The cheapening of American public discourse … and its consequences

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

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Protest and Civil Disobedience

Protest and civil disobedience is very much a part of the fabric of American culture. Abolition. Women’s rights. Civil rights. This is one way we exercise our right of free speech, a right secured for every American in the adoption of the First Amendment to our Constitution. And while we are not without our very own historic protest events where violence was part of the message and the response to the message, non-violent civil disobedience is especially valued by Americans, as exemplified by the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the participants in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

In the years following the 2008 economic meltdown, I watched with perplexity as Americans stayed home while citizens of other countries around the world took to the streets to defend their basic human rights in the face of the most cruel economic austerity policies passed by their conservative governments. In the United States there were occasional protests here and there, as issues heated and spiked tensions. In 2010 I was a humanities professor at a public university in Ohio and I attended a protest in the banking district of the city. To my surprise, it did not have the muscle I expected to see, and as I watched bank employees leave the building for lunch, what I saw on many of their faces ranged from banal amusement to glares of superiority and disgust. There was no sense of acknowledgment that they were recipients of an important message.

The protests of the last couple days give me hope for our divided nation. It gives me hope because I see people energized to respond to a human crisis. On the other hand, I am disgusted by the flip side of this motivation.

The flip side of what is motivating our protest is the disgusting cause of the crisis. A poorly vetted (if vetted at all) executive order signed by our president, Donald J. Trump. The executive order banned travel to the United States for 218 million Muslims from several Middle Eastern countries, none of which have a history of immigrants (or travelers) perpetrating violent acts on American soil. The vetting of the executive order should have included the head of the National Security Council and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Instead, Trump has given his Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor Steve Bannon and his White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus seats on the NSC, while dismissing the director of national intelligence and the chair of the joint cheifs of staff. From disgusting to deeply disturbing. The president does not listen to or even tolerate dissenting voices among his closest advisers.

The signing of this executive order gives the impression that it was done without the kind of circumspection that is demanded of its subject. We should all be reminded of the shallow understanding of the Bush administration who crafted propaganda to lead our country to war in Iraq. What they willfully refused to understand were the complexities of the relationships between Sunni and Shi’a cultures in the Middle East, and the powder keg they were rushing to ignite with a blow torch.

I am heartened and energized by my fellow Americans who are not afraid to protest and engage in civil disobedience, to stand up to shallow leadership that seeks to control us with fear.

From a Christian perspective we are commanded by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel (ch. 25) to embrace the refugee. And this is given in a context of an ethical imperative that has one eye on the present with the other eye on a future and final apocalyptic accounting that God will have with those who claim to have faith, “when the Son of Man comes in his glory.” Matthew writes Jesus’s words:

34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ (RSV, Matt. 25.34-45)

We are also urged in the Johannine tradition to embrace God’s culture of love.

Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. (RSV, 1 John 4.7-8)

Fear is also explicitly spoken to as a vice to be overcome, not to be succumbed to, but to be overcome.

16 So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. 19 We love, because he first loved us. 20 If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot[a] love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also. (RSV, 1 John 4.16-21)

I am heartened and energized by my fellow Americans who are not afraid, and do not allow themselves to be manipulated by the talk of fear.

The insatiable American appetite for wealth and power and its fascist underpinnings

This came through my inbox via Naked Capitalism this morning and I could not pass up the opportunity to share. It is a must read as so many of the conservative persuasion decry the loss of liberty (religious liberty in particular), while they fail to see the real reasons for this loss. We think the loss of liberty is the result of moral dissolution and we rail against the beast with an indignation of superiority. But every instance of what are claimed to be the moral failures of our society is given a narrative of prejudice that is carefully orchestrated to divide. Division renders our population powerless. And every divisive narrative that we embrace is another nail in the coffin of our democracy, another brick in the wall of our growing fascist corporate state.

A pithy and sarcastic critique of the corrupted American electoral process

This is about three weeks old now. Don’t know how I missed it. Maybe because I can’t read everything, even though I try. Andy Borowitz over at the New Yorker wrote a pithy and sarcastic critique of our corrupted American electoral process by pointing out the fact that Bernie Sanders has disqualified himself for the 2016 presidential nomination process. Sanders is incapable of raising the billion dollars required these days to run for presidential office. As Borowitz correctly points out, the system works by giving billionaires control of the process, who crush the hopes of everyday Americans by rigging the system to exclude populist candidates like Sanders.

The perpetual struggle between democracy and oligarchy … a concise history of neoliberalism

This video recording of Tony Benn talking about the entrenchment of neoliberalism in Great Britain should resonate loudly with the history of neoliberalism in the United States since the 1970s. (Thanks to our friends at Naked Capitalism.) The challenge we face is not abortion or gay marriage. Those are two moral issues masterfully manipulated by the powers to keep our society divided and distracted. If you don’t think this is true, then you have to ask yourself, why do we virtually ignore the commandments against coveting, stealing (corporations and businesses), and lying (our beloved politicians), in order to obsess about the commandments prohibiting murder and sexual infidelity? The challenge we face as a society is the age old struggle against power, concentrated in the hands of a few because of their wealth, whose self-understood mission is to control policies to enrich themselves rather than improve the lives of the workers who make their wealth possible. As Benn points out, the model of work as slavery (in all its forms, including oppressive wage exploitation) persisted throughout human history until the early nineteenth century. Just let that sink in for a moment. It wasn’t until the workers started banding together that their lot began to change. There have been slave rebellions throughout history. Always brutally and unflinchingly put down in order to preserve the “order” of society as it was envisioned by the wealthy few. Now, in our time, we face the same struggle. What the wealthy powerful don’t understand is that we don’t want to eliminate them. We only want what is fair. Fair. That’s another word that is manipulated in the social and political discourse. “Life isn’t fair,” is one of the primary neoliberal rules that’s intended to keep the masses on their heels and noses to the grindstone. But the concept of economic fairness is biblical, and it is as American as the constitution. Read it for yourself. It’s there. We’ve just been conditioned by the neoliberal rule to no longer see it and to no longer expect it. It’s time to come together and fight, not to eliminate the wealthy powerful, but to demand and take our own share of power through standing together (against all the wedge-issue prophecies of the neo-liberal god), and to demand and take our fair share of wealth in an economy that works for all.

