I Need Your Vigilance

Dear readers: as you may be aware, this site was hacked about two years ago, and many of the links were altered. I have been as thorough as possible in repairing the damage, but it has come to my attention that there is still at least one bogus link — apparently to a nonexistent gambling site. At this point, I have not been able to locate where on this blog it occurs — I’ve checked all the links on all of my past posts. But just yesterday, I saw in my stats that somebody had clicked on it.

Therefore, I ask that if you do spot it in a post somewhere, you report it to me at once. Thank you very much for your help.

 

Welcome to Prager Universe

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There is certainly no shortage of right-wing propaganda machines out there these days. It seems like they keep cropping up like mushrooms on a dung heap. Why not– they’re highly profitable. One that has been in my face quite a bit lately, though it has been around since 2011, is the so-called Prager University (PragerU), which has nothing to do with any university or academic accreditation. It’s the brain fart — oops, brain child — of Dennis Prager, who many years ago seemed to be perhaps just maybe one of the few sane and rational members of the right-wing punditocracy, even bordering on being a genuine conservative. But clearly, those days are long gone, and he’s now gone full-fledged winger. Why not– it’s much more profitable. And hey, he’s a radio talk show host, so he’s here to save ya.

PragerU creates 5-minute videos purported to be educational and informative, an “effective counter to the Leftist indoctrination imposed by schools and universities”, as its website boasts. Have no fear, dittoheads; if you don’t like what they teach at real universities, you can always find alternative facts more to your liking at a fake university. And it only takes 5 minutes. The site also advocates “Americanism” (read: reactionary jingoism) as well as “the Judeo-Christian values on which America is founded” (I’m guessing Prager buys into the myth of a “Christian nation”) and “the rational case for God’s existence“. Lunch not included.

What the videos actually do is recycle the same inane right-wing myths, soundbites and talking points you hear in many, many other media outlets. With a heady mixture of straw men, red herrings, cherry picking, false equivalence, spin, framing, distortion and outright lies, PragerU weaves an alternate universe for its compliant fan base that, coincidentally, is pretty much identical to the alternate universe inhabited by Fox “News” et al.

It’s a Bizarro dimension in which there is a constitutional right to own guns, global warming is a hoax, politicians and pundits know more about science than scientists do, racial bias is an illusion and”liberal biasdominates the media.  And of course, there’s the occasional obligatory jab at socialism and communism, which many reactionaries think are the same as liberalism, being incapable of keeping their isms straight. PragerU, like other right-wing propaganda organs, spouts a lot of things that you’re supposed to believe because you’re just supposed to believe. It’s even regurgitated the silly and tired narrative that because the Democratic Party of yesteryear championed slavery and segregation, that must mean the Democratic Party of today (which bears little resemblance save the name) must be more racist than the GOP — which left Lincoln in the dust many decades ago.

Prager himself delivers some of the lectures; in one video he proclaims that the only real question about abortion is whether or not it’s moral — a red herring the size of Moby Dick that we’ve already examined. (Cliff’s Notes: the real question about abortion is how to prevent it. It ain’t by outlawing it.) In another, he asks whether the death penalty is moral, which is also not the right question, at least based on his limited criteria for morality; and even if it’s moral to kill someone that doesn’t make it automatically less moral not to. But he just defends the death penalty simply because he believes some people deserve to die, and that this should be the overriding consideration regardless of the ramifications and consequences of such a policy.

In yet another clip, he bemoans how leftists are trying to impose “European values” on American society, and suggests that they are (by some arcane process he doesn’t get around to explaining) utterly incompatible with American values. In particular, he insists that the European value of equality is, somehow or other, incompatible with the American value of Liberty.

