Reviewing the National Review, Part 2

falseprophet

Recently I’ve had occasion to drop in again and check out the lay of the land at the National Review. And it really hasn’t changed much since I first familiarized myself with it nearly two decades ago.

Chasing the Chappaquiddick Chap

What led me back there was that someone brought to my attention a “review” of the film Chappaquiddick by the NR’s “critic”, Kyle Smith. (I put those words in quotation marks because Mr. Smith focuses on supposed political, rather than artistic, merit.) The caption breathlessly proclaims that the film “exposes Ted Kennedy at last”. This in itself was enough to make me bust a gut.

These are folks who are fond of promoting the silly and ill-informed stereotype of Hollywood celebrities as shallow, coke-snorting, self-absorbed brats who are out of touch with the real world — a myth adopted so people like NR hacks can summarily dismiss, in genetic fallacy fashion, any non-reactionary cause those celebrities espouse.

Yet when the film industry produces a flick that “exposes” a librul icon, they are eager to hail it as a divine revelation of infallible gospel.

And Mr. Smith is just getting warmed up. The first paragraph of this “review” reads:

Chappaquiddick must be counted one of the great untold stories in American political history: The average citizen may be vaguely aware of what happened but probably has little notion of just how contemptible was the behavior of Senator Ted Kennedy. Mainstream book publishers and Hollywood have mostly steered clear of the subject for 48 years.

A quick check of Amazon shows that no fewer than a dozen books about the Chappaquiddick incident are available for purchase, as well as many more books in which the event is at least discussed. A quick check of IMDB shows that it has been the subject of at least two documentaries. What would it take to avoid the charge that Hollywood and the publishing industry are “steering clear” of the subject — obsessive reporting of it 24/7? Been there, done that.

Mr. Smith evidently wants his readers to believe that the tragedy was just swept under the rug by the librulmedia. (Perhaps this is what he was taught in one of those “conservative” college classes.) It’s characteristic of wingers to figure that if they can’t remember something, then it didn’t happen.

But as someone who was both alive and sentient at the time, I can assure you that there was nobody this side of Andromeda who simply ignored the incident. It hardly could have received more media saturation even had Mary Jo Kopechne been wearing a stained blue dress. And years later, when it was still a heated topic of discussion, I recall commenting to someone that the senator must have been driving one hell of a huge automobile considering how many people were so certain of exactly what transpired that they must have been passengers themselves.

Wingnuttery sort of makes sense if you’re willing to ignore (or concoct) enough facts. It isn’t enough that Smith calls Kennedy’s behavior “despicable” without mentioning that the senator was severely disoriented from his injuries, including a concussion.  He also declares, quite falsely, that Kennedy simply “rested” beside the water while Ms. Kopechne was drowning. In fact, despite his state of mental disarray, Kennedy made (as reported by The Boston Globe) at least “seven or eight” attempts to rescue her. But hey, who cares about pesky details when you have an ideology to promote.

The Big Fake-Out

While I was in the neighborhood, I also checked out another Smith masterpiece, Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Outrageous Assault on Our Democracy. The topic is a serious one, something that people are rightly concerned about: i.e., the way Sinclair has forced its talking heads to parrot a canned statement about “fake news” that makes it clear the network is goose-stepping behind the 45th White House Occupant. It’s a development that many of those talking heads themselves are quite uneasy about.

Smith, however, snidely brushes it aside in a manner that is his clumsy attempt to wield irony, a technique he doesn’t quite seem equipped for. While superficially striking a posture of concern, he makes it clear that in fact he is a Sinclair goose-stepper himself. He’s also a deft side-stepper, skirting the real issues with statements such as his closing:

Whatever will become of this country if people use the media properties they own to simply say whatever they feel like saying?

Allowing his strained irony to tip over into sarcasm, he scoffs:

Judging by the truth as established by ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, PBS News, NPR News, CNN, MSNBC, and nearly every newspaper and newsmagazine published in the United States, the truth is actually quite similar to what the Left believes.

