Should Propaganda Be Penalized?

 

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On March 5, Pastor Frank Pomeroy was sitting in his car outside his church in Sutherland Springs, Texas when a man and woman approached and began vandalizing a poster on the church where a horrific massacre had occurred 4 months earlier.  When he confronted them, they recognized him and began verbally accosting him, calling the bloodbath a fraud and insisting that Pomeroy’s daughter, who was killed in the massacre along with 25 other people before his eyes, never even existed. “Show me her birth certificate”, the man yelled, “show me anything to say she was here.”

Sadly, this incident was not unique. There is a growing army of delusional people out there who believe that every gun massacre or domestic bombing is a “false flag” staged with “crisis actors”. Many of them also believe that astronauts never landed on the moon, that Obama is a Kenyan Muslim, that 9-11 was an inside job, that climate change is a hoax, that the holocaust never happened, that Hillary caused the deaths in Benghazi, and/or that the earth is flat.

In discussing this massive “stupidification” of America, columnist Leonard Pitts asks exactly what, if anything, one should say to such folks. And the clear answer, as he duly concludes, is nothing. These individuals are utterly beyond reason because of a hopeless mental incapacity — whether due to deficient intelligence, disconnect from reality, intellectual laziness, the tunnel vision of ideological fanaticism or some combination of the above. Until they obtain professional help, or experience a paradigm-shifting cataclysm,  there is nothing anyone can do to convince them that black isn’t really white in disguise.

But there is a more vital question that Pitts neglected to pose. The mentally warped have always been with us. But the phenomenon we are now witnessing is peculiar to contemporary America. No matter how mentally incapacitated people are, there would not be such a mass subscription to the same nutty delusions if those ideas hadn’t been planted in their heads by someone else. For the past three decades, there has been a concentrated campaign to deliberately “stupidify” America for the personal profit of the demagogues doing the brain-planting. And the real question is, should those manipulators be held accountable for their actions?

Many people will maintain (at least in reference to propaganda that supports their own beliefs) that such an exercise would be a violation of First Amendment rights.  Horsefeathers, balderdash, poppycock and codswallop.

Freedom of expression is not absolute. Sometimes “expression” crosses bounds of civilized conduct; and it’s generally easy enough to determine when that occurs. There are laws, for instance, against “free speech” that constitutes slander and libel. It’s difficult in the U.S. to win lawsuits for these offenses, but it isn’t because guilt is hard to establish; on the contrary, it’s usually quite easy. But due to a strained reading of the First Amendment, the American legal system heavily skews such cases toward the defendants (particularly since they’re often individuals of power and prestige).

The usual litmus test for slander and libel is whether the false statements are injurious to the subject’s reputation (which quite often translates to whether it might cause them to lose money somehow). Shouldn’t there be at least as stringent a safeguard against someone being subjected to the kind of emotional cruelty that this minister was?

And what about the possibility of bodily harm and even homicide? There are also laws against “free speech” that incites violence. Remember Pizzagate? That little bit of right-wing lunacy almost got people killed. And the next time, we might not be so lucky. How many lives must be lost before we think it’s justifiable to put a damper on this kind of “freedom of expression”? Libel and slander are punishable by fines.  Inciting to violence is punishable by imprisonment. Pizzagate-type narratives often fall into both categories, in addition to being seditious.

But there are other means of penalizing propaganda without criminalizing it.  Recently, Great Britain barred visits by several American promoters of Pizzagate, white nationalism, and theories about “white genocide”. In refusing them entry, British authorities (quite understandably) designated them as potential troublemakers and a corrupting influence on society. Quite predictably, American reactionary pundits took up the torch for these individuals, calling them “reporters” (they were actually bloggers and trolls) and declaring that they had been refused entry merely for being “conservative”. And needles to say, they invoked the ever-handy straw-filled whipping boy of “political correctness”.

But the transgressions of such people go far beyond merely having or expressing a political viewpoint. Hateful and delusional narratives of the type spewed out by Fox “News” et al are slanderous, seditious, and provocatory. Yet they get away with it all day long, every day. (Bear in mind that this is in the same country where TV personalities can be fined heavily for uttering the f-word on broadcast media even once. ) It’s quite possible that some of the ideologues of Fox and Breitbart and other cesspools actually believe the lies they peddle (see Jones, Alex) — in which case they wouldn’t be guilty of lying themselves. But is that any reason they should be allowed to hawk them with impunity? Should kids be allowed to play with loaded guns just because they imagine them to be light sabers?

Reactionary propaganda is as dishonest as slander or libel — which indeed it often is. It’s as incendiary and dangerous as sedition and incitement — which indeed it often is. Isn’t it time to start treating it as such?

Such a suggestion invariably provokes, especially among Americans, the knee-jerk response that there is something tyrannical and Orwellian about detecting and squelching dishonest and manipulative communication. They declare it to be overstepping by the big bad guvmint that will lead to all kinds of totalitarian consequences. They claim that it reeks of the “thought police”, and of government trying to shut down anyone who has a “dissenting opinion”. But contrary to the official spin in this Age Of Alternative Facts, not all beliefs are created equal. There are clear lines of demarcation between matters of opinion and matters of fact; and while scurrilous opinions may be relatively harmless, scurrilous lies can be very damaging indeed. (There is a middle ground: analysis, which is necessarily subjective. But it’s also clearly distinguishable from mere opinion and belief on one side and blatant falsehood on the other.)

Did we mention that most Americans seem to have no problem with the government imposing six-figure fines for saying “fuck” on TV? They also have no problem with the government regulating vehicle traffic, since the alternative would be chaos, disaster and tragedy. Nor do they object to the government operating a system of criminal justice, since the alternative would be mob rule and vigilantism.  Yet they can’t seem to grasp that propaganda can have consequences just as dire.

