Another Visit to Prager Universe

SPLC

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. 

So concluded my initial commentary on PragerU. But in fairness, we should add that its videos aren’t all bad. By the “broken clock” principle, they do occasionally get things right, out of sheer dumb luck if nothing else. One video, for instance, asks the question, “Was the Civil War About Slavery?”. And it’s a pleasant surprise to see that the presenter actually presents the right answer — particularly since it’s an answer that is at loggerheads with the mythology of much of the neo-Confederate movement that forms a large chunk of the right-wing constituency. But then, this presenter is an individual apparently having a bit of actual expertise on the topic, as opposed to the usual round of instant “experts” by virtue of ideological conviction.

But this appears to be an anomaly. I have watched at least two dozen more of these videos, and all of them have problems large and/or small. Most are quite repugnant, and a few are downright odoriferous. All are designed to advance the right-wing worldview that up is down, black is white, ignorance is knowledge, war is peace, freedom is slavery, hate is love, and it’s turtles all the way down.  And above all, of course that “liberalism” is evil, and them librulz are the real enemy. In one video, Prager attempts to draw a distinction between “liberals” and “leftists”, and to insist that it’s really the latter who are the threat. He is unconvincing on all counts.

Intolerance of intolerance of intolerance

He isn’t the only one to resort to such shenanigans. One video asks who is really tolerant, and you don’t have to be a Nostradamus to predict where this train is headed: them librulz love to preach about tolerance but don’t know how to practice it.  The usual narrative you hear, over and over, is that “the left” is hostile toward anyone who “disagrees” with them. What you don’t hear so often is that these “disagreements” frequently concern such things as neo-Nazism, homophobia, police killing African-Americans without cause, and dishonest propaganda demeaning refugees from “shithole countries”.

To make this particular presentation more convincing, its mouthpiece is himself a supposed liberal: Dave Rubin, who though calling himself a liberal, denounces progressives and “the left”.  He seems to be rather murky about labels and indeed about his own convictions. (He even calls Ben Shapiro a “mainstream conservative”.) In fact, he seems rather confused about a lot of things. But one thing he has a very good handle on is how to invoke straw men:

If you believe we should judge people on the content of their character and not the color of their skin, the left calls you “racist.” If you believe that America is a nation of immigrants, but that our country should also protect its borders, the left calls you a “xenophobe.” If you believe that men and women are equal but fundamentally different, the left calls you “sexist.”

See the previous post on Prager Universe for more about racism, sexism and “protecting our borders”. Rubin is also quite adept at false equivalence.

Your dad might have voted for [the Forty-Fifth White House Occupant], your mom might have voted for Clinton, and your brother may not have voted at all.

Including, of course, the biggest false equivalence of all: that calling out bigotry is itself bigotry. In fact, the narrative constantly pursued by Rubin, Prager, Shapiro and their ilk is that intolerance of intolerance/ bigotry is even more intolerant and bigoted than intolerance and bigotry themselves. Right-wing logic is its own unique species.

After citing a few cases of what he considers intolerance by the left, Rubin insists that “these are not isolated examples”.  Well yes, by definition, that’s exactly what they are. Even if you assume that all of the anecdotes are perfectly accurate and valid, they’re still just a few examples, out of gazillions of times “the left” interacts with others toward whom they’re supposedly totally intolerant.  This is a very common tactic among polemicists: citing a few specific incidents and (often after tweaking and distorting them) claiming that they prove a general observation. Extrapolation and generalization.

If you want to make a solid argument that one group is more intolerant than another, you’ll need to do more than pile on anecdotes. You’ll need some kind of comprehensive study or, at the very least, a compendium of actions committed or sanctioned by an entire movement.  A liberal may express disapproval toward someone who wants to outlaw gay marriage; but a conservative often wants to outlaw gay marriage. Even if you believe that the former is more intolerant than the latter, the fact is you’re still just talking about individuals, no matter how many of them you may be able to dredge up. But conservatives, collectively and officially, have actually tried to pass laws that discriminate against gays. If you think that protesting against such efforts is more intolerant than passing those laws, you have a problem I can’t cure.