It’s an obeisant nod not only to the “liberal bias” myth and the “both sides” myth, but to the popular right-wing narrative that certain media outlets (most notably CNN) exhibit biases and inaccuracies of only one flavor. And it’s a foghorn false equivalence to suggest that the sporadic (and mostly inadvertent) journalistic lapses of these outlets — of both a “liberal” and a “conservative” nature — are on a par with constant, round-the-clock, deliberate dishonesty and distortion of an exclusively right-wing bent by the likes of Fox and Sinclair.  Mr. Smith seems to be utterly oblivious to the distinctions between bias, inaccuracy and dishonesty.

He also takes advantage of the opportunity to invoke that trusty old “Hollywood elite” myth with jabs at Jimmy Kimmel and John Oliver. Can he really be so clueless as to be unaware that most comedians are much better informed than the average citizen, much better informed than many politicians and putative journalists — and infinitely better informed than most NR hacks? Speaking of Kimmel, Smith indulges in another false equivalence by suggesting that ABC’s airing of Kimmel’s program over hundreds of stations is comparable to Sinclair headquarters dictating that its anchors parrot a boilerplate disingenuous and manipulative spiel.

And he sneers at veteran newsman Dan Rather, whom he labels as (wink, wink) a “widely respected source of nonpartisan media commentary”. Yes, this is the same Dan Rather who said…

George Bush is the President, he makes the decisions, and as just one American, wherever he wants to line up just tell me where..

…even as Dubya was gearing up to exploit the 9-11 terrorist attacks as a pretext for ramming through a whole raft of fanatical right-wing measures that were often quite unrelated to security. The same Dan Rather who later acknowledged that he failed, for years, to do his job by probing the supposed justifications for the assault on Iraq — a journalist undertaking that, I’m guessing, would have been regarded as hopeless and shameless librul propaganda by the good folks at NR. Most of us might be tempted to deprive Mr. Rather of his Librul Propagandist badge for this kind of neglect. But Mr. Smith knows better: he knows that anyone who fails to hew unwaveringly to standard right-wing talking points is so deep into left field as to be over the wall.

While he’s targeting Rather, Mr. Smith takes the opportunity to focus on a Facebook post that is (slightly) awkward in its wording, and declare that Rather has committed “grammatical lapses” and sneers, “You’d lose your ability to construct a sentence too if you sensed the risk as keenly as Rather does”. This from the same rag that not only touted the virtues of a tongue-tied “misunderestimated” simpleton, but now touts the virtues of an incurious despot who speaks “bigly” in three-word sentences, mostly with himself as the subject. It’s a glaring instance of genuine irony that seems quite lost on the redoubtable Mr. Smith.

Finally, he gets around to quoting the statement with which Sinclair is programming its talking heads, a superficially innocuous manifesto about shunning bias, false reporting, and an agenda in favor of Facts and Truth. Taken at face value, it’s a string of noble sentiments. But anyone who is at all familiar with Sinclair knows better than to take it at face value. Well, except for Mr. Smith, perhaps:

So Sinclair is against media bias, one-sided reporting and fake news? It asserts that truth is “neither left nor right”? Preposterous.

An even slightly perspicacious commentator might have observed that Sinclair’s very act of thrusting a cookie cutter declaration upon its mouthpieces is a damn good indication that it speaks with forked tongue.

And then he segues into the ultimate coup de grace to his own credibility:

Need I say more? These lunatics are actually playing into the hands of [the White House Occupant], who has also said he doesn’t think the media should run fake news.

Unless he’s much more adept at wielding irony than he appears to be, Mr. Smith actually believes that the Forty-Fifth White House Occupant — who rode to fame on the back of fake news, rose to the White House on the back of fake news, continues to profit from fake news, and spreads fake news with every breath — is actually a mortal enemy of fake news, just because he says so.

If you really believe that, you are not merely ignorant. You really shouldn’t try to live on your own without full-time supervision. On the other hand, you have a lucrative career awaiting you at the ever-entertaining National Review.