Whipping up white nationalism

PragerU’s “credible, and often well known thinkers” (as the site touts) include the unhinged Michelle Malkin, who seems obsessed with keeping foreigners (like her own parents) out of her precious country. Her PragerU video on immigration is so dishonest and inaccurate (not to mention tasteless) that it was panned even by the conservative “think tank” The Cato Institute. See Cato’s review for an accounting of her misinformation, in presenting which she says:

It’s not hateful to protect our borders. It’s not hateful to protect our citizens. It’s not hateful to protect our values.-

Well yeah, actually it sort of is hateful to suggest that immigrants are a threat to our citizens or our values. What exactly are we supposed to be protecting our citizens and values from, Michelle? Contamination by inferior races and cultures? And “protect our borders” is a meaningless bullshit soundbite that is being wielded constantly to whip up xenophobia and white nationalist sentiment.

Have you ever heard of anyone actually attacking a border? And if someone actually did, would the border shatter like delicate crystal? A border is merely an imaginary and arbitrary line in the dirt. On one side you have Us and on the other you have Them. Sometimes, some of Them try to cross over and become Us — that’s how most of Us got here in the first place. And contrary to what the Protect Our Borders Brigade would have you believe, there is (and long has been) a rather strong and complex (if not Kafkaesque) web of regulation in place to determine who makes that red rover maneuver and how.

Of course, some people do slip through that web and become “illegals” — either by crossing the imaginary and arbitrary line without authorization from Us or by coming across by invite and then failing to return. But contrary to persistent spin, this is not a major problem; “illegal” immigration is not a crisis, and “illegal” immigrants are not a threat. In fact, they make a net positive contribution to the U.S.A., improving the quality of life for all of us by just about any metric.  They are generally hardworking, responsible family people who commit considerably less crime than U.S. citizens. (More on this topic in a future discussion of immigration myths.)

But suppose we choose not to believe such facts. Hey, we do have a universe of alternative facts at our fingertips after all. Suppose we choose to believe instead that “illegal” immigration is a major problem that must be dealt with as a top priority. Guess what? It’s entirely possible to handle it with honesty, integrity and responsibility — and without sinking millions into a goddamn wall.  There is no excuse for cruelly ripping apart families. There is no excuse for singling out those few immigrants who commit crimes and touting them as typical of the lot. There is absolutely no excuse for the kind of malicious and evil lies about the brown menace from south of the border being spread by the 45th White House occupant and his enablers. And note, by the way, that it is indeed Mexican immigrants that are supposedly causing the supposed crisis, even though their numbers have actually diminished during the past few years. You rarely if ever hear about the (mostly white) “illegals” from Europe.

Further extolling the right-wing mantra of “I got mine, so up yours”, the stunningly vacuous Fox “News” mouthpiece Candace Owens, who seems determined to advance the cause of racial equality by demonstrating that African-Americans can be as clueless and naive as anyone, presents herself as a “credible thinker” on matters of race, because after all, she has one. She’s previously declared that she believes blacks have been brainwashed to vote Democratic — isn’t it racist to suggest that an entire ethnic group is gullible? Further attesting to her bigotry, she has admitted that she “became a conservative overnight” because of online harassment that she blamed, without evidence, on a few progressives.

In a masturbatory video on the subject of race, she flaunts her achievements despite coming from a background of struggle (growing up in the jerkwater burg of Stamford, Connecticut) and insists that she never once played the “black card”, which she acknowledges is imaginary. (Really? Can she be certain that she wouldn’t be on Fox if it didn’t need a female black token? She certainly wasn’t hired for her intellect or expertise.) But this imaginary black card, she proclaims, is played by her fellow African-Americans all over the country, and nets them all kinds of special privileges. Damn, I wish I had a black card myself, so I too could be reported as suspicious by neighbors, shot at by vigilantes and beaten by police.

(In the same vein, another black presenter recommends treating blacks just like anyone else, which certainly sounds like a reasonable suggestion. But she also equates, like Owens, efforts to understand and eliminate the factors that lead to rioting with excusing violent and destructive behavior itself. And she insists we shouldn’t be too concerned about white supremacists because there aren’t that many of them, and they aren’t in positions of power. Yes, she actually said this.)

Just how exactly does one play this “black card”, anyway? Well, Owens, um… doesn’t exactly say. (Maybe you need the PragerU graduate level 10-minute video to get such niggling details.) But if the “black card” cancels out the “black tax”,  that sounds an awful lot like creating a level playing field rather than conferring black privilege. And who exactly is playing this card? Well, dang it, she’s not awfully clear about that, either. Except that she does single out Cornel West and Al Sharpton. Which doesn’t do a hell of a lot to buttress her implication that the “black card” is a device employed by slackers and moochers.

