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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The Ongoing Legacy of Hate and the Willful Misuse of the Bible

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The violence in Charlottesville, Virginia is disturbing. It is more than disturbing. It is deeply disturbing. The “Alt Right” is a recently coined moniker of extreme racists. It is used by extremists (and indiscriminately used by the media in general), in order to make an old ideology of white (Eurocentric heritage) racial superiority more palatable to a population who are genuinely (and willfully) ignorant of their own racist orientation.

“Alt Right” is an easier, gentler way of referring to this insidious movement, because it makes what they stand for sound less insidious. After all, it’s okay to be conservative, on the “right” politically, right? So a seemingly harmless moniker makes it all the more acceptable to have individuals with extremist racist ideologies in the cabinet of the office of President of the United States, like Steve (Brietbart) Bannon and Stephen Miller, both of whom have an open history of racist activism.

Without throwing a single fist, racism itself is a form of violence. Racism is a form of social violence in that racism divides on the basis of a person’s skin color or a person’s community of origin (the ultimate expression of conservative identity politics). Racism is a form of political violence by suppressing the voting rights of people of color. Racism is a form of economic violence by systemically engineering fewer opportunities for people of color, by making it harder to get loans for businesses, home purchases in specific locations (the presently active gentrification of Detroit), and on and on.

The violence that we are witnessing in Charlottesville is only one form of violence. It is indeed egregious. The other forms of racial violence may not be as egregious, but they are just as harmful. This is the first point I want to make.

There is another. And I think it is just as, if not more, problematic. Many of the Alt Right claim to have religious convictions. They identify themselves as Christians. (Disclaimer, if you want to know my own perspective, see the about tab on this blog.) They use the Bible to justify their hate.

I’ve included a photograph in this post that shows an African-American police officer protecting Alt Right protesters in Charlottesville. Irony of ironies, right? (This was originally posted by Shaun King on facebook.) The obvious contrast is the KKK protester with his red hood and regalia you can see just over the police officer’s right shoulder.

What is not as immediately obvious is the sign carried by the protester holding the “Confederate flag” (not here being used as a symbol of heritage, but for this group a symbol of racist hatred). Do you see the sign? It has written on it, “JEWS ARE SATAN’S CHILDREN … JOHN 8:31-47 … JOHN 10:22-33.” Those are the only two that I can make out with certainty. It looks like the next one may be “LUKE 12:11,” so I will look at that one, too.

For those who are sympathetic with the Alt Right and are still reading this (I hope) and for anyone else reading, let’s look at John 8.31-47. The first principle of reading any text, especially (especially!) biblical texts, is to read everything in context. The context has Jesus in the temple precincts (beginning of chapter 8). A group of Scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman caught in adultery. After deftly handling these religious authorities with “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” Jesus turned to the woman and said, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” The basic lesson Jesus taught the religious authorities was not to judge others. Now, I don’t want to get into a longer discussion of the authenticity of this text, since it is not in the earliest manuscripts of John, but I essentially agree with Raymond Brown that this is fully in line with the spirit of John’s gospel, and should not be dismissed as a later tradition without any merit.

This is followed by Jesus addressing the Pharisees with “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (8.12). When the Pharisees challenged Jesus’ claim, Jesus expanded on the issue of human judgment. “You judge according to the flesh. I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone that judge, but I and he who sent me” (8.16). Jesus said to them, “the Father who sent me bears witness to me.” The Pharisees then asked Jesus, “Where is your Father?” Jesus said, “You know neither me nor my Father; if you knew me, you would know my Father also” (8.18-19). The exchange is clearly between Jesus and the Pharisees. And Jesus has made a clear contrast between his judgment and the judgment of the Pharisees, continuing the problem at issue in the previous context.

In the next section (8.21-30), Jesus said to them, “I go away, and you will seek me and die in your sin; where I am going, you cannot come” (8.21). The response to this is interesting. “Then said the Jews, ‘Will he kill himself, since he says, “Where I am going, you cannot come”?'” (8.22). Jesus then replied to them, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world” (8.22). Without going into the many details of Johannine theology, this is a typical representation of the kind of dichotomy or binary contrast that appears all over the place in the Johannine literature (Gospel of John, 1, 2 & 3 John, Revelation) … light / darkness, above / below, of the world / not of the world. And here Jesus has specifically applied it to “the Jews.” More to say about “the Jews” shortly.