 

 

 

 

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Reviewing the National Review, Part 1

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As you may be aware, right-wing fanaticism in the U.S. comes in several overlapping varieties, each catered to by its own set of delusional and manipulative media outlets.  The largest segment is the Good Old Boy Faction, centered in the Deep South, which revolves around blatant bigotry and manufactured outrage; it finds its main voice in Fox “News” , OAN and talk radio. Then there is the Tin Hat Brigade, which never met a conspiracy theory too kooky to swallow — at least if it’s about someone named Clinton or Obama; its outlets are also the above, as well as Breitbart, Alex Jones, NRATV, et al. And a relatively small but supremely influential sector is the Smug Pseudointellectual Coterie, which tries to excuse or gloss over the beliefs promulgated by the other two groups, often while selectively citing some Eighteenth Century theorist and/or pretending that Ayn Rand is actually worth reading. Its most powerful media organ is almost certainly the ever-entertaining National Review.

The NR was founded in 1955 by William F. Don’t-You-Dare-Omit-My-Middle-Initial Buckley Jr., a poster boy of white privilege who became the godfather of modern “conservatism” (i.e., neoconservatism — see the difference here). Its objective was to provide this “conservatism” with a voice he felt it had been lacking in American culture, a claim he made with a perfectly straight face.  Unlike most reactionaries, Buckley was highly educated, articulate and suave — indeed he played those qualities to the hilt. Even as a teenager watching him on TV, I was amused by his haughty demeanor and stuffy lip-licking pretentiousness.

But a jackass that can bray in different languages remains, nonetheless, a jackass. And Buckley’s displays of pomposity could not conceal the speciousness of his arguments or the faultiness of his facts. Despite his efforts to mask the bigotry at the core of conservatism and “conservatism”, it sometimes oozed to the surface, not only in his beloved political journal, but in his own words.  Peel away the slick veneer of William F., and you find the grubby persona of Billy Bob. In one of the televised exchanges with his frequent verbal sparring partner, Gore Vidal, he called Vidal a “queer” (a major slur back then); and he was to the end an opponent of gay marriage.  A partial list of his other extensive crudities, courtesy of Rationalwiki:

  • Buckley’s career began in 1951 with the publication of God and Man at Yale, an attack on his alma mater that urged the firing of professors whom he felt were insufficiently hostile to socialism and atheism. Despite this early assault on academic freedom, Buckley in later years routinely took offense at what he saw as liberal “political correctness[8]
  • Suggested that prostitutes and addicts with AIDS be tattooed so as to warn others.[12]
  • Supported Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism, which he never seemed to regret.[23] Freedom if it’s only your freedom, right?
  • Prior to [officially] renouncing his racist views in the mid 60’s, he used the National Review to support segregation. He even wrote an article in support of white supremacy, and he never really apologized for the article.[24]

Not only did he “never apologize” for his white supremacist screed of the Fifties, he reaffirmed his commitment to its tenets when questioned about it in a more enlightened era decades later.

In 1988 Buckley sneered at the presidential candidacy of former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis on the grounds that he had no experience in Washington. Twelve years later, he was hawking former Texas Governor George W. Bush and sneering at those who questioned Junior’s lack of experience in Washington. It’s unbearably painful to contemplate the Gordian knot such an erudite gentlemen as Buckley must have twisted himself into in order to get behind a witless wastrel who didn’t know that Social Security was a federal program, and thought that “persevere” was the same word as “preserve”. For that matter, the elder Bush, whom Buckley touted over Dukakis, was not exactly an intellectual titan himself.

The torch is passed

Buckley is gone now, but well before his departure, he inspired others to carry on his great work at the ever-entertaining National Review.

Over the years, the NR has provided a frequent platform for the likes of Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, John Derbyshire, and countless others more or less equally vile. For most of its personnel, however, the problem isn’t so much vileness as cluelessness and naivete. Which brings us to Jonah Goldberg.

Not only a frequent contributor but for a time the online editor, Goldberg was an excellent choice to assume the mantle of eloquent advocate for vacuity. (Except that his elevation to the post violated The Master’s expressed dictum that the editor should be a “believing Christian”. But hey.) He’s even authored a book called  Liberal Fascism that is every bit as inane as it sounds.

