western capitalism and Christianity. Marx observed that Christianity could be engaged in such a way as to assuage one’s conscience in a world where exploiting one’s fellow human being through the colonial and capitalist practices of empire were justified in the name of a God who forgave even the most egregious of sins.
Saul of Tarsus, whom Christian scriptures describe as having been called by God to be Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles, was implicated in the death of the church’s first martyr, Stephen. And if God can forgive a murderer, well God will certainly forgive my exploitation of my workers. After all, I pay them enough to have food and shelter. What more do they need? And religious folks, through the preaching of the gospel of the assuaged conscience, allow themselves to be lulled into complacency regarding human exploitation, both in terms of the exploiter and the exploited.
But religion, specifically conservative evangelicalism, transformed itself in the mid-twentieth century. The transformation found its way from Marx’s benignly patent but maliciously latent opiate of the masses to a more weaponized form of Christianity bent on storming the halls of power.
For centuries many conservatives viewed their relationship to political involvement as one of avoiding the corruption and impurity of the world. Withdrawal and self-preservation, by and large, was one of the hallmarks of conservative Christianity going back to Ulrich Zwingli’s social pacifism and his active resistance to Christians participating in state sanctioned war. Zwingli met his end in the meat grinder of war when his political enemies captured him, and then quartered and burned his body—the takeaway being, when you speak truth to power, those in power are aggressively invested in the violent suppression of their critics. Take as a clear example the recent Saudi Arabian scandal with the torture and bodily dismemberment of one of the royal family’s most strident critics, Jamal Khashoggi, and the morally ambivalent connections to US foreign trade and politics, cited explicitly by our current president.
In today’s context the weaponization of Christianity began in the 1970s and ’80s in response to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973. For twentieth-century conservative evangelicals the Roe v. Wade decision was the straw that broke the camel’s back of resistance to public engagement with political power. The world had become so corrupt that it was now time to do something. Sitting on the sidelines of the political arena was no longer a tolerable proposition.
Conservative theologians like Francis Schaeffer called for American evangelicals to take charge of their own destiny, essentially to make a complete transformation in the way they viewed their relationship to politics, to become one of engagement rather than withdrawal for the sake of preserving Christian purity.
The evangelical community embraced the call and quickly developed an appetite for consuming books like Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live (1976) and A Christian Manifesto (1981), or Rebecca Manley Pippert’s Out of the Salt Shaker and into the World (1979), or Peter Marshall’s The Light and the Glory: Did God Have a Plan for America? (1980). Greg Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics (1977) offered one of the more chilling prospects for the Christian right’s designs to take over the legislative branch of American governance, in order to apply literal interpretations of biblical law to American culture, including literal observance of Levitical prescriptions for punishments of legal offense. Bahnsen’s book is touted as a virtual tour de force of logic among conservative evangelicals still today. The recent 2017 book by Michael Medved, The American Miracle: Divine Providence in the Rise of the Republic, suggests the strength and tenacity of this conservative alliance of politics and religion.
All of this problematically ignores the evidence that the founding leaders of our nation were not all Christians and that they intentionally sought to base our constitution and laws on European humanist philosophy, not Judaeo-Christian foundational teachings. It also ignores the intent of our nation’s founding leaders to provide a high wall of separation between the church and the state, in order to protect religious freedoms for everyone, not just conservative evangelicals.
Prominent evangelical pastors led the way. Figures like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson wrote their own books, legitimizing for masses of evangelicals an entirely new market of literature for the newly enlightened. Falwell and Robertson (and many more evangelicals) even ran for political office, but it was not for local offices. They went straight for the top, signaling for all that this was really an authoritarian movement directed from the top down.
Early on in the collaboration of the “religious right” with Neoconservatives the political rhetoric shifted. When Newt Gingrich ascended to the position of Speaker of the House in 1995 he no longer referred to his colleagues across the aisle as political opponents. Gingrich shifted the discourse by referring to his House colleagues as enemies. I remember it clearly. I didn’t fully understand the ramifications of the shift then, even though it left a bitter taste in my mouth. Nearly 25 years later and the results of the extreme ideological trajectory Gingrich advanced are clear, and clearly alarming.