Well, let’s humor them and imagine a government crackdown on propaganda extended to its most dystopian extreme. Let’s suppose, first of all, that in instead of, or in addition to, being obsessed with preventing profanity from falling on pristine public ears, the government also took punitive and preventative measures to curb dishonest and defamatory polemic. That would mean, most likely, that Fox, OAN and NRATV among others would close up shop. Oh, the unimaginable horror.

Let’s go even farther and imagine government regulation applied also to social media and the citizenry at large. Imagine, for instance, that Facebook received fines for allowing dishonest and inflammatory memes to be posted. That most likely would prompt Facebook itself to crack down and penalize its users who post such material — by, say, suspending their privilege of use for a few days. And the users, in turn, most likely would start being more conscientious about what they post, and maybe even do some actual research before they hit the Share button. As a result we would end up with a public that is better informed, more cordial to each other, more broadminded, more willing to cooperate with each other, and more prepared to make sound choices at the ballot box. Which is to say it actually would result in a public better equipped to stave off overstepping by the big bad guvmint!

Explain to me exactly how all of this would be such a terrible thing.

 

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New Year’s Message: The Greatest Offense

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I’ll admit it: I have committed the greatest offense of them all. And I did so willingly and gladly. Many, many times.  It’s an offense, indeed, that is the primary purpose of this blog. It’s an offense that can lose you “friends” and elicit a great deal of hostility toward you. It’s an offense that can prompt many in the media to revile you as public enemy number one.

What is this unforgivable sin? It’s challenging people’s beliefs.

Most people do not want their beliefs challenged. In fact, most people are more defensive of their beliefs than they are of their homes, their families, their money. There’s a little speech in the play Inherit the Wind in which schoolteacher Bertram Cates notes that because he dared to teach evolution in school, the townspeople look at him with more hatred in their eyes than they would if he were a hardened criminal. There may not have been so much animosity toward Cates’ real-life counterpart, John Thomas Scopes, but he was put on trial for teaching scientific fact that conflicted with fundamentalist dogma.

Literally nothing is more important to most people than holding onto their beliefs at all costs. In 1954, an Illinois housewife named Dorothy Martin proclaimed that God had given her a message that the world would end on December 21 of that year. But the faithful would be saved by a UFO. She assembled a sizable cult of followers who prepared for the end. And when neither the end nor the spacecraft did come, were they deterred? On the contrary, they were more steadfast in their beliefs than ever, declaring that because of their faith, God had decided to spare the entire planet.

Writing about this phenomenon in 1957, psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term cognitive dissonance, which is now a standard fixture in the lexicon of popular discourse. And for very good reason. Typically, when people experience cognitive dissonance — i.e., when the facts conflict with their beliefs — they alter their facts rather than alter their beliefs. Just as the UFO cult did.

As Doctor Who observed almost exactly 40 years ago:

You know, the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts; they alter the facts to fit their views.

I make it a point to avoid trying to convince anyone of anything. Because people do not want to be convinced of anything except what they already believe. And confronting them with contrary information only causes discord. The best you can do is put information out there for anyone who’s interested and hope it eventually trickles down to those who most need to hear it.  Challenge beliefs, but not in the face of the believers.

For many centuries, virtually everyone in Europe believed, because of the story of Adam and Eve, that women had more ribs than men. Until around 1543. When somebody finally got around to actually counting them.

Here’s hoping this will be the year when people start counting ribs.

The Great American Outrage Industry

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As mentioned in a previous post, almost everybody has heard about the NFL protests spearheaded by Colin Kaepernick. And almost everybody has heard from people who consider Kaepernick an ungrateful un-American bratty commie librul traitor who is, somehow or other, being disrespectful to America’s military veterans. But relatively very few people hear that a great many veterans are in fact quite supportive of him and the other protesters. Why this discrepancy?

In a nutshell, it’s because social media (and to a very large and increasing degree, media, period) is not fueled by messages of support. It’s fueled by outrage, which has proven to be a highly profitable industry over the past few decades.  A certain flatulent radio personality whose name rhymes with “hush” was the pace-setter for this industry starting in the eighties; but even before him, it was pioneered by the likes of Wally George, Joe Pyne, Morton Downey, and going way back, Father Charles Coughlin.

Purveyors of outrage aren’t primarily concerned about how accurate their claims are. Nor are they concerned about how cherry-picked their facts are, nor how slanted their presentation is. Their big overriding interest is provoking a reaction. And they will even nudge that reaction along by raising their voices, pounding on their desks and, in general, behaving like charismatics at a tent revival. It’s not about information or ideas. It’s all about rage and hate.

This has always been the case. But in more recent times, the gods of demagoguery have plunked a huge gift into the laps of the propagandists and manipulators. Social media, and particularly Facebook, are in many ways the ideal vessels for the dissemination of toxic ideological bullshit. This is brought home quite forcefully by a couple of recent TED talks.

In one of them, geek philosopher Tristan Harris discusses how tech companies are competing for dollars by competing for your attention. And the most effective way to get and keep your attention is to promote outrage.

 

The other TED talk comes from sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who warns that we are building a dystopia just so consumers (that’s us) can click on ads. That, for social media itself, is the real payoff — the promotion of advertising. When teamed with the demagogues’ campaign to foster outrage, it’s a powerful combination that manipulates public opinion and action to a greater extent, and in more subtle ways, than most of us would ever imagine.

 

What complicates the situation even more is that at present there is, as at no other time in memory and probably in U.S. history, legitimate reason, especially for Americans, to be outraged.  The nature and the actions of the current regime in Washington, as well as the social forces that allowed it to seize power in the first place, are more than enough to make us fume.  But here’s the problem. There is, among much of the American public, a tendency to dismiss such outrage, thanks to the Boy Who Cried Wolf Syndrome.