Jonah entered my life shortly after that disastrous 2000 election. Like other thinking and concerned citizens, I was quite disturbed by not only the caliber of the individual who had attained the office of the presidency, but also by the manner in which he did so. And I really, really wanted to understand how so many people could support not only one, but both. So I resolved to try to find whatever justification there might be (and that I possibly might have overlooked) for the views and attitudes of the American right-wing culture at the turn of the millennium. And it seemed to me that the best way to do that was to read the NR. Which I began doing regularly.

But my quest for a revelation was entirely a bust. In fact, I ended up more bewildered and appalled than ever. For all its pretense at scholarly depth, this reactionary rag just dressed up the same seedy wingnut talking points in a glittery ball gown: that the Second Amendment enshrines a citizen’s right to pack heat — and any attempt to reduce the number of people guns kill is pure Gestapo; that abortion is murder — and outlawing it is the best way to make it go away; that American media has a liberal bias; that liberals are simultaneously socialists, communists and fascists; that racism is either extinct or no big deal; that America should be a fundamentalist theocracy; that the rich deserve to be rich and the poor deserve to be poor; that Ronald Reagan was a Great Communicator and a Strong Leader of Impeccable Character who brought back patriotism, ended the Cold War and cured insomnia; and that Ayn Rand is actually worth reading.

The NR declared that obviously American media have a liberal bias, because there are more news stories about “gun control” than about guns. Never mind that (a) guns are normally not very newsworthy until they kill someone, and (b) gun-totin’ “conservatives” themselves are more interested in reporting and hearing about “gun control” than anyone else. The cover of one issue featured a smirking George W. Bush — who declared that his electoral victory was “political capital, and I intend to spend it” and taunted congressional Democrats to “get on board or be left behind” —  proclaiming that his most endearing quality was his “modesty”.

At one point one of NR’s readers wrote in to ask for recommendations about where college kids could attend “conservative” classes. Rather than admonish the reader for trying to polarize knowledge (which “conservatives” frequently do by wailing about academic “liberal bias”, which is more imaginary than real), the editors obliged by actually making some suggestions about where to do just that. To these folks, there are liberal facts and there are conservative facts (also known as alternative facts); and they feel they are entitled to be saturated and protected from reality by the latter, whether it be in the media or in academia; and any professor who fails to do so is guilty of trying to indoctrinate students into communism. (Thumbing through a “conservative” high school science textbook, I once came across this statement: “We can be sure the earth was created exactly as the Bible tells us.” This is no doubt the kind of science “conservatives” want to see in university textbooks as well.)

Craving a smidgen of illumination, I wrote to the editors of NR Online about some of the idiotic statements it had published, and to my surprise, I received several replies from Jonah Goldberg, the online editor in the flesh. I give him credit for at least making an attempt to bridge the communication gap with one of them librulz, and perhaps he honestly was doing the best he could. But he didn’t exactly appease my horror and disgust any — quite the contrary.

When I commented about the many, many, many, many shady GOP election shenanigans in Florida in 2000, he replied that he knew there were no irregularities because a journalist pal in Florida had told him so. He was dead serious.

He wrote a piece bemusing that “liberals” protest so much about GMO’s but seem to be quite okay with stem cell research. I gently pointed out to him that, first of all, objection to GMO’s was by no means exclusively or even primarily, a concern of the left (most of the left-leaning folks I know consider it much ado about nothing, as I do myself). And second,  how often do you hear of anyone consuming a petri dish full of stem cells?

Desperate to find any excuse he could to ridicule the “kumbaya crowd”, he even wrote an article about the leftist excess known as … wait for it… vegetarianism. Which he assailed with “facts” that he must have obtained from a “conservative” professor. Whereupon some of his readers informed him that they were both vegetarian and “conservative”, so STFU already.