Yet it’s really conservatives, not liberals, Rubin insists, who are the tolerant ones. Scroll down to the comments section below his video, and you’ll see just how “tolerant” they’re capable of being. For that matter, Prager Universe itself exists for the purpose of smearing, attacking and belittling “the left” by any devious means necessary. Just how tolerant is that?

Hate against hate of hate

In the same vein, another video from one of PragerU’s “credible thinkers”, Karl Zinsmeister, attacks the Southern Poverty Law Center, which keeps tabs on hate groups, and he declares that by doing so, SPLC is itself a hate group. Right-wing logic lives on its own planet.

One of this presenter’s criticisms is that SPLC just does its job too dang thoroughly. Its website lists — gasp — 917 separate hate groups in the U.S. Most of these, he complains, are tiny little factions nobody has heard of — which evidently is supposed to make them less hateful. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that there could be a great deal of overlap among these tiny groups and larger, more powerful groups; or that the very presence of so many groups, even if tiny, is an indicator of an alarmingly widespread culture of hate.

Zinsmeister mentions two individuals that SPLC has exposed as hatemongers, and tries to paint them as respectable, constructive activists — without mentioning the (well documented) reasons SPLC has for singling them out as dangerous extremists. He also glosses over the Tea Party’s delusional and toxic rhetoric, particularly toward President Obama, and retools the group as a benevolent coalition of folks who are just “wary of centralized government”.  And he gives a drastically flattering makeover to Alliance Defending Freedom, which he characterizes as a benign “charity”, though it in fact exists largely to advance discrimination against gays, both at home and abroad.  All he’d need to do to get a concept of ADF’s dishonest smears would be to check its website, which scurrilously declares that gay activists are “opponents of marriage” who

will not stop at removing the foundation of civilization. They will redesign society at the cost of your religious freedom.

So apparently, intolerance and bigotry don’t qualify as hate. But calling them out does. At least in the Prager Universe.

He also points to an incident at a college in Vermont in which right-wing radical Charles Murray

was violently attacked by protesters inflamed by the SPLC’s labeling of him as a racist. A professor escorting Murray ended up in the hospital.

To say that he was “violently attacked” is just a wee bit of an exaggeration. Though many students gave him a hearty unwelcome, only a handful of “protesters” got out of hand; many of them were masked, and it’s not even clear that they were students or why they were there. The professor who “ended up in the hospital” — i.e., went to get examined after a minor injury — was one of those nefarious “liberal professors” who supposedly are stirring up troublemakers like the protesters. In any case, to pin their actions on SPLC is dumb and inexcusable; Murray’s racist history has been reported by many people for years.

Likewise irresponsible is Zinsmeister’s evocation of a 2012 incident in which a gunman tried to shoot up the headquarters of the hate group called Family Research Council. Yes, the gunman specifically claimed that he was motivated by Southern Poverty Law Center’s exposure of FRC. But then the deranged gunman who shot Ronald Reagan claimed that he was motivated by Jodie Foster. Is she a hate group too?

Any deranged gunman can claim that he draws his inspiration from anywhere. But in determining whether an organization is a hate group we have to apply certain criteria: (a) Does the group actively incite violence or harassment? (b) Does the group lie or twist facts to smear its targets? (c) Does the group target entire demographic groups based on who they are rather than what they do?  Zinsmeister hasn’t presented a shred of evidence that Southern Poverty Law Center does any of these things. But the organizations and individuals called out by SPLC all do at least one, and many do all — as does the puerile putative president whose posterior Prager persists in puckering up to.

Incidentally, Southern Poverty Law Center decries PragerU itself as a hate group. And its argument is much more convincing.