A wild-haired Jew preaching to present-day conservatives who themselves claim to follow a first-century Jew, but their actions suggest otherwise

This was posted on the Sanders for President Reddit page. It’s the response of a former Liberty University student, a conservative Evangelical who was reminded by Sanders what his religion, what his Savior, had to say about the way we should treat the poor.

“So here’s the interesting thing. When I was watching Bernie Sanders talk at Liberty University, I was just really shocked, and something kind of magical happened for me, because as I watched that guy stand up on that stage, here’s what I saw. I saw a wild-haired Jew crying out in a hoarse voice, in a very forceful and forth-speaking way, he was convicting the Christian leaders and religious leaders in that University and calling us out for being complicit in the abandonment of those who suffer: ‘The least of these.’ And siding with the powerful and the rich and the masters of this world. And he was convicting us, and calling us out. And we scorned him, and we stared him down, and with sour faces we thought, ‘Who is this whacko? And why do all these people seem to follow him, seem to like him? This wild-haired Jew, crying out from the wilderness of the political Left, in his hoarse voice?’”

Politics and the American culture of authenticity

Authenticity is all the current appeal. It’s been that way for a while, but it’s still current. I remember speaking at a conference a few years ago when I argued that excellence was something you should value when it comes to doing what you do. If you do something, do it with excellence, not mediocrity, and people will be attracted to whatever it is you’re doing.

That’s a generalization, of course, but at the conference I was speaking about Christian liturgy. Someone in the audience during Q&A time said that authenticity was more what people were interested in these days rather than excellence. My response was basically that words can be manipulated to mean whatever you want them to mean.

The person who made the point about authenticity was actually trying to narrow the church’s use of liturgy to exclude more contemporary expressions of the church’s conversation with God. In this case it was a matter of manipulating words. The word that preceded this use of authenticity in relation to liturgy was “orthodoxy” (and it was used with almost ruthless exclusivity). Words and their applications change. Human manipulations of words are essentially constant.

Authenticity is one of those words that doesn’t make sense as its own referent. What I mean is, something (or someone) must be authentic with reference to something else. For example, you can’t just say someone is authentic and expect everyone to know what you mean. You may have a vague sense of what you mean in your own mind, but authenticity is one of those words that requires a more explicit referent. “He’s an authentic baseball player” means he’s good at what he does—hitting, fielding, throwing, running, etc., etc.

Donald Trump is being touted as “authentic,” because as a GOP 2016 presidential primary candidate he is, for now, enjoying a certain level of popularity in the polls. His authenticity, the pundits say, is the reason for his popularity. Well, Trump is authentic with reference to what? Does he enjoy popularity in the polls, does he draw such large crowds just because he is … authentic? What is it that draws people to Trump’s “authenticity”?

Trump speaks his mind. Everyone knows this. But so do the other candidates. Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, they all speak their minds. So what is it that sets Trump apart as being “authentic”? What is Trump’s edge over the other candidates? According to the popular view of Donald Trump, he is authentic because of the way he speaks, not because of what he speaks. He is considered authentic because he has no filter.

That has become the crass, popular, now edgy definition of authenticity. You can be a misogynist, a narcissist, a liar, a cheat, and a megalomaniac. You can be authentically all of those, but what has come to matter most to the crass mass (as Horace once referred to the low-information populace of Rome) is the authenticity of your vulgarity. We laugh. We boo. We cheer. So what. You’re just like us. No political double-speak. No filter. Just from the gut. That we understand. And that’s all that matters. It’s all in the way you say it, and not at all in what you say.

The one candidate that seems the most “authentic” to me is Bernie Sanders. Like Donald Trump he speaks his mind and doesn’t care what the consequences are, whether those consequences come from the media that chooses to mischaracterize who he is, or whether the consequences come from the big corporate campaign donors Senator Sanders so naturally criticizes. But Sanders’ authenticity isn’t defined by the way he talks. It is all about what he says. And he has a lot to say. I hope we’re listening.

Media manipulation and the attempt to silence Bernie

Ignoring one who disagrees with you is clearly a form of polemic. I know this from experience. It’s a passive agressive tactic that can be very effective. Noam Chomsky has had plenty to say about media manipulation of political information over the years, and this is a shining example. Bernie Sanders deserves to be heard, especially since he has such a substantial following among the working class and poor in the US. From our friends over at naked capitalism.

Ellen Brown on our shift from democracy to oligarchy

Watching this happen for the last thirty + years has been very, very painful, especially as it gradually has become clear what’s happened.