John 8.31-47. This is the (clipped out of context) citation on the sign. Here Jesus and “the Jews” have an exchange about who their father really is. They claimed to be children of Abraham. Jesus said if that were true, they would believe in him. Since they do not believe in him and seek to do violence against him, they are children of the devil (hence the hateful claim on the sign). So who are these “Jews” referred to in this text and its context?

The author of John’s gospel makes it clear. In John 1.19, “The Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask” John the baptizer, “Who are you?” In John 1.24 the author makes it clear, “Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.”

The point to make here is that the sign in the photo is intended to use this context as religious conviction that all “Jews” are condemned by God for not believing in Jesus. But in John’s gospel the term “Jews” and “Pharisees” are used interchangeably. Jesus was himself a Jew. (So was Paul, by the way.) Alt Right (racist) individuals who claim Christian identity by waving hateful signs with biblical citations quoted out of context do the very thing Jesus condemned his Pharisaic opponents for in the very text they cite. Jesus referred to them as children of the devil for planning to commit violence against him. The irony is excruciating. This is what happens when hatred for others weighs so heavily on your heart that it brings you to misread (and misuse) your own “scriptures.” In Romans 11 Paul warned Gentiles (wild olive branches) not to boast against the natural branches who have been cut off the olive tree, and that God is just as capable of grafting the natural branches back into the olive tree.

Shall we do this again? John 10.22-33. This is also cited on the sign. And it requires that we use both chapters 9 and 10 for context. John 9 is the well known narrative about the man born blind who was caste out of the synagogue by “the Jews,” who were also the Pharisees (9.13, 15, 16, 18). This point is fairly easy to make, since it is the same as what I wrote above regarding the first citation and its context. It is not referring to “all” Jews; only Pharisees. On to chapter 10.

In John 10, Jesus continues his engagement with the Pharisees, the religious authorities who in chapter 8 threatened to kill him. In chapter 10 Jesus used the well-known metaphor of a shepherd with his sheep, a common metaphor in Jewish literature of the Second Temple period, with reference to faithful and unfaithful religious leadership, sometimes applied to kings, sometimes to priests. “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber, but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep” (10.1-2). This is the well-known “I am the door for the sheep” passage. Jesus is not talking about sheep. He was talking to the Pharisees about legitimate religious leadership. Jesus is that. The Pharisees are not. It is a misuse of this passage to make it about sheep. It is not.

The passage cited on the sign, John 10.22-33, has “the Jews” in the temple gathered around Jesus to ask him, “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I told you, and you do not believe.” Same story as above. This is not about sheep. This is about shepherds and leadership.

Luke 12:11? A single verse. Really? A blatant violation of the context rule. Red card that man! I’m not going to spend much time with this one. This is what we have … “And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious how or what you are to answer or what you are to say; …” So the misuse here is that this saying of Jesus is intended to gin up fear of “Jews” who will persecute Christians for believing in Jesus. In fact, this passage reflects a post-70 CE environment of chaos and confusion about 15-20 years after the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem temple. There was an intense struggle between different Jewish groups in the years immediately following 70 CE over who would win out as the definers of Judaism. History teaches us that by the end of the first century CE it was the Pharisees who won out in that struggle, as the early church became less Jewish and more Gentile in its make up.

It is the ultimate expression of religious identity politics in the late first-century parting of the ways between “Judaism” and what eventually came to be known as “Christianity.” The early church was an internal reform movement within Judaism. It was not immediately known as “Christianity.” In fact, neither Jesus nor Paul knew the term “Christianity.” As Jews they believed that God had chosen the Jewish people. How to live as Jews in a right relationship with God and your neighbor was a key issue for both Jesus and Paul. For Paul, the Gentiles were included. The Pharisees would have none of it, and eventually they developed into Rabbinic Judaism (with its own historic and ideological diversities).

Pauline inclusivity is a key issue also in Luke, which ironically was cited on the racially hate-filled sign. Racial justice was one of the central issues in Luke. The Good Samaritan is not about helping your neighbor mow his yard or a stranger change a flat tire. It’s a story about racial justice. Read it in its context.