If you mention how disturbed you are by the current White House Occupant, his supporters are likely to respond, “Well, hey, we put up with Obama for 8 years, so you will survive T—p. Get over it.”

Of course, that’s the hugest false equivalence in the galaxy.  A typical sin for which Obama was savagely attacked was using the wrong kind of mustard on his hamburger. No, really. In contrast, the current W.H.O. is calling Nazis “very fine people” and bringing the U.S. to the brink of nuclear war with a puerile pissing contest. But you will get nowhere with his supporters trying to point out these differences. And you will certainly get nowhere expressing outrage.

You’re likely to find that your Facebook friends fall into one of two camps. On the one hand, there are the full-fledged members of the Cult Of Trumpery — who, when you vent about the current W.H.O. will promptly respond that they’re delighted and relieved to have a real  president for a change, after that socialist Muslim Kenyan atheist, and besides, emails Benghazi make America great again.

Then on the other hand, there are those who have their eyes wide open — perhaps too much for their own peace of mind. They’ve already been on the receiving end of a great deal of disturbing information, so much that they feel shell-shocked, and may even be tuning it out to the point of taking a hiatus from social media.

But that’s exactly what the current regime is counting on. They benefit greatly when the public is either uninformed or docile or preferably both.

It’s a difficult balancing act, to be sure. You want to help people stay informed, but you don’t want them to become so numb that they no longer hear what you’re saying. And you don’t want them to dismiss you as just another angry voice in a whole beehive of them.

So yes, go ahead and post troubling information on Facebook. But be very selective — realize that most unpleasant news will be something that your friends already have heard or easily can find out. No need rubbing it in. Stick to highlighting tidbits that few people would be aware of otherwise. Temper them with hope, humor and good will. And spread them out, separated by unrelated social media posts like… well, photos of your cat doing tricks or something.

Above all, avoid delivering huge chunks of unremitting outrage. Remember that when you do, the beast is feeding off your angst. And that beast is getting very fat indeed.

 

How to Curb Gun Violence (Really)

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Mass shootings like those in Las Vegas and Sulphur Springs, terrible as they are, are only a small taste of the carnage that goes on in America on a daily basis, courtesy of firearms. Most of it slips under the media radar; it’s only when a bunch of people are killed all at once that the lead holocaust is considered newsworthy. It’s only then that the media start talking about what can be done about it.

And the line of thinking from most media talking heads goes like this. If the shooter was a Muslim, we need to tighten immigration laws. If the shooter was Hispanic, we need to build a wall. If the shooter was black, we need more prisons and tougher laws. If the shooter was white, thoughts and prayers will do the trick. And above all, protect the Second Amendment and sell more guns.

And the causes of all this violence? Well, in addition to immigration, some of the causes that have been seriously suggested are: video games; Hollywood movies; Barack Obama; day cares; the “liberal media” (hey, I guess if the violence isn’t reported, maybe it won’t exist); mental illness; antidepressants (nothing like hedging your bets); abortion; “taking God out of our schools” (not sure how that’s even possible, since God is supposedly everywhere); “gun control”; pornography; not beating kids enough (to teach them violence is wrong, don’t you know); not enough guns out there; and, of course, the victims of the shootings themselves.

The actual causes of gun violence are varied, complex and even to an extent inscrutable. So are the remedies. But as difficult as solving the problem may be, there are really just a few simple principles that we need to keep in mind.

1. Weave a web of regulation

Quite simply, a society should regulate the hell out of firearms. There’s no valid excuse for not doing so, no matter how much distaste you have for “big guvmint” cramping your right to shoot things up.  One of the gun culture’s popular sayings is “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” — which is irrelevant, since regulation is not about “outlawing”.  When you are required to be tested before obtaining a driver’s license. and stick to the speed limit, and drive in the right lane, does that mean that the government is trying to “take away” your car?

Regulation is not the final solution, by any means; on the contrary, it’s just the first step, a necessary foundation.  It’s something that we can’t afford not to do, if we want to avoid a broken windows effect that invites crime and carelessness.

Of course whenever you propose firearm regulation,  someone is bound to respond with another old tried and false big fat floppy red herring: “Criminals don’t care about laws”. Well, their victims might not “care about” bullets, either, but they’re still just as dead. Who the hell cares what criminals “care about”?  The real questions are (a) what kind of message do we want to convey, and (b) do gun regulations (“gun control” in the haughtily dismissive vernacular) help reduce crime?

The evidence is very strong that they do, both when we examine states within the U.S. and when we examine countries around the globe. Japan, to take just one example, has very strict laws about types of firearms allowed, registration, background checks, renewal periods and penalties. And it has, on average, about 30 gun deaths per year (and as few as 6). In contrast, the U.S. (with a population about two and a half times as large) has about 30,000 gun deaths per year.

2. Think long term

Still, even if the U.S. adopts the same gun policies as Japan, that doesn’t mean that America will suddenly become Japan.  They are very different nations with very different histories and cultures.  Japan has a culture of respect and courtesy and a constitution that explicitly states the nation will never again resort to aggressive warfare.  The U.S., on the other hand, has a long tradition of people believing (incorrectly) that they have a constitutional and/or god-given right to build up their own private arsenals without restriction.  And a long history of brutally enslaving and exterminating entire races of people — with the aid of guns.

We here in the U.S. have developed a mythos that brandishes the almighty gun as the infallible key to conquest and power. That mindset won’t be changed overnight. And the effects of gun legislation or any other reforms cannot be expected to manifest immediately.