Whatever one may think of the work done by Dr. West or Rev. Sharpton, it’s hard for even a Candace Owens to deny that they have indeed worked, long and hard, to get where they are. So just how are they trying to “game the system”? (And is anyone, especially a person with dark skin, so sheltered as to be unaware that the system is gamed already?) By addressing racial bias and injustice? Does Owens believe that all black folks who address racial bias and injustice are just looking for a handout? What about us white folks who do it? What about the civil rights workers, white and black, who risked and even lost their lives so her smug ass could vote? Yes, things have changed since then. But if you believe racial inequity is a thing of the past, you’re living in cloud cuckoo land. Otherwise known as Prager Universe.

Pumping up the Patriarchy

Not only does PragerU champion white nationalism (sometimes with the aid of non-white shills), it also champions patriarchalism  (sometimes with the aid of non-male shills). Accordingly, one video by  one Andrew Klavan “explains how feminism is a mean-spirited, small-minded and oppressive philosophy”. Hey feminists, were you aware that you’re philosophers? And that your philosophy is oppressing… well, someone. To make this point, the video has a cutesy cartoon of a presumed feminist wearing a pussy hat (Don’t all of us feminists do that?) and playing a game of “whack-a-man” (seriously) and then whack-a-mother-holding-a-baby. Isn’t that what feminism is all about? Smacking down men, and smacking down women who are content with staying barefoot and pregnant? And sporting pudenda on your head, of course.

Dissecting this utter waste of pixels exhaustively would require devoting far more space to it than it deserves. Virtually everything in it is either wrong, irrelevant, or just plain WTF. (Did you know that Rosie the Riveter would lose an arm-wrestling match to a man of comparable physique? Don’t tell me you don’t learn anything from these videos.) But one thing we might mention (and then forget about) is that he cherry picks a single verse in the Bible to make the claim that Christianity has been responsible for the progress that women in the Western World have made toward equality. All together now, scratch heads and roll eyes.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Klavan doesn’t really define his conception of feminism at all; he just tells you that he hates it and that it’s bad. He just tells you that it

can poison relations between the sexes—relations which, for most of us, provide some of life’s deepest pleasures and consolations.

Which I suppose must mean, guys, that if you let your woman fill her pretty little head with all that equality and liberation garbage, she might not put out on demand. The closest he comes to a (Prager Universe) definition, which he calls “feminist mythology”, is this:

…that men have oppressed women, and now must be suppressed in their turn, to even things out.

The first component of this “mythology” is intractably true. The second part is a straw man big enough for a bonfire. And the mere fact that some people regard the elimination of male dominance as emasculation is in itself very telling.  Sorry, Andrew, but real men do not feel threatened by strong women. In fact, encountering rock-hard women often makes men rock-hard themselves, if you know what I mean.

It’s also telling that Klavan regards feminism as a call to “abandon femininity” — as if the (male-created) archetype of femininity (dainty, helpless and dependent on men) should be the gold standard to which all females aspire. There’s no problem with women wearing pearls and high heels to the opera if they wish. There’d be a problem with men expecting them to wear them while doing housework. In fact, it’s a problem automatically expecting them to do housework at all. And here we have the two biggest actual myths about feminism: that it entails “attacking men” and that it entails women trying to become like men. It’s an interesting double contradiction: girl power is supposedly hating men, yet wanting to be like them and less like girls.

Klavan seems blissfully unaware that many feminists are in fact…ahem… men. And that without feminism, women wouldn’t be able to vote. (Even worse, he probably realizes the latter fully well, yet still condemns it.) He also seems not to realize that there are many different varieties of feminism. So many, in fact, that it’s just possible an occasional feminist or two might actually lean slightly toward the kind of behavior he excoriates. But to paint all feminism and all feminists with such a mile-wide brush is dishonest, irresponsible and inexcusable.