What we saw unfolding before our eyes was an alliance of Neoconservative pols and evangelicals, both conservative yet both with slightly different ends in mind. The Neocons willingly embraced the public identification with conservative Christianity mainly because they viewed evangelicals as a powerful voting block for keeping conservative pols in power. Neocons, however, were more interested in economic and corporate deregulation, as well as advancing Ronald Reagan’s union busting agenda already firmly entrenched systemically and rhetorically in the 1980s, all of which has had a profoundly negative impact on the diminishment of the livelihoods of American workers who receive only a small fraction of the value that their labor contributes to the vast economic wealth and prosperity enjoyed by American corporations.
These are the same corporations who today horde trillions in wealth, while they vigorously and defiantly refuse to contribute to the public good by withholding their tax contributions from society (public schools, health care, infrastructure, pensions, Social Security, etc., etc.). Noblesse oblige is dead. Exclusionary definitions of “patriotism” were bandied about as part of the rhetorical scheme, having an exclusionary force that also found a home among conservative evangelicals who viewed America as an exclusively Christian nation at the heart of God’s plan for the world.
Conservative evangelicals were more interested in the culture wars as this was being framed by evangelical theologians and advanced in the caustic rhetoric of conservative pols. Family values was an open rallying cry. Abortion and homosexuality were natural social issues for conservative Christians who read their Bibles as prohibiting such evils, and the appearance of AIDS in the early 1980s was taken as confirmation of God’s judgement against the Gay community. Conservative pols had little interest in such things except to use them as rhetorical wedge issues during election years, further weaponizing the church in their schemes to achieve and maintain even more political power.
Over the years the distinction between political and religious conservatism became blurred to the point of non-distinction. Conservative evangelicals whose political interests were almost solely focused on social issues paradoxically and energetically embraced the conservative Neoliberal political agenda—corporate deregulation, worker suppression, systemic racism, environmental exploitation, gerrymandering, voter suppression, xenophobia, unrestrained support for the military industrial complex under the guise of “patriotism” driven by the premise that it’s better to destroy the lives of people of color “over there” than to have to fight them in the “homeland”—and this is essentially due to the effect of corporate Neoliberal propaganda overshadowing the biblical text evangelicals so vigorously claim defines them.
Instead of embracing and identifying with the poor (economically marginalized) as the New Testament demands, conservative Christians have rationalized the adoption of Neoliberal narratives. These narratives demand that we judge the poor; they are in a position of having to receive assistance because of their own laziness. “Those who will not work shall not eat” is the rallying cry. These narratives hold the poor in contempt for endangering our economy, rather than corporations who aggressively craft policies to be voted as legislation, in order to increase their bottom line via legalized exploitation of their workers.
Progressive political and social pressures only recently forced Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos to raise his workers’ minimum wage to $15 an hour. Bezos did not willingly do this. The pressure has been there before. But what seems to have brought the pressure to the breaking point has been the growing awareness of the intolerable and obscene extreme of wealth disparity and the brutal impoverishment of America’s middle class. Have we finally reached the tipping point?
Neoliberal policies favoring corporate rather than public interests have become the norm. The expanded influx of money for political campaign contributions from corporate lobbyists since the 1980s has rendered distinctions between conservatives and liberals virtually irrelevant as liberals willingly embraced this shift in the system, with excuses like, “if we don’t do it, our political opponents surely will; we have to play on a level playing field.” And it has remained so to this day. The Clintons exemplify this shift among the Neoliberal left and establishment Democrats, rendering them virtually indistinguishable from their conservative Neoliberal counterparts on the right.
Religion has taken a back seat to politics as we have conditioned ourselves to view our religious sensibilities and convictions through the lens of our politics rather than the other way around. When faced with a moral challenge in our public discourse, it is immediately and cynically dismissed as political gamesmanship. As I write this the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh as an associate justice to the Supreme Court is a done deal. And yet a proper legal vetting of the moral claims against Kavanagh’s character and fitness for the highest court in the land were forestalled by a cynical political ideology of elite white male privilege that is no longer grounded in the rule of law we value as Americans.