3. Get creative

When we talk about measures to curb gun violence, we’re not just talking about “gun control”. To tackle a problem of this scope and complexity, we really have to think outside the ammo box. Strangely enough, one of the most interesting proposals came in jest(?) from a comedian. Actually, that’s not so strange; comedians tend to possess the kind of insight that politicians and pundits rarely do. In any case, this is what Chris Rock said in 1999:

You don’t need no gun control, you know what you need? We need some bullet control… I think all bullets should cost five thousand dollars… people would think before they killed somebody if a bullet cost five thousand dollars. “Man, I would blow your fucking head off– if I could afford it. I’m gonna get me another job, I’m going to start saving some money, and you’re a dead man. You’d better hope I can’t get no bullets on layaway”. So even if you got shot by a stray bullet, you wouldn’t have to go to no doctor to get it taken out. Whoever shot you would take their bullet back, like “I believe you got my property”.

Doesn’t it indeed seem logical that making bullets prohibitively expensive would reduce the number of times people fired them? Furthermore, the extra fees could be in the form of taxes that could go toward further steps to reduce gun violence and/or to clean up the mess it leaves. And what about target practice, you ask? Well, with today’s technology, it surely would be possible for virtual bullets to substitute adequately for the real thing.

And for that matter, technology offers a wealth of other possibilities. What about, as a random suggestion, mandating that guns be designed so they only can fire when handled by an authorized user. The point is that there are many, many different ways to approach the problem.

4. Radically alter public (mis)perceptions about firearms

And now we come to the portion of the discussion most pertinent to the content of this blog. Even if the Chris Rock Doctrine proves to be impractical, it at least makes a very important point: in order to combat gun violence, you have to condition the public to think about guns very differently. If you think this suggestion reeks of Orwellianism or totalitarian efforts to “reeducate” citizens, what you need to bear in mind is that the public already has been conditioned, for many generations, to have certain perceptions about guns — and those perceptions are quite faulty.

We have inherited the archetype of the rugged frontiersman who lived and died by his gun,  lionization of the screen personae of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood,  and a false perception that an “armed good guy” has a good chance of stopping an “armed bad guy”. A great deal of what the public believes about guns has come from popular entertainment. This is not to suggest that Hollywood is to blame for the violence, but it is to suggest that Hollywood could play a role in addressing it.

Many people seriously think it’s practical to shoot a gun out of someone’s hand. Most Americans don’t even recognize the sound of a gunshot when they hear it, because they’ve been conditioned by entertainment media to associate gunfire with a totally different sound (an unfortunate fact that could affect how quickly a person can respond and get to safety in an active shooter scenario). In the movies, the good guy mows down the bad guy with both six-guns blazing (which in real life is a difficult feat to pull off); the bad guy dies immediately and the good guy rides off into the sunset without a care in the world.

Imagine instead a film industry that portrays gun violence more realistically and responsibly. Imagine studios that stop promoting action films by using publicity photos that make guns appear sexy and glamorous. Imagine an entertainment industry that routinely gives some indication of how much gunshot victims often suffer before they die, and how long it takes them to do so. Imagine more realistic portrayal of the emotional recoil that people feel when they fatally shoot someone — an effect that can haunt them the rest of their lives. Imagine this knowledge uniformly transmitted through awareness programs at schools like Straight Talk About Risks (STAR). Can we afford to be any more lax with kids about the dangers of guns than about drinking or drugs or sex?

If we instill in the public what horrific deadly implements guns can be (which is one of the purposes of enacting stiff gun laws), chances are not so many people will automatically reach for one to settle a dispute over a parking space. Ironically, we can help reduce gun violence by respecting guns — respecting them for what they are rather than worshiping them for what they are not.

5. Spread civility

Even if everybody had a gun, there would be considerably less violence if everyone behaved civilly. That’s a big pipe dream, of course; there is no way everybody will ever behave civilly, which is precisely why it’s a bad idea for most people to be armed.

The gun lobby likes to say that “an armed society is a polite society”. but the facts just don’t support such a thesis. Americans are armed to the teeth, but America is a seething cauldron of anger and rudeness. In fact, there is some evidence that gun ownership actually contributes to this animosity. In any case, it makes the anger and rudeness far more dangerous. The hostility quotient would be high enough even if left to its own devices. But it’s very far from being left on its own; it’s constantly being amped up by a virtual army of demagogues saturating every corner of American media and American culture. And it certainly doesn’t help matters any that one of them is currently in the White House.

Again, the U.S. will never become Japan. But by exercising courtesy as much as possible, we should be able to defuse many of the situations that lead to violence, and thus lead to shots being fired. Arming a society certainly doesn’t make it polite, but being more disarming can make it a bit more dis-arming.

6. Tame the Testosterone

You hear a lot about mental illness being the cause of mass shootings. Well, it does seem to play a role. But it’s clearly not the only factor or even the most important factor.  There are approximately as many mentally ill women as men. But guess what? All the mass shooters, with one exception, have been male.  In fact more than 75 percent of all violent acts are committed by males, and about 90 percent of killers are male.

Maybe some of this is biological. When my son was a toddler, we made a point of keeping him away from “war toys”, and minimizing his media exposure to weaponry. But he still went around pretending to shoot things with whatever object he could pick up.  Maybe there’s something about having a Y chromosome that makes a person attracted to lethal phallic symbols.

But it’s also unquestionably cultural.  (My son soon outgrew his armament phase, unlike many other males, and as an adult has shown no interest in guns at all.) Violence, and particularly an addiction to guns, is largely learned just as misogyny is. And the two tend to go hand in hand. Is it just coincidence that committers of gun violence frequently have a strictly patriarchal worldview, and often a history of domestic abuse? Is it just coincidence that terrorist cultures are also sexist cultures? Is it just coincidence that the U.S., which is a lead-sprayer’s paradise, is now discovering a widespread, deep-rooted epidemic of sexual harassment that has been right under its nose all along?

