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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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.

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.