We find ourselves today in a world of cognitive dissonance, where those who claim to follow the teachings of Christ have abandoned those teachings, if not entirely then certainly in large part, in order to fight for the agenda of the political party they embraced decades ago, and have blindly rationalized their willingness to engage in ends-justifies-the-means politics. In July 2016 Pew Research indicated that more registered voters who were white evangelicals supported Trump in 2016 than supported Romney in 2012. Political compromise, which was once the bread and butter of getting things done legislatively, has now been replaced by refusal to compromise politically, no doubt a transference of conservative evangelical theology onto conservative politics.
Could this be viewed as one of the unintended consequences of the Neoconservative and evangelical marriage that took place in the 1980s? Unintended, but not necessarily unforeseeable? This is the only explanation that makes sense to me when I see so many evangelical Christians (not all of them, but so many of them) assert their loyalty to a political party and its leaders whose actions and policies are so antithetical to the gospel message of hope and restoration in our relationship with God and in our relationships with each other.
The gospels are filled with stories of Jesus feeding the hungry (SNAP?), healing the sick (universal healthcare?), teaching those who were open to what he had to say (public education?). The gospels are also filled with episodes where Jesus confronted those who were in power. He did not collaborate with the powerful. Jesus confronted the religious leaders in power.
Why did Jesus confront the religious authorities in power? Because these leaders collaborated with the Romans who imposed social and economic systems that were so exploitative and so oppressive that they had most of the population living hand-to-mouth, day-to-day, scratching and clawing a living where it was already near impossible to eke out one’s daily bread. As one New Testament scholar (John Dominic Crossan) has said, “there were the haves and the have nots.” And the haves were not willingly disposed to give anything of material substance to the have nots. That sounds disturbingly more and more like a description of the America we live in today.
The gospels are replete with Jesus’ criticisms of obscene wealth and unrestrained greed. And this is to say nothing at all about the numerous criticisms of the same in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Jesus tells the man who wanted to join Jesus and his followers: “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.”
To those who say social justice is evil, and not surprisingly there are many conservative Christians who say this, my response to them is this: social justice is an inescapable consequence of believing the gospel.
There are two ways of looking at the gospel, and they are not incompatible with each other. It is a both-and, not an either-or. We read the gospel as the early church’s message of God’s grace in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. It is certainly sine qua non for a Christian, but that’s not all there is to it.
It is when we read the New Testament as if this is the only aspect of the gospel, it is then that we fall into the trap of the gospel of the assuaged conscience. It is the kind of distortion of Christianity that drove Karl Marx’s criticisms in the nineteenth century and still drives criticisms of Christianity today.
My response to this kind of distortion of the gospel and Christianity is that there is another aspect of the gospel, and this includes the concept of social justice. The gospel opens our hearts to be transformed in the ways we act, to receive Jesus’s ethical teachings and his actions as examples for Christians to follow. This is the dual foci in the New Testament where Jesus tells us to love God AND love our neighbor.
Marx claimed that for earlier expressions of historic “exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, the bourgeoisie has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.” Conservative pols in America today, committed in their service to corporate economic policies, stridently engage us in a culture war by employing a now weaponized segment of conservative evangelical Christians who don’t realize they are being used. Clinging to the brutality of their naked aggression to exploit, conservative corporate pols do not yield willingly. Rather than collaborate with those who walk the halls of power, we must confront them repeatedly with the truth of the gospel in all that the gospel has to say to us.
As unrestrained greed tears at the fabric of our society and as naked aggressions to power with a militarized police force secure corporate interests, our nation moves daily closer to corporate control of every branch of our government and the alarming prospect of an inverted fascist state. Some prophetic voices have said that we are already there. As politically protected greed and aggression rear their ugly head in every generation, history repeats itself and we must never lose heart. Never lose heart. And always, always pay attention to what they say and how they say it, but especially pay attention to what they do.
We use our voice to speak the truth, even if the powers are violently inclined to suppress it. We speak of something greater than ourselves. And we are not afraid. We the people are not afraid.