Bullet Points

The gun lobby incessantly promotes an obscene, and obscenely profitable, lie: the pulp fiction fantasy that guns make you safer. (This is often bolstered by mythical “statistics” about defensive gun use.) In fact, having a gun multiplies several times the odds that you will be the victim of a crime and/or be shot yourself.  You may assume (as many gun enthusiasts apparently do) that probability is for wusses, and you’ll beat the odds, by god. Maybe you’re even lucky enough to be right. But you might want to consider that guns and gun incidents don’t just affect gun owners; they affect potentially anyone the owner — or a recipient of his bullets — comes in contact with.

It would greatly behoove us to reduce and limit the number of guns in circulation. It should be at least as hard to get a gun as it is to get an abortion,  and their use should be at least as stringently controlled as the use of automobiles.  But we also need to radically alter how the public thinks about guns. And we need to clean up cultural garbage of more than one kind.

All of this constitutes a tall order, and we need to be in it for the long haul. But the benefits would be well worth the effort and minor inconvenience.

What Can We Learn From the NFL Protests?

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You’ve no doubt heard that former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been on the receiving end of a great deal of bile because of his kneeling protest of racism during the pregame playing of the national anthem — a ritual that now has been taken up by many other professional and school athletes as well. You’ve no doubt heard many people say that these actions are, somehow or other, disrespectful toward the nation, the flag, and veterans.

Fans have turned on Kaepernick and burned his jersey in protest against his protest, and even boycotted NFL games.  They’re willing to accept wife beaters and girlfriend beaters and animal abusers and DUI drivers and druggies and even killers. But silent protesters for civil rights? Not so much.

One little trick that we’ve witnessed quite a bit is comparing Colin Kaepernick and company to Tim Tebow, who was criticized for kneeling in prayer before a football game.  Which is another glaring false equivalence such as you might expect in these situations. There are at least 5 reasons why Colin Kaepernick is not Tim Tebow.

  1. Tebow made a public display of his religiosity. Kaepernick made a public display of his commitment to justice.
  2. Tebow acted on his own behalf. Kaepernick acted on behalf of millions of disadvantaged.
  3. Tebow did something he could have done literally almost anywhere else. Kaepernick did something he could have done only in a very limited number of situations.
  4. Tebow received criticism. Kaepernick received hate mail, death threats and vicious attacks from sleazy politicians and media figures.
  5. Tebow’s action was ultimately good PR that probably boosted his career.  Kaepernick may have sacrificed his career in order to make a statement.

The reactions to the NFL protests have followed essentially 3 lines of (very erroneous) thought, concerning the following topics:

A. The National Anthem Itself

The impression the jingoists would give you is that the song we now call the national anthem was handed down by God Herself, notated on stone tablets.  While “The Star -Spangled Banner” is an old song, its status as national anthem dates back only to 1931, at least officially. (It had been the unofficial anthem for a good half-century before that). Francis Scott Key wrote the words in 1815, long after the Republic was established. And those words were set to the melody of an old drinking song, “Anacreon in Heaven”. A British drinking song, no less.

B. The Tradition of Standing

Nor is the tradition of standing while this little ditty is performed rooted in antiquity. The practice goes back only to about 1891, and was established not so much as a display of patriotism, but as a way of alerting people that the song was being performed.

C. The Tradition of Standing Before Football Games

This also isn’t nearly as timeless or as engraved in stone as some would have you believe. NFL players have always had the option of being on the field for the national anthem, but it has never been required — at least not until 2009, when it became a requirement for televised games only.

The (over)reactions from some sectors of the American public to these protests has been disturbing for many reasons. And it has laid bare some some sobering facts about American society, some problems that urgently need to be addressed. Here are eight of the main ones:

1. There has been far more reaction than reflection.

People who respond with anger or hate toward individuals like Colin Kaepernick seem to be on autopilot. They react in a way that they’ve been programmed to react. And that programming is not accidental. It’s been systematically hammered into them for years by a highly lucrative outrage industry.  One might say (though it’s a bit of an oversimplification) that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who reflect and those who react. And there is absolutely no doubt that the reactors are currently controlling American society. The prevailing mode of discourse, if you can call it that, is to react first and do research never.

2. The events have been seized as an opportunity for polarization.

If you follow just about any online discussion of the protests, it’s a good bet that sooner rather than later, you’ll hear someone lament about how them librulz are destroying America with these protests. Reactionaries have been desperate to (inaccurately) portray these acts of civil disobedience as a politically motivated campaign generated exclusively by, and for the benefit of, the Left.

Right-wing punditocrat Dinesh D’Souza took it the tactic to its most boneheaded extremes thus:

The Democratic Left, symbolized by Kaepernick, seeks to portray themselves in resistance to oppression. In this view, Trump represents the party of oppression (bad America) and they represent the party of liberation (good America). Kneeling at games is intended to convey a refusal to go along with American racism and oppression.

Yet historically, this gets things upside down. Who is the actual party of racism and oppression? The Democrats. Who is the actual party that resisted oppression? The Republicans.

Aside from the presumption that Kaepernick somehow “symbolizes the Democratic Left”, D’Souza performs a clever little bait-and-switch here, beginning with “historically” and then slyly switching to “is”. As anyone who did not sleep through ninth-grade civics class knows, the Republican and Democratic parties of today are quite different from what they were “historically” — and a huge part of that difference concerns race relations.

3. The Simplistic View of Patriotism

Reactionaries tend to view patriotism as a matter of displaying all the right symbols and symbolic actions: flying a flag in your yard, wearing a flag lapel pin, and having flag decals (both U.S. and Confederate) on your truck.  Thus, if you don’t engage in all the requisite rituals, like standing during the anthem, holding your hand over your heart and thinking heavenly thoughts, you may be branded as anti-American. True patriotism, however, entails a commitment to candidly addressing the nation’s problems, including racial injustice.