He is aided and abetted by a non-male shill named Allie Stuckey, who addresses, however fleetingly, the problem of “toxic masculinity”. That’s a concept that’s been batted around quite a bit lately because of all the mass shootings. Virtually all mass shooters (only one exception comes to mind) have been men. Nearly all terrorists are men.  At least 75 percent of violent crimes are committed by males — even though they don’t get PMS. Coincidentally, many of these killers and attackers have a history of domestic abuse or other manifestations of misogyny. Thus the coining of the term “toxic masculinity” to describe a form of obsessive male dominance that is linked to violence. Good thing Stuckey is discussing it, eh?

Except that she really isn’t. Very near the beginning, she pulls a big switcheroo, declaring that those who complain about toxic masculinity are suggesting that the solution is to

make men less toxic. Make men less masculine. Make men more like women.

She doesn’t seem to realize that toxic and masculinity are two separate words expressing two different concepts. Indeed, perhaps the real problem is that so many people just assume the two must be irrevocably linked. As Stuckey herself says

Aggression, violence, and unbridled ambition can’t be eliminated from the male psyche

Or, as some people say whenever a sexual predator is exposed, boys will be boys. They don’t seem to be aware that it’s perfectly possible for boys to be boys without being Kavanaugh-holes about it.

Stuckey conflates many things here that shouldn’t be conflated: toxic with masculine, masculine with aggressive and violent, masculinity with responsible behavior among men,  masculinity with leadership, non-aggressiveness with weakness, and an effort (however misguided at times) to reduce schoolyard aggression with emasculation. And on and on. She even laments that this supposed sissification of America is a major crisis. Almost as big as immigration, no doubt.

The growing problem in today’s society isn’t that men are too masculine; it’s that they’re not masculine enough.

So pop open another brewski, guys, and settle back to watch the Super Bowl. While your woman cleans house in her pearls and high heels. Like the other speakers mentioned here –and indeed like all too many right-wingers — Stuckey is “thinking” in silly and useless stereotypes. She even attributes the number of broken homes in America to men not being manly enough, and even quotes, I kid you not, Barack Obama stating how important it is for kids to have a father figure.

Even when she gets something right (women want “strong, responsible men”), it’s not particularly relevant to her supposed thesis – nobody’s trying to deprive either women or men of that attraction. And sometimes she says things that constitute (unwittingly) an affirmation of the narrative about toxic masculinity that she is trying to discredit (we need better men rather than less masculine men).

Listen up, Ally: masculine is not the same as toxic. Strong and decisive are not the same as aggressive. Masculinity is not the same as male dominance. The architects of civilization have been strong, decisive, and often very masculine men. But they’ve also tended to be the kind of men that many would regard as wusses because they weren’t absolute dicks. They have included artists, scientists, philosophers, scholars and even sometimes clergymen. Meanwhile, the aggressive, male dominant Kavanaugh-holes have worked hard to destroy the civilization the others have built, by raping, pillaging, burning, bombing and genocide.

Some of the architects of civilization, by the way, have been (secretly) gay. What does that do for your premise? Additionally, women have made their contributions too, even though they were held down by male-dominated culture. (And all too often, men have taken credit for their achievements.) What might civilization have accomplished by now, had it not been under the influence of one long testosterone orgy?

We’ve come a long way, baby — and it has not involved “feminizing” men or “devaluing” masculinity. But the fact that whenever a woman speaks up about sexual abuse, she is invariably treated like the criminal, is a good indication that toxic masculinity is very much a problem. And the fact that the most powerful office in the world is currently occupied by a misogynistic pussy grabber who is enthusiastically cheered on by millions of people, is a good indication that feminism still has a long way to go. It does not help matters any to brush aside problems like these with glib straw men.

America is absolutely dumbing  itself to death. And the fact that many people take seriously these videos that offer predigested ideological snake oil is both a symptom and a cause of that demise.