James Waddell is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit, Michigan
From the Introduction … “In June 2014, the Third Nangeroni Meeting of the Enoch Seminar, titled ‘Re-Reading Paul as a Second Temple Jewish Author,’ was held at the Waldensian Faculty of Theology in Rome. Scholars of Second Temple Judaism and Pauline studies gathered together to discuss Paul afresh as a Jewish thinker. A select number of the proceedings from that meeting were subsequently edited by Gabriele Boccaccini and Carlos A. Segovia and published in Paul the Jew: Rereading the Apostle as a Figure of Second Temple Judaism (Fortress 2016). During the final session of the Third Nangeroni Meeting, participants discussed how the topic of Paul might be pursued in future venues sponsored by the Enoch Seminar. A number of participants voiced support for Isaac W. Oliver’s proposal of a conference that would center on the reception of Paul. More specifically, the conference would focus on the reception of Paul during the first two centuries that related to Paul’s Jewishness as well as his views on Judaism with the hope that such an examination might enrich our understanding of the complex, diverse nature of early Christian-Jewish relations. The plan materialized two years later, when the Seventh Nangeroni Meeting, ‘The Early Reception of Paul the Second Temple Jew,’ transpired from June 26, 2016, to June 30, 2016, in the same welcoming halls of the Waldensian School of Theology in Rome.”
The proceedings of this seminar are about to be published as The Early Reception of Paul the Second Temple Jew: Text, Narrative and Reception History. Isaac W. Oliver and Gabriele Boccaccini, editors. The Library of Second Temple Studies 92. Lester Grabbe, editor. London: Bloomsbury T.&T. Clark, 2018. My own contribution to this volume is titled “The Shadow and the Substance: Early Reception of Paul the Jew in the Letter to the Colossians” (75–87). The intent of the seminar (and the soon-to-be published volume), according to Boccaccini, is to present the definitive go-to research on the reception of Paul. It was an honor for me to be invited to participate.
The following was brought to my attention this afternoon.
The argument of the Pope’s defense of Vatican II’s empowerment of the church’s use of indigenous language translations of liturgical texts approaches the argument the Lutherans used in the sixteenth century for local congregational authority to order rites and ceremonies in liturgy. It’s clearly not the same, but it’s similar.
What do Noam Chomsky, Colin Kaepernick, and our family dog, Callie, all have in common?
Last night in the wee hours of the morning my wife woke me to help her take care of a sick dog. Callie is a rescue dog, who is more than a little neurotic. We’ve figured out some of the things that really bother her … loud noises, thunder, which she associates with rain, which she associates with wind. Calm sunny days are good days. Last night she woke up sick, and we aren’t sure why. Eventually I was able to calm her down to the point that she got in bed next to me; she then commenced hopping in and out of bed until she was tired enough that she finally fell asleep.
In the meantime, I found an old video from 1990, Noam Chomsky talking about peace, the media, and propaganda. Chomsky made the observation that in every single media reference to America and peace (in particular peace processes that were being engaged around the world), the media never presented America in any way against peace, especially when the American government was aggressively engaged in pursuing “American interests” overseas. Chomsky observed how the terms “peace” and “American interests” became virtually synonymous. (The “contemporary” counterpoint to the propaganda position is the excruciatingly painful reality of the Vietnam War and how the American propaganda machine sometimes succeeded, but mostly failed in its mission to convince the American public of the rightness of that war. You may recall that Chomsky wrote about that too.)
Chomsky has repeatedly demonstrated how media propaganda is harmful (and in today’s experience actually deadly) to our democracy. More than thirty years ago now Chomsky pointed out how media propaganda is designed out of a collaboration between media and government officials to promote wartime ideology. The hard reality today is that government is more and more becoming the enforcement arm of a media propaganda machine owned, operated, and directed by huge corporate interests. (This, by the way, is a phenomenon known as inverted Fascism. Please inform yourself about inverted Fascism. It is aggressively assaulting our democracy, and we are in present danger of losing our democracy because of it.)
I think older Americans, my parents’ generation, are more vulnerable to this, because they don’t understand the concept of propaganda or media manipulation, and they simply expect that what they hear on “the news” is “objective truth.” They frequent news outlets that most reflect their “American and religious values,” innocently not realizing that the corporate interests are manipulating them through their chosen “news outlet” to think and act (and vote!) not in their own interests, but in the interests of the powerful corporation.