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And how ironic that this level-headed lesson on patriotism should come from a country where, not so long ago, patriotism was defined by goose-stepping and swastikas and a disturbing salute.

4. The confusion of personal preference with universal directive

Many people have felt it appropriate to respond to the protests by pointing out that by god, they always stand for the national anthem.  “I stand” has become a popular meme, as if letting people know that you prefer to stand somehow resolves the whole discussion and negates the reasons for staging the protest. But the protest was never about anyone else’s right to stand during the anthem. And there is a vast difference between preferring to stand yourself and believing that everyone else should stand; and a really huge difference between believing that everyone should stand, and believing that everyone should be compelled to stand. That difference is the distinction between a supposedly democratic society like the United States Of America and an authoritarian society like North Korea.

Yet in America in recent years, this mindset has been increasingly manifest. We have a coalition of “values voters” who believe not only that they are the only ones who have values, but that everyone else should be forced to live by their values. Among other things, this has spawned the perennial and staggeringly stupid War On Christmas myth, cooked up because some people take offense at other people having the audacity to be of good cheer in a non-approved manner.

5. The discourse has been dominated and exploited by demagogues.

Reactionaries and hucksters and reactionary hucksters, all the way up the food chain to the White House (“fire the son of a bitch”), scored a touchdown with their audiences. They have been uniformly nasty against not only professional athletes who protest, but also high school and even elementary school students for exercising a constitutional right. (There’s nothing that spells patriotism like trashing a bunch of 8-year-olds, eh?) The opportunistic idiocy of the punditcracy was perhaps best encapsulated by Graham Ledger at OAN (aka the Moonie Network):

these uneducated, partisan, racialist football players are somehow righteous for promoting violent anti-American fascist groups, for turning their backs on the country that gave them their lifestyles, and are displaying so much contempt for we the people… The message is disrespect for this nation, which is making these spoiled babies rich. The message is, the owners in the NFL care more about their petty little politics than they care about us, we, the people. It’s not the anthem or the flag that’s being disrespected here, it’s you. It’s me.

It’s an especially nice touch to re-brand protesters against fascism as fascists themselves.

6. Straw men and red herrings galore

Those who don’t want to hear the protesters’ message have tried to bury them beneath an avalanche of straw men and red herrings, proclaiming that Kaepernick and company are “being disrespectful” , “displaying contempt” and “biting the hand that feeds them”, etc.  In other words, they offer the bizarre claim that protesting against racism is tantamount to protesting against America. And the very fact that so many people accept this absurd false equation is a protruding indication of the real problem: racism has become so deeply and subtly embedded in the fabric of American society that people tacitly accept it as a normal component of America.

It’s also trendy to point out that these athletes are highly paid; and this is often followed by the suggestion that their salaries automatically make them rich brats; and in exchange for this bounty they should just look the other way and keep their mouths shut about injustice.  You’ll get no argument from me on the point of athletes being overpaid; but that’s utterly irrelevant here, since rich Americans are just as entitled to exercise the First Amendment as are poor Americans. And contrary to what the reactionaries would have you believe, these football players are not “whining about how they are being treated”. I have never heard a single one of them claim that he himself has been unfairly targeted by police. Instead, they are speaking up on behalf of more anonymous, ordinary American citizens who have been thus targeted. It’s the famous putting their careers on the line to defend the voiceless; this is what the reactionaries consider being “whiny rich babies”.

And some people have gleefully mentioned that blacks kill other blacks and also that blacks kill whites. None of which negates the core complaint about police disproportionately targeting blacks.  And the fact that so many white people are so desperately seeking a way to negate it is a further indicator of the problem.

7. False narratives

Not content merely to put a false spin on the facts, reactionaries also have no problem with simply making up facts. One of them is that Black Lives Matter promotes violence. Utterly untrue. Another is that BLM and other anti-racism activists “don’t care about” blacks committing crimes against other blacks. Also not true.  In fact, the very concept of “black on black” crime is more rhetorical than realistic. But the fact that something is untrue doesn’t keep a lot of people from believing it. And repeating it. Over and over again. Alas.

The fact that “black on black crime” is even an issue, while the equally prevalent “white on white crime” is not, is yet another indication of the real problem.

8. The passionate pursuit of absurdity

Veterans are a frequent pawn of reactionaries, who love playing the “I love veterans more than you do” game.  Naturally, then, they have used veterans and military personnel as props to support their rage and hatred directed toward NFL protesters. In doing so, they completely ignore the fact that a great many veterans resent being used as pawns and props, particularly for something like this.

 

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In fact, a group of 35 veterans posted an open letter in support of Colin Kaepernick — a letter to which many other veterans have added their concurrence — which says, in part:

Far from disrespecting our troops, there is no finer form of appreciation for our sacrifice than for Americans to enthusiastically exercise their freedom of speech.

But the objectors still claim to know better, even though they’ve never quite explained the logic behind the belief that the protest is “disrespectful”. The best they can do is reiterate that veterans have “sacrificed themselves for our freedom”. What they are suggesting, then, is that because veterans have sacrificed themselves for our freedom, we should honor that sacrifice by coercing other people into behaving the way we want them to.

Unfortunately, this type of absurd and self-contradicting premise is all too common in contemporary American discourse. In fact, it seems that the more passionate the argument, the more absurd the premise. And that’s a very dangerous situation. It’s the kind of zeitgeist that might lead to… oh, the election of a president who is a figurehead for neo-Nazism.

A positive note

But let’s end on a positive note. An incident occurred recently that illustrates how possible it is to bridge the gap on even a heated conflict such as this. And it occurred in the unlikeliest of locations: a rally in support of the current White House occupant.

A group of representatives from Black Lives Matter showed up to counter-protest. Predictably, they were met with hostility, and with all the standard pre-programmed soundbites: “All lives matter”; “You hate cops”; “You don’t care about blacks killing blacks”. “If you don’t like America, get out”. Etc., etc.