Zinsmeister professes to be a champion of “(r)igorous debate, honest discussion, open exchange of ideas”. But PragerU itself is more candid (albeit unwittingly so) about playing its true hand, at least in its marketing campaign. One ad asks prospective cult members if they are tired of the “fake news” provided by the “leftist mainstream media”. Wow, that’s a double whammy if not a triple or quadruple whammy. Not only is Prager Universe advancing and exploiting the myth of “liberal bias” in the media, it’s tapping into the cult meme that any information you don’t want to hear is “fake news”.

No website governed by sanity and decency would ever think of resorting to parroting the reckless and delusional soundbites of a deranged megalomaniac dictator. But PragerU knows its audience. They are people who live to disparage liberals/leftists/ progressives — anyone who doesn’t concur with their ideology. And they don’t care what kind of dog shit they wallow in while doing so.

The Curse Of Reductionism

Whole

Chances are you’re not particularly interested in reading a book that might tell you your diet is killing you. After all, we tend to pick our foods based on what we like rather than what likes us; moreover, we form a strong emotional bond to what we eat — that’s one reason it’s so hard for some people to lose weight. But while the primary purpose of the book Whole by T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D. is to advocate for a whole foods plant-based diet (based on half a century of cutting-edge research), you might find it worth reading even if you have no intention of ever altering your grazing habits one crumb. Because more broadly, the book is also a searing indictment of reductionism, which long has plagued civilization in many different ways.

Not that it’s consistently a bad thing. Loosely defined, reductionism means substituting a simpler system for a more complex system. That can sometimes be rather useful. Pidgin English, for instance, can facilitate communication with individuals of limited English comprehension. There are also philosophical concepts of reductionism that may have merit, though they are the subject of debate.

But this book addresses a particular kind of reductionism, one that long has been the bane of progress and of civilization itself: the use of a limited set of facts, perceptions and concepts to dominate a worldview. Or, in other words, the use of a part to replace the whole.

A simple example mentioned in the book from the field of nutrition involves the popularity of vitamin-mineral supplements. Scientists have identified certain elements in certain foods, and certain benefits they provide the body. But those ingredients work in perfectly calibrated conjunction with all the other elements in those foods; if we isolate them, we cannot expect them to provide the full benefit. Taking a vitamin C capsule may be better than nothing, but it’s just not the same as eating an orange.

And it’s not just nutrition; healthcare as a whole is hobbled by reductionism, at least in the United States. As Dr. Campbell comments, American healthcare would be more properly called American disease care, because it’s geared to treating specific symptoms of specific ailments rather than considering all of the body’s systems in conjunction with each other, and focusing on how they should function rather than on how they shouldn’t. In recent years, holistic medicine has made some inroads into the American medical establishment, but it still has a way to go before it moves out of the shadow of stereotypical New Age perceptions.

And it isn’t just nutrition and medicine. Science in general, Dr. Campbell points out, has its neck stuck under the iron boot of reductionism. And the primary reason is that in the U.S., science is driven by the same force that drives everything else: the profit motive. Scientific research in America tends to get funded by corporations that stand to benefit from a particular result. Dr. Campbell’s findings met with a great deal of resistance because myths about nutrition have become deeply ingrained in the American psyche; most people still believe, for instance, that drinking milk is essential to develop strong bones — a notion heavily promoted by the powerful dairy lobby through that pervasive and persuasive propaganda channel known as advertising.

This does not mean that scientists are dishonest or that scientific research is totally unreliable or that the cult of anti-science is correct to discard findings about climate science, evolution or any other topic. (More about this in a future discussion of the ideological assault on science.) Scientists, Dr. Campbell hastens to add, generally do the best they can under the circumstances; it’s just that they have to work within the confines of the American reductionist paradigm.

(Another recent book on nutrition and health, Eat Dirt by Dr. Josh Axe, details how Americans’ reductionist obsession with over-sanitization has weakened our body’s defenses and actually left us more susceptible to disease.)

And it isn’t just in matters of nutrition, medicine or science. Reductionism saturates, and often dominates, virtually every aspect of our lives. Religion, particularly of the fundamentalist flavor, is distinctly reductionist. People often zero in on particular passages from the Bible (or whatever their manual is) without putting them in context. Moreover, they often take such passages very literally, even if they were not intended literally.