Meanwhile, one of his fellow columnists penned a smug self-congratulatory piece about how he had made peace with being a “crunchy conservative” — i.e., a right-winger who appreciates “health food”. In classic winger fashion, he focused on the impact upon his own well-being and pocketbook, steering clear of the impact his choices might have for the rest of the planet.

While indulging in the usual right-wing nonsense about abortion, Jonah opined that “liberals” don’t seem to have any clear belief about when life begins. I responded that on the contrary, most “liberals” seem to just figure life begins when it actually begins: i.e., with birth. And even if anyone could prove otherwise, and establish beyond a doubt that a fetus is a fully entitled person that has a right to live, it wouldn’t necessarily follow that said fetus has a right to live inside another person’s body. And I noted that the very fixation on when life begins is a major tangent than has no bearing on the more crucial questions of what factors contribute to abortion and what measures can prevent it. I asked him why, given the counterproductive chamber of horrors that resulted when abortion was banned in the past, he presumed it would be any more effective in the future.

Moreover, I invited him to indulge with me in a little thought experiment. Imagine, I suggested, that the government actually succeeds in decreeing that life begins at conception. Will it then begin issuing certificates of conception instead of birth certificates? And in order to make certain that such conceptions are accurately documented, will it begin monitoring them? Is that the kind of role he envisions and desires for the Big Bad Government he professes to be leery of?

But such an attempt to provoke a more thought-provoking discourse than the NR probably had seen in a decade would just meet with a response like, “Sorry, I just can’t take this seriously.” Which is, alas, the big problem with people like him. They have no trouble being dead serious about birtherism, voter fraud, “deep state”, climategate, “socialized medicine”, “death panels”,  gun confiscation, the “War on Christmas”, and Planned Parenthood “selling baby parts”. But facts and possibilities that pierce their smug “conservative” bubble? Sorry, can’t swallow that.

He exchanged emails with me several times, probably because he was consumed by the right-wing obsession with confrontation and one-upmanship. But finally he stormed off in a hissy fit and wouldn’t come out of his trailer again. And what prompted it? I had sent a message in which I casually commented that I generally had found Jews to be more tolerant than Christians. You’d think that Jonah, being certifiably Jewish himself, would have been pleased by that. But while wingnuttery may exist for the exclusive benefit of the male WASP culture, it has managed to entice a number of individuals outside that caste (token minorities, etc.) into passionately defending it. And thus he replied in a venomous snit riddled with uncharacteristic errors of grammar and spelling, as if I’d sprayed graffiti on the Statue Of Liberty.

The honeymoon was over. But truth be told, I was ready for it to be over. I had begun to realize that if you’ve read one NR article, you’ve pretty much read them all.

(See Eric Alterman’s astute commentary about NR on the occasion of its 60th anniversary.)

 

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.

 

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.

 

Vanessa and Her Media Bias Chart

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As my  schedule puts me behind in posting original material, I’d like to take a moment to introduce you to a lady named Vanessa, if you’re not already familiar with her. She is an attorney in Colorado who writes a modest little blog called All Generalizations Are False, with which I am quite impressed.  Its centerpiece, at least for the time being, is a chart that lays out bias and reliability among the major U.S. media outlets.

We live in a very visually-oriented world. You can hear and read a lot about media bias, but for many people, nothing helps sort it all out like this visual aid, which is informative, easy to follow, and pleasing to the eye.

It’s likely that anyone who sees it will quibble about the accuracy of the placement of one or more of the outlets thereon. I myself would have placed National Review both farther right and farther down the scale of reliability; but then this is based on my own personal experiences with it and its editor (which I really must tell you about one day) rather than a systematic examination such as Vanessa has conducted. She notes that she has received more feedback about CNN than anything else, and she even devotes a separate post to this.

There are also other posts on her site worth reading, mostly concerning observations about the media. I have found Vanessa’s writing to be consistently informed, insightful and eloquent. I look forward to reading more of it.

The 10 Dumbest Responses to the Hurricanes (So Far)

Doomsday

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.