But then something unexpected happened. For whatever reason, the speaker at the rally invited someone from BLM to take the stage and address the crowd for two whole minutes. Maybe he figured that the BLM speaker would make a fool of himself. But that’s not what happened. The BLM speaker was absolutely masterful, and actually managed to make friends of some of the T—p supporters. It was a stunning achievement that should serve as a sign of hope for us all.

 

And Now, the Nominees for the Worst Response to Las Vegas

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Another day, another horrific gun incident in America. And inevitably, another round of inappropriate, irrational and tasteless responses in the hive of American culture. The competition, as always was stiff for the worst response. Let’s roll the drum and announce the contenders.

1. “Thoughts and prayers”

This is a perennial mindless mantra that gets trotted out and echoed over and over after every mass shooting.  It’s made more appearances on the post-massacre stage than Meryl Streep has made on the Oscar stage. Theoretically, there’s nothing wrong with offering “thoughts and prayers” to victims and their relatives. But such sentiments do nothing to ward off these incidents in the future. And after the 500th time or so, the phrase begins to sound awfully hollow — particularly when it comes from mouths that normally are occupied with fellating the NRA.

2. Verbal diarrhea from the Putative President

Inevitably, the character in the Oval Office would contribute to the mix. Fresh off his life-saving expedition to Puerto Rico two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, in which he heroically sought to relieve the suffering of the locals by throwing rolls of paper towels at them, he proved once again that he was up to the challenge of making an utter ass of himself.

First, he extended “warmest condolences” to the families of the murdered, as if he were congratulating them on a baby shower; even when he apparently has good intentions, he seems utterly incapable of saying anything that doesn’t sound moronically gauche. Then he declared that the bloodbath was “in many ways a miracle” because the first responders did their jobs — apparently the concept of people doing their jobs is so foreign to him that he finds it a nothing short of miraculous. Then he went to visit the scene of the crime and declared that it was “so wonderful” to meet with the victims and their families. At least this time he didn’t attack the media or Hillary or boast about his election victory or the size of  his audience.

3. Conspiracy Cornucopia

The tinfoil hat brigade always comes out of the crevices after an incident like this, but this time they really outdid themselves with the rumors and allegations they spread.  Here is a list of some of them, courtesy of Media Matters : the shooter was an intelligence agent who botched a gunrunning sting; the shooting was a “false flag” attack from the “deep state”, Obama “shadow government” and/or “Bolshevik revolutionaries”; the shooting is linked to labor unions; the shooter was working with ISIS; the shooter was part of the antifa movement;  MGM Resorts is destroying evidence; the shooter did not act alone; the shooter’s suicide was staged by police;  the shooter was a left-wing radical who wanted to kill T—p supporters; the shooting was part of a plot to promote metal detectors; the shooting was connected to O.J. Simpson’s release from prison; the Democratic Party was behind it; it was part of a leftist plot to murder white people. Etc,, etc., etc., etc., etc.

4. Guns are beautiful

Needless to say, we can’t get through the aftermath of any gun slaughter without hearing the gun lobby and its cult followers rhapsodize about how wonderful the murder weapons are, and how all the carnage could have been prevented if only the citizens present had all been armed too.  Now stop and visualize for a moment. Can you imagine what the results would have been if all the concert attendees in Las Vegas had whipped out their own hardware and opened fire in the direction of the Mandalay Bay? (And no, Hitler did not ban guns. Nor did he say that the way to conquer a nation is to disarm its populace. And so what if he had?)

5. And oh yes, abortion

Gunsters always scramble for anything they can to point the finger of blame at, as long as it’s pointed away from their precious toys. Video games, the media, “gun control”, neglecting God and, inevitably, abortion. No, seriously. Every. Single. Time.

Right-wing pundit Jeffery Lord explains the “logic” thus:

“If we have a culture that disrespects human life and teaches people to have disrespect for human life, how else are we going to wind up than we did with this guy in Las Vegas who had no respect for human life?”

No word on whether “disrespect for human life” includes bombing the bejesus out of civilians or flooding the streets of America with implements of death.

6. And oh yes, more abortion

The GOP-controlled Congress took it a step farther, actually seizing on the massacre as an excuse to pass a cruel new anti-abortion law. The party faithful explain in a blog post:

“As we mourn the lives lost in Las Vegas this week, and welcome Whip Scalise back to Capitol Hill, we are reminded just how precious life is. This message weighed heavily on the hearts of House Republicans as we spoke of the potential of life — especially lives cut short through abortion.”

It isn’t just the dogmatic arrogance of claiming to know when life begins better than does the process of birth itself. It isn’t just the imperiousness of bulldozing their own personal convictions into law for everyone. It isn’t just the inexcusable naivete of thinking that banning abortion is an effective way to prevent it. It’s seizing upon a tragedy of epic proportions and exploiting it as an opportunity to shore up support among their hardcore base — and making no bones about it.

No word on whether they have any concern about “cutting lives short” by taking away their healthcare.

7. And oh yes, even more abortion

But the grand-prize winner surely has to be the social media meme reprinted at the top of the page. It appears with a photo of actor Sam Elliott (it’s not clear that he actually uttered the words, though it’s possible, as he has been known to make dopey statements inveighing against “gun control”).  Whoever is responsible for it, it manages to pack at least three straw men into a very compact space: “anti-gun”; “lectures”; “kill a baby”. All of them strung together by the absurd red herrings that these two issues are somehow related, that pro-choice advocates and gun regulation advocates are necessarily the same, and/or that one must choose between either concern about abortion or concern about gun violence. It’s a powerful achievement in human ignorance and irrationality that surely deserves an award of some kind.