 

5 Misconceptions About Witch Trials

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October is a delightful month: with its crisp weather, fall foliage, ripened fruit, the World Series, and of course Christmas decorations everywhere as part of the ubiquitous War On Christmas. But lest we forget, there is another holiday that used to take precedence in October. No, besides Columbus Day.  And while it’s fun to attend “haunted attractions” and see all the black and orange, and the trick-or-treaters in costume, we mustn’t lose sight of the very grim history behind those caricatures of pointy-hatted witches. Accusations of “devil worship” have cost many people their lives in horrible ways in the past; and they have even been leveled against innocent individuals in our own supposedly more enlightened age.

The kind of misinformation that led to those horrors persists today. And there are even widespread misconceptions about the history of the whole bloody mess of accusing and trying “witches”. So while we’re waiting for a more substantial blog post to pop out of the oven, let’s briefly look at some of the most common misconceptions about witch trials:

1. Millions of people were tried as witches in Europe

As you may be aware, hyperbole is often involved when people look back on sensationalist events and trends of the past. The number of gunfights in the American West, for instance, has been greatly exaggerated — after all, they make good cinema and pulp fiction. And though the Crusades were undeniably bloody, the tally of victims has greatly expanded in the retelling. The same is true of witch trials. Historians estimate the actual number of persons executed as witches in Europe to be somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000.  (The actual number of documented executions for witchcraft is about 12,000). Some estimates run as high as 200,000. Those are certainly horrifying numbers, but a far cry from “millions”.

2. Witch trials were very common in the Middle Ages

They were actually quite rare. While the “Dark Ages” (which weren’t quite as dark as many people suppose — but that’s another discussion) were notoriously brutal toward (suspected) offenders of all stripes, alleged witches were generally not among them. The “golden age” of witch trials didn’t really begin until the Fifteenth Century (about the time of Joan of Arc), which was well past the generally agreed upon imaginary demarcation point between Medieval and Renaissance. The last known witch trial in Europe was in Poland in 1783. In America, the last known trial was 1833 in Tennessee.

During the Middle Ages, however, people certainly were tortured and horrifically executed for the offense of “heresy”, which might be thought of as witchcraft in another robe — both involve doing/ believing/ thinking things that conflict with official religious doctrine. Indeed, Pope John XII officially decreed that the two go hand in hand — that witchcraft, in effect, is a form of heresy. That was not until the early Fourteenth Century, which was at the tail end of the Medieval era, but still it is likely because of this identification between heresy and witchcraft that many people today have such a grim and distorted view of persecution for “witchcraft” in the Middle Ages.

3. The church was behind it

Not necessarily. It’s complicated. During the Middle Ages, church authorities tended to look upon witchcraft as superstitious nonsense. In fact, in the year 906 the church actually declared it heresy to believe in witchcraft. It did a total about face in 1484, however, when Pope Innocent VIII decreed it heretical not to believe in witches.

What religion has always done, however, is provide the ideological framework within which such persecution took place. Fundamentalist zealots can point to several biblical passages that condemn witches (e.g. Deuteronomy 18: 11-12) and apparently even call for their murder. (Exodus 22: 18 : “Do not allow a sorceress to live.”)

4. Burning people at the stake meant setting them on fire

Usually nothing so merciful as that, alas. What would happen quite often is that the victim would be tied to a stake within a ring of fire and slowly roasted alive. The lucky ones might die of smoke inhalation. Incidentally, even individuals who were already dead could be “executed” by burning. The body of John Wycliffe was exhumed and burned 30 years after his death.

5. Suspected witches were burned at the stake in America

Never happened. The preferred method of execution on this side of the pond was by hanging. In Salem, 19 people were hanged and one was pressed to death with stones.

The myths and lore surrounding historical events like witch trials are a boon to the imagination, and to galvanizing emotional response to certain ideals. They are a convenient shorthand for the collective memory; we speak of “Salem witch trials”, even though trials also took place in Andover and Ipswich, and in fact the whole witch mania actually got started in Salem Village, which is now called Danvers. Referring to all of them as just “Salem witch trials” is all well and good in pop culture — just as it’s fun to read Longfellow’s poem about Paul Revere even though it’s mostly bullshit, and Revere is mostly just famous because his name rhymes with so many words. But when it comes to having a serious discussion about history, there’s no substitute for getting the facts straight.