Guns, racism, and people like you and me

We sit in the comfort of our homes and we watch video recordings of arrests that end in death. Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, so many, too many to name. And now Alton Sterling and Philando Castille. It happens more often than mainstream media report. Sometimes the event is recorded and the evidence is clear, sometimes not so clear. And we draw our separate conclusions based on partial evidence filled in by our individual emotional contexts, predictable conclusions that continue to exacerbate an already polarized culture.

I am an academic, someone who tries to look at social problems from as many intellectual angles as I can possibly master. I am also a parish pastor, an experience that has grounded me for the last 25 years in lives challenged by struggle, suffering, loss, and pain. Several years ago the husband of a member of my parish was shot point blank in the back of the head during a dispute over the sale of a gun, in his own home. It was a senseless act of violence committed by someone who held little value for human life. It was a horrific experience of pain and loss for the murdered man’s family.

Members of my own family and friends disagree with me about guns. I grew up in a rural Midwestern context where the legal sport of hunting birds and small game animals is a substantial part of our way of life. I must disclose now that I stopped hunting decades ago, but I have no qualms about the legally regulated practice of hunting. My disagreement with family and friends has always been about the idea of unregulated gun ownership. They argue the slippery slope, the camel’s nose in the door of the tent. I argue compromise and the willingness to give up some extreme freedoms (that used to reside on the edges of our experience) to enjoy other freedoms that can be characterized as more commonly shared experiences (that now are viewed as too limiting).

I remember a conversation I had with one of my brothers and some cousins. It was shortly after President Ronald Reagan signed into law a ban on fully automatic assault rifles. The trajectory of the conversation was predictable. They argued that there should be no regulations against gun ownership. I argued that if there ought to be no regulations then we should be able to own tanks and cannons and other high caliber automatic weapons (a hypothetical suggestion that is today in part a reality, at least the high caliber automatic weapons part). My memory is that they conceded the point. They, of course, probably remember it differently. Today the argument sounds simplistic, but we’re talking about 1987, almost thirty years ago.

The issue of gun regulation and the freedom to own assault rifles has morphed dramatically since 1987. A lot of water has passed under the bridge, both in terms of the expansion of gun ownership and the growing numbers of victims of gun violence. The assault weapons ban was lifted in 2004. Since then, “13 of the 26 worst mass shootings [in U.S. history] occurred between 2005 and 2014 (after the expiration of the assault weapons ban).”

The problem is not just with assault rifles. Handgun deregulation has reached a near fever pitch, to the point where 25 states have legalized concealed carry without a permit, the kind of insanity that makes me long for 1987 again.

It’s no wonder that law enforcement officials are living on the edge. And this is not an apology for non-prosecution of police officers who shoot first and ask questions later. This is a complicated issue, as President Obama has said; “it makes the job of law enforcement harder.” How does it make their job harder? The combination of racial profiling for criminal arrests and our exacerbated fixation with gun deregulation is a vicious, brutally violent cycle.

The systemic racism embedded in our subconscious emotional responses that fill in the gaps of partial evidence is a socially constructed paradigm that we need to face together and overcome together. Our subconscious emotional responses that we rely on to fill in the gaps of narratives that are only partially constructed by video recordings of violent acts are themselves conditioned by our own individual contexts, and we have to be honest about that.

We need to rise above our self-serving, stultified arguments hardened by fears stoked in contexts of ignorance and profit-making corporate narratives. We have to be honest with ourselves about the ugly realities of racism that have twisted and distorted our own experiences, our personal stories, constructing barriers of hatred, nurturing fears, that limit our lives together as members of the human race. We need to have this conversation. We need to listen more and talk less.

White privilege, racism, and myth

This from my colleague and friend Jim Perkinson over at Radical Discipleship. Jim is a poet, an artist, a thinker, and a radical activist who lives it. Racism isn’t just the transgression of polite boundaries. It is an ugly, systemic hatred imbedded in our psyches, an embodied fear that has evolved for generations. It’s a good read. It will make you stop and consider your own adherence to a narrative that denies the many ways we participate in a culture of racism.