 

The 10 Dumbest Responses to the Hurricanes (So Far)

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Disasters like the recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida, and the fires on the West Coast, seem overall to bring out the best in people. But there are always some people for whom such events bring out, if not the worst behavior, certainly very far from the optimum. And unfortunately, the United States of America currently has a great many such people in positions of influence. Thus, we’ve had our sense of decency assaulted and insulted with the following:

1. Ending D.A.C.A.

This may not sound like a direct response to hurricanes. But they provided a convenient smokescreen for this despicable decision to be revealed, a distraction from some of its sheer dishonesty and awfulness. That’s a familiar pattern for this despot, as it has been for many other despots. Furthermore, it’s worth noting two other things. Ending D.A.C.A. will be another horrific blow to many people who have already been dealt a horrific blow by the severe weather. And some of these individuals have been among the first responders and rescuers — or will be among the repair and restoration personnel — before they get shipped back to where their parents came from.

2. Mr. Showman

After receiving a great deal of flak for a superficial visit to Texas that didn’t entail actually getting within spitting range of the unwashed masses, the putative president finally made an appearance in the vicinity of the damage in Texas, where he commented to the assemblage of media, supporters and protesters, “I want to thank you for coming out.” And rather than express condolences or concern or even resolve to rebuild and persevere, he uttered the immortal line for which his administration is destined to be remembered: “What a crowd, what a turnout.” At least this time he didn’t attack the media or Obama or Hillary.

3. The Not So Great American Photo-Op

Needless to say, he wanted to make sure the media cameras (you know, the ones that always ignore him) captured him “helping out” in the relief effort. So he staged what surely has to be the most comically, painfully embarrassing photo op in the long, sleazy history of American politics. Standing by a truck being loaded up with supplies, looking like a duck out of water or, more accurately, a tycoon out of his gold-plated office, he briefly laid his hands on containers that were being handed to him — containers that he very easily could have just walked over and picked up himself. And oh yes, he told the driver of the pickup (to whom he handed an apparently empty carton that was nothing but a prop) to “have a good time”. No, really.

4. Other fake news

Harvey opened the floodgates on Photoshopped photos and phony stories to go with them. Some of them were harmless and silly, like the shark on the highway — a story that actually was recycled from a few years ago. But others are more malicious, such as a photo purported to show members of Black Lives Matter blockading (“blackading”?) the delivery of relief supplies. The story was, of course, quite false; it was accompanied in some cases by a photo from a protest in Atlanta in 2016 and in others by a photo from Boston in 2015 (and the believers didn’t seem to notice that the two photos were extremely different).  By the way, BLM’s actual response to the disaster was, shall we say, not quite as reported.

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Meanwhile, supporters of the “fake news” president, wanting to attribute to him the real-life heroics Al Gore displayed after Katrina, circulated fake photos of him in a boat handing his red cap to a man in the water (a vital supply, don’t you know) and even, I kid you not, wading in the water to rescue two cats. Which is no doubt the kind of things he does every day.

5. The looting loopiness

As usual in the aftermath of these events, there were a few individuals who salvaged goods from the wreckage; a scant handful of them may have created some additional wreckage in order to obtain salvage. But the number was incredibly small, especially when you consider that Houston has a population of over 6.5 million.  Nonetheless, right-wing news outlets tried to create the impression that a widespread plague of looting was descending upon the soggy city — and that the perpetrators were all rather dark-skinned. Well, perhaps the latter point is important, since it’s often skin tone that determines whether an act of salvage is designated as “looting” or merely “finding”.

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6. Not good

Ah, but it’s been a couple of minutes already since we’ve said anything about the guy in the White House. We certainly don’t want him to feel neglected — he might develop a fragile ego or something. So how about another one of his verbal gems.

{Hurricane Irma) looks like it could be something that will be not good.

7. All a matter of branding

And while we have him in front of the mic, let’s let him muse about the things he considers most crucial at this juncture.

If you talk about branding, no brand has improved more than the United States Coast Guard.

8. Who needs science? We got slogans

Scientists have an annoying habit of providing facts that don’t support people’s ideologies. And thus it was that they reported climate change was apparently a factor that worsened these storms. But of course the punditocracy would have none of it.  They reminded us that climate change is nothing but a librul conspiracy in order to convince people to… well, do something (read, maybe?). And them librulz just love catastrophic weather because it helps them promote their heinous agenda (like scientific literacy, maybe?). One perennially flatulent radio talk show personality whose name rhymes with “hush” not only made this proclamation, but also proclaimed that scientists and “lubberals” were crying wolf over the impending Hurricane Irma — just before he evacuated his Florida home in order to keep his smug ass from being blown away by a nonexistent hurricane.

9. Okay gang, don those tinfoil hats

Not only do they believe that them librulz love deadly hurricanes, many of them believe that them librulz and their evil accomplices (i.e. scientists) actually create them through geoengineering. More than one nutjob floated this idea in the media — including at least one from whom the putative president acquires much of his “information”.

10. Evangelical Eschatological Ecstasy

Of course, there’s also another factor they point a finger to. Just when you thought Christian arrogance had already reached its nadir, a bunch of folks start declaring that these hurricanes never would have happened if only people prayed more. These biblical scholars apparently never heard of a character called Job. In any case, they are divided into two schools of “thought”: those who think the destruction is a bad thing because it means the nation has turned away from God; and those who believe it’s a good thing because it mirrors biblical “prophecy” about the approaching end of the world.  Quite often, these schools of “thought” are both present within the skull of the same fundamentalist. Some of them even added for good measure that the hurricanes are punishment for taking down Confederate statues, which God apparently really wants to keep standing to pay tribute to His holy cause of slavery.

Maybe for once the evangelicals actually have a point. When millions of Americans believe that hurricanes are caused by a failure to pray, and by the removal of Confederate statues, but believe that climate change is a myth, maybe The End really is near.