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 Affordable Care Act and the legal fallacy of the prooftexting hermeneutic of fundamentalism

This morning the US Supreme Court ruled that federal subsidies, for states that have refused to set up their own insurance exchanges, are a part of the overall intent of the law. The challenge was based on an isolated wording of the law indicating that individual states had the authority to accept or refuse the federal subsidies, which would have a very clear impact on the implementation of the ACA.

It is not so much the details of the law that I am focusing on here. The key issue is the hermeneutic that led to the challenge in the first place. Hermeneutic, in academic terms, is a method of interpretation. The method of interpretation employed by those who read the words of the ACA and challenged the law was to isolate a few words and to read them out of the overall context of the statute.

The fact that opposition to the ACA comes almost entirely from conservatives is only part of the dynamic that drove this challenge. There’s another dynamic at play that is virtually lost in the analysis. I call it the prooftexting hermeneutic of fundamentalism.

As a parallel development of the Neo-conservative movement in the 1980s (Ronald Reagan, James Baker [the bulldog who was sent to further entangle the election mess in Florida in 2000], James Watt, Newt Gingrich, Jean Kirkpatrick, William F. Buckley, Jr., et al., et al., ad nauseam), the Religious Right and the Moral Majority (Francis Schaeffer, Billy Graham [American revivalism], Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson) grew out of the American Christian fundamentalist movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In fact it’s still around.

One of the basic hermeneutical assumptions of fundamentalism is that the Bible is the inspired word of God. This is very much akin to the approach of Islamic fundamentalism in its assumptions about the Qur’an. Here is how the syllogism of prooftexting works. If our scripture is the inspired word of God, then every syllable is sacred without human contribution. And if every syllable is sacred without human contribution, then every word, every sentence, has a timeless message for all of humankind.

There are multiple issues that follow from this basic syllogism of American Christian fundamentalism, but here I am only interested in one of the implications this has for interpretation within fundamentalist communities, and that is prooftexting. Prooftexting, as religiously justified on the grounds of the fundamentalist assumption of inspiration, is a method of selecting a text out of its context to “prove” the fundamentalist assumption. From a historian’s perspective, this is an egregious misuse of reading texts. But fundamentalists justify it, because it supports the assumptions that undergird the formation of their faith. The closed circularity is so obvious that it shouldn’t warrant pointing out.

Fundamentalism has historically been a separatist movement, choosing to separate themselves from a corrupt society in order to avoid the impurity of the sinful world. Since the emergence of the Religious Right (Moral Majority) movement and its combination with the Neo-conservatives in the 1980s, fundamentalists have shifted their separatist perspective to one of engaging the culture as warriors in God’s army whose mission it is to win back for God the United States as a Christian nation. Never mind the separation of church and state imbedded in the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Into the culture war fundamentalist Christian politicians and activists bring with them their refusal to compromise theologically (now politically) and their prooftexting hermeneutic. Hence their challenge of the ACA in the Supreme Court by reading a few words of the statute out of their context while conveniently ignoring the overall intent of the law.

Fortunately, six of the nine Supreme Court justices were intellectually honest enough to understand that reading a few words out of context is a very clear problem. On the other hand, whether the two conservative justices, Roberts and Kennedy, who voted to strike down the challenge voted this way because of their intellectual integrity or because they were politically motivated to pull the GOP’s collective butt out of the fire in view of the gathering storm that would have exploded had they taken health care coverage away from millions of American citizens, well, I suppose that becomes a matter of opinion. Or we could let their legislative track record speak for itself, beginning with their appointment of George W. Bush as president in the 2000 election. Imagine how the entire world would be different had they not followed the fascist path to solving the problems of that election.

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.

The conservative attack on academics in higher education

Since conservatives have pushed the adjunct model to its limits over the last 10 year span and effectively can squeeze productivity in that direction no longer, now they are going after tenured faculty who were all but silent while the rest of us suffered. I try not to have hard feelings about a class of faculty who viewed adjuncts as less than themselves (even though adjuncts have the same credentials and many are more qualified than the privileged tenured), but I certainly don’t wish this on anyone and I think it is grotesquely small-minded of conservative legislators who are having their ignorant way with “liberal” academics.

Is the religious freedom trope just another wedge issue?

I wonder. No not really. I’m pretty confident that it is; you know, that whole religious freedom argument. Conservatives have been roiling about this for the last several months. It’s a curious phenomenon. And I’m being generous by calling it “curious.” Oh let’s just call it what it is. It’s the latest wedge issue. As the legalization of marriage equality spreads from state to state I am aware of zero (that’s nil) churches who have experienced any restriction of their religious freedom when it comes to the LGBTQ community demanding to be married in conservative congregations that don’t believe in it. None. So we have to come up with “preemptive” legislation to prevent it from happening. Kind of like a previous president’s doctrine of preemptive strike against a nation that is perceived to be a threat to our national interests (which was based on a false, contrived narrative). There is a new presidential election season that is just beginning after all. So the wedges are in the process of being sharpened. If you think the LGBTQ community should not have the right to marry because of your religious convictions, you have every right to oppose it within your religious community. You even have the right to speak out against it in public, to make your position known. That’s the freedom we all have. First amendment stuff. The problem with using our religious freedom as a wedge issue is that the government is not forcing anyone to act against their religious conscience. It is not happening. The arguments of “preemptive legislation” are not proof of religious persecution. They are conservative expressions of fear of possible religious persecution. As citizens of our country, the LGBTQ community have all the civil rights and equal protection under the law afforded by the constitution and the Bill of Rights. And there’s the rub. While some have religious convictions against the LGBTQ community and some do not, we must all recognize that we all live together in a society defined by laws based on a constitution that is not a religious document. It is a foundational legal document, providing legal and social boundaries for those who hold to the narratives of the Bible as well as for those who do not. The religiously convicted have no right to impose their religious convictions on those who don’t have the same convictions. That’s why we are a nation of laws, to protect religious communities from a government that would require them to act against their beliefs, but also to protect those who do not hold the beliefs of a religious community from having that religious community’s beliefs imposed on them through the pretense of a legal system that fails to provide equal protection under law. So, while we’re all being distracted by this “black and white” religious freedom wedgie thing, Wall Street bankers and conservatives are stealing the nation blind. Funny how that works.