And what is most likely to draw the public into the cinema to see a particular film? Almost everyone knows the answer to that: it’s the stars. Not the premise. Not the script or story. Not the directing. Not the cinematography. Not the scenery. And most certainly not the film as a comprehensive unit. Just the stars.

Government policy has been reduced to short-sighted measures to satisfy ideological beliefs and emotional responses to issues, without regard to the actual results and consequences of those policies. Excellent examples are abortion, capital punishment and immigration. Politics long ago was reduced to a matter of hyperpartisan one-upmanship, particularly on the right. Liberals generally realize that a healthily functioning society can benefit from both liberalism and conservatism; conservatives have become convinced that the eagle can fly with only one wing, and so the other one should be lopped off.  And conservatism, indeed political discourse in general, has been reduced even further to slogans and soundbites. “Make America Great Again”. “America First”. “Protect Our Borders”.

Imagine a hypothetical scenario (and it really isn’t that hypothetical, being a situation I actually encountered years ago) in which a major city has, say, 40 branches of its public library; but then because of budget cuts, yada yada yada, it decides that 2 or 3 of these must be closed. When you hear the announcement of which branches have drawn the short straw, it becomes clear how the decision probably was made: bureaucrats sitting in a comfortable office somewhere just looked at a map and picked out which branches are closest to other branches, and figured these could be sacrificed at no great loss. No consideration of what unique services and features those branches offered, or what unique populations they serviced. A drastic decision reduced to a matter of pure geography. In this scenario, reductionism determines not only the implementation but the evaluation of policy.

Media reporting on such matters is, I surely don’t have to tell you, drastically reductionist. News events are reduced to headlines, which are almost always woefully inadequate, quite often misleading, and sometimes even deliberately manipulated. Look at these two different versions of the same issue of Wall Street Journal.

WSJ

This appears to be a deliberate attempt at manipulation, and there’s even a claim on social media that these headlines were chosen to appeal to different markets in different parts of the country. In fact, they were printed at different times of the day, and supposedly reflect changing developments. What’s true in any case is that much more is needed than the headline; yet that tends to be the only thing people remember.

And social media? Lordy lordy, what a slavering orgy of reductionism. Of course, the rumors and allegations circulated on social media have many, many problems — quite often, they’re just made up out of whole cloth. But even when they get their facts straight, those facts are quite often very incomplete and present a totally distorted picture. A classic example is one of the rumors about the Clinton Foundation. I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating because it’s such a textbook example and it’s STILL being circulated.

The story goes like this: the Clinton Foundation gives out only 5 percent of its proceeds in grants. Therefore, the other 95 percent obviously goes to line the pockets of the crooked Clintons.  The central fact of this rumor is almost accurate: the organization gives out 6 percent of its proceeds in grants, which is close enough to 5 to give a pass to the rumormongers on that point. The problem is this is not the whole story. The Clinton Foundation (which despite its name is not really a foundation at all, but a 501c3 charity) is not in business to give grants to other organizations. It’s in business to perform charitable services directly, which it does quite efficiently — earning the highest ratings from charity watchdogs year after year. The 6 percent for grants is in addition to this. And all of the Clintons volunteer their time to the organization without receiving a cent.

Albert Einstein is credited with saying that “everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler”. Or words to that effect. Buckminster Fuller went even further, suggesting that overspecialization leads to extinction. He apparently was not referring to ordinary specialization; as Dr. Campbell emphasizes in Whole, specialization in its proper place is vital; we need heart surgeons and dermatologists just as surely as we need general practitioners. The problem occurs when specialization is not put in proper perspective. It may not always be true that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but it’s certainly true that the whole is greater than any one part.

It’s hyperbolic to declare the imminent collapse of civilization — a warming that’s been issued for millennia — but civilization does take occasional backward steps. And nations do indeed collapse. It’s hard not to imagine that such an eventuality is quite possible when vital parts of the social construct are being removed or ignored.