This is just as true for my age-peers, those of us in our middle years, baby boomers who have cynically and opportunistically embraced participation in the corporate propaganda system, because too many of us think powerful corporations are too powerful to resist, or too many of us have become willing to soil ourselves with the manipulative lies, just to make a little (or a lot of!) money. I am mostly disgusted with my age-peers for willingly engaging in systems that are harmful to our democracy, all the while promoting the lie that just the opposite is true.
I hold out hope for the younger generation, that of our children, the all-too-disingenuously-maligned millennials. These are some of the hardest working, non-judgmental Americans in the history of our country. I know lots of them, lots of them, and I know this to be true. The divisive, self-serving rhetoric about “participation trophies” is a sad reflection of the hard-bitten cynicism of self-soiled, corrupted baby boomers, who like bullies on the playground attack the next generation in order to mask their own culpability for making life harder for everybody else. What has my generation done to lighten the burden of debt we are piling on the backs of our millennial children? Offer tax cuts to billionaires? While the working class may get a few hundred dollars a year for a “tax cut”? Less than a dollar a day? I’m choking on my breakfast I’m laughing so hard. But I refuse to be forced into a state of paralyzed cynicism. I look at the thoroughly grounded idealism and activism of our millennial children and I am inspired.
I’ve digressed a bit, and there is a point in all this. These are thoughts stirred in me by the Chomsky video from 1990, as I was also trying to figure out what was eating our neurotic rescue dog, Callie.
There’s something that should be eating away at all of us, and that’s the cheapening of American public discourse. In part cheapening the discourse keeps us divided, and that’s exactly where the corporate system wants to keep us. Divided and distracted from what they’re really up to.
Social media, and I use it a lot, is probably the most obvious example of the cheapening of American public discourse. I use it a lot because I like to stay connected with people who live some distance from me, or who I don’t get to see often because I work so much. Social media is mostly emotion driven. Lots of emojis. Did I choose the right one? I don’t see one that fits what I’m “feeling” right now. I’m a little curious as to why ALL CAPS haven’t been replaced by red letters to express anger. But I suppose in a world where we’ve been manipulated to think only in terms of black and white, that’s no surprise.
I’m thinking in particular of those (manipulators) who call for national unity and patriotism, yet they engage in tactics (and language) that are designed to divide one group against another. (NRA?!)
By now pretty much everyone is aware of the (manufactured) “controversy” of athletes kneeling for the national anthem at the beginning of NFL football games. The act of kneeling for the national anthem has reached into our society, even to the level of high school athletes kneeling for the national anthem.
It began with Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, sitting on the bench for the national anthem at a 2016 preseason game. After a genuine conversation with a veteran who suggested Kaepernick kneel instead of sit for the anthem, Kaepernick began to kneel. Kneeling has a long (even ancient) history as a display of reverence and respect. Hundreds of NFL athletes have followed Kaepernick’s lead, with the intent to draw attention to the civil injustice of police brutality against African American citizens.
In Kapernick’s own words, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
This is what the conversation should be about.
Instead of accepting at face value Kaepernick’s reason for kneeling during the national anthem, a number of corporate media outlets cheapened the discourse by manipulating the narrative to make it about Kaepernick disrespecting the flag and disrespecting American troops serving in the military.
It’s the cheapening of the discourse. It’s the aggressive manipulation of the discourse. Rather than having a conversation about what these kneeling athletes are actually trying to say with their non-violent disobedience, we let rhetoric crafted by corporate owned media outlets manipulate our emotions. And the result is that we are divided and distracted from the issue the kneeling athletes are trying to bring to our attention.
We love our neurotic rescue dog, Callie. Maybe someday we’ll get to the bottom of all the stuff that’s eating her, and we will learn how to make life better for her.
And I look forward to the day when corporate media manipulation will eat at all of us, when we will all (hopefully sooner than later) understand how powerful corporate interests manipulate our thoughts and actions to keep us divided and distracted, and then we will learn how to stop listening to divisive rhetoric and start listening to each other. Elevate the discourse. Talk about the issues that really matter. Love your fellow human being.
“… let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s justice.” — James 1.19–20