 

The Swiftboating of CNN: “Working the Refs”

 

 

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He’s at it again. Apparently immune to self-humiliation, a certain self-described “citizen journalist” with a long history of producing dishonest and deceptively edited videos has released another one. His previous efforts have gotten him arrested, sued, forced to pay $100,000, and repeatedly debunked and proclaimed a sham even by (some of) his fellow right-wing fanatics. But he still gets plenty of media exposure for being a fraudulent hack, so he still keeps doing it.  And this time he has a target that his fans are particularly eager to pounce on: CNN.

It’s astounding, and slightly amusing in a perverse way, to hear how often people peg CNN as a staunchly “liberal” network, whatever that means. Mention to one of your right-wing friends or relatives what a cesspool Fox “News” is, and chances are the Pavlovian response will be something like “Oh yeah? Well what about CNN?” During the recent presidential campaign it was common for reactionaries to refer to it as the Clinton News Network. And the current White House Occupant himself, who simply parrots brainlessly whatever he hears from the loony fringe media, has declared the network to be “fake news” and barred it from media conferences.

All of which is supremely ironic; CNN is also a frequent target of criticism by Media Matters, which is devoted to exposing “conservative misinformation”.  In fact, almost every day, Media Matters documents at least one instance of right-wing bias at CNN — evidently the highest frequency of any non-Fox media source. Furthermore, CNN has hired two of the White House Occupant’s lackeys as commentators. And lest we forget, it gave us a decade or so of Lou Dobbs, who, while nominally a centrist, railed against President Obama in a manner reminiscent of Father Coughlin railing against FDR, and now has found a home at Fox. CNN also has offered a frequent platform to the likes of George Will, Robert Novak, Charles Krauthammer, William Bennett, Jonah Goldberg, Tucker Carlson, and even Pat Robertson and Ann Coulter.

Of course, the network also has its instances of left-wing bias. But that’s just the point. Whatever its shortcomings may be as a journalistic source (and it does indeed have some) it’s rather balanced ideologically.  The Pew Research Center ranked it slightly left of center based on the ideology of the average viewer:

Network bias

And bear in mind that such a criterion as viewership probably makes CNN seem more left-leaning that it really is, since progressive (“liberal”) viewers face more limited options — as witness the domination of the media landscape by a rabid Fox,  which sends other networks scrambling to match its strides.

So why would the right-wing punditocracy single out such a relatively middle-of-the-road network to externally brand as the flagship of the legendary (and largely mythical) librulmedia? Simple: precisely because it is relatively middle-of-the-road. Establishing CNN as a benchmark for “liberal bias” by playing up its leftward tilts and ignoring its rightward tilts, the manipulators hope to utterly discredit anything even slightly left of center.

Immediately after the fraudulent anti-CNN video was released, White House spokesbot Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared that any media criticizing her president is “fake news” and in almost the same breath urged everyone to watch the video, “whether it’s accurate or not”. The head can’t stop reeling from the bombardment of irony these days.

Meanwhile, the White House exploited the video in a fundraising letter (Fundraising?? Wasn’t the point of electing a pampered billionaire so the president wouldn’t be so dependent on the public’s money?), citing it as proof that CNN is “pushing phony news stories to boost their ratings, rile up their (wait for it) rabid liberal base, and take us down”.

It’s a tactic that Eric Alterman describes nicely in his book What Liberal Media?, which is well summed up in a column at The Nation. (It is Alterman, by the way, from whom I have borrowed the strikingly appropriate term punditocracy.) He quotes then-chair of the GOP Rich Bond:

If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.

Right-wingers have carried this strategy to outrageous extremes. They howl about the “liberal bias” of the media any time there is a news report that does not reinforce their narratives and beliefs. It’s all part of a strategy to work the refs, shift the goalposts and tilt the playing field. And it’s paying off handsomely.

The ultimate objectives in crying wolf over the librulmedia are twofold: first, to bully media outlets into being even more right-leaning than they already are, and second, to have mainstream news outlets branded as radically leftist in the mind of the public; and by comparison, then, an unhinged right-wing outlet like Fox will be perceived as … well, fair and balanced.  And we’ve already traveled very far down that